Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Episode Five)
ARMY AND EMPIRE
This episode concentrates on the Earth government and the military decisions that set up the final battle against the aliens in episode six. The imperialist imagery and text multiply and proliferate in this episode, and the subtitles finally reflect this trajectory somewhat. For the viewer knowledgeable in Japanese, this episode is but the inevitable climax to what has preceded.
The first shot is of the island of Okinawa as seen from a distance, with the name written in large white characters on the screen. The second shot is a bird’s eye view of Noriko’s high school, with the year 2032 written in the same manner. The third shot shows the school gate and a large sign proclaiming that a graduation ceremony is going on. The date July 31 is written on the screen. The subtitlers give us translations of the island’s name, the year and the date, and even the words “Graduation Ceremony” on the sign, but not the words locating it at the “Okinawa Girls’ Space High School Attached to the Imperial Space Army” [see 16].
[1 - Okinawa Girls' Space High School Attached to the Imperial Space Army]
The omission becomes somewhat irrelevant as the next sequence takes us into the graduation hall where an old man is handing Noriko and Kazumi their diplomas (because of the effects of time dilation and the girls’ multiple space flights, all of their classmates graduated several years ago). The man calls out the proper name of the school, which the subtitles render as “Earth Imperial Space Force Okinawa Girls’ Space Pilot High School”. This is the first time in the entire series that a fan relying on the subtitles will be exposed to the term “Earth Imperial”, whereas the Japanese reader first saw the combination around minute 1:20 of Episode One!
At this point let me bring in Tom Conley’s study on text in film, Film Hieroglyphs: Ruptures in Classical Cinema. In the introduction to the book, Conley states that “allusive snatches of writing often arrest the narrative by summing it up long before it comes to completion. The ambiguities of a film’s design are set in miniature or are enclosed in the whole”. Conley goes on to study movies where filmic writing is cinematographically exploited to shift or create new meanings. For example, a scene in Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938) has a “FUMEURS” [French for "smokers"] sign that becomes partially covered to read “UMEURS” (possibly suggesting “HUMEURS”, French for “humors”) and then “MEURS” alluding to the characters’ preoccupation with death ["meurs" = French "die"]. In another example, from Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), the gas station sign “TRI-STATE STATION” becomes, depending on the angle of the shot and the position of Burt Lancaster’s head: “STATE STATIC” and “ATE STATIC”, both richly allusive to the diegetic situation at hand [and though Conley does not mention it I think the vertical "TIRES" sign is relevant too, if read as a verb!!]. Gunbuster will see similar strategies.
Back to Gunbuster. Minute 2:10 of Episode Five gives us a close-up shot of Noriko’s newly acquired diploma and graduation album. The album is behind the diploma, and so the first character of the Japanese word for graduation (卒業) is covered, leaving only 業 [see 17]. This character, which can be read as “gyo”, “go” or “waza”, is most frequently found in compounds, but when alone it means “karma”, “vocation” or “a great deed”. It is even used to speak of the workings of divinity. As such, it could be read as pointing to Noriko’s vocation of saving humanity and the great sacrifice that this will entail in this episode and in the upcoming final one.
There is brief reference to a new spaceship in minute 2:37 officially named Eltreum in Latin letters and ヱルトリウムin Japanese katakana with the obsolete [we] kana at the head, and a translator following my Okinawan strategy could subtitle this as “Iltrium” [see 18].
[1 - “Eltreum” in Japanese / 2 - “Eltreum” in Latin letters]
Minute 3:30 begins a sequence in Noriko’s bedroom. To the left are many large boxes and to the right is Noriko’s bed. The label on the first box on the left reads 帝国宇宙軍 (Imperial Space Army) but as the “camera” is panning from left to right this box quickly disappears from our view. The camera settles on Noriko as she sits on the bed. To the left of the screen we can see another box, but the label is partly covered by a chair and the only characters visible are 帝国, or “Empire”. This image stays frozen in place for a full 20 seconds, as Noriko telephones a friend. The word “Empire” is impossible to miss here, although once again the subtitlers do not translate it [see 19]. This is significant, because even though the phrase “Imperial Space Army” denotes a patently fictional entity, the Japanese word for “Empire” is very much a reality in Japanese history and culture.
Next, Noriko hangs up the phone and plops down on the bed. This is another classic instance of fan-service, as we can see the pilot’s breast bouncing for a split-second as she settles on the bed. More importantly, the sexual fan-service is coupled with a view of a poster for the celebrated anime Space Battleship Yamato, of which the only character not covered by Noriko’s face is 宇 (the first half of 宇宙 = “Space” in “Space Battleship Yamato”) [see 20]. Space Battleship Yamato, an animated series whose plot consists of the resurrection of a Japanese World War II battleship and its use to save Earth from alien invaders, is a precursor to Gunbuster both thematically and politically. A reference to a classic sci fi series in a current sci fi show is a well-accepted form of non-sexual fan-service, and therefore the fan-service for the nationalist Japanese fan is doubled here.
There is also an important link between the drifting characters 帝国 (on the box) and 宇 (on the poster) which are highlighted in this scene. This is because 宇 by itself means “roof” or “house with a great roof”, and the wartime slogan of the Japanese Empire was 八紘一宇 = “The eight directions under one roof”, meaning that the entire world would be under the rule of one (Japanese) Empire. Thus in Japanese wartime rhetoric 帝国＝宇. And no doubt that equation becomes a reality in the fiction of Gunbuster.
The middle sequence of the episode (minutes 11:00 to 12:30) consists of a high level meeting of government and military officers to decide how to best defeat the aliens once and for all. Incidentally, it is this sequence that made me interested in the issue of imperialism in Gunbuster. I wrote a blog post on it earlier called Deconstructing Gunbuster.
First we see a couple of images of a busy metropolis at night. The first image bears the caption 帝都東京 and the second one 地球防衛庁, which the subtitlers translate as “Imperial Tokyo” and “Earth Defense Agency” respectively. These are accurate translations as far as they go. The Japanese phrase for Imperial Tokyo, though technically correct as long as the Chrysanthemum Throne stays in place, has been out of use since end of the war. To some Japanese the phrase will evoke nostalgia for an imperial past.
Our focus lies on the naming of the Earth Defense Agency and its roots in recent Japanese history. According to the postwar constitution imposed by the United States, Japan renounced the right to aggressive war and the establishment of a regular army. To signify this stance, defense matters in the Japanese government were demoted to “agency” (庁) status rather than the regular cabinet level ministry (省) status. From 1954 to 2007 the Japan Defense Agency was in place, and in 2007 the agency was finally upgraded to ministerial status. The term “defense agency” is therefore historically contingent and the Japanese would never dream of using it to refer to other countries’ defense ministries.
The fact that the creators of Gunbuster in the year 1988 called the world government’s defense organ an “agency” exposes the systematic identification of Japan and world empire in the tale. The mistake, or “slip” if we may call it that, is really not a mistake at all, unless the entire story is to be seen as a mistake. Just as in the case of the Lark cigarettes aboard the Exelion, the existence of an Earth Defense Agency instead of an Earth Defense Ministry reveals just how Japanese this “world” is supposed to be. As I wrote in my earlier post, the fact that this important meeting is taking place in Tokyo is not necessarily damning, because we are used to fiction writers placing their own countries in center stage. What is going on here, however, is far more insidious: it is not Japan at the head of humanity, but Japan as humanity itself; it is not that the heroes are all Japanese, it is that the action itself (both in its performance and in its perception) is Japanese. This is extreme imperialism.
The phrase 地球防衛庁 is eminently problematic for a translator interested in laying bare the imperialist implications I have just explained. The original subtitlers take a literal approach: “Earth Defense Agency”. This translation has the advantage of coming off as strange and it may prompt perceptive viewers to ask why this important government organ is not called something more dignified like “Ministry”. The drawback is that it allows the Japanese “slip” to go by unchallenged, in a way contributing to the imperialism of the show. The fansubs by “digital panic” translate this phrase as “Ministry of Earth Defence”, a solid functional translation that makes sense, but which happens to conceal the imperialist “mistake” by using the word we would expect (i.e. Ministry). My suggestion to a translator would be to steer between masking the peculiar phrasing and just condoning it. A rendering of “Earth Imperial Defense Agency” might do the trick, as it puts into relief the word “Imperial” even as it maintains the incongruously weak-sounding “Agency”.
All of the members of the meeting are introduced by captions indicating their ranks and titles, and excluding all personal names. The man leading the meeting is a 軍令部総長 and the official subtitles render this as “Chief of General Staff”. This is not a literal but a functional translation, as Chief of General Staff has been a preferred title for the leader of the military staff (sometimes only of the land component) in many Anglophone countries not including the United States (Australia up to 1997, Canada up to 1964, Great Britain even now) as well as being the standard English translation for similar positions in major states such as Israel, Russia, and Turkey. The original Japanese title, however, is neither generic nor fictional. Instead, it corresponds precisely to that of the leader of the highest organ in the prewar and wartime Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).
The IJN enjoys a clean, romantic image in nationalist circles in Japan due in large part to the fact that most military atrocities happened on land and thus under the jurisdiction of the Army. In anime the IJN has been glorified since at least the time of Space Battleship Yamato, whose poster we saw earlier in the episode, and will continue to be referenced in Neon Genesis Evangelion in the form of the characters’ names. Furthermore, in Gunbuster all of the ranks featured in this episode hark back to IJN originals. The official subtitles obliterate this connection between the IJN and Gunbuster‘s Imperial Space Army, but it is hard to see how one could improve on the translations. The standard translation of the IJN title we introduced above (軍令部総長) is “Chief of Navy General Staff” or “Chief of Naval General Staff” but both of these would inflict a metonymic violence on the plotline by injecting too much, as there is no mention of a Navy in the series. The best option I can think of is to use “Chief of Imperial General Staff”, which at least has the benefit of maintaining the subject of Empire in full view, as well as creating a resonance with the title of the leader of the British Army during the latter part of the British Empire (1908-64) who was also called “Chief of Imperial General Staff”.