Myth and Matsumoto (Part II of II)

That Japanese military power in the years leading up to the War was far inferior to America’s is no conundrum when we consider that the latter’s national income (i.e. the foundation of its power) was 17 times the former’s.  Add to this the Naval Treaties which institutionally relegated Japan to a smaller size vis a vis its rivals and the Empire was only left with two choices: to accept its inferiority or to try to overcome it by something that could not be put on paper–blood and sweat and sheer will.

In the event, things did not go as well as expected and on August 15, 1945 Japan tendered its unconditional surrender.  The next month, SCAP Gen. Douglas Macarthur arranged for this picture to be taken with the Emperor:

Emperor and General

Emperor and General

The photograph was intended to do nothing more and nothing less than impress us with the gap between the might of two nations in an immediately visible, physical form.  No doubt this picture, barely six weeks after the surrender, had a huge impact on the Japanese psyche.

In the first part of this 2-post series, I brought in Lévi-Strauss’ theory of mythemes, those binary oppositions that myths and legends are designed to engage and break through.  I said that this theory might be applicable to Leiji Matsumoto’s storytelling, and here I’ve already given you what I think is the core mytheme of the Leijiverse.  I might as well give you the visual proof:

Harlock and Tochiroh

Harlock and Tochiroh

The way I see it, all Matsumoto wants, all he’s ever needed, is for this friendship between one small, hardworking, willful Japanese man (either Tochiroh or Tetsuroh or etc) and the tall, noble, gifted [as in, blessed from birth, though this in no way detracts from his or her abilities] foreigner (either Harlock or Emeraldas or Maetel or etc) to succeed.   To demonstrate, in short, that each of the two can teach each other and value each other and work together rather than fight each other.

If I’m right, this is the secret unity between the Harlockverse and the Maetelverse right here: these two stories are actually sides of the same coin as they revolve around equivalent friendships (Harlock and Tochiroh, Maetel and Tetsuroh).  And the two friends are none other than the two men the young Leiji had to face as he grew up in the postwar era: his unlucky but still plucky and motivated Yamato self of his ancestors and the proud, have-it-all foreigner bearing Disney films and Arcadian dreams…


For an excellent and devastating to the point of being irrefutable presentation of the disparity between Japan and America in the Thirties and Forties (and consequently of the sheer lunacy of Japan’s “gamble”) check out this article at the Imperial Japanese Navy Page.

I think I’ve pointed this out before somewhere, but there was one Japanese intellectual movement in the period that worshipped the concept and imagery of Defeat.  They were the so-called Japanese Romantics.  To say that this was a mainstream and influential group is (literally) inaccurate, but at some symbolic, subconscious level it seems the the Imperial Armed Forces were very much “infected” with this very notion.

~ by Haloed Bane on July 28, 2009.

9 Responses to “Myth and Matsumoto (Part II of II)”

  1. Wow, now that’s interesting. I can imagine it possible, to romanticize defeat. It would be like revolt, in a way. It’s is own will to power. Defeat wouldn’t humiliate, but instead ennoble. Whoa.

    Also, your GUT re Harlock and Maetel halves of the universe is lovely.

  2. Fascinating example. It’s a pretty widespread theory that a lot of modern Japanese art and culture results partly from a reaction to the defeat of the hyper-militant ideals of Imperial Japan, but rarely do you ever see such a visceral example that illustrates how deep the influence runs.

    Interesting that ghostlightning notes the romanticizing of defeat – we don’t see banzai charges or kamikazes glorified in modern anime, but we certainly do have the particular trope of that “last samurai” – the last individual of a dying breed of honourable warriors, fighting to his last breath, etc. etc.

    On a completely different tack, the tendency to “play the victim” and as a result play up their defeated status is often what gets Japan a lot of flak from Korea and China.

  3. @Vendredi

    Kamikaze runs… wouldn’t Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann have at least two examples near the end?

    Kittan’s Giga Drill Breaker stands out in particular.

    To a lesser degree, Gundam 00 (particularly season 1)

    Neil Dylandy vs. Ali al Saachez, as well as one of Graham’s friends (that subsequently kind of deranged him).

    It’s 15 years old, but Macross Plus definitely counts.

    Guld Bowman vs. the Ghost Fighter

  4. @ghost

    Defeat is all around us…


    Ghost of the Fireflies comes to mind. I’m sorry, but if that’s not a raging “oh, look at this here and forget what we did over there” propaganda flick, I don’t know what is…

  5. Playing to be beat seems like a waste of time and effort. Seeing how being beat in war tends to lead to a loss of life, territory, wealth, and global status……I’d play to win. And I mean REALLY win.

    Course, speaking of War, why can’t we be friends, repeat ad nauseam.

  6. @prophet

    Granted, winning beats losing. But if you can’t win, then isn’t it better to burn out than to fade away, slam yourself against the wall as it were? or is that just silly romantic?

  7. I remember hearing this theory from somewhere and I actually read a commentary on a woman who doesn’t obey social gender roles from the criticism of “The Princess Who Loved Insects” during war times a few years back. I’m sort of glad the age of japanese romantics has passed but nonetheless the whole notion is still pretty fascinating.

  8. Doesn’t this culture of the glorious defeat run longer than the Japanese romantics? The entire concept of seppuku seems to be based off this. To me it always seems more of an excuse than an apology. I glad where romantics and the old ways meet would be at Yukio Mashima.

    As for Grave of the Fireflies, I never did finish watching Grave of the Fireflies. My mind kept flashing back to Nanjing and how much worse that was which caused the emotional appeal of it instead make me mad.

  9. @Cello

    It is fascinating, especially as it seems to go against the grain of our own educational systems these days…


    Good point about Nanjing. 90% of books and movies about WWII in Japan concern Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Tokyo raids. (OK, I just made that statistic up but it does seem that way!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: