Nationalism in the Cockpits

Leiji Matsumoto’s The Cockpit OVA (1993) is one of his most widely known works.  It consists of three episodes, each based on a different chapter of his long-running series of WWII manga.  I watched this OVA long ago and wanted to do a rewatch, so I thought it would be interesting to read the original chapters at the same time and look for any major differences.

My hypothesis was simple: the manga would be far more nationalistic than the anime.  There are a couple of reasons for my opinion: first, I have noticed this trend in other Matsumoto works (and even, I suspect, in the selection of which manga gets animated versus which manga doesn’t); second, I tend to think that anime is more visible abroad and the Japanese will exercise self-censorship over nationalistic, jingoistic elements, especially relating to World War II.

Let’s see how my hypothesis fared.


Slipstream is based on a 1977 story.  Basically, a German pilot in late 1944 is entrusted with escorting the world’s first atomic bomb to be used in an attack against the Allies.  He is confronted with the moral choice between serving his country (and protecting the life of his beloved, who is on the plane with the bomb) or letting the plane get shot down (as the woman pleads him to do) and sparing Germany the opprobrium of being the first nation in the world to use such a nasty weapon.  He opts for the former.

I’m in awe of this story, as Matsumoto manages to put together a beautiful plot and a very blatant criticism (by proxy) of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without the tale suffering in the least.  The anime follows the manga almost to the letter, with the same dialogues copied verbatim most of the time.

There is a single point that differs significantly, and it probably goes against my hypothesis.  At the beginning of the story, the pilot loses a dogfight against British Spitfires.  In defending himself to his boss, he blames his airplane’s outdated capabilities at high altitudes and in night combat, while carefully holding on to the idea that the plane itself is a great machine in the right conditions (thus avoiding being called unpatriotic).

In the anime he goes on to say that if conditions had been right the Spitfires would have been no problem.  Then his boss interjects.  Now, in the manga the pilot adds something before the boss speaks.  He says that Spitfires are no problem, it’s the American P-51 Mustangs that he worries about.

To me, this phrase makes him sound more sensible and more realistic.  Instead of a blustering German pilot who thinks he’s invincible and can only lose when machines fail him (with this feeling of superiority presumably standing for similar Japanese feelings) we get a man who is simply calculating the situation and giving his honest opinion.  By eliminating the reference to American might, the anime sounds more nationalistic than the anime.

However, there is a potential Molotov cocktail lurking beneath my analysis.  There is another story in The Cockpit manga series, Arcadia of my Youth, on which the WWII scenes in the famous film of the same name were based.  In this story Harlock complains about the British in very harsh terms as riding on the tail of American power.  He mentions Spitfires with disdain.  It might be then that this talk in Slipstream is part of Leiji’s general contempt for WWII Britain, which I imagine might be common enough among people of his generation due to the rapid disintegration of British forces in the Far East (Hong Kong, Singapore) under Japanese pressure in 1941-2.

In that case then, maybe there is no significant difference between the nationalist tone of the manga and anime versions.


Sonic Boom Squadron is even older than Slipstream, as it originally came out in 1974.  It deals with an Ohka (kamikaze bomb) pilot determined to sink an enemy ship in August of 1945.

There’s a big departure from the manga at the mess hall before the final sortie.  The men are discussing the War as a whole and how crazy it all is…the people who ride the Ohka are crazy, the people who carry the Ohka pilots to their destinations are crazy, the ones who designed and built the Ohka are crazy, the whole world is crazy.  The Oyama clone [i.e. the character who looks like a member of Tochiro Oyama’s family, which is spread out throughout the Leijiverse] punctuates things by saying “Everyone in the world is crazily yelling ‘It is we that are on the side of Justice!'”.

This is a stunning statement.  “Being on the side of Justice” was an ubiquitous claim for the Japanese, and today apologists for Japanese imperialism defend themselves by claiming the Empire was on the side of Justice.  So this Oyama clone is putting Japanese aspirations on the same level as everyone else’s.  The criticism is profound and very cutting.  At the same time, the fact that it is the Oyama clone that says this is hugely significant.  In many ways, Oyama characters are stand-ins for Leiji Matsumoto himself, so we can take this as representing the artist’s opinion.

In the anime, this last sentence is gone.  Instead, the Ohka pilot gets upset at everyone for questioning the War at this late stage and then the officer in charge screams that everyone will die sooner or later so they’d better protect the Ohka pilot and get their jobs done.  Granted, the officer’s outburst affects the would-be suicide bomber somewhat, as the reality of what is about to happen sinks in.  But there’s no doubt in my mind that the anti-War sentiment in the manga has been toned down in the anime.

My hypothesis looks very weak right about now, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that before and after this episode the words “I will never forget” flash across the screen in white font on a black background.  This is not in the manga.


This final episode is named and based on the 1974 story Knight of the Iron Dragon, about two Japanese soldiers who meet on the battlefield in Leyte.  The war situation is pretty much hopeless as they ride a bike toward an American held airfield.  As is the case with the first episode, the great majority of the script is taken word by word from the manga.  Once again, however, there is something that is cut from the anime.  The cut is very interesting because the original story is not long enough to make a 25 minute episode, and the anime elaborates on a lot of the action scenes in order to make up the time.  So the question is: why cut this particular statement?

The situation is as follows: the old soldier praises the young cavalry soldier for his driving skills.  The youth replies that he feels like the bike is a part of his own body.  In the anime, this dialogue quickly moves to a discussion of the airfield.  In the manga, the old soldier praises the youth even further.  He says that  in the old days the young soldier would have been a knight with a horse and a sword, he would dash into the enemy ranks and die bravely.  The old man then lists other cavalry troops around the world: French and German dragoons, Russian Cossacks and the United States cavalry.  They were all brave. 

Not only wasn’t there any time pressure to cut these words, but when you think about it this is the precise point in which the title of the story/chapter/episode comes to life: the youth is a Iron Dragon Knight (dragoon = dragon) in the tradition of old.  There is absolutely no reason to skip this unless maybe the fact that other nations are mentioned approvingly, including Japan’s main foe in the War, the U.S.A., was judged to be inappropriate for the anime.  In short, it was less than nationalistic.  Which is to say my hypothesis lies in shambles.

~ by Haloed Bane on May 19, 2011.

6 Responses to “Nationalism in the Cockpits”

  1. So this US magazine called Otaku USA I saw the latest volume in stores the other day and it had a five-page interview with Matsumoto in it. Pretty interesting stuff about how he got into animation and the way he sees his works. Probably nothing really new, but I’ll see if I can’t transcribe it somehow (without having to buy the mag lolol)

  2. I have to track this down. Thanks for this article, and in general for a sharp & insightful blog. I’ve made two unsuccessful attempts to watch & appreciate Leiji Matsumoto’s work – this makes me want to try again –

    • Cool! This OVA is only 3 episodes long, and IMO the first episode is awesome, so do give it a try. Overall, I think the Arcadia of my Youth film is a great place to start with Matsumoto, though maybe you’ve seen it… Any questions let me know 🙂

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 )

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: