Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Introduction)
Sometime circa 1985, as my father was driving us around the local business district, he kept pointing at buildings that had been bought or were possibly about to be bought by the Japanese. He said to us: “They are going to take over the world”. I remember thinking “Darn”.
Japan in the 1980s was at the height of its economic power. Its auto manufacturers had begun making passenger cars in America (1980) and the future looked extremely bright. That this power was almost solely economic in nature worried no one. After all, the Soviet juggernaut was crumbling by the late eighties, proving perhaps that politico-military power itself was becoming obsolete…
It is no wonder then that Japanese sci-fi anime from this period should anticipate Japan’s impending triumph in fictional form. But one would not expect that a show with such a premise would become highly popular in rival America. And yet in 1988 it happened. Gunbuster, an original video animation consisting of six 25 to 30 minute episodes produced by Studio Gainax, was and is as popular among American anime fans as among their Japanese counterparts.
The reason is significant: most fans outside of Japan are simply unaware of the imperialistic and jingoistic framework behind Gunbuster. This is not because of a lack of attention (fans watch, rewatch, freeze, rewind, screencap, analyze and over-analyze the show) but because Gunbuster has been systematically constructed in such a way that only Japanese people will hear the message of Empire. The construction is so adept that not even good, accurate subtitling will lay it bare. In Gunbuster the elements that are conventionally carried across in film subtitling are precisely not the ones that convey this imperialism.
I will publish a post series analyzing the show’s imperialist text as it crops up episode by episode (one post per episode). I will also include screenshots so you can see precisely what I am talking about. If I do my job right it should become clear that the imperialist text is everywhere in this anime, but it mostly crops up as “words on the screen” that tend to remain untranslated in subtitling/dubbing and are thus (paradoxically) invisible to non-Japanese readers even as they are literally right in front of our eyes. Throughout this analysis I will suggest ways in which a translator could capture this text and communicate it, the goal being to render this imperialism explicit for all, and not just the Japanese, to see. I will also pay special attention to the show’s representation of America and the Soviet Union, and how these two representations are set up and unequivocally knocked down and overthrown by the Japanese heroines.
NOTE ON THE VERSION: I have focused on the KickAssAnime release, which from what I heard mostly adopted the original, official English subtitles by U.S. Directions. I have also looked at the fansub group “digital panic” (dp) which often has quite different translations.
Let’s talk about the director.
Hideaki Anno is most famous for his work on Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). The apocalyptic tale has received copious attention from Western scholars. Several anime books have chapters wholly dedicated to the phenomenon that is Evangelion. As is well known, the show was the product of Anno’s psychological breakdown. It was born of his dissatisfaction with the anime genre and Japanese pop culture and his explorations of psychoanalytic writings (he was undergoing therapy at the time). Anno was questioning everything, including technology and its effect on life.
Gunbuster portrays technology in a much more positive light as a projection of human (and eminently Japanese) power. Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s resonance with post-modern uncertainty accounts for most of the attention it receives from academia, although it seems profitable to focus on Anno’s earlier work to see just how much his thought shifted in the seven years between the two shows. My sense is that it was the collapse of Japan’s economy in 1991 (3 years after Gunbuster) that triggered this crisis in Anno.
There is another issue of note in Anno’s psychology that must be touched upon: his ties to Okinawa. Anno has stated in interviews that his favorite film is Kihachi Okamoto’s Battle of Okinawa (1971). He claims to have seen the film over a hundred times and he was hired to write the sleeve notes for the laser disc version of the film. A number of character lines in his anime series have been traced back to this film’s script. Battle of Okinawa runs for two and a half hours. Although praised for its realistic portrayal of the carnage of war, the actions of both the Japanese soldiers and the Okinawan civilians are strictly in keeping with traditional conservative Japanese views of the matter: Okinawans kill themselves readily and Japanese soldiers only intervene to facilitate this goal. [After I saw the film my first thought was that someone would have to be very twisted to rewatch it 100 times!] By the way, Anno himself was not born in Okinawa but hails from Yamaguchi Prefecture. Yamaguchi is a conservative bastion and the homebase of the Choshu clan which controlled the Imperial Japanese Army until its dissolution in 1945. We should keep this in mind.
Okinawa features prominently in Gunbuster as the training ground for the Japanese space fighting force. Given Anno’s interests, we cannot see the choice of the island as solely a statement against its American military occupation (although this is definitely one factor) but more comprehensively as an homage to the Japanese Empire and what some consider its beautiful last stand in 1945. “Gunbuster eventually transforms into an homage to Kihachi Okamoto’s live-action war film Battle of Okinawa (1971), complete with onscreen notes detailing the number of ‘ships sunk’ and a background cast of dozens of generals, each only gaining the merest moment of screentime” (Clements’ The Anime Encyclopedia p. 255).
The use of Okinawa in the series is bound to be problematic because of the island group’s undeniable distinctiveness from the rest of Japan in linguistic, cultural and historical terms. Okinawa’s separate identity has yet to disappear over a hundred years after its forcible annexation in 1872. Paradoxically, Tokyo’s continued acquiescence in American military control of the island group has fostered Okinawans’ sense of their own identity at the same time as it has provided a rallying cry for Japanese right-wing nationalists who would seek to evict the Americans, not for the sake of Okinawans, but rather in the name of an absolute “Japaneseness” symbolized by the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Episode One is next.