Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Episode Six)
The action starts on the island of Okinawa, as Kazumi is recalled after many years to pair up with Noriko again. This sequence is followed by a series title screen and an episode title screen. There is no opening song in this final episode. After the titles, we have a shot of an island seen from the skies, and the caption indicates we are not in Okinawa anymore but in Hawaii (minute 2:17).
[1 – Simoraku Milk / 2 – Bloomingdale (tax-free store)]
Hawaii happens to be the starting point for a new orbital ropeway, which we learn is essentially a futuristic cable car system that shuttles passengers from Hawaii all the way to a station in space. When Kazumi enters the ropeway station we can see that the wall behind her is full of advertising signs in Japanese [see 21]. The sign on the right reads ブルーミングデールin Japanese katakana writing, a word clearly coming from the English “Bloomingdale”. What is remarkable is that the katakana word is lacking the final kana (ズ, pronounced [zu]) that would make it equal to the accepted Japanese translation of the American department store Bloomingdale’s. The ad is then ambiguous (a parody?) alluding to the American chain without necessarily identifying with it.
The sign on the left reads シモラク牛乳, or Simoraku Milk, an actual brand from director Hideki Anno’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi. Simoraku Milk also makes an appearance in Anno’s hit series Neon Genesis Evangelion so its presence here is clearly deliberate. Its non-translation in this scene is understandable from the point of view of the conventions of the subtitling genre. As a popular textbook on subtitling explains: “Subtitles always give priority to dialogue over written text or songs, although they must also try to cover any relevant information rendered visually” (Díaz Cintas’ Audiovisual Translation: Subtitling). It would be hard to argue that a milk ad constitutes relevant information!
The next shot inside the ropeway station has the Japanese word “Omiyage” (meaning “souvenir”) in Latin letters. There is still more advertising inside the ropeway car: for Kerorin, a Japanese brand of aspirin; for Otokoyama, a Yamaguchi sake brand based in Anno’s home city of Ube which we already saw on a vending machine aboard the Exelion back in Episode Four [see 22]; for an eye doctor named Murata.
[1 – Kerorin / 2 – Otokoyama Yamaguchi sake]
Each of these ads might not merit a translation, but the cumulative impact on the Japanese viewer of all of the ads together is significant and the fan relying on the subtitles will completely miss it. The scene here exemplifies the way that the use of written text in this show conveys a message of Japanese dominance over futuristic Earth to Japanese viewers while remaining practically invisible to others, despite the series been ably subtitled.
The reason Hawaii is so utterly “Japanese” in this episode is never explained in the show, but it is discussed in the diverse array of print media (artbooks, factbooks, comic books, novelizations) that have appeared since the series first aired, none of which have been translated other languages. According to an officially produced fictional timeline only accessible to Japanese fans, Hawaii was bought by Japan in 1996. America regretted the transaction and attacked Pearl Harbor in 2008, ushering in a second Japanese-American War. The war ended four years later with an overwhelming Japanese victory followed by a sweeping plan for an Earth Empire. This timeline is widely available online in Japanese (for example, on this site) but it is not usually found or discussed in foreign language fansites. According to the Gunbuster timeline, then, by Episode Six Hawaii has been under Japanese occupation for 52 years, which somewhat justifies the saturation of Japanese elements in the islands.
[Briefly, the Gunbuster timeline indicates that in the year 1996 Japan buys Hawaii from the U.S.A. In 2008 America regrets the decision and attacks Pearl Harbor, sparking the Second Japanese-American War. The invaders are eventually crushed and the war ends in 2012, with Hawaii remaining in Japanese hands. I will let the reader digest this “history” at his or her leisure.]
The final sequence of the show (from about minute 24:30 on) is very memorable and particularly interesting to us because of its skillful (and subtle) use of written text to make a point. Noriko and Kazumi have managed to wipe out the invading alien race, but the battle and subsequent trip home has consumed 12,000 years back on Earth. For all that they know, humanity could have become extinct, and even if humans are still around, they might have forgotten about the Gunbuster and might look upon them as a threat. When they approach Earth they find the globe is completely dark. But then a great number of lights appears on the surface of the planet (minute 25:40). It is a message written in Japanese, and it reads オカエリナサイ, or “Welcome back”.
Initially only オカエリ, the first part of the message, appears on screen [see 23], and then the “camera” slowly pans to the right revealing the rest. The sequence is very deliberate: the last kana (イ) is revealed at the very end and if the viewer is paying attention s/he will notice the character has been reversed [see 24]. In this subtle and concise fashion, the show gives us a sense of the weight of 12,000 years and how humanity has done its best to employ what must now be “ancient Japanese” for the sake of Noriko and Kazumi, and gotten it almost right. The reversed kana is charming and effective. I am not bringing this up as evidence of the the imperialist nature of the show, but as corroborative evidence of the creators’ deliberate use of written text to convey specific messages and not only to embellish the action and dialogue. The subtitlers translated this as “WELCOME BACK”. I would have reversed the “K” to achieve an analogous effect to the original.
The case of Gunbuster presents us with a sustained fantasy of Japanese imperialism. It is very much a work of its time: in 1988 Japanese economic power was at its height and Soviet Russia was on the verge of collapse. Emperor Hirohito was still alive though ailing (he would die the following year), and no one could have guessed the economy was about to crash. The late eighties were also a booming time for Japanese animation at home and abroad and Gunbuster was a smashing success in both fronts.
Gunbuster’s acceptance in markets like the U.S. occurred despite its heavy imperialist rhetoric and imagery. This imperialism is expressed subtly, often textually, in ways that even a highly skilled translator will have a difficult time dealing with. Gunbuster‘s treatment of Okinawa can be seen as a precursor to the Okinawan boom in Japan in the 1990s. Although Western scholarship tends to focus on Okinawan folk music and its penetration of the Japanese market, the bulk of Okinawan “influence” during this boom was masterminded by entrepreneur Masayuki Makino, who had this to say:
“Okinawan children are superior to children from other prefectures in the arts of singing and dancing. The entertainer’s blood runs in their veins. This may be the result of Okinawan history. Ever since the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawans have mixed with people from many different corners of the world–Europe, Cambodia, the Philippines, America–you name it. This historical background has given Okinawan children artistic and musical talent that is understood internationally. I always say to them, ‘Believe in your heritage, and you can make it in the world.” [article in the Daily Yomiuri Online]
Whatever we may think of the merits of this statement, the fact is that Makino’s Okinawa Actors’ School, founded in 1983 by the Kyoto native, churned out a great number of hits in the 1990s which had no Okinawan element to them beyond the place of birth of the performers. This was and remains Japanese pop, the Okinawan boom to a large extent being nothing more than a Japanese fad created by Japanese producers for a Japanese audience, just as Gunbuster uses Okinawa as a pretty background and as a way to score points against rival imperialist power America. It is ironic that the live-action version of Space Battleship Yamato, appearing in cinema theaters in December 2010, features a half-Brazilian pop star from Okinawa named Meisa Kuroki. Meisa’s image is as Okinawan as Gunbuster‘s, which is tantamount to saying the Okinawan element is purely cosmetic.
Translation scholar Antoine Berman speaks of an opposition between the ethical aim of translation (opening up to the Other) and the reductionist aim of culture (self-sufficiency and narcissism) and how it is complicated by the translator’s drive as translator, which is fundamentally pro-other language oriented. Gunbuster as a text insists on opening nothing more and nothing less than its jaws in order to incorporate the Other, not as an independent equal actor but as an enemy and as a threat. One of the strategies I have suggested in this post series is based on the notion of being resistant to both sides (Japanese source and English target) in order to open up a space for the minority voice of Okinawa, which has suffered at the hands of both cultural/linguistic milieus. Fans of the show may come to question these names and begin to research the issue. If this seems a poor and convoluted way to resist the imperialism in the text, it is to the credit of the Gunbuster creators who seem to have so cunningly worked on precluding our efforts at resistance.
THANKS FOR READING.