Raging Rant: The Patriotism Problem

So not too long ago Gate season 2 was going around showing how awesome the JSDF was, and how they kicked ass in a fantasy world.  Then Joker Game came out this season and showed us how badass and tricky Japanese spies were back during WWII.  And with these shows airing back to back  I think it’s finally time to address one of anime’s many problems, the patriotism problem.  Now because I’m on the internet and offending people is considered a grave sin these days, let me clarify, I have nothing against being patriotic.  I’m from the US goddammit, patriotism is a big part of my cultural identity and I certainly don’t mind others who feel the same way about their home country.  The patriotism problem, at least that’s what I’m calling it, is when this patriotism bleeds into storytelling at the expense of the story.

Simply put, the patriotism problem is when you undermine the believability or creativity of your story to make your country look good.  For example I explained in my Surly Summary on Gate season 2, how Gate could have been a legitimately awesome show if it had incorporated some realism and tossed out the overbearing patriotism, but instead we got a silly, cartoony show that was ok at best.  As anime comes from Japan, most anime are set in Japan, and in shows which involve international politics of some kind, Code Geass is a popular example, Japan is almost universally marked out as a special place or a place with a lot of competent people.  And about 99% of the time that’s totally fine, I don’t usually get bothered by the patriotism problem.  But when it happens during that 1% it can get really fucking annoying.  Joker Game is an egregious example and one that is, sadly, likely to be popular anyway.  I’ve already seen people talking about how smart or tricky the people in Joker Game are, and how some people treat the shows as super cool for being that way.  It’s easy to see why they see it that way of course, Joker Game looks like it supposed to smarter, more mature and more interesting than a lot of anime shows by looking less like typical anime than most most anime shows.  But personally, I dropped Joker Game by episode 5 and it was a fucking struggle just to get that far.  The biggest problem I had with Joker Game is that it allows itself to get so predictable, and by extension boring, by trying so hard to be clever and patriotic at the same time.  In practical terms it means that Joker Game’s major characters don’t ever lose, they don’t fuck up, they don’t fall into despair, they don’t fail the mission, they don’t give into temptation and take a bribe, and no matter how dire their situation they always have undergone training that allows them to handle it and complete the mission.  This is fucking boring, and fucking ludicrous to boot.  The idea that there are a group of spies so capable as to be almost infallible is just bullshit.

See the problem with writing the characters this way is that it clashes with the setting.  Remember Joker Game takes place in the past on regular old earth, populated by regular flawed people.  Gate’s patriotism problem was obnoxious, but at least that show wasn’t meant to taken seriously, and it was easier to ignore.  In Joker Game the story is supposed to be serious, the individual episodes cover events grounded in real history, and the whole look of the show promotes a gritty, realistic, serious tone.  And yet this serious, realistic setting and story is full of cartoon characters.  I remember I almost dropped the show after episode 4 because in that one, the bad guy was this stupidly over the top evil guy, who had no sense of character balance or tact or anything, he was just this huge scumbag laughing it up while he confessed his crimes.  It was so corny and out of place that I was ready to drop the show, but I gave it one more episode.  Which is when the show finally fell apart, when the patriotism problem got so bad it broke the show for me.  In episode 5 one of the D-agency’s spies is captured by British intelligence, injected with a truth serum, and forced to send false information back to Japan.  By the end of the episode, he has escaped, he doesn’t give up any truly valuable intel because he has been trained to separate his information into two mental boxes the more important of which is miraculously unaffected by the truth serum, stays loyal to Japan despite having been ratted out by a Japanese diplomat and the false information he sent has been rendered moot because the spy explains that sending the message with a perfect code means something is wrong for the D-agency and they would ignore the message.  Oh the guy escapes because he was to make figure out this  incredibly obscure reference to an important scene in a book, I think it might have been Robinson Crusoe but if not it was certainly from the same genre, and he remains hidden because the Brits happened to only send the Japanese sleeper agent to search the rooms for him… What the literal fuck?  What was the point of the episode, no progress was made, it has no bearing on the war or the characters, why did we waste our time here?  I’ll tell you why, because this episode was all about showing just how fucking smart and cool these spies are.  It was all about how showing what fucking badasses these Japanese spies are and how good their training was, even when it starts becoming a bunch of nonsense.

Part of why I’m bringing the patriotism problem up is because I had high hopes for Joker Game, I stupidly judged it by it’s cover and thought “man this looks like James Bond meets Baccano, this’ll be awesome.”  But the other part is because I know, based on the comments I’ve seen already, that a bunch of people are going to fall for this bullshit writing because the premise and setting of the show are so atypical for anime, and I want people to understand, 1, just don’t fall for it, and 2, it so much easier to handle making Japan look good better, that I refuse to accept this low effort crap masquerading as clever writing.  In fact I already mentioned a show that did patriotism better, Code Geass. I’ve reviewed Code Geass before and while I think it has a lot more problems than the anime community at large gives it credit for, I think it handled the patriotism well.  In Code Geass, Japan is important because it has the majority of the world’s most valuable resource, Sakuradite I think it was.  Additionally it had a few competent people in the rebellion, even before Lelouch got involved, and Japan had more rebel forces to begin with because they had surrendered early enough that their forces weren’t totally annihilated like many other countries’ were.  By setting up Code Geass’ rebellion this way, the show made Japan look stronger and more important than most if not all other nations in the show, without loading the story down with tons of bullshit.  It made a believable scenario that worked narratively and still painted Japan in a patriotic and superior light.  That’s all it took, make Japan the main source of some new tech or valuable raw material, I mean even Black Bullet, Black-fucking-Bullet, handled the patriotism problem with more skill than Joker Game, though in fairness a large part of that show is about portraying the people and government as bad, but still it’s pretty pathetic that show written off as an AoT clone by a lot of people is better written than a show which most of those same people think is super smart.

Look, I’d think to that by now I’ve established myself as someone who gives a shit about the artistry in making anime, mostly in regards to storytelling because I don’t know jack shit about animation, and that’s what this is about really.  Including a patriotic bias in your story is an artistic choice and it’s a totally valid one.  However there is a difference between shows and stories that include patriotism without compromising their creativity and those which allow their patriotism to undermine everything that should make the story good.  Joker Game is an especially bad example but I’m worried that the patriotism problem has been getting worse or will get worse, especially if shows like Gate and Joker Game become financial successes.  Because Joker Game looks like it’s supposed to be smart, it presents itself as if the things it’s doing and saying are smart, and there are plenty or people who believe it is smart, and it’s fucking not, OK.  The writing presents basic concepts as big reveals and when it does create some interesting scenarios, it then shits all over them by just having the spies use their largely unexplained training overcome the problem with ease, pulling some new skill or ability out of their ass.  Essentially Joker Game is pulling an Ultimate Influence (if you are unfamiliar with the term I wrote about it at length here), but instead of the main villain being the all-knowing, infallible, most important influential figure in the story, instead they gave that role to Colonel Yuuki, who founded the D-agency.  The realism of the setting is undermined by cartoonish characters, laughably contrived solutions to interesting challenges and a need for the Japanese spies to always be the best so strong that forgets that this is supposed to a story about actual humans, who have actual flaws, and actually fail from time to time.  And I for one, can’t stand the idea of this being successful, because in a lot of ways this show is just as bad as the all the SAO clones that come out every season, but isn’t nearly as open about how bad it is.

And the worst part of all of this, is that despite all the work put into making these spies look like total badasses, the show is fucking boring.  The episodes follow minor, disconnected stories that contribute nothing to a larger narrative.  Because the spies pull deus ex machina-style training out of their ass every episode (as of episode 5) the conflicts of each episode are predictable and therefore anti-climactic and therefore boring.  And worst of all the spies themselves are fucking boring.  None of them has any kind of interesting story or character traits, most of them don’t even look all that different from each other.  Think about it, their training was glossed over in the beginning and then comes up only to solve whatever problem the spy is facing, their background information is censored in-universe so we know nothing about where they cam from and what experiences and people influenced their lives,none of them use their real names so I legitimately can’t remember their names because why would I bother with generic, false information, it seems to me like their are basically four different body/face/hair types at most among the eight spies so at least two always look roughly the same (which admittedly it sort of a smart move on paper but it makes for more boring characters in a visual medium), most, if not all, of the spies have no personality whatsoever and even the ones that might have some personality have no unique, distinguishing personality traits.  In short, these characters are dead on arrival, they are all so bland and unmemorable that I kind of wonder why the show bothered to make them different dudes in the first place.  If you were going to write a story about of a bunch of totally indistinguishable, bland super spies why not ditch the bunch and follow more in the James Bond/Jason Bourne model?  Just make it one incredibly competent, loyal guy (because one infallible dude is way more believable than eight), who plays a different character every episode and let us the audience figure out that each of these seemingly different characters are all the same guy in various disguises and covers.  You could even continue to keep the main guy bland if the point of his character was that he used his unremarkable features to be anyone he wanted, which in retrospect is probably what Joker Game was going for by making all the characters indistinct but because it has yet to use that indistinctness in a meaningful way I not sure what the point is.  Maybe you could even tie all these episodic mini-conflicts together as pieces of a larger conflict so that the story feels like a cohesive whole instead of a bunch of tangents, which is how it currently feels.  It bothers me because Joker Game could have been so easy to make genuinely cool, there’s plenty of cool spy movies and novels to draw ideas from, and somehow this anime still ended up terrible, and fuck is that depressing.  Then it gets worse because you know a bunch of people are praising it and will be praising it mainly because it’s different and looks smart, even though the entire thing is a load of shit. Ugh.

To conclude, patriotism is all well and good on it’s own but taken too far it can destroy even shows that look like they have tons of promise.  And to be honest overbearing patriotism of any kind generally gives me a headache, I support my country and I do think it has a lot of things Americans should be proud of/grateful for, but that doesn’t mean I feel the need to show everyone all this patriotism, or that I think everything from the US is the best.  I remember a few years ago there was a TV show called Deadliest Warrior and in one episode they predicted, based on a series of tests, that the US Navy SEALs were marginally worse than the USSR’s Spetznaz, and I remember how for days people in my area who saw the show called bullshit and were all “the SEALs are the best dude” or “if you look up badass in the dictionary you’ll find a picture of a SEAL.”  And sure, the SEALs are an elite military unit but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily the best in the world, if anything I would guess that Israel’s special forces are the best in the world since they probably do a lot more fighting but I’m getting off topic here.  The point is that no story should be primarily focused on promoting patriotism, that can be an element of the story for sure, but it should be focused to telling a story first and being a piece of patriotic propaganda second.  And since Joker Game fails to meet that metric, in addition to a bunch of other problems I talked about, it fucking sucks.  Maybe it will change after episode 5 but I feel confident that this show won’t do anything different or get much better as it goes.  I hope you enjoyed this little rant, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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