The Important Lesson Nadesico Teaches Us About Entertainment

Current discussion of entertainment media is filled with questions as to what messages, intentional or otherwise, are conveyed to audiences. Does a work promote racism or sexism through its characters actions? Does a series portray as heroic characters whose values are misanthropic? In this time, one work to look back on is the science fiction anime Martian Successor Nadesico, which highlights the idea that creative works are ultimately subject to personal interpretation, but that those subjective outlooks can have real consequences.

In Nadesico, many of the characters are fans of an old giant robot anime called Gekigangar 3. Cut from the same mold as 70s-era anime such as Getter Robo and Voltes V, it’s a simple story about heroes of Earth defending against alien invaders through the power of friendship and passion. At first, this series within a series acts mainly as a fun retro contrast to the setting and aesthetics of Nadesico itself. This all changes, however, when it’s revealed that the enemy forces are also fans of Gekigangar 3. In fact, they’re not just fans—they’ve based their entire civilization on Gekigangar.

Jovian men dress like the male heroes of Gekigangar 3. The women pattern themselves after the sole female character, Nanako. Even the robots they use to fight the Earth forces are made to look like the titular Gekiganger III. This mutual love of the same series between the space battleship Nadesico’s crew and the Jovians opens up the opportunity for peace. After all, Gekigangar 3 is all about friendship and passion, right?

One character, Jovian Vice-Admiral Kusakabe Haruki, does not see it that way, and he acts as the main antagonist at the finale of the TV series. When asked how he could defy the principles of Gekigangar, Kusakabe argues that his actions are completely in accordance with the show that forms the basis of Jovian society because Gekigangar 3 is about victory for the righteous against evil.

The same action scenes that the main crew of the Nadesico viewed as the bridge to peace also acts as the pretense for war and violence. While it’s possible to argue that Kusakabe’s interpretation was misguided and a too-narrow reading of Gekigangar 3, the reality is that it fuels his actions, and that even if the work had the best of intentions, the work does not exist in a vacuum and is subject to both social and personal perspectives.

The final joke about Gekigangar 3 is that the ending is pretty bad and hokey. Negating the noble sacrifice of one of the characters, Joe (whose design and narrative purpose is a mix of Hayato and Musashi from Getter Robo) conveniently comes back from the dead for a last-second save reminiscent of the finale of Mazinger Z when Great Mazinger shows up. The main hero of Nadesico, Tenkawa Akito, talks about how he held off on watching the last episode of Gekigangar 3 for a long time, only to find out that it’s nothing special. In a way, everyone who worshipped Gekigangar 3 put it on a pedestal that far exceeded its actual content, but at the same time the way it inspired people to strive for their best and to live with passion in their hearts is seen as a net-positive. “Remember this anime at its best” is the takeaway for the crew, but it requires an already-held belief of wanting to take a positive and humanity-affirming spin on any media consumed, which won’t always be the case for everyone.

Even works with the best of intentions, like Fight Club, are infamous for being misread. Entertainment meant to portray something in a negative light might accidentally be seen in pop culture as supporting those ideas. So for those shows and films like Gekigangar 3 that aren’t necessarily meant to be deep or extremely thoughtful, the opportunity for both loving and hateful interpretations is even greater. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of those watching to give their takes on a work, even if it’s not 100% intended by the original creators, so that a work’s interactions with the cultural and social symbols that live and grow among us can be discussed and debated upon.

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What Do You Mean Not All Anime Involve Philosophical Discussions?

When it comes to anime and manga academia, I commonly see two mistakes.

First is when an unusual work that is elevated by critics and scholars as being artistically significant is considered indicative of other works in anime and manga. Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell movies are the most frequently misused in this respect, and while I do like Oshii’s work (including his recent film The Sky Crawlers), he’s pretty much considered an anomaly. And even though he’s much more celebrated and popular, I think Miyazaki is the same way; his works are almost a universe unto themselves when it comes to the Japanese animation industry. If you’re going to analyze the nature and life of the Japanese animation industry, do you look at the rare exception or do you look at the more common works, the middle-of-the-road stuff? I’m not saying you should enjoy crap, of course. However, I think that while the former can give you a good idea of what anime can do, the latter gives you a far clearer image of where anime is.

The second is sort of a mirror image of the first problem. Here, run-of-the-mill works with little to say creatively are considered shining examples of artistic brilliance. Shows that served little purpose outside of making some money and are quickly forgotten due to mediocrity are carted about and displayed as if they were seminal works in the history of anime. For example, Seitokai no Ichizon might be presented as a brilliant portrayal of the difficulties in gender relations in education among students in Japan, when it’s more just a show designed to appeal to otaku and has some entertainment value.

But wait, you might be thinking, “How dare you tell us what’s significant and what’s not! You’re not the boss of us!” But I’m not saying that at all. Ghost in the Shell can say a lot of things about the anime industry. The only thing is that because GitS is an exception, you should probably study it as an exception. And I do think Seitokai no Ichizon‘s story is worth analysis to some extent, but you have to be aware of its origins as a light novel, as well as the otaku subculture it’s trying to appeal to, before you really try to present its ideas as indicative of anything at all.

While I do believe in personal interpretations quite a bit, postmodernism can be a terribly dangerous weapon.

Postignorism

I like the postmodernist idea that when given a work of art,  fiction or anything with any degree of abstraction, everyone interprets it and enjoys it their own way. The artists have power but so does the audience. That said however, I do feel that there is a distinct danger in becoming too wrapped up in your own interpretation, particularly at the expense of what is actually there.

In the case of anime fandom, this often takes the form of watching something through the lens of esoteric criteria such as a set of rules for enjoying (or not enjoying) a series established by a fan community for a fan community. It’s okay to watch Inuyasha because you really like Sango, but it’s another matter entirely to judge a given episode’s merit almost entirely on percentage of Sango content or that the series would be objectively improved by more Sango screen time. Shipping can often become a similar beast. Having a favorite pairing is very reasonable even in series without a hint of romance, but the game changes when a series’ ability to provide ammo for that specific coupling is considered the most vital criteria of success.

There is a delicate balance in terms of arguing for the sake of the creator vs the sake of the audience. It may sound like I’m faulting the viewers for not going along with what the creators have laid out, but I understand that creators are not infallible gods even when it comes to their own works, and what they think happens in their own story can play out very differently on the page and screen. I encourage people to really understand their own tastes and to not treat their personal criteria as frivolous, but at the same time if your rubric for enjoyment is too narrow, then it starts to reach a point where what you’re demanding from a work of fiction is that it caters to you, even at the expense of the work itself. On some level it’s not even about like or dislike, good or bad, but rather making an opinion on what’s there rather than what doesn’t exist.

I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to tell people they need to enjoy their shows a certain way, as I don’t believe in that. However, what I do believe in is having some sense of how you approach fiction and to acknowledge the whole of the work when thinking about it, and then taking steps from there to express your mode of enjoyment. Indulging your fantasy is okay as long as you don’t confuse it for the “reality” of the story. If you’re going to be ignoring an aspect of a work, at least be somewhat aware that you’re ignoring it.