Learning From Anime – Gundams Stardust Memory and Zeta/The War On Terror
Anime, like all fiction, reflects real life in strange and thought provoking ways. It’s one of the reasons why the simple act of watching and thinking about anime can give us as profound insights into the world that we as humans live in as scholars and philosophers. What do I mean by this? Well, let me show you.
The primary conflict in the shared universe of Gundam shows is between the Principality of Zeon and the Earth Federation. The Earth Federation is a democratic bureaucratic state based on the earth with it’s capitals in Jaburo, Brazil. The Principality of Zeon meanwhile is a monarchy in all but name built around the idea that the natural path of human evolution is movement into space. In accordance with this philosophy, they are based around a series of space colonies called side 3, and later the asteroid fortress Axis. The forces of Zeon demand independence from the federation, and through a series of conflict ultimately fail to win for themselves a right to autonomy. The largest and most important of these was a conflict called the “One Year War” in which the original show take place. After losing the One Year War, they launch several progressively less effective armed paramilitary revolts, never really existing as a country again after that original defeat. The shows in which the Zeon-Federation conflict are shown include Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta Gundam, Double Zeta Gundam, Char’s Counterattack, Gundam Unicorn, Stardust Memory, War in Pocket, and 08th MS team.
Of these, I will be focusing first and foremost on Stardust Memory, with some lesser focus on Zeta Gundam and Double Zeta Gundam. The reasons for this are that as a show, Stardust Memory is all about the idea of what happens when you lose a war but still refuse to stop fighting. The premise is that four years after the conclusion of the One Year War, a Zeon battle fleet called The Delaz Fleet is still active. They send the fleet’s ace pilot, Anval Gato, to steal a prototype Gundam from the complicit Federation forces and use it as part of a ploy to defeat the Federation forces, despite the fact that there isn’t a shot of defeating the federation or even a country represent. A team with a prototype Gundam is sent after him to retrieve it. After this point SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING.
The successful ploy of the Zeon forces resembles a conflict that exists in the world today to a rather unsettling degree. The remainder Zeon forces are complete ideological extremists but more importantly, so enamored for their cause that they are willing to lose years of their lives and die for it. Their actions, motivations, methodology, and even a lot of their superficial trappings bare more then a slight resemblance to the armed paramilitary terrorist organization Al Qaeda. The simple fact that their plan calls for murdering thousands of civilians for the sake of trying to strike fear into the Federation, would earn them the title of terrorist organization in and of itself, but take a closer look
The Zeon in this show use small cells to fight. Their organization is broken up until the reunification of the Delaz Fleet, acting as sort of web of Zeon over the earth and space. Amongst their resources are bases still active from the One Year War, and agents in many organizations. They keep the rank in file along entirely by ideology. The leaders of the movement are built up as the last heroes standing up to the federation (much like Bin Laden was). Army style discipline and old relics like the Zeon heil are used to keep moral and belief in the cause going strong.
The most interesting part is their motivation. The Delaz Fleet has no real reason restart combat. They could easily join the self-segregating forces of Axis Zeon. The two clearly have relations and Axis is even supplying Delaz. But, they instead choose to continue fighting. Why? They don’t really stand to gain anything by blowing up the federation fleet. The reason why is because they feel the need to do something, because they feel guilty for failing in the war. Their motivation is influenced by a profound sense of helplessness.
The same can be said about Al-Qaeda. They live in a world that increasingly rejects traditional lifestyles. Every day a street in Meccah or in Cairo gets a new mcdonalds. Every day a new device appears linking people away from basic groups and into the wider world. Islam like all reglions is struggling to deal with that. They think of the west as the great Satan because they walk down the street and see the evidence of our power and increasing influence on life in their world just by walking down the street. The need to strap bombs to your chest and kill innocent people isn’t stemming as much from hate and evil as it is from powerlessness and need for agency of their own lives.
The thing we can learn from this is the mindset of the cast. The majority of the Zeon characters in the show are actually portrayed as sympathetic, in large part because of just how damned honorable Gato is. These people are objectively doing something incredibly horrible. Without Gato’s perspective, they would seem just about as evil as most anime villains. But, with proper dimensions and plenty of legitimately noble characteristics, the series turned mass murders into real people. During the final moments where Gato’s battered mobile armor attempts to lead the battered remains of the Delaz fleet, it shows their deaths as tragic, and the show really does a god job of making the viewer hope that they make it through.
If we apply what we learned about the motivations of Zeon and Al-Qaeda, and absorb the lesson that these people who kill so many innocents are indeed just that, people. They have admirable qualities, but they are letting their fear of irrelevancy and ease of being manipulated by authority overcome their appreciation for the value of human life. Suddenly they aren’t boogeymen to be feared, they are a problem to be solved. How does the world continue to evolve, yet manage to refrain from threatening those whose beliefs in the world that they live in our locked into sync with tradition? These are very real questions, and they can be explored in new and interesting ways through anime.
The Forever War
As I was thinking about this post, I figured out another conclusion regarding the Zeon forces and their similarities to and the real life terrorist organization they resemble so much. This one was more of a stretch on my part, so forgive some suspension of disbelief issues. When you look at the history of Axis Zeon and the first Neo-Zeon war, you start to notice some interesting similarities to real life. Here is a rundown of many of events of the conflict, as seen in the two Zeta Gundams and Stardust memory.
Essentially, in the wake of the Earth Federations domination of Zeon space, the forces of Zeon were a rag tag group of terrorist organizations. While the federation were actively looking for them, the majority of the high command considered them a joke. But, through a series of high profile strikes, resulting in heavy civilian losses, they once again became a serious threat.
The method that the Federation chose to combat this newly menacing threat by not addressing the underlying causes of Zeonic but rather increasing the amount of force used against any potentially dangerous elements. The results of this were disastrous, causing the neutral populations of the region to rise up against the heavy handed rule of the distant and oblivious federation. The resulting conflict also saw the rebirth of Zeon as a fighting force. By attempting to combat it, they only validated it’s existence in the first place in the minds of those on the fence. Soon the federation was fighting the people who they were trying to weaken in the first place, wherever they chose was close enough to being a threat in the first place.
As far as metaphors go, that is actually a pretty crazy one. Those events sound an unsettling amount like the events 9/11, the Iraqi and Afghan invasions, and the Al-Qaeda insurgency in Iraq. Some of you of a more conservative persuasion may disagree with me (I’m actually a libertarian, so I suppose I’m also right wing), but this shows the failings of a lot of traditional ideas of counterterroism. The really amazing part is that these shows were made in the late 80′s and early 90′s, long before the birth of modern Islamic terrorism.
It’s just that the creators of this work had an understanding of conflict. Similar if not quite so specific instances of similar failures can be seen again and again throughout history. Enough so that while the pattern may not be obvious to those involved, conflicts have natural ways of forming themselves. Human beings are creatures of repetition, it’s why you should have paid attention in your history class. But, it’s okay because now you get a chance to see it in your anime.
What can we learn from this? Plenty of things. For one, fighting the symptoms of a problem do not work well. To correctly identify the solution to an issue, you must act intelligently and calmly, assessing a proper method of dealing with it too attack the underlying issues, rather then the more visible ones. This is true just as much in trying to pacify an angry population of religious extremists as it is in trying to pacify the schoolyard bully.
That Conclusion Thing
So we learned some things, we talked about Gundam, but at the end of the day how can this really effect any of us? The topic I brought up is as far removed as many current events topics tend to be. And while there may be some news junkies out there reading this, I don’t know how many of you really care that much. To you I don’t really know what to say besides the standard history teacher response. History repeats. Tomino knew this, and so should you. So next time you see events like the ones we live starting up, you can know them by their common pattern.
But, is that the real reason I am writing this? No. The reason I am writing this is to explain a process that I don’t see as much as I’d like to. there is plenty of scholarly analysis of anime to be found on anime over the internet. And that is a brilliant glorious thing. So I figured I would add to this tradition by explaining the things I try to think of when I watch anime, and hope that each and every one of you reading scoffs and calls my analysis as freshman. I have alot to learn about anime, about fiction, and about the world. Be here next week when we talk about Full Metal Alchemist and how we can relate it to the world.
*Further readings on both subjects can be found all over the web. For your best money on the gundam aspect, I recommend Ghostlighting’s We Remember Love. The original inspiration for this post was this post by him: http://ghostlightning.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/the-despair-of-zeon-at-the-bottom-of-the-gravity-wellmobile-suit-gundam-unicorn-04/