The Superversive From Japan: Mobile Suit Gundam Wing

It’s been a while since I recommended a series for Superversive seekers, and once more I bring a series from the Gundam franchise to your attention. This is one of the “alternate continuity” series from the 1990s, one that hit big in the United States: Mobile Suit Gundam Wing.

It is now remaster for HD, and the folks running the Gndam Official channel have made the entire series available for free to view in the hopes that you’ll head over to Amazon and buy the Blu-Ray disc collections.

This is one of the Superversive entries in the franchise, as the pretty boys who form the core of the cast are expressly out to liberate the world from a corrupt and oppressive world-state. What they do, and how they do it, vary greatly. Their opposition isn’t stupid or hamstrung, and the series’ antagonist is himself motivated by high ideals that contrast well against the heroes’ own. For a show aimed at boys entering adolescence (just a few year younger than the heroes), that’s some heavy storytelling.

You get a lot of philosophical conflict over the morality of government, of artificial intelligence, of the centralization of power and authority into an elite vs. decentralization into autonomous communities, and of the possession of warfighting capabilites by private individuals. (Alas, it also has one of the worst Straw Pacifist tropes in world fiction, but they can’t all be perfect.)

If your household has youths of roughly that age, or a little older, this is a perfect series to use to get them talking about things that they need to handle as adults- this is a story that is timely despite being over 20 year old, featuring concerns that they will have to deal with sooner than later.

And in the end, despite significant missteps, it is an overall Superversive series. Recommended.

Hackjobs & Horror Shows: Finding the Superversive in Anime

I’ve talked a lot here about the wonderful stuff Japan has to offer, and I’ve got something in that vein below, but first let me talk about something I hear a lot about people who complain about anime and manga- and have for years: genre mashing.

The West’s establishment, for commercial reasons as often as not, divided up fiction into genres generations ago. Today we’re conditioned from an early age to think in categories that are only appropriate to someone selling a product at retail on a shelf- where space is finite, and thus precious and scarce. The consequence is that our popular entertainment–including popular written fiction–got increasingly siloed into commercial categories and we see this as How Things Are, instead of conveniences for commercial ends. Fantasy here, Horror there, and Don’t Cross The Streams.

It’s not quite so severe over in Japan. Be it comics, games, or film/TV you’ll find blends that would never happen in the West become successful (e.g. Neon Genesis Evangelion)- and it’s been that way for generations. Some of it is cultural, some of it is down to individual preferences by the productions, and some I can’t explain because it tends to cross into what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic” (i.e. just coherent enough to hold up while watching or reading).

And sometimes, when something out of Japan comes West, we don’t get the real thing. This isn’t so much of an issue now, but back in the 80s and 90s that involved wholesale rewrites and hackjobs that neutered the original’s content- including its themes, motifs, etc. such as what happened to Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross, Super-Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSEPEDA to make Robotech and what happened to King of Beasts GoLion to make part of Voltron.

This is a shame, because when I’ve seen the real thing I find that often the excised elements–while horrific, and often tragic–can lend dramatic weight to a narrative that is ultimately Superversive. The aforementioned GoLion starts not on an alien world, but on an occupied Earth, and the series (being an ’80s production) doesn’t pull punches on what it takes to defeat Evil and rebuild what is Good. The Galaxy Express 999 series has full-on horrific elements that seem tame due to presentation, but rightly chill to the bone when you think about it, and yet the heroes go what needs be done anyway despite what they suffer and lose along the way.

Of all these blends, none work so well as Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. It’s gothic, romantic, Romantic, horrific, and so very tragic- down to the viewpoint character as well as our protagonist (who are not the same individual), with the point driven home in the epilogue.

So go give our friends in the East another chance, especially the older stuff in its pure form, and eschew the Flanderized and Bowlderized adaptations because sometimes the real horror isn’t the story, but rather the story about what was done to the story when butchers got their hands on it as it came to the West.

A Review of the Death Note Anime

After encountering the trailer for the Death Note for Netflix, I looked up the general premise. Then I looked up a video on YouTube.Then I ended up binging the whole bloody show.

A Shinigami (A Japanese god of Death) named Ryuk is bored. His world is a mess, a disaster. On a lark, for something to do, he takes his death note–a black notebook that will kill anyone whose name is written down in it–and throws it down to Earth, just to see what happens.

Enter Light. Light Yagami is about to graduate high school. The son of a police officer, he finds the world grim, unchanging, and … boring. And then he finds this little black notebook. The Death Note comes with instructions, written in by Ryuk.Light reads the rules of the death note, and first tests it out on a hostage taker, and then a rapist in progress… and five days later, he has filled the Death Note with hundreds of names.

When Ryuk comes to Light to find the death note, and see what’s become of it, Light assumes a deal with the devil, and declares that “I will happily sacrifice my soul to make a better world.” But Ryuk explains that, no, the Death Note will not come with selling his soul, but “merely” forfeiting his place in Heaven or Hell. With that bit of new information, Light’s mission becomes all about him becoming a god, out to start the creation a new world, free of criminals. There’s little buildup to Light’s declaration. It’s just that sudden. But we have a show to start, and all of this is episode 1.

After the first thousand dead criminals, it becomes obvious to all that it is the work of a mass murderer, and he is labeled “Kira” — killer.

Over time, we see that Light is possibly one of the most evil SOBs I think I’ve ever seen outside of Sauron. Seriously, there’s not one person near him he doesn’t manipulate. He drives at least one person to suicide without using the death note. At least one person he spent 30 minutes of screen time with (IE: who knows how much in-story time with) and gets to know them, connect with them, realize what a good and loving person they are … and then kills them, because there’s a possibility that they know something that might expose him. Friends? What’s a friend? Ally? An ally is just a tool, a pawn, for his own convenience. Light needs no one. Light cares for no one but himself. Even his family seem to be of value to him only as an extension of Light’s own ego, and there are points in the plot where even they seem to be expendable.

At the end of the day, Light is charming and suave, and I have read blood-sucking vampires written by Ringo and Correia that have more humanity than this guy. It’s almost like they were trying to create Satan in human form.

But good God, it is hard to tell which of these people are scarier.  Light wants to be a god, and reshape the world where only “hardworking good people” exist. Light jumps onto this bandwagon fairly quickly. He goes from killing criminals, to killing cops investigating him, to ultimately deciding with one person “You have defied me, the new god! For that alone, you will die.”

Then there’s Light’s girlfriend, Misa. Yes, his girlfriend. On the surface, Misa is every anime blonde cliche made manifest. She is bright, she is perky. She is outgoing … and she might be more evil than Light. She possesses her own death note, and is a fan of “Kira.” Because that’s what every mass murdering serial killer needs — a groupie.

But when Misa gets going, the bodies start dropping all over the place.

While Light, at the very least, makes certain the ascertain guilt or innocence of criminals who drop dead–or cops coming after him directly– Misa’s quite happy to off anyone who even expresses disapproval of “Kira.” 


While Misa comes off as a ditzy blonde, I don’t think there’s a single person in this entire series who classifies as stupid. We won’t even go into some of the various and sundry oddballs, nut jobs, and seemingly “normal” people who join Light’s team. Though it is amusing to have Light deal with girl trouble at some particularly perilous points in the story. It almost gives you hope that he’s human. Don’t worry, those moments don’t last long.

Then we meet L, the detective in charge of hunting Kira. L is the Holmes brothers, Nero Wolfe, and a stack of eccentricities rolled into one. There is an awful lot of thought put into this character, as well as the various and sundry back and forth between L and Light that would make for a great Columbo episode. Heck, there’s even a tennis match here that Alfred Hitchcock would love. The tennis matches here are interesting– but only one of them is literal. Watching the various and sundry thought processes of L and Light ping ponging back and forth between each other is particularly entertaining.

One of the things that makes Death Note particularly tragic is that, at one point, Light has to give up the death note. Without the notebook, he loses every and all memory of being Kira. During this time, we see that Light is actually not a bad guy. He’s particularly bright, and possibly on par with or smarter than L. Like Aquinas put it, the corruption of the best leads to the creation of the worst — and Light is one of the worst.

And that’s before Light starts to truly spiral out of control

The animation is largely smooth and fluid. The artwork is creative and beautiful. The faces are unusually well defined for anime. The music is great and atmospheric, and borrows from Gregorian chant.

Overall, I was surprised at how easily I was sucked into this series. There is little of the hysterics that usually mark anime, and the characters are largely rich, well-developed people, with a host of strengths and foibles. Light is possibly the best murdering psychopath since Hannibal Lecter. And yes, I have read Dexter. Light makes Dexter look almost shallow in comparison, and I enjoyed those books.

There is also little to no moral ambiguity. While the authorities first argue over whether to arrest Kira, and the argument ends with “the law is the law,” it becomes clear just how Superversive this show is. The bad guys and the good guys are clear. Light is the protagonist just like any Columbo villain is, or MacBeth — and there’s just as little confusion about the morality of their actions.

All in all, I recommend it. It’s currently on Netflix.

The Superversive from the East: Giant Robo – The Animation

Giant Robo is, as the linked article states, both one of the oldest of Japan’s comic franchises and the source of one of the best original animation series in the last 30 years. As such there’s some familiar issues that any franchise faces, starting with multiple continuities that often drastically reshape the premise into something very different from other versions. That’s why I’m specifying the OVA series: “The Animation”.

The reason for this specific incarnation’s enduring appeal is that this story is one of the most boldly Superversive stories to come out of Japan. Just take a good look at the trailer below:

That’s all you need to know, right there. The details that really deliver on the story’s promise aren’t in the trailer, but you will see that every element gets used–and used well–to tell a tale that uplifts the audience, inspires them to face great fears with courage, and press on even when you think you’re done for. That boy, Daisaku, is your protagonist and he gets put through the ringer over the course of this short series, but he does make it happen at the end–albeit with help (and a Pellenor Fields moment that is ridiculous, awesome, and (by that point) makes logical sense).

And it is thoroughly entertaining at all levels. The music is fantastic, the aesthetics are brilliant, and the production team did your Avengers or Justice League style of “heroes band together to stop a world-wide doom” story better than Marvel or DC have to date, in any medium. Daisaku’s the plunky youth you want to cheer for, Big Fire’s villains range from love-to-hate to completely despicable, and the other Experts of Justice may be rough around the edges but they are still heroes.

And, as for the necessity of virtue, the plot centers around two virtue-related matters: the origin of the Shizuma Drive, and the truth about the disaster that nearly derailed its introduction. Big errors got made, and everything about this story is a logical consequence of those errors, but there is no fixing it without fixing those errors- and that final bit shows this story’s value as a Superversive work.

The commercial availability of this animation isn’t what it once was, but you can get it at Amazon in a boxed set on DVD at a reasonable (for commercial anime) price. It’s not a long series: just under 6 hours, total. Agent Carter‘s first season ran longer. Recommended highly!

The Superversive from the East: Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross

Japan has several long-running science-fiction franchises, but few are truly global in reach. Mobile Suit Gundam is one. Space Battleship Yamato is another. Both got their start in 1979, but the third part of that era’s triumverate came in 1982: Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross, what many in North America may (unfortunately) know better as the most popular part of Robotech.

I won’t go into the details of what makes the original Macross great–you can read the TV Tropes article for that–so I’ll skip straight to why I’m marking this out as a Superversive work. First, and foremost, this is series is a counter-balance to the downbeat stories that the Gundam franchise often did; this was the era was “Kill ‘Em All” Tomino’s penchant for nihilism, despair, and audience-unfriendly narrative decisions were at their worst. While tragedy and loss are present in Macross, they are Things To Overcome and not You Suck Forever elements.

The story, despite the massive warfare going on, ends on a hopeful note that’s borne out before the credits roll for the final time and expanded upon in the many franchise expansions ever since. Brotherhood is rewarded, faith in things greater than oneself key to victory, beauty and culture are explicit superpowers (but that is not enough; Right Needs Might), and real love is not narcissistic delusion.

The transformable fighters and the Space Opera story are what many remember, but what gives Macross its heart is much like what we see with Gurren Lagann: an earnest, relatable hero who struggles to do what is right while doing what is necessary, overcoming his losses by keeping faith with his people (which is also difficult at times for him to do), and in time he becomes a leader in his own right. Maturity, marriage, and the embrace of responsibility are shown to benefit him and make him into the hero he saw in his big brother.

This theme persists across the series: those who embrace the elements necessary to build up a healthy culture with concern for the future are those that succeed, whereas those that embrace nihilism and succumb to despair are those that fail. Not only does this persist throughout the series, it persists throughout the franchise.

While not perfect, Macross is a beloved classic for good reasons- and if “Superversive” was a part of the vocabulary of the culture then, you would’ve seen it used prominently. Recommended.

The Superversive from the East: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

In the 1980s, one of the greatest works of science fiction ever to come out of Japan first hit the shelves as a light novel: Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It would later get adapted into a 110-episode anime series, produce two movies, and several side-stories mini-series. Unfortunately, only recently did the original light novels get licensed for release into the West. (You can fix that here)

Whether you read the novels or watch the anime, you’ll find a truly epic Space Opera that hits most of the things you want out of a Superversive work. While the moral clarity is muddled at times, as this story reflects the mood of its day, the protagonist and the deuteragonist (and their key allies) are clear heroes with heroic virtue and epic flaws.

There are no supernatural powers. There are no aliens. There are no giant robots, laser swords (save for those shown as part of an in-fiction feature film), transformable machines, or other tropes popular with the famous SF/F franchises arising in Japan at this time. The fantastic elements are confined to FTL travel, cybernetics, the many technologies implied by the fact that galaxy-wide human colonization occurred, and high-end medical technologies. Yet there are massive fleet battles only eclipsed by E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, and cultural conflicts (with attendant political intrigues) that drive the plot overall (and thus many subplots therein).

What there is, however, is true love (but often filial instead of romantic). What there is, however, is courage against often ridiculous odds. Faith held against powers willing and able to destroy you and yours, and fortitude in times of struggle are what you will find here. And, while individuals can succumb to their tragic flaws, the overall conclusion is hopeful in both absolute and practical terms. If you can find a good playlist online, and you can deal with subtitles, the long-running series and its related works will bring you up without lying to you on what it often takes to climb that mountain to a better tomorrow.

Moreso than any other work of science fiction or fantasy out of Japan, I recommend Legend of the Galactic Heroes, especially if you like your key characters to be competent as well as their opposition. Victory here is earned, and therefore deserved- including the hopeful end.