Well competition was fierce for the “longest, dumbest anime title” prize, but our judges have reached a decision, and the winner is…“C” The Money of Soul and Possibility Control! Our consolations to Ano Hi Mita Hana No Namae Wo Bokutachi Wa Mada Shiranai!
Ridiculous title aside, “C” has a lot going for it. Two of my biggest gripes about mainstream anime is that they’re inevitably about high school or younger characters and that they don’t engage directly with real world problems. “C” gets off on both counts; the main characters are all college students or older and it’s almost painfully relevant and direct. There are events that happen on the show that are occurring right now in reality, albeit with fewer magical spells and less moe. You can’t get much more timely than releasing a show about financial crises in the middle of one. The writers didn’t even bother to come up with an imaginary organization to monitor finance, they just went ahead and called it the International Monetary Fund. An anime about the IMF! It’s like they read my mind! What’s not to love?
Well relevancy is great, I love relevancy, but to be frank if you want to have a show about real life issues you’ve got to get them right. “C” has a lot of interesting themes and plot devices about finance, but almost none of them hold up to closer scrutiny. Adding to the problem is a liberal dash of shounen snorefest that further confuses the ideas they’re trying to present. I really, really wanted an anime about the ongoing economic downturn, but somehow my vision for it did not include magical finance pokemon who are also nymphish young girls, or a climactic shounen battle between a spiky-haired everyman and his overbearing father figure.
Here’s the quick rundown: Kimimaro Yoga, a college student studying economics, is a boring dude trying to support himself through school and pass the civil service exam. The Japanese civil service is a lot like the public sector in the U.S.; you won’t make as much money and there’s less room for advancement than private sector, but you’ll be able to make a middle-class living and the benefits and pension are sizable and guaranteed. The exams are serious business though, and Yoga seems to be trying to put himself through college, while studying for hellacious exams, without relying on anyone. He works two shitty jobs, and the girl he likes is nice to him but has a rich boyfriend, and says that his obsession with self-reliance makes him look immature. Yoga is a paragon of financial virtue, but goes unrewarded while the cool kids with stacks of money go out drinking with his girl.
Suddenly, Yoga is visited by a creepy banker in a Joker costume named Masakaki, who tries to convince him to take out a loan, with his future as collateral. Yoga is startled, but after thinking about it turns Masakaki down flat. He’s not interested in taking on risk when he sees a sure thing in front of him: if he works hard and studies a ton he can live a simple life, work for the government, and have a wife and a dog and two and a half kids. Unfortunately for him, he gets curious about what will happen if he withdraws from the mysterious down payment Masakaki leaves in his account. Apparently doing so implies that he agrees to the contract and he’s whisked off to the Financial District.
The financial district is a strange city with a passing resemblance to the ‘maze’ screensaver on Windows 95, where a bigass coin with a whirling display of money floats in the sky and humans, called entrepreneurs here, securitize their futures into assets to fight against one another. The assets are shaped differently depending on what your future is; most are women, others are huge fantastic beasts or robots. They fight against each other using a system familiar to anyone who’s watched Yugioh, except the attacks are based on money instead of power points or whatever. If you lose all your money, you get thrown out of the financial district, and the future you put up as collateral gets taken away. The winners can spend whatever they get in the real world, making many of the extremely wealthy.
Yoga is a bit of a slow learner in the finance pokemon fights. Even his asset, Mysu (pronounced Mashu), gets impatient with him in a familiar, tsundere way. Boy, there are sure a lot of shows about precocious young girls bossing around male lead characters recently. When he’s about to lose a fight against one of his professors, Mikuni Souichiro, a super-rich CEO, buys up a share in Yoga’s asset for an astronomical amount, giving him enough money to turn the battle around. Yoga is grateful, but becomes guilty when he visits the professor in real life and finds that the future that was lost includes his three children, who have disappeared as though they were never there. He’s also beginning to notice that the money from the financial district spent in real life looks different, evil almost, although only he and other entrepreneurs can see the difference.
Actually, everything in reality seems to be turning to shit as the show goes on. Apparently, all those entrepreneurs losing their future is draining the country of life. We learn that Mikuni is trying to minimize the effects of the financial district on reality by simply playing more carefully, and Yoga joins him for a while, but a pretty blonde from the IMF appears suddenly to ask Yoga if they shouldn’t instead be trying to destroy the district altogether. As Yoga starts to doubt Mikuni’s plans, a financial district in nearby southeast Asia collapses (yeah there’s more than one I guess), causing Singapore to simply vanish entirely as all of its future was gambled away. The shock wave (the titular “C”) threatens Japan, and Mikuni tries to fight it by selling off decades from the country’s future to print shittons of money and prop up the failing real life economy. Whoah! Sound familiar?
Anyway, Yoga decides that the future is more important than the present and that he has to stop Mikuni, and they have a big dramatic battle between their finance pokemon. The IMF lady and a skeezy information broker collaborate to destroy confidence in the Japanese Yen, making their assets similarly worthless, so Yoga wins, of course, and tells Masakaki to stop the printing presses of the financial district. Yoga says he wants to buy back the future, and there’s a long flashy End of Evangelion style sequence where everything liquidates and flies upwards. When Yoga wakes up, Japan is fixed (except now everyone uses $USD), and Masakaki appears again to tell him it was all as planned by some kind of higher power, who is shown briefly in a celestial boardroom. The show ends without explaining further.
Whew! A lot of action for 11 episodes! The show doesn’t waste much time with frills or filler, which I think we can all be grateful for, but it also doesn’t take the time to tie up very many loose ends. The whole ending is literally deus ex machina; Yoga is rewarded for his virtue by having everything fixed by the higher power that controls the financial districts of the world. I think this waving-away of unresolved questions conceals the big holes in the logic behind the show’s premise, so I’m going to try to explain what they’ve left out. As it happens, the show was all about the kind of financial and monetary issues I read and study about every day, the same stuff I wanna make a career out of, but I’ll try not to make it too technical or controversial.
First: a story. Once upon a time there was a small island nation called Japan that had just fought and lost a massive war. They wanted to catch up with the rest of the developed world, but unfortunately, they had just had most of their heavy industry bombed into dust, burned to ash, or evaporated by nuclear bombs, so they were kind of working from scratch. What they did for the next 50 or so years was so successful that it’s been called Japan’s miracle economy, and back in the 80s many people in the U.S. were convinced that we were going to be completely overtaken by Japan, the same way they claim today that the Chinese will soon run the world.
The secret to Japan’s success, depending on who you ask, was that the government carefully cultivated huge manufacturing businesses using public money, and supported them for years until they were strong enough to stand on their own. Toyota didn’t turn a profit for decades, and Sony started off making cheap knockoffs of transistor radios. Today, Toyota’s corporate bonds are about the most reliable in the world, and they’re considered a model of corporate greatness. This was in large part orchestrated by MITI, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which had ridiculous amounts of power because it could control how much money firms got from the government and change the rules about who could buy and sell to punish anyone who didn’t play along. Businesses were forced to cooperate and collaborate, and many of them were owned by the same groups of people, who would buy shares in a network of companies called a keiretsu, or conglomerate. This is the kind of network that Mikuni’s father runs, where trust is money and money is power.
Was it pretty? Not always. Was it how I, personally, would organize an economy? By no means. But it made the country rich, and while some parts were richer than others, it was actually very equal compared to other first world nations. Critics will point out that MITI made some bad calls; it shunned Sony at first and at several points tried to force all the car manufacturers together into one giant firm, which would have given them a much less diverse and competitive auto industry today. It also created a lot of opportunity for bribery and corruption, although most researchers will say that Japan is less corrupt than you would expect from a country with its GDP and region of the world. You can judge for yourself whether it’s worth some bad calls and corruption to be the second-richest nation on Earth.
All of this cost money, of course, and Japan ran up a huge debt. But that’s how finance works, you have to spend money to make money. The show poses this as “trading the future for the present”, but it’s not really that simple. Japan didn’t borrow money to waste on the present, the borrowed it to build up the country for future generations. Investment is how wealth is created, the real trouble starts when you stop borrowing. Yoga’s financial austerity is fine and well for a single person, but entire economies aren’t the same as people. Imagine a Japan that had tried to live like Yoga, studiously working without borrowing. With no money to buy machinery they could have never re-industrialized, could have never built their huge cities and rail networks, could have never sent their kids to learn to be engineers and invent all the cool crap in my PS3. There would be a lot more rice farming and a lot less robotics in that kind of economy.
Now imagine if Japan tried to stop borrowing now, in the middle of a recession. Companies that are already close to the edge would go under, their employees would lose their jobs and stop spending money on anything but necessities, which would lead to more businesses closing because of low sales, and so on. And of course all those people would stop paying taxes, meaning the government would have no money to fix anything, and soon no money to pay for all those silly frivolities like health care, police, roads, etc. Eventually they wouldn’t even have the money to pay interest on their remaining debt, and would have to default, meaning they would be less able to borrow in the future when they realized how foolish it was to try to stop. Japan’s debt is huge, and it should have paid down more of it when the economy was strong, but it’s also how the country became strong again.
The IMF, by the way, is of course a real life organization that bails out economies that are in trouble. Their prescription is always the Yoga method: stop borrowing and spending as much money and hope your problems magically vanish. Shockingly, this does not usually work, but they continue to try to make countries try it by offering them really cheap loans if they will. Note that they also usually ask countries to agree to free trade treaties that hugely benefit the rich countries that fund the IMF. They are not good guys in my book, and most countries that have accepted their money and agreed to their terms would agree with me.
“C” makes a common mistake of confusing debt with evil. It’s an easy mistake to make, because most individual people do anything to avoid debt except to pay for a few socially acceptable things like college and a house. Yoga is a good guy because he won’t even borrow money to go to school, how cool is that! But as I tried to show in my example, what’s good for one guy isn’t good for the economy as a whole. Someone has to borrow to create new wealth, the trick is making sure that the borrowers pick their investments wisely. I’m not exaggerating when I say that “C”‘s conception of debt is religious. At the end of the show there’s literally a higher power that controls all the financial districts and talks about right and wrong. In real life, finance is not a story where the good guys win and everyone gets what they deserve. It’s just people trying to work out what the prices of time and risk are, and not always getting them right.
That’s the fiscal part, but actually the monetary angle is even scarier. “C” seems to end with the financial district having been eliminated and Japan protected by devaluing the Yen and replacing it with the dollar. Sounds cool, right? People trust dollars! Nothing can go wrong with debt denominated in a currency people trust, because they know that you can’t try to change the value of the currency so that you owe less. Let’s name some countries that denominate their debt in a different currency. I’ll go first: Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain. Another thing these countries have in common is that they’re all teetering on the brink of collapse because they borrowed money in Euros, and the rich EU countries don’t want to devalue them.
I’ll explain, roughly, why: let’s say Japan decided to switch to the U.S. Dollar as it’s currency, and borrow money in dollars instead of Yen. When the dollar becomes stronger against, say, the euro, European consumers will have to pay more to buy Japanese goods, so instead they start buying from China. Japanese workers are laid off because no one can afford the stuff they make, and Japan begs the U.S. to sell dollars to lower their value. But the U.S. government is hugely influenced by the financial sector, which makes its money on the strength of the dollar. A strong dollar means they can buy up tons of foreign stocks on the cheap. They aren’t interested. Japanese people in this example (and Portuguese, Irishmen, Greeks, and Spaniards in real life) choke on debt they can’t do anything about, because a government they didn’t elect doesn’t want to endanger a bunch of banks’ profits. I’m not sure “C” understands exactly what it’s asking for when it presents a Japan on the dollar as a good thing.
“C”‘s gripes aren’t entirely unfounded. Finance is a dangerous game, and filled with people looking to make money for nothing. That’s how the real life Japan traded away a decade of its future. Like a lot of Asian countries, Japan had a very high savings rate. During the 80s, Japanese banks began to invest in riskier and riskier prospects, and hugely inflated the value of certain assets, seeking higher returns. It took ten years or more to clean up the mess that followed when the market collapsed, during which Japan simply stopped growing. This created the generational conflict that is pretty clear in “C”, first between Mikuni and his father, then between Yoga and Mikuni. Men of the elder Mikuni’s age were the ones who built up the massive Japanese economy, and they demanded strict focus on continuing to build and maintain their networks. Hence the sacrifice of Mikuni’s sister. Mikuni’s generation probably represents the spendthrifts, the ones who created the lost decade by trying to turn Japan’s savings into quick gains. And Yoga’s is the new generation, who study and work as hard as their parents did but graduate into an economy with many fewer “lifetime” jobs like the ones that Japanese salarymen used to take, and more part-time work and unemployment. They have a reason to feel like someone traded away their future, because in a way someone did. I don’t agree with “C”‘s perscription, but I do agree with its diagnosis: a sick financial system robbed millions of people of the good lives they should have had.
A few more random thoughts before closing: notice the obsession with fertility. Whenever the evil magic of the financial district takes something away from reality, it starts with the kids. And when Yoga fixes everything by believing in the heart of the cards, he ends up in a park filled with shouting children. Yoga’s professor also tells the girl he has a crush in to have all the babies she wants, and the future that he puts up for collateral turns out to be his own children. Japan’s birth rate is super, super low, the country’s population has actually shrunk for several years in the past. This scares a lot of people, because who wants to live in a country full of old people? Especially if you’re one of them and there are no young folks to run your nursing home and listen to your great interesting stories. It’s also kind of sad, for some people, to think that your country isn’t going to get any bigger, will probably never have another empire or spread across the world. Honestly though, if anything low birth rates are often the hallmark of wealth. People just don’t see the need to have a ton of kids when they have other stuff to do with their time. Having tons of babies is for countries where the economy is primarily based on sending those kids out to work in the fields when they turn twelve. Once most people live and work in the cities they have kids because they want someone to love, and typically don’t require more than one or two.
What exactly are the assets, anyway? Yoga’s relationship with his is really creepy to me. In real life a financial asset is usually a chunk of a currency or good that you expect to go up in price, or part of a company or government. They do not typically ask you to kiss them, or float around inside of your pokeball/special financial district card, curled in the fetal position. Meanwhile, Mikuni’s asset, Q, turns out to be his dead sister. It would be even less OK to kiss her like Yoga does Mysu. And the whole asset fighting system was weird. It makes finance seem like a zero-sum game, which it isn’t supposed to be. Exchanges should happen because both sides want what the other has, so they’re both better off afterwards. The giant coin in the financial district appears to be broadcasting a passage from Adam Smith the first few times we see it. The full quote is long and boring, but it relates to how personal self-interest in exchange leads to both parties being better off, even though neither was intentionally acting on behalf of the other. But someone’s always worse off after a “deal” in the financial district. In one case, both parties seem to suffer grave injury. It’s weird to find myself defending finance; my prescription for the current system involves firing squads, but I don’t think borrowing and loaning money is inherently a bad thing.
That pretty well wraps it up. “C” was certainly watchable, and interesting, but I would take it all with a grain of salt. Feel free as always to share your thoughts on any of this in the comments. I’ll leave you with the ever-quotable John Maynard Keynes talking about the kind of thinking that seems to inform “C”‘s presentation of economics:
The celebrated optimism of traditional economic theory, which has led to economists being looked upon as Candides, who, having left this world for the cultivation of their gardens, teach that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds provided we will let well alone, is also to be traced, I think, to their having neglected to take account of the drag on prosperity which can be exercised by an insufficiency of effective demand. For there would obviously be a natural tendency towards the optimum employment of resources in a Society which was functioning after the manner of the classical postulates. It may well be that the classical theory represents the way in which we should like our Economy to behave. But to assume that it actually does so is to assume our difficulties away.
BONUS EDIT: hat tip to A Day Without Me for linking this gem for us No. 6 fans (original):