I don’t hate this show. I’m not even going to say I dislike it. Is it a bad show? I’m not sure what that even means anymore (more on that later). Personally, Valvrave the Liberator was at least entertaining in all its “animeness,” and this is why I’m going to vomit over three thousand words on only god knows what.
Japanese childishness: Just sing your troubles away
That’s what the first six episodes of Valvrave taught me. Might the (AR)US senator be lying to you? Sing him a song. Trapped in a high school and isolated from the rest of your family (and not to mention your nation as well)? Send them a song over the internet! Don’t forget to paint a giant anime girl in a naked apron to represent your school to the world at large. Bullied in your childhood? Become famous and sing a song as an idol! One can’t deny the ever-growing sense of cynicism and incredulity as one watches Valvrave, but honestly, how would such an escape even be possible when everything about the plot is so goddamn childish? I mean, surely, only a child would think a pretty song and dance could solve everything, right? Surely, a “neutral” nation’s only defense wouldn’t be a giant mecha with a killer OS personified as a barely pubescent girl dressed in the most anime-as-fuck of an outfit. I mean, to take such a thing seriously, one would have to entertain the idea that JIOR’s brightest minds created an incomparable war machine then decided to program and animate an anime girl to operate said war machine. Nobody could be that childish, right?
But what else could I possibly have predicted from a story in which a bunch of high school students are unexpectedly — perhaps not so unexpectedly — cut off from any sort of adult supervision (save for two teachers who may as well be children themselves). But despite this, their impromptu, makeshift “society” has yet to show any signs of devolving into some twisted nihon version of Lord of the Flies. No, that happened in Guilty Crown. It would be passé for it to happen here! Instead, we’ll have spontaneous wet t-shirt contests instead. But that in itself is not quite childish enough. Although teenagers the world over are often known for their raging hormones, not at this unsupervised school full of thin, sexy schoolgirls — sexy schoolgirls who sometimes don’t even wear panties, I might add. Is Valvrave self-aware? Does the anime recognize the absurd, patently ridiculous childishness of its own narrative? At one point, a foreign (coughAmericancough) soldier tries to take control of Valrave (the mecha this time). Of course, the mecha (or, should I say, the anime babe haunting the mecha) murders him, but that’s beside the point. Rather, what’s more important is the soldier’s reaction to the existence of the machine’s OS: “Good one, JIOR. They even put a bimbo on the dashboard.”
So from there, one can’t help but also (dis)regard Valvrave’s geopolitical musings as equally childish. Ah yes, poor JIOR, the neutral (yet powerful in its own right!) nation that only wants to “herald peace” is suddenly besieged upon by foreign interests. In the left corner of the ring, we have the belligerent, militaristic Dorssia! Regardless, these (strangely pale-skinned) evildoers want nothing but to usurp our virgin soil and steal our anime-powered technology. And in the right corner, we have the duplicitous, two-faced (AR)US! Oh, their sweet-tongued senators (armed with dick pics) will ply you silly with reassurances of a mutually beneficial alliance, but it’s oh-so-obvious that (AR)US seeks only to exploit our poor “neutral” nation of JIOR (and also steal our anime-powered technology). “Baby, please, just let me stick the tip of my warship in your waters,” then pretty soon, it’s naval bases upon naval bases (typical men!). Oh yeah, (AR)US is known for throwing its weight around as the police of the world. Subtle, right? Of course not; children are hardly subtle, and it should be no surprise that Valvrave’s geopolitical message sounds like some kawaii-afied version of a right-wing nutcase. Oh, you know the type; the ones likely to clamor and holler in the middle of university grounds about Japan’s need to erect a standing army in order to protect its interest and independence in this increasingly hostile world in which China continues to threaten the US both militaristically but, more importantly, economically. Oh wait, those warhawks aren’t on university grounds; they’re in the Diet. Whoops.
Anyway, what is all this childishness talk really amounting to? Yeah, yeah, we get it. The anime’s childish and silly, but so what? What’s the grand sociological point that I’m painfully attempting to belabor here? Well, I’m reminded of an argument put forth by the famous contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami:
Murakami argued that the retreat of Japanese art from the adult world into an infantile, “superflat” universe was due to Japan’s political emasculation by the United States and other Western powers following World War II. Superflat, a term coined by Murakami, refers to the flattened spaces in Japanese traditional art, graphic art, manga, anime, and pop art, and by extension to the chronic, empty consumerism of contemporary Japanese culture. With economic growth now more a distraction than a compensation for Japan’s wartime devastation, the culture that MacArthur and other Westerners had envisioned as “juvenile” had mutated into a passive-aggressive playground periodically pierced by incontinent shrieks of impotence. The Little Boy had attained unimaginable riches, but at the cost of retarding his social growth.
Hm, indeed. We know relatively nothing about JIOR. We simply know that other political bodies want what JIOR’s got, and they want it bad. But why? Why must the outside world threaten JIOR’s sovereignty? What does this isolated nation even possess? A fucking robot? Surely, you jest! Let’s revisit the question: why must the outside world threaten Japan-… I mean, JIOR-… ah fuck it, we all know it’s Japan. Y’see, Japan was, according to General Douglas MacArthur, a very bad boy following the Second World War. It had done a lot of very bad things like enslaving Korean women and the Rape of Nanking, but more importantly — perhaps most importantly in MacArthur’s eyes –, Japan had dared to bomb Pearl Harbor. See? Bad boy. But with a little discipline, every misbehaving child can shape up and become a strapping young lad: Japan went from a GNP of $14 billion in 1951 to a whooping $1.04 trillion in 1980. Yes, for the most part, Japan had buckled down thanks to the long, dominant rule of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, a rule that had long prioritized economic growth over social and legal reform. After all, in a multicultural world, you exert global influence economically, not with your mamby-pamby social reforms like the liberation of the sexes and hippy shit like that.
Rampant economic growth isn’t without its downsides. It turns out those hippy shit can sometimes matter. For example, family-centric Asian cultures don’t just take instantly to rapid urbanization: “…sprawling growth of the new megacity of Tokyo progressed hand in hand with the depopulation of the countryside, leading to a breakdown of the extensive family that left many Japanese feeling isolated and cast adrift. The long hours and pressures of a hierarchical workplace exacerbated these feelings, and a superficial spirit of optimism could not allay the fear that something terrible was about to happen.” Is that what we’re currently watching? Are the students singing and dancing their way into an impending catastrophe? I’ve asked this before, but it bears repeating: is the anime that self-aware? But before we can even answer that question, which we surely can’t — probably not until the series is complete, anyway — at this point in time, we should revisit our more pertinent question: why must the outside world threaten Japan? Could these fears serve as a distraction, fervorously drummed up in an attempt to conceal the gaping holes within Japan’s own society that it refuses to address — gaping holes that can no longer be ignored now that the economic bubble had burst?
I mean, put yourself in the shoes of those who had been promised everlasting prosperity. Yeah, just put aside your social and legal concerns (those hippy shit) for now… for the sake of the State. If we just all do this together — and by together, I mean a man in the workplace and a woman at home –, we’ll have all the money in the world to sate our commercial appetites. Well, where’s the fucking money now? For example, imagine how many women (knowingly or unknowingly) gave up their careers and dreams in order to be the ideal housewife just for the salaryman husband to find himself laid off from the company he had been so unquestioningly and pathetically loyal to? What did these women sacrifice their lives for? In other industrialized, first world nations, it has become readily apparent that the binary structure of a working man and the housewife behind him won’t always suffice. Women are working more than ever before and it’s not just for the family’s sake; it’s liberating (wage slavery is a whole ‘nother issue that I won’t get into now). Yet somehow, it feels as though Japan, as a state, continues to resist. Faced with the reality that Japanese women just don’t want to be mothers as much anymore, the government’s recent proposed solution is to — have you heard this? — extend maternity leave up to three freakin’ years. Yeah, okay, that makes sense. In a recession where both sexes find themselves needing to work in order to keep the family or just themselves afloat, let’s ask one half of the workforce to take three years off. I’m sure those companies, ever-so-quick to fire the salaryman or stick him in dead-end positions until he is forced to quit (Tokyo Sonata goes into this beautifully), will take so kindly to the fairer sex just taking three years off.
And what about the men! Yes, what about them? When your entire worth — the definition of your masculinity — hinges upon the idea that you are the sole provider for your family, which often includes not just your wife and kids but your elderly parents as well, it’s a little emasculating to be, well, laid off. It doesn’t help that your wife now has to work. No, I’m not saying that the women of Japan never had to work in the past; that would be a stupid thing to say. Still, it’s quite a leap from a salaryman and, say, a part-time working mom to a former salaryman on a perpetual job search and a mother who must now depend on her in-laws to watch the kids all day. As such, the neighbors are gossiping, y’know. You can’t just tell the guy to suck it up… well maybe you can, but it won’t deprogram decades of ingrained values, values which themselves are derived from hundreds if not thousands of years of cultural tradition. Is this why some men will turn to roricon, the idea of girls so prepubescent that you simply can’t depend upon her, but she has to depend upon you? Alas, that’s a subject for another post.
Okay, I’ve gone so far off-topic now that the last couple of paragraphs are only tangentially related to Valvrave at best. So we return to the question that started off this whole rant, and I thus submit a speculative answer: this one-dimensional view (it really may as well be a caricature) of JIOR as a victim of outside interests serves only to distract us from the real issue, which is that we don’t know squat about JIOR itself. What is JIOR? What is its society like? How did it really come to be? What are its internal problems (surely, it must have some)? As an outsider, we just don’t know. We can’t know. We are instead overwhelmed by this conflict brewing between JIOR and its aggressors, Dorssia and (AR)US. Now see yourself as a Japanese youth. You are surrounded by the glitz and glamour of Tokyo, but the recession continues to be all too real. Years and years within the strict examination system has failed to yield the economic prosperity that you have been promised. How did this current state of Japan come to be? What won’t your teachers teach you? Why are people your age so disillusioned and dissatisfied with society? Why are some of your friends withdrawing from the social contract and becoming shut-ins? Why now is the threat of your neighbors and the overbearing presence of the US military such an important topic?
Is Valvrave self-aware? Who knows? Plus, does it really matter? It’s all part of the same narrative regardless of its creators’ intentions.
The Disneyland of mecha shows
I suspect most people who have seen Valvrave can’t help but compare it to Guilty Crown (although it isn’t technically a mecha anime, but its heart and soul are in the right places). Don’t forget, however, that when we watched Guilty Crown, we couldn’t help comparing it to Code Geass. Then when we watched Code Geass, we blah blah blah so on and so forth. This happens all too often in anime, and it isn’t necessarily the viewers’ fault (we aren’t completely blameless though) that we are often unable to divorce current genre shows from their predecessors. After all, anime is notoriously proud of its self-referential nature. So much so that when we watch the first episode of any mecha show like Valvrave, it just feels all too familiar. And from here, the cries of derivative and unoriginality come pouring in from all corners. But no, that’s not even the biggest crime. Perhaps unoriginality can be pardoned, but (according to some people) not unending stupidity! And goddamn, Valvrave is stupid. It is so confoundingly stupid. So it must be bad, people say. Why? Because a lack of logic is bad? Because a lack of internal consistency is bad? Aha, what puerile tripe then! Back in my day, mecha shows at least had the decency to be… logical?
Really? Eva? Gurren Lagann? These are the pillars of logic and “un”stupidity that Valvrave falls woefully short of? After three years of blogging primarily about anime, I don’t know what good or bad really is or means anymore, but I do know what I enjoy. And when Valvrave revels in its stupidity — when it isn’t trying to take itself too seriously — I enjoy it. Does it mean it’s “so bad that it’s good?” Who fucking cares? I just don’t know what it means anymore to say that a show like Valvrave is so stupid that it’s “bad.” Does it mean you have to hurr hurr turn off your brain? Of course not, and certainly, anyone who refuses to turn off his or her brain would quickly realize that even knowledge can be gleaned from stupidity, of which Valvrave contains plenty of. I certainly know, however, that Valvrave is so disgustingly similar to its predecessors, similar to the point that any mecha anime fan could succinctly summarize the events of the first episode without even watching it, that to even call Valvrave bad, you must certainly have to call every show that it dares to ape equally bad. Well, perhaps not equally, but some measure of criticism must, by some associative property, find their way to the ghosts of mecha past.
Almost every roller coaster ride I’ve ever come across is essentially the same. There are some loop d’loops and dips and turns, but at the end of the day, you’re strapped into a cart that goes around in a finite loop till you or the cart breaks down. Maybe someone will come along and completely revolutionize the roller coaster, but so far, newer iterations has simply meant bigger loops, faster dips, and sharper turns. And why would we necessarily want the roller coaster to change anyway? The same ol’ Space Mountain is still fun as shit and it doesn’t even have loops! This feels like the trap that a lot of anime shows tend to find themselves in. I grew up loving the shit outta show X and show Y. I’m thus going to write my own story one day and it’ll be the same as those shows… but with bigger loops, faster dips, and sharper turns. But if you can recognize my inspiration, then you’re just as big an anime fan as me. As such, we are in our own special club! So when I watch a derivative anime like Valvrave, yeah it’s stupid as all hell, and sure, it’s logically inconsistent, but it’s just the same ol’ conventions done crazier, bigger, louder, and with glossier fanservice than ever before. And is Valvrave good on some sort of filmic grounds qua anime? No. But does it crack me up in some cheesy, kitschy way that only a hyperreal simulacrum can be? Yeah.
Disneyland isn’t authentic. According to Baudrillard, it is bald-facedly inauthentic: “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real.” Valvrave isn’t so insidious as to trick us into believing in mistaking the “unrealness” of mecha anime as Real (with a capital ‘r’), whatever that even means, but the general idea applies. No, I’m not saying that the creators of Valvrave knowingly constructed a clever simulacrum of a mecha anime. Whatever their intentions, I don’t really care. What matters instead is what is, and Valvrave is so unerringly similar to its predecessors that it can’t help but legitimize them in some roundabout way, intentional or not. Fin, one of the blog’s longtime inactive contributors, can’t help but defend Gurren Lagann in her attempts to criticize Valvrave. The funny thing is that she doesn’t even like Gurren Lagann! Hey, don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate Gurren Lagann. If you put a gun to my head, I would even say it’s one of the better mecha shows (but again, I don’t know what good or bad even means anymore so take that with a grain of salt). But it simply strikes me as funny to advance an argument that there is some value in Gurren Lagann’s “logic,” or the logic of any supposedly superior mecha anime, that is somehow absent from Valvrave when the latter is so unerringly similar to its predecessors that you could predict its plot developments beat-by-beat. Oh, the main character will chicken out of his love confession? You don’t say!
Valvrave seem so much like an absurd simulacrum of mecha anime that when we watch it, we like to think we know so much, that the previous shows we adored or, in Fin’s case, not even adored are so much more than what is portrayed on the screen before us. Every new season, we proclaim a new king of shit: “These new shows… they’re just so bad! Not like what I used to watch!… even though they just copy each other.” And that’s what I mean. To mock Valvrave for coming so close to the genre it so lovingly apes, to the point of it becoming seemingly hyperreal, any criticism must also be leveled at the genre itself. We are hoodwinked into thinking that our favorite shows from the past are somehow not absurd, somehow not ridiculously childish too in their own ways: from the tortured (to put it mildly) religious metaphors in Eva to Gundam 00’s hilarious implementation of the Rumsfeld Doctrine. What do we fucking expect though from a medium so absorbed and enamored by its own self-referentiality? Instead of bashing Valvrave by continually holding up high the shows of the past, shouldn’t we finally open our eyes to how nostalgia for the good ol’ days is keeping these stories on rails, like a roller coaster with just bigger loops? And thus the absurdity simply builds upon itself. After all, Valvrave isn’t the first stupid mecha anime and it won’t be the last.