Empires in anime are a fairly common phenomenon, especially in science fiction series. Looking at Japan’s history with being an empire and encountering others, here’s a rather too long post about how I see history perhaps influencing anime in the portrayal of different kinds of empires. This editorial is reconstructed from the main ideas of a paper I wrote during undergrad but have since lost everything but the images from, so bear with it if it’s not as polished as it was in its original form. It’s also been cut down heavily to save space, but it’s still a pretty long post. Since it’s been heavily cut, if you’re interested in the full version just contact me and I can send it to you.
I. Japanese Historical Experiences with Empires
Japan entered the international scene at the height of the ‘golden age of empires’, after the country opened at the prompting of the Americans in the late 19th century. The Meiji Restoration which soon followed created the political change necessary to begin looking outward into the wider world. At this point in history the Japanese leadership saw two main things. One, Japan was far less advanced than the imperial powers in terms of technology and political theory. And second, they looked to their neighboring countries and saw Western colonies and encroachment. A strong state and industrialization were seen as the means to both defending Japan from foreign interference and as the path to prosperity. Following a Prussian model of a highly centralized state with the individual subservient to its will, and combined with military inspiration from the fellow island nation of Britain’s command of the seas, Japan rapidly industrialized and developed. At first seeking to secure itself against the other colonial powers, it later joined with them to make territorial gains in Asia as well as competed with them in a realist sense and on an ideological level where Japan viewed itself as a ‘protector’ of Asian peoples against the Western powers. This ideology was sincerely believed by some, and used by the less sincere to gain their support for imperial expansionism.
II. British-styled Empires in Anime
Given that the British Empire was one of the most threatening empires to Japan as it first opened to the outside world, it is not surprising then that British-styled empires in anime are often portrayed as conquering, corrupt, and ‘the bad guys.’ However, possibly due to the British Empire’s preeminence during most of the imperial age, these empires are also often shown as the most refined and sophisticated. The members of the empire may be conquerors or ruthless, but the imperial citizens live in fabulous estates, host grand ballroom gatherings, practice chivalry, and live the romanticized aristocratic lifestyle that is often associated in both Japan and the West with the golden age of empires. The setting of Hakushaku to Yousei, for example, while not overly concerned with Victorian politics and international relations, still sets up the ideal vision of Imperial Britain at its height, technologically advanced, elegant, and cultured. The Read or Die OVA features an alternate timeline where the British Empire exists to the modern day, and while adding the more modern touches to the concept, it is notable the protagonists work for a British Empire and not the modern nation-state. In R.O.D. the TV the British Empire becomes an antagonist to the main characters, changing form from cool and elegant force for good to the more common antagonistic form.
Case Study: Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion – The Holy Britannian Empire
The invasion of Japan by the Holy Britannian Empire showing Britannian holdings and bases.
The premise of Code Geass is that, in an alternate reality, Great Britain remained an absolute monarchy and also never lost its colonies in North America, expanding further into at least 18 ‘Areas’ including Japan via the power of its Knightmare Frame mecha. However one day a 17 year old student become caught in a recovery attempt by Britannian forces and receives an experimental power to force others to obey his orders. This boy, Lelouch, is an illegitimate son of the current Emperor and blames his mother’s murder on him. Thus he begins to utilize this power to realize his plans of destroying the entire empire, uniting various factions of the as yet unsuccessful Japanese insurgency.
The Holy Britannian Empire represents a common portrayal of the British influenced empire in anime. It is an expansionist empire that is also in competition with other large nations, the EEC (presumably mainland Europe) and the Chinese Federation. The Britannian Empire is also discriminatory and aristocratic. Elevens, the new name for the Japanese, are discriminated against and most live outside the settlement areas, in places like the Shinjuku Ghetto. Rule by the emperor is absolute, and positions are often based on birth. Suzaku Kururugi, the son of the last prime minister of Japan, is a gifted Knightmare test pilot and Honored Britannian, but still faces discrimination. While Suzaku attempts to prove his worth and reform the system from within, his long time friend Lelouch takes on the hidden identity of Zero with the goal of bringing down the empire through “the path of carnage.” He lives in the dormitory of his private academy, a huge, mansion like building. Complete with rose garden and landscaping reminiscent of a British estate, the academy is the bright side of Britannian rule. A sense of nobility also comes across in the Britannian military, as seen in the uniforms and titles of its members. Knightmare pilots are referred to as 騎士 (‘kishi’), or knights, and a common acknowledgement of orders is “Yes, My Lord” or “Yes, Your Highness” especially when a member of the royal family is commanding in the field.
III. German-styled Empires
German-styled empires in anime are often shown with a wider degree of variance between good and bad guys, reflecting two major perceptions of Germany from the 19th to mid 20th centuries. And there is as well a third strand relating to Germany’s and Japan’s shared place as defeated nations of WWII, as I will address at the end of this section. German-styled empires modeled after the Prussian and pre-Nazi German states are more often shown as strong, militaristic, but enlightened empires that protagonists often work with or alongside. Fullmetal Alchemist for example has a very Prussian state, and although problems develop involving its leadership and some of its past actions, the perception is that it is not on balance a negative force. The Reich/Empire in Legend of the Galactic Heroes also uses this model, to beautifully illustrate one of the main themes of the series, the advantages and disadvantages of dictatorship vs. imperfect, but rule-of-law oriented democracy. Given that Japan used this model to successfully industrialize, it is not surprising that it is often viewed favorably.
The other concept often used for a German-styled empire is based on elements of WWII Germany’s Nazi regime and is obviously an antagonistic state. Since they are so, at most we get protagonists who serve them out of loyalty to homeland, because they’re just caught in the middle or drafted, or because knowledge of the terrible actions committed are hidden from them. From this model though, we can find some cases of ‘sympathy for the devil’ or even downright historical revisionism. And this latter phenomenon is somewhat troubling, as it seems to be on the same wavelength as some of the historical revisionism seen in the fringe right-wing of modern Japanese politics and even among some otaku.
Case Study: Mobile Suit Gundam (U.C. 0079 through 0083) – The Principality of Zeon.
Left: Gihren Zabi giving his famous speech. Right: Oliver May striking a heroic pose at the end of the revisionist MS Igloo: Apocalypse 0079.
In that classic of anime, Mobile Suit Gundam, humans have expanded from an overcrowded Earth to orbiting space colonies. A peaceful independence movement led by Zeon Zum Daikun emerges in the colonies, but after his assassination by the Zabi family they seize power and declare the authoritarian Principality of Zeon independent. Utilizing their newly developed mobile suits, Zeon uses poison gas against several Earth-loyal and neutral colonies, dropping one dead colony on the Earth as a weapon. The Earth Federation eventually turns the tide with its own mobile suits, and with the death of the Zabis Zeon surrenders at the end of UC 0079. Remnant forces, feeling betrayed by this surrender, persist and in 0083 use a stolen, nuclear-armed Gundam prototype to destroy a large portion of the EFSF fleet and drop another colony on the Earth before being wiped out.
Connecting with Japan’s past, we have a high-minded philosophy and political movement taken over by militarists using the same language to rally support. The surrender of Zeon when it was not utterly defeated could be seen as either Germany’s position after WWI or the feelings of some in Japan after WWII was ended by nuclear blasts and surrender instead of grueling, bloody invasion of the home islands. There are also some material influences from both this era in German history and some from Japan’s experiences. The Zeon weapons are drawn to look very much, or in some cases exactly like, WWII German weapons, as are uniforms, helmets, and symbols. The EFSF symbol looks very much like that of the Japanese naval infantry anchor symbol, EFSF rank tabs are the same as Imperial Japanese ones, and the standard color scheme of the RGM-79 mobile suit is somewhat reminiscent of that of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s naval infantry uniform (red chest section on the MS with lighter colors elsewhere, subdued reddish-brown vest/jacket for the infantry with khaki for the rest.) We also get from this franchise a bit of the historical revisionism of the sort seen by right-wing extremists in Japan with the first two MS Igloo series, Hidden One Year War and Apocalypse 0079. Revisionist Zeon propaganda, these OVA series show the Zeons fighting a hopeless yet noble, mostly defensive war against the cackling, merciless EFSF forces while acting shocked when they witness the colony drop and thereafter even the worst characters like Cuspen are redeemed as being at worst fanatics in defense of their homeland.
IV. Japanese-styled and Pseudo-Japanese Empires
This type of empire in anime seems somewhat less common, but it is still noteworthy. Japan’s rise to becoming a great power was an amazing achievement. In a short amount of time the country went from a small, feudal, insular country without modern technologies to a centralized state with modern industry, new laws, and a military on par in most respects with that of the Western powers. All this in comparison to what was happening elsewhere in Asia: colonization by Western powers, the splintering of China into various warlord regions, the Unequal Treaties, and territory trading among the great powers (which later included Japan as it took control of various holdings on the Asian mainland.) It is a tantalizing prospect to imagine what might have been if Japan had continued on its initial path and/or made different choices, and some series directly play with this scenario while others seem to take inspiration from it. Sakura Taisen is an example of the former, with the protagonists part of an elite imperial corps of soldiers, agents, and mecha pilots. Set in the 1920’s in an alternate timeline, we see an idea of what the Japanese Empire could have been. Although this does ignore the expansion that had already taken place at that time (Korea was annexed in 1910 for example), it is still an idealistic picture of Imperial Japan as a benevolent force in the world. Less clearly connected, but I believe still influenced by Japan’s history, is a sort of pseudo-Japanese-styled empire. I would define the characteristics of this type as having some or all of the following: new and/or advanced technology, a monarch with a central role or influence in policy, benevolent policies in general, and a disposition towards neutrality or only reluctantly taking sides. While I wouldn’t in all instances say this is a one-for-one comparison, I think this type of empire is influenced by the Japanese perception of an ideal empire that might have been. The Abh Empire in Crest of the Stars/Banner of the Stars would be an example of this.
Case study: Crest of the Stars/Banner of the Stars – The Abh Empire
The crest of the Abh Empire.
The Abh Empire in Crest of the Stars/Banner of the Stars is a bit different in that they aren’t exactly normal humans, though they do readily accept normal humans from vassal planets into their ranks if of important birth or political standing such as Jinto Lin. This empire is technologically advanced, tries to remain neutral, generally treats its subjects well, and has a strong role for its royal family. The three other spacefaring powers in CotS/BotS all make demands of the Abh Empire, though they clearly plan from the beginning to militarily make territorial gains at the Abh Empire’s expense. This can be viewed in two ways. The idea of ‘foreign pressure’ (外圧 ‘gaiatsu’) is very common in Japanese politics and popular perception to the present day, often used by politicians in relation to Japan’s post-WWII relations with America in particular, by saying that they have no choice due to pressure from their US ally. The argument is also made by some as to how Japan became involved in the Pacific War (WWII) against America, that it had no choice due to resource embargoes in retaliation over Japan’s invasion of China. The other way to read this is that the human powers, seeming either devious or clumsy (and whose clothes look rather Western whereas the Abh wear futuristic garb. And the ambassador from the United Mankind looked like Mikhail Gorbachev for crying out loud) are a way of presenting Japan’s feelings of being surrounded by other, older empires who were ethnically different from Japan. In the ideals of the early Japanese Empire, Japan was as strong as the Western empires but a benevolent protector of other Asian countries (a common propaganda phrase was “Asia for Asians”.). One of the ambassadors specifically refers to the Abh Empire as “the professed protectors of [the regions in dispute].” Perhaps these historical ideas have influenced in some ways the construction of the Abh Empire and its society.
V. Other Points of Interest and Conclusion
What of other empires, such as the Roman, Persian, Russian, Chinese, or others throughout history as models of fictional empires? Or an American Empire, if you want to get all Andrew Bacevich (though given the modern predominance of US power, this would take us into a more modern concept of empire than the traditional ones I’ve mostly discussed. Perhaps Union from Gundam 00 would fit this concept.) One could argue (and I would) that the East Europan Empire in Valkyria Chronicles is as much Imperial Russian as German both by geography and organization. We have a bit of a Chinese empire in Code Geass R2, but in the scope of the story it is rather insignificant.
In sum, anime is a product of its culture, as is all fiction. I hope that I have presented here the points of my argument that the portrayal of empires in anime is linked to Japan’s history with them and with being one, and that there are three predominant forms of portrayal. As this is not an academic paper I haven’t included citations (digging up all those old citations would have been much more work than I’m willing to do for fun), though I am drawing from various courses, readings, documentaries, and personal perceptions over the years in writing this. I welcome your own insights and interpretations on this topic (if you’ve managed to read this whole damn thing.)