I just wanted to watch a nice anime about people encountering gigantic fruit.
At least, that's how I was first exposed to ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept., an anime series ostensibly about an inspector investigating a possible conspiracy to overthrow the government.
When ACCA first popped up on my social media feeds, the portrayal of fruit, enormous and appetizing, caught my eye, and food-focused anime is one of my favorite genres. Intrigued, I fired up my Roku, clicked on the Crunchyroll app, and settled in to watch the first episode of ACCA.
I struggled through that first episode, not because the plot was boring (it wasn't) or because the characters were bland (they were actually quite charming.) My shallow hang-up was with uniforms. Each government worker was clad in a black outfit: stylish and sharp with a hint of red near the shoulders — and echoing an SS uniform. This detail, seemingly superfluous, yanked me right out of my suspension of disbelief and my enjoyment of the anime. The setting is clearly not WWII-era Germany, the characters aren't portrayed as evil, and yet the imagery turned my stomach.
It dawned on me that I wouldn't feel comfortable seeing people cosplay as these characters, and I deleted the series from my watchlist.
Was my reaction petty? Should I have just powered through the series even if the uniforms offended me? Other anime fans were able to watch this without getting upset, so why couldn't I? Perhaps most importantly, why do a considerable number of anime series have Nazi expys?
What is up with anime and fascism anyway?
One of the most popular anime series in recent years, Attack on Titan, takes place within a walled city whose citizens are dominated by a militaristic government. The main character, Eren Jaeger, joins the elite army corps tasked with the destruction of gigantic, ravenous, human-like creatures called Titans. The government controls every aspect of life within the city and spreads propaganda praising the military. Eren, seeking vengeance for losing his mother to the Titans, completely buys into the corps' "kill 'em all" rhetoric. Attack on Titan takes place in a fascist state.
Fullmetal Alchemist, one of the most beloved anime series of all time, is set in Amestris, a vaguely Germany-esque nation with, you guessed it, a militaristic government. To add to the fun, Amestris' leader is even called Fuhrer Bradley. This connection is made more overt in the Fullmetal Alchemist movie, Conquerer of Shambala, where the plot reveals that Amestris is an alternate reality Germany. Even Hitler makes an appearance, in full-on anime form.
The long-running series Mobile Suit Gundam, known for constantly reinventing itself since the late 1970s, almost always features an antagonistic sovereign state based on a jingoistic, WWII-era Germany. Legend of the Galactic Heroes, a Japanese novel series adapted into multiple anime shows, also contains a similar government called the Galactic Empire. Hetalia: Axis Powers portrays a group of anthropomorphized countries with a sympathetic, long-suffering Germany as the main character.
It's bad enough when these blond-haired, blue-eyed, Nordic-featured characters are paraded about. It's even worse when these themes are packaged alongside overly-cute "moe" girls. Girls und Panzer is one of my personal favorite anime series. It depicts an alternate world where simulated tank warfare is a treasured sport for young women, and high school girls participate in a multi-national competition to destroy each other in sham combat. It subverts the idea of a masculine military, but the rag-tag high school group, the one you're supposed to root for, uses a Panzer IV, a WWII-era German armored tank. These tanks used to trundle across the fields of Europe vanquishing everything in their paths, and the dissonance between the tank blowing stuff up while being piloted by a group of cute girls is at once delightfully empowering and oddly disturbing. I still enjoy the heck out of it, because the female friendships resonate with me, as does the blowing stuff up.
Strike Witches and Kantai Collection also demonstrate this bizarre dissonance between cute and disturbing. Female characters who represent planes and battleships are plunged into alternate reality WWII battles where Japan rewrites history and becomes more victorious than the country was in real life.
These cute girls are at the reins of these powerful weapons of war, but their agenda focuses on friendship and fair play, not hate. But does that lack of evil forgive all the disturbing details?
Is this issue solely in the realm of military anime? Nope. The culinary competition anime Food Wars has a storyline featuring an elitist group of chefs who fear contamination of the cooking world by others who don't ascribe to traditional techniques. Their agenda involves teaching all aspiring cooks to make the exact same thing the exact same way, without wiggle room for innovation. Yes, Food Wars depicts fascist foodies.
There has to be something within the Japanese cultural landscape which lends itself to these narratives constantly popping up in its media. To answer this, it's important to focus on how Japan portrays itself in its own media narratives.
On the surface, Japan seems to adore its own history. Samurai dramas are perennially popular, but there's one era which has never really received much attention: WWII. The Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies does depict the horrors of post-war Tokyo in graphic detail, but Japan still has a tremendously difficult time accepting its role in conflicts from the 1930s and 1940s. The systemic ignoring of Japan's occupation of China and the denial of the existence of comfort women are clear examples of the country's inability to take responsibility for its troubled past. The atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese military of that era are barely acknowledged, which leads to a fascination with that era. And since Japan struggles with its own history as an imperialist state, the interest falls instead on Nazi Germany and its iconography.
Japan, unfortunately, is still a very xenophobic nation and it has a difficult time accepting immigrants even if it sorely needs them. The country struggles to maintain a workforce with a dwindling population. More women are focusing on their careers instead of on family, which will eventually result in no new workers to replace the retiring ones. The country needs immigrants, which could cause resentment among Japanese citizens. This conservative, reactionary environment is ripe for creating and supporting media which fears foreigners, supports an all-reaching, totalitarian government, and celebrates the military. There's an eagerness towards nostalgia, towards past glories, and towards reminiscing about Japan as an all-powerful empire.
Japanese society elevates and praises women who are submissive, delicate, and willing to acquiesce to men in all things. It's no wonder that some alt-righters gravitate towards "moe" girls as avatars, to depict the sort of girl they want instead of those uppity feminists. Anime girls don't talk back, after all, and many "moe" characters aren't shown in relationships unless the show is specifically a romance anime, freeing them for waifu status. Outside of their cute personalities and their likes and dislikes, "moe" girls are considered a blank slate ready for love...and trolly Nazi memes. Perhaps it's the dissonance that appeals the most. The idea that such big-eyed, soft-featured characters could harbor such hateful, angry beliefs is hand-crafted for the internet, where irony goes to die.
While acknowledging that lots of anime can appeal to fascists, what can be done to make sure that these shows aren't idealizing it? Most of the shows I mentioned actually depict the main characters fighting against those militaristic regimes. Attack on Titan's Eren and his friends are attempting to uncover a military conspiracy involving the Titans. Fullmetal Alchemist reveals how a botched military invasion of a neighboring country (populated with brown-skinned people who have a different religion than the white folks) shows government corruption. Fascism in anime becomes a problem when fans glorify and emulate these clearly evil characters. After all, there are tons of stormtrooper cosplayers among Star Wars fans, but do any of them actually believe that the Empire was right?
Maybe that's not the greatest example.
So, is there any need for the ACCA characters to be in those uniforms? No, the uniforms don't seem to be involved in any plot points. But why have it at all? Why even attempt to evoke it when the imagery might (as it did with me) conjure up negative connotations? It only seemed as if the manga creator just liked the aesthetic, and perhaps, like in those memes, there's a fun sense of irony in the dissonance between sympathetic characters and SS-esque uniforms.
But irony, in this current political climate, is dead, and such fascist ideas should still be called out because there's an extremely fine line between a troll and a true believer. Ironic racism is still racism; ironic fascism is still fascism.
Will I return to ACCA? Probably not. Will I continue to watch anime? Of course. Art is as much about interpretation as it is about authorial intent, and if I'm upset that something echoes an era or a political belief I find troubling, I can make a choice to not watch it. Anime has so many sub-genres that it's entirely possible to watch anime without a hint of fascist ideas, and fans should still call out problematic things when we see them. It's the only way to make sure the media we consume is diverse and inclusive.
As the main character of Porco Rosso once said: