Friday, January 27, 2006

FULL METAL ALCHEMIST: THE CONQUEROR OF SHAMBALA - IDEOLOGICALLY AMBIGUOUS

I'm a big fan of the anime series Full Metal Alchemist, and an even bigger fan of the manga by Arakawa Hiromu that the anime is based on. Thus, it was with great excitement that I started to watch the recently made movie, which is basically a sequel to the anime. However, my expectations were not quite met.

The film begins as the two alchemist brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric have been separated from each other – Alphonse is still in their old world, with no memories about what happened after he lost his body, while Edward is in the world 'on the other side', which is very similar to our own world in the 1930's. They are both trying to find a way back to each other again; Alphonse by pursuing alchemy, and Edward, finding that he cannot use alchemy in this other world, by studying rocket science.

Not only does the film seem to be made with a rather small budget – the animation is not exactly the best I've ever seen - but the script has some problems, as well.

Amidst the racism and xenophobia of the time, Edward helps out a Gypsy girl called Noa. The film clearly sympathises with her plight, but at the same time it is plagued by strange stereotypes.

Though they are from Germany, Noa and the other Gypsies seem to be highly influenced by Spanish Gypsy culture – they sing songs that have some kind of Spanish/Latino sound, and Noa dances something resembling flamenco. This 'Spanish' connection is a rather common stereotype when depicting "Gypsies". Here are two more examples of this from the collection of images of Gypsies in the media by Ian Hancock for his book The Pariah Syndrome.

Also, when Noa expresses the wish to have a country of her own where she wouldn't be persecuted, Edward is astonished and says something like "I thought it was your *pride* to always be on the move!", echoing another common stereotype. Read about this in the section "Anti-Gypsyism" in The Pariah Syndrome.

This film doesn't limit itself to stereotypes about Gypsies. There is also a sequence where an acquaintance of Edward, a Jewish film maker, speaks about Japan, and says that it's "a nation of only one tribe". I had severe difficulties trying to figure out whether his character was intentionally made to be misinformed, or whether the script really was communicating Japanese nationalist propaganda - because what he said is a damned lie.

At the very least one could remember the Ainu, Koreans and Burakumin (though the latter are a social, caste-like minority, not an ethnical one), but there are also smaller groups of different ethnicities that have been around in Japan at least 100 years, such as Jews and Russians. (Here is a general article about minorities in Japan.)

Then again, the film delivers a message that goes something like this: once you come to a foreign place/country/world, you can't stay indifferent to it. You have to take it into your heart like your own country. Edward won't let this new world down, and the people he has gotten to know and made friends with there, just because it's not his 'own' world. That's a sympathetic thought, especially if you read it from the perspective of emigrants who come to a new country. It's their country, as well - simply because they are there.

The Conqueror of Shambala is on one hand against Nazism and racism, and for friendship between different ethnicities and worlds. But on the other hand, it is not free from racist stereotypes and nationalist propaganda. It's not the best of movies, but it might be interesting as an example of how these subjects work in Japanese mass culture.

9 comments:

Ana said...

I haven't seen the movie, but the way you describe it, the comments about different peoples are not made by anyone claiming to know "the truth" (except the visual depiction of the gypsies, of course). The comments are made by different characters inhabiting their worlds, everyone of them influenced by their prejudices and limited outlook. So even though prejudices are reproduced, the critical viewer will be able to make up her own mind... or so I hope.
(btw, the above comment is horrible spam... take it away please...)

Tinet said...

Yes! I finally figured out how to remove spam comments ...

Anonymous said...

After watching this movie a million times, I'm just going to say this, generally, stereotypes have some truth to them. When Edward was speaking with "Mabusa" and he said that about Japan being of "one tribe," it's true. I just learned in my history class that in Japan, they pushed for the Facist way instead of the liberalism they were living after 1932. In their terms, they had to be one nation, which is what made them different from Italy. They had to be together and not separate by the daimyo and shogun so they could learn to stand up against the western civilizations. And even so, the Japanese are about the family and not the individual, so it would make sense to say they are "one tribe." Not to mention that the Japanese made the movie, so it's not like another race said that about the country. As for the song they sang at the beginning, that was truly the language of gypsies being used. It's an Indian language that I believe, is, otherwise lost. Now, as for their look...I'm afraid you have it wrong. They're not resembling anything of Hispanics, but everything of what they truly are, Indians. Sure, there are other "gypsies" in other countries, but that is what they are...just gypsies...nomads...wanders. The Roma are true gypsies who are originally from India.

Anonymous said...

For more proof, check this website out. http://www.geocities.com/~Patrin/homeland.htm

Tinet said...

Hello, anonymous!

Don't be embarrassed now. I don't know who you are, but from what you write here, it seems I probably know a lot more about Gypsies than you do. I'm one myself (well, just 1/8), and I have written academic papers about the history of Gypsies. I've read through a lot of the material on the Patrin web journal (the "proof" you provided) for my research. ;o)

(Or maybe you *should* be embarrassed, in case you belong to the thousands of people on the Internet these days, who never assume that they might perhaps have misunderstood something, and are not eager to ask questions and learn more, but rather jump to the conclusion that everyone else is more - or as - uninformed as they are, and hurry to point out that someone is "wrong", maybe providing some random URL they found on the first page of a quick Google search as "proof", and most certainly won't give away any more identity than 'anonymous'.)

Anyway, I wrote this post some years ago, and I guess I wasn't very elaborate in my argumentation, for which I apologise now, in afterthought, since it apparently could lead to misunderstandings ...

"As for the song they sang at the beginning, that was truly the language of gypsies being used. It's an Indian language that I believe, is, otherwise lost."
The Romany language is very much alive (in Europe). :o) There are magazines, book publishing and radio shows in Romany in many countries, and it is acknowledged as a 'minority language' in some countries, like Sweden. Gypsies in many parts of Europe speak it as their first language, and only those who are more assimilated have 'lost' it, partly because negative stereotyping and extreme segregation in most of Europe, sadly, make the Gypsy identity unfavourable if you want to 'succeed' in your life.

What I meant is that the music and dancing of the Gypsies in this film resembles the music and dancing traditional to Spanish Gypsies. See, Gypsies in different parts of Europe have some cultural differences, because they have been separated from each other for hundreds of years, and have been influenced in very different ways by the cultures they have come in contact with and by the policies of their countries of residence (being enslaved in Moldavia and Vallachia, assimilated by force in Austria-Hungary, deported and subject to pogroms in France, given relatively much freedom in the Ottoman empire, and so on). The ones in Finland (my tribe) are the only ones who wear the enormous velvet skirts, for example - a tradition that was established in the 19th century.
The song they sing in the film, regardless of language, has a Spanish-style *melody*. East and Central European Gypsy music sounds different. As I wrote in the post, it is a common stereotype to depict all Gypsies in Europe as 'typical' (or rather, *stereotypical*) Spanish Gypsies, wearing flamenco dresses, etc., and this stereotype also seems to be somewhat perpetuated in this film. Read the articles on "anti-Gypsyism" written by Ian Hancock that I linked to in the post - they are quite interesting. My theory is that the 'Spanish Gypsy' stereotype originally comes from popular depictions of Spanish Gypsies in works like "Carmen", which have inspired artists and authors all over Europe.

As for the thing about "one nation" and "one tribe" in Japan - it is a human construction. There is no objective truth to it. People can decide to be whatever they fancy. There were (and are) obvious political reasons for why the Japanese leadership would want to propagate this idea. The Italians could just as well have decided that they were 'one tribe', and ignored all the other 'tribes' that were on their territory, like the Japanese who propagated for that idea did (and still do). The Nazi idea about the 'Aryan race' followed the same principle - all tribes in Germany that weren't Germanic or otherwise acceptable within the 'Aryan' parameters should be removed.
It's a bit sad that this idea, while being essential to the era, is not at all questioned in this movie. (I realise now that I never answered to Ana's comment above - it is indeed not depicted as something this man only personally believes in, but it is depicted more like a 'universal' truth - at least so it seems to me. I am open to other interpretations if anyone is able to give an even halfway elaborate analysis of this aspect in the film.)

In any case, stereotypes are manmade, and there is only as much truth to them as you yourself are willing to believe. If there is some 'truth' to them, it is not an objective kind of truth (which doesn't exist, anyway), but there are circumstances within the system where they occur that explain why that might be true in a relatively large number of cases.

Corynne said...

After watching the movie, I have seen the stereotypes, yes. Noa seems to be a Spanish gypsy. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know everything about the Gypsy race, and all the differences between the tribes. But you have to keep in mind that they had a timeframe to keep to while they were making the movie. The extensive research behind the *rest* of the movie- all the small details that aren't noticed at once but make a huge difference if they're taken away- would have taken extremely large amounts of time. Given the length of the timeframe, a very short amount of time in comparison would've been just enough to get in what details they *did* have in the movie.
Moving on.
The "one race" comment made by the filmmaker... the movie was originally made in Japan, by a author/screenwriter. If they want to project that image about THEIR OWN ETHNICITY AND CULTURE, then that's their choice. Not to mention it could easily be seen where the idea came from (see the beginning portion of Anonymous's comment) seeing as this would be a common notion at the time that the film was taking place (1930s).

Tinet said...

Lack of time is irrelevant. If you have very little time, you choose wisely what to do with it. Unless you don't care.


"If they want to project that image about THEIR OWN ETHNICITY AND CULTURE, then that's their choice."

Yeah, and if some Germans would make a children's movie about 1930's Germany and project the image of "THEIR OWN ETHNICITY AND CULTURE" as a superior aryan race by letting a character in the movie say that, entirely uncriticized and unproblematized, then that would just be their choice, right?

The difference is that in (my home country) Germany, a lot of work has been put into coming to terms with the Fascist past. So a film like this, with a German equivalent for the Japanese man, would not be tolerated in Germany today.

The point is that there are some serious problems in Japan since WWII with attitudes towards the country's Fascist history, and this one small moment in this film is yet another example of that. Not unexpected at all, but it makes me uneasy nevertheless. I guess I can't help it, since I am anti-Fascist.


"(see the beginning portion of Anonymous's comment)"

I answered to that in my response to Anonymous already.
There, I also wrote: "[The 'one nation, one tribe' comment] is indeed not depicted as something this man only personally believes in, but it is depicted more like a 'universal' truth - at least so it seems to me. I am open to other interpretations if anyone is able to give an even halfway elaborate analysis of this aspect in the film."
So far no challengers.

Corynne said...

I don't mean to start a debate, but no one ever said that Conqueror of Shamballa was a "children's movie". ("...if some Germans would make a children's movie about 1930's Germany and project the image of "THEIR OWN ETHNICITY AND CULTURE" as a superior aryan race by letting a character in the movie say that, entirely uncriticized and unproblematized, then that would just be their choice, right?") We may see it as a children's movie in other countries, Germany or the US or anywhere else, but in Japan anime is for adults as well, and it seems that the movie was geared towards these older audiences.
Next topic...
"Not unexpected at all, but it makes me uneasy nevertheless. I guess I can't help it, since I am anti-Fascist." Whoever said you weren't? I won't generalize and say *all* Germans at that time were Fascist, but as someone who has minimal understanding of the Holocaust, it seems to me that it was a fairly widespread view AT THE TIME THE MOVIE WAS SET IN and therefore makes it just the tiniest bit more accurate. It doesn't neccisarily reflect the views of the creator(s). They probably didn't think, "Hey, Germany is Fascist, let's put a comment in to reflect that." It was probably something more along the lines of, "It may not be the current viewpoint, but it was common at that place and time, so it's sort of neccesary to put in a slightly Fascist comment."

Tinet said...

Well, it is, to be more specific, aimed at teenagers. Of course, adults watch it too, just like adults watch Disney movies. Anyway, whether it's for children or not is not the point. A similar German-made movie for adults, where a German character would make fascist/Nazi statements *without it being criticized or problematized in the film* would still be unacceptable.

I'm making that comparison in order to try to help you see what I mean.

I am not opposed to having fascist viewpoints in the film. But from what I remember, a lot of the other parts of the film are clearly anti-fascist (Ed's making friends with the Gypsies and standing up for them when some people bully them, etc.). So it is strange that a fascist remark like this goes entirely uncommented - on the opposite, Ed seemed to think that it sounded good, almost like a revelation of how things could be better than they were in his country.
Which is bizarre if you actually know something about the ethnic makeup of the Japanese population at the time.

Anyway, it's been years since I watched this film, and I probably wouldn't write a blog article like this about it if I watched it for the first time now. Too old and jaded for that. ;o)