Anime may be entertainment, first and foremost. But art is almost always political, and anime is no exception, as we have been exploring in our ‘Your Anime is Political’ series.
First, we posted an overview of anime from the far left to the distant right. This included important context about how left and right ideologies can differ between Japan and the U.S. Next, we explored two of how two of Japan’s classic sci-fi anime—Neon Genesis Evangelion and Akira—demonstrate the need for radical collective action and even revolution to improve our deeply flawed, technologically super-charged society.
A different kind of politics
In this installment, we’ll take a look at another pair of anime that had a different kind of long-lasting influence. Evangelion and Akira are among the most influential anime ever. But the classic anime of Shinichiro Watanabe—Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo—aren’t well known in Japan. Instead, these two anime have achieved much more cultural influence in the Western world, especially in the last decade along with the rise of streaming.
The former is about space bounty hunters in a chaotic, near-future sci-fi universe, set to a jazz fusion soundtrack. The latter is about wandering samurai in the late Edo Period, paired with hip-hop beats. It would take a whole separate analysis to examine how two anime that went under the radar in Japan became nothing short of iconic among audiences they were not even intended for. But an examination of their political themes offers us potential insight into this topic. It also gives us insight into how to overcome alienation and free ourselves from a rigid, hierarchical, and exploitative society.[Watanabe's] point of view is that power structures inherently exploit and alienate those that are victim of the structures. Click To Tweet
Bebop and Champloo do have one important factor in common with the explicitly political Akira and the overtly philosophical Evangelion: they all portray extremely flawed governments and societies. The worlds of Bebop and Champloo are rife with economic inequality, authoritarian rule of law, and capitalist exploitation. But the characters do not get involved with a life-or-death universe-altering struggle. Instead, they seek to escape their flawed societies as flawed individuals. Evangelion and Akira are manifestos on revolution. Bebop and Champloo are closer to self-help guides.
Without further ado, the funk-fusion politics of the classic anime of Shinichiro Watanabe.
Power-structures are exploitative
Watanabe embeds a big political point of view into the world-building of both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo in very different ways. And that point of view is that power structures inherently exploit and alienate those that are victim to the structures.
The world of Cowboy Bebop is the wild west in outer space. There is no strong central government. In fact, the show makes barely any references to any government of any kind. The only ‘organizations’ are mobsters, the police, and corporations. Individuals in the world have no economic stability and will do anything for a buck. It’s a total dog-eat-dog world. Government has failed this world, and so has technology. Construction of hyper-speed ‘gate’ technology resulted in an accident that made the earth nearly uninhabitable.
The structures that do exist only harm the characters of the show. Jet, the grizzled ex-policeman, left the police after a corrupt colleague portrayed and injured him, causing him to lose an arm in the process. The police at first seem like one of the lone sources of order in the solar system. But they fall into the chaos and corruption of the wider world, and take one of Jet’s limbs as a cruel tax.
Spike, another main protagonist, was a member of the Red Dragon crime syndicate. And while one wouldn’t expect a crime syndicate to be pleasant, the Red Dragon in particular operates ruthlessly. They even decide to exterminate every single one of its former members after a leadership change.
And Faye Valentine, the show’s female lead, wakes up after being cryogenically frozen due to an accident with an impossible load of accrued hospital debt. Afterward, debt collectors ruthlessly pursue her.
Each of the characters is damaged and punished for belonging to society. They pay a debt to join society—whether to maintain law and order or to receive the social benefit of medical care—but the tax is far too high.
Samurai Champloo’s portrayal of an exploitation society is more straightforward. Its depiction of Edo Japan is far from idyllic. Violent thugs and criminals roam the streets at every turn. The Edo Shogunate is completely designed to protect a few at the top at the cost of the many at the bottom. The government offers no help to the starving and impoverished people of Japan. It is mind-bogglingly cruel to dissenters, outcasts, and petty criminals.
Ironically, samurai are long-dead by the late Edo Period. The samurai are a relic of pre-Edo Japan, when the nation was caught in perpetual war among various clans. But the leads Mugen and Jin have no choice but to live by their swords in this merciless world. Otherwise, they would have died long ago.
The nexus of diversity and freedom
Separate from the critique of power structures, both of these classic shows share another feature. Arguably, this feature is what makes these anime so unique and resonate so much in the U.S.: that they embrace diversity.
More specifically, both shows portray multiculturalism as a means for beauty and joy. Now, in order to explore this topic, we need to look at both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo through a more metalens. Both are stories, but these shows are also meta-art. They riff on genre and aesthetics. There are Western and hardboiled genres and jazz music in Bebop, and the samurai genre and hip-hop music and aesthetic in Champloo.
On the surface level, these fusions are made to be cool. That in itself is part of the point. The slick-nasty fusion of samurai sword slashing to lo-fi hip-hop beats is a joy to watch unfold on the screen. Champloo takes the best of sword-fighting in anime—the cool close-ups, the bloody slash of red across a black screen, the hyper-fast dashes, the intense stare downs—and masterfully pairs it up with hip-hop.
This pairing creates political subtexts. The effect of fusing the two together highlights the similarities and commonalities between two cultures and attitudes that on the surface are incredibly disparate.Both shows portray multiculturalism as a means for beauty and joy. Click To Tweet
But instead, Champloo shows us what the way of hip-hop and the way of the samurai have in common. The way of the samurai involves duty, spirituality, and sacrifice. Hip-hop, especially in the 80s and 90s, embraced similar themes of turf loyalty, commitment, and sacrifice. Both accepted violence as a way of life. Focusing on the similarities between two vastly different cultural and artistic forms creates a tenuous but beautiful link between them. Black hustle and ronin (masterless samurai) persistence. Rap skill and martial arts discipline. The fusion creates a whole new world of possible identities.
Importantly, this fusion of cultural identities creates an abundance of freedom, self-empowerment, and joy. From a meta-level, the audience overcomes the exploitative and miserable world of Champloo through the sheer joy, aesthetic coolness, and fun of samurai duels set to hip-hop beats.
This meta-embrasure of multiculturalism is reflected in the story. There is the pairing between the main characters, Mugen and Jin. Mugen and Jin actually represent the tensions and ultimate awesomeness of multiculturalism. Mugen is ethnically Ryukyuan, from the Ryukyu Kingdom in what is present-day Okinawa. He is a criminal and an anarchist, completely wild and self-studied. Jin is a well-trained Japanese master of martial arts and a member of the samurai class. They’re the Edo Period version of the multiracial buddy-cop movie.
Put more precisely and intellectually by Apollo Ridzyk: “The show remixes Japanese history by sampling the four elements of hip-hop – deejaying, rapping, graffiti, and b-boying… Samurai Champloo exemplifies the value of a polycultural framework as a broader strategy for challenging racial hierarchies through coalition building.”
All of these dualities and combinations can be found in Cowboy Bebop as well. Watanabe sets the Western, an explicitly white genre that often depicted colonizers exterminating indigenous people, to Black American jazz music and tosses it into outer space. The Jewish-by-name-and-by-hair protagonist Spike Spiegel was modeled after the actor Yusaku Matsuda. But he also wears a 70s disco suit, fights like Bruce Lee, and relies on indigenous fortune-telling. Each of the other three main characters also features a similar hodgepodge of cultural and national influences.
So far we’ve seen that the two major themes of Shinichiro Watanabe’s classic anime are the exploitative nature of power structures and the freeing power of multicultural fusion. Now let’s put the two together.Watanabe shows us a vision for self-actualization against the tides of authoritarianism, late-stage capitalism, and homogeneity. Click To Tweet
In Samurai Champloo, a mixed-race duo slash their way through the indomitable hierarchy of the isolationist Edo Period by freestyling across Japan. In Cowboy Bebop, each member of a cultural portmanteau of a bounty-hunting squad has to confront and overcome their respective pasts in a ruthless, dog-eat-dog world.
The result becomes clear. Both shows depict the freeing power of multiculturalism, art, and identity against the exploitation of power structures in pre- and post-technological societies. Watanabe shows us a vision for self-actualization against the tides of authoritarianism, late-stage capitalism, and homogeneity.
It is a vision that involves radical acceptance of other cultures—incorporating multiple cultures into our own identities and histories—and using our new, more diverse heritage to free ourselves and find ourselves.