Otakon 2011: Roland Kelts Cites SM During ‘Multipolar Japan’ Panel

Author Roland Kelts

One of the most interesting panels I attended at Otakon this year was “Pop Culture From a Multipolar Japan,” hosted by Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. I read Japanamericarecently, so some of Kelts’ points were familiar to me, but hearing him explain in detail how anime reflects the crucial bases of Japanese culture was still enlightening.

However, I was a little surprised when he mentioned Sailor Moon as an example of Japan’s multipolarity. Basically, Kelts said that when the Emperor was revealed to be powerless at the end of World War II, the idea of a trustworthy father figure was taken from Japanese culture in a way it has never really recovered from- hence the “the great leader is actually corrupt” subtext present in many anime.

“I’m trying to get you to think a little bit about this idea that Japan is a multifarious, blender of a culture…a multipolar state because it lost its binaries. It lost its sense of a leader and a people…and so when you have these artists like Tezuka and subsequent generations- Otomo, etc.- writing about the world they live in, it’s much more multipolar in depiction that what you expect from, for example, U.S. popular culture. The superhero stories…instead you get the girls of Sailor Moon.

“You get teams, right? Groups of people who have to work off each other and figure things out. You don’t get the great leader. And if you do get the great leader, the great leader’s corrupt,” said Kelts.

In general terms, I believe Kelts is right- I think the popularity of team-based stories in Japanese culture has to do with the way Japan had to radically realign itself (and in some cases, have itself forcefully realigned by the U.S.) after WWII, including, but by no means limited to, the reduction of the Emperor from the leader of the nation to a powerless symbolic figure. However, how well does Sailor Moon fit his example?

After all, the Senshi may be a team, but Sailor Moon, a.k.a. the Princess, definitely emerges as the ultimate authority figure by the end, doesn’t she? And we all know the other Senshi were kind of useless anyway after Sailor Moon S (oh yeah, I went there! *rimshot*.)

The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that there were other parallels to the situation Kelts described in the story. In the first season, the Senshi are looking for the Princess, this sort of divine figure that will hopefully make sense of everything for them. And it turns out to be…Usagi, seemingly at that time the weakest and most immature out of the whole group. She may not have been corrupt (at least not until PGSM at any rate), but it’s still easy to see that plot point as an expression of the idea that the “great leader” will always ultimately be a disappointment.

And yet, in the end Usagi isn’t a disappointment, is she? Did the Japanese really give up on the idea of a leader figure, or did they just give up on the Confucian, patriarchal version? I think it’s the latter; I apologize if this all seems a bit out of character for this blog, but these are the kinds of questions considering Sailor Moon in a Japanese context, not just an entertainment context, leads you to ask.

Whether you agree with Kelt’s assertion that Sailor Moon is one example of Japan’s trend towards multipolarity post-WWII or not, I highly recommend Japanameria, even though Sailor Moon is only mentioned in passing in the book. It was written before the 2008 financial crisis, which means some aspects of the interplay between the U.S. and Japan have changed in the few short years since Kelts wrote it, but it’s still a great resource if you’re looking to understand why our favorite anime are the way they are.

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