“Everyone, have you heard of the trolley problem?”
Over the last few years, I recall numerous times seeing folks on Twitter crying for politics, social issues, and “SJW”s to be kept out of anime. Comments and sentiments like these have been around for quite some time, even though they may not use the same language or platform to disseminate those ideas. Hilariously enough, however, one can easily look back to some of the oldest anime we have, or some of the anime considered to be in the canon of the medium, and see that there is a solid history of series that have worked to discuss issues that are deeply important and relevant to the human condition. So when I hear people complaining about the so-called “tainting” of their entertainment media, I can only think about how many shows have worked over the years to actually be about something, even if it isn’t right in your face, and how the medium has always, in some ways, been political or about real-world ideas.
With that being said, I think that it is important to consider how shows actually work to approach more serious concepts. While a lot of shows might want to be about some loftier or more important ideas, the inclusion and handling of them might not always be handled well, which honestly may be worse than not talking about them at all. Considering this, I have a small selection of shows from the current and previous anime seasons that I feel highlight the two different extremes of this concept – shows like Stars Align and The Case Files of Jeweler Richard, which effectively highlight current social and cultural issues that don’t get much attention in anime, as well as shows like Babylon, which try and fail miserably to be about mature moral and political issues.
Studio 8-Bit’s Stars Align, at first glance, appears to be a sports series about a middle school boys’ soft tennis team full of misfits, and in some ways, it certainly is. However, it becomes apparent quite quickly that the show is more of a drama than a sports show. While Stars Align looks to highlight a lot of social issues of this ilk, such as direct and physical child abuse, extreme helicopter parenting, and placing unfair, unrealistic expectations on actual children, the show made a splash in the anime community this past Fall season by presenting a very candid conversation between two of their core cast – our protagonist, Maki, and the team’s manager, Yu – about gender identity and the difficulties that come with not feeling you fit into a specific binary identity. Beyond that, we even have a brief discussion about a family friend of Maki’s who is transgender – specifically FTM. It was a simple scene showing not just that Maki was an accepting, loving ally, but it was also heartening to see such a direct look at queer representation in a series specifically aimed at adolescents.
A more consistent issue that Stars Align works to tackle is that of different degrees of familial and parental dysfunction, and how that has an enormous impact on the mental and general well-being of potentially entire generations of young children. If you look at the core cast of Stars Align, almost every character has some kind of familial issue going on. Maki is a child of divorce, and his father is a deadbeat who physically abuses Maki and his mother, instills fear in the both of them, and regularly steals money from them. Yu’s mother does not accept their non-binary identity and is belligerent about it. Itsuki’s father pushes him down the stairs because of his decision to play soft tennis, which he views as an inferior sport. Nao’s mother is a helicopter parent that actively tries to control every aspect of his life, to the point that it has caused him some clear mental trauma. There are many other examples we could examine, but the point is that the show looks to bring light to these issues, and make it clear to others that may experience issues like this that they are not alone. This is especially made apparent as the boys begin to grow not just as a team, but as friends, and they do their best to support each other and help out as light is shed on their respective familial issues. It’s simple touches like this that speak volumes about the ways in which a show can handle complex issues without being too heavy-handed with them, or making a mockery of them.
Another show that succeeds, much like Stars Align, in its attempts to have meaningful discussions about important issues is this Winter season’s The Case Files of Jeweler Richard, a gemstone-based mystery show about a seasoned jewel appraiser Richard and his assistant Seigi. On the surface, the show is about showcasing rare, interesting gemstones, Richard’s craft of valuating them (“valuating” being the term for appraising a gemstone other than a diamond), and watching Seigi slowly learn the craft, as well. However, each gem examined has a past to it, and the show shines in how it dives into those stories and the lives of the people that have owned them. One might not look at the show, then, and think that it would have much to say in terms of social concerns – that assumption would be quite wrong, however. For instance, while on the surface, the second episode is about a woman named Mami’s request for Richard to assess a ruby broach she was given, it serves as a larger reinforcement of a creed that Richard mentioned to Seigi in the first episode – “exhibit no prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, nor any other criterion, and you will not speak in a discriminatory manner” – and to examine how those that may be from a marginalized group may find it difficult to live a normal life in a place like Japan.
Always a good lesson, Richard.
Richard’s first reinforcement of this lesson is brought up because of a passing comment when Seigi mentions that he has never seen clothes like an Arabic customer had been wearing, and musing over how the customer wasn’t hot in them. Although Seigi didn’t mean anything by it, Richard worked to remind him that all people should be treated with respect, and not as if they’re some sort of curiosity or puzzle for us to figure out, and Seigi took the lesson to heart. It’s a clear, simple lesson about not viewing others as strange or exotic, or not about making sweeping generalizations about the cultures of people, and it shows how one can work to try to internalize that lesson.
Throughout the episode, we come to find out that the gem was given to Mami by her fiance, who she feels she cannot marry. We discover that she feels this way not because she does not love him, but because she is still in love with her ex, a woman who she lived with for eight years. As the episode continues, Seigi and Mami have a frank, candid discussion about her struggles with her own sexuality, and how she is frustrated that she feels sometimes as though she cannot live what she feels like must be a “normal” life. Seigi is quite empathetic, even stating that much like gemstones are one-of-a-kind, he feels that hardly any of us probably feel that we’re completely “normal.” Eventually, however, the larger issues of the episode are resolved, and as Mami leaves the store somewhat satisfied, Seigi remarks that “It must be hard for someone like her to live in Japan”, in reference to her sexual orientation. Richard once again mentions not to make sweeping generalizations about people, cautioning Seigi that not all people are going to have the same experiences or difficulties, even though they may share some similar characteristics.
To cap this off, he gives another lesson to Seigi, noting that gemstones are measured in carats, and that a carat could be measured as 0.2 grams, but he says specifically that “I think a world with many different metrics and measures is easier to live in, more beautiful, and much richer.” In short, while Seigi has had good intentions throughout the episodes, Richard was careful to remind him that people must be treated as individuals, and not as representatives of, for instance, an entire people group. In short, a show that is ostensibly about examining precious gemstones manages to speak about the importance of treating people as individuals, much like every gemstone examined has its own unique qualities.
Having looked at two shows that have deftly succeeded in their attempts to actually be about something and have some meaningful discussions, it would also behoove us to examine the other side of the pendulum: shows that try to be about something, but fail miserably. Part of the reason I even decided to write this piece in the first place was so that I could write about studio Revoroot’s Babylon. Babylon fascinated me from the moment I watched the first three episodes it debuted with, specifically because of the way it interpreted the genre of political crime thrillers. While there are many series that look to deal with political issues, you don’t often see many series that deal with some interesting ideas such as the ripple effects of the adoption of new laws, such as right-to-die laws.
While Babylon had succeeded initially as a competent thriller in the first few episodes, it was honestly this direct political focus that got me so interested in the show. A fair bit happens in the first three episodes – our protagonist, public prosecutor Zen Seizaki, finds himself in the middle of investigating a sketchy pharmaceutical company, a string of mysterious suicides, a shapeshifting woman, and a decidedly illegal election for the new Shiniki District of Tokyo. On top of that, the climax of the third episode leaves us with the new mayor unveiling a law legalizing suicide, which he demonstrates by broadcasting scores of people joyfully leaping from the top of a skyscraper to their deaths. It is horrifying, and it opens up a door into what could potentially be a genuinely interesting political thriller, looking at how an out-of-control political system, as well as taboo-breaching laws and statutes, can begin to make waves even in just a single city.
This picture was definitely not taken before something good was about to happen.
The core problem with Babylon, however, is twofold. The first issue is that much of the show’s interesting societal and political discussions are predicated on the idea that we are working with intelligent, reasonable people to guide the story through its pacing. Unfortunately, as we will see, that falls apart pretty quickly once we get into the second arc of the story, a debate over the suicide laws, and it never really recovers. The second issue is that while Babylon would appear at first glance to have some genuinely interesting, profound things to say about the way we view laws and social norms and taboos, the show ultimately has absolutely nothing of worth to say. But we’ll get to that second part in a moment.
To focus on the first issue of nonsense and an overall lack of reason taking over the show, the thin veneer of a somewhat interesting, intelligent political thriller begins to dissipate pretty quickly. This ultimately boils down to the unfortunate reality that over the course of the show’s run, major political figures in charge of making any real change begin making arguments and claims that have little to do with suicide laws themselves, that delve into discussions of morality, as opposed to anything that can be discussed concretely and on even terms, or that just plain don’t matter. For instance, Mayor Itsuki makes an argument during the public debate that homosexuality was once an unacceptable practice in some societies, but is now largely accepted, and that suicide is basically the same, which is a ridiculous, inequivalent claim. As suicide laws begin to be adopted around the world, a G7 summit is held to discuss the laws, and the MMO gamer President of the USA (I wish I was kidding) instead suggests that they discuss the nature of good and evil, and the other world leaders in attendance unanimously agrees to do that, instead. When talking about whether or not the suicide laws would present a “greater good”, the representative of the EU literally says “everyone, have you heard of the Trolley problem?” It’s absolutely baffling the lengths to which the arguments in this show degrade, to the point that the show begins to feel like an exercise in self-parody.
I really, really wish that I was kidding about this.
The second reason, that a show supposedly about things has absolutely nothing to say, is not just bad from a show quality standpoint, but is genuinely disappointing. To recap, the show’s real central points began with discussing whether or not suicide should be legalized. The end of the show, however, leaves us with this: in what is essentially the capping off of the show, we are given one conclusion by both Zen and Gamer President: that “good is to continue” and “evil is to end”. This is, by the way, the last statement of any real consequence we get before both Gamer President and Zen are both shot dead. The show plays this off as if it is supposed to be some great truth of the universe, when, in fact, it is absolutely nothing. It is a nonsense statement. In effect, a show that is supposed to be about interesting, relevant issues boils down to a show presenting a child’s view of subjective morality, with nothing to give us except for spouting inane bullshit masquerading as some great truth.
Zen was one of the only good characters in Babylon and deserved to be in a show where he didn’t have to shoot the President and then just fucking die.
I bring this whole catastrophe of a series up, I suppose, because I’m just so disappointed in Babylon, and to prove a point in how not to address important issues. As we have clearly already seen through Stars Align, a show does not have to be front and center about politics or big ideas to actually talk about social or political issues in thoughtful, nuanced ways. I thought that Babylon might have been our most recent shot at having a show about big ideas actually address them with the nuance and gravity that they deserve, but clearly, it’s time for me to dig out my clown wig and makeup for thinking that. At least there are still shows even this current airing season that are able to address important ideas in a decent way.
In a time where anime is becoming an increasingly popular form of entertainment, it is increasingly important to see that we have series advocating for empathy, compassion, and for the discussion of things beyond big shonen battles or cute girls doing cute things. These shows still have a place, obviously, and there’s nothing wrong with them, but striking a balance and seeing anime be used more widely as an art form to inform and encourage discussion as well as a form of entertainment is something that I firmly believe will help it evolve as a medium over time. Given what we’ve looked at here, it’s pretty clear that, in some cases such as Babylon, we still have a ways to go in thinking about how series handle more serious topics. However, having the odd Stars Align or Jeweler Richard to push conversations in that direction is a wonderful step forward for a medium that even today many people seem to believe has no real grounding in real-world issues. Anime can certainly be (and much of it actually is) about big, important issues – sometimes we just need to be looking in the right places for it.