Hal Gold – Unit 731: Testimony

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In the anime Paranoia Agent, the state of victimhood rescues people. People suffer from all kinds of stress – sometimes personal, sometimes moral – and and an American-looking dude hits them with a baseball bat. Once they get hit and fall unconscious, no one really cares about their past life. It’s all about helping the poor victims.

I don’t know how much the creator knew about Unit 731, but that anime is obviously tied to the atom bomb. Saying the atom bomb rescued the Japanese from admitting their war crimes may sound obscene, but isn’t there some truth to that? How many people know about the atomic bomb and how many know about their aggression in China in general? For example, in Israeli history students learn about the atom bomb but not one thing is said about the rape of Nanking or Unit 731. We see movies about the Holocaust often. Is there an internationally recognized day for the victims of Japan?

This isn’t about whether America should’ve bombed Japan or not. It’s an interesting, difficult discussion we mustn’t avoid – but it belongs in a different book. It’s about understanding what can drive people to do such horrors. The book doesn’t relish the gore on display. there are some juicy details – babies being bathed in frozen water, a person being constantly executed and somehow never dying, diseased people forced to have sex and then give birth. The point is more about shocking you that yes, people can do these things.

Haven’t we learned this lesson from the Nazis? Yes, we did. The difference is, the Nazis were losers and were the villain. Stories about the Holocaust may horrify us, but we often distance ourselves by painting the Germans as a bunch of villains smokin’ cigars and laughing maniacally. Japan were supposed to be victims. When one country – and the losing country at that – does it it’s just villainy. When a people that are supposed to be victims do it and the winners sweep it under the rug, it becomes scary.

When people object to the ‘tyranny of science’, they may sound like a bunch of crazy luddites. The scientific theory is one of the integral pillars of civilization. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without science. No idea is safe from corruption, though. The idea of people torturing and inflicting pain in the name of science may seem like recipe for a cartoonish villain in a Hollywood movie.

That’s reality, though. One reason Unit 731 was allowed to remain hidden was because the data was precious enough. The scientists were given immunity if they handed over all the information they received. Many of them went to acquire high positions in Japan, especially academic positions. Even the history of something as great as science is stained by blood.

It’s a perfect example of how horrible war is. Since the data from Unit 731 was pretty useful for biological warfare, many of the masterminds could go on with their lives, being scientists if they handed their data. In a way, they got redeemed because of the action that demands redemption. Imagine if Dr. Mengale was given a high position in a university because he made some scientific discoveries.

The history is fairly brief, since the main role of the book is to deliver the testimonies. It’s a good piece of history, but not a very detailed one. As an introduction into the topic though, it’s good enough. The writing is precise, not too filled with jargon and the story is fairly easy to follow. The book creates a unique niche of itself in the literature of Unit 731 – by providing an easy introduction and a more personal look.

As for the testimonies themselves, what Gold says in the introduction is true. They’re messy, sometimes a bit incoherent. That’s okay since they’re speeches by people who are trying to remember a horrible event from a long time ago. The messiness of it also comes from how the people in the unit didn’t know what they were doing. The testimonies come mostly from low-level workers. The masters weren’t going to risk their position in Japan.

Some testimonies are better than others, but I understand the inclusion of them all. Unit 731 was destroyed. Everything was blown up and footage and pictures were hidden or destroyed, too. We will never have access to the full story, so we must make do with the little we have. Don’t expect to get a coherent story out of these. It’s a collection of anecdotes, but fascinating ones.

They’re presented with a minimalism that’s frightening. Imagine if Raymond Carver wrote a collection of short stories about people in a laboratory conducting these experiments. Then again, what other way is there to tell these stories? They’re blunt. Details aren’t gory, they’re just there. Some horrors cannot be painted with any language. You cannot express being horrified and you can’t tell the full details. Just saying they forced diseased people to have sex is enough to cause a shock.

It’s soaked in pain. Reading this book is both easy and difficult. The language is as minimalistic as a hard-boiled thriller, but to know so much pained was caused by human beings can be too much. As harsh as they are, we need these stories of pain. This book is an anti-war book. If there was no war, it’s possible Unit 731 wouldn’t have existed.

Now, I don’t think we can just lay down our arms and war would be over. Both sides need to lay down their arms for this to happen. Yet what will cause them to do it? At some point, I don’t think ideological or territorial conflicts matter much. We need to stare at the abyss without blinking, without romanticizing it or dramatizing it. We need the cold, hard facts of how much pain war causes. It really doesn’t matter whether Japan should be hated for what they did, or be forgiven because they got the atom bomb. What matters is we humans are capable of producing such pain, but no one wants to suffer through this. Until all of us – and I’m including every single continent, since the narrative is of ‘Evil West’ is too easy to swallow – are horrified by war, it won’t stop.

Reading about Unit 731 is essential. This far into human history, it’s time to know exactly how much pain war causes. War doesn’t only result in people shooting each other. Civilians are murdered in their homes. Great ideas like science are being abused. Schools today preach a lot about the glory of programming and getting your own start-up company. I don’t think this is what will prevent another Unit 731.

4 out of 5

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Paranoia Agent

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Bla bla bla this is experimental you won’t know what’s going on it can mean anything therefore it’s brilliant and not stupid like school harem fanservice bla bla

Now let’s get to the actual review

This anime is, first and foremost, about the atomic bomb. It’s also about a bunch of other stuff, mostly actual psychology. By that, I mean the anime is deeply concerned with humans, their emotions and how they view the world. It doesn’t stick philosophical jargon in the dialogue or has trippy imagery in order to insist how important it is. The situations demonstrate ideas, and psychology rears its head in character actions and thoughts.

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We need to talk about the bomb first. The general stort you hear in the West is that America is Big Bad mostly because it’s powerful and has a lot of money (As much as I love Star Wars, people watch it too much). Therefore, if they dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese then the Japanese are automatically innocent. They haven’t done a single bad thing in the war but were hapless victims of humanity’s worst weapon.

Of course, that’s not the actual story. Read about the Rape of Nanking, about Unit 731 and the Kamikaze. Japan was one of the main reasons why that era is humanity’s darkest hour. Thanks to the atom bomb, though, Japan could feel like a victim for a while. Victims don’t bear responsbility. They’re passive. Things are being done to them. The atom bomb saved Japan from the position of villain they might’ve been placed in once Unit 731 and Rape of Nanking were exposed to the world. Sure, you can buy books about these subjects but what do you hear about more – the Holocaust or these incidents? Germany was the loser, but Japan was the victim.

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Shonen Bat and his victims mirror this. Notice how American-looking Shonen Bat is. The baseball bat is a distinctively American symbol, belonging to the country’s most beloved sport. The manner of his dress – the hat, the hoodie is also more common in American than Japan. Furthermore, he has a peace sign on his hat (which was originally the anti-nuclear symbol). How he acts is by targeting people who are cornered, some innocent and some are not. By beating them up, they become victims. He releases them from that stressful position, whether it is being a bully, juggling identities or a big debt. Oh, and his name is very similar to ‘Little Boy’.

Maromi symbolizes Japan’s obsession with cuteness. Many took it as a criticism of that. Supposedely after the war the Japanese escaped to these cute cartoons and figures. They rely on them for solace and escapsim. Its type of cuteness is called ‘yurui’, which tends to mean bumbling and mild. Japan was turned into ‘yurui’ after being devastated by the war. All the people who got beat up become like this. They become passive, smiling, mild and without much content. They vanish after Shonen Bat releases them from their victimhood.

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Maromi isn’t a total rejection of that aesthetic. In the last episode Maromi fights Shonen Bat. Maromi represents hope. It may be false one, but it’s some kind of hope. He came from a pet dog. Shonen Bat, on the other hand, is a weapon whose purpose is total erasure. These are two different things.

Cuteness isn’t just an escape. It’s a total rejection of war and its stomping aggression. The problem isn’t in cuteness itself but how it becomes a slave to the technological aggression. By that, I don’t mean that Paranoia Agent is luddite and that it takes an anti-technological, nature-only stance.

It does take a look at how a deeply technological society, how humans’ attempts to build their own worlds cause isolation. The show opens with dozens of people rejecting others using their phone. The origins of Maromi are in the death of a dog by a car – a device integral for big city life. The work and school complexes put big pressure on their subjects. A failure at work doesn’t get help in improving himself, but his superiors constantly bully him instead of letting him go. A kid who’s used to being number one can’t imagine being anything else. The atom bomb wouldn’t be possible without a huge military complex.

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It’s not impossible to use technology and cuteness for connection. The only people Shonen Bat rejects are a group of suicidals who meet thanks to the internet. It’s their connection that keeps them from being cornered. The possibility of suicide sets them free, and it gives them a better escape than anything Shonen Bat does. They work for their death and find human connections through it. Everyone else is trapped in systems they can’t exit.

Maromi isn’t free of the work system. It has appropriated him, turned him into another device. Now the people behind Maromi puts tons of pressure on Tsukiko to design another character and for the producers to get the show on time. The people behind the symbol don’t follow its idea. Neither the consumers – they storm the stores, instead of relaxing with the little plushie they have.

Such ideas about the nature of work and how it leads to pressure may promote laziness. The anime doesn’t. Work is necessary, and we do see the police officer who works two jobs so he’ll wife will be okay. Here’s why Shonen Bat doesn’t go after him. Like the suicidal three, the police officer has a way out. He forms connections with both his co-worker and has a wife to come home to.

They say Japan has a high suicide rate and puts a lot of pressure on their students and workers. That doesn’t sound like a culture that follows the ideas in cuteness. If the above statement is true, Japan isn’t one big child. Rather, it’s a man whose had so much pressure put on him that only a state of victimhood can give him escape. It’s not just a mirror to the atom bomb, but how the Japanese culture is too harsh on its subjects and encourages them to be victims.

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The world in Paranoia Agent isn’t full of privileges, with problems existing only in the characters’ heads. It paints the modern world as claustrophobic. Social circles trap you in their gossip. Workplaces beat you when you fail but don’t let you go. Even the glory of being the best is trapping. In a society that has few options, victimhood is a way out. That’s very similar to war. If you can’t win, at least be a victim. It’s better than to lose.

You’ll hear often how weird the anime is, but that’s beside the point. Yes, the anime isn’t exactly linear. It blurs the lines between fantasy and reality in the last episodes. It’s never from a conscious desire to be weird. The anime locks on its themes. By the time episodes with unrelated characters arrive, it doesn’t feel out of place. Since the episodes are connected themetically and progress the ideas, they feel like necessary part. Paranoia Agent doesn’t rip the traditional structure for the sake of it. It has a structure of its own because that’s how it expands on its themes.

is the sort of brilliant narrative that doesn’t just define why anime is a worthy medium. It’s a brilliant piece of hard that’s worth your time regardless of what you like. It may be deeply concerned with the Japanese experience, but the atom bomb is a subject that should touch all of us. We’re talking about the worst weapon in the history of humanity. It also connects this to the universal human experience. Don’t let the tags of ‘experimental’ scare you. It’s accessible as it is brilliant.

5 plushies out of 5

George Orwell – Why I Write

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George Orwell is a towering figure in writing. He defined how we think of totalitarianism, and created a language that’s a tool to demonize any regime or opponent. That’s ironic, because this demonization is one thing Orwell avoided. He’s an unavoidable author whose status is almost mythic. He’s a symbol.

Authors rarely become symbols. The activity is too solitary and unexciting. Orwell is one of the few famous writers who clearly wrote with hopes to improve the world. A lot of fiction is personal, even the satirical. Catch-22 reads more like a person trying to find humor in his military experience, rather than hoping the generals will read it and change their modus operandi.

The importance of the first essay relies more on the fact Orwell wrote it. It shows the human beneath the writing and the terms he invented. His four main motives are interesting, and I have a hard time thinking of another one. It’s more interesting to read how Orwell was a lonely nobody in the beginning. The writing is a little jerky, feeling as if Orwell is afraid to let everything out. He’s uncomfortable writing such a personal thing. There’s also an air of self-criticism, which is important for any serious intellectuals.

The second essay about the English culture/people is a problem. Too much of what Orwell writes is personal observation. It’s interesting and well-written, but nothing really verifiable. You have to take Orwell’s word for it. Since it’s a political piece, it’s harder to take that leap.

At least Orwell never demonizes anyone. He recognizes Hitler was the enemy back then, but there’s no joy or bravado in that idea. We need to defeat the enemy because he sadly exists, but that’s nothing to celebrate.

I’ll refrain from commenting on Orwell’s economic ideas, since I’m completely ignorant in that subject. You have to start somewhere, and Orwell is a decent beginning. He’s blunt that he’s in favour of Socialism. Again, his critique of Capitalism never descends into demonization. The essay doesn’t elaborate too much on the difference between Socialism and Capitalism, but Orwell gives the impression that he has sound reasons for his opinions.

One problem that happens over and over in that essay is Orwell’s calling some facts obvious. Phrases such as “anyone who understands” or “anyone who had eyes” and so on appear frequently. They’re not next to obvious facts. Maybe they were obvious back in the day, but in modern times you’ll have to look in history books to make sure Orwell is making sense.

The third essay is just a description of hanging. The prose is fantastic. There’s no point to it other than make the scene come alive, and Orwell does it. The prose is simple, with no stylistic quirks. It also has no bullshit. This prose was wooden in 1984, yet here it captures the sense of ‘this really happened’ that all realist authors aim for.

The last essay is not only the best, but should be spread around. Orwell’s criticism apply to every language. Complex language is overrated, especially when you’re dealing with ideas. If the purpose is to make readers understand you clearly, your words shouldn’t be a dense forest.

Complex sentences may work in fiction. Tone and describing sensory information is something authors do all the time. Fictional prose always borders on poetry. When you’re writing essays or talking about ideas/politics you need to be clear. You want to send a specific message, not something vague that can mean different things depending on the person.

There’s no reason for an intellectual person who understands his ideas to bury them. Words can be used to transmit ideas, or to blur them. The examples Orwell gives are a headache, and the way he transforms a Biblical passage into ‘intellectual language’ is hilarious.

He’s wrong about jargon, though. Jargon exists so the writing will be cleaner. Jargon takes a complex idea and sums it up in one word. These words are often obscure because people who use them often are passionate about their field and discuss these ideas constantly. Some even have subject-dependent meaning, like how ‘texture’ has its own meaning in music.

Of course, some people can use it to cover up not saying anything. You can feel your music review with ‘harmony’, ‘texture’, ‘idea’, ‘time signature’, ‘octaves’ and you still won’t be able to explain why The Beatles are so good. The way to test these people is to ask them what a certain jargon word means. An intelligent person will be able to explain it.

I’m glad Penguin Great Ideas put all these essays in one accessible book. Why I Write is an attention-grabbing title, and all of these essays help understand who Orwell is. Two of them are too personal and would only matter for writers or fans of Orwell. The last essay is a must-read no matter who you are. We all use language, after all.

3.5 politicians out of 5