“As we entered the Strait of Sangar, the galley television started getting a signal. The crew gathered around the tiny Šilelis, awed by the bright, vivid colors of the sort we had never seen on TV before. Furious samurai, frightened court ladies with bleached faces, frenetic talk show hosts, all talking in a completely alien language – during the four or so hours we had reception, we couldn’t tear ourselves away from these surreal programs.”
This tale of my uncle’s first international voyage as a Soviet Navy officer was prompted by the mention of Japanese TV at a recent family gathering. “If this is how we see them, just imagine how they saw us,” someone quipped – and this is precisely the query this article aims to answer, with a focus on illustrated and animated media.
Despite its geographical proximity, the USSR remained as inscrutable to the Japanese as it did to the rest of the Western bloc. The average Russian was seen as an element of an oppressive totalitarian regime first and an individual second – not completely inaccurate, considering a populace governed like a single enormous military unit with a rigid command economy. Despite constant efforts to present itself as an emissary of peace, a nation where firefighters had army ranks, consumer goods were produced by war factories, and road maps contained deliberate errors to deter spy activity was simply incapable of projecting any other sort of image.
Internally, a well-oiled propaganda machine provided a thorough mental conditioning for young citizens, culminating with the mandatory two-year conscription for every 18-year old male. The Tajik carpenter, the Jewish chemist and the Yakut deer hunter – in the Army, all were, to quote the national anthem, “united for ages by glorious Rus'” into the fearsome Red Menace, a growling, unshaven berserker leading a bayonet charge with his outstretched AK-47. And for Japan, which was separated from Soviet territory merely by a handful of narrow straits, this menace was anything but abstract.
Nonetheless, there was a group of insiders capable of telling a story from within the system – the 600,000 or so Japanese soldiers who surrendered to the Red Army in 1945 and were interned in labor camps all across the USSR. One of them was IJAAF Air Corpsman Nobuo Kiuchi, who documented his experiences from internment through repatriation by means of lavishly illustrated vignettes (this work is maintained by his son on this website).
A prisoner in a foreign land, he described an existence that mirrored that of many regular Russian laborers at the height of Stalin’s power. With the post-war pockets of rampant crime liquidated, the country itself became a sprawling labor camp for the singular purpose of rebuilding its massive military-industrial complex. As such, Mr. Kiuchi’s accounts of grueling work in a quarry, louse infestations, and watching comrades succumb to hunger and extreme colds probably didn’t differ significantly from those of Soviet citizens who were engaged in building roads, canals and factories amidst harsh frozen climates.
In 1956, diplomatic relations were restored, with nearly all of the interned finally returning home (the reputation for diligent, defect-free work earned by these Japanese made local administrations reluctant to release them, especially on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, where such workers comprised the majority of the labor force). Despite a healthy economic relationship that made Japan USSR’s second largest capitalist trading partner, resentment over the loss of northern territories amplified the long-standing antipathy between old competitors over regional control. Fueled by a resurgence of revanchist nationalist sentiment, Japan rebuffed Soviet offers of rapprochement – an attitude that has persisted to this very day, with a formal peace treaty between the two nations yet to be signed. These factors ensured that Japan’s perception of the USSR was just as limited and propaganda-driven as that of its more distant Western allies. Accordingly, the Soviets most commonly seen in animated works are minions of the ultimate Red bogeyman: the KGB.
The formidable Soviet intelligence service maintained an involvement in geopolitical affairs virtually everywhere across the globe, with subdirectorates of the Foreign Espionage branch tailored specifically for various regions of the world. However, the reality of stealthy, incremental information gathering by complex networks of field operatives hardly makes for proper anime action. Instead, the KGB is shown relying on flamboyant villains to come in and blow shit up, like the mercenary Gauron in Full Metal Panic, or the equally ridiculous purple-robed, RPG-toting archaeologist in the bad anime classic Crystal Triangle. There is also the goofy, but not entirely unrealistic Patlabor on TV episode “Red Labor Rising”, where a KGB general defects to Japan along with a military mecha, which may’ve been been a nod to the 1976 escape of MiG pilot Victor Belenko to Hokkaido.
None of these Cold War-era scenarios go beyond slapping the KGB label on an otherwise completely generic character. The closest anime came to a compelling portrayal of an agent was an episode of the 2001 snoozefest Noir, where an ethnic diaspora hires the girl assassins to get revenge on an old man who had once abused his rank to repress their fellow nationals. Echoing real instances of Soviet ethnic groups exploiting political and law enforcement structures to wage centuries-old conflicts, this is a theme that deserves far better treatment than passing mention in a Bee Train property.
Curiously enough, anime’s most famous Soviet is actually an East German. Despite having to rebuild more or less from scratch, with the occupying forces having looted everything from factory equipment and scientific talent to train rails and motorcars, the country still emerged as the leading Eastern Bloc satellite. The DDR’s positioning as a showcase socialist state was a key element of the USSR’s export culture, and I’m pretty confident that Jung Freud, the foil-turned-ally of the protagonists in Gunbuster, was inspired by Sigmund Jähn, its first (and only) cosmonaut. Aside from her hammer-and-sickle mobile suit, Freud was a disappointingly by-the-book incarnation of the “brash foreign rival” template that eventually became dominated by stereotypical “American” personages with blond hair and sunglasses. In fact, palatable Soviet characters didn’t start emerging until the fall of the USSR, joining the ranks of militant ex-Nazis and spiteful Anarcho-Marxist revolutionaries as an archetype of a rebel fighting for a lost cause.
One such post-Soviet Soviet is Black Lagoon‘s Balalaika, the head of a battle-hardened VDV platoon-turned-criminal gang called Hotel Moscow. Like the US Marine Corps, the VDV (airborne assault troops) are its country’s most iconic military elite, recognizable by the telnyashkas (standard striped Navy BDU undershirts, worn to signify the VDV’s capability for amphibious combat) under their regular Army camo. Balalaika’s transition from serving her country to organized crime was a career move depressingly typical for too many military professionals, out on the streets once the war machine that sustained them suddenly lost its supporting economy (and ideology). Nature abhors a vacuum, and the chaos of the “wild nineties” gave rise to what mathematicians would call a structure-preserving transformation.
Old party bosses became money-thirsty oligarchs, with ex-KGB men setting up information networks for trade and speculation, and military officers taking up posts in the private armies that protected these incipient financial empires during the cutthroat race to pilfer the fallen nation’s vast riches. Losing her rank of captain and the chance at an Olympic sharpshooting medal, Balalaika didn’t take the demise of her fatherland well. The formation of Hotel Moscow offered not only a salary, but an escape route back to a world where fighting ability and quick thinking ruled the day; she is openly disdainful of criminals who bought their way to the top. Balalaika treats every transaction as full-out military operation, with a readiness to establish strategic alliances and recognize valor in an adversary – mentally, she is still in Afghanistan.
Another mafioso operating under the auspices of the Russian embassy in Japan is the power-hungry ex-diplomat Ivan Sorokoff from the Buronson/Ikegami manga Sanctuary. More than just another former spook using his KGB connections for personal gain, Sorokoff is a driven lobbyist on a mission to restore Russia’s imperial might. Conspiring with Japanese lawmakers for a mutually profitable scheme to exploit the extensive natural resources of Siberia, he ends up clashing with the main characters over the control of Hokkaido politics. The young, ambitious reformers see him as their own opposite number; in 1995, when the story was published, many foreigners still held an optimistic view of Russia’s future. Russians themselves, however, knew better than to hope for a light at the end of the tunnel.
The tanks that fired at the parliament unwilling bend to Yeltsin’s dictatorial edict during 1993’s constitutional crisis seemed to extinguish any hope of a political rescue for a citizenry hopelessly mired in hunger and internecine strife. Thus, when the author postulates (in the words of a wizened old Yakuza) that “the more elite the Russian, the more strongly he believes that Russia must always be a superpower”, the assertion is rendered laughable by the actual behavior of Russia’s thieving real-life elites. As the nation’s continuing decay into a volatile has-been of a failed state has demonstrated, if there were any politicians who subscribed to that notion during the nineties, there certainly aren’t any today.
And so, the “Red Threat” baton has officially been passed to China, now the official guardian of totalitarian propaganda, red-and-yellow color schemes, and boxy machinery with complex alphanumeric designations. Most recently, the impact of this handover was shown in Gundam 00, which placed them, and not Russia, at the head of the pan-Asian political bloc – the home of grizzled veteran pilot Sergei Smirnov, who twenty years ago would be sporting Soviet insignia. Instead, it appears in efforts like Hayami Rasenjin’s Operation Workhorse, a sketch compilation that features a dizzying smorgasbord of Soviet-inspired imagery, with saucer-eyed heroines as moé intelligence officers and elf-eared submarine commanders. It seemed almost inevitable that the Soviet legacy would remain merely a superficial presence in Japanese visual media, as a fertile source of legendary technology and exotic symbols to be plundered by history-obsessed mangaka — almost.
The result of an unprecedented partnership between New York-based creators and experimental animation shop Studio 4°C, the feature-length film First Squad is the manifesto of two Russian artists seeking to bring celebrated Soviet lore to international attention. In the works since at least 2005, First Squad is at the end of its film festival circuit both stateside and overseas, with a Russian DVD release slated for October 15th – and a Colony Drop review as soon as I get the opportunity to see it. Продолжение следует.