Yukio Mishima Would Have Loved It: The Cockpit

Arguing for political correctness in Japanese cartoons is a zero-sum game. For a sizeable, if shrinking, portion of Western fandom, redacting all the politically incorrect transgression out of anime is like making pornography with no nudity. What the hell’s the point?

The Cockpit, a three-episode Oriental Animation Video series from 1993 focusing on World War II exclusively from Axis eyes, doesn’t just cross the lines of political correctness, it commits glorious seppuku on top of them. That said, there are far worse perpetrators of historical revisionism in anime, and they’re mostly crap to boot. The Cockpit happens to be awesome.

It helps that the OAVs involved four of my all-time favorite creators in Japanese animation, episode writers and directors Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Takashi Imanishi, Ryousuke Takahashi and original creator Leiji Matsumoto. Was I offended by the slight tinge of Axis fawning and selective memory? Slightly, but mostly it’s just funny as hell.

The Cockpit originates from a manga series by Leiji Matsumoto. If you have a passing familiarity with just about anything he does, you know he took the defeat of Japan in WW2 rather hard. I doubt Matsumoto, such a visual-oriented, design conscious artist (the guy has designed commuter hovercraft for the Japanese government) could ever quite understand how the grimy mudpuppy Allies could destroy the infinitely cooler, infinitely more stylish and design conscious Axis forces. Let’s be fair, the guy is no Motofumi Kobayashi, who felt compelled to draw a manga about the heroic exploits of SS Panzer commander Joachim Peiper, perpetrator of the Malmedy Massacre during the Ardennes Offensive, but the Axis fawning is an undeniable part of Matsumoto’s identity as an artist and storyteller.

OK, OK, I will admit the overall tone of this series is anti-war. Especially the final episode by Ryousuke Takahashi, who’s a bit of a stray dog of anime when it comes to adhering to traditional, pride-bound notions of Japanese identity and conduct. But even Takahashi’s down-and-dirty segment can’t get away without at least one cheap shot at the Allies.

The first episode is a downbeat, contemplative alternate history piece. Incidentally, this low-key Captain Harlock-esque episode is directed by ACTION DIRECTOR Yoshiaki Kawajiri. The episode features disillusioned Luftwaffe fighter pilot Captain Harlock von Leinders, who sullies his record as a fighter ace by bailing out over friendly territory, in plain sight of cynical German infantry, rather than fight to the death against three RAF Spitfires on his tail. Von Leinders is given a second chance by his commander, who places him in charge of escorting a new German terror weapon and its creators to the V2 rocket site at Peenemunde in a new experimental super fighter. The only problem is when von Leinders’ honor-bound aristocratic sensibilities discover the identity of the terror weapon and the minds that created it.

Kawajiri’s episode is easily the most melodramatic of the three, taking cues from old German dogfighter movies like The Blue Max and the parts of Harlock where Harlock reclines in a tall chair to face the sea of stars and sip Courvoisier in the angular shadows (of his hair). The parts that don’t involve dogfights border on bathos. Von Leinders rediscovers an old flame, the truth behind the terror weapon and the identity of the Nazi Robert Oppenheimer in quick, machinegun succession, responding to each in the way Reinhardt does when his adjutant comes to report the death of a notable character in Legend of the Galactic Heroes (“FRAULEIN MARIENDORFF!!!”).

When this episode does get into the air however, it is spectacular. Second-for-second Kawajiri directs the most fluid and dynamic depictions of high-powered aircraft in combat, easily comparable to the Area 88 OAVs and The Sky Crawlers. Maybe the dearth of aerial animation within these 22 minutes is what allows what does get in there to look so incredible.

At the end of the episode, committing dereliction of his duty once again, von Leinders calls himself “the man who refused to sell his soul to the Devil.” Alternate history it may be, but it ends up being a sideswipe against the United States’ use of atomic weaponry on Japan. Matsumoto and Kawajiri seem to ask, “why didn’t the Americans have this amount of agonizing inner conflict over the use of their terror weapons?”

Justin Sevakis over at Anime News Network states that “it’s nice that the story does not sympathize with Nazis and their systematic genocide.” Well, I guess so, if “does not sympathize” can double to mean “does not make reference to it in the slightest.” I’m tempted here to take my own cheap shot at academic Japanese approaches to history and not making reference to things in the slightest, but 22 minutes is 22 minutes, and Kawajiri is Kawajiri, so I will relent in interest of fairness.

The second episode shifts perspective to Japan in the endgame of the war. Here a kamikaze pilot is entrusted with a, you guessed it, new experimental aircraft. The craft in question is the Cherry Blossom, a jet-propelled little human coffin/bomb that actually existed. The pilot, along with a ragged squadron of surviving bombers and Zero escorts, must rally for one last attempt to drive back the American fleet encircling Japan despite their growing doubts about the feasibility of the war.

This is by far the most gorgeous episode in terms of visual design. Every piece of machinery, weaponry, uniform and any other background miscellanea are rendered in a glossy, in-depth detail that approaches ludicrous. Looking at the pedigree of the director, the jaw-dropping visuals make sense. Takashi Imanishi directed Sunrise’s Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, another early-90s OAV series with some of the most beautiful attention to detail in backgrounds and mechanical design ever.

(Funny to note Imanishi also directed the recent MS IGLOO side story OAVs. From his contribution to The Cockpit, a gritty, ground-level depiction of warfare from the losing side featuring the forlorn hope of some experimental super weapon where EVERYONE DIES, you would never have never guessed the guy would go on to direct something like IGLOO!)

At one point characters question the strategic worth of the kamikaze flights, and even hint at the absurdity of Imperial Japan still dragging things out into 1945. Of course, when push comes to shove, all the fliers, suicidal or not, carry out their respective duties anyways, that’s true throughout the entirety of The Cockpit, making it sort of the Hamburger Hill of war anime; “We hate you and this pointless war so much that we’ll prove it by taking this hill at any outrageous cost!”

Imanishi’s episode even features an attempt at semi-sympathetic characters on the Allied side. An American aircraft carrier captain and a Dauntless fighter-bomber pilot both get a full three or four lines of dialog each. Of course, the American pilot goes onto the second half of the episode to be portrayed as an obsessive, homicidal neurotic for the crime of, uh, wanting to defend his mother fleet from suicide pilots I guess.

The final episode is Ryousuke Takahashi’s and, not surprisingly, the best out of the three.

His episode is about ground pounders, specifically an artillery sergeant and a runner in the Japanese Army stationed on Leyte in the Philippines. After a devastating artillery barrage which knocks out most of his battery, the sergeant and the runner must retreat back across enemy lines to a besieged airfield to evacuate with the rest of the survivors. They are assisted by a side cab military motorcycle making a cameo away from its concurrent role in Armor Hunter Mellowlink, that other Takahashi-created OAV.

Ryousuke Takahashi is my favorite anime director. It is remarkable how detailed and definitive a directorial stamp he is able to place on this 22-minute one-shot OAV. Sweltering jungles, rust-eaten derelict military equipment, down-and-out military pawns and their pragmatic mechanical ingenuity are all out on display. Somehow he fit in not one, but two narration sequences spoken over Osamu Dezaki-esque still frames and still manages to have the fastest moving, most compact episode out of the three.

The slovenly Sergeant Kodai ends up being the most explicitly anti-war spokesperson in the series with his boozy open ridicule of the Japanese military’s sclerotic straight arrow culture. There is even an American character, a motorcycle scout, who isn’t a head case, or at least isn’t able to out himself as one with his one line of dialog.

The Cockpit is not the most jingoistic WW2 anime out there. Kawajiri’s episode may be alternate history, but at no point do Japanese bombers drop propaganda leaflets over Washington D.C. as alternate history Franklin Delano Roosevelt urinates in his trousers in the Oval Office. Leiji Matsuomoto is no goosestepper, really. His primary grudge is against the atomic bombs and exploring parts of Japanese identity he feels were lost after the loss of the war. That said, there’s no way any part of The Cockpit is going to making it onto any lists of fair and balanced depictions of the Second World War, Western lists at least. Unless you are a small child or a big baby, you’re going to laugh most of the minor Axis/Imperial Japan apologism off and enjoy the jaw-dropping art and animation.

Japtoon fans with even a passing interest in history, WW2, aviation, or any of the directors named above owe it to themselves to track down The Cockpit. Or if you’re just a member of the dying race that is military otaku and/or are passionate about mechanical design and/or background art (I’m guilty on all charges), watch this series now. Each of the three installments should be up there with Riding Bean, Baoh the Visitor and Memories as exemplars of excellence in the concept of the one-shot OAV.


  1. Since the manga industry that Matsumoto grew out of was largely the product of the postwar Americanisation of Japanese culture, I guess someone like Murakami Takashi might suggest these little World War Two themed swipes at America are a manifestation of some kind of cultural Oedipus Complex. A bit like Hollywood’s penchant for effete, well-spoken, educated British villains, no?

    It’s a long time since I last saw The Cockpit, but the first one probably stuck in my mind most clearly. I thought it was interesting the way the Spitfires were always portrayed as something distant and anonymous — more a feature of nature, or an externalisation of the German pilot’s internal struggle. It makes the whole thing more mythic somehow (and if there’s one thing Matsumoto loves, it’s the mythic).

    Also, his comment near the beginning about how he was defeated on the drawing board, before the planes even got in the sky, is interesting. Dramatically, it completely deflates the whole heroic story archetype where a hero’s will to victory overcomes technical limitations (and it also takes some of the gloss off his victory at the end since by this time he was in a massively pimped up plane). Plus I like that whole aspect of the intense competition as the two sides rushed to develop and put into production increasingly advanced and updated versions of their machinery. The aeronautics industry is where the progress was most dizzying, so it’s interesting to see that interwoven with the story.

    As for “infinitely cooler, infinitely more stylish and design conscious Axis forces” — the British clearly had the coolest looking aircraft and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise, by Jove!

  2. >>His primary grudge is against the atomic bombs and exploring parts of Japanese identity he feels were lost after the loss of the war.

    It may be that he feels this way, but the only pre-defeat Japan Leiji Matsumoto is old enough to remember is one fully mobilized for war (he was born in 1938), so this raises the issue of whether he thinks of Japanese identity as something that should be more like that period in some way. Only the very oldest people left alive in Japan came of age during the 1920s–the last decade before militarism and imperialism came to dominate Japanese politics–and therefore would have known at least one other alternate model of pre-defeat Japan than merely the “warrior state.”

  3. Yeah, the Luftwaffe was simply jam packed with bleeding-heart conscientious objectors whose eyes were so filled with tears that they could barely drop bombs on Warsaw, Belgrade, Rotterdam, London, Coventry, etc. Give me a fucking break, Leiji.

    That being said, the baka-bomb segment of Cockpit is gorgeous.

  4. I don’t mean to jump on Matsumoto; Harlock (the show-you-wonders-in-space one) is hardly a jingoistic militarist or a ready re-write of Japan’s war. The Arcadia is not the Yamato. But of course, Captain Harlock, the freebooter, the pirate, the resistance fighter, would have had no place in the real militaries of Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.

    ARCADIA OF MY YOUTH presents the Harlock line as eternally brave and chivalrous, but you might say (and I’m not sure the film was trying to make this point, even if the point could be made) the moral breakthrough of Captain Harlock was to realize what his ancestors hadn’t–you can be a knight without being a vassal (the real-life example of Rommel, the chivalrous soldier who served an evil system, is comparable).

    Maybe we ask too much out of human nature for the Japanese to dance with gratitude over Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Keiji Nakazawa certainly didn’t. But BAREFOOT GEN is about much more than the horrific impact of the bomb; it’s also about how things came to that in the first place. Nakazawa knows perfectly well that Japan hadn’t spent the prior decade innocently strolling with an ice cream cone, when suddenly, without warning, on August 6, 1945, a new type of bomb…

    The moral decision America made to drop the bomb occurred after, and only at the end of, a long series of moral decisions Japan itself had made since the 1930s concerning its own conduct. As Jonathan Clements once said, “The Dirty Pair’s oft-repeated plea ‘It wasn’t our fault!’ should be stamped on the front of every war anime.”

    Nakazawa and Matsumoto are nearly the same age; it’s interesting to compare the different impressions they took away of the exact same war.

  5. Noble Savage takes on Nazi elites is nothing new (Valkyrie notwithstanding) or exclusive to manga artists or anime directors.

    I love Das Boot, but the idea of a cynical anti-war U-boat crew is pretty far fetched. The Kriegsmarine was known for harboring more than a few non or anti-Nazi officers (I don’t think they ever adopted the Nazi salute), but their U-boats were always staffed by the most hardcore of National Socialist hardliners.

    I’m a little harsh on Matsumoto, but that’s why I tried to put him in context with the references Motofumi Kobayashi (whose stuff I love, incidentally) and Konpeki no Kantai — Matsumomochan isn’t the worst revisionist out there, far from it.

  6. Colony Drop = best anime blog out there…

    But the confounding use of Oriental Video Animation continues to baffle me. Is this some inside joke? Doesn’t it stand for Original Video Animation:


  7. I think there were a fair number of anti-Nazis in the German military during the war, so I’m generally prepared to accept these types of characters. Admittedly though, they are a bit of a cliche, and one gets the impression that the creators just wanted an excuse to squeeze them into one of those sexy uniforms without having to deal with the baggage of all those dead gypsies and Jews.

    I get the impression that Matsumoto’s another one of those manga guys who get a massive boner for the old Prussian military aesthetic that was such a massive influence on Japan in the late 19th Century. The aristocratic “von” in Leinders’ name is a dead giveaway that he’s a throwback to this earlier era. Ditto Harlock, with all that Wagnerian Nibelungen stuff.

    I wonder though, how would you go about writing a realistic main character with an ass rammed full of Nazi ideology? Without any internal conflict how would such a character carry the story? On the other hand, once you put internal conflict in and try to humanise the character, you open yourself up to criticism that you’re making excuses for them. I imagine it could be done, and done really interestingly, but I also doubt that there’s anyone working in the anime industry with enough talent to pull it off.

  8. I haven’t done any solid research into this, but weren’t the Wehrmacht somewhat opposed to Nazi idealism? I hate to single out any one movement because I am a great believer in ‘good’ individuals regardless (and sometimes as a result) of their oppressive collective.

    dotdash: your last question is really thought-provoking. A protagonsit with ‘an ass rammed full of Nazi ideology’ would almost demand biased world-views from the camera’s perspective, and I don’t mean just not mentioning the holocaust at all, to paraphrase Mark. I mean I think it’d be bigoted/racist just to show us what this protagonist sees — without that, I can’t comprehend such a protagonist serving any role as a protagonist. Certainly he’d be neither hero nor anti-hero, so could you create something that has a true antagonist as the protagonist? You want to attempt it without humanising him/her at all? That’s a big call with any protagonist, let alone one who firmly and earnestly believes in something we none of us can — and find almost inherently offensive.

    …Really great article, Mark. I’ll admit my WW2 anime experiences are limited to the usual (Fireflies, and Urotsukidouji huh what?), and I feel somewhat guilty for not seeing this. I’m not sure I’d immediately react to the ‘sideswipe’ implied by the protagonist’s hesitation; just because a German refuses to ‘sell his soul’, and this anime to some degree highlights that, doesn’t mean similar conflicts didn’t go on in the hearts of others across the Atlantic — it’s just that this anime isn’t concerned with that. And frankly, I’d probably be more offended if a Japanese animator tried to show any such tugs-of-war in the souls of an Allied bomber pilot — there’s a measure of authority at play there. To pull slightly off course but not entirely out of the fray, I think part of what legitimises Tora! Tora! Tora! is the dual narrative and two directors, each from the appropriate background/heritage. There could be no claim of bias or agenda, no cries of protest against one side’s historians manipulating the reconstruction with revisionism in mind.

    …Having said all that, I’m fairly sure I can approach The Cockpit with as much appreciation for its insight on the creators as for its artistic values as a creation. Thanks for the engaging, erudite read.

  9. I think you may have it with “old Prussian military aesthetic,” emphasis on “aesthetic.” Prussian society was militaristic, authoritarian and class-bound (the last is where it differed most from the Nazis) which is why it was so appealing as a model to the founders of modern Japan. Harlock again is not the type to ask people to accept his authority just because of his family background, or because obedience for its own sake is a virtue.

    However, Germany is a big place with many regions and subcultures, all of which had an aristocracy at one time, and it’s possible that to the extent there were any real German models for Harlock, they weren’t necessarily Prussian ones.

  10. When I think of questioning voices regarding the war in the pacific, I think of Gore Vidal who actually served in that theatre of operations. And lost his lover at Guadalcanal for that matter. It’s mostly the role of the Japanese army, especially in China, that has been whitewashed by that nation’s educators. Things such as how and why the war started or the manner in which it was ended do deserve more examination than they have traditionally received in the west.

  11. This is why you do not use civilians to write stories about soldiers. Most Civilians have no idea what goes on in the head of most soldiers on either side of any war.

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