Why Isn't There Political Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asks:

One thing I was recently thinking about was why there are no anime about Japanese politics. Here in the US, it seems we can not get enough politically themed shows weather it be a comedy like VEEP or a serious drama like House of Cards. Even in manga one of the only political themed works I know of is Kaiji Kawaguchi Eagle, which came out over a decade ago about American politics. It seems like a subject ripe for potential commentary and interesting plotlines. Is this an unpopular subject or something that is taboo that no one would be willing touch?

You're right, politics isn't a subject matter that anime often attacks directly. There are plenty of times anime nicks the edges of the subject, such as in Mamoru Oshii's more inspired monologues (Patlabor, Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh), or Katsuhiro Otomo's absurdist satire (Roujin Z, Memories: Stink Bomb), or Sho Aikawa's thinly veiled political/historical allegories (Fullmetal Alchemist, Angel Cop).

But a full on political anime? I can only think of one: Sanctuary, a one-shot OVA from 1996 based on Ryoichi Ikegami and Sho Fumimura's seinen manga. Its story about two young Japanese survivors of the killing fields in Cambodia, who make a pact to race to the top of Japan's power structure: one via the path of a yakuza and one as a politician. As one would expect of an Ikegami manga, it's pretty dark and unflattering: I remember one scene in which a middle aged politician has one of the lead characters over for a friendly chat, whereupon he pulls a tied-up, unconscious woman out of the closet and says, "here, share this woman with me."

Anyway, Viz actually released that show back in the VHS era, and it went over like a lead balloon. So few copies were sold that this is actually one of the rarer releases from the era. It's not a terrible show, but the fact of the matter is, mundane subject matter like that is simply not a good fit for anime. It's visually dull, the characters are ugly, and there's usually very little room for humor. They also tend to never, ever find distribution overseas. Like yakuza, bosozoku and realistic military anime, they simply don't hold any appeal to foreign otaku.

While anime fans span every gender and age group there is, it is predominantly thought of as a young people's medium, and the demographics bear this out: most fans in both Japan and America are teens and young adults. Politics is not a popular past time for this demographic: typically they gravitate towards subject matter that is either more relatable, or outright escapism. Seinen anime exists, but unless it's truly a mainstream level manga to begin with (which is rare) they tend to not even do well in Japan.

There are actually plenty of political manga. Many are cut from the same cloth as House of Cards. (Kaiji Kawaguchi's Eagle is merely the best known to Western fans -- likely marketed here because it specifically deals with American politics.) They tend to run in magazines aimed at salarymen, go on forever, and "look" like seinen manga -- awash in mundane realism. In other words, they're kinda ugly by design. These manga cater to a very specific demographic, and that's not a demographic that typically watches anime.

Political manga, and indeed Japanese political media in general tends to be very nonspecific and inoffensive: Japanese media companies very intentionally steer clear of controversy. While bans on satire were lifted after WWII, there's still an unofficial edict not to ruffle any feathers. Specific political events, people or groups are simply not open targets the way they are in the West.

Instead, political satire tends to be told in amusing anecdotes, leaning on light humor like puns and personality quirks rather than actual politics. While more pointed political cartoons and statements happen, they tend to be either an act of an individual or restricted to the internet, well outside of what gets printed in magazines.

Between seinen manga not appealing to traditional anime fans, and the unwillingness of Japanese media companies to ruffle political feathers, the deck is simply stacked against the existence of political anime. Frankly, the only way I could see anime going full-tilt political is if it was about a cute girl trying to get into politics, and she's cute and a little clumsy, and it's really hard but she has to do her best!

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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