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Brain Diving
Habu-tats and Humanity

by Brian Ruh,

One of my favorite things about writing about anime is that it gave me the chance to explore many different topics, including cinema, religious studies, and military history. If you're interested in learning more about anime and manga, it's a good idea to have wide-ranging interests so you can better appreciate them. The lack of such a diversity of influence is one of the current problems with the anime and manga industry – rather than drawing on outside influences, many artists don't step outside of their comfort zones and keep drawing from otaku culture in a continual feedback loop.

In order to better understand anime and manga, it's important to be aware of the histories and cultures of Japan. Why “histories” and “cultures” plural? In spite of the idealized image some may have, there's not one single Japanese culture, just as there isn't one singular American, Canadian, or British culture. Different parts of the world, even in these countries, have had different experiences of historical events. However, we don't necessarily see that portrayed in a lot of mainstream anime or manga.

For this column I'd like to briefly consider Japan's southernmost islands of Okinawa. It's an area overflowing with contradictions – they have both breathtaking natural beauty as well as an abundance of concrete and noise due to the many US military bases located there. Okinawa was in the news recently for being a constant thorn in the side of ex-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama – he made a campaign promise to move the unpopular Marine Corps Air Station Futenma off the islands and was barraged with criticism when he was unable to do so. In June, Hatoyama stepped down for failing to fulfill this promise. (Politicians being held accountable for their campaign promises – who would have guessed it?)

It's worth noting that Okinawa wasn't always part of Japan. Until the late 19th century, the islands of Okinawa were known the Ryukyu Kingdom and traded with both Japan and China. Since it was placed in a strategic location in East Asia, Ryukyuan culture had a tendency to take customs and ideas from abroad and mix them into their own culture in a technique they called champuru or champloo (probably most familiar to readers via the anime Samurai Champloo).

The presence of the US military in Okinawa goes back to the end of World War II. Okinawa was the only place in Japan proper that saw fighting on the ground. The combat was particularly brutal – it wiped out nearly a quarter of the entire civilian population. Unlike the rest of Japan, which reverted to Japanese control in 1952, Okinawa was controlled directly by the United States for two more decades. During this time, the US government became concerned with the spread of Communism in East Asia, and began stationing many military personnel and bases in Okinawa. Even after reversion back to Japan in 1972, the US bases and many Americans stayed on the island.

However, Okinawa these days is inseparable from the military and the aftermath of World War II. We even see this in select contemporary anime and manga. A good example of this is Blood+, which starts out set in Okinawa and provides a good introduction to this week's Read This!

For this week's article, I want to highlight a piece of news that ran in Stars and Stripes back in 2008 titled “Anime's fiction mirrors reality of Okinawa's fear.” This article highlights the events in the Blood+ anime in which the US military is able to take control of parts of the island when they decide that it is necessary for reasons of security against vampires. Although this is just anime, such events really do happen (the ones related to the military, not the part about the vampires). For example, in 2004 a Marine helicopter crashed on the grounds of an Okinawan university. The U.S. military promptly took control of the area and prevented the local government and law enforcement from performing their own investigations. Events such as these, as well as the notorious 1995 incident in which three US servicemembers abducted and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl, have contributed to the growing outcry against the bases, which the people of Okinawa quite rightly feel they have very little control over.

The Stars and Stripes article describes the portrayal of the military in Blood+ as “heavy-handed.” This is certainly true, and the series does little to illustrate how many Okinawans earn their livelihoods from working at the base. (And it should be noted that Stars and Stripes is a paper geared toward a military readership, although it is editorially independent.) I wouldn't say that Blood+ is necessarily anti-American (for further examples of this, see Topless Robot's article “The 12 Most Anti-American Anime”); rather, the show is reflective of the frustrations many in Japan feel toward the presence of the bases. Okinawa bears a very uneven burden – the islands comprise less than one percent of Japan's land area, yet hosts around two-thirds of the US military bases in the country.

My point here is not to try to convince you one way or another on the issues of the US bases in Okinawa. However, it would be hard to talk about contemporary Okinawa without an awareness of such issues. It may be understandable, but Okinawa doesn't feature very heavily in a lot of anime or manga, except as a vacation destination. Sometimes characters from Okinawa seem like the laid-back, airheaded types, such as Amuro Ninagawa in Umisho or Mutsumi Otohime in Love Hina. There aren't many anime that focus on the people and culture of Okinawa, but there are a few manga that do. Thankfully, one of them was recently published in English.

The Habu Hunter

Depending on where you live around the world, you may have to be on the lookout for dangerous animals on a daily basis. Personally, I keep dreading the day when I find a scorpion crawling around inside my house. (A rare occurrence to be sure, but I have heard of it happening to others here in Austin.) Luckily, I've never had to contend with anything like the habu, a poisonous snake found throughout the islands of Okinawa.

The constant battle with the habu on Okinawa is the driving force behind Kenshin Shinzato's manga The Habu Hunter. It follows rookie newspaper writer Isamu Oshiro as he learns about the poisonous Okinawan snake called the habu from a reclusive old man named Niyou, who is the titular hunter of habu. Although Oshiro is a native Okinawan, he doesn't know much about these snakes, which provides the perfect opportunity for Niyou to educate him (and the reader) about the behavior of the habu and how to deal with them. (The informative bent the manga takes makes sense, as it was originally serialized in the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper rather than a manga magazine.) The Habu Hunter was published in 1982 and won an Excellence Prize in the 11th Japan Cartoonists’ Association Awards, but it was just translated into English last year.

When Oshiro is assigned to do a special feature on habu, an ophiologist (that is, a scientist who studies snakes) recommends that he go see the eccentric old man Niyou. Although initially gruff, Niyou takes Oshiro under his wing and begins to teach him how to handle the habu. Through flashbacks, Shinzato ties the contemporary story of the habu to the events of World War II. Niyou had been a conscript in the Japanese army stationed on Okinawa, and he experienced some of the most brutal fighting of the war. However, it was bites from the seemingly omnipresent habu that killed his best war buddy as well as his wife and child. When he finally arrived back in his village after the war, Niyou decided to dedicate the rest of his life to capturing and killing habu. However, as he becomes more familiar with the snakes and more attuned to their behavior he comes to understand them a little more and realizes their valuable role in the ecosystem on Okinawa. (For example, the snakes feed on the rodents that would otherwise devour many of the crops on the island.)

Through Niyou's words and actions, Shinzato expresses his rather Okinawan philosophy on life and politics. For example, at the end of chapter four, Niyou states that “It is wrong for us to eradicate the habu so that more of us can live. It took 30 years of habu hunting… but I finally understand.” Even though the Okinawan people have been constantly put upon and occupied throughout their recent history, first by the Japanese and then by the Americans, Shinzato is saying that it does little good to harbor grudges and devote oneself to a life of revenge. 

As admirable as such sentiments can be, the dialogue can be heavy-handed at times. For example, at the beginning of chapter five Shinzato discusses the fact that development on the island has pushed the humans and the habu into closer proximity. In this case, not only have training grounds by US armed forces taken some of the land, but civilian construction has as well. (“Probably yet another golf course for the rich!” Niyou scoffs.) When the subject turns to the presence of the military on the island, Niyou laments, “The American military with their tools of destruction… they will never learn,” to which Oshiro replies, “I just wish that they would leave…” Of course, such exchanges highlight the tensions inherent in contemporary Okinawa, and it is quite sad that such a statement works as well today as it did when the manga was originally written nearly 30 years ago. However, dialogue like this feels a rather clichéd and unnatural for the characters to be saying.

In a similar vein, Niyou's inner conflicts are not well communicated to the reader as he tries to reconcile his respect for the habu of Okinawa with his desire for revenge for his friend and loved ones. This comes to a head in the last three chapters as Niyou decides to set out to kill the legendary great white habu serpent god, which he believes killed his wife and child. Oddly, after chapters of discussing the habu and the need for humans to coexist with them, he seems to have no qualms about trying to kill this creature. The story also begins to take an odd supernatural turn here as well. What had previously been an educational and entertaining discussion about the characteristics of the real habu snakes, here Shinzato introduces elements of the Okinawan spirituality and an oversized ghostly antagonist. It's an abrupt change that makes me wonder if it had something to do with the manga's newspaper serialization – perhaps Shinzato was told to finish up the story, or people were tiring of a manga that was overly informative.

There is also the odd character of Usagwa, a woman we see only twice in the story (once in flashback) and who seems like she should have had a more prominent role. She is shown in an early chapter trying to seduce Niyou immediately after she tells him the fate of his wife and child, and later briefly as an old woman living in the forest who tries to warn Niyou and Oshiro from getting any closer to the rumored domain of the great white habu. She has such little time on the page, but based on the dialogue it seems like we are supposed to infer that she and Niyou had a much deeper relationship. However, this isn't really communicated to the audience which makes the dialogue again fall a little flat.

The art in The Habu Hunter is rendered in a competent style vaguely reminiscent of what Takehiko Inoue would later do (although, with much respect to Shinzato, Inoue is the more talented artist and storyteller). However, Shinzato does add the occasional comic flourish that brings the reader out of the story. A good example of this is in this image taken from the middle of the book. [Place “Habu Hunter interior” image here] Niyou has just been bitten by a habu due to Oshiro's carelessness, so the reporter is trying to take care of the older man. Most of the story is drawn in a style similar to the first three panels at the top. When Oshiro hears that the closest hospital is 20 kilometers away, though, he overreacts in an exaggerated manga-esque way and drops Niyou. Of course this technique is employed by many artists, but I think it detracts from the overall narrative when employed infrequently in an otherwise serious story such as this. (I found myself thinking the same thing when I was recently reading Hiroki Endo's Eden: It's a Wonderful World.)

One of the good things about the way the book was put together is that the publishers decided to issue the comic in a bilingual edition – the English is given in the main body of the manga itself while the original Japanese is written in the lower margins. Having the original Japanese is a nice touch, but since the dialogue is just listed line by line, sometimes it's difficult to follow along by having to switch between the images and the words at the bottom. One of the more interesting things you'll find out by reading the Japanese is that certain lines in the story would have been said in Okinawan but are given an interpretation in Japanese for the average reader. There's not really a good way of conveying this in English, so this subtlety is lost.

Overall, your interest in The Habu Hunter may depend on the level of your interest in snakes or Okinawan culture. As someone who is interested in Okinawa I found it a worthwhile read, particularly as there are so few manga in English that deal with Okinawa in even an oblique way other than as a vacation destination for a set of characters. However, I strongly feel that everyone should be more aware of what's going on in Okinawa, regardless of what political stance you make take. Not only is it important to be more informed about the events going on in the world, but it will help you to understand the relationships between the US and Japan a little more clearly, and consequently may help you to understand anime and manga on a different level.

If you're interested in checking out a copy for yourself, The Habu Hunter is probably not going to be available in your local bookstore or on Amazon since it was published by Ikemiya Shokai in Okinawa. However, I ordered mine through the English-language website OkinawaMedia.com for 1900 yen (approximately US$22.50), including shipping, and received it in around two weeks.

Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.

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