Final Impressions: Outbreak Company


This is how the wars of the future will be fought

I really wonder how something like Outbreak Company comes about. Did the creators actually plan to do a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of the fine line between cross-cultural appreciation and cultural imperialism, or did it just kind of work out that way? If you had told me at the beginning of last season that a show full of otaku in-jokes was actually going to raise questions about how Japan should handle the soft power generated by the popularity of anime and manga, I would have said you were crazy.

Well, no-- actually, I would ask "How do you know the future?" and "Are you the Doctor?", and "If so, which Doctor are you-- one of the hot ones?", but I'm getting off-topic. The point is, the depth of Outbreak Company was a big surprise.

All your base....

First, let's tackle episode 12. I was expecting the story to focus on Shinichi instructing the Eldantians on how to make their own anime and manga, as per his suggestion from the end of the last episode, but instead, it went in a very different direction. Watching the Japanese government try to assassinate Shinichi, and destroy the school, took the show to a much darker place than I was expecting. I guess I should have known that the Japanese government--who are about as evil on this show as any portrayal of the government I've ever seen in an anime, barring a cyberpunk dystopia-- wasn't going to take Shinichi's antics lying down. Still, I'm not sure if the serious tone of this episode really works for this show.

On the plus side, characters who hadn't gotten to do much yet, like Roic and Elbia, all contribute to saving Shinichi and Myucel, so it was nice to see all the good guys come together for a common cause. I also appreciated Petralka showing, through her mastery of Japanese, that she's not just an empty figurehead and takes her responsibilities as Empress seriously. However, the fact that the resolution to the conflict basically came down to Petralka telling the government "Leave Shinichi alone or else I won't play ball with you," was a bit of a let-down. I guess it was a realistic solution, but it still seemed like a bit of an anti-climax.

Empress in da house

That said, the fact that the ending was maybe a bit of a let-down does little to take away from the achievement of Outbreak Company as a whole. What was so impressive, to me anyway, is how well-rounded the show's depiction of otaku culture was. While the show had plenty of fun mocking the excesses of otakuism, it also showed how being exposed to other people's creativity can be joyful and empowering. Look at the character of Myucel; through anime and manga, she's able to look beyond her limiting role as a maid and experience many new things. It's not just that otaku culture brings entertainment into her life; reading stories of courage and passion actually help her to become a stronger, more self-assured person.

Yet even though anime and manga are undeniably a positive influence on Myucel and some of the other characters, the show never makes the mistake of putting the culture on a pedestal. The classroom segments, which feature Shinichi and Minori teaching the Eldant kids important otaku lingo like "BL!" and "Zettai Ryouiki!" show that a lot of the things that otaku rally around are often silly at best, hyper-cynical pandering at worst. We also see how the desire to engage with fantasy worlds becomes an addiction, to the point where the dwarves and elves of Eldant may as well be addicted to crack instead of Pretty Cure.

Using soft power to influence other cultures is interesting to me, because it's something that everybody knows about on some level but is rarely discussed. As an American, I know that Hollywood movies have been vehicles for American soft power for decades now-- practically since the invention of cinema. Compared to that, otaku culture becoming a vehicle to spread acceptance for Japanese ideas is a relatively recent phenomenon, but it's quite powerful. I can't speak for the entire world, but I know in America at least, it was the popularity of anime in the '90s and early 00s that drove interest in American students taking Japanese language classes, and otherwise becoming Japan-ophiles.

Riding Riding Riding

However, there's a dark side to that power; anime fans have an alarming tendency to become cultural apologists for anything and everything Japan has ever done, even if they're not consciously aware of it. Before people yell at me in the comments, no, I am NOT saying every anime fan is like that-- just that it's a tendency that I've noticed many fans exhibit over the years. Now-- as a result of shows largely about silly things like magical girls and super-robots-- there's a vocal contingent in the international community that's on Japan's side by default. Furthermore, this contingent is made up largely of young people, whose perception of reality will shape the future. In a world where perception largely becomes reality, how valuable is that? And how much of that power is due to stories of courage and passion-- of the kind that moved Myucel Foalan's heart--and how much of it is due to dumb crap like Zettai Ryouiki fetishism? What are the implications if it's the latter?

This wasn't calculated; no one ever sat down to draw a manga thinking "Bwah hah hah, this magical girl series will help seduce non-Japanese to taking Japan's side in important international conflicts, and help Japan subtly exert more influence over the entire world." Nevertheless, isn't that the reality? Do creators really need to think about the implications of that power before they sit down to create? Or is it presumptuous to even think in those terms, and you have to let the world decide just how powerful your "soft power" really is?

I think Outbreak Company was courageous both for knowingly provoking all these questions, and doing so with the full knowledge that probing this ground doesn't necessarily paint Japan in the most flattering light. When we watch entertainment created by a certain culture, we accept the fact that the work is normally a kind of advertisement for that culture; Hollywood movies often push America as the "Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave," while anime and manga typically paint Japan as a utopia where everyone sparkles with beauty and magic lingers just around every corner. And that's okay, but it's a rare property (in either culture's case) that takes a look at the world and asks "What's really being celebrated here, and what are the results?"

If nothing else, I'm seriously contemplating the meaning of a show that features an elite squad of magical elves in maid costumes, and that's pretty damn impressive.

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Karen Mead
Karen MeadContributor   gamer profile

Hi, I'm a former newspaper journalist who got tired of having a front row seat to the death of print. There probably could be some interesting story there about a disenchanted reporter moving on ... more + disclosures



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