Taking Military/Soldier-Focused Anime to Task

This is what happens when you put me in the field for a few days and then someone makes me watch Full Metal Panic.

Anime completely and utterly fails at portraying what it truly is to be a soldier.

‘What?’ you say, and then a follow-up of ‘How?’ After all, you’ve watched Zipang and some other more character-oriented anime with soldiers. You’ve seen Gundam 0080, which showed that war sucks. And you’ve also seen Fullmetal Alchemist, which tore away notions of a military being purely honorable. And, you know, really, weren’t those pretty good portrayals of soldiers in a non-glorified manner?

Yes, anime a good deal of the time does portray soldiers as what they really are – humans. And, yes, anime does show the sacrifices that they make, be it in battle or to further their potential prowess in battle, or to save something or someone who matters to them. Anime shows soldiers who work hard, and who suffer because of it, be it through pain or lack of sleep or lack of meals. But anime still fails pretty hard at truly portraying what it is to be a soldier.

So now you’d probably like to know how. And maybe why.

First of all, to really show what it is to be a soldier is to portray a LOT of boring things. You don’t want to watch soldiers sitting on fire watch, since all they do is sit there and stare into the dark, maybe poke at the fire if they’re lucky enough to have one there to watch, maybe walk around a little bit and squint at something that could be potentially suspicious, but only is because of how mind-numbingly dull the task at hand is. You also don’t want to watch soldiers using the bathroom after coming back from the field, because, well, guess what? Soldiers in the field long enough? They’re constipated. Hmm, doesn’t sound like many people’s idea of a good viewing experience. Which really segways into my next point.

The sacrifices a soldier makes are primarily small ones, everyday ones. They are not glorious. They are not something you can look at and applaud. They are, quite simply, boring because they are unremarkable by how very normal and everyday they are. Soldiers forgo meals, wake up early, don’t take showers for a few days, don’t pack the hairbrush in the rucksack, go looking for spare socks for a subordinate in the middle of the night instead of watching TV all the time. These are not the sacrifices of legend. But they are the real sacrifices that soldiers make every single day, and that you will never, ever see in an anime.

During the last half of field training, I got sick. They put me on a sleeping mat, stuck me in the shade, and threw a bag of ice on my head which got replaced about an hour after it had fully melted. I was also given some cough syrup, and one of the cadre kept his eye on me. One of my comrades ate four crackers all of Saturday because she was in leadership and didn’t have time to both keep track of others and eat. Another ripped his heel open during night land navigation, but still did roving fire watch. Yes, some soldiers throw themselves on top of grenades to save their comrades, and some soldiers rush an enemy stronghold to save five people despite being already full of holes, but these are not terribly common occurrences, particularly not in comparison with what I’ve described as the real sacrifices of the soldier.

I don’t ever expect there to be truly an accurate portrayal of soldiers in anime. In fact, I don’t really expect to ever see it in any visual media form – which isn’t to say that there aren’t some exceptions, just that I won’t expect anything to fulfill a true depiction simply because it is so exceedingly uncommon, and also since watching a soldier’s daily life really isn’t terribly exciting. Most soldiers are low-ranked enlisted soldiers; low-ranked enlisted soldiers do not live thrilling lives. This is not to denigrate low-ranked enlisted soldiers, but simply to state a fact. From an outsider’s perspective, the only thing of note from my field training would have been when a cadet finally rappelled down Victory Tower (its a tower with a rappelling wall, a bunch of rope bridges, and a cargo net you have to climb down) despite the poor thing having been so terrified of heights as to have cried once they were at the top of the tower, which itself took half an hour – here is a moment you could find in an anime, fits perfectly with the overcoming thing narrative so many anime have (I could particularly see it as playing well in a sports anime). Everything else? Well, maybe you could laugh at my reaction to running into a coyote during night land nav, and there were some smatterings of humor throughout, but somehow I doubt that watching people zero their M-16’s would make for good entertainment.

This isn’t to say that military-oriented anime are necessarily bad, just that they aren’t exactly representative. Anime narratives tend to focus on individuals who are, in some way, extraordinary, even in slice-of-life shows. There is something to these people that make them interesting enough for us to take the time to watch. The common soldier isn’t usually extraordinary (there are, obviously, exceptions, and I in no way am dumping on the enlisted ranks, as they are clearly the backbone of any military), so to watch a show focusing on them would probably only bring in those seriously hardcore slice-of-life fans (you know, the ones who LOVED Yokohama Shopping Log). Therefore, it doesn’t make much sense to make shows like that, as they’ll get little audience.

I kind of beat up on Full Metal Panic by using a picture in it as my intro picture, and then mentioning it in the byline, but I don’t think its a bad show. Personally, I think its ok, nothing grand, a bit entertaining; however, anyone with a brain can tell you that it is absolutely not a good representation of what military life is truly like. I’ve also enjoyed Turn A Gundam, and Fullmetal Alchemist, both great shows, but both which do not truly illustrate soldierly life. Really, this whole thing is just me bitching because I am a. procrastinating, and b. wanted to do a post… and I guess c. because I can, haha.

Pretend that there’s a conclusion written here.

Also, if you want to read a book that really does do a good job of depicting a common soldier’s everyday life, The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell is an excellent book and captures the soldier experience perfectly (albeit, in the context of war, so you’re not getting anything of what it is like to be a soldier during peacetime, which is basically sitting around doing paperwork and cleaning things). I LOVE THIS BOOK and have read it thrice. You should too.

EDIT: By the way, just wanted to let you know that I have recovered from training, as I finally took a shower and am now looking for Elricest fanfiction to read – my perversion is fully intact, YES!

Oh, and, by the way, if you look at the picture from my prior post… I did take my shirt off after getting back, stand in the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror in my ACU pants, boots, and sports bra… and totally couldn’t pull it off… granted, this may’ve had something to do with the fact that I had been wearing that sports bra for four days nonstop.

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4 Responses to Taking Military/Soldier-Focused Anime to Task

  1. Baka-Raptor says:

    I think the official policy on Elricest is “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

  2. Achariyth says:

    Anime tends to mix a “war sucks” sentiment with the samurai/knight/warrior mentality. Individual prowress is rewarded and glorified, over discipline and the needs of the unit. The entire history of warfare shows what happens when warriors meet disciplined soldiers in the field – massive body counts of warriors, assunming basic compentance of the officer corps… (pardon me while I snicker, especially at West Pointers).

    Don’t get me started on tactics in anime, the nco corps in anime, or the utter insanity of putting 18 year olds as captains of massive space cruisers. (It’s scary enough that 19 year olds get to fly satellites…)

    What would be interesting to know is if the Japanese have the same cottage industry of soldiers working with the media so that they Get It Right. Probably not, given recent history.

    And, yes, Uncle Sam Ain’t Released Me Yet…

  3. TheBigN says:

    Have you seen Gundam 08th MS Team? That seems to portray how a soldier’s life is more often than most anime, but that isn’t really saying much. 😛

  4. adaywithoutme says:

    @ Baka-Raptor – Yes, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell… just watch”

    @ Achariyth – Uh oh, don’t badmouth the officers too much, I’m on officer track myself… although I’ll agree wholeheartedly with the assessment of the West Point folks.

    @ TheBigN – I will admit I’m not a big Gundam fan – I loved X and Turn A, watched most of Wing, watched parts of Victory and G, but do not actively seek out most Gundam stuff. I do have the 08th MS Team somewhere in my queue, though, as it has been recommended to me a few times before. Personally, I think they just should make a Gundam series about me, but, hey, that’s only my opinion.

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