October 10, 2019


Everybody loves a triumphant underdog. The problem is when the only way for the underdog to end up top dog is to make the bad guys dumber than dirt and the good guys the luckiest in the universe. In other words, the ending of the supremely silly Avatar. And to be honest, the ending of Star Wars dances right on the line.

The suspension of disbelief can only be suspended so far before some semblance of reality must intervene.

Pit the primitive against the modern in head-to-head battlefield combat and the noble savage will—sooner or later, rightly or wrongly, and no matter how noble—get its military butt kicked. As Kate says about the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, "Yeah, sure, Winnie the Pooh versus lasers. My vote is on the lasers."

In The Last Samurai, Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise do an ironically good job of turning the ruling military class of a defeated dictatorship into underdogs. "Movies can manipulate you to root for just about anyone, anytime," observes David Edelstein. Though Zwick and Cruise do deserve credit for demonstrating why bringing a knife to a gunfight is a bad idea.

Oda Nobunaga figured this out back in 1575 at the Battle of Nagashino, where he deployed arquebusiers in staggered ranks and cut the attacking Takeda cavalry to shreds.

There was no way Saigo Takamori ("Katsumoto" in the The Last Samurai) was going to prevail in the ill-fated Satsuma Rebellion. The soldiers mowing down Katsumoto and his troops were in fact "the good guys," representing the ninety percent of the population finally allowed to fight for a share of the rights and privileges once granted only to a small elite.

The Last Samurai could also be titled, "What the ending of Avatar would really look like."

And that's pretty much what happens in Gate too. Only this time we get to cheer overwhelming military superiority right from the start, with no need to rationalize the backward prerogatives of a decaying feudal order. Besides, they started it.

On a perfectly normal summer day, a sort of Stargate portal opens in the middle of downtown Tokyo. A Roman-era army pours through, accompanied by an "air force" of flying dragons. Chaos ensues. The bewildered Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) finally get their act together and send in a couple of gunships. Invasion over.

Not wanting to turn Tokyo into a battleground, the JSDF sets up a fortified base on the other side of the Gate. The "Special Region" happens to be smack dab in the middle of an empire ruled by Emperor Molt Sol Augustus (there are reasons for the Roman resemblances). The emperor orders his forces to expel the interlopers. They attack and get wiped out. Repeatedly.

However replete the Special Region is with magicians, elves, dragons, and super-powered demigoddesses, as Arthur C. Clarke pointed out, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

A dramatic illustration of this occurs when a mercenary army attacks a walled city lightly defended by a JSDF recon patrol. They call in an air strike (cue Ride of the Valkyries and a bunch of Apocalypse Now allusions). Just as the mercenaries breach the gates, an AH-1 Cobra hovers inside the walls and does a one-eighty with its Gatling gun, bringing the attack to an abrupt halt.

As it turns out, Emperor Augustus isn't that stupid either. He is cynically using the "invasion" by the JSDF to hobble the military strength of any "allies" that might threaten his reign. His "allies" are aren't happy about being turned into cannon fodder. When a patrol tracks down a badly wounded King Duran of Elbe, he knows who the enemy is, and it isn't them.

The futility of armed conflict leads to an uneasy peace. The story at this point resembles the 1853–1867 Bakumatsu period in Japan, during which both the shogunate and its domestic enemies came to realize that the "Expel the barbarians!" (sonno joi) call to arms was a military impossibility and they had to find ways to deal with the situation politically.

So the diplomatic corps are sent in to negotiate an armistice. Their guide and on-the-ground expert is Yoji Itami. Able to adapt on the fly to unusual situations and get along with the locals, the watchword in the Special Region soon becomes: "What would Itami do?"

Yet Yoji Itami is at heart a die-hard otaku who candidly admits the only reason he works is to support his hobby. A running joke throughout the series is that, unknown to practically everybody, the lackadaisical Itami is actually a highly qualified special forces graduate with little interest in climbing the ranks. Nevertheless, despite his slacker attitude, he can't help rising to every occasion.

He was on a shopping trip to the Ginza when the Gate first opened. Keeping his wits about him, he saved hundred of civilians, thus unwittingly gaining hero status. He is promoted and given command of a recon patrol in the Special Region.

Another running joke is how closely the Special Region resembles the isekai genre otaku are so enamored of. Itami and his sergeant pass the time wondering what stereotypical otherworldly creatures they're going to meet next.

During their first patrol, they encounter their most formidable foe, a Godzilla-sized fire dragon. They manage to drive it off with RPGs (not kill it). Along the way, they rescue Tuka Luna Marceau (an elf), Lelei La Lelena (a magician), and Rory Mercury (a demigoddess with a fondness for goth). These three form the core of Itami's Scooby Gang.

Meanwhile, Molt Sol Augustus finds himself caught between the peace faction, led by Imperial Princess Piña Co Lada, and the war faction, led by Imperial Prince Zorzal.

The hotheaded Zorzal is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, and his slave, Tyuule (defeated queen of the Warrior Bunny Tribe), makes herself Iago to his Othello, goading him into conflict with the JSDF in hopes that he will destroy himself. Palace coups, embassies under siege, and that pesky fire dragon keep Lieutenant Itami a busy man.

In the middle of all this, the Scooby Gang returns to Japan to report to the Diet about What in the World is Going on There. This is the least satisfying arc in the series. While it's fun meeting Itami's ex, the political confrontations are ham-handed and the accompanying Spy vs. Spy antics do nothing to further the plot.

Back in the Special Region, King Duran having granted them passage through his territory, Itami gets approval to put together a small team and go after the fire dragon. This arc reminds me of WWII actioners like Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen, where everybody but the leads (the Scooby Gang, in this case) gets taken out before the mission is complete.

After a little nick-of-time assistance from a pair of F-4EJ fighter jets, Itami circles his squad around to the capital to rescue Princess Piña Co Lada and Emperor Augustus from the machinations of Prince Zorza. The series concludes with a massive airborne operation.

As you have probably gathered from the names of the characters, we're not asked to take any of this very seriously. Despite the high body count, Gate definitely belongs in the "War is hell but a lot of fun to watch" category. One thing Gate does take seriously are the military details. There is plenty for military otaku to geek out about.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution prohibits the armed forces of Japan from engaging in offensive action outside their borders, restrictions Prime Minister Abe would like to amend. For the time being, the JSDF confines itself to peacekeeping missions, disaster relief, and chasing off the Russian patrol planes and Chinese patrol boats that "stray" into Japan's territorial waters.

The full name of the series is Gate: Thus the JSDF Fought. I do not doubt that it was born in part out of a desire to see the JSDF strut their stuff on a larger stage.

Related links

Gate (CR HD)
No way to wage a war
Dances with Samurai
Mononoke vs. Avatar

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# posted by Blogger Matthew
10/11/2019 7:37 AM   
The comic book Fables (about fairy tale characters living in modern New York) did something similar. It pointed out that us mundanes (regular humans not immortal fairy tale characters) had guns and tanks and nuclear bombs that are more than enough for the evil empires army of orcs, dragons, and sorcerers.