Friday, July 29, 2016

Foreign Policy Midnight Movie: FLAG, an Anime About Conflict in the Indo-Pacific

Anime, War, South Asia, Japan, Indo-Pacific, Religious Extremism, UN, Politics, Terrorism

Given how fast events in the Indo-Pacific seem to be evolving in 2016, it's tempting to regard 2006 as ancient history. But in many ways, 2006 was the beginning of a decade of transition for the region. Along with Twitter, we saw the (re-)launch of martial law in Thailand and Fiji. North Korea began its fitful series of nuclear tests. Ban-Ki Moon became the first Asian since U Thant to become Secretary-General of the United Nations, which would shortly intervene in East Timor. It was also the year that the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was first laid down, and of the reopening of the Nathu La Pass between China and India, after decades of confrontation. These last two events can be seen as anticipating China's OBOR ("One Belt One Road," or "New Silk Road") initiative to build modern trade infrastructure in South and Central Asia.

2006 was also the year that FLAG, a singular if not entirely successful Anime series depicting modern conflict in the Indo-Pacific region, was released.

FLAG tells the story of UN intervention against sectarian violence in a fictional Himalayan South Asian state literally though the viewfinder of a young Japanese photojournalist. When we say though the viewfinder, we mean it - virtually the entire story is told through the medium of found footage.

This modern take on the epistolary narrative is a hallmark of the series, but in some ways, along with a plot which many regarded as too dependent upon dialogue over action and yet at the same time undeveloped, seems to have limited its appeal, particularly for Western/Weeaboo audiences attracted to the medium mainly for sci-fi action, kawaii, and surreal gore. A primary plot device is a defaced UN flag, which becomes both the symbol of the nation's hopes for peace as well as a somewhat facile MacGuffin for the military action in the series. One reviewer wrote, "FLAG is the type of work that can only be done once. Once you see an anime presented as a documentary about war journalism, that idea is going to have to sit fallow at least a decade before it is re-used." It is perhaps by this process that we have come to rediscover the series in 2016.

Despite its flaws, FLAG is a must watch, whether your interest is in Anime generally or in the continuum of war and peace in Asia. The animation is technically brilliant,  and the drama is compelling once you set aside disbelief in the flag as plot catalyst as well as some of the more precious portrayals of culture. The fact that it depicts conflict in a region and with people where many audiences might still not expect it - despite the Long War in Afghanistan, political turmoil in Nepal, the rise of reactionary Buddhism in Myanmar and Thailand, and the ongoing intrigue over OBOR - makes it especially worth looking at now.

If you can find it.

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