Go Nagai meets Adorno, or how to philosophize with an atomic punch

1After Auschwitz ... World War II came to an end with two massive nuclear explosions and the horrors of Auschwitz revealed to the general public. Symbolizing both the destroying power and the desolate impotence of Western civilization, these events were soon taken for absolute moments: their atrocity was perceived as a deep fissure in the ongoing flow of history, opening up a black hole in which Reason couldn't stare without being overcome by a deep feeling of nausea. Humanity was facing the abyss of its scientific mastery of the world, unable to tell the life-improving marvels of technological progress from the perverse logic of mass destruction, indoctrination and repression. This shock definitely made clear that mankind was facing an epochal turn and that it was running toward extinction unless some things would change radically. This thought moved scientists, writers and philosophers alike into action, which for most of them meant writing books and pamphlets in an appeal to public opinion. In an attempt to understand the role played by innocent looking bureaucratic zealousness in the extermination of the Jews, Hanna Arendt coined the phrase "banality of evil." Time and again Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell — among others — warned against the dangers of nuclear weapons.
2... all Culture is rubbish. Not all intellectuals, though, were equally convinced that these events, as shocking as they were, represented a unique and anomalous tragedy, and that a recurrence — or even worse — could be prevented, nor that change could be brought about by cultural efforts. To this small group the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno certainly does belong. Yet, though his Dialectic of enlightenment claimed that Culture had proved its own impotence long before Hiroshima and Auschwitz, even he once sadly remarked that writing a poem after Auschwitz was an act of barbarism (Adorno, 1955: 30). Criticized for such defeatism, he corrected his statement by making it even stronger and applying it to his own writings. Actually, as he wrote in his Negative Dialektik (1966: 359), "... after Auschwitz all Culture, including its urgent critique, is rubbish." So, few intellectuals seemed to be immune from the contagious idea that a decisive fracture in the course of history had occurred, even if Krupp and Heuss — who voted for Hitler's "Enabling Act" in 1933 — could continue their economic and political career in the German Federal Republic. In the meantime, though atomic radiation was still far from being dispersed from the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, life in Japan quietly went back to normal — with most people there still unaware that on September 6, 1945, Go Nagai had been born in Wajima City.
3Go Nagai. Going from Auschwitz and Hiroshima to Nagai may testify of bad taste. Indeed, the manga and anime series Mazinger Z, which Go Nagai produced from 1972 on, seems to mock the grim reality of nuclear warfare. The 92 episodes of Nagai's televised saga tell the story of a boy, Koji Kabuto, piloting a warrior robot, developed by his uncle, Dr. Kenzo Kabuto — a huge machine, fully armed with photon beams radiating from its eyes, and with atomic rocket punches emanating from its fists. Fueled by the power of the Photoatomic Research Institute this mechanical man fights an epic battle with the likes of Doctor Hell and his evil army of beast fighters. It looks too cheap a story to be related to such serious matters as the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, the same can be said of the 56 episodes of its follow-up, the Great Mazinger. Yet, I think there are some good reasons — both subjective and objective — which make it worthwhile to investigate the links between the world we came to live in after World War II and the animated universe of Nagai. For many kids in the late 1970s, according to my own experiences, the word "atomic" only made sense because it was uttered by Nagai's characters. To them the very idea of mass extermination was only imaginable and understandable as seen through the mechanical eyes of giant robots. Moreover, in a broader sense, one can argue that, if violence and monstrosity are pre-eminent ingredients of Nagai's work, this certainly must relate in some ways to the wound that was opened up in Japan's flesh and conscience at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
4See the robot. Nagai's early successes date back to late 1960s, although fame arrived only in 1972 when he published his violent and nihilist manga Devilman together with his science-fiction series Mazinger Z. In a couple of years, with Kotetsu Jeeg (1975-1976) and Ufo Robot Grenzinger (1975-1977), the European market for kid's toys and television suffered from a robot-fever that would reach its peak in the mid-1980s. Remarkable in Nagai's work is the crudeness and violence of the images with their deranged and perverse shapes, coupled with the tortuous and anguished plots organized around bizarre characters, all flowing from an unleashed imagination. His drawing style — wild, heavy and rough — emphasizes the hallucinatory quality of his mangas. Though the television episodes, as usual, were designed for a much larger and more impressionable audience — something which implied a preventive censorship on subject and style — here too Nagai's fancy remains shocking. The very idea of a giant robot, the technological amplification of Nietzsche's Übermensch, deserves careful analysis: its success among kids in the late 1970s can hardly be accidental. This fascination needs to be dissected and explained from a sociological perspective that does not avoid the question of a dialectical — i.e. historical and critical — understanding of cultural phenomena, by merely researching the preferences of audiences, or by performing formal, semiotic analyses of media contents.
5Mazinger aesthetics. Taking Adorno's critique on instrumental reason for a starting point, there is a striking correspondence between his analytical observations and certain unconscious structures of the Mazinger-saga. As we will show, some of Adorno's and Horkheimer's theses on Western rationality, elaborated in their Dialectic of enlightenment (1947), seem to be illustrated symbolically by Go Nagai in his anime series. As mysterious and unpredictable as it may seem at first sight, a link between both works is more than plausible. Even before it starts, though, any attempt to inseminate Nagai's grim and visionary work with Adornian dialectics seems condemned to failure by its subject alone. One only has to read the storyboard of some of Mazinger Z episodes, to realize how close Nagai's world lies to that of countless B-movies, ranging from Roger Corman's It Conquered the World (1956) to Luigi Cozzi's Star Crash (1978). [1] What have the "Photoatomic Research Institute" and Hegelian terminology to do with each other? How can aesthetic categories, built around Beckett's hieroglyphs and Schönberg's discords, apply to Dr. Kenzo Kabuto's laughable technological golems and the triumphant marches of composer Shunsuke Kikuchi? Moreover, according to academic commonsense, any Adornian can only label Go Nagai's work as kitsch — an ideological commodity that will horrify each and every critical theorist. Any serious attempt to match the intellectual endeavors of the Frankfurt Institute with the mass products of Nagai's Dynamic Production company, must be doomed to suffer ridicule.
6Misinterpreting Adorno. Nevertheless, it seems that the prevailing view of Adorno's thoughts and theories on mass culture, has fallen victim to a crucial misinterpretation. In the reception of his work, much of what Adorno wrote about popular culture has been reduced to stereotype and cliché, as well by the Postmodernist criticism of the 1980s as by the apocryphal Adornoism that nowadays is flowering in the academic hothouses all over the world. The latter has turned Adorno's radical materialist aesthetics into that well-known kind of snobbishness and elitism which sees all mass production as vile and ideological and, therefore, as a danger for the autonomy of the individual. The sole possibility, one argues, left to stop the decline of the subject must be found in "great Art," the only remaining shelter against massification and homologation. From the other side of the philosophical spectrum, Postmodernism proudly reaffirms the rights of the culture industry and its adepts, ready to follow and justify uncritically every new phenomenon that finds its way onto the market. An analysis of Nagai's work will offer us a good opportunity to show that this perversion of Adornoism and the political correctness of Postmodernism are two sides of the same coin.
7Mass culture's way out. At the same time, no doubt, our approach will be upsetting those Nagai fans who believe one can still save the old distinction between a "higher" and a "lower" kind of art by restoring it within the borders of the culture industry itself — the former category being true Art, the latter merely serving commercial interests. Indeed, the educated manga-expert will be surprised at the fact, that we show more interest in the cheap, secondary, commercial Mazinger Z at the expense of Nagai's professed "masterwork" Devilman. The work of Nagai itself, however, proves how hopelessly wrong the attempts are to renew the distinction between the noble and the vulgar within the confines of the products of the culture industry. It shows that critical insights can be found in the products of the culture industry exactly at the times when and the places where you would expect them least: in those low and controversial products that succeed in struggling loose from the holds of affirmative, respectable culture. [2] The pretence to be "great art" itself, suffices to turn mass production into a mere parody of defunct modernism. This merciless understanding of culture's historical contradictions stood at the center of Horkheimer's and Adorno's Dialectic of enlightenment (1947), a study in which the authors not only propose a radical critique of culture industry, but also try to understand how mass culture can find its own way out of indoctrination and mass deception. [3]
8Bending the rules. For the past decades many would-be-Adornians have ignored these revolutionary insights, cultivating their own fixations about the "decadence of culture," the "agony of the subject," and so on, thereby selling Adorno for an old kind of European disease: elitism. In her book on animation and avant-garde, Esther Leslie recently has given this interpretation the lie. Quoting the study, written by Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the films (1947), she skillfully reveals where Adorno's criticism parts company with this sort of hopeless snobbery:
"Technology, they note, has opened up opportunities for art, and "even in the poorest motion pictures there are moments when such opportunities are strikingly apparent." But technology also ties these films to big business, and that stamps a certain ideological character on the productions. Still, here is an objective contradiction. Here is the opportunity for critique. And the lowest culture escapes the middlebrow compromises of many culture industry products. Genre pictures, such as "westerns," gangster films or horror films are easily superior to "pretentious grade-A films." What offends is the aspiration to be "unique" when the production is in fact so standardized" (Leslie, 2002: 182).
It's not by imitating bourgeois art and its pomp and circumstance, that culture industry gains autonomy, eluding the logic of the moneymaking market. Many authors, like Nagai himself, who show no problems in conforming to the producers' dictates, as easily manage at the same time to bend the rules of that logic to their own purposes. Without any scruples to follow his own nightmares and by letting them inflate the rigid structure at hand, Nagai makes the system burst at its seams, eventually obliging it to follow the flow of his delirium, and thereby turns the whole of it into his own visionary machinery.
9An exploding fantasy. From this point of view Mazinger Z — especially the television series — really is more radical than Devilman. This can be shown by a quick analysis of the relation between visual choices and social content of the first. An explicit show of crude violence and sexuality evidently is an important ingredient of Nagai's visual language. One can, however, question the belief that whereas those elements are embezzled — in the Mazinger-saga compared to Devilman or, in general, in the television series in respect to the original mangas — Nagai's "art" weakens. Not only do these more child-oriented works reveal Nagai's genius in turning the restrictions of means, time and censorship into elements of a different language, but one must also admit that much of the objective value of Nagai's visual world passes through an unconscious re-elaboration of the traumas that modern life imposes on men. The explicit dramatization of violence is, of course, no guarantee of artistic quality. Admittedly, the same disruptive elements that are so crudely displayed in Devilman, return in Mazinger Z in a radically sublimated way. This sublimation, however, leads to a permanent explosion of Nagai's fantasy, as it amplifies his delirious phantasmagoria beyond all limits. As a result — and that is the point I want to stress here — Nagai produces a fantasy which by itself is nothing but a projection of the basic sadomasochistic experience, imposed by post-industrial and late-modern societies on the individual.
10Ego compensation. According to urban legend Nagai's idea of a gigantic robot towering the streets, was born out of one of the most trivial experiences of everyday life. Finding himself in a traffic jam once, Nagai observed: "If a car could spring outward arms and legs, and it could therefore pass over all the other cars, there would be no longer traffic jam-related problems" (Mangazine, 1992). Even if this anecdote is historically unfounded, its relation to the unconscious structure of Nagai's work still remains true. The mechanical colossus destined to save the Earth, no doubt, is a supermannish projection of one's weak ego, the idealization of an imaginary omnipotence born out of the need to overcome real impotence. Saying this, we do not mean to summon Mazinger Z to clinical report, nor to qualify the robot as the product of a deranged mind — as sometimes is hilariously argued by some of his fans. If the monsters of Loch Ness and King Kong, as Adorno (1951: 130) argues, can be seen as a "collective projection of the monstrous total state," then Mazinger's success shows how Nagai — even if following his own teenage frustrations — gave rise to a process of collective projection, meant to redeem the impotence that the individual is condemned to experience in a high-tech administrated mass society. Nagai's robots, looking like gigantic mechanical phalli, clearly are mechanisms of ego compensation. This raises the important question, why this specific cultural form appealed to so many young people in the 1970s and 1980s.
11Wish fulfillment. Without the means of empirical research, this question cannot be answered. Some thoughts, though, lie ready at hand. The deep and massive fascination Mazinger Z exerted on a young audience, probably, has its roots in the elementary character of its conception. If one compares the original series to its successors — ranging from the Great Mazinger to the late imitations as the Transformers — the robot of Mazinger Z stands alone like the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as an icon of the Primary and the Elementary. All the ingredients chosen for its presentation are cunningly directed to emphasize its overbearing and primitive majesty. Whenever the mechanical man starts into action, it is always drawn by the animators from the frog perspective — as framed by the camera from below — so one can catch the hugeness of its form at first sight. Its body is modeled on the human one, but in an extremely linear and simplified way; adding an estranging quality of three-dimensionality to the lines by the robot's metallic gleam — one has to keep in mind that "Alloy Z" is the secret of Mazinger's invincibility. Voluptuously displayed as an object of desire, Mazinger Z embodies the promise to fulfill every wish, not least the most brutal and untellable ones. The destructive violence, embodied in Mazinger Z always seems to be good-oriented — the story lines tell us that the robot's destructive actions are, basically, always "defensive violence". This, however, is just a veil of rationalization which only functions to hide or even justify the need to vent an introjected sadism outwards into a raving spectacle of frightful fights and devastations.
12Humanizing the machine. There is more to say about Nagai's robot, as its presentation clearly aims at identifying the public with the mechanical man instead of its pilot. This identification is not only encouraged by the perceptively seducing presentation of the robot, but also by the sequences showing the machine in full action. In Mazinger Z and in Jeeg, more than in the Great Mazinger and Ufo Robot Grenzinger, the man-machine relation is immediate — the iron man looking like an extension of its pilot's body. The fight choreography in Mazinger Z adopts a more "physical" approach, probably due to the fact that the range of weapons the contestants have at their disposal, is rather limited. In Jeeg the pilot, Hiroshi Shiba, is able to transform himself virtually into the head of the robot — instead of steering it platonically like a ship or a plane — thus producing an increased mastering of the robot's movements. This close symbiosis of man and machine is not only exemplified by the physical sufferings of the first which are invoked by the damages in battle of the last, but also by the original, anthropomorphic way in which Nagai tends to draw his robots in general. The robot of Mazinger Z seems capable to pant, to enjoy and to suffer. So, by humanizing the machine, the transfer of affects is made easier for the viewer. The robot's metal surface is rigid and sensitive, soulless and living at the same time, thus representing materially the viewer's split relation with his own body in a rationalized society.
13The cybernetic human. The result of this all is what Erich Fromm once called, the phenomenon of the "cybernetic" human being — a person who is living in such an artificial world, dominated by technology, that he or she is unable to experience his/her own body but as an instrument itself. With his love for the cleanliness and efficiency of the machine, man has introjected himself with the sadism that is implied by the manufacturing power of technique. Fromm describes this love for the cold vitality of the machine, for the tidiness of its process and its controlled power, as a turnover of necrophilia — the extreme degeneration of sadism, a love of death which he describes as the degenerative phase of the hate of life. In that way technology achieves a complete turnover of life instinct into death instinct and at the same time transforms the perception of what is living and what is dead. The world of technique, Fromm (1973: 437) says, nowadays ...
"... is a world of death. Death is no longer symbolized through excrement or malodorous corpses. Its symbols are now neat and sparkling machines; men are no longer attracted by fetid closets, but by glass and aluminum structures."
By feeding the fear for everything that is ill, infected and contagious, technology's aim is to build an aseptic, ordered, and predictable world. The intrinsic ambivalence of this attitude is clearly evident: by expunging the swarming, the formless, the unpredictable, all that does not quite fit the schema, one expunges life itself. The very same orderliness and cleanliness, which were once serving the maintenance of life, are now turned into symbols of death — and, as we have learned, in time an obsession for just these symbols can lead to far less symbolical gas chambers.
14Instrumental reason. In Nagai's "cybernetic human" we encounter yet another element, conforming to Critical Theory's analysis of technology. Technical rationality, Adorno argues, is desexualized. It is a form of instrumental reason that has repressed (verdrängt) the sphere of sexuality, along with the memory of its animal origins — seeing filth and disorder as nothing other but hateful transfigurations of man's animal nature. This absence of sexuality, surely, is immortalized by the elementary, linear, geometrical and desexualized design of Nagai's robots. What, consciously or unconsciously, must strike the audience in his Mazinger, a self-professed schematization of man, is the absence of a penis, which is creating a clear vacuum and threatening to render the machine-man impotent. Yet, if we stop at the desexualization of the cybernetic human, we're bound to see only one side of Nagai's stories. The audience, forced to look for alternatives, will easily find substitutes for Mazinger's clamorous lack of virility, as Nagai's storyboard offers a lot of clues in this respect. His imagination turns the whole cartoon into a revenge of sex on its violent repression. As a result the story becomes a mess of sexual allusions, returning over and over again to the viewer as a permanent déja-vu. Not only Mazinger's weapons — for example, the missile shot from its navel or Great Mazinger's sword — but also the robot itself proves to be a good phallic surrogate. The more sexuality is openly denied, the more one hears its rumblings coming noisily from the underground. This is even more so in the case of the female robots: Aphrodite A and Venus Alpha. Always ancillary figures to the male heroes, they are always destined to end up being beaten — literally — and regularly suffer gratuitous violence. The absence of the vagina is balanced by a growth in importance of crucial surrogates like breasts and fingers. In Mazinger these parts of the female body, usually connected with erotic and self-erotic pleasures, are all designed to fire missiles.
15The powers of Chaos. It is in the presentation of his evil characters that Nagai offers the best examples of his dialectical ambivalence towards the values and parameters of the culture industry. Remarkably in the Great Mazinger the evil figures prove to be real surrealistic masterpieces, drawn according to the laws of wild and boundless association. Compared with the order and symmetry characterizing the good robots, the evil army immortalizes the powers of chaos and monstrosity, the triumph of the vile and the dirty. The seven generals of the "Army of Darkness" exemplify all that is extraneous to the cybernetic human being, if only by their animal shapes: they take the form of reptiles, fishes or mammals. One of them even leads an army of demons. Another one by the name of Juri Caesar, the commanding officer of the "anthropomorphic" army, is himself a parody of a man, his name alluding to the authoritarian, inhuman aspects of the human being. The other evil characters are defined by their asymmetry, disproportion and brutal mixture of heterogeneous elements. Monuments to disfunctionality, they all possess two heads, one of which is often located in the middle of their breast. Usually, the head on their necks is the one that does not speak — probably a trick to spare precious shots, because whenever an evil character speaks the camera frames the "principal" head. [4] Yet, Nagai's attempt to describe the "monstrosity" of his evil army constantly risks turning into its opposite. One suspects that to be monstrous, black and malignant is Great Mazinger's plainly luminous world. The Emperor of Darkness himself is pictured as a fiery being — a slip of tongue whose value one can hardly overestimate.
16The evil army. It is important to note, though, that this evil army is not just representing some form of primitive barbarism. On the contrary, in Nagai's epic story this army is nothing but the remains of the Minoan people of Mycenae, a once highly technological civilization which after the destruction of its cities, kept on going for several thousand years by living underground. In order to survive, its generals had to insert their bodies into "mechanical monsters". Starting from this idea, Nagai draws the funniest variations over a theme. General Duke Gorgon, for instance, has his trunk inserted into a tiger's body. Minister Argos has a sort of track recorder embedded in his breast; his left hand is replaced by a head, whose white beard reaches to the ground and seems to be hard enough to serve as stick — quite like the sticks one sees in certain paintings by Dali. Marquis Yanus regularly dwells in one of the glass breasts — where else, one would say — of her mechanical monster but she actually is the only one able to discorporate and thereby to move in the outside world with her previous body. In these cases, though, a black cat — looking like a Nippon Behemoth — mysteriously appears on her shoulder. She is also the only one to have three faces: her normal, wickedly beautiful face turns into that of a horrible witch through a 360º rotation — an idea that, no doubt, was inspired by William Friedkin's movie The Exorcist (1973), which was released only two years before. On her mechanical body a series of metallic spheres is mounted, recalling the pearl necklace that adorns her human neck. If the permanently opened mouth of her monster seems to allude to the well-known inflatable dolls, used for sexual self-gratification, the presence of fangs undeniably couples the desire of penetration to a terror of the vagina dentata.
17Modernity gone wrong. By their appearance the generals of the Army of Darkness show, even incarnate, a chronic disfunctionality of life that persists in living. They exemplify the return of the repressed, the nightmare that rationality pretends to have left behind, constantly in need to forget it, and permanently trying to exorcize and destroy it. In Nagai's world, most of the evil empires that threaten peace on Earth, [5] literally emerge from the underground: the Mycenae civilization of Mazinger Z and Great Mazinger, the Dinosaurs of Getter Robot as well as the mysterious Yamatai Empire we encounter in Jeeg. They are all archaic, dethroned and anachronistically surviving forms of life that threaten actual living, sometimes trying to take it back to barbarity but not always so. Some of these empires also symbolize a dialectical fight between tradition and modernity. In Mazinger Z and in the Great Mazinger Japan, for instance, is threatened by a degenerated evolution of Western Civilization — remember that Mycenae is the Greek origin of western rationality, which in this case is depicted as a modernity gone wrong. It can be no accident, that in Nagai's story Japan eventually succeeds in defending itself thanks to Chougoukin Z or Alloy Z, an alloy based on newly discovered metal, called "Japanium", that is found under the Fuji mountain and treated with radiation. In this alloy clearly tradition and modernity are synthesized in a new way. In Jeeg, we find the ancient Japanese tradition, symbolized by the Yamatai Empire, attacking a modernized and decadent Japan — Hiroshi Shiba's clothes rather make him look like Elvis! All these allusions make it seem as if, in Nagai's vision, Japan is threatened by an ongoing nationalist desire to go backwards and a willingness to return to a past when its prestige and power were not yet destroyed by the import of Western values.
18Mythic terror. By expressing the relationship between man and machine as a robot and its rider and by framing the struggle between good and evil in terms of a modernity gone wrong, Nagai, so it seems, hints at the possibility of a new synthesis of rationality and what it has repressed. The field of forces he draws, yet, seldom is unambiguous or clear, but probably that is also where Nagai's strength lies: the obstinacy by which he fishes in troubled waters. The sphere of the repressed, implying a form of existence that humanity has left behind, finds its visual equivalent in the intemperance of animal life, of open violence and unbound sexuality, in filth and disorder. What reason has suppressed for the sake of self-conservation, returns to torture it, haunting his autonomy like an awful dream and, eventually, in the apparently total triumph of planetary technique, like a tortuous obsession.
"Man's domination over himself, which grounds his selfhood, is almost always the destruction of the subject in whose service it is undertaken; for the substance which is dominated, suppressed, and dissolved by virtue of self-preservation is none other than that very life as functions of which the achievements of self-preservation find their sole definition and determination: it is in fact what is to be preserved. [...] The history of civilisation is the history of the introversion of sacrifice" (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1947: 54-5).
Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno (1947: 29) argue, inevitably will turn into barbarity because "mythos" always remains its "mythic terror", a fear to lose what it has gained through suffering and sacrifice:
"Men had to do fearful things to themselves before the self, the identical, purposive, and virile nature of man, was formed, and something of that recurs in every childhood" (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1947: 33).
19Self versus civilization. It is just this "mythic terror" that seems to be at the front of Nagai's narrative and the choices his protagonists have to make in establishing their identity. The efforts that led mankind from animal existence to the human one and that in every childhood turn the perverse polymorph into the civilized adult, incessantly reproduce the temptation to let oneself go, to regress to the amorphous state. Or, as Horkheimer and Adorno (1947: 33) phrase it in their own words: "The narcotic intoxication which permits the atonement of deathlike sleep for the euphoria in which the self is suspended, is one of the oldest social arrangements which mediate between self-preservation and self-destruction — an attempt of the self to survive itself."
Technical domination that democratizes and introjects violence of nature as violence on nature, is nothing but its unconscious continuation: nature that keeps on screaming its need for peace inside culture. Only a critical understanding of this repression mechanism could relax the hold on nature. In the return of the repressed that longs to dissolve the Self and take it back to the amorphous and the indistinct, one can foresee the idea of a finally conciliated nature:
"The dread of losing the self and of abrogating together with the self the barrier between oneself and other life, the fear of death and destruction, is intimately associated with a promise of happiness which threatened civilization in every moment" (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1947: 33).
20Destructive goodness. Seen from this perspective, the dialectic of good and evil in Nagai's work is a reminder of such a utopian possibility, the idea of redemption of nature hidden in the gearbox of technical advancement and increasing standardization. The Evil described by Nagai looks like unregimented life, it resembles the voice of repressed nature. Nature violently disturbs self-cognition because self-cognition is nothing but violence perpetrated on nature. [6] Nightmares are the scars produced by instrumental ratio on mutilated nature, whose mutilations are the ciphers one needs to recognize to slacken domination. Domination, on the other hand, corresponds precisely to the triumphant and destructive good, incarnated by Mazinger, whose rigidity and void symmetry echoes the mimesis of death. Any vague attempt to justify Nagai's predilection for violence by calling Mazinger's destructive power "defensive violence" is pointless. Sadistic identification with Mazinger's destructiveness is not just something Nagai can't help; he induces it through uncountable efforts. The very emotional structure of the episodes — staged from stasis, the enemy's plot, the attack, the entrance of the hero, the troubles surrounding the fight, the solution and victory, and finally stasis again — intrinsically looks like masturbation. It takes the audience into a never changing rhythm, whose cyclical predictability is functionally no less than actually useless and absurd. The viewer permits himself to go with it, only because a final victory is guaranteed. There's no hope, nor expectation to live through something really new.
21Destruction and reconciliation. This appraisal of Nagai's anime series is not meant to glorify its shortcomings. One has to admit, that its narrative structure and pictorial design, just like every other product of the culture industry, offer only a shadow of experience and newness, just enough to hide the persistence of identity (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1947: 120). Structures and values of Mazinger Z, certainly, are regressive and ideological, sometimes even in an embarrassing way. Tetsuja Tsurugi, the boy hero of the Great Mazinger, reveals such coldness and inability to take care for the others and share their sorrow, that one can only describe him as a psychotic character. [7] Open misogyny is also typical for Nagai: Tetsuja's partner Jun never gets the opportunity to win a battle. Obviously, she is only there to demonstrate Mazinger's superiority. Tetsuja always sneers at her and makes certain she doesn't forget her inferiority. On the contrary, Marquis Yanus is not only respected among the evil generals, but her plots are always so smart and dangerous that she proves to be much more intelligent than Jun. It's not by describing the positive heroes and in finding justification for their violence that Nagai's eludes the ideological conditioning of culture industry. It's rather his powerful imagination that overturns current ideology. His delirious perception of reality and the answer he gives to the enigmas arising from it, show how the dialectic between nature and domination, between life and death, and the intricate relationship between destruction and reconciliation are crucial for the definition of rationality itself.
22Nagai's and Adorno's dialectics of Enlightenment. Of course, there is much more to say about Nagai's robots and the Japanese manga and anime series in general. If you look at the early productions, like those of Nagai, they will strike you with their "realistic" aplomb. The directors of these stories planned all the visual elements of their narratives with care, like they were shooting a film, with panning zooms, aggressive shots and dynamic camera movements. As a result the scenery shows a "depth" that is sharply contrasting with the Byzantine flatness of the American cartoons. They were actually "films designed for children;" applying the visual language of an adult-oriented medium — cinema — to a children-oriented product — cartoons. This may have added to the fascination of kids for these animated comics. Interesting also is the "samurai ethos" or rather "samurai folklore" which seems to regulate the choices of many manga characters, making their actions seem strange and unfamiliar from a western perspective. Maybe this "ethos", based on the idea of reaching a goal through physical sufferance, added to the attraction or maybe it was only perceived as an oddity and did have no organic influence on Western viewers. Moreover, one could extend the analysis towards the matching toys and supplement it with the manipulative character of their transformations. Many of these elements certainly await further analysis. As I hope to have shown here, though, an answer to the question of the worldwide fascination of young people for these manga series cannot pass over the surprising correspondence between Nagai's and Adorno's dialectics of Enlightenment.
1. For a detailed account on Nagai's work see: Pellitteri, 1999: 403. Further material on Mazinger Z can easily be found on the Internet, see for instance: Go Nagai Italian Homepage (2002). Return to text
2. "By affirmative culture is meant that culture of the bourgeoisie epoch which led in the course of its own development to the segregation from civilization of the mental and spiritual world as an independent realm of value that is also considered superior to civilization. Its decisive characteristic is the assertion of a universally obligatory, eternally better and more valuable world that must be unconditionally affirmed: a world essentially different from the factual world of the daily struggle for existence, yet realizable by every individual for himself 'from within', without any transformation of the state of fact. It is only in this culture that cultural activity and objects gain that value which elevates them above the everyday sphere. Their reception becomes an act of celebration and exaltation" (Marcuse, 1937: 95). Return to text
3. According to Adorno, "amusement" as such is not "bad" — some Adornians seem unable to read the lines where Adorno states this conclusion. If it only could gain total emancipation from the need of "meaning" something or having a "positive" goal — not least that "relaxing" quality imposed by an industry in search for justification — amusement even, he argues, would be a "corrective" for the autistic seriousness of modern Art. See: Horkheimer and Adorno, 1947: 164-165. Return to text
4. Thanks to Daniele Timpano for having suggested this. This article is the illegitimate son of our discussions on these topics. Return to text
5. This absurdity alone should make us think about Nagai's real intentions and the presumptive "positive" value of violence in his stories. The idea that Earth would live in peace if it were not for the ugly and bad ones, is so laughable, one needs to think it's quite sarcastic. Consciously or not, Nagai uses this subject as a pretext, thus turning it into a stock phrase. Banality, too, produces critical insights. Return to text
6. "In the self-cognition of the spirit as nature in disunion with itself, as in prehistory, nature calls itself to account: no longer directly, as mana — that is, with the alias that signifies omnipotence — but as blind and lame" (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1947: 39). Return to text
7. Tetsuja's sadomasochistic attitude is revealed in episode 36 of the television series, where he lets a monster nearly destroy him as a self-punishment for having killed a little girl's dog. That's just a moral tactic to get her mercy, because the girl now hates him. Once she surrenders and forgives him, the sight of his pain being unbearable for her, Tetsuja vents all of his sadism easily destroying the enemy. Return to text
  • Adorno, Theodor W. (1951), Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1951; quoted from: Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980, volume 4.
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(published on Soundscapes -  journal on media culture ISSN 1567-7745)

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