On the Character Muroto Bunmei

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As evidenced from the lack of accessibility for the series on DVD, but which can still be found on Youtube with English subtitles, Gosenzosama Banbanzai is somewhat of an overlooked piece in Oshii’s body of work.  Although it touches on themes Oshii has visited in his films leading up to and following the series’ creation, probably the most significant connection Gosenzosama has to Oshii’s films is the character Muroto Bunmei.  In the series, Bunmei is a time traveler who intervenes in the Yomota family’s affairs for bringing order back to the space time continuum by preventing paradoxes.  Oshii included the character in The Red Spectacles as an operative for the cat regime who hunts after the insurgent Koichi Todome and Oshii also reprises Bunmei for a small role in Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.  Interestingly, the surname Bunmei is construed as the modern Japanese term for “civilization.”  The character “bu” referring to “military” and the “mei” of Bunmei means “light or bright” and can be associated with enlightenment.  The name bunmei implies “the ordering and improvement of society by the use of the word ‘bun’ (a scholarly rule).”  In addition, “bunmei” was not a prevalently used term in Japanese discourse until after the Meiji Restoration, “when the famous phrase bunmei kaika (generally translated as ‘civilization and enlightenment’) was coined by Japan’s westernizers to describe their entire project for the transformation of Japanese society.”  Another connotation to the name Bunmei, one which has become the predominant meaning for Japan, is it signifies the products of science and technology, specifically the technological development for Japanese society that came about in the form of mass communications advanced with telephones and computers to transportation with buses and trains, and such industrial growth is associated with modernism in Japan.  As accounted by Shoji Suzuki, who discusses the term ‘bunmei’ in his writings published during the early 1980s, because of urbanization, “‘Japanese people can no longer live in isolation from ‘civilization’….All of our daily life is carried out with the help of these ‘tools of civilization’ [bunmei no riki].”

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In considering Bunmei’s surname refers to the past slogan of “civilization and enlightenment,” representing the imperial state’s efforts during the Meiji period to persuade the public in accepting westernization for Japan, Bunmei serves as an appropriate nemesis for the characters in Oshii’s films.  Particularly in The Red Spectacles for Koichi, described the “stray dog,” depicted as an outcast in his own society to where, in the film’s sequel, Koichi is seen living off the grid in the Taiwan countryside, living outside the system suggested to have become completely regulated and managed by the state’s oversight.  In Gosenzosama, the inevitable rise of modernity for late twentieth century Japan is appropriately channeled through the character Bunmei when the “aggressive modernization in the Meiji period was captured in the slogan bunmei kaika.”  Oshii even comically depicts Bunmei’s first appearance as being dispensed by a Coca-Cola vending machine, an appropriate riff on the Japanese state’s own efforts at selling westernization to its people.  Moreover, as Bunmei’s role and his performance personifies time, he provides a sense of subjection to a firmly set course for the characters’ history, an inescapable fate awaiting them that channels a similar fatalism seen in classic tragedian theater.  Oshii invokes the past concept of ‘bunmei’ as emblematic of the state’s embracing of modernism and expressing it as resurfacing for the characters in Gosenzosama in terms of their unavoidable destiny.  Oshii’s use of the character Bunmei seems to reflect on the question as to whether Japan’s submission to westernization and modernism was an unavoidable outcome due to western expansion which Japan’s insularity could not prevent these western customs becoming integrated into its own culture brought about by the American occupation.  Conceiving both the Gosenzosama and Kerberos series in line with dramatic fatalism, perhaps Oshii ponders as to whether modernism in Japan could have been avoided if Japan continued to remain in staunch isolationism or was this already bound to occur regardless of the many centuries where Japan’s world status was in seclusion from foreign affairs?  The question appears attested in the contradictory nature of Bunmei as a character, for he wants to preserve the traditions in the Japanese family structure but in doing so he incidentally lays the foundation for the Yomota family’s dissolution by his regulatory intervention in their family life.  While Oshii conveys his own personal sentiments through Bunmei during his musical number, he also seems to represent him as an indictment of the Japanese government.  Bunmei expresses the government’s own inherent contradictions in wanting to protect Japanese nationalism and culture yet also decidedly upending this from adopting western norms through the country’s subjugation to western occupation.

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An informative resource on the history of dogs in Japan is Aaron Skabelund’s Empire of Dogs, in which Skabelund accounts the concept of bunmei is written into “The Story of Enlightened and Unenlightened Dogs,” published as a state distributed pamphlet entitled “Bunmei kaika”.  As Skabelund notes, the tale was not just about dogs but a “parable deployed by the powerful to persuade the populace to embrace the government’s policy of Westernization through ‘civilization and enlightenment.’”  The story shares significant similarities with Oshii’s own Kerberos Panzer Cop series.  The tale relates two opposing street dog gangs living near one another in the same region.  One day, their leaders meet together and reflect that although their world is changing due to the influence of “enlightenment and civilization,” nevertheless, as one leader states to the other, “we dogs are not adapting.”  The leader then proposes that rather than fighting over marking their territory like the “unenlightened” dogs do, they should become like Western dogs, or the more “enlightened” dogs who look down upon such conduct.  However, the other leader refuses to comply, and as a result he and the unenlightened dogs are left to famine while the more enlightened dogs enjoy feasting on the leftovers gathered from restaurant establishments being built around their area.  Furthermore, as Skabelund notes, stray street dogs also came “to represent urban and rural groups who challenged imperialism and [the] often invasive authority of colonial governments and modern nation-states.”

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Oshii perhaps also took some inspiration from Kanagaki Robun’s book “Through the West by Shank’s Mare” (published in the 1870s) in conceiving the Kerberos and Gosenzosama series in regards to expressing the transformation of Japanese cultural norms across the course of time with succeeding generations.  In a two-page spread illustration for “Shank’s Mare,” three men (an older civil gentleman in a top hat and coat; a young man who wears both modern and samurai clothing; and a classical two-sworded samurai) are shown standing across from each other from right to left, what is supposed to represent the “progression toward ‘civilization.’”   The young man who is a mixture of modern and samurai attire is described as “half-enlightened” and he is portrayed facing the top hatted western gentleman, who is described as “the future of a ‘civilized’ Japan.”  The younger man is similar to some of the characters in Oshii’s films like Inumaru Yomota and the characters Yoshikazu Fujiki often plays, where they seem to be stuck in their own time’s transition from Japanese tradition to modernism.  This time shifting displacement of changes in society and culture are used in Gosenzosama and The Red Spectacles to perhaps communicate past generations laying witness to a pre-established vision of their own subjection to modernity guided by the state’s hand as expressed through Bunmei.

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In Gosenzosama, note also that Bunmei is hailed “The Guard Dog of Time” and working as a surveillance operative for the “Special Department for Anti-Historical Crime.”  These titles Bunmei claims to hold relates interestingly with his character in the Kerberos series when Bunmei seems commissioned to protect the government’s attempts at covering over the history of the Kerberos by ridding every evidence of their existence, what perhaps evokes the Japanese imperial state’s efforts at prescribing its own version of Japan’s history.  For the Kerberos series, Oshii creates an alternative reality of Japan through providing an alternative history, what seems his own attempt at concocting a revisionist history in response to how the Japanese government gave a different account of its own country’s past for the early twentieth century.  In 1982, a controversy even arose over the Japanese government censoring its public school textbooks and whitewashing its history, watering down the atrocities committed by Japan during the Asia-Pacific War.  During the late 80s and 90s, around the time when Kerberos and Gosenzosama were released, in response to this issue, Japanese right-wing nationalist groups sought political influence for getting more precise historical accounts in Japanese school textbooks.  Much like how Oshii perceives his recurrent characters like Moongaze Ginji as being based on his experiences of the past as told through figments of myth, seen with The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters, Koichi and Inu, in assuming the role of the “Kerberos” (the hellhound of Hades) are also myths unto themselves.  Although they stem from Oshii’s imagination, they are nevertheless derived from a more authentic history, the ghosts of the past being resurrected to haunt the present, disturbing a less truthful history provided by the state and in doing so give the more real impression of this history than the one prescribed by the Japanese government.  This perhaps indicates another reason as to why Oshii holds such affection towards dogs.  It may not only be out of idiosyncrasy but also because what dogs generally signify to the Japanese in social and political contexts.  The anarchic anti-establishment connotations of the dog in Japan are certainly in line with the political views Oshii expressly identifies with.

Sources Referenced:

  1. Japanese Society Since 1945 ( 1998) by Edward R. Beauchamp
  2. Civilization and Enlightenment: The Early Thought of Fukuzawa Yukichi (2009) by Albert M. Craig
  3. Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World (2011) by Aaron Herald Skabelund
  4. http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/throwing_off_asia_01/cur_student/toa_cur_03.html
  5. http://www.nzasia.org.nz/downloads/NZJAS-Dec01/Textbook.pdf
  6. http://www.siue.edu/EASTASIA/Yagi_110800.htm
  7. http://www.productionig.com/contents/works_sp/35_/s08_/000620.html.
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