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Capitalism, Culture, and the Ideological State Apparatus: an Anime Review
A little autobiography, discussion of 'Odd Taxi,' and brief reflections on culture writing
I need to write more, and I apologize to my readers/subscribers for the long break from this platform. I was planning on returning a month or so ago with a little more tech-oriented piece, my draft of which Substack subsequently deleted in some error. Obviously, this was demoralizing. So I procrastinated, consumed a ton of media, and bought some books. Here I am now though with something which will undoubtedly be less coherent – an attempt to knit together a few things I’ve been ruminating on.
Content warning: suicide and abuse mentioned (briefly) ahead.
Anime. I’ve been watching it pretty religiously for over a decade now. When I was a late elementary/early middle schooler I’d get home in the afternoons and my mom would go back off to work, leaving me home alone. While I kept up appearances, as a gay kid in 00’s and early 10’s it was impossible not to feel alienated from your peers, so I’d sit at the family computer in the kitchen and browse what the late 00’s internet had to offer – feeling more community with commenters and users than people in ‘real life.’ For me this began with frequenting meme sites in the vein of ICanHazCheeseburger.com and FailBlog, and ended with keeping up on the (at the time less) toxic imageboard 4chan. At the same time I became enthralled with mulitplayer online games – Runescape, AdventureQuestWorlds (a deep cut, I know), Minecraft. The consumers of these cultures then formed a near-circle venn diagram with American anime fans, and so I often encountered memes screencapped from Lucky Star, Toradora!, and the popular shonen of the time. Increasingly tech-savvy, I watched seasons upon seasons of Bleach and Naruto on YouTube, fansubbed and split up into parts. Once it began to become officially licensed in the U.S. YouTube started to care about the illegal distribution of anime on the site, so I and others like me were pushed to even less legitimate places to access anime. Remember, Netflix was just pivoting from DVD to streaming and Crunchyroll was beginning its transition to legitimacy. Anime was still marginal culture, and it was in these margins I became truly invested.
Branching off beyond the shonen everybody knows, these websites maintained directories of imports I had never heard of – some of which transcended into more popular consciousness (Ouran High School Host Club, Durarara!!, Fruits Basket, K-On!) and others which have lost much of their popularity (Darker Than Black, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Full Metal Panic: Fumoffu, Angel Beats). Something about the medium felt very mature to the younger me. It didn’t shy away from gore in action scenes, the humor was sharp, and the plots of even shows intended for a younger audience featured hardships that still aren’t found in western animation. I felt as though I had found something special and forbidden, which, in hindsight, might have been some form of chunibyo. Irrespective, I’ve stuck with it, albeit to a lesser degree than I used to now that my time is significantly more limited. Where I used to watch it ravenously, I now manage only maybe four or five shows a year. As I’ve grown and changed, the world and its media attitudes have too – including anime.
Odd Taxi and Capitalism
Odd Taxi is a hard show to pin down. It’s part mystery, part slice-of-life, part dark comedy – following a cab driver named Odokawa and the people he ferries from place to place. Over the course of the series we learn more about a deep yakuza conspiracy, an up-and-coming idol group, and the many characters’ personal histories which led them to become involved in the plot, however tangentially. The closest thing I can think to compare it to is Durarara! or, for non anime viewers, maybe some strange, urban combination of Twin Peaks and Lost in Translation (2003). The city is a main character in this show, its atmosphere builds and pervades the more it continues on - affecting not just how characters navigate the landscape, but also how their very lives are built, lending the show a very deep feel to it, despite only lasting 13 episodes. Despite its landmarks indicating that it specifically takes place in Tokyo, Odd Taxi feels like it could take place anywhere. The circumstances likely would feel familiar to most watchers, because at its core Odd Taxi is a story about the monotony, despair, and homogeneity of contemporary capitalism – and how it tears apart the lives of all those subservient to it.
Many of you may be thinking to yourselves right now ‘anthropomorphic anime critique of capitalism? you may be reaching a bit here’ but it’s not subtextual here. Explicitly, the writing deals with class warfare. The character of Tanaka the cat, pictured above, is the most extreme example. Tanaka is driven from an abusive middle-class childhood, during which he was ostracized into a lower social caste, eventually obsessing over gacha-based mobile games to fill his need for feeling self-worth – projecting himself onto the success of his gambling addiction, which is more exciting than his menial office job. In the show he narrates to himself (or to the viewer), where other characters talk to eachother, at one point explaining a moment in his backstory where he intended to upend the economic strata of his middle-school classroom in what he called “Tanaka’s Revolution” (chunibyo here again). When things inevitably go sideways, his failing mental health leads him to violence: eyes bloodshot, gait drooping. Despite recognizing the systemic roots of his distress, the futility of isolation in post-modernity and the explicit “nihilism” which it developed within him, lead him to pin blame first on himself, and then on the individuals around him. This, of course, is as absurd as it is in reality – which he quickly realizes, losing track of his own motivations and illustrating how the contemporary socio-economic paradigm makes subversion as pointless as compliance. It is no surprise that his thread ends with a suicide attempt.
Other characters’ stories represent related concepts, each driven by their own despondency. Kabasawa, a college-aged man, seeks to fill his own lack of self-worth by going viral on Twitter, manufacturing content in a fake-it-til-you-make-it cycle until he does go viral. Unable to deal with the stress, he invents a persona, sleeps with his fans, and attempts to act as a vigilante – before he is brought back down to earth, has all his possessions taken from him, and is forced to humiliate himself on and delete his social media. The idol trio represented in the show similarly is so driven by their impoverished upbringings that they will do anything to get ahead, or in their words “achieve [their] dreams.” Once again, they each turn to violence. Kakihana, the best friend of the protagonist, equates his virility with his socio-economic capital blaming his economic situation on his inability to get married. He goes on to present himself as wealthy, in order to attract attention. Lo and behold, this too leads to violent ends. All roads for the unlucky lead to violence, in fact those few who are privileged are the only few who avoid it for the duration of the show.
Odd Taxi is geared artfully for our contemporary moment, avoiding the tropes of like-minded anime before it, which displaced their critiques through science fiction or fantasy allegories, and instead opting for directness. In doing such, it focuses on, in particular, the way that capitalism affects its subjects psychologically – how it breaks down the ability to reason, or to see the humanity in those surrounding you (literally). Class antagonism manifests not in the solidarity of revolution or of collective action, but in random acts of violent despair brought upon by those without any path to reconciling with themselves or the world around them. “Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable,” wrote critic and philosopher Mark Fisher of culture and society in his 2008 book Capitalist Realism, “the fact that capitalism has colonized the dreaming life of the population is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment.” The preoccupation with ends (not) achieved through meritocracy, and the “dreams” affixed thereto, is the darkness of Odd Taxi. The downtrodden proletariat, today no longer searching simply for the worldly validation of income and wealth under economic capitalism, but also for the validation of the communication-culture ideological state apparatus, to be seen and known by others in the market of memes and brief moments (which themselves can be, and are, monetized). It seems almost too convenient that the discussion of chapter two in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus begins with the discussion of the '‘wolf-man” of Freud (though he was not anthropomorphic beyond text): “the wolves, in a metastable state, have gone over to a large-scale social machine.” The wolves, bolsheviks as they were, are nonexistent now – they are not supplanted by the sheep of cliché, but instead simultaneously deterritorialized lupine fragments of capitalist assemblage. “Virtue” in Odd Taxi, and indeed in reality, is only achieved now through self-sacrifice – martyrdom for self-effacement reigns, because there is no alternative for real salvation.
Culture Writing and Capitalism
I had a related exchange recently on Twitter which I’d like to bring in here to wrap up this newsletter, and maybe expand upon in a later piece. (Excellent) music writer Micco Caporale tweeted her sadness that there wasn’t more cross-pollination between culture writing and political writing – as someone deeply invested in music, politics, and (somewhat less invested in) writing (a joke) I couldn’t agree more. It is my view that not only is it simply a problem in the coverage of culture, both contemporary and historical, to neuter it of its politics, but also a problem of politics, which historically have been buoyed by the draw of culture. As I pointed out in my reply though, there has been a concerted effort by the repressive state apparatus, namely the CIA, to decouple culture and politics by making the marriage of them in any way which threatens status quo dangerous. One need only read excerpts from the recent book by historian Aaron Leonard, The Folk Singers and the Bureau, for examples of the far reaching history of this operation. Today, popular culture is as central to society and liberal as it has ever been – promoting libertarian technocracy and exploiting the labour of those working under it all the same. Making symbolic gestures towards liberation while genuflecting before funders, branding themselves individuals while maintaining their obsequiousness to existing power as rhizomes of the capitalist assemblage. Culture writers and politics writers are necessarily kept separate under the purview of the state and its corporate appendages, in order to not disrupt such an ecosystem.
In postmodernity, life is filtered through culture – to this, Donald Trump himself is evidence. If critics were able to reach an audience and direct that culture, it would potentially change the order of power. In a shrinking media market, it is convenient to disincentivize the combination of politics and culture beyond shallow depths, despite their ouroboric natures. By maintaining a subsistence writing, balkanized (post-)print media industry, the state and the cultural ideological state apparatus maintain control of popular culture. These of course are just elements of a broader problem created by subsistence capitalism, keeping most subversive art from achieving staying power due to the economic requirements of living with any quality in contemporary society. Again, maybe worth discussing in another newsletter.
Both Odd Taxi and culture writing, generally, end in the maintenance of the status quo. Characters return to the state in which they began, temporarily fulfilled by the excitement of the passing events. Writers cover subversive new culture, which then fades as echoes of the old culture return to become new again. Things remain the same, as the world spirals out.
Here’s a music recommendation for the week. I was introduced to this by a Discord server I’m in and haven’t been able to stop listening. The tasteful harp parts really shine.