Concrete Revolutio weaves an intricate tale that both nods to and thoroughly questions its pop culture roots in more ways than one.
“Superhumans protect the peace of humans. Then, who protects superhumans?”
It’s a question asked again and again throughout Concrete Revolutio, as often by protagonist Jiro Hitoyoshi as by his colleagues at the Superhuman Bureau, and if it recalls nothing so obviously as the constant philosophical refrain of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, this is not by accident. Like that seminal comic, Concrete Revolutio takes place in an alternate timeline only a hair’s breadth removed from our own where the various heroes of pop culture fiction exist in the flesh and are taken (if somewhat begrudgingly by the distrustful citizenry) as a given. Except where Moore and Gibbons’ novel drew its inspiration from a stable of heroes based on major Charlton and DC superheroes, writer Sho Aikawa and director Seiji Mizushima look to the heroes of 60s and 70s Japanese popular culture for their aesthetic and settings.
The era may be dubbed “Shinka” rather than “Showa,” but there’s little chance of mistaking that the bright plastic colors, conspicuous use of Zip-A-Tone dots and the simpler, rounder, more playful character designs of Revolutio’s cast are intentionally chosen to evoke the styles of later Showa-era luminaries such as Mitsuteru Yokoyama, Osamu Tezuka, Shotaro Ishinomori and the house styles of animation companies like Tatsunoko. If protagonist Jiro seems to be a long-lost missing number from the cast of Cyborg 009 and if robot Earth-chan resembles Tezuka’s Astro Boy in design, power set, and origin, this is by design, not coincidence.
If, though, these similarities start to feel unnerving—as if the characters were designed not to evoke their counterparts’ spirit but some uncanny, unsettling facsimile of it—this, too, is entirely by design. It’s one thing to watch as detective Raito Shiba’s human exterior vanishes to reveal his obviously-Kikaider inspired android skeleton; it’s another thing entirely to watch as he tries to gun down a fellow superhuman because the boy’s activism threatens to “cause trouble to hundreds of thousands of commuters!” Similarly disheartening to behold is the sight of American-powered super robots melting a family of Japanese immortals to their constituent atoms or a battle between furious student protestors and a proxy Yatterman who seems more interested in preserving the status quo than answering the righteous complaints of a disaffected citizenry.
Yet for Aikawa and Nishimura—whose interest in evoking the era and artifacts of their childhood extends to more than just summoning up the nostalgia for the style of comics and animation they were raised upon—displaying these cultural touchstones in such an upsetting light is the point entire. As with Watchmen, where Moore and Gibbons found in Western superheroes the perfect symbol to riff on the notions of a Reagan-era West gone mad with apocalyptic furor and authoritarian paranoia, Concrete Revolutio finds in its Jet Age hero’s simplistic morality and militaristic stylings a damning indictment of the way the postwar American occupation smuggled its own insidious ideology in to colonize the culture it had already subjugated through force.
While this may at first sound grandiose, it helps to remember that writer Aikawa and director Nishimura were the team responsible for the 2003 adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist, itself a pointed critique of a Western militaristic nation hell-bent on invading a distant desert nation under false pretenses in order to literally convert its citizens’ blood and souls into a liquid energy source. Or to recall their more obscure Un-Go, a detective procedural set in a near-future Japan wracked by endless terrorist attacks and wrapped around the finger of authoritarian corporate and government interests.
Even Aikawa’s Nadesico—remembered foremost as a comedy—ultimately proved to be an examination of the malign influence simplistic cultural myths of justice and punishment might exert on a culture, how even a children’s show as innocuous as the Getter Robo analogue Gekiganger III can be easily used to smuggle ideological contaminants to a people left resentful by betrayal and protracted conflict. Long among the most politically incisive creators in anime, the pair have made little secret of their disdain for colonial projects, authoritarian regimes, and convenient cultural myths sold to prop up these and other atrocities. What era in contemporary Japanese history is more ripe for exploration than the postwar decades?
A Conflicted Past
While outwardly it’s easy to believe that the years after World War II represented an era of uninterrupted prosperity and tranquility for Japan, the truth is that Japanese society bucked against America’s postwar presence with more fervor than the sanitized myth of the “Japanese Economic Miracle” conveyed. The 60s in particular were marked by a series of massive riots, from nationwide labor strikes in 1960 meant to denounce Japan and America’s Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security to a series of student protests in 1969 leveled directly at America’s involvement in the Vietnam War that eventually erupted into violent clashes with the police. How could it be any other way? This was a Japan under occupation by the same military power that had just bested it in one of the bloodiest wars in history, a military power that wrote missives to the power of cooperation and peace with one hand while drafting concessions that stripped away its supposed partner’s autonomy and authorized violent invasions with the other.
The Japan of Revolutio’s “Shinka” era is little different. The police force may be staffed by cybernetic detectives and lab-grown supersoldiers tasked with protecting the status quo, a team comprised of magical girls and ghosts and timetraveling detectives may be responsible for keeping any emergent super humans in line, but this is still a Japan under the yoke of American occupation and so still a Japan riven by a deep sense of injustice. If in 1968 students now protest the arrival of American superhuman Master Ultimate and his aircraft carrier full of biomechanical war machines rather than the arrival of nuclear American aircraft carrier Enterprise, if the height of their fervor in 1969 is saved not for America’s plans to use Japan as a staging ground to invade Vietnam but instead for the appearance of an American submarine fueled by enslaved superhumans, this unrest still arises in direct response to an overreaching American empire’s unjust colonization of the physical and cultural spaces of Japan.
Of course, no act of American intervention has been as scarring or symbolically loaded as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; the case is no different in the universe of Concrete Revolutio. Only in this timeline the explosion was not a literal one but a cultural one, as it was somehow miraculously contained and transformed into protagonist Jiro himself. He is, as rival Yoshiaki Satomi has it, “(the) American bomb in a different form,” ground zero for Revolutio’s divergent history. But he is also ground zero figuratively, for Jiro represents the cultural marks that the violence of American intervention have left.
It is to his radioactive blood that nearly every modern Japanese superhuman can trace their origins, after all, whether through the perverse experiments of a Japanese government attempting to replicate the accomplishments of their American counterparts or through new technologies based on his unique energies. Even kaiju—the most blatant and widely known popular metaphoric legacy of the atom bombs in our own universe—trace their bloodline back directly to Jiro in this universe. Only a handful of Shinka-born superheroes (such as the ironically named Human-Man and the comedy band Mountain Horse) can trace their origins to sources beyond Jiro’s blood (to the influence of nature and to an antiwar folk band, tellingly enough).
Much of the series’ major conflict can be traced to the heroes’ obsessions with defining good and evil as clear sides locked in Manichean struggle as opposed to the more ambiguous sense of justice accepted by older heroes. “Justice and evil are supposed to be clearly different!” is practically the catchphrase of Jiro’s one-time protégé Daitetsu Maki but is an insistence again made by everybody from perpetually adolescent ghost Fuuruota to detective Raito, characters who wish the world would bend to their simplistic morality. Perhaps no character’s torment over the vagaries of justice is as telling as the fugitive American superhuman Master Sergeant Morrell’s. “Until the old rulers are eliminated, our war cannot end,” he declaims to Jiro after the sight of Japanese religious iconography triggers a bout of severe PTSD and sends him into a murderous rage. “You people have no justice. Both good and bad are idolized and worshipped. Wake up to the new era! Guide humanity to its glorious future!” His pleas to his fellow superhuman may ultimately prove unfruitful but indicate quite clearly the ideological imperative that Jiro—son of American superscience that he is—is heir to.
That Morrell’s former superior spends this same incident opining about America’s moral duty to “seal away the culture of the natives” and then trying to reclaim Jiro for the American military so they might “spread this glory to all humanity” makes it clear where these ideas originated from and exactly how the American empire views its role as the moral arbiter of the world. War is as much an ideological endeavor as it is a physical one, after all, and culture just another weapon, one more carrier especially designed to spread philosophy, a detail that becomes clear mere episodes later when Emi and her compatriots find themselves retaliating against the American superhuman Master Ultima. Though they foil his plans and turn them into a perpetual energy source, that act of self-defense earns them the enmity of the entire Japanese superhuman community and a climactic war with the same. These paramilitary vigilantes claim a Japanese identity but when called upon they are, ultimately, quicker to defend the interests of the American empire that allowed for their birth than the natives of the country they call home.
Artifacts of Youth
Aikawa and Mizushima’s political venom shouldn’t be taken purely as disdain for the pop culture of their youth, though. It’s not that they view these artifacts as inherently cursed; they simply understand too well how their enormous potential was and can be subverted for the worse. That the series’ climactic explosion is saved for a bout between Imperial Advertising executive Yoshiaki Satomi and Jiro suggests Aikawa and Mizushima lay at least as much of the blame on the cynical corporate interests that would manipulate these atrocities purely for profit as they do on the true believer. At least Master Ultima and the American empire he represents—twisted though they are—possess something of an ethos. Satomi cannot even muster a moral foundation. “I feel that this world must grow up, from a child dreaming of superhumans to an adult,” he tells Jiro, but his plan has no roots in morality. Rather, what drives him is contempt: contempt for naivety, contempt for confusion, contempt for hope, contempt for everything the earnest Jiro and his conflicted brethren represent. “To me, a world with superhumans seems much too strange … you all are children who don’t understand reality.”
Faced with a world devoid of even these conflicted and warped superheroes, Mizushima and Aikawa choose their side, believing that despite their amazing potential for abuse and misdirection, the tales of their youth contain an intrinsic value not easily dismissed. It’s a confusing and confused conclusion given the ambivalence expressed earlier in Revolutio, one that comes in a rush of compressed episodes and half-baked narrative disjunction, but there’s something oddly fitting about it. Heir to the same conflicted and conflicting tradition as the stories that inspired it, Revolutio ultimately finds itself similarly riven by ambiguities it can never quite resolve but which remain fascinating all the same.
Concrete Revolutio is available now in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Funimation.