Saturday, 28 February 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #19: The Last Samurai Of The Sun

Japan is fucking weird.

This, of course, is hardly revelatory. It's not particularly surprising that one island culture would find another island culture strange, especially when you consider that our little bunch of islands lies on the other side of the world to the Japanese archipelago, and thus cultural contamination (meant in the least pejorative sense possible) has arrived somewhat late in the day.

Sometimes it's worth remembering just how strange Japanese culture is to our eyes, though. It isn't just a place where you can buy a comic book in which a massive-breasted schoolgirl is raped by a tentacle, it's one in which that you might find a middle aged man reading that comic whilst sat next to you on a bus. It's a culture in which blowing your nose in public is abhorrent, but spitting is entirely acceptable. Where they have two Valentine's days, one for each gender, arranged so that your girlfriend buys you a gift in February with the expectation you will spend at least three times as much come March.

A place, ladies and gentlemen, where it has been only a handful of years since you were last legally able to purchase used women's knickers from a vending machine.

Japan is fucking weird. You pick this stuff up learning a language. And I haven't even gotten to the toilets yet.

Today's question is this: when faced with a culture so vastly different from your own, so alien, how do you write a character from that culture?

Research would be the quick answer, but even that doesn't necessarily help. It's arguable that the greater the gap between societies, the harder it becomes to tell the difference between what is genuine cultural difference, and what is cliche and stereotype.

I mention all this purely because I'm not sure it's fair to give Sunfire, aka Shiro Yoshida, too much of a kicking for being so totally obsessed with honour, and/or the Samurai Code. Sometimes, you gotta give writers a bit of slack.

Of course, there are several other reasons to give Shiro a kicking. But let's go back to the beginning...

Here's a fun fact for you (it is in no way fun). Of the seven new international X-Men who joined Cyclops to rescue the original team from the clutches of Krakoa (we've seen Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Banshee and Storm already, Colossus and Thunderbird are still to come), only two of them had appeared in the pages of the comic before. One was Banshee, which, since he was an Irishman in New York doesn't really count as thinking outside of the box. The other was Sunfire who appeared, almost inevitably, as a villain.

It's probably because the two countries interest me so much separately, but I've always been interested in the relationship between the Americans and the Japanese from the end of the Second World War up until, ooh, probably the Seventies at least. I am in no sense a historian, so take all of this with a pinch of salt, but it always seemed to me that the opinion of the Japanese held by many Americans during and following the war differed remarkably from the way the Americans saw the Germans and Italians. There are a number of plausible explanations for this. The attack on Pearl Harbour, the comparative length of the different conflicts, the combat tactics of the Japanese, but I would think that one major reason, if not the greatest reason, for the differing attitude was that Americans understood Europeans. There were a great many German immigrants in the US, and a great many more Italians. America may have been willing to go to war against the motherlands of many of their citizens, but they had little problem grasping the cultures of those they had set themselves against. At least they were killing fellow Christians, which sounds a weird thing to say, but it does mean a level of shared culture.

The Japanese, on the other hand, were so uncommon in the States that it was plausible to round them all up into interment camps. To the general populace it was probably far easier to buy into the "foreigner as other" mentality so much warfare relies upon. It was all Shinto and volcanoes over there, right? Raw fish and emperors and falling on your sword.

Maybe it's for that reason, and maybe not, but it always seemed to me that the Americans listed three enemies in the war; the Nazis; Mussolini's fascists; and the Japanese. The entire culture became demonised in a way the Germans and Italian's didn't. [1]

All of this provides context for Sunfire's initial, villainous turn. The Red Skull is a villain by dint of being a Nazi. You didn't really need anything else in 1941, and don't really need much more today. Nazis = evil. Fact. One wonders whether much more was required of the Japanese. The problem with Shiro's first appearance isn't just that he's a Japanese villain, it's that his villainy stems from the fact that he is desperate for the Home Islands to once again become a dominant power.

Like I said, it can be difficult to separate stereotype from cultural trait, but once we get into "We must rebuild the Empire and destroy the American swine!", I call bullshit. It's just too easy, a straw man in comic character form. It's true that his uncle Tomo raised him to be anti-American ("Ah went ta live with ma bad oncle"[2]) whilst his father was a UN ambassador, but I'm not sure that really helps, especially since Shiro's own father pleaded with him to not be a dick, and Sunfire didn't pick a side until his uncle shot his father in front of him (nice plan, Tomo; definitely the way to keep your nephew on side).

In this humble amateur writer's opinion, you could have gotten far more out of the fact that Shiro's mutant powers were believed to have come from his mother's proximity to the Hiroshima blast (which crippled her for life), and were switched on when he visited Ground Zero. There's a hook for you. You're a superhero, but only because your mother was crippled by a nuclear blast that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and you only got that power switched on by deliberately going back to the scene of the crime (admittedly, it was Tomo's idea). Now what do you do? Power and guilt, and it's the same thing. You could even attack America, if you really wanted. It would make sense at that point, rather than just being a lazy excuse for the Japs to show up and start giving Uncle Sam a hard time.

Still, not much point crying over wasted story potential in 1960's comics. Lord knows I realise that. We should probably be happy Shiro didn't ride into town on a dragon (or in a spaceship piloted by a big-titted minor, for that matter, or would that have been anachronistic?), frankly. And, of course, any true comic book fan knows full well that plenty of characters that went on to be truly great weren't introduced particularly well. The problem with Shiro, though, is that he never changes at all.

Maybe that isn't entirely surprising. The defining characteristic of Shiro, along with patriotism, is insufferable arrogance, and arrogance is a pretty hard thing to beat out of a person even before they become able to harness the power of the sun itself. Even so, though, Shiro is pushing it. This is a man who has fought Namor twice, each time realising the Atlantean was on the right side of things halfway through. This is a man who has fought Iron Man twice, each time realising the American was on the right side of things halfway through. Does that repetition seem jarring? Imagine it's your fucking life, over and over. Then imagine that each time it happens you insist on being an intolerable douchebag about everything ever.

In fact, Shiro is only even in this series of articles because of the one mission he undertook with the X-Men (the rescue from Krakoa), a mission he deliberately refuses to prove to Xavier he doesn't give a shit about the missing heroes, and then joins halfway through just to demonstrate how awesome he is. Remember, this is how he treats the heroes who tried to stop him destroying Washington D.C. for no fucking reason at all. The next time he meets the X-Men, he accuses them of being thieves, and attacks them. My dog learns faster than Shiro, and Josh hasn't managed the art of sitting yet (I blame my parents). He eventually accepts them as fellow warriors, but only because they save his entire country (with Banshee losing his powers in the process).

It is of course very possible that Sunfire's arrogance is a direct result of his self-appointed status as samurai. We return to cliche vs cultural trait. In this case, the latter might make more sense. Whatever the samurai once more, they are now just history. What everyone used to want to be, before Tom Cruise and machine guns showed up. If you're going to reach back into the past, pluck out a dead tradition, and model your life around it, a certain degree of imperviousness to anyone or anything else is probably necessary (God help anyone in the North East who decides they want to be a Viking), and that's before you get into the fact that rigid systems of honour and self-discipline don't usually imply humility, at least not when you're in the intersection of stuff that has huge fucking swords.

There's another part to all of this, as well. As I mentioned, Shiro loves Japan. He adores her so much he returns to the site of its greatest tragedy on the off-chance it would help him serve her better. His patriotism is so great that he models himself on what he sees as the purest representation of her spirit [3]. When his powers go wild after being hit by an EM wave (unleashed by Magneto, but that's another story) and he is forced to flee Japan as a fugitive, his diagnosis with terminal cancer leads to him choosing to return to his beloved homeland. Better to die a prisoner in the land he loves than a free man in Canada (another long story). Once part of Big Hero Six, Japan's own superhero team, and later part of the Yakiba (a branch of Japan's secret service), Shiro seems to finally find his place. The need to prove his superiority as a proxy to Japan's own is no longer present. After being abducted by Apocalypse during The Twelve storyline, he joins the X-Corporation (the successor to Banshee's short-lived X-Corps, where Shiro's sister Sunpyre lost her life), perhaps finally realising that Japan's interests could not be served by clinging to isolationism in an increasingly interconnected world.

This, though, is not what proves that Sunfire has finally changed. That comes later, after he is beaten by Lady Deathstrike, and she cuts off his legs as revenge, or a warning, or a sick game. After he has lost his powers in the wake of M-Day. After he has accepted the offer of Apocalypse to become the newest Famine. When all he has is his will and his desire to once again be a hero, he realises that what Apocalypse offers comes with too high a price. Regaining his legs, regaining superpowers (albeit not necessarily the same ones), neither are worth selling his soul. Selling his honour. And so he tries to escape, dragging himself inch by inch towards one freedom, and away from another.

He would have made it, too, but for his desire to save the life of the man he hears screaming down the corridors of Apocalypse's Sphinx. A man who was almost certainly not Japanese. Who had no reason to care whether Sunfire was the living embodiment of the Bushido code. Who might well be dead, or worse, by the time Shiro could get to him, and who could not expect any help from the de-powered cripple crawling toward him.

His failure results in his being forcibly turned into Famine, a position he holds for all of five minutes before rebelling. Following this, he is not sure what he is. No longer a Horseman, but not free of Apocalypse's influence. No longer an X-Man, or even a hero at all. He might consider himself ronin, perhaps, though by this point he may have abandoned the samurai altogether. Certainly, all that remains is rage, and bloodthirstiness. He even joins Sinister's Marauders, for reasons I still don't entirely understand, though the promise of being saved from Apocalypse's influence seems a likely cause. Now that Sinister is dead, of course, it remains to be seen what Shiro does next.

I hope he returns from the brink. God knows, he's fought on the wrong side of enough conflicts. Fighting for pride, or to earn honour in the eyes of fools. Through it all, there is always the hope he will come home again. Back to the only thing that ever seemed to give him joy. It may be that Shiro's unique blend of aggressive patriotism is simply the third vertex of the Japanese cliche triangle, but there are worse stereotypes than the man who loves his country, and who risks his life every day, protecting the fucking weird.

Next time: we return to our consideration of Wagner (the composer, not the fuzzy teleporter) and remind ourselves that there is a point at which you can become so powerful that there isn't a damn thing you can do about anything.

[1] I'm aware that being Catholic in the States isn't always a great deal of fun, and this continues to be an issue in politics to this day, but whether any of that was due to the war or if its a problem fuelled by America's puritan roots, I couldn't say.

[2] I had hoped to find the relevant clip on Youtube in order to prove that I'm not just going mad. Apparently people don't have sufficient love for Legz Akimbo, though, which is something that will baffle me until the day I die.

[3] When I was much younger I used to think I disliked patriotism. Later though I came to realise that I disliked nationalism. The former often leads to the latter (as we know from The Last Supper), and certainly Shiro is a nationalist, but that in itself doesn't invalidate patriotism a priori.

No comments: