Fafner in the Azure: Identity, Community, and Alienation
While imitation may indeed be the sincerest form of flattery, it can easily be overlooked as a mere acknowledgement of mediocrity. Directed by Nobuyoshi Habara, the Fafner in the Azure saga is a clear homage/clone of Neon Genesis Evangelion which pales in the shadow of its more famous predecessor. The object of this essay (which sadly will be littered with spoilers) will be to bring out the latent themes which make this series worth a watch.
Before getting into the thematic analysis, it would be prudent to understand the structure of the saga itself. The Fafner franchise consists of three anime series; Dead Aggressor (2004) and Exodus (2015) and the Beyond (2019-) as a movie Heaven and Earth (2008) as well as Right of Left an OVA. While it would be desirable for this discussion to informed by the latest entry in the series (the Beyond), it is left unaddressed since it is still ongoing.
The Fafner saga depicts the struggle of the residents of Tastumiya Island against the powerful alien race called Festum. The island’s defense is headed by a set of mechas called Fafner manned by graduating high-school students. Dead Aggressor starts off with a Festum attack compelling the protagonist Kazuki Makabe to use the powerful Fafner named Mark Elf. As attacks become more frequent he joined by his classmates including Maya Toomi. While the overall command is exercised by Kazuki’s (apparently) layabout father Makabe, their on-field operations were controlled by Soushi Minashiro. But since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, the price of using these powerful machines is assimilation into the Festum. This is a process by which the pilot’s consciousness is merged with the collective consciousness of the Festum.
While it is tempting to dissociate the essence of a story from the form in which it is encased, it would be unwise to do so since the means by which a story is conveyed across cannot be dissociated from the story in itself. The following section will deal with both the form of the narrative as well as the plot itself.
The Poetics of Belonging: Cinematography in Fafner
One of the character features of the Fafner saga is the breath-taking beauty which only a masterful soundtrack combined with mesmerising cinematography can provide. For example, the opening sequences of Dead Aggressor, Heaven and Earth as well as Exodus are breath-taking evocations of nostalgia.
This particular track seems invokes both a feeling of nostalgia for the environs of Tatsumiya island as well the inevitable mourning for the tragedy which continues to play out in the lives of its people. The wind by which we are introduced to the main cast seems to be filled with the monotony of life on the island. Another particularly beautiful sequence is the depiction of the Sunderbans in Exodus; of a forest teeming with life as our protagonists towards a refuge from both their human and alien enemies.
While Dead Aggressor seems to have the best artwork and music, it trips up in the story department. This is because there was a change in writers mid-season with Tow Ubakata taking over for which improved the quality quite a bit. While the first set of episodes are chock-full of fight scenes and new Nordic-sounding technology, there is a ubiquitous lack of cohesiveness which infects the narrative. For example, the ill-thought alternation between a love triangle between Maya, Soushi and Kazuki and the homoerotic undertones of Kazuki and Soushi’s relationship leaves a lot to be desired.
If one cannot build a castle on wooden foundations, it is no surprise that these birthing pains couldn’t be overcome by Ubakata in either Dead Aggressor or Exodus. That being said, however, Exodus which depicts the discarding of the island’s isolationism and the eponymous distress migration from Srinagar is a masterful work on its own merits.
Thinking About Community: Themes in Fafner
Having established the shortcomings of the narrative, it is best to analyze the underlying themes of identity, community, and estrangement. These themes are not only represented through the index of the Festum and the neo-UN, but through the very nature of Tastumiya Island itself which becomes a symbol for community 1.
Tatsumiya island was created as a refuge for the remnants of the Japanese race after the Festum attack robbed them of them their fertility. They’ve created a community which seems untouched by the struggle for survival that human beings are waging against the Festum so much so that our heroes are able to have the trademark anime high school experience. But this “false paradise” is dispelled by the invasion of the Festum.
Mortality and Identity
One of the enduring themes underlying Fafner dealt with rather ostensibly in the short life of Tsubaki Minashiro is that you have accept the certainty of death if you are to even clench the possibility of life. This dilemma is reified in the nature of the Festum; they are able to transcend space and time but because they go beyond both these planes.They are Nothingness. Thus existence necessitates that one be subject to the vagaries of time and the particularities of space.
But rather than just leave it at this, the anime makes a rather pointed comparison between the soulless Festum and the internationalist neo-United Nations with regards to their bloodlust for their opponent. However, it would be instructive to extend this argument to the nature of the Human Force as categorically similar to that of the Festum as existing outside of place. As opposed to the island of Tatsumiya which has a cultural identity of its own (notice the Japanese style of architecture and pattern of society), the neo-UN is housed in modern universalist trappings . This reflects its commitment to the abstraction of humanity as opposed to the Japanese concretisation of “being left alone”.
According to some accounts of human nature, human beings are shaped by two contrary impulses with regards to society; an enduring desire for autonomy (space) as well as a desire to belong somewhere (place) 2. The neo-UN is thought of as an organization which frees you from the shackles of convention that restrain the inhabitants of the island and enabling self-fulfillment through contributing to humanity’s struggle. However as the sociologist Robert Nisbet notes rational forms of organization lend themselves well to dehumanization 3 and therein tyranny. It is thus unsurprising that the soldiers of the neo-UN are tied to the their leaders not by devotion to home and hearth, but through abstractions about “the greater good”. It may be that these devotion to universal principles is the cause for the inhumanity of this cosmopolitanism and why killing Festum is more important than conserving humanity. The obsession with space created a monster which Tolkien had warned against.
“I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”JRR Tolkien The Lord of the Rings 4
If one does not believe in a home worth defending, then one risks being a prey to The Gospel of the Sword as the Neo-UN has with its ostensible humanism.
Before talking of the significance of community in the series, it would be instructive to discuss Hegels’s notion of an ethical society (sittlich) which the island seems to embody. The ethos of the community is not formulated in explicit rules, but something one grows into as our protagonists grow into their roles as the islands’ protectors. For example Makabe is the commander not because he is appointed by law, but because he is the right 5 person for the job which militates against the ideals of the Enlightenment. This is because the Enlightenment tends towards value pluralism while traditional societies have a unified conception of values. Thus the residents of Tatsumiya island are united in their defense of their(Japanese) community as opposed to “humanity” as whole.
Tradition plays a seminal role in constructing such a society which is rooted in both custom and ritual. As opposed to the multi-cultural names of the Human Force such as General Narain Wiseman-Bose and Lieutenant Aishwariya Fein, most of the original inhabitants of the island are unambigiously Japanese. Their architecture and practises clearly reflect this “provinciality”.
The importance of ritual in social life on the island is reflected in both the Coming of Age Ceremony as well as the Bon Festival. The latter ceremony is especially relevant to this discussion because it is essentially the renewal of the only type of social contract which Edmund Burke would recognise “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born“ 6. The memorialisation of those who lost their lives in the Festum War alongside the celebration of an unborn peace lets the community become at home with itself.
While it may very well be that this is a community, can it ever claim to be a paradise if it refuses to recognise that it cannot fence the world out of yourself? Can a society which still persists in the illusion of a world before the Festum invasion be anything more than a “false paradise” as alleged by Hester Gallop and Yukie Kariya ? Is it not a farce of the highest order to continue acting as if there is still a Japan to go to when the children graduate high school?
While this deceit is considered to be problematic in most of its iterations (such as in The Divergent saga and The Giver quartet ), it is inverted through Maya’s development from the middle part of Dead Aggressor throughout Exodus. In many ways she embodies the devotion to the home once embodied by the goddesses of the hearth such as Hestia. While initially she plays a supportive role (she is the one who brings back Kazuki) tasked with maintaining morale by Kazuki in their assault on the Arctic, Maya grows into one of the triumvarate in Exodus.
As opposed to Kazuki’s saviour-complex, Maya fights not for salvation, but to protect her home and those who make the island her home. This commitment to protecting your home is easier to fulfill when you are slaying Festum, but not when you have to kill other humans to protect your community . But Maya has to do this in first shooting down the bomber which was bombing the island and then in defending Kazuki from assassins in the Neo-UN forces . This reiterates her role as the protector of the home 7. Yet unlike Kazuki, by the second killing she reconciles herself to the fact that to be truly devoted to your home is to accept that you will have to get your hands dirty.
The implications of this change point toward the reality that it was the community’s performance of peace that made the island a paradise. The peace that Kazuki was born into would not have been possible if the community had acknowledged the Festum and rather would have been the lives of the neo-UN citizens who have never seen even a modicum of peace. They were able to experience peace because they acted as if life was peaceful; the performance becoming life itself. As reflected in Maya’s transformation, we do not protect home because it provides us solace, but because we love it. This reflects GK Chesterton’s understanding of greatness.
People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.Orthodoxy 8
Rather than look at the Marxist understanding of alienation it would instructive to look at alienation as “not being at home with the world” . The problem of integrating oneself with a community which has an ethos of its own is evident in the dilemma faced by the neo-UN forces when they encounter the “nationalist” islanders.There are apparently two paths by which this problem can be resolved according to Peter Lawler 9 by either “making the world your home” or “making yourself at home with the world” ; the path of either Marx or MacIntyre.
The homo faber 10 strives to recreate the world in tune with some objective end in mind starting from a tabula rasa to become comfortable with his world (both natural and social). As children of the Enlightenment the neo-UN tried to coerce the islanders into the path of humanity, but in the process occupied them. The doctrine of reason and freedom has bestowed us with many a bounty of human rights, but it has also brought us the guillotine, gulag and gas chamber.
….” that the effort to make us fully at home in the world has the paradoxical effect of making us feel more homeless than ever.”Obituary to Peter Lawler in The Week by Linker 11
The other alternative is to accept the ethos of the community before trying to becoming change it as McIntyre implies. This involves subordinating yourself to the practices 12 of the community as the defectors of the neo-UN who have given up their identities as soldiers in favour of a place offered by the islanders. A case in point would be the transformation of no-nonsense soldier Kanon Memphis into Kanon Hazama, the daughter of Ms. Hazama; from professional into a relational being. By the time she faces her end Kanon has overcome the estrangement which characterized her till then. The way forward according to Fafner would be to first subordinate yourself (assimilate) to the pursuit of the ends of an association before making claims (demands) of that association or as Chesterton put it that” a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”
This series tries to address the problem of alienation in world where the general and universal seems keen on swallowing the particular and parochial. Rather than advocate for the continuation of the Enlightenment project, Fafner in The Exodus points towards the communitarian alternative that is fast becoming a distant memory. Perhaps that is the cure that the doctor ordered for our restless world
There’s always more to see and more to know, but there’s also the kind of confidence that’s not complacency which comes when we see more clearly who we are and what we’re supposed to do, when each of us finds the cure for being abstracted by discovering our place in the world with others.Higher Education as American Counterculture – Peter Lawler
- See James Monaco’s How to Read a Film p.84 for a discussion of Peter Wollen’s film semiotics. ↩
- The place-space dichotomy is something that has been discussed extensively by Peter Jonkers whose guest lectures I was honoured to be able to attend. His How to Respond to Conflicts over Value Pluralism? is a fine introduction to value pluralism and its discontents. ↩
- Robert E Nisbet made reinforcing the intermediary institutions his life’s mission. See his Still Questing for Community and Has the Modern Family Failed Us ? for conservative defense of the “little platoons” republished in The Imaginative Conservative. ↩
- Tolkien, JRR; The Two Towers ↩
- This idea of non-alienation as being at home at with the world is discussed by philosopher Frederick Dolan here. Things are right not because society considers it right, but because it is right. ↩
- Reflections on the Revolution in France p.40 ↩
- This motif is not uncommon in anime as seen in Seyla Moss’s defense of her home in Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin(2015-2016) or in Lenalee Lee’s power-up at the end of D Gray Man (2006-2008). In fact Commander Lana Inez makes a pretty pointed reference to the woman as protector of home trope in Argento Soma (2000). ↩
- Chesterton, GK; Orthodoxy Ch5 ↩
- The postmodern conservative philosopher deals with this problem extensively in his essays. See his What is Human Dignity? and Higher Education as American Counterculture for an introduction to his realist conception of human dignity. ↩
- Discussed extensively by Hannah Arendt ↩
- https://theweek.com/articles/701064/why-every-smart-liberal-should-read-conservative-philosopher-peter-lawler ↩
- The IEP does a fine job of summarising MacIntyre’s notion of practises here ↩
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