Un-Go ~ final thoughts

December 22, 2011

Shinjurou and the boss.

This is a brief spoiler-free review of Un-go, a Noitamina show from Fall 2011. Un-go is a short series (12 episodes, including an unaired “Episode 0” that was shown  in theaters) produced by Bones. Before the series aired it was commonly believed to be in the Mystery genre, as it was “inspired by” various stories written about a Meiji-era detective by Ango Sakaguchi, who died at age 48 in 1955. But Un-Go is NOT a Mystery series. Un-Go is an excellent example of a genre called Speculative Fiction, that came to the forefront as the New Wave of Science Fiction, during the 1960s.

A rare battle sequence in Un-Go.

Speculative Fiction, seeks to use the imaginative power of story-telling to explore various aspects of the human condition. The space operas that preceded New Wave had an orderly, uncomplicated view of the human experience, both internally and externally. Reason was king, and humans were masters of themselves as a matter of course. They fit together in orderly social structures that didn’t need to be questioned, and used the power of Science to extend their reach to distant stars. The New Wave authors dismissed this view. Authors such as Thomas Disch, Philip K. Dick, and others often wrote dystopic, philosophical stories that explored social problems and/or plumbed human psychiatry.

One of the engaging aspects of this show are the many adult character designs.

How in the HELL stories written in the 1940s to mid-50s about a character in the late 1800s became a futuristic Speculative Fiction anime is a bit beyond me. Nevertheless I’ll take a moment to guess. The Meiji period, in which the regional stories were set, is often thought of positively as the period of the “opening” or modernization of Japan, however it was also a period of recovery after a brutal civil war that ended society as it had been known for centuries. Sakaguchi wrote about that period from the perspective of Post-WWII Japan, another time of peace and hope after a terrible war had destroyed the old order. In Un-Go, social order is maintained at the price of freedom and truth. The justification for the oppressive tactics is the fragility of social order.

During the war, writers were prohibited from telling love stories about widowed wives. Military and political leaders feared that such stories would only lead to moral degeneracy among widows. They wanted these women to spend the rest of their lives as exemplars of fidelity.

– Ango Sakaguchi, On Decadence (1946)

Having not read the original Meiji-era Detective Stories, I’m unsure what liberties the producers of the anime took with the source material. I can say that the detective is the perfect foil for a critique of the naive pre-New Wave view of rationality. The detective was practically invented as a mechanism for naively singing the praises of rationality, since his tool of trade is (in Edgar Allen Poe’s phrase) ratiocination (methodical reasoning). In Un-Go, the main character, Yuuki Shinjurou, is a detective, driven to find the Truth, even though that puts him at odds with the forces of social stability.

A black market for censored music.

I wrote in one of my episodic posts about how the role of the detective is subverted in Un-Go. At first Shinjurou’s quest to find the Truth sets him outside of society. In a set up perfect for exploring the themes of Speculative Fiction, Shinjurou is a critical observer of the way those in power manipulate the social record of facts that is often confused with Truth. Shinjurou uncovers the real truth, but at the cost of being marginalized as the “Defeated Detective”, since his discoveries cannot be allowed to pass into the public record. The brilliance of the series is that Un-Go goes beyond this. After all, leaving matters here merely offers a Romantic version of the naive myth of rationality. The heroic detective, using the power of ratiocination, uncovers the Truth despite the personal cost. Instead Un-Go’s imaginative gaze pierces not only the secrets of society, but of the protagonist himself. Instead of a heroic quest, Shinjurou’s quest for the truth is itself the official lie from which we, the audience, must be disabused.

I heartily recommend giving Un-Go a watch. It is NOT a Mystery series, even if it seems to be pretending that it is at times. It is screwing with your expectations. It is actually a philosophical contemplation of problems present in the human condition, both our inner, psychological failings, and societal ills.

Solar tower, like that in Seville, Spain.

Before I go, I just want to say that there were several fascinating references in Un-Go. One is showed in the screen shot above. This is a very recent solar plant design. Some might not have noticed it, but there was mention of a Solar thermal technology in episode 11, that actually is quite real. Another surprising reference was to Vocaloids (episode 2). There was also a FASCINATING reference to a bizarre Internet hoax in episode 10. For those who don’t know rumors have been circulated that America has been attacking Japan and other countries with our mythical earthquake generator (HAARP). These contemporary references keep the presentation fresh, and without knowing otherwise, I doubt one could possibly guess this show was based on a story written over a half century ago.

14 Responses to “Un-Go ~ final thoughts”

  1. avvesione Says:

    Glad to hear you enjoyed UN-Go as much as I did and I agree with you that the focus of the anime was to explore the social structure on post-war Japan and the nature of truth through speculative fiction, but I still would consider this a mystery anime. Why? All the exploration of the setting and the themes in this anime were examined through the mysteries. Before you could delve into the world, its people, and the truth, you had to wade through the mysteries and even then, they were all necessary as devices or examples to explain the setting. That’s why I’ll consider this a mystery anime even though it’s different than most mystery anime which solve the problem and do nothing until the next one. In my eyes, UN-Go is the best mystery anime since it went beyond just solving mysteries.

    • Joojoobees Says:

      Okay, I can accept that. I still think this is Speculative Fiction first, with Mystery conventions used as a device, rather than a Mystery with Speculative Fiction elements.

      • avvesione Says:

        Then it appears we agree to agree. Another reason why I think it’s a mystery anime is that it just wouldn’t have been the same without the mysteries used to explore the world. Think if it were paired with other genres like action, adventure, comedy, or even something fitting like war or spy. The mystery gave it a distinct flavor that enticed me each episode.

        Also, while at lunch today, I overheard a conversation from some people talking about the solar tower design for energy and I couldn’t help but think of UN-Go and your mentioning of it in this post. Pretty neat, I think.

      • Joojoobees Says:

        I’m glad to hear that people are talking about the Solar Thermal tower. It is a marvel of engineering, and it is a very positive direction for our energy technology to go in.

  2. Mira Says:

    Such a vastly underrated series, it’s great to see how despite the few people who actually do watch it at least it’s managed to get such great feedback. It was a joy (not to mention educational) to read your review on Un-Go. It sums up some of my more scattered thoughts on the series.

    Un-Go scrutinizes problems that I believe, very few anime or even Japanese films touch upon. I do think it’s one of the more important works of 2011, and I can’t help but wonder what Sakaguchi Ango would’ve felt had he seen this series.

    • Joojoobees Says:

      It would be interesting to get Sakaguchi’s feedback. One of the issues that come up at the end are people who claim to be gods, and this was a major issue during Sakaguchi’s time, as it was at the end of WWII that the Japanese emperor acknowledged that he was NOT a god. This is an example of the kind of lie that is used to hold society together, and Mishima was particularly critical of the emperor for having admitted to being human.

      I really think the critique of these socially useful lies is a profound one. There are some politicians here in the USA that argue we should maintain such socially useful fictions for the good of social stability. The presentation in Un-Go might seem Science Fiction or fantastical, and the example of WWII Japan might seem merely historic, or even exotic, but the underlying sociological analysis is still relevant, and the question of whether Social Order is a greater good than Truth, is very relevant to the world of today.

      • Mira Says:

        This is exactly why I found that scene in Un-Go so compelling. There’s something about how the past and the future are so well-knit together and the past does continue to haunt the people of Un-Go. I think the same can be said for any culture. This is why Kaishou seems to stand as a person who maintains balance and order, the truth threatens social stability and as such he must replace it with a suitable lie.

        The mysteries are a way to bring up societal problems and study them, people could definitely benefit from that if they want something with a bit more substance.

      • Joojoobees Says:

        Yes. I think some people who might have initially dismissed it would find that it raises a loud of interesting topics. Definitely a bright spot for anime viewing this past year, particularly for those who prefer a show that gives you something to intellectually chew on.

  3. Sammy Says:

    I can’t believe this is ending already. Totally unfair. Need more. D:

  4. David A. Young Says:

    Although I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, I do think it’s important to make a distinction between the type of social lies you’re talking about and cultural “ideals” or “visions.” I think one of the positives about the old-style “space operas” you referred to (and other types of cultural legends) is that they can give people a vision of the type of world they want to work towards. It’s much easier to get someplace good if you actually have a destination in mind.

    The type of cultural lies you’re discussing actually hurt this effort, though, because it’s hard to improve yourself (or your society) if you don’t have an accurate idea of what needs fixing. Which is just another way of saying that, while we need stories to encourage us to seek the truths of the present, we also need stories to inspire us to seek the possibilites of the future. The whole yin-yang thing, ya know?

    • Joojoobees Says:

      Well, that makes sense, but I wasn’t really talking about the Space Opera as a lie. To the folks at that time (roughly 1965), the old Space Operas weren’t challenging assumptions, they were naively assuming humanity was the known and deep space (where the aliens lived) was the frontier that needed exploring. When the New Wave happened, they challenged that notion, by looking critically at the human psyche and keeping the focus here on Earth, where they believed there was a lot still to be explored.

      Now you could say that the uncritical view, represented in the pre-New Wave, Space Opera stories, in which humans have a natural social order that looks exactly like the status quo of the 1950s, was useful as a tool to maintain social order. I wasn’t actually trying to make that point, but I’ll admit it fits with the theme of Un-Go.

      As to there being a difference between Lies and Aspirations, while that seems like common sense, I am going to guess that Ango Sakaguchi would have challenged you. The essay “On Decadence” that I quote from above was specifically a critique of the ideals of Bushido. Sakaguchi seems to have considered some, at least, of society’s “ideals” to be no more than dangerous lies. Of course the context was 1945 Japan, and there was an extraordinary amount of destruction and death that had resulted from the cultural ideals of patriotism and honor.

      • David A. Young Says:

        Don’t disagree. Like everything else, WHICH ideals/aspirations you choose are critical — and the deeper and more honest the introspection, the self-knowledge, the more likely you are to choose positive, civilization enhancing ones. Continually challenging our own core beliefs — running reality checks against them — is indespensible to making good choices about who we want to be and how we want to get there.

        But I don’t think a society can remain stable without SOME kind of shared, core beliefs. Which those are will determine whether it’s someplace you’d want to live or not.

        To go back to your first paragraph above for a moment, I guess my basic point is really that a healthy society needs BOTH, introspection and external aspirations, and that sometimes the New Wavers seemed to actively dismiss the later. (Understandably — they WERE reacting against an established dogma.) But what this CAN lead to is an unending, mental circle-jerk fest, where common sense considerations become overwhelmed by ever more tightly-wound philosophical “truths” divorced from reality. The recent dominance of “politically correct” ideaology is an example of this type of self-indulgent excess. Dogma can come in many flavors, and we need to strive to reject them all.

        And “Un-Go” was certainly a wonderful example of that type of effort. I’d love to see more works along this line, from different cultural/philosophical perspectives. (For example, in works of popular culture we’ve been very good about examining the genesis and results of the Nazi atrocities, but spent very little time investigating the same elements of the Soviet and Chinese atrocities, which actually murdered far more people [I’m speaking of non war-related civilian casualties]. This seems like one of our own cultural blind spots to me.)

        Geeze! Look at this “reply!” Can ya tell I’m still on vacation??? Sorry!

      • Joojoobees Says:

        No need to apologize. The topic is certainly interesting.

        I suppose like most things there is a balance that needs to be struck. I know people have said, for example, that it is dangerous and wrong for governments to teach children, because they will try to teach the children to accept the government. I however think that is only natural for a society to try to replicate itself by training the children to replace the elders who die. To do that the society needs to instill in the children the same ideals, values, and other cultural properties that it wants to see maintained in the next generation. Now many have told me that sounds scary, like the Soviet Union, or something, but I say it just sounds like any society that isn’t heading for a collapse. As you said, societies “cannot remain stable without SOME kind of shared, core beliefs”.

        Of course, in addition to looking at things from the practical perspective of the perpetuation of a society, one can also look at it from the view of the individual. Does the individual really care if society collapses when the price is his own freedom? So in the end some sort of balance needs to be found. Children need to be trained so that they fit in to a productive role, and serve society. They also need to be given enough freedom so that they can lead satisfying, meaningful lives.

        On the other matter of the New Wave. I think they was a lot of bad blood because they broke the cultural norms, but the result was good. They changed the way Science Fiction is written. It doesn’t mean that their way was the only way, but that they created an opportunity for authors to try new things, and since then few people write exclusively in the old style. Modern Science Fiction incorporates from both the old “Hard” style and the “Soft” style that the New Wave championed. Essentially a balance was struck.

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