8c. What’s Japan Got to Do with It? – Mukokuseki, Ronin, and Kabuki: Circle of Blood

Before delving into today’s topic, I wanted to let y’all know about my new Youtube channel, Itcamefromthemanga, where you can find not only my head (and shoulders) bloviating on comics studies topics but also my very own translation dub (eiyaku manga benshi) of Shirato Sanpei’s Ninja bugeichō.  I’ve written previously about Shirato-sensei’s work, so if you liked that, you might want to check the translation out!

The Non-racial Identity of Japanese Popular Media

It may surprise many readers to hear–it certainly seems to regularly surprise my students–that often, from a Japanese perspective, a given product, be it “hard” (e.g. cars or consumer electronics) or “soft” (e.g. popular media), being perceived as Japanese has historically been considered a liability, and Japanese marketing types have worked hard to disguise the Japanese-ness of their products.  Nowhere is this more evident than in consumer electronics: Sony, Panasonic, Kenwood, Olympus, Pioneer, Fisher, NEC, TDK, Casio, JVC, Sharp–all Japanese companies whose very name is designed to conjure a non-racial corporate identity in international markets.  I wonder, for example, how many people have any idea whatsoever that Bridgestone, the tire company, is, in fact, Japanese.

Iwabuchi Koichi refers to any lingering cultural specificity in consumer products as “cultural odor,” and for many Japanese companies over the years, the ideal has always been to erase any lingering specificity and thus render the product “odor free” and ready for international markets.  He adds:

“[These] are cultural artifacts in which a country’s bodily, racial, and ethnic characteristics are erased or softened.  The characters of Japanese animation and computer games for the most part do not look ‘Japanese.’  Such non-Japanese-ness is called mukokuseki, literally meaning ‘something or someone lacking any nationality,’ but also implying the erasure of racial or ethnic characteristics or a context, which does not imprint a particular culture or country with these features.” (Recentering Globalization p. 28)

Mine Fujiko, the quintessential "Japanese" woman

Mine Fujiko, the quintessential “Japanese” woman

This mukokuseki or “statelessness,” believe it or not, applies just as much to the character designs in anime and manga as it does to Walkmans and tires.  It may seem quite odd to claim that a story about, say, Japanese students in a Japanese high school bears clear signs of cultural erasure (and it is, I think, a rather contentious argument), but certainly the illustrated physiognomy of characters in popular manga, for many years, has been based on Caucasian and not Japanese types.  More than that, despite the existence of jidai geki or period stories set within Japanese history, there has been a strong current from the postwar on of stories based in Western fairy tales, legends, literature, movies, and so forth.  In many ways, because much of Japanese popular media never made it outside the confines of Japan, this “statelessness” is even more palpable to a Japanese reader of, say, Monkey Punch’s Lupin III than otherwise might be the case with a purely hypothesized “Western” reader.  So, despite Asshole Tarō’s recent assertion of the international hegemony of Japanese pop culture, it is worth bearing in mind that the producers of Japanese products and media often see “being Japanese” as something to be avoided at all costs–this was certainly the case in the 1980s with the (often racist) political unease about Japanese investors buying up large  swaths of American real estate.

Being very very very (like totally and authentically) Japanese, dude

Kabuki without her mask

Kabuki without her mask

David Mack‘s Kabuki: Circle of Blood is something of a textual quagmire, worth, perhaps, losing yourself in for some reasons but also worth rolling your eyes at for others.  The narrative, such as it is, relies heavily on the repetition of and variation on visual and narratological patterns that are fundamentally recursive and don’t always resolve into an easy symbolism.  This is part of the real joy of this text, and I feel the need to emphasize, given what follows, that there is more than enough there to justify further study.

However, what interests me is how the text trades on a construction of Japanese-ness that, to put it bluntly, isn’t very Japanese–if by Japanese we mean indicative or representative of the people or culture of Japan.  His “Kyoto” looks a lot like Hong Kong (which makes sense, given Mack worked as a designer for several years in Hong Kong) and the narratives focus on the tensions between political organs and local mobs/gangs reads much more like a HK detective drama than a Japanese film or comic.  So, then, why does it insist so strongly on “being Japanese?”  What, exactly does “Japanese” even mean in this context?

After many twists and turns, the character Kai’s long monologue about 3/4 of the way through gives some insight as to what we are dealing with.

Kai's take on an old nihonjinron trope

Kai’s novel take on an old nihonjinron trope

He adds at the very bottom of the same page: “It’s almost like a looking glass.  Everything comparable is opposite.”  It’s important to note that many of Kai’s claims for super special Japanese culture are simply not correct.  Many books in Japan are printed like they are in the West (textbooks and study guides in particular), and three pages later, when Kai claims that “kabuki plays are almost entirely about ghosts, as is the Noh drama,” I have no idea what he’s talking about.  Plenty of classical Japanese drama is about retainers playing tricks on each other, horny women being horny, disputes between oil merchants, women turning into herons and foxes, historical episodes, and so forth that one could hardly claim that it is almost exclusively ghost stories.  And this wouldn’t matter so much, if it weren’t so central to Kabuki‘s plot: that Kabuki, the main character, is a ghost of her mother, that, as Kai claims (again incorrectly), Japanese ghosts are mostly women, and that the supposed prevalence of ghosts in kabuki (the dramatic form) has special relevance for Kabuki (the character).

Some more of Kai's stupid bullshit

Some more of Kai’s stupid bullshit

The afterword, by Hattori Takashi, a very real Japanese dude, actually doubles down on these inaccuracies, only going to show that merely being Japanese doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about.  Moreover, Hattori’s claims about Mack’s use of the Japanese language in the text doesn’t seem to be describing the thing I read.  He says that Kabuki has made “obsolete that pesky comic book use of brackets proclaiming {translated from Japanese}” (<–note not brackets and also not what is used conventionally in comics to indicate translated speech, i.e. <>).  He adds, “in [Kabuki] we read everything clearly [!] but are aware that the characters are speaking in dialects of Japanese not yet invented.”  How convenient…

Poor Okamura Haruhiko... this must be why he isn't on TV anymore.

Poor Okamura Haruhiko… this must be why he isn’t on TV anymore.

Yet, there is good ole-fashioned Japanese in the text, just like yer granny use ta make.  There is a scene where Kabuki is mugged, unsuccessfully, by a trio of Yakuza thugs fresh out of their first year Japanese class (they passed!) as well as the mysterious recurrence of stage actor and director Kushida Kazumi’s name in Kabuki’s HUD.  There is a funny moment, accidentally I hope, early in the text when Kabuki splits a dude’s head open with a scythe and her HUD reads 演出=串田和美, Director=Kushida KazumiKazuyoshi.  I wonder how Mr. Kushida got into leading a team of bondage gear clad female assassins…

All of this is a long winded way of saying the “Japanese” elements in this text simply mean “not Western;” they are but one half of an arbitrary and exoticizing polarity between the “West” and a randomly chosen other whose actual content is irrelevant beyond its use as “not West.”

“Japan” as Western Fantasy

samaraijackFrank Miller‘s Ronin was his first foray into Japanesey things, even before his well-regarded cover art for the English translation of Kojima and Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure ōkami).  It tells the story of a masterless warrior, the eponymous rōnin, who kills the demon who killed his master, gets trapped in a sword, and is sent to the future to, y’know, fight the eternal battle or something.  Basically, if you’ve ever seen Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack, you’re half way there.  According to the blurb on the back of the collected volume (as well as certain hints in the text), this rōnin hails from the 13th century, not that this matters much, given the text’s complete absence of any specific reference to the political clashes of that era, between the old nobility and the emerging warrior class, as well as its inclusion of a variety of stylistic anachronisms (manner of dress, geisha, etc.) that are far more at home in the Edo period, 400 years later.

I feel ya, broseph; everyone wants mah bod too.

I feel ya, broseph; everyone wants mah bod too.

Now, before I again break out my “doesn’t know shit about Japan” pitchfork, it’s worth noting that this “ignorance” may be by design.  Sure, Miller trades on certain stereotypes of no-nonsense, samurai stoicism and grit, but it becomes clear in time that who and what the rōnin is are largely a function of the telepathically/telekinetically gifted and limbless Billy, whom the rōnin early on seems to possess.

Casey's re-animated corpse husband 'splains provides a much needed denouement.

Casey’s re-animated corpse husband provides a much needed denouement.

The rōnin‘s possession of Billy is a guise for the sentient computer Virgo’s takeover of the Aquarius Complex, a dome made of “biocircuitry” and living plastic, centered in Manhattan that grows over the course of the comic until it covers the entire island.  Casey, the security chief of Aquarius, is initially charged with capturing the rōnin, but becomes, oddly and rather suddenly, attracted to him, such that Virgo has to try and remove her.  It is Casey’s ability to see the whole rōnin/Ronin plot as a fantasy telepathically projected that allows her to manipulate the rōnin character into committing ritual suicide, thus killing Billy, whose abilities Virgo had been manipulating in order to take over, as well.


Miller’s Ronin seems willing to admit something that Mack’s Kabuki goes to great lengths to conceal, that “Japan” is (often) an invention of our imaginations that persists due to a mix of simple ignorance and desire for a seemingly distinct cultural other.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–though I’d be hard pressed to think of an example where it’s ultimately a boon–but well worth keeping in mind, especially when Japanese artists/writers may be doing everything they can to erase any traces of Japanese culture.

Starting next week: a two parter on manga translation, with a special guest appearance by translator and all-around awesome human being, Andria Cheng!

Later: a three part series on mecha, beginning with Nagai Gō.

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. adonisus · · Reply

    I may be kind of disappointed with Miller over the direction his work has gone in the last couple of years…..

    …..But damn, back in the 80s and early 90s when he was in his heyday? No one could touch him. He may not be the best technical artist, but his work had an energy and purity to it that just blew every other artist out of the water.

    And the manga influence only made it better. Once he began adopting the cinematic style of Goseki Kojima, he brought a quality to american superhero comics that just didn’t exist then.

  2. Dave Sim once claimed–I don’t recall if this was in a talk or the letters page of Cerebus–that Miller was deeply frustrated that early on he wasn’t allowed to do “his own thing,” i.e. books like 300 and Sin City, which, at their worst, are basically gore porn (though Sin City has some redeeming qualities). I actually like his Daredevil, which I’m pretty sure he hates, especially the way he infused a pulp detective story feel into it.

    I’m not sure I’d agree with the point about superhero comics being revolutionized by Miller, at least not Miller alone. There were many efforts in the early eighties (Watchmen is the obvious example) to rethink superheroes.

  3. Oh, I like Sin City to. The guy can do some awesome noir stories when he’s given the chance.

    Miller definitely wasn’t alone in bringing an auteur sensibility to superheroes, I’ll agree. Obviously you have Alan Moore’s work on Watchmen, a comic which I believe deserves all of the accolades its gets and more, and is work on Marvel Man…..which would probably get even more accolades than Watchmen if Marvel ever gets around to reprinting it.

    The reason I tend to deify 80s Miller is because he was one of those rare birds in 80s superhero comics, that being a guy who could both write a good scenario as well as draw. Of course, you also had John Byrne, a man whose work I adore but who personally I can’t stand. Byrne could also write and draw (and letter, and ink). He could also write a good horror novel as well. But he seems to have spent the last three decades burning every possible bridge in the business he could possibly set a torch to.

  4. In the mass market this is probably true, and the Dark Knight books certainly have had a lasting impact both on the form and on scholarship. You might want to check out Chaykin’s American Flagg, if you haven’t already. It was never as well recognized as Miller’s stints on superhero books, but it’s very good.


  6. […] sold in non-Japanese markets where an explicit Japaneseness might be considered a liability.  Whereas earlier, when discussing this mukokuseki or “statelessness,” I focused on a certain Anglicization of Japanese consumer electronics, I think it is worth noting […]

  7. Hi, I just found your article, few years after its release. Liked it a lot. I’d like to know more about the “mukokuseki”. I googled it a bit but I didn’t find anything worthy. Any article or book I could read about it?

    1. It’s not really a term commonly used outside of Japanese, even when discussing this particular phenomenon. Iwabuchi in his Recentering Globalization only uses the term in passing, though he does extensively discuss the cultural “odorlessness” of Japanese media commodities, which is essentially the same idea in different terms. His book is still the best go to source for this sort of thing.

      1. I just read it. Again, very nice job. Very instructive and with a refreshing point of view. Unfortunately, I absolutely need Google Translate to read it, cause a regular non-engligh_native speaker cannot understand some of the words you use. Whatever. I’m going to follow your work a bit closer if I may.

        I’m currently writing an article about the short-term disenchantment process we can feel when we arrive for the first time in Japan after years of consuming japanese “pop culture”. Few days after the arrival, we realize that Japan is not “what we thought it was”. And I think your work can help me to understand this feeling. This cultural “odorlessness” is probably going to be the cornerstone of my whole article.

      2. Well, if you ever have a question or need clarification, I regularly check the comments, so do feel free to ask.

  8. […] brings me to my second digressive axis: the cultural scrubbing that in Japanese is called mukokuseki, a word that means “statelessness” but which refers in practice to the way in which […]

  9. Jakub Makalowski · · Reply

    Random nitpick to an old post, but looking up Mr. Kushida, I get the given name as Kazuyoshi, not Kazumi. Am I looking at another person or did you just go with the more common reading? Either way, seems like such a random choice for the comic. (Though the lack of directorial work in the 80s maybe was due to moonlighting as an assassin leader for that decade.)

    1. You are right. I’m not sure why I have “Kazumi,” the post is that old now. Maybe a guess until I looked it up… I’ll fix it.

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