I was all set to sit down and write about today’s topic, when a few days ago I got sidetracked by a challenge to my critical acumen that, in the heat of the moment, I thought I had to answer. Thankfully, in time cool-headed reflection prevailed, and I realized that responding to petty challenges is worth neither my time nor yours. Sure, I may never soar to the heights of the Order of the Rising Sun, Golden Rays with Rosette, and I fully expect that when my book project sees the light of day, its reception will fall substantially below the mark of rapturous. In fact, I expect it to be met with a few quizzical raises of the eyebrow and a barely audible fart. Scholarly schlub-itude is, perhaps, the best I can ever hope for.
This means I can continue from last week’s treatment of Isayama’s Shingeki no kyojin and approach the relationship between shōnen manga and the socializing effects of Japanese education from a slightly different angle. While it seems to me that Shingeki is about confronting the horror of what you can never admit to yourself that you are becoming, Mutsui Yūsei’s Ansatsu kyōshitsu (Assasination Classroom, hereafter AK) is about using absurd comedy to relieve that anxiety. Yet, you have to see past its absurdity and prevailing trope to see that, at bottom, it is a story about freedom from a overdeterminative system and about the unlikely places where such freedom may lie.
Before I get to AK, though, it’s worth revisiting something I mentioned in a much earlier post, but never delved into too deeply: Shūeisha’s Jump Ijime Report (Janpu ijime ripōto). In 1995, after yet another particularly gruesome series of suicides of junior high school students, an open call appeared in Shōnen Jump for student accounts of bullying. They received over 1800 responses which, for the most part, made clear that students’ experience of bullying was a clear outgrowth of the corporal and verbal punishment meted out by teachers and administrators. The extent to which some acquiesced to bullying others was determined far less by some personal psychological dysfunction and more by a willingness to conform and thereby hopefully avoid being bullied themselves. Thus, ijime, i.e. bullying, was construed as a social dysfunction–no, something far worse, because it never seemed to the students to be a dysfunction at all. Complicity in social repression seemed to be simply what was expected.
What I did not deal with at the time was the prevailing media discourse around the question of bullying. Japanese media reports concerned with the ijime mondai (the “bully problem”) were/are not unlike what we have in the US and other developed nations. The assumption is that there is something pathological in the bully that needs to be treated, and if we were simply more attentive to mental health and less judgmental of those who suffer, perhaps this all would not be happening. The students’ accounts are a dangerous counter-discourse, because it points to the possibility, the likelihood, in fact, that “treating the bully” won’t accomplish anything. The system of socialization that is implicit in educational institutions, if it does not actively encourage bullying, certainly facilitates it.
“High flown excesses aside, the polemic put forth by the media was quite straightforward in structure. To them, the moral principle at stake in the gas attack was all too clear: ‘good’ versus ‘evil,’ ‘sanity’ versus ‘madness,’ ‘health’ versus ‘disease.’ It was an obvious exercise in opposites… Thus, to a greater or lesser degree, people all jumped onto the ‘right,’ ‘sane,’ ‘normal’ bandwagon. There was nothing complicated about it.” (Murakami Haruki, Underground, p. 225 trans. Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel)
Murakami, in his own exercise in grassroots historiography, in this case with regard to the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, points out that the media were complicit in a vast campaign of othering an uneasy social phenomenon, the Aum cult and their horrible act of violence. What both Murakami’s and the students’ accounts point to is that such a campaign of rendering the “problem” a manifestation of “those sick people” misses the way in which we are all affected by and participate in the so-called madness.
Freedom’s Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose
The basic premise of AK is as stupid as any other shōnen manga, but at least in this case the absurdity is embraced for what it is. An octopus-like alien later dubbed Korosensei has threatened to destroy the Earth in one year, but in the meantime will act as the homeroom teacher for the 3-E (E for End) class of a highly ranked junior high school. The students of 3-E have been tasked with assassinating Korosensei before the year is up and thereby save the Earth. Meanwhile, the other students at Kunugigaoka treat the students of 3-E like shit, because theirs is the class where all the potential failures are quarantined from the “good” students. They even have to have class in a rundown old building far from the main school.
The irony of AK is that Korosensei gives his all to improving his students’ assassination techniques, their grades, their enthusiasm for school, and their sense of self-worth. This creates a rather odd dilemma: the students are tasked with killing the one creature/person who gives a crap about them as individuals with individual needs and talents, talents that fail to conform to the rigid system of testing and tracking for which Japan is [in]famous. Though, as I said, AK is pretty blunt, it’s worth thinking about that fact allegorically. Students are tasked by the government with killing that which makes them productive, contented human beings: thus education. The reward for their task, should they succeed, is an obscene amount of money, 10 billion yen. You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to see how this allegory plays out: kill that which acknowledges and cultivates your individual self-worth, and you will be rewarded with financial stability and… nothing else. It’s the myth of Japanese success in permanent white collar employment in a nutshell.
Korosensei him[?]self is an interesting paradox, and two aspects of his [?] paradoxical nature reveal a great deal about how education’s hostility toward students as human beings is cultivated both within the system and within individuals. First, oddly, though Korosensei is recognized as the most powerful being in existence, his behavior fails to conform with the setup of an all-powerful evil threatening to destroy the Earth. First, he seems to genuinely care about his students, about nature, about what people think of him, etc. He is remarkably susceptible to the vicissitudes of human emotions: an odd trait in one who has guaranteed to destroy the Earth in a year’s time. Despite all this, he presents himself as an open, willing target, and his antagonism fuels his students’ desire to improve.
Moreover, Korosensei, despite his power–the ability to travel at Mach 20, the various transmutations of his body–is a bit of a schlub. He’s chronically out of money, he has a number of odd weaknesses, and he regularly appears to succumb to strategies that students employ to kill him. The oddest weakness of all is his susceptibility to those plastic toy guns and knives that kids in Japan who are obsessed with militaria collect and play with. He swallows several toxins to prove a point and ogles the professional hitman/foreign language teacher Irina’s boobs. Against this, you have the brilliant but manipulative administrator of the school, Asano, who makes clear that the 3-E class exists to strike terror in other students of being let go by the system.
Asano is precisely the kind of teacher/administrator that the students in the Jump Ijime Report identify as, on the one hand, appearing to be benevolent and kind but, on the other, acting in an exceedingly cruel manner, a manner meant to elicit conformity to the same brutal expectations of discipline and performance. Korosensei is precisely the inverse, apparently violent and hostile but in manner kind and benevolent, so much so that he creates copies of himself specifically catered to each student’s individual needs. Asano is proper and respectable, a media darling; Korosensei is an oddly dressed goofball, a secret the government desperately needs to keep.
What You Read is What You [Don’t] Get
Korosensei, in the second image in this post, is exactly right: if the students in 3-E do well, then Asano’s plan will fall apart. Thus, Asano is not merely indifferent to the needs of his failure class, he actively sabotages them. When Korosensei challenges his students to all place in the top 50 in the school and gives his all to make sure they do well, Asano changes the exam at the last minute and informs only those who attend class in the main building.
There is in AK an obvious parallel to the two discourses of bullying I note above. The 95%, the vast majority, those for whom the system works so long as they obey its demands, are also the ones who have evaded the system’s brutality only because they willingly/reluctantly participate in it. Those who view it from without, the media in particular, see only a mass of ordinary students and a few troubled delinquents, who are treated as a problem to be fixed. From within, there is no “us” or “them,” outside of the system of arbitrary violence meted out to those who are determined to be the bottom of the totem pole. It is clear that this “bottom” is actually a “there but for the grace of [a giant spaghetti monster] go I,” and one can easily move from their position of “safety” into one of “ridicule.” This is how we me our hero, Nagisa, after he has been demoted to 3-E for his bad grades.
It is an open question whether an adult thoroughly indoctrinated by their own long past education would even see what is at stake in a comic like Ansatsu kyōshitsu, whether they would simply see another meaninglessly fun tale of students misfits or the intensely anxious and diffuse threat that I can guarantee their adolescent charges feel, even if they don’t quite understand it. Their understanding is paramount, though. I would hazard to guess that the reason this whole tale comes off as absurd is because the logic of the educational institutions it portrays is similarly absurd. It is also an open question whether the whole “destroy the Earth” thing is a ruse, one Korosensei intends for his students to recognize as he “improves” them. Of course, it is also an open question whether I’m just another schlub reading too much into “kids’ stuff.” You be the judge.
Next Week: one year retrospective! zomg, guys!