Keeping to the Script

Posted: August 16, 2012 by Adam Elkus in Uncategorized
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What would you do if you, an ordinary soldier, were told that a weapon would arise that would completely change the context of warfare as you understood it, to say nothing of international politics? The kicker: said weapon would be used against your country and lead to its total devastation and surrender. That was the dilemma faced by Captain Isao Takachiho, a captain in the Imperial Japanese Army’s Kwantung Army and the anime Night Raid 1931‘s primary antagonist.

Weapons and Armies in the Balance

The dominant problem for any strategist in a time of peace lies in prediction. What weapons will be utilized? How do they shape politics while being shaped by politics? Because of contingency, even a relatively stable vision of the future can be derailed by the actions of agents, structures, and cascading trends. Existing structures can be a barrier to coping with the demands of the future, but change also unleashes disruptive political forces that can barely be controlled. The degree to which early 20th century Asia served as a test lab for shifts in strategic history is often undervalued by strategic analysts preoccupied with the decisive European battlefronts that rendered Asia (by comparison) a strategic sideshow. Since Night Raid 1931 deals in part with the strategic consequences of these shifts a few words about early 20th century military history is warranted.

In Asia, China had critical military importance to the balance of power but also lacked the strategic centrality its sheer military and economic muscle affords it today. Reformers within the late Qing military were painfully aware of new ways of war, but were frustrated by conservatives who readily accepted Western weapons but rejected the new modes of organization and training necessary to employ them. When reforms were adopted, the creation of professionally trained and led bureaucratic armies empowered militarists such as the Beiyang Army’s commanding officer (and future post-Qing warlord) Yuan Shikai. By the 1930s, the Nationalist Party held a substantial chunk of territory and fielded a German and Soviet-trained party army. It had crushed the majority of the warlords but faced a persistent Communist military challenge and Japanese territorial encroachments.

Military professionalization in Japan gave rise to a politically autonomous army, much of it based in northern China. It subscribed to an vision of total war rooted firmly within a global ideological rise of authoritarian belief systems rooted in race “science” and blood and soil conceptions of nationalism. Unlike in 1914, every military–including the Japanese–understood the stakes fairly well. These would be truly national wars in which the “strategic rear” that supplied military machines would be targeted. However, Japan took this understanding to a gruesome extreme.  As brutal as warfare would later be within maritime Southeast Asia, even the worst paled in comparison to the intensity of the carnage the the Japanese would unleash in mainland China, which ranged from Genghis Khan-like scorched Earth tactics to the first modern employment of battlefield biological warfare. China was ultimately a distraction for the US in World War II.  It was, however, central to the Japanese strategy and vision of a postwar order. China was a promising resource area and colony for the future Japanese empire and held the bulk of its land forces.

A Captain’s Strategic Choice

Takachiho, who comes of age within the Japanese Army professional military educational system, is a firm believer in the ideology of Pan-Asianism and the maintenance of the Japanese imperial system. But a shocking revelation revealed by an imperial soothsayer ultimately causes him to deviate from the strategic script. Within the anime’s fictional universe, Japan’s rulers depend on a line of prophetesses to assist them in pivotal moments of decision. The prophetess tells Takachiho of a vision of a ruinous world war ending with the use of a terrifying new weapon and the end of the imperial era. Takachiho and his men promptly desert the Kwantung Army, vanishing into northern China as they contemplate what to do with their terrible knowledge. This weapon, to be clear, is the atomic bomb. Yet because the series occurs within the 1930s, the characters lack the proper language and terminology to delineate it. They merely refer to it as “the new kind of bomb” and other provisional terms.

Colin S. Gray has written that each era has a strategic narrative, shaped by politics, culture, technology, and waves of military tactics and doctrine. However, we can only know this strategic script in retrospect. Even then, new historical revelations can upend our understanding of the script. Unlike a movie script, in which the narrative is preordained, strategic narratives are also always contingent stories marked by the paths not taken. Takachiho lacks the most important aspect of the strategic script: the political context of the 1940s and the early Cold War. What he has is the knowledge of the future and the desire to change it. The Captain’s foreknowledge is necessary but not sufficient for the success of his ambitious ends. His plan involves three elements of the strategic script that he gets, at best, partly right.

First the Captain decides that he will use the bomb, which he succeeds in assembling with the resources of Kwantung Army contacts, to further pan-Asian nationalists. What he could not understand is that Asian nationalism, though later channeled and fed by both Japan and the Allies to further their own war aims, could not succeed without the destruction of both Japanese and European military power in Southeast Asia. Even if his plan (which will be elaborated on later) had succeeded, the squabbling and powerless nationalist intellectuals he vainly attempts to enlist to his side would be ill-placed to take advantage of it. After World War II, many of those same men would go on defeat the British, French, and United States with a combination of political maneuver and armed struggle. In 1931, however, he conferences with a group of men politically agitated but incapable of seizing control over their nations’ destinies.

Second, Takachiho anticipates the concept of deterrence and the gruesome fact that recognition of the ultimate weapon’s capability could only be achieved by the mass destruction of civilian life. A weapon that is never used cannot create a “balance of terror.”  Takachiho plans to drop a bomb over Shanghai, demonstrating the bomb’s potency to great power observers by simultaneously taking Chinese, European, and Japanese lives within the internationalized metropolis.  Takachiho hoped to use such a demonstration to compel the creation of a Pan-Asian state system with Japan as a powerful component and prevent the outcome the prophetess foretold. But the supreme weapon, while immensely destructive, ultimately proved to be rather useless as the driver of grand political designs. Despite possessing nuclear weapons neither the United States or the Soviet Union could use them or threaten them to spread their ideologies. The devastation inflicted by twin atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki coerce Japan, but the scholarly debate over how it did is far from settled. Nuclear weapons, despite being dubbed “strategic” could not, on their own, lead to the expansive political outcomes Takachiho desired. As far-seeing as he was, Takachiho did not understand the limits of his new weapon.

Finally, Takachiho’s actions represent a fairly off-key element of the 1930s strategic narrative: the independent non-state actor. His group, if successful, would commit an act of nuclear terrorism and change the course of history. Takachiho’s attempts to marry terrorism with pan-Asian activism anticipated the rise of transnational ideological guerrilla and terrorist movements in the Cold War. But his strategic design was not realized in the 1930s or thereafter. The most powerful non-state actors in the 1930s were either guerrilla movements like Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP), political organizations like the National Socialist Party (later known as the Nazis) and the Japanese militarists who aspired to take command of a state. These were all national actors, with the state-organized Comintern the only true transnational actor.

Mao would probably object to being called a “non-state” actor, as unlike the transnational al-Qaeda he regarded the CCP as China’s rightful government. The warlords that held sway over much of China and patches of Central Asia lacked transnational ambitions. And in the Cold War, the most successful non-state groups were national guerrilla armies with state support, not small bands of passionate men with a desire to change the course of history. Those men languished or died in the hundreds of thousands in prisons throughout Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In the end Takachiho is manipulated and killed by Japanese Army intelligence, who have their own designs for nuclear warfare.

The Dominance of Structure

Perhaps that is the best way to transition into the next point: the anime’s rather depressing–if complex–take on the ever-present issue of agency vs. structure.  We live in an era supposedly marked by “super-empowered actors.” These actors, we are often told, use networks and technology to punch far above their geopolitical weight and are poised to overturn warfare and statecraft as we know it. All of Night Raid 1931‘s characters are super-empowered both literally and figuratively. The agents of the Sakurai Agency, a special organization within Japanese Army intelligence have abilities ranging from tekekinesis to telepathy. Takachiho and several of his men also possess super powers. Moreover, Takachiho and later the Sakurai agents are empowered by their own determination to resist what one agent dubs the “cage” of state authority and the fate that larger political designs dictate for them. The Sakurai agents pursue Takachiho and later thwart their own superiors’ desire to capitalize off the Captain’s technology,

This freedom is achieved, but at at a great price. Takachiho is defeated, his bomb and research notes are destroyed, and a telepath within the Sakurai Agency creates the illusion of an atomic explosion to scare visiting international dignitaries into abandoning the path of great power war. But it is implied that World War II happens regardless, even if perhaps a far worse horror was avoided by the thwarting of Japanese Army plans to utilize Takachiho’s doomsday weapon. The cosmopolitanism and vibrancy of early 1930s Shanghai, a prominent setting of the anime’s early episodes, is cruelly shattered when Japan attacks and destroys a substantial portion of Shanghai in 1932. The main characters ultimately find themselves free of the bondage of the state, but are condemned to live their lives with knowledge of the horrors to come. Even with their abilities they are unable to change what grand empires have set in motion, and merely seek to live day by day.

Networks certainly matter, but perhaps not in the way contemporary theorists imagine. The Japanese militarists depicted in the anime are a substate network, but one that channels a noxious ideology and ultimately captures a powerful state’s warmaking capacity. The Sakurai agents and Takachiho’s men are another kind of network, and both are ultimately failures. This isn’t to say that the anime disregards individual agency. The anime’s complexity can be seen in its revisionist (to put it mildly) depiction of the events leading up to the Mukden incidentNight Raid 1931 uses a typically supernatural device to illustrate the contingency of strategic events and the role of “irrational” elements like religious beliefs to impact world events. The appearance of the prophetess motivates wavering Army officers to make good on their plans to destroy the Manchurian railroad, starting a destructive new chapter in Japan’s political-military designs over China. But the prophetess like the Emperor, functions as a part of the state’s guiding political-religious ideology, not an completely independent force that acts in variance with it. Of course, it is also her dire warning that spurs Captain Takachiho to desert. Different individuals can sometimes have drastically different interpretations of official religion and ideology that cause them to clash.


Captain Takachiho certainly deviated from the strategic script of his time. But, for a man whose tidy world was shattered by a revelation of future warfare, he was sadly effective at grasping at some of the major currents of future policy and strategy. Those currents are ultimately what gives Night Raid 1931 an air of quiet tragedy. Individuals–many of them likeable and friendly–find their destinies circumscribed by structural forces. The super-empowered Sakurai men and women are ultimately bystanders to the larger geopolitical order and find meaning in tending their own gardens. The last shot of the anime–Takachiho’s younger sister and Sakurai agent Yukina standing alone amidst falling snow in a deserted and poorly lit Tokyo zoo–is particularly evocative. She is a small figure amid a gathering darkness and will never see her companions, who scatter to the four winds, again.

  1. Don says:

    Fascinating article. Never saw the anime though.

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