The unexpected critical depths of a single throw-away scene
In the 3rd episode of Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid, there is a curious introductory scene I’ve always enjoyed. The setting is the student council clubroom; the subjects, Sousuke Sagara (male lead) & Kaname Chidori (female lead). The small television is the invariable object of her attention; it is now tuned to a peculiar Tokugawa-era jidaigeki (samurai drama), The Amazing Spider Detective, which plays out as follows.
A thuggish yakuza and his subordinates have kidnapped a young woman, and he holds her hostage at knife-point. Into the house’s enclosed courtyard boldly enters—Spider-Man! Or rather, we should call this kimono- and mask-clad person ‘Spider-san’. The dastardly yakuza refuses to release her, and summons his men.
It was, of course, a trap. Spider-san employs his oddly fluid webs to disarm the boss, and agilely ascending to the rooftop, he begins shooting his webs onto the faces of the boss and his henchmen (show in close-ups).
At this point, an emergency news-broadcast interprets the drama of Spider-san, annoying Chidori (who complains that the drama had just begun to reach its climax). The broadcast concerns some terrorism in progress, which is the cue for Sousuke to depart for another episode of derring-do.
What particularly struck me about this scene is how out of place it is, how complex in comparison to the surrounding show.
Full Metal Panic! is just an entertainment franchise. It doesn’t aspire to be an innovator in mecha combat, nor does it have an interesting take on modern warfare & terrorism, or even particularly novel technology (FMP’s explanations start and stop with dreams and willpower); its novelties, such as they are, are largely confined to mixing the mecha and high school romance genres (as Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu will quickly convince one), and the humor itself is straightforward. The character designs are fine enough, but they cannot be considered immortal like those of Evangelion, and the overall production quality is high but not notable. Certainly its plot and action do not bear much thought.
But here we have a scene which could easily be interpreted in at least 3 different ways!
The first way is the straightforward literal way. Chidori is watching a show, as usual, and Sagara has to go off and fight. It provides a neutral starting point for that episode’s plot—it’s just another ordinary lazy school day—and introduces the conflict. This is the clearest reading, and the one everyone can see.
The second way is on a higher level of the plot, a thematic one. The normal viewer would have watched the first season of Full Metal Panic!, and then watched the mini-series Full Metal Panic! Fumoffu, which focused exclusively on the school and romance aspects. By starting with a clubroom scene and segueing into an anti-terrorism mission, the viewer is reminded that the subject-material is going to cover both school and war. It’s a pleasant way to start the episode, as it reintroduces us to both characters and reminds us that one of the aspects of Chidori’s character is a fondness for samurai dramas. Possibly we are also meant to be reminded that the other female student council member is the daughter of a local yakuza family.
The final way is as a rather complex parody. There are not 1, or 2, but at least 3 different parodies going on here.
The first parody is that the drama is covertly depicting bukkake: Spider-san’s webs are thick, liquid, and (stereotypically) white. The goons react in deep disgust (as any heterosexual man would!)—a disgust that doesn’t quite jibe with merely having been thwarted in their criminal enterprise. The camera shots make a point of showing close-ups of the faces, when the previous shots were distance and middle shots (just like a bukkake film). All these points are in exact correspondence with the stereotypical bukkake scene. The clincher is Chidori’s use of ‘climax’. This could not have been a coincidence—climax is not necessarily the first word that comes to mind if you are complaining about missing the ending, but it has the exact sexual connotations necessary.
The second parody centers on the premise being fundamentally absurd, but consistent with the Japanese media industries. One doesn’t have to look hard to find real examples, like Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo or Mothra vs. Godzilla. It makes just as much sense to set Spider-Man in the Tokugawa era. (Why not? Spider-man has already been a manga and a Japanese kaiju TV series.) We can derive further amusement from noting that the samurai genre is so cliched that Spider-Man seems to work just fine as the hero; why should a man with the proportional strength and agility of a spider have any more difficulty going through the set motions than, say, a blind masseur who is a master of the sword? (Or a schizophrenic pacifist with a blunt blade, or a quasi-immortal mass murderer, or…) One of the functions of parody is to play with conventions and make us aware of repetitions and boundaries and what it means to be a genre piece. A Spider-san is certainly effective at that.
The third parody is of the viewers. Not you and me, I mean, but rather Chidori and Sagara. Both seem to be attentive, interested, and pleased viewers. It is implied Spider-san is a regular series, and that both are regular viewers, perhaps even devoted. But neither evinces the slightest bit of irony or amusement at the show. I believe it impossible for any real human to watch this scene without smirking a little, even if said human managed to miss the bukkake jokes.
“The virus of irony is as widespread in California as herpes, and once you’re infected with it, it lives in your brain forever.”1
It is a double commentary: Sagara is so culturally impoverished that he cannot respond in a sophisticated manner (a feature of his character that is played for laughs dozens of times throughout the series) and Chidori just plain likes it, perhaps just as she likes baseball.
The fourth way we can understand this scene is admittedly a little speculative on my part, but it’s an interesting thought. We could see the scene as commentary on modern Japanese society. A society gets the media it wants. What does it say when what it gets is such syncretic absurdities as Spider-san? Where’s the originality here? When we Westerners ponder the hidden Japanese porn references in a Japanized American comic-book character fighting inside a period drama (drawing on American westerns), all inside a school-romance genre—a genre pioneered by American shows—anime, a medium which borrows many things, like shinigamis or Disneyesque eyes, from the West… well, I get a queasy feeling I cannot explain.