Yatterman Night is a curious series, a reimagining or sequel of an archetypal children’s television program that tries to bring it “up to date” with political themes and an often more “mature” tone. At first sight, read literally, it is effectively a philosophical or thematic “next step” for an audience who perhaps watched Yatterman as children and are now teenagers looking for something more morally in-depth. Yatterman, as Night continually restates, is about two heroes and a mechanical dog fighting a group of thieves who are dumb, violent, avaricious and lewd. Good wins, evil is defeated, and that is that. Yatterman‘s evil archetypes are so iconic in their lack of threat they are the model for countless subsequent sympathetic or comic villains – Pokemon‘s Team Rocket, Nadia‘s Grandis Gang, Wario and Waluigi from the Mario games – any set of villains involving a stylish lady, a fat idiot and a thin scheming man, of which there are many.
Thus Night presents its grim and dark world where “Good” rules with an iron fist behind a massive wall, with an army of comic animal robots to subdue rebellion and punish insurgency. It is slapstick fascism, a world of forced jollity where the absurd becomes threatening. Subverting this children’s television aesthetic, of chubby cheerful animal robots with fun and gimmicky attacks, into a world of state surveillance and social control works. The most typical super-robot shows, of which Yatterman technically is one, are in a sense – like many combat-focused hero series – black and white in their morality behind the core conflict. The Doronbo Gang are bad, they steal and are perverted and dress in black. The Yatterman team are good, they have white hats and a funny dog and knock the bad guys about to stop their plans. Nothing has per se changed in Night to subvert this dichotomy except the audience’s viewpoint. There is no Doronbo Gang until Leopard, the protagonist, reforms it – yet all those descended from them are still painted as the enemy. This is a pure literal reading of the text; Leopard, a child, out and asks why it is she and her mother are being punished for crimes committed in the past. When the adult world cannot satisfyingly answer, she sets off to bring down the oppressor. If Yatterman offered a child’s morality – don’t steal, obey the law – Night is the refinement of that for an older audience. Law is sometimes misused. Sometimes crime is permissible if the laws are unfair. Authority is not infallible and must be questioned and even destroyed. A revolutionarily minded piece of fiction in this way buys into the popularity of dystopian, pro-insurgency fiction that is internationally popular, offering a quick primer in comedic format in revolution and direct action. The laws of the Yatterman nation benefit the elite and exploit the poor, so they are bad and a new regime must be implemented.
On a literal reading, then, the series seems politically interesting and worthwhile; it presents the idea that any resistance – even if it is as simple as helping end a rigged sports event intended to puff up the elite – is good resistance because it inspires people to question the status quo. It paints, in non-specific tones thanks to its use of black-hat and white-hat heroes and villains (in reversed role) a picture of a neat introductory case-study to how “terrorism” is justified in the eyes of the terrorists. Yet it is impossible not to read topical subtext into this topical text. The series’ initial thesis is about a very specific tyranny; post-war reparations and their destructive effect on a nation’s economic recovery. Leopard’s mother dies because the defeated people have received nothing to help them rebuild and do not have the medical aid and good food that the victors have. The imagery of a physical patrolled wall to keep immigrants out of the Yatterman Kingdom is pointed – the first-world, victorious nation in a great war washes its hands of the defeated people and exploits them.
What this raises is a subtextual debate about how long a nation should be punished for for its past crimes. Leopard asks why it is that some generations on the people of her country are still being punished for what the Doronbo Gang did; she is a child, and is asking an obvious child’s question. It is part of what inspires her revolt – to punish Yatterman the way they have punished Doronbo. When presented this bluntly – as a child protagonist does – the subtext becomes less easily accepted because the question of how long a country should be held responsible for its crimes is one that is used to brush aside real-world atrocities. Real debates along these lines – about actual events from recent history – are fuelled by attitudes and prejudices far more in-depth than black and white hat superheroes and supervillains. They are sometimes tied to, in their continuance, efforts to suppress a nation’s crimes – and such political double standards, with their historical roots, are debates far beyond the compass of Yatterman Night. It does not try to address issues such as the legacy of the American Civil War, or the ways in which nations such as Germany and Japan have responded to the events of the Second World War, or the Treaty of Versailles, or the actions of the empire-builders in Africa or the division of Germany. Yet a historically-aware viewer watching the series will be reminded of these debates, and the attitudes held by both sides – and find the unwillingness to commit to this in favour of settling on more generic points about fighting oppressors unsatisfying. Throwaway lines by Leopard early in the series – in scenes which define and establish the core conflict – colour the reading of the entire series by raising questions of reparation and national guilt, and then not running with that plot thread.
Of course, that the series does not dwell on these themes specifically for much of its running time (developments in the tenth episode subvert the whole matter in a way which may either come to torpedo the series’ message or crystallise it neatly) can be read just as easily to its credit; it encourages thought about these matters by raising them, but its intent is not to focus on them. Blaming a series rich in political messages for an audience traditionally claimed to be politically apathetic for not grasping one issue when it grasps many others is a little reductive. Yet it is hard, I think, to wholly let this pass me by. That the themes are raised does influence one’s reading of the series; its political messages are safely genericised by science-fiction, but this simply means it can be considered as evoking any number of historical precedents – and thus it unfortunately evokes both the revisionist and the repentant attitudes. Historical revisionism and the propagandising of history is a vast, important theme – and one, I think, which sits uneasily in this generally progressive series.