The Cockpit

Despite our many similarities, the collective Japanese psyche is still different in some ways from that of Americans and other Westerners. The mass of anime brought to the West in recent years tends to make us feel we are very alike, and we are, but there are some parts of their culture and history that are still mysterious to us. One of those mysteries is the Japanese attitude towards WWII. It's a topic that rarely gets straightforward treatment. Although we have films shown from the perspective of the innocent -- Barefoot Gen, Grave of the Fireflies, and Rail of the Star immediately come to mind -- there seems to be a reluctance to address Japan's role in the conflict. Perhaps the Japanese psyche is unsettled by dealing with a lost war (unlike our American tendency to beat the topic to death via films about Vietnam). Perhaps the Japanese feel that penance was extracted in the atomic bombings of their country. Or perhaps the Japanese concept of shame prevents the war from being an area for discussion. Even to an experienced student of Japanese culture, many enigmas remain.

The Cockpit is one of the few programs I've seen that have dealt with the Japanese perspective on WWII from the combatant's point of view. A collection of short OVAs, each tells a story from Leiji Matsumoto's manga Battlefield. Three directors (including the well-known Yoshiaki Kawajiri) bring their distinctive visions to each segment; though the plots do not intertwine in any way, the three as a whole bring a fascinating new outlook to WWII. Admittedly, Matsumoto's idealistic fatalism causes the whole affair to be too romanticized, and his frankly odd character designs get in the way occasionally. Nevertheless, this strong work hasn't gotten nearly enough credit over the years.

In the first episode, "Slipstream," we meet a crew of characters that stepped out of an alternate Captain Harlock universe, albeit in Germany in the midst of 1944. A scientist and his lovely daughter have created the foundational elements for an atomic bomb, and her former flame Lt. Rheindars is to be their aerial escort. Rheindars is trying to save face after an embarrassing escape from Allied forces, but the situation seems destined not to bring him back his honor...since his girlfriend and her father are convinced that the destruction of their work may be the only way to avoid disaster. "Sonic Boom Squadron," set in August 1945, kicks off with a failed attempt to send a kamikaze missile flier into a pack of Allied warships. Ensign Nogami is disappointed. He knows his entire military career is for this one purpose, and he is ready to do his duty for the empire. But his new crew of half-crazy fliers is determined to get him to his destination, regardless of the cost. Finally, in "Knight of the Iron Dragon," we see the misadventures of a couple of ragtag Japanese soldiers stranded somewhere out in the middle of the Philippines. When a young combatant crashes into them with a bike that's on its last legs, the possibility of getting to the airfield becomes a reality. So what if Allied forces have overtaken it? Duty is duty, and this scooter may be the perfect ticket to glory.

The Cockpit was created back in 1993 when OVAs actually still had budgets. We see plenty of beautiful aerial dogfighting in the first two segments, and the artwork still stands up. The only disappointment that I have is with the faithfulness to Leiji Matsumoto's designs. Now I'm a huge fan of Matsumoto's, as any regular reader knows. But his designs in the second and third segments are downright goofy. When Matsumoto creates "Japanese" characters, he often makes them into caricatures that are difficult to take seriously. This is one of the only programs where I've taken serious points down because the artistic direction just doesn't fit the tone, but I have to do so. Frankly, the feel of "Knight of the Iron Dragon" suffers quite a bit for it, even though it's still a good piece.

Once you put aside the look of The Cockpit, however, you find yourself engrossed in tales that are both entertaining and not just a little shocking. There's not a dud amongst them in the storytelling category; all of them fully engaged me, and the combat sequences are deftly handled. But what's fascinating to me is looking at the war from the enemy perspective. Sure, there's Das Boot, but how many other films have you seen from the Axis point of view that didn't involve pathological Nazis? It's been very few in my book. These people aren't crazy; they aren't murderers; they are doing their duty. Does it make the Axis powers right? No, but it gives insight into how war looks on both sides of the conflict. And unlike some rancidly pro-Japanese anti-Western shows like Secret Service, Matsumoto sees the Allied forces as humans too. They aren't in the spotlight, but the few we get to know are not bloodthirsty automatons but bright, intelligent soldiers.

Though Matsumoto romanticizes the passion of kamikaze pilots and the inner goodness of Germans who can't think of using a nuke, a haunting core is here that's very relevant for us. In a post-September 11 world, how do we understand suicide bombers who use planes as weapons? The Cockpit glorifies a young man willing to die for his cause with courage and fortitude in just such a way. Admittedly, killing enemy combatants and killing innocent civilians is the difference between war and terrorism, but can we understand anyone who would willingly commit suicide for their beliefs? And in "Slipstream," Rheindars must make decisions between his honor, the woman he loves, the cause he has sworn to defend, and his own personal morality. Could we lose all we hold dear to do what we feel is right? The Cockpit makes us ask those questions afresh. Although it's meant to be an entertainment first and foremost -- and it works on that level -- the careful viewer will come away with a lot more to chew on.

Frankly, I think The Cockpit is a worthwhile show that far too many people have missed. I'm giving it an A- not because it isn't an excellent title but because some viewers (including myself) will find the designs in the last two episodes off-putting. It's the anime version of miscasting. But please don't let that stop you from watching this one. The WWII buff will find an interesting take on the era, the action fan will find the dogfights entertaining, and the discerning observer will see questions raised that still need to be answered sixty years after the war that changed the world forever ended.

The Cockpit -- violence, adult thematic issues -- A-