Since the 90s, when Joseph Nye coined and popularized the term, the notion of soft power began to gather lots of academic attention, while it was incorporated into national strategies via cultural diplomacy and cultural industries. Hence, several scholars have acknowledged the contemporary return of geopolitics in the global circulation of images, pop cultures, and competitive identities. Regarding this subject, martial arts studies have conducted illuminating analysis on the presence of martial arts in media, particularly during the 70s and 80s boom. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work to carry out in the vector of modern animation, which besides having finally transcended the boundaries of young audiences, today constitutes a large impacting and highly rewarding industry.
This proposal aims to advance on this research line by considering the political and cultural discourses of two ongoing martial arts anime: Baki the Grappler (2018) and Kengan Ashura (2019), both internationally aired on Netflix but created in Japan on the basis of successful manga. The series manage very specific and distinctive references to techniques and stories of Japanese martial arts, often proposing a fictional rewriting of their master narratives and history.
I argue that at first the representation of Japanese martial arts in Baki the Grappler and Kengan Ashura can be seen as an effort to restore Japanese martial arts to their past fame, a form of nationalistic nostalgia that perpetuates the soft power binomial Japan+martial arts. In this sense, the series broadcasting in Netflix surely align with the interests of the Japanese establishment, and the government plan to officially embed martial arts into the Cool Japan strategy.
Yet, a close look to the contents of the series nuances if not directly contradicts such presumptions. Actually, they frequently re-read and re-mediate Japanese martial arts history from an unorthodox perspective. Far from seeking to reinstate the glory of the samurai-bushido-spirit triad, characters and narrative arcs often structure complex, paradoxical and critical views about Japanese cultural nationalism. Therefore, my argument is that these martial arts anime should best be seen as a popular expression of anti-geopolitics, in other words, as a challenge to state-centered geopolitics.
Keywords: Martial arts, geopolitics, anime, soft power, Cool Japan