Anime Retrospectives is ComicsVerse’s series on anime that ended prior to the story’s true conclusion. Today, we’re looking back at GATE – THUS THE JSDF FOUGHT THERE.

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GATE – THUS THE JSDF FOUGHT THERE is a degree of perfection I see maybe once a year in anime. Combining strong plot, compelling characters, and real-world critiques of geopolitics, this anime had it all.

GATE began as a series of fantasy novels by Takumi Yanai, eventually becoming a manga under Satoru Sao in 2011. The anime aired one season in mid-2015, and another late the next year. To date, the main manga has 13 volumes, the most recent of which released in June of 2018. Despite that, the anime ceased airing after the second season.

Something rather unique about its plot is how it sat somewhere between an examination of international politics and a traditional isekai series. For those unfamiliar with the term, isekai broadly refers to any anime that transports its characters to another world. This often tends to be a world filled with fantasy creatures, magic, and the like. GATE makes use of a setting that heavily involves a fantasy world but still takes place in the real one too.

The resultant anime has a story structure capable of looking at real-world issues in a fantastical context, which is part of the reason the series is so appealing.

Journey to Another World

The series begins by introducing protagonist Youji Itami. Itami is an officer part of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), a specialized arm of the military focusing on national defense immediately around Japan. Our hero is an otaku, something that makes him relatively different than a lot of his comrades in the JSDF. Unlike the guys who make up a large part of the military in GATE, Itami would rather spend $1000 at an anime convention buying fanart than complete a mission.

Character images from GATE Season 2
Humans, elves, demigods, and magicians join forces for diplomatic journeys | Image: GATE Official Website

While off-duty, Itami is on his way to attend a doujin convention in Ginza, Tokyo when a mysterious portal in the shape of a large gate suddenly appears out of thin air. From this gate, supernatural creatures and warriors clad in medieval armor emerge, charging through the city and destroying everything in their path. With swift actions, Itami saves as many lives as he can while the rest of the JSDF direct their efforts towards stopping the invasion.

Three months after the attack, Itami has been tasked with leading a special recon team, as part of a JSDF task force, that will be sent to the world beyond the gate — now being referred to as the “Special Region.” They must travel into this unknown world in order to learn more about what they are dealing with. Also, they must attempt to befriend the locals in hopes of creating peaceful ties with the ruling empire. But if they fail, they face the consequence of participating in a devastating war that will engulf both sides of the gate.

Examining Inhumanity

The crucial mark of tension in GATE is one that comes up very rarely in anime: discretion. In this scenario, the Japanese military absolutely overpowers the fantasy world forces. Despite how cool magic and dragons seem in books, they’re utterly useless against high caliber weaponry. The weak armor of medieval soldiers crumbles easily when met with hails of bullets. Despite the fact that Japan was merely defending itself, the JSDF still feels like the villain of the early series.

The aftermath of initial battles in GATE
A few thousand modern soldiers slaughter hundreds of thousands in the fantasy world with ease | Image: Crunchyroll

This discretion helps us understand the different sides of conflict. Rather than follow the underdog’s growth, we see the powerful moderate themselves. While GATE faced criticism for precisely how powerfully it portrayed the Japanese military, it filled an important gap. Oftentimes in the face of magical or shonen style battles, we forget the lives on either side. If the focus is only on protagonists who never die, then the side characters who often do become completely irrelevant.

In GATE, because the main impetus for action is a legitimate military branch and the protagonist isn’t a headstrong teenager, this matters. Death creates actual repercussions in the world. Human rights remain a frontal issue instead of a passive concern. GATE filled this crucial deficiency in the way that conflict-based anime understand the landscape of battle. Rather than capitalize on the pain of seeing a favorite character die, GATE used universal indicators of suffering. Early in the series, when the Empire of the fantasy world fights Japan, we see every gruesome detail. As the technology of the 21st century decimated what amounted to fairy tale creatures on screen, GATE made a clear point: the machine of war is more terrifyingly powerful than the magic of fantasy.

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Conflicting Geopolitics

Itami is certainly different from most isekai protagonists, both in terms of his age and his dispositions. Because he is kind and generally averse to total conflict, he’s able to journey into the fantasy world and do things like sign treaties. He respects the various religions, practices, and cultures he encounters. But most world leaders don’t think the exact same way he does. Many want to simply journey into the strange world and harness the kinds of resources and power that are available. Magic to the average person is a source of wonder; to a commander, it is a potential war power. One particularly interesting character is Dirrel, the president of the United States in GATE.

The American president in GATE
Maybe GATE called the 2016 election after all | Image: Crunchyroll

The US wants to immediately invade and colonize the foreign lands but is luckily unable to act rashly due to the gate being in Japanese territory. However, the conflicting opinions with regard to responses to an invasion make the series a bit realistic in terms of its military concerns. We see examples of this tension in real life. When regional conflicts break out across the world between non-superpowers, more powerful countries take sides. Eventually, smaller countries end up making use of resources from those that support them and we get things like proxy wars as a result. In this case, the fantasy world is like if the US had the chance to extract limitless magical resources in another country. In that circumstance, with infinite possibilities, the diplomatic process becomes incredibly relevant.

Real Life Connections

Dirrel, as you can probably see, is somewhat stereotypically American in looks. He looks like a strange cross between George Bush and Donald Trump, but that’s likely an accident. However, he has a dogmatic, militaristic approach meant to evoke the same kind of rush to action as American imperialism in the mid-2000s.

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These representations in media are especially important because it gives us a window into a strange possibility. Obviously, the events in GATE would never happen in the real world. But this sort of semi-realistic, intense plot does two great things in the series. For one, it turns an anime about magical invaders into a functional game of diplomacy; every little military action ripples across both realities and back. While a peace treaty with one land might help Japan, it could anger the US. Conversely, a deal with an oppressive empire in the fantasy world might provide tremendous resources. But, it means endorsing a set of new human rights concerns and other issues.

Secondly, linking back to how GATE evokes our humanity, it reminds us of our fickle greed too. When humans, elves, and priests come from the world of GATE into the human world, they’re fascinated. And the world is fascinated by them. There is a curious moment where fans, upon realizing that elves really exist, instantly start pages and groups online for a single real elf. But at the same time, the magic that enables a young girl to live for 1000 years is terrifying. GATE mixes fascinating subjects with a military application to grasp attention and keep the plot flowing via people’s reactions rather than just new external events.

The Fantastic Realism of GATE

Overall, while GATE got two seasons, they weren’t enough. The world of humanity is already extremely complex. Adding in another separate reality to work within makes things even more interesting. Plus, the lateral connections the show makes to foreign policy, imperialism, and politics allow us to examine action in a neutral setting. There is no ‘victim’ when the foreign nation literally does not exist. As a result, the possibility for relatively objective simulations of diplomacy opens up. This style of semi-realistic satire is by no means new to Japan. Decades ago during the Meiji period, sardonic plays and stories poking fun at obscure versions of the Japanese government were nearly banned. The extrapolation of real issues away from their standard context somehow makes them easier to understand. GATE replicates this uncanny level of analysis.

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Another season would allow GATE to pick up where it left off. A monarch for the massive empire in the fantasy world was crowned toward the end of Season 2. The path forward can lead to lasting peace between Japan and the Empire. Even so, there are sure to be resistance forces and internal strife. More episodes would allow GATE to fully explore and flesh out its amazing storytelling style. There are plenty of light novels to pull from. We just need to get those words turned into beautiful anime.

Featured image from GATE official website

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