criticism, political economy, politics

Degrees of Absolute Evil


I would argue that the text of the moment is The Man in the High Castle, the book written by Philip K. Dick (1962) and the series created by Frank Spotnitz (2015) based on the premise that the Allies lost WWII to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, an alternate history pursued in two genres with substantial differences. The novel reads more like philosophy as it makes us privy to the characters’ thoughts while the series is a suspense thriller, hence its more obvious plot structure and emphasis on action. Race, especially in the uncanny reversals between white and yellow, is very palpable in the novel, but Dick’s characterization of Juliana leaves a lot to be desired (an understatement; although what she does toward the end does make up for it) whereas she is the lead in the series. The most striking difference, however, lies in the depiction of the Japanese, a difference, I argue, that sheds light on the various forms taken by imperialist power predicated on violence, repression, and the blatant disregard for human life, and hence on degrees of absolute evil.

Weirdly, the Japanese are portrayed in the novel—I don’t quite know how to put it—as “too nice” (again, I would stress how weird this is). Maybe this is because, unlike in the series where they are abrasively present, the Kempeitai, the secret police of the Imperial Japanese Army, does not figure prominently in the novel; as such, we only get acquainted with Japanese characters that, as in the series, are sympathetic. The portrayal of the Japanese, however, does not rely merely on omission. Early on, we find Tagomi, Trade Minister in San Francisco (part of the Pacific States ruled by the Japanese), a “kindly” (212) “Buddhist” (211), the figure of wisdom in both the novel and the series, telling a German co-conspirator, “During the war, […] I held minor post in District of China. In Shanghai. There, at Hongkew, a settlement of Jews, interned by Imperial Government for duration. Kept alive by JOINT relief. The Nazi minister at Shanghai requested we massacre the Jews. I recall my superiors’ answer. It was, ‘Such was not in accord with humanitarian considerations.’ They rejected the request as barbaric. It impressed me” (76). This is not historically consistent, even in the context of the alternate history of the novel. Japanese soldiers were notorious in their brutality in WWII in places like the Philippines—just ask the comfort women and the soldiers of the Death March. War crimes and human rights violations were part and parcel of life in an empire that, like its German counterpart, was militarist, state nationalist, expansionist, and totalitarian, if under the banner of the sun.

In contrast, in the series, the Japanese police is well represented, and they’re not as bad as the Nazis, but … Juliana’s foray into the Neutral Zone (the Rockies) in a quest, as her sister’s substitute (not in the novel), to join the Resistance and find the Man in the High Castle puts Frank, her boyfriend whose grandfather happens to be Jewish, in the hands of Inspector Kido, the head of the Kempeitai (the analogous scene in the book is Frank’s arrest by American policemen, who threaten, even though he’s US-born, to deport him to Germany [205-6]). Kido brings in Frank’s sisters and her kids as well, locks them in a room and then tells Frank, “You’ve heard of Zyklon D? […] It is much improved since the war. Odorless and fast-acting. They’ll fall asleep and never wake up” (S1E2) (in contrast, in the novel, Frank reflects about how the Japanese “would no more set up gas ovens than they would melt their wives into sealing wax” [10]). The allusion to the Nazi gas chambers is unmistakable, if made more “civilized”—consistent with what in the novel is alluded to as Japanese subtlety in contrast to white crudeness —this form of torture suggested as deliberate, Kido having told Frank earlier that “Jews don’t get to decide if they’re Jews.” Kido does all this so that Frank would tell him where Juliana is; otherwise, he doesn’t care: “There are no Jews in Japan, after all.” Kido, in other words, is not genocidal, but he’s all too willing to abide by Nazi genocidal policies and employ Nazi methods to get what he wants. And what does he want? In the series, the Man in the High Castle is producing these films that show the Allies winning the war, “a different world, a better world,” as Juliana says (S1E2). These films are interpreted as a danger to the current world order (not made explicit why), but it is the Führer (still alive in the series) who is really obsessed with them. Kido’s efforts can thus be interpreted as done in the service of Japan, but is really of benefit, of primary interest, to the German Reich. Even if sovereign Japanese, then, Kido is portrayed as a delegate of the Reich—this despite the tensions between the two empires even more palpable in the series. This is part of the series’ larger point about how the Empire of Japan is no less fascist than Nazi Germany. In this regard, the statement, “There are no Jews in Japan, after all,” is particularly troubling. Japan, it would seem, in contrast to the novel’s “humanitarian considerations,” is not genocidal against Jews only because they don’t have to be. This raises the question, then: If not Jews, who? If fascism arises in another setting in which perhaps Jews are not the target (but perhaps they also are), who will be put in their place?

The series is able to raise this question because it refuses to whitewash Japanese brutality, thereby clarifying that fascism is not specific or limited to Nazi Germany. But does Dick really whitewash the Japanese (if so, like his depiction of women, this would be curious)? Why do the Japanese feel “nice” in the novel? This, I argue, is due to the way in which they are set in contrast to the Nazis, who are portrayed as extremely bad, in fact, as absolutely evil—precisely because white. In chapter 6, along with other high-ranking Imperial officials Tagomi is summoned to the Japanese Foreign Office for a briefing on the death of the Reich Chancellor (essentially the Führer, Hitler already dead). Speculating on possible replacements, the Foreign Office spokesman offers a “dry, slow recitation” of Nazi notables and their achievements (a scene of comparable horror is yet to be presented in the series, which is more focused on the Resistance), culminating in “Doctor Seyss-Inquart. Former Austrian Nazi, now in charge of Reich colonial areas, responsible for colonial policies. Possibly most hated man in Reich territory. Said to have instigated most if not all repressive measures dealing with conquered peoples. Worked with Rosenberg for ideological victories of most alarming grandiose type, such as attempt to sterilize entire Russian population remaining after close of hostilities. No facts for certain on this, but considered to be one of several responsible for decision to make holocaust of African continent thus creating genocide conditions for Negro population. Possibly closest in temperament to original Führer, A. Hitler” (99). At this point, Tagomi feels that he’s “going mad”: “I have to get out of here; I am having an attack. My body is throwing up things or spurting them out—I am dying” (99). When he recovers, he realizes, “There is evil! It’s actual like cement” (100). Seyss-Inquart may be the worst, but he is not the only one—Göring, Himmler, Goebbels, Heydrich and Schirach already having been described by the spokesman—his acts not the only hallmarks of Nazism. In fact, Tagomi missed what the spokesman said next: “The Home Islands take the view that Germany’s scheme to reduce the populations of Europe and Northern Asia to the status of slaves—plus murdering all intellectuals, bourgeois elements, patriotic youth and what not—has been an economic catastrophe. Only the formidable technological achievements of German science and industry have saved them. Miracle weapons, so to speak” (101).

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