The more I see of Japanese anime, the more I am impressed by, and the better I understand the way that many of these popular movies address serious issues. A while ago I wrote on the anime series Psycho-Pass and its pertinence for the question of societal control, and I have just finished watching another series (courtesy of my son, Marco, who knows more about anime than anyone else I know) called Jormungand (the world-serpent). What I would like to do here is show that one could interpret Jormungand along the lines of Sigmund Freud’s contention (in The Interpretation of Dreams), that dreams are essentially wish-fulfilment (even nightmares are, except that they do so negatively, that is, by giving one a glimpse of what one dreads or wants to avoid).

This shift from dreams to movies is not as arbitrary as it might seem. Both work in terms of audio-visual images and dialogue, and in both cases one witnesses what Freud calls “hallucinatory” satisfaction of the demands of the pleasure principle. That is, instead of “real” satisfaction of, for example hunger, as when in waking life one eats something, in this way removing tension and re-establishing homeostasis or psychic equilibrium, all one gets in dreams is the illusion or hallucination of removing one’s hunger pains. Similarly one could claim that movies are, metaphorically speaking, the “dreams” of society in which far more is revealed about wish-fulfilment than merely what Freud dubbed the “manifest content” (of dreams); a savvy interpretation of images, in films as in dreams, will help one uncover the “latent content” as well.

What fascinates me about these popular anime series, the viewership of which amounts to millions worldwide, is their combination of the kind of visual action and sexual innuendo that attract the viewers, on the one hand, and their ability to smuggle serious issues in through the back door, as it were. The series I watched before Jormungand, called Black Lagoon, for example, concerned a transport company by that name operating from a port city in Thailand depicted as a haven for a variety of Mafia-type operations. Unavoidably most of its contracts therefore involve moving illicit cargo of some kind, and hence the owner has surrounded himself with gun- and communications-savvy individuals, who invariably have to get them out of hot water when competitors or pirates attempt to intercept the cargo. But through all of this pretty violent action one is always made aware of the degree to which serious global issues such as international drug-trafficking impinge on Black Lagoon’s activities. And in the background the American CIA is always there, sometimes treated critically and at other times sympathetically.

Women are the strong characters in most anime. That is the case in Psycho-Pass, in Black Lagoon and again, perhaps in exemplary fashion, in Jormungand. The main character is Koko Hekmatyar, a resolutely self-directed young arms dealer who travels the world selling all kinds of weapons, from handguns and sub-machine-guns to tanks, fighter planes and battleships, to anyone who can pay the enormous sums involved. Her brother Kasper is in the business too, but operates largely independently from Koko, although they work under the aegis of the same company, HCLI.

Early in the series’ narrative Kasper sends Koko a young child soldier, Jonathan (Jonah, for short), as a personal bodyguard, after the latter single-handedly wiped out a group of soldiers, employed by Kasper, who had abused and killed some of Jonah’s young friends. The main emphasis in the series is on the relationship between Koko and Jonah, who is very skilled in the use of firearms, but nevertheless detests weapons because his whole family was wiped out with them.

One gets to know all the individuals employed by both Koko and Kasper, as well as their main adversaries, including competitor arms dealers and the CIA members who constantly have her and Kasper in their sights. Elaborating on the theme of strong women, Koko and Kasper are both constantly shadowed by strong ladies who excel at martial arts and the use of a variety of weapons. Their entourage is further amplified by individuals with special skills concerning navigation, explosives, driving, piloting aircraft, sharpshooting and so on — and all of their respective capabilities are regularly put to the test, including Jonah’s, when attempts are made to assassinate Koko.

So much for the action, which takes one to Japan, the US, Britain, Indonesia, and even South Africa, where one of Koko’s associates, Dr Minami (fondly called “Dr Miami”) has a laboratory near Port Elizabeth. Dr Minami is much sought after by weapons dealers and developers because she specialises in micro-robotics mainly to build children’s toys, which could easily be transformed into micro-spybots and the like.

It is only late in the 24-episode series that the direction in which Koko’s exploits are moving becomes clearer, and at the same time the serious issue underpinning the series surfaces. For some time before this point is reached, she is kept under surveillance by two CIA operatives called Bookman and Scarecrow, but she manages to outfox them every time, even if she pays the price of losing some of her own fighters. A pattern starts unfolding when she uses her team to kidnap one important scientist after the other — one, a woman scientist who specialises in quantum theory, and is kept captive by a foreign country until her team frees the woman, and another Middle-Eastern IT specialist called Rabbitfoot, who they rescue from no less a place than the American detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The fact that the CIA is, predictably, aware of this intended rescue, but — even with the help of an elite Seal unit — fails to prevent Koko’s troops from carrying out their rescue mission, helps one discern the driving force behind the plot. By the time they nab Rabbitfoot (another woman scientist), Dr Minami and the quantum physicist they “acquired” earlier have constructed a quantum computer, which Koko uses to scramble the communications between CIA headquarters and the Seal unit, thus creating the opening for her team to escape with Rabbitfoot.

Needless to say, adding Rabbitfoot to her quantum team enables her, in the end, to squash the quantum computer into a manageable size for launching into space aboard a rocket, to orbit the earth. Koko’s ultimate intention is revealed when she gathers her team together around the time of “abducting” Rabbitfoot. Until then they have been in the dark about the reason behind the abduction of scientists — something very different from their usual semi-military operations to protect Koko and her arms cargoes. Imagine the surprise when she informs them that things are on schedule for the creation of a “new world” — a world without war.

She addresses Jonah in person when she tells them that, although she has made billions through arms sales, she has hated every minute of dealing with weapons, and that she and Jonah share this hatred of weapons and war. But it has all been a preparation for this moment, when she has enough money to build a quantum computer with the help of the woman scientists she has enlisted, and put it in orbit around the earth.

With this technology she would be able to prevent any state or other agency from starting another war, just as she deftly intervened in the Seal unit’s attack on her team by scrambling all their communications. The quantum computer is capable of monitoring all terrestrial communications all the time, and will be programmed to shut down any process indicating military hostilities by means of modern weaponry. The series ends with Koko activating Jormungand, after placing the quantum computer in orbit.

Arguably women are less bellicose than men, which partly explains the pre-eminent role played by women in Jormungand — which is what Koko calls her project for terminating all wars. In light of my earlier reference to Freud’s dream interpretation and its relevance for films, it would appear that one of the latent messages of this series is a collective wish for world peace. In this respect Jormungand is, like a dream, a hallucinatory wish-fulfilment. The question is: Can humans actualise this dream in reality?


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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