(This is part two of the essay series “What Makes a King: Monarchical Representations in Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic. Link to the introduction and essay outline can be found here.)
It’s a dog-eat-dog world in Magi. And unlike the coastal, debt-crippled country of Balbadd, the Kou Empire’s the top dog in the neighborhood. It’s of little surprise that their country is spoken with fear and unease in other countries, whose leaders look to their dwindling or threatened borders with alarm. Though we don’t have a firm grasp of Magi’s geography (like Earth, it’s a big, big place), we do get the sense that Kou is very big and growing fast.
Given the Kou Empire’s very aggressive militaristic foreign policies (Kouha sums it up quite nicely in his diplomatic talks with Mogamett of Magnostadt), it doesn’t take a huge leap of insight to realize the show’s critiquing imperialism. After all, when it comes down to it, Magi, with its narrative focus on choosing kings and raising kingdoms, is a story about empire-building. Unlike the somewhat geographically isolated shores of Sindria, most countries don’t have the luxury of clear, unoccupied borders. And with the development of different civilizations, some civilizations just come out on top.
How did the Kou Empire become so powerful? It wasn’t too long ago that Kou was just like any other struggling nation, a small nation among nations, fighting to stay afloat and keep its modestly sized territory. There are many factors–some that have been mentioned and others that can be inferred–but what interests me in particular is the ideological factor–the drive to conquer for the sake of unification.
It’s a powerful idea and a familiar one for us.
And with Magi’s eerie resemblance to a world that was once our own, it’s a historical pattern for us to mark down in our books. Because if there’s one message to take away from Magi, it’s that having a balanced and complete awareness of the world’s history is crucial to the survival of civilization.
Breaking Down Kou’s Imperialistic Policy
First of all, what is imperialism? When we think of imperialism we think of empire building and conquest, but there’s more to it than these two. According to the Dictionary of Human Geography, imperialism is
“An unequal human and territorial relationship, usually in the form of empire, based on ideas of superiority and practices of dominance and involving the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another.”
Far from a complete definition but it’s a starting one we can work with. Imperialism involves at least two parties (which can be states or people), with one party significantly more powerful than the other. It’s important to note that the definition does not explicitly mention “conquest”, though that’s often what we think of when we think of imperialism. Imperialism involves the exertion of some form of power over another. Another key takeaway is the belief underlying this basis of dominance–the stronger state dominates another because of preconceived notions of one’s superiority.
It’s also good to delineate the different kinds of imperialism. American sociologist, Lewis Samuel Feuer categorizes two types: regressive and progressive imperialism.
Regressive imperialism is what we think of when we think of brutal imperialism. At its core, it’s pure conquest, complete exploitation, extermination or drastic elimination/restriction of undesired peoples with desired peoples settling in the territories formerly occupied by undesired peoples. In this scenario, it’s pretty obvious who comes out on top and who suffers.
Progressive imperialism, on the other hand, is a much subtler form of conquest. Whereas regressive imperialists are not particularly interested in having the conquered actually become part of their society, progressive imperialism’s ultimate goal is assimilation. Described as a comparatively “cosmopolitan” view of humanity, progressive imperialists believe that they’re genuinely doing a good service by conquering allegedly backward peoples. They see themselves as benevolent overseers working to elevate living standards and instill a sense of culture (their culture, by the way) into conquered areas. Unlike regressive imperialists who are all for obliteration of unwanted populations, progressive imperialists see conquered societies as inevitably assimilating into their own society and encourage the process by promising or offering them some citizenship rights.
So which imperialism does Kou practice? While it’s tempting to peg Kou’s aggressive military tactics as regressive imperialism, it’s actually a little more complicated than that. Prince Ren Kouen makes it pretty clear that he wants to unite the world as one.
“Why is it that we have only one language? Before the world began to intersect, we were born with a single language. But why? It’s so we never die out. So we don’t end up dying out after a battle because we can’t communicate and are cut off from each other. To make the world one. In order to accomplish that, a single king must control the world.” – Ren Kouen
It’s a simple but persuasive argument. The end result is what makes it appealing as Kouen suggests that war, conflict borne from differences, can end simply by removing political differences. Rather than have multiple kings constantly contest and squabble over territory, under one king, peace can be established. You can’t exactly go to war with other countries if there ARE no other countries, right? (Kouen neglects the idea of civil war but that’s something we’ll talk about later.)
“…the people there spoke in various tongues, and they lived scattered all over the place. But because of that, different religions and ideologies were born, and numerous kings were crowned. They battled and eventually died out…” -Ren Kouen
Like many great conquerors, Kouen is a man of history. When he’s not out in the field overwhelming entire armies with sheer brute force, he’s holed up in his enormous library studying history, specifically the history of a time when the world was much bigger and diversely populated. The world Kouen describes is a world not unlike our own and the fact that cultural differences can and do lead to fear and war is an ominous message that resonates with us, a world that’s becoming one through globalization but also a world rife with political and ideological tensions.
Kou’s unique in the case that because of the sheer power they have, and the size of their military, they are in a position to shape the world. It seems unfair that one country would have so many dungeon capturers. Kou boasts of a staggering SIX.
One of Magi’s greatest storytelling strengths is its ability to take a conflict and present a balanced, nuanced account. Particularly pertinent to our discussion of how imperialism is represented is Kou Princess Hakuei’s subjugation of the Kouga Empire. What’s interesting about this conquest is that it’s an astonishingly successful one, a shift of regime made with minimal bloodshed. As we explore this arc further, one thing I’d like to keep in mind is WHY this representation? Why is this story told first, told earlier in the Magi storyline? What effect does this have on our views of the Kou Empire, of imperialistic endeavors?
Humanizing the Enemy: Empathy and Political Dancing
“The Rukh hovering around you are so determined, it’s painful to see.” -Aladdin to Hakuei
As a writer, narrative sequencing is always a topic of interest of mine, considering its huge impact on shaping not only the story itself, but the reader’s experience. We’ve talked a little bit about the effect of having Magi starting off with minimal exposition and jumping into the thick of things–in other words, in media res–and how such a narrative strategy affords a more objective lens for observing the Magi world, not unlike the experience of a traveler entering a foreign land.
Given that Kou is introduced early on as an antagonistic country (at least for our merry trio), it’s really interesting that the first Kou person we (and Aladdin) meet first is Kou’s First Princess Hakuei.
Why so unusual? She doesn’t quite fit the picture we might have of your typical conqueror.
This is anime, so we have to be mindful of what our characters look like. Hakuei, at first glance, doesn’t look particularly impressive. For one thing, she’s a pretty lady and looks like your typical noblewoman. She’s perfectly mannered and friendly and looks more like a political figure as opposed to a battle commander.
“In the past, there was no horse riding tribe more prosperous than the Kouga Clan. I have heard that the first king built the greatest nation in history, the Great Kouga Empire, with his sorcerer-like powers. However in recent years, your nation’s power has waned. But your suffering ends today. Come under our patronage! In other words, our aim is to unify the world. This is the same dream that your ancestors pursued. I ask for your help in realizing it.”
Although a very capable fighter, Hakuei’s true power is her eloquence. Like Kouen, she is highly educated and knows her history. Her empathy greatly enhances her diplomatic skills in appealing to the Kouga Clan. By mentioning the origins of the Kouga Clan, she shows her respect to their culture and their people, simultaneously acknowledging their strength while building rapport with them. By appealing to the current deteriorating state of their clan, she presents herself as a savior, rather than a conqueror. Pretty manipulative but what’s interesting is that Hakuei herself genuinely believes her words.
This is a great scene that’s understated but does a lot in establishing the precarious balance of power in the turning point of the Kouga Clan’s history. While a less-than-confident Princess Hakuei stews quietly in her quarters, showing a glimpse of her vulnerability (something that she hides in front of her men because her command of them is tenuous at best), Aladdin startles her by appearing out of the sky, floating on his turban. By reflex, Princess Hakuei reaches for her sword but stops when she sees Aladdin.
I love how bewildered she is. It seems that Aladdin, among his many talents, has an uncanny ability for bringing out the honesty in people. Hakuei’s fascinated by Aladdin’s child-like appearance and display of magical power.
As mentioned before, magical power is might in Magi. It doesn’t matter if Aladdin is a child–the fact that he has magic (and lots of it!) is enough to garner Hakuei’s full attention.
You can tell that she highly respects Aladdin and suspects that he’s more than just a cute child. She faces him head-on and bows to him when she declares her intentions for a bloodless takeover. They both sit on opposite sides of the table, facing each other as diplomatic equals.
I do think that Aladdin’s reaction to Hakuei’s resolution is important to think about. He marvels at her resolve, even if her promise seems almost impossible to fulfill–bloodless conquests aren’t exactly a daily occurrence–and her unflinching dedication. She’s not exactly naive–she’s seen too much of the world for that–but she does possess a charmingly optimistic view of people and is willing to give strangers the benefit of the doubt. Even if it’s at the risk of her life.
And yet for all of her noble traits, we must not be blinded by them by not acknowledging her agenda. The hero and the imperialist are hardly mutually exclusive identities. Yes, she’s a sweet and respectful general (as far as army commanders go) but Hakuei’s ultimate goal is the submission of the Kouga under Kou authority. An outcome, no matter how she sugarcoats it, puts the Kouga clan between a rock and a hard place.
Hakuei is charismatic, empathetic and respectful of other cultures. But there’s no masking that despite her attempts at building rapport with the Kouga clan, she’s looking down from a loftier and more powerful position. (In other words, it’s easier to be gracious when your opponent is a lot weaker).
Pacifism is the driving force behind their diplomatic negotiations. Unlike Balbadd, the Kouga clan’s had the fortune of not suffering from bad leadership. Given the nomadic nature of the Kouga clan, their political and social structure is much more close-knit and familial. They have a wise grandmother as their leader and unlike the young and excitable whippersnappers, she’s got a good head on her shoulders.
It’s not coincidental that Aladdin encounters the Kouga clan first, winning them over with his big eyes, friendly smile and overall moe. But while Aladdin doesn’t do much to change the political situation’s Kouga’s gotten themselves mired in, his presence does help smooth things over by helping the Kouga prioritize what they value most. And contrary to most politically-precarious situations, the integrity of their country is far from the top of the priority list.
“Let us submit to the empire. What is it that we must protect? Our country? Our pride? What we must protect is our lives. No matter what happens, we must not go to war. Wage battle in your hearts, so that we may all live today as a clan.”
You go, Baba. While the young’uns are gung-ho about bringing the heat to chase off their oppressors, Baba knows that the last thing the Kouga clan needs is a war. Hakuei might be courteous but she’s also pretty darned right about their weakening political status. The Kouga Empire’s no longer what it used to be and the golden years of conquest and glory have long past. Now’s the time of twilight and the Kouga have a choice between a never-ending night or the daybreak of a new era.
Not that submission to a new regime is ever easy for any state/collective with any shred of self-determination and patriotism, but the Kouga Clan has one advantage that other countries like Balbadd don’t have–their nomadic culture and clan identity. Given their nomadic and roaming lifestyle, the Kouga clan has comparatively weaker ties to the land. In other words, their culture and social identity–is directly built into the close-knit community of their traveling fellows. When it comes down to it, the Kouga Empire is the people, hence their total aversion to war.
In the end, things work out and both leaders get their wish–the avoidance of war. The Kouga Clan surrenders to Kou in exchange for their protection. Some odd hundred plus fellows, as we later find out, get a pretty sweet gig as part of Hakuei’s cavalry some years later in season 2. All’s well that ends well, right?
“So, We’re Surrendering to Another Country”: Downplaying the Imperialist Regime
What’s great about Magi is how rare it is to find a completely happy ending to a story arc. As we see later with Balbadd and with Magnostadt, crises are averted but the costs for such efforts are high. It’s this melding of bittersweet that makes Magi so wonderfully complex and Hakuei’s arc, I argue, is no exception.
Perhaps I’m in the minority but I find Hakuei’s arc to be disturbingly exploitive. By exploitive, I mean in the sense that the story’s trying to downplay the more devastating effects of imperialism on the conquered party. You soften the audience up by presenting a conqueror who’s gentle, easy on the eyes, and competent. Sure Hakuei’s objective is to take over the Kouga clan but we are compelled to forgive her (or at the very least, cut her some slack) because she has honor and is a likable person who genuinely believes what she preaches. On the other end, you also have the to-be-conquered state as a weakened one, a “damsel-in-distress” state, if you will. Rather than an oppressor, she’s a savior to a nation that has suffered territorial losses and is gradually waning in political clout on an international level. Wouldn’t it be good, if Big Brother (or Big Sister?), being the good brother he is, lends the little guy a helping hand so that he can stay safe and happy without having to worry about doing things himself?
For any skeptics out there, here’s one more thing to consider–the significance of the warmongering Ryosai, Hakuei’s second-in-command. In a world of gray, his absolute doucheness is cartoonishly appalling. He’s offensive, malicious, dishonorable, sexist and nothing delights him more than starting a bloody war before breakfast. In other words, he’s the villain we’re all supposed to automatically despise, simply because there are no redeeming qualities of him that we can speak of.
Ryosai is so astonishingly one-dimensionally evil that he’s less of a person and more of a plot device created for the sake of casting Hakuei’s imperialistic agenda in a more positive light. His evil actions provide a convenient contrast with Hakuei’s. No one likes war, so Hakuei’s offer of submission under the auspices of obtaining Kou patronage sounds generous by comparison.
Perhaps equally as fascinating is the role Hakuryuu plays in all of this. The siblings, despite their close bond, are presented as opposites. Hakuei is idealistic and emotionally grounded (check out her flirting with her stepbrother/cousin Kouen) while Hakuryuu is cynical (dangerously so) and emotionally unstable. As such, the two siblings are faced against each other, though they don’t want to be, on different sides of this imperialistic world conquest plan. Hakuei believes in Kouen’s words and ambition that peace can be achieved once everyone is united under one banner. Hakuryuu, on the other hand, is downright dismissive of such a notion. People are too different and any forms of conquest, no matter how gentle or bloodless, only breed hatred.
Hakuei: “Weren’t you listening to what Lord Kouen was saying yesterday? That division will only invite destruction. Civil war is out the question. No matter what kind of monster exists in our family, the Kou Empire…the world is one!”
Hakuryuu: “What drivel! Such a thing isn’t remotely possible! Even our own family is completed fragmented. He’s contradicting himself with those pretty words of his. At the end of the day, what he’s doing is just invading other countries by force, isn’t it? What about Balbadd? What about the casualties among the Kouga Clan? Are you saying that the family responsible for all that can just laugh it off and forget everything? Even you Hakuei…you used brute force to occupy the Kouga village!”
Hakuei: “They acquiesced to my will and erased all their past grudges…”
Hakuryuu: “That’s not possible! Grudges never die. The bearer of the grudge can only erase it himself!”
Not that our angsty prince has been the most reliable moral compass, but he’s got a point. His rant brings back to an important, yet perhaps overlooked aspect of Hakuei’s character–she might be practical and experienced, but at heart, Hakuei is an idealistic dreamer, one who shuns military force in favor of winsome verbiage.
“Ruling by military force will only give rise to retribution. What truly captures a person’s heart…that would be noble ideals and intentions.” -Hakuei to Ryosai
You don’t have to be a writer in order to appreciate the power of words but I cringe a little whenever I rewatch this scene. Why? It sounds good—and perhaps it is true. People tend to be moved by what they perceive to be moral causes. And ideas, once disseminated, are stronger than brute force. It’s easy to kill a person–it’s much harder to kill an idea.
The problem is that the world doesn’t follow the rulings of the noble-intentioned. Just because you value fair play doesn’t mean that everyone else does. In fact, you put yourself at a disadvantage by being morally rigid because other people can take advantage of you. What you think about it, Hakuei’s noble intentions didn’t prevail alone. In fact, her unfaltering sense of honor actually endangers her as much (if not more) as it helps her. Without Aladdin to help her out, her plan would have fallen to pieces–Ryosai and his merry band of soldiers would be massacring and raping as they pleased and Hakuei’s corpse would be festering somewhere, pierced with a thousand arrows.
Going back to Hakuei’s response to Hakuryuu. The timing of their conversation seems to come a little late–Hakuei’s takeover of the Kouga clan and Tenzan plateau is already complete and it’s too late to have second thoughts. All Hakuei can do, without compromising her moral framework, is to cling to Kouen’s grandiose one-world vision, a vision that Kouen offhandedly reveals to us that was shared by her father. The lateness of their discussion, however, works well with the narrative’s theme of lessons learned too late. Alibaba and Cassim were too late in understanding each other. Aladdin-tachi were too late in saving Dunya from falling into depravity. And so on. We have incredibly strong people who are trying to take the reins of history and move them towards what they believe to be a positive change and have them realize that there are inevitable costs to their endeavors. And those costs are often unforeseen.
I’m not railing against Hakuei for being a conqueror. And as critical as I am of imperialism, at least within the Magi-verse, Hakuei’s arc has a comparatively positive outcome. For manga readers who know what happens when Alibaba returns to his homeland several years later, the outcome of the Kouga clan could have been so much worse. Unlike Koumei, Hakuei doesn’t seem to have completely overwritten their culture and replaced it with Kou’s. In contrast, by accepting them as her Household members, she manages to maintain the delicate balancing act of patron and conqueror.
As we’ve seen with other King Vessels, becoming a Household member is not given lightly and is indicative of a deep trust between the King Vessel and the Household member. So while Hakuryuu has a point in mentioning that it’s unrealistic for Hakuei to immediately assume that she’s best friends with the Kouga clan, based on the evidence we’re given, I think it’s safe to give her some credit. I mean, things could have been so much worse and we should be thankful on some level that things didn’t escalate further.
The Outlier Fallacy: Magi’s Representation of Imperialism
“It would be such a blessing if we could all go on living together like this, wouldn’t it?”
Given all of the crazy stuff that follows in Balbadd, Sindria, and Magnostadt, it’s instinctive to identify the Kouga clan arc as an outlier. Here’s a case where imperialism actually did some good. Here’s a “happy” ending. The terrible bad got his just desserts and everyone gets to continue living peacefully.
This train of thought comes to a screeching halt when we realize that this situation is an outlier, an exception.
Hakuei had a lot of help and a ton of ace cards waltzing right into her hand, even with the odds against her. Despite Hakuei’s eloquence and passionate honor, Ryosai was basically able to take command of her entire army behind her back. He was also almost successful in killing her multiple times, from riling the Kouga clan to do it for her and from actually trying to do it himself by tricking her into a one-on-one duel while actually using her for his men’s target practice.
King’s Vessel or not, Hakuei would have been royally screwed if Aladdin and Baba did not intervene on her behalf. At the end of the day, while it’s arguable that Hakuei’s justice and noble intentions helped move the Kouga clan to surrender peacefully, it’s also equally valid to conclude that she was also extremely fortunate.
It’s for this reason that I believe Magi, despite its system of promoting monarchies through magis, is ultimately anti-imperialist. As we’ve seen with Balbadd and Kou, monarchies can be unstable, especially during shifts of leadership. The state and wellbeing of a monarchy depends on the state and wellbeing of the royal family. That much power concentrated in a few individuals is dangerous. Hakuei’s case, presented early in the series provides an unrealistic and nearly impossible standard for later outcomes. It’s like trying to sell a faulty product that works only for the first time. You see it work, you sell the success story, other people have a go at it and they find the product in pieces with no way to return it. A peaceful outcome with minimal collateral damage is uncommon.
While Magi is certainly critical to the negative consequences of conquest on the conquered, what I find interesting is that it seems to think that it’s necessary, or at the very least, inevitable. Even Aladdin when he appears before Hakuei to appeal to her, doesn’t ask if she can back off and leave the Kouga clan alone. Instead he merely tells her to “Please not kill them–I love them so much” as if conquest was a foregone conclusion (and in this case, it is). This is telling of Aladdin and the narrative’s assumption that there is inevitability to the movement of history. Which makes sense as it ties back into the warning message to not curse one’s fate or destiny. It’s an unexpectedly grim message–that regardless of how we might like it, the world’s not fair. There are winners and losers in history and being morally upright is, more often than not, unhelpful when you need some leverage to back you up.
But there is a silver lining and that lies in the course of history that humans can be in control of. Change is an ever-enduring constant. Empires rise and fall, but what matters is that humanity’s capacity to do good remains. This sentiment brings to mind one of my favorite Auden poems, “September 1, 1939”, a poem that reflects on the speaker’s thoughts on the outbreak of World War II, which I’ve excerpted below:
Into this neutral air Where blind skyscrapers use Their full height to proclaim The strength of Collective Man, Each language pours its vain Competitive excuse: But who can live for long In an euphoric dream; Out of the mirror they stare, Imperialism’s face And the international wrong. ...All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
The speaker in the poem clearly distrusts political figures and the government, especially regimes that violate human rights and reap the squalors of imperialism. But Auden’s appeal–what he clearly intends for a solution, is a call for universal love on a grass-roots level. The voice of Man as a Collective can be vain and self-serving but the individual voices of humanity as individuals can undo the folded lies, the trappings of false realities. It’s a call for people to empathize and love each other in order to end international conflict because as alienated as society can make one feel, no one really exists alone and there are people whose hearts can touch yours as much as yours touch them.
However, this capacity for love requires a degree of self-awareness and groundedness in identity and it’s something that Kou’s imperialism–particularly Koumei’s assimilation scheme–cannot provide.
It is for this reason that imperialism, while an answer to the ever-confounding question of what it’ll take to achieve world piece, is not the final answer. As the fate of Balbadd hints in the manga, the cost of imperialism is directly tied to the costs of assimilation. While the “one world” Kouen speaks of, may be beautiful to Hakuei, a global monoculture risen from the genocide of other conquered cultures, is a terrifying prospect.