Kou and Empire: The Squalor of Imperialism

(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.)

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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.

Fun fact. The character "Kou" which means "brilliance" in Japanese contains the radical for "Huang" which means "emperor" in Chinese.
Fun fact. The character “Kou” which means “brilliance” in Japanese contains the radical for “Huang” which means “emperor” in Chinese.

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

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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.

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“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.)

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“…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

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“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.

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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.

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“I would never kill. I want to unify the world with righteous power and a true mind and create a world in which no one ever dies.”

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.

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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.

Our princess's got nerves of steel. Didn't even flinch from almost being diced in two.
Our princess’s got nerves of steel. Didn’t even flinch from almost being diced in two.

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.

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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.

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“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.

am_hakueipose 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

Just your regular friendly conversation between brother and sister.
Just your regular friendly conversation between brother and sister.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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When siblings have a heart-to-heart, it ain’t pretty.

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.

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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.

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I think Sinbad’s status for most household members was just ousted by our princess here.

The Outlier Fallacy: Magi’s Representation of Imperialism

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“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.

Honor's not much help if your opponent doesn't play fair.
Honor’s not much help if your opponent doesn’t play fair.

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.

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17 thoughts on “Kou and Empire: The Squalor of Imperialism

  1. One wonders if there really is any such thing as perfectly regressive imperialism. Feuer used the Soviet Union as an example of it, but the USSR always had a ‘progressive’ element: that of liberating nations from the chains of capitalism; it’s the communist man’s burden. Uplift the savages from their barbaric ways, civilise them. Perhaps its better not to use Feuer’s charged terms of ‘progressive’ and ‘regressive’, and simply refer to the kind of imperial power exerted: ‘ideological’ or ‘repressive’.
    One particularly dark example is from the 79 genocide of Bangladesh by Pakistan, where it was said that the general in charge had ordered his soldiers to rape any Bangladeshi women they could, to ‘put Punjabi blood in them’. The desire, twisted though it may be, is to assimilate as well as dominate; the means are destructive, repressive, senseless and quintessentially regressive.
    Another example that makes this even muddier example is the western ‘cultural imperialism’ that many countries rail against.

    Now, in reality, all imperial powers are a mix of regressive and progressive, particularly the imperials in the colonial era, who would bring technology, schools, trains, Christianity, and the like under the banner the white man’s burden, but then also sap the colonised nation dry of talent, money, raw resources, and so on.
    I personally don’t think any Imperialist power, save for those who were racists (because this racism entails that the conquered can never rise to be normal citizens/humans), has ever been a truly ‘regressive’ imperial power, and even then, Magi’s depiction of racial, almost Nazi, imperialism -Magnostadt- is even greyer on how ‘bad’ or non-progressive it was.
    In many ways, Magnostadt is a foil to Hakuei’s vision of Kou imperialism.

    Fantastic post, btw.

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    1. Thank you for the comment! Apologies for the late reply! Appreciate your thoughts on this topic. You bring up an excellent point in that Feuer’s dichotomy of imperialism is reductionist but it does give us a starting point. I’ve mentioned that imperialism is not without benefits but those benefits always come with cost, even if the cost is minimal. The only problem I see with the terms you pose “ideological” and “repressive” is that I don’t think those descriptors are mutually exclusive. A repressive imperialism can be ideological in nature.

      Assimilation’s a hot topic and although I’m no political theorist, as a writer, I acknowledge that it definitely plays a role in how stories are created, told and interpreted. One sticking point of Magi (which I strongly agree with) is that there is no such thing as a single master narrative in history, but instead threads of events and perspectives bound and tangled, running parallel and intersecting with each other. To conquerors like Hakuei, assimilation is seen as an ideological good, while to the conquered, like the Kouga or Balbadd people, it just feels like they’re getting shafted. Both are “valid interpretations” but that doesn’t mean that one is necessarily correct over the other. I’m quite critical of imperialism because it’s seem to have had way more negative consequences than positive ones, but your point that imperialism is a mix of both progressive and regressive stands. It’s a matter of ratio between the two types.

      I’m not sure I completely understand your argument that Magnostadt is a foil to Hakuei’s vision of Kou imperialism. It’s definitely isolationist, as opposed to assimilating, but in this case, I’m not sure if imperialism can be properly applied to Magnostadt, considering that even the non-magical people residing in Magnostadt aren’t a separate state or collective (it was my understanding that they were all originally part of the same country).

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      1. Well, by repressive and ideological, I was simply referring to the types of power exerted, where repressive power is “bring out the military police and tanks, boys”, and ‘ideological’ is power over the hearts and minds of the subjugated population. You are right, though, in that the two are not necessarily as cleanly separated as they are often assumed to be.

        Even though Magnostadt was one nation from start to finish and the word ‘imperialist’ doesn’t fully apply for it, the power dynamics between magicians and goi there are practically the same as any imperial relationship between subjugator and subjugated. The reason I think Magnostadt is a foil to Kou is that it believes that the most important division among people -magicians and goi- is impossible to overcome through assimilation and the like, and that the right way of organizing them is magicians on top and goi down below.

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  2. The answer is democracy. A government for the people, by the people, and of the people. Although, the problem is that modern democracy is just an illusion and a dictatorship in disguise. It relies upon trusting the promises of the elected candidates, when most of what we see today is not an decision decided by the people, but their elected officials. One of the finest example of that is the war in Iraq and Libya that USA did.

    The current chapters of Magi also illustrates this. SPOILERS. Solomon desired a world of equality for all the people, but the people are not willing to stand upon themselves, and instead be dependent upon him. Leading for Solomon to be forced to be their King or leader, and tell them what to do, and not do. SPOILERS. Like a babysitter does to a child for the child is still immature and unwilling to take responsibility to his actions and make a decision.

    True democracy is a system were we are the ones that represent ourselves, instead of having someone be our representative. It is like driving our own a car itself, instead of electing a system to choose which one would drive our car for us. And when the car is not driven well as we would like it to be, we would not complaint to the driver that he is not doing it properly. That is essentially what a form of govern should be, in which we are the ones that govern ourselves, not someone governing us.

    http://9gag.com/gag/a2PrZpD

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and welcome to Anime Monographia! I haven’t been following the Alma Torran arc of the manga too closely but from what I’ve read and heard from other people who are following it), Alma Torran, like much of the previous arcs, shows the flaws of a monarchical system.

      Coming from a country that champions democracy, it’s easy to say that democracy is the solution and it will solve all of your problems. The true democracy you speak of, though, (and correct me if I’m wrong as political science is hardly my field of expertise), is a theoretical one that is difficult to implement in practice except with a small community. Representative democracy, as opposed to direct democracy, is a compromise. We elect representatives because (ideally) we trust them to make decisions that are in our best interest, which may or may not line with our personal choices.

      This is hardly a perfect system as you have stated, since the representational aspect of democracy can easily shelter a powerhungry oligarchy. However, Alma Torran also shows that abrupt and radical changes in government structure can also have disastrous consequences, especially for a populace that is not mentally ready to deal with sudden changes. If monarchy is not the solution, and democracy is too difficult to embrace suddenly, what choices are left? An international system of checks and balances is proposed by Sinbad, but as Kouen points out, such an alliance still involves a leader (Sinbad) standing at the top to lead the system, and that’s something Kouen won’t stand for, especially since he knows that Sinbad does not have Kou’s best interests at heart. Curious to see how this will play out!

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      1. I was implying that revolution is not about the attempt to change the system of governance, and through revising and establishing new laws, policies, and regulations, but through the people itself changing themselves. The ones that are running the government are people, the ones that they are trying to “supposedly” help are still the people; so it is themselves that they need to govern. Changing what the people experience in life happens not through changing what is outside of them, but through changing how they act in life.

        All forms of government have one thing in common; and that is that they all need the cooperation of their comrades, allies, and their people itself for their system to work. Where is it that we see people let go of their differences, act as one cohesive unit for the purpose of their goal? In sports. We see that they may have different kinds of backgrounds, history, and beliefs, yet despite of that all they are all work together through teamwork, for the purpose of winning the game.

        People could cooperate when they are playing as a team in basketball or any sports to win the championship, companies needs employees to systematically cooperate to one another to have a successful company and earn money, people could cooperate to one another as a production stuff of directors, managers, actors and actress, make-up artist, animation stuff, etc. Why shouldn’t that be impossible to do in terms of a political, sociological, and economical manner?

        When the people change themselves, they would automatically create an effect of changing the outcomes that happen in the society and the world, because what they do and not do is a reflection from their beliefs, biases, prejudices, and views on life and how they approach it.

        In short, World peace requires all of the people to be peaceful. A compassionate society requires all of the people in society to be compassionate. Same way in harmony, understanding, and empathy. All of this requires all of the people to be harmonic to be in harmony, to listen and understand one another to be in the state of understanding, to be empathetic to be in empathy.

        “If there is to be peace in the world,
        There must be peace in the nations.
        If there is to be peace in the nations,
        There must be peace in the cities.
        If there is to be peace in the cities,
        There must be peace between neighbors.
        If there is to be peace between neighbors,
        There must be peace in the home.
        If there is to be peace in the home,
        There must be peace in the heart.”
        ― Lao Tzu

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      2. Straight on point. I agree with you that personal change is the key to world peace, however, societal institutions created to preserve order paradoxically prevent this from being possible. The price of cooperation, however, is contested in Magi. How do we achieve a compassionate society? Do we raise everyone with the same values? (i.e. a monocultural society?) Or do we find a way to navigate a system of international cooperation while respecting boundaries and cultural differences? Difference seems to be valued in Magi, but it is also the source of conflict. Asking for people to be more compassionate and empathetic on a national level is difficult to implement in policy and practice. Doesn’t mean we should keep trying, though. Education is one way to go about this but that’s opening another can of worms.

        Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Dig the Lao Tzu quote.

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      3. I don’t really think differences is the source of conflict, but the inability to accept each other’s difference is the source of conflict. There are people that are alike to each other that they are best friends, but in the same time there are people that hate how they are so similar to one another. Then there are people that somehow get long very well despite being incredibly different. Because it is not the similarities nor the differences, but how they relate can relate to one another, hence, why it is called a relationship. And to relate means to connect, and to understand.

        It is a factual data that talking with someone, or creating a community that you can relate with lessens suicide, depression, and even erases it all together. If you look at serial killers, psychopaths, not all of them becomes a criminal because they are abused, or had some deep childhood trauma, but what they all had in common is that they were all an outcast, and unable to “fit in” to society to the extent that they even stop applying society’s norms and morality to themselves.

        And the current society itself is fucked since it alienates its people and creates an “you-are-on-your-own” system, instead of an “we-are-all-in-this-together” system. It is a capitalist-consumerist system that cares more of its economy, and profit than to its people. Because what we have right now is a machinistic, and robotic society. Each individual in society is run by those on top, and those on top are run by those higher than them. So, it is a system that attempts to make you ignorant to the position that you are not in, and persuades you to only focus on your role. We don’t have classes in our education system that teach us about how to talk with someone in awkward situations, to understand and be understood, how to handle a situation when someone you love dies, or what our meaning of life is. Instead, what we only have is the focus of the constant/forever improvement of technology, of our economy, and the advancement of our society; We are so out of reality and disconnected from it and ourselves that we, the ones that makes this happen, forgot to include ourselves in the picture.

        The main point of all of this is that what we have right now is a disconnected society, and a society that is disconnected with its humanity. If we are connected, and at one with one another then this wouldn’t happened. In the end, it still leads to having a community, friends, or family, or simply being at peace and alright with yourself. Having a relationship, or someone to relate with, or someone to connect with, with either yourself or others that would then genuinely express yourself.

        If we turn everything backwards, how would you turn a utopian society into chaotic disorder? How can you make an unequal, racist, sexist, and xenophobic society? How do you turn someone that is born naturally selfless into someone that is selfish? If the Nazis in WW2 didn’t overcome society’s norms and moral concepts, it would had been impossible for them to kill millions of Jews, and use them for their “scientific” experiments. If the Japanese during WW2 thought that it is impossible to kill men, women, and children, stab babies, and cut open pregnant women’s stomach, force soldiers walk to death, make comfort women (sex slaves), and burn villages then they wouldn’t be able to do it. Even doing the negative takes courage, persistence, and consistency, and not listening to what others would say. Swami Vivekananda once said, “The powers of the mind are like the rays of the sun, when they are concentrated they illuminate”. If we can could cause such chaos, disorder, and hate to one another then imagine if we do the opposite.

        It is merely about the question of where we place our focus of attention, which is then initiated in reality. So, your question of “how do we do it?” is through doing it. It is like saying how to smile in the mirror, when the only way to smile is through smiling that is then reflected in the mirror. The only way to do it through doing it that is then reflected in reality. You might want to know the concept of how to drive the car from A to Z, but in the end of the day to drive the car is still to drive the car.

        In a matter of perspective, we are already doing things, the question is only about what kind of things are we doing?

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      4. I should have better phrased my statement. Differences do not necessarily lead to conflict but people use them as excuses to start them. You mention that a sense of community (i.e. ties with family, friends, etc) can lead to harmony. I agree with this but will also mention that as well as these ties bind people harmoniously, when they’re threatened by a perceived opponent or force, a perceived “Other”, people may react violently in order to protect those they cherish and hold dear to their hearts. Think of soldiers who go out into the field, with the knowledge they are killing fellow human beings, but do so because they want to protect their loved ones.

        If we turn everything backwards, how would you turn a utopian society into chaotic disorder? How can you make an unequal, racist, sexist, and xenophobic society? How do you turn someone that is born naturally selfless into someone that is selfish?

        Your question is an interesting one but I’m wary of the assumption you make–that people are naturally born selfless. While recent studies have shown that babies may possess a rudimentary sense of justice (http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/12/us/baby-lab-morals-ac360/), I’m inclined to believe that more complicated moral systems are developed through experience and human interaction rather than are pre-programmed.

        Not sure I understood the last bit about the smiling and the mirrors. People can do positive things–little things–to make the world better and hope that others can follow on their act. It’s an uphill battle, though.

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      5. The smiling, mirror analogy is about how what we see in reality is the results of our actions, or lack of action. Just how there is a frowning person in the mirror because the person that is facing the mirror is frowning. It is still related to your question of how will you do it, which I answer to be through doing it. It is like asking the question of how do you talk to your neighbors, and know something about them. Some people would answer that it is through looking for what you both have in common, being interested, enthusiastic, etc. But it still boils down that to know people is through knowing them. To talk to people is still through talking to them.

        That paragraph about “if we turn everything backwards”, is actually about how the work of doing the positive or negative is practically the same. That what seems like effortless still contains a constant action of needing to repeatedly do it to continually make it happen. It wasn’t about whether we are are inherently selfish or selfless.

        It doesn’t matter whether we are inherently selfish or selfless, what is important is that each of us need one another. We help one another, whether intentionally, or unintentionally. Who “are” the ones that keep the electricity running, in which is then distributed in cities, to countries, to and our homes? Do you really think the corporate owners could run their company own their own? There is a reason why they hire workers, and why they need to know a list of associates. Even boxers, and athletes need someone to help and manage their position. Even movies are not just made by its actors and actresses, you merely need to look at the end credits scenes to see how many people are involved to make the movie. Your very own body constitutes billions of cells, molecules, atoms, and then leading to the sub-atomic levels of electrons and protons, then to the quarks, bosons, leptons and so on forming organs, body parts, as all are working together to create the whole. Yet, we defined ourselves as merely One Entity and not a person that consists of this billions of parts within us, and how we are itself billions of parts. So, even our body needs other organism to help continually form and keep the human body being alive.

        When I said community, I was not about talking about how there is a group of people compile together as a group, and how there is also another of people that are excluded from it. I’m talking about going beyond religion, creed, race, nationality, beliefs, political views, or world views. The sun doesn’t see different countries, territories, continents, and races, nor humans and nature as separate as the planet revolves around it. Society categorized race into whites, blacks, asians, hispanic, etc. when they are all human beings. All of this differences are man-made, illusionary, and are from society’s perspective of the need to differentiate one another, instead of looking to their similarities, and what unites them. As Socrates said, “I am neither Athenian nor Greek, but a citizen to the world.

        When people finally does that the community is not them, and the others that are not included, but all of them as a community. That is what I’m talking about. So, it is actually similar to Ren Kouen’s views minus the part of superficial unification, but instead a unification of the people by all of the people themselves doing it.

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      6. I’m having trouble following your logic as it seems rather circular to me…for your talking neighbor example, you say your answer to “How do you talk to your neighbors and get to know them?” is not “looking for what you both have in common, being interested, enthusiastic, etc” but is “to talk to people is still through talking to them.” Which seems obvious to me but maybe I’m missing something here. Are you saying that you have to take action instead of just thinking about it? And that through action, which becomes habit, one propagates change?

        I do agree that habit (good or bad) becomes “effortless” as you say. But only once it becomes habit. If it isn’t habit, it’s something we have to constantly work at. Some people are more empathetic than others (and while empathy can certainly be learned, it’s been shown that people can genetically be predisposed to a lack of empathy).

        I would be careful to automatically assume that people necessarily “need” each other. Given how our society works, becoming completely self-sufficient is fairly difficult as we depend on each other for necessities–material needs and emotional ones too. But I think you’re overlooking the power imbalance. In your corporation example, you say that corporations rely on their workers. Which is true, but they don’t need all workers EQUALLY. Laborers are replaceable cogs in the corporate machinery. The CEO isn’t going to care that his outsourced workers in China are being paid a pittance for their labor. The flow of cash is unevenly distributed. Partnerships that you speak of are ideal but not always the case.

        If only we could be like Socrates! If we ask people to describe their identities, you will rarely hear someone start off with, “I am human.” We certainly are all humans but choose to rely on things like religious beliefs, race, nationalities, political views, and moral systems to categorize and define us. And it’s the inability to reconcile these differences which can lead to disputes and war. Kouen’s solution of “One world, one king” seeks to work around this problem but unifying people under one…which certainly “sounds good” but his method for going about it (through brute force and cultural assimilation) runs close to cultural genocide, which may or may not be a good thing.

        What Aladdin seems to advocate for is a way for people to exist peacefully by not just recognizing the similarities people share–qualities of humanity that we call “universal”–but to also acknowledge that differences exist and should be respected. “You’re not just human, you’re also [insert other identities that you may have]. Your beliefs may be different from mine, but we also have enough in common that we can work together.”

        When people finally does that the community is not them, and the others that are not included, but all of them as a community.

        I’m pretty sure this bit has some syntactical issues and I have no idea what you’re saying here.

        Thanks for the comments! Enjoying the discussion here.

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  3. I absolutely loved every minute of reading this post! Wonderful insights. It’s interesting how the optimistic naivety of characters like Alibaba and Aladdin underscore the deep conflicts we can see in our own history. Chapter 205 of the manga brings up some of these issues as well. Yunan asks, “What is the meaning of a King Vessel? What if in this age the several kings fiercely fought each other because of their different wills? And then the one who survives creates the right “destiny” for this world?” Magi grapples with a deeply complicated issue for sure. I haven’t reached the end of the manga yet, but if it ends on a happy note (which I bet it will anyway) it surely can’t be one that satisfies these questions.

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    1. Thanks! You’ve highlighted precisely why I enjoy fantasy/alternate universe–they provide a unique platform for us to explore our own world’s conflicts. Although wars and clash of different wills of kings trying to impose their own destinies on the world create conflict, Magi also seems to criticize the idea of one individual determining the fate of the world…which also seems to go against the monarchical (King Vessel & Magi) system that runs it! We seem presented by two extremes: monotonic harmony (ruled by one–the idea that Sinbad seems to be going for) and cacophonous chaos (ruled by many-the former system in place). What Alibaba and Aladdin (and yet this remains to be played out) seem to advocate is neither of these options but a middle way, a diverse harmony where the collective of humanity creates its own destiny. I also don’t see the story moving in a happy direction unless it opts for a “quick-fix” deus ex machina ending where all of these questions are ignored. Negotiating conflict is something that is necessary for peace. Peace is an action, not a state, which makes it like happiness in that regard.

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  4. I did magi analysis (focused on relationship) recently but when I found your essay, I dare say this is the high quality and very lonnng essay among anime/manga analysis blog I found.

    While I am writing analysis, I noticed some faults in Kouen and Hakuei’s ideal dream too. Their dream are similar as the first emperor and they (the 1st emperor and Kouen) decide to do this because they meet the despair in their country. It’s like the ideal dream of Lelouch’s father (code geass) that will be exist to comfort Lelouch’s parents only.

    I said I found some faults but I can’t conclude into words. But today is my lucky day I have a chance to read your essay. Good job. If I have some free time, I will read your Magi analysis again.

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    1. Thank you for the comment! Haha, yeah, I don’t post as often as I want to, but when I do, I write a lot.

      Yes, Kouen and Hakuei (actually, most Magi characters in fact) have flawed dreams of how the world should be (some more flawed than others.) The challenge is taking the ideal and making it true in reality, which is a lot trickier than our characters assume to believe.

      This is just one part of my Magi analysis series, so feel free to check out the other posts if you like Magi. Magi is so wonderfully complex yet accessible, and is truly a joy to watch.

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