In response to hundreds dozens several two requests, the next show for analysis in this series is Gate: Thus the JSDF Fought There. I happened to read the manga in 2015, and although the show has a somewhat different tone at times it is recognisably the same work. How a modern military would cope with fantastic opponents is a topic which fascinated me as a teenager, and from appearances I’m not the only one.
The premise of the story is that a gate to a high-fantasy world (swords and sorcery and dragons) opens one day in downtown Tokyo, and an invading force roars out. They are defeated, and in due course the Japanese government decides to mount an expedition through the gate themselves. The real action of the show follows Lieutenant Itami, a comic obsessed soldier who happened to play a role in saving people from the initial invasion and is therefore placed in command of a reconnaissance team on the other side of the gate.
Like usual, I won’t say much about the show as an anime. It looks fine, sounds fine, and while I take issue with the characterisation it’s not quite bad enough to make me throw up my hands and despair. In some things it is very good: someone clearly knew what military equipment looks like. In fact the show managed to impress me in the opening seconds, with a view of illum (illumination) shells drifting slowly down at night. Illum really does look like that, and it’s nice to see that level of accuracy. On the bad side, there are some jarring tonal shifts in the anime – we go from fairly serious discussions about the role of the JSDF in assisting local populations to girls giggling in an onsen and a surprising quantity of salacious references. I feel like Gate hasn’t quite decided whether it wants to be taken seriously or not, and is trying to do both. This is one thing the manga did better, perhaps because they had longer to spend on changing the tone. While there were still drinking and onsen episodes, they were integrated more naturally and I didn’t feel I was getting whiplash from changes in tone.
I also don’t want to touch on the debate that it has attracted in terms of Japan’s changing military role in the world. Gate is not as subtle about that as it no doubt hopes to be, and although that is a very worthwhile debate to have I don’t want to get dragged into it now. My interest in the show is as a military thought-exercise. In this particular case, however, we’re talking about a show which features a real-world nation and it’s military in a major role. As a result it will be impossible for me to discuss this without talking about Japan and the JSDF. But I want to make it clear right now that I won’t be referring to the real Japan and JSDF when I do this. This is a fictional representation of those entities, and anything I say about it should not be taken to refer to the real-world version.
So with that out of the way, let’s see what lies beyond the gate.
The JSDF is the focus of the show, but before getting to them I want to say a bit about their opponents, the quasi-mediaeval Empire. Gate doesn’t really go into much detail about them, but they can be summed up as the Roman Empire wearing clothes from a David Eddings novel. They have an Emperor and Senate, as well as a bunch of hereditary nobles and satellite kingdoms. Unfortunately, while someone obviously knew their stuff about the JSDF the same does not apply for the Empire. Their military looks like someone threw together their ideas about Roman legions and typical fantasy realms, which does them no favours. In combat they act more like a mob than a disciplined fighting force, and while individuals may be capable they have very little ability to influence events once battle is joined. This might sound familiar from my criticisms of Attack on Titan, which it should – the same problems seem to keep on repeating themselves.
The biggest one here, apart from organisation, is the complete lack of supporting arms. The Empire’s forces consist of heavy infantry and cavalry, with a few small dragons and pig-headed weirdoes hanging around to show us that they recruit from a fantasy world. You’ll note there are no skirmishers, light cavalry, or indeed any forces that might be able to provide scouting and reconnaissance. Worst of all, though, is that there is no magical support. I do realise that this is not always of a type that is obvious (the classic example being clerics casting Create Food & Water in D&D), but we know that magical talent is reasonably common in this setting and that it has at least a few abilities which would be useful on the battlefield. The failure to bring this to bear, especially when making prepared attacks on a known enemy outpost, verges on the criminal.
All that being said, though, I’m willing to cut the Empire a little slack. Their military operations occur within a definite cultural and political context, from that perspective they can be seen to support the aims of those in power. And in fairness, the Empire is faced with a very difficult situation. The arrival of the JSDF on their world can reasonably be described as an “outside context problem”, the sort of problem most civilisations only encounter once and in much the same way as a sentence encounters a full stop. Within their limits, the Empire isn’t doing too badly… which can’t be said of everyone.
To their credit, the JSDF is showing signs of competence. They know how to set up a defensive position, their troops are well-drilled at basic manoeuvres (like deploying from vehicles), and they bring the right tools for the job. The equipment they are issued for this expedition is old, sure – some of it has no business going up against current real-world opponents – but it is still entirely capable of ruining the day of the Empire forces it faces. The use of Type 64 battle rifles as the standard personal weapon, for example, might actually be a good idea. Their 7.62mm round will probably do better against steel body armour than the modern standard 5.56mm bullet. Someone has also flicked through a combined arms field manual, and made sure that the different arms of service can all talk to each other. So for all that, they get approving nods from me.
I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that I was absolutely right. A Panzerfaust – that’s exactly what they use – works JUST FINE to blow a limb off a huge monster. In fact, the use of modern weapons against low-tech opponents goes more or less exactly how you’d predict. Most of the Empire forces are killed without ever seeing their opponents thanks to artillery and automatic weapons. Monstrous creatures don’t fare much better, it turns out that anti-aircraft cannons are perfectly capable of bringing down dragons. The JSDF has a massive ranged firepower advantage over their opponents, and they know it – at one point an officer prefers to set up camp in the open during daylight rather than go into a forest at dusk. For a force who’s security depends on clear fields of fire, this is absolutely the right decision. It’s good to see that they’re not as clue-deprived as other fictional armies.
But you will note that these are mostly examples of low-level tactical competence, on the part of individuals or squad-leaders, and influenced heavily by the technical advantage the JSDF enjoys. I have grave concerns about their commanders.
For starters, right before the JSDF deploys through the gate the lead elements are told that scouts have been going through for a month and that no-one knows what they will encounter on the other side. Excuse me, but what the crimson fuck is going on here?!? This is a pivotal event for the entire world; it should be the most intensively scouted deployment in history! Either the scouts haven’t been coming back, or no-one has bothered to tell the JSDF what they found. Either possibility is deeply worrying.
Our hero, Lieutenant Itami, isn’t exactly a sterling example either. He’s deeply devoted to his hobby, and makes it clear he puts that over his job. This sounded warning bells for me, although at first I tried to ignore it. I knew several people who joined the army purely so they would have increased opportunities for playing rugby after all, so having a hobby one is passionate about is hardly a barrier to being a professional soldier. You get soldiers who enjoy computer role-playing games, others play rugby, some people juggle geese… it takes all sorts. But here’s the thing: all the officers I knew put their job first. And that’s exactly what you want – this is a trade where life and death decisions must be made, and a good deal of work must be done in order to make anything but the worst outcomes possible. If he puts manga over looking after his platoon, I would not want him under my command.
Some of the other officers have some worrying personality traits too. There’s one situation in which a rapid response force must be sent to help a town which is under attack. The commanders of two ground-mobile units compete to be allowed to send their troops, while the helicopters of an air-mobile unit already have rotors turning! They seem surprised and disappointed when the air-mobile force is chosen, and this whole episode raises two points. First, the commanders don’t know who is on rapid-response duty and what situations are ongoing that might require intervention. Second, they are expecting to be assigned to missions with zero notice and on the basis of who is most aggressive.
This all points to major failures in the command system of the JSDF. While they may be tactically and technically competent, they do not appear to have any experience of field operations at anything higher than company level. Their officers are not motivated and professional, their organisational structure is ad-hoc, and generally the JSDF is showing serious signs of strain even now against an opponent who is really no match for them and in just about the most welcoming environment imaginable. I imagine they can handle the demands of peace-time soldiering well enough: the base they set up is well laid-out and has impressive facilities. But warfare, and expeditionary warfare in particular, is a much more difficult task. The JSDF is going to struggle if they have to do anything demanding.
Readers who have been following this series of articles will remember that organisation is perhaps the most important strength of modern military forces. The JSDF needs to do better in this area. The good news is that combat has a way of shaking out deficient command structures, the bad news is that it can be a costly process. Their opponents may have low technology in comparison, but they’re not stupid and they will learn fast. The JSDF is in for some embarrassing and expensive “victories” if they don’t lift their game.
Question of the post: The JSDF in this scenario has massive technical superiority. What could the Empire be doing to mitigate that and mount an effective counter to the invasion?