Reinforcing Failure: Military Mistakes in Gate

Gate intro

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.

Gate Empire capital

The capital of the Empire. No visible dragons circling but trust me, they’re there.

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.

Gate JSDF

The JSDF sends a reinforced company through the gate to start with. A mix of tanks, mechanised infantry, artillery and air defence troops is a good start… but they badly need reconnaissance support.

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.

Gate officers

Political liaison officer and the commander. Both seem to be in touch with the realities of international relations, which is a nice change.

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.

Gate-Itami

I guess you never know when a web-novel is going to disappear.

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.

Gate final

Isn’t it amazing how just about every female character wants a piece of this guy?

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?

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About Dr. J.H. Watson

I’m a New Zealander, in my 30s, and until recently I lived in rural Japan. I have interests in history, pop culture, video games, and the clever use of language.
This entry was posted in Anime, Military and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Reinforcing Failure: Military Mistakes in Gate

  1. Anonymous says:

    In relation to the question I would only reference past conflicts in Vietnam and current conflicts in the Middle East. Actually I just wanted to say thanks for writing 🙂 great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome!
      Both those suggestions have merit, although there are important differences too – in Vietnam there was an external source of supply (the Soviet Union), while the Middle Eastern conflicts lack the unity of command which the Empire in Gate seems to enjoy.

      The most obvious modern parallel to me was the guerilla war in the Philippines during WW2. US and Filipino forces there were also at a great technical disadvantage and had no major external sources of supply. The techniques they employed might also be applicable, although there are the usual provisos about the effectiveness of guerilla warfare in general.

      Like

  2. Ged Maybury says:

    “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?”

    Too easy. They just need to deploy thousands of teenage schoolgirls wearing extremely short skirts who always stand on top of the defensive walls or in other windy places.
    Further deployments could be considered, for example:
    Multiple placements of outdoor onsen
    Girls decorating large replica tanks positioned to welcome the JSDF into town
    Hundreds of strategically located bunks behind privacy screens
    & more Beach Episodes

    It is well known that these sorts of weapons have a crippling effect of Japanese men, causing extreme embarrassment, complete loss of verbal articulation, and severe nosebleeds.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Frog-kun says:

    One thing that stood out to me as somewhat daft from the JSDF side was the scene where the female soldier, Kuribayashi, goes out and starts attacking her enemies at close range with a bayonet. It looked cool, though, and was about what you’d expect from military-themed entertainment.

    Also, it’s interesting that you mention the old-school weapons depicted in the show. The JSDF has much more advanced weaponry, but the show probably decided to stick to the old-school stuff because they’re more recognisable to the average armchair military geek.

    I personally thought that the lack of attention to detail to the Empire’s side was a serious flaw of the anime, which made the depictions of battle less interesting. The inconsistencies can’t just be explained away as “the product of another time and culture”. Someone wrote a detailed analysis of it here, if you’re interested: https://www.reddit.com/r/gate/comments/4as9mz/an_analysis_on_the_gate_worlds_military_and/

    Also, to answer the question in your post, the Empire is set in a world with mages and demigods. They’re clearly the WMDs in this world. You’d think at least a few mages would fight on the Empire’s side. This would certainly posed problems for a modern army, since mages boast powers that modern science is incapable of analysing. As you mention, though, organisation is the most important strength of a modern military force, so it would still be relatively easy for a well-organised military to implement counter-strategies.

    Like you, I really wish the show had put more care into the organisational side of the JSDF, instead of simply emphasising its technological superiority. It would have made the show more interesting as a military thought exercise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that link. I agree that the Empire deserved to have much more attention paid to it, and the show as a whole would have benefited from that attention. Kuribayashi going crazy with a bayonet is not at all sensible. However if this is her first real battle – and it might well be – I can see she might have trouble keeping her head. Not the sort of person you’d assign to a reconnaissance platoon, but we’ve already established the JSDF has issues with it’s personnel selection procedures!

      And you’re absolutely right about the mages and demigods being the most impressive parts of the Empire’s forces. I think the Empire would have to change tactics quite quickly, since forming up in large groups is just asking for an artillery fire mission, but there are ways they could be causing a lot of trouble for the JSDF.

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  4. fgfdfh says:

    I love these type of write up. But yeah, Gate’s author definitely not think it through. What bother me about this anime and many fantasy stories are the Empire’s military. In the real world, new technologies often demand new tactics and strategies. Yet in a world with freaking dragon, they’re still using basic medieval tactics, not to mention using it badly.

    And despite all the army geekiness, Gate show NO understanding of politics, colonialism or cultural exchange. The constant Nippon circlejerk simply broke my suspension of disbelief. And the JDSF did a terrible job at diplomacy. I live in Vietnam, so this annoy the hell out of me. It would do the author some good to read about French occupation of Indochina.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the Empire’s military deserves more thought being put into it.

      And thank you for bringing up the political and colonial dimension. There were a couple of times in the anime I thought someone made a reasonable point – sending troops over a border without permission is usually a bad idea, and Japan keeping the gate to itself is indeed the sort of thing that could turn half the world against it. But you’re quite right, it is basically an all-Nippon circlejerk. If Japan is going to be wanked, then a bit of build-up to that, showing precisely why and how that happens, would be nice.
      I suspect it might also do the author some good to read about the Japanese occupation of various places too… although that might not fit with the narrative they’re focusing on in this show.

      Like

  5. Pingback: Reinforcing Failure: Gate part 2 | Speculative OP

  6. Johnathan Tevers says:

    The answer is : NO!!!

    Reasons: We all know that guerilla warfare is the best choice but since EP. 24 the empire is left to the control of a Pro-peace and Pro-japan princess (princess Piña Co Lada). And the main antagonist (Prince Zorzal El Caesar)left the capital after he’s dictatorship heading to the the North suggesting he is heading to mountains(snowy I guess) cause in the manga Ch. 55 the commander said the troops are going and coming from and to the “DUMA” mountains where the JSDF could handle the situation. If the government provides them with an “Actual drone” and Snow equipment.

    Japan have mountains but could they do it???
    You ask.

    If they Can’t they could request help from U.S.A who could send their arctic combat troops. But that’s too easy.

    I’m saying that there is NO chance for the empire to win no matter what cause the JSDF can outclass and out-tactic them cause they’ve been trained for each situation.

    Like

    • In the real world, you might be right. The JSDF is technologically advanced and tactically reasonably sophisticated, although they haven’t had many opportunities to display that latter quality in the recent past I’m sure they’re competent enough to defeat barbarian hordes.

      But, as I mentioned at the start of the article, we AREN’T talking about the real world JSDF. We’re talking about the version which is presented in the anime (not the manga), and THAT version of the JSDF isn’t looking too good. I’ve listed some of the issues in this article and the follow-on, but basically I think they’re at the point of experiencing a big logistics crunch and are saddled with mid-level and high-level commanders who are at best mediocre. This is a very dangerous position for the JSDF of the anime to be in, especially since they’re so exposed. The JSDF there might have technological superiority, but it is not at all clear that they “can outclass and out-tactic” their opponents.

      It’s also worth pointing out that in the anime, Japan is seriously considering telling the rest of the world to piss off. If they request help from the USA there’s no guarantee that it would be forthcoming at a price the Japanese would find acceptable.

      The Empire is certainly in a bad position, and the odds are not in their favour. But it’s not entirely hopeless either, and that is largely because of the limitations of JSDF.

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  7. anbius says:

    one thing about this anime is there is certainly a different activities between Imperial Japanese Army of WW 2 and the JDSF troop members.Guess modern army are bound to behave

    Like

    • Yes, the IJA of WW2 was certainly quite a different creature to how the JSDF is portrayed here. You’re probably aware of the debate with which this anime is associated… some people think that the current JSDF needs to be a bit more like its forebears.

      Like

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