A Shanghainese Love Affair: Senkou no Night Raid

Art Deco is so tasteful.

Senkou no Night Raid is one of the most memorable series I’ve ever watched. Not that it was particularly good, mind you; it was just unique.

The Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods are rarely talked about in anime. There’s only been a handful of shows in the past few years that have been set during the 50-year period between 1895 and 1945 (Taisho Yakyuu Musume, Senkou no Night Raid, Oji-san no Lamp,  the Sakura Taisen franchise am I missing any others? Shows set in Europe during the same time period don’t count.) Perhaps there’s a lack of interest in that time period (Imperial Japan, I’ll call it), but I find it fascinating.

Part of that fascination comes from my academic research, which is focused on Imperial Japan and the effects of Japanese hegemony upon other East Asian nations. More than that, however, I simply love the aesthetics of 1930s Asia.

Shanghai, the Oriental Pearl

Shanghai, 1931. Arguably the most cosmopolitan city of its time. The city has been carved up and partitioned by the Western powers (Japan, struggling to find its own identity, would prefer to be identified as western). Along its main thoroughfare, Nanking Road, one hears German, French, English, Japanese and Chinese blending into one cacophonous symphony of voices. Ornate skyscrapers overlook the Huangpu River.

Shanghai was an architect’s greatest playground. From the iconic Art Deco Peace Hotel, to the Neo-classical buildings dotting the Bund, to the traditional tile roofs of Chinese houses, the city hosted an extreme diversity of architectural styles. Upon first glance, The Bund may look distinctively Western, but zoom in a little closer— and the Chinese characters on banners and signs indicate that this is, in fact, not Europe.

Rickshaws and Chinese signage framed by neo-classical buildings. Beautiful.

East meets West

Worlds collided in Shanghai. There’s nothing more fascinating than watching the protagonists of Senkou no Night Raid, hair slicked back, dressed smartly in suit and tie, meandering the old, labyrinthine passageways of Shanghai’s back alleys. Along the way, they bump into Chinese children at play, still dressed in their traditional hemp shirts.

Perhaps this scene isn’t so significant. But there’s a certain magic to the meeting of worlds, the gap between “old Asia”, typified by Shanghai’s Chinese residents, and “new Asia”, the protagonists. Today, everyone dresses Western. In 1930, people hadn’t figured themselves yet. There was something awkward, something artificial, about an Asian wearing a suit back then. He was chasing a fad. Suits were not the norm back then— they were statements, a sign of one’s commitment to progress and Westernization.

There’s something nice about that. That there was a time, before we were all around, where the things we took for granted were still uncertain. The “clash of civilizations” we see in Senkou no Night Raid‘s aesthetics speaks volumes of Asia’s quest to formulate its own identity. “Western” became “modern”, and acting Asiatic, looking Asiatic and speaking like an Asiatic was backwards, antiquated, outdated.

Yet, at the heart of Senkou no Night Raid lies the quest to carve out a space for Asia.  Senkou‘s antagonists demand the release of all European colonies in Asia. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Ballad of East and West,” is quoted throughout the series:

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

I was fascinated by Senkou no Night Raid‘s antagonists and their zealous idealism. After the heinous excess of Nazism and Japanese militarism, we’ve stopped celebrating those who pursue ideas to their logical conclusion. Yet, I found Senkou‘s antagonists’ agenda— a shot at being equals, and eventually surpassing, one’s former role models— beautiful and refreshing. It’s rare that anime addresses the destructive potential of national ambition, and I applaud Senkou no Night Raid for making a respectable, albeit confused, attempt at doing so.

It’s just a shame that there aren’t many shows out there set during this time period. It would be nice to see more Art Deco and more suits.

Comments? Drop me a line or hit me up @Akirascuro.

4 responses to “A Shanghainese Love Affair: Senkou no Night Raid

  1. The visuals of the early twentieth century have always captivated me. I might even go so far as to say that it is aesthetically my favorite period in all of history.

    Walking through an exhibit recently at the Atlanta History Center, passing through four connected areas showing off Atlanta through the years, and upon leaving the section representing the early twentieth, and entering the section representing today, my mind immediately brought forth the question (and this is how it came to me in that moment, uncensored): where did we go wrong?

    Of course, the greenness of that grass may be naught but an illusion… nevertheless, it too was the period styling that kept me watching ’till the end of Night Raid.

    • The early 20th century is easily my favorite time period. There’s something about the simplicity of buildings and fashion during that time period which utterly entrances me.

      I don’t think that we “went wrong” at any point in time. The greenness of the grass is indeed an illusion; Art Deco itself was seen as controversial and “ugly” by critics at the time. It’s funny how memory works.

  2. Hmm, interesting. I’ve always heard that “East is East” line, but I never knew that the full stanza is completely the opposite of what people usually mean when they say it.

    And on that note (an ironic note, I guess): Would you say that Night Raid makes any judgments of Westernization in particular, rather than nationalism in general?

    • I don’t think it makes any judgments about Westernization. It’s not good or bad, it just is— the attempts to carve out an equal space for Asia in the context of Westernization is what’s damning.

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