Toni and special guests MoBlack and Danny discuss the history of state violence and abolition, then tackle some major titles that touch on prisons, justice, and police violence.
0:15:06 History with abolitionism
0:25:42 Full abolition
0:32:10 Death Note
0:38:49 Chainsaw Man
0:41;58 Akudama Drive
0:52:47 My Hero Academia
0:58:02 Chainsaw Man spoilers
TONI: Hello! And welcome to Chatty AF: The Anime Feminist Podcast. I’m Toni, a contributing editor here at AniFem. You can find me on Twitter @poetpedagogue. And with me today are The Black Manga Critic and Mo. If you wouldn’t mind introducing yourselves?
MO: Hello, hello. I’m Mo Black. So, when I do do things, I do, usually, longer anime criticisms and analysis. Oh, I got a domain recently. It’s very fun. I’m very proud of it. I got a server, so if you go to moblack.xyz, you’ll find everything that I do and all the links and stuff. But yeah, I’m just happy to be here. I admire AniFem quite a lot. When I was starting doing this and looking for any type of source that sort of makes sense on how they look at anime, especially how they look at fanservice and other hot-button topics when anime discourse goes down, I was really happy that AniFem was there, making sense. So, I’m very happy to be here.
DANNY: I am The Black Manga Critic. Most people just call me BMC for short because that’s just a lot to say every time you want to talk to me by name or call me by name. So, BMC for short. I have a Twitter that I’m on fairly frequently. I have a YouTube channel that I have not been on for a while, but usually I do manga reactions. I try to vary the types of manga that I’m reading when it comes to those reactions. And every now and then, in the past, I would just have ramblings—I call them ramblings—where I just go into my ideas on abolition, anime, antiblackness, the state, socialism, anarchy, that kind of stuff. So, feel free to check out what’s there. I hope at some point that I can come back and do my YouTube work in a more frequent capacity. But definitely feel free to follow me on Twitter @TheMangaScholar, where I definitely talk about abolition, antiblackness, anime, manga, and education, too, because I do teach, so that’s really important to me as well.
TONI: Great. Alright. So, we are super happy to have you both here. Today, we’re going to be talking about abolitionism, which is a political movement that has gained a lot of prominence over the last few years, especially since the death of George Floyd, that I personally feel has a huge amount of poignancy when we’re talking about anime and can help us understand anime, and anime can also help us understand it.
So, to just give us a very basic definition of abolitionism, the abolitionist movement, we’re just going to go through a few of the key tenets of abolitionism to begin. The first tenet of abolitionism we’re going to be talking about is that abolitionism is about, at its heart, the full abolition of police and prisons. So that means that there is no more police and prisons. This is not community policing. This is not nicer, prettier prisons. This is: there are no prisons, there are no police. And the reason that we have that demand is because abolitionists believe that reducing the power of death-making institutions, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, such as police and prisons, and investing money, time, energy into life-making institutions such as schools, such as services for people, such as the various things that keep people safe, healthy, happy… And police and prisons fundamentally do not do that. [Chuckles]
MO: Yeah, it kind of reminds me, because I got— So, I started transforming my politics around late 2019, early 2020. And so, I consider myself an abolitionist, but I didn’t really start studying it until after the death of George Floyd, and it really made me think about, like, what is it that our system is doing. And when you’re talking about how relatively simple abolition is or the abolition of police and prisons, it just reminded me of all the discourse around “Defund the police” and how people were like, “Well, ‘defund the police’ is actually a… See, it’s a very complicated thing. You see, we actually want to increase it a little bit. So, the slogan is confused.” I was like, no, no. No, it’s exactly what it says.
TONI: [crosstalk] No, we don’t!
MO: We want the thing that it says. We’re saying the thing because that’s what we want.
TONI: No, we are not asking for police reform; we are asking for police to be gone.
MO: [ironic] What do you mean by that?
TONI: Anyway, do we want to transition into the next one?
MO: Yes. So, the next tenet that we’ll use just for this conversation will be the transformation or abolition of the state. This one is definitely… So, police abolition and prison abolition are long-term projects. Abolition of the entire state is probably an even longer-term project. But it’s essentially saying that if we can deal with punishment, dangerous behavior, abuse in a way that does not militarize people and does not violate people’s rights, then we can also take care of ourselves and do the things that we think we need the state to do, in a way that focuses on collaboration and willing participation of communities and not coercion and not violence, not these things. We sort of recognize that the existence of the police and the existence of prisons are there because we need the state to continue to exist. Right? And so, by recognizing that, we can try and make a world in which eventually none of these things are necessary.
TONI: Yes. And I want to add on to it. This is a complicated matter. There’s a reason it’s transformation or abolition of the state, because there’s a lot of debate among abolitionists, some of whom are more socialist and who believe in a socialist state but still, somehow, abolishing police and prisons—I’m not quite sure how, but that’s what they believe—and people who are more anarchist and who believe in what Jasbir Puar calls a no-state solution. So, there’s a lot of debate in abolitionist circles around this.
Moving on, the third thing we’re going to be talking about—and this might not actually be the order we discuss in the episode, but that’s fine—is transformative justice and centering survivors to create spaces for actual accountability and refusing organized abandonment. So, many people think that abolitionism is naïve, that it’s not about actually protecting people, but in reality, abolitionist movements have long been spearheaded and organized by and theorized by survivors of extreme violence, who realized that the police and prisons were just not working to actually protect them, were not working to create any space for accountability, were not working to actually support them through the aftermath of that violence.
So, how do we actually lean into that struggle for accountability in a way that creates meaningful support for survivors and does not abandon them in their most dire circumstances? And that’s the work of transformative justice, a mode of justice that is different from punitive justice in that it’s about transforming the circumstances that produce harm and not about just locking up the person who did it, although some amount of punishment is still a question in that matter. Alright, and Danny, you got the last one?
MO: Yeah, of course. I just want to say centering survivors is, I think, really important, especially in conveying the goals of abolition, because if you think about— For example, people who have never had to call the police before and who have never had to interact with it will constantly say, like, “Without the police, who will you call when you’re attacked? Who you call when this? Who do you call when that?” But if you listen to the people who have been attacked, sexually abused, robbed, whatever, they will say, “Yeah, I called the police. They didn’t do anything. They thought I did it,” which happens a lot. “They took down my name and then they left, and then nothing ever came of it ever again.” So, there’s a huge difference between people who have never had to interact with these systems but who have bought the idea that they’re necessary in case one day something happens, and the people who have actually been a victim of something horrible and who have realized that these systems are there not to help them but to just uphold the state and uphold power.
DANNY: Okay, so that kind of dovetails into the last tenet. And this is not to say that this tenet is the most important tenet or anything like that. It’s more to say that dismantling antiblackness, imperialism, and settler colonialism—in particular, dismantling antiblackness—is paramount to any work towards abolition, of the police, of prisons, of the state. And I think, going back to what Toni stated about abolitionists having different ideas of what abolition looks like or how do we get to abolition or what the world will look like after abolition, none of these things can, to me, be seriously discussed without discussing antiblackness, in particular.
Obviously, imperialism, settler colonialism… I think most abolitionists are for the most part on the same page with those two things, but I think antiblackness is where we really get to these divides and these departures from where abolition starts and where it can take us. If we think about antiblackness as sort of foundational to the logics of the world as it exists—we can think about economic logics, carceral logics, all of these, gender logics—then we can really, I think, truly begin to think about what abolition could be, what needs to happen to get there, and what would happen after the fact.
And just really quickly, to say some things, when we think about imperialism, antiblackness as foundational to imperialism, thinking about chattel slavery, thinking about the ways in which slavery has quite literally and in some ways figuratively built the logics of the world in which we live in and which we move through, and if we think about settler colonialism, the ways in which we obviously have to have conversations about borders, about Israeli–Palestinian interactions—in particular, violent Israeli interactions or acts against Palestinians—but also to think about the ways in which antiblackness functions within those interactions. I was gonna say something about Israel as a byproduct of imperialism and as a byproduct of antiblackness, but I’m not gonna get into that because that’s a lot. So, maybe that does come up but maybe not for this podcast. [Chuckles]
TONI: Oh, it absolutely will come up.
TONI: Later on, I’ll be talking about— We can edit this part out, but later I’ll be talking about Jasbir Puar and her idea of the no-state solution and critiquing the way of looking at the Israel–Palestine conflict, so I’m excited to go there. But yeah, no, we will go there.
So, yeah, thank you all for describing these different aspects of it. The reason that we’re talking about this in anime is that there’s so many anime lately and historically that have dealt with questions of incarceration, of revolutionary change, of the ways that survivors are treated. To give you an idea, we’re going to be talking about things like Woman Called Fujiko Mine, JoJo: Stone Ocean, Deca-Dence, Michiko & Hatchin, Akudama Drive… There’s so many that an abolitionist lens really clarifies. So, we hope that this episode will expand your thinking and clarify some of the questions these shows present and also open up new questions so that when you’re watching your next anime you think to yourself, “Huh! Why is this depicted like that?”
Before we begin, I want to ask if we can just briefly talk a bit about how each of us came to abolitionism as a political philosophy, since it is such a radical departure from the status quo or mainstream philosophies of American political life but also, I think, a very logical response to these situations we find ourselves in. So, yeah! Would any of you like to get us started?
MO: I guess I’ll probably be the shorter since I mentioned it a bit. I had, like I said, a pretty big political realignment around 2019, actually when I started writing about anime. Wow, that’s longer ago than I want to admit. Anyway.
MO: No big deal. NBD, as they say. But yeah, I think what sort of did it for me is— I consider myself privileged. I had a pretty good childhood. I luckily didn’t really have to interact with the police that much. I went to a really good university. But even then, I couldn’t stop thinking about, like, how is it that even with all that, the world in general still feels like it’s coming apart slowly? Why are we not addressing things like climate change? Why is it that every year or so a police officer can just shoot an unarmed Black man and then we just go on like it’s fine? How is imperialism still happening? How is the United States still involved in like six different wars simultaneously when nobody wants them?
And I guess, for me, if you think through it and you read philosophers and economists that have answers to this, the framework that makes more sense is, to me, an abolitionist framework. And I really started exploring— I started looking even at some examples from my own life. For example, when I was in university, it was basically common knowledge that all the Black students there would always have their university cards at all times, because if you were stopped by a cop, you wanted to give evidence to the cop to treat you like a human being and not like a Black person. [Chuckles] Or, even doing stuff like that—I was lucky to do study abroad—and finding antiblackness abroad and definitely being treated differently than the other students that were in the program. You can’t go through these things—in my opinion, it would be very difficult to go through these things—and not think about why it is that the world can’t be any different.
DANNY: Yeah, I think— Yeah, and I’ll say there are three very particular moments that really kind of catapulted me into thinking about abolition, conversing about it, reading about it, all of that, and trying to implement that in my daily life, work, things like that. The first instance, I would say, was in 2014. So, this is my last year of undergrad. I was about to start my Ph.D. program. And I was in this program at Rutgers, Rutgers University, where it was all Black students, other students of color, and all of our projects were discussing different really, really important topics: gender, Blackness, things like that. I was studying feminism. But anyways, there was a conversation that we had just about what it meant to be a student of color, what it meant to be Black. And that was a really big moment for me because it kind of allowed me to be open in a way that I didn’t feel like I could be about that particular topic, about Blackness, about moving through this world as a Black person.
And I think after that, moving into my Ph.D. program, so I was there for like two and a half years— But moving into that, there were just more instances to discuss antiblackness, discuss abolition, discuss all the research and all the scholars that discuss that. I was doing a fellowship program where we had mentored undergraduate students. And there was one undergraduate student in that program— This is at CUNY, by the way, the City University of New York. So I was at the Graduate Center. And this one student was doing organizing work. He was very heavily involved in doing organizing work. I can’t remember what org he worked for, but he was doing that. And we had gotten into a discussion about Obama and the election and all of that, so that was around 2017. And that was really like my “Okay, if I’m going to be in this, I’m going to be in this,” because he was just so eloquent and knowledgeable about the ways in which Obama was an agent of the state, representational politics. So, that was really my way of really getting into it and really looking into it and being honest with myself about the ways in which I was kind of doing similar work.
And then the third was, of course, George Floyd. So, that was kind of like, alright, yeah, I was in it, but now it’s like, let’s go. Let’s really, really get to work. Let’s talk about this daily. Let’s do this work daily. Let’s really be in conversation and community with people. And those three things, I would say, were really foundational to my entryway into abolition and thinking about prisons, police, antiblackness all together. Yeah.
TONI: The moment of George Floyd’s murder, I think, was the moment when abolitionist thought finally was able to pierce a little bit of the mainstream political discourse, where we saw, for example, Mariame Kaba come out with that essay in the New York Times that was like, “Yes, I actually want to fully abolish the police. That means no more police.” And of course, I’m guessing they probably gussied up the headline to be a little bit more inflammatory. But also, she said that, you know? She meant what she said and she did not leave any crumbs.
For me, I originally was introduced to abolitionism in undergrad through, as I’m sure a lot of people are, Angela Davis’s work, specifically her book Are Prisons Obsolete? And I read it in undergrad, as a young 20-year-old. I was like, “What is this? What’s going on here? Why aren’t you talking about alternatives?” Which is not really the project of that book, it must be said. The project of the book is to explain why prisons are death-making institutions that don’t actually serve any meaningful purpose other than harming people and producing capital. But I was skeptical at the time.
And then, I think what really changed it up for me was moving to New York City and seeing— As a teacher, right? I’ve worked in predominantly Black schools most of the time that I’ve been a teacher in New York City, and also just being in community with Black residents in New York City and seeing the city through that perspective, of trying to understand all the ways these institutional forces conspire to make my job as a teacher impossible in terms of… Instead of being a teacher, I realized, “Wait, I’m not becoming a teacher in these classrooms; I’m becoming a cop! Oh!” And recognizing that confluence between education and incarceration and how Black children are treated as latent criminals really radicalized me.
And as I was experiencing that, I was also reading Saidiya Hartman’s work, which really is the foundation for my thinking around this. She wrote this wonderful book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments that’s all about queer Black women at the turn of the century trying to live their lives free from enclosure and discusses these reformatories. And we’re gonna get more into that as we talk about JoJo, so I’m not gonna get super into that right now. But as I was doing all that stuff, I was also watching Madoka Magica. And if you haven’t read it yet, I have an article out about Madoka and my path to becoming an abolitionist.
DANNY: No, I’d say definitely read it. It’s awesome. It’s fantastic.
TONI: I actually had both Mo and Danny read it as I was preparing to publish it!
MO: So, we can confirm that it’s such an awesome article.
TONI: And for me, I saw reflected in Madoka my experience of how— And so, anime actually became this really important tool for me to understand what abolitionism really means, because I saw so much of the things that I was thinking said out loud in these anime, and I was like, oh! I really do credit Angela Davis for being the first entry point that so many of us have into abolitionist thought, which brings us to discussing the first tenet of abolitionism that I want to get into, which is full abolition of police and prisons.
Yeah, do we want to talk a little bit about Angela Davis’s intervention and why that’s important? And then we’re gonna get into how that relates to anime. Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? was a text that I think is many people’s first introduction to abolitionist thought. So, it was actually published fairly recently—it was published in 2003—but it was really the culmination of decades of work that Angela Davis had done with her organization, Critical Resistance, to investigate all the ways that the growth of prison systems was exploiting and harming Black communities and how the prison-industrial complex was forming. And it’s a really important text in abolitionism. So yeah, I wanted to give us an opportunity to talk about how it influenced us or why it’s an important intervention, and then we’ll go into how it helps clarify some of these anime.
MO: What that text really helped me do is to put into context the whole idea of modern prisons. Because it wasn’t always the case that— We think of it [as] natural today that [if] you do something bad, you go to jail. Right? And how else would you do it? And the fact is, it wasn’t always the case, especially in the United States, that we had these massive prisons where we just catch anyone who looked at anyone the wrong way.
Angela Davis’s text really goes through the history of how incarceration is basically a byproduct of the Confederates losing the Civil War. A lot of old plantations became prisons, and the racial makeup, especially, of those prisons was radically transformed when slavery was abolished except, of course, as we all know, as a punishment for a crime. Looking at that history and realizing that we have basically just inherited the legacy of racial chattel slavery under the guise of keeping people safe, it just makes you realize, if there was a time where we didn’t need this, there can be a time in the future where we don’t need it again. And I feel like that mental block is sort of the first step. It was a good step for me to take. I think it would be a good first step for a lot of listeners who are maybe still unsure about this stuff.
DANNY: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I also think that one thing Davis’s text does really well is not only just to situate PIC abolition—prison-industrial complex abolition—historically, but it also… and I think the best scholars do that: the language is really accessible. And there’s one instance in the text in which Davis talks about people taking prisons for granted. And I think that language is so important, because usually when we’re taught about taking certain things for granted, we’re talking about good things, things that are beneficial to us, things that improve our daily livelihood. And two things are happening there. I think the first thing is that Davis is kind of signaling that we see prisons as a good thing, as an objectively good thing. And so, we’re like, “Oh, man,” in the ways that I think people who are pro-prisons are like, “Oh, prisons are great! We need prisons. These are awesome! Oh, my God. We should think more about prisons and more about how prisons are good,” and taking prisons for granted.
And then on the flip side, number two is that prisons are just, at least in my sense, objectively awful death-dealing institutions. But even with that, we still view prisons, maybe even subconsciously, on a particular, maybe psychoanalytic— If we think about it psychoanalytically, we think about it as like something that has to exist, something that is an objectively necessary part of our daily livelihood. And Davis is sort of saying, “Well, no. This shouldn’t be here. This should not be something that we take for granted. We have to eliminate it. We have to abolish it.” Hence, abolition and prison abolition. Yeah. So I think the language is also really useful, as someone who’s just kind of jumping into abolition and this idea of abolitionism and PIC abolition—prison-industrial complex abolition. Yeah.
TONI: Yeah. And I think that it clarifies, when we’re looking at— You talked about the psychoanalytic aspect of it, right? We can also look at it as an aspect of the collective imagination or the collective unconscious, how anime shows us the collective unconscious of, well, I guess, Japan, but that also informs our collective unconscious because Lord knows so many of us grow up watching anime, and that informs our idea of what constitutes safety, how we treat cops. Which I think brings us to the topic of… a lot of anime is just kind of copaganda, and not even really subtle about it. But yeah. What example do we want to talk about first?
MO: Maybe we can switch it up and start with Death Note because I think Death Note is—
TONI: Oof. Yeah.
TONI: Oh, my God. [Chuckles]
MO: Everyone knows Death Note. And I think everyone sort of vaguely understands that, maybe in some abstract way, Light is supposed to be not correct. However, watching Death Note, despite the fact that— Okay, to be clear, I know I can be a little bit of a killjoy, especially on Twitter—I guess not recently, because I haven’t been tweeting a lot about anime. But I can be a bit of a killjoy when I look at an anime and I’m like, yeah, it’s copaganda, it’s racist, whatever, blah blah blah. So I want to be clear that if you watch Death Note from beginning to end, it is very stupid and it’s very fun. Okay.
MO: Those things are [obscured by crosstalk].
TONI: [crosstalk] Yes. I think we can all agree with that, yes. It’s funny because it’s the stupidest show but it also simultaneously makes you think to yourself, “I am very smart. I understand that weird, plot-convoluted thing that just happened. I must be so smart. I’m gonna go watch Rick and Morty now.”
MO: Yes. Exactly. But if you actually sit and think about the assumptions that are made, right? Like, there’s this one line that I still remember, even though it’s been a while since I watched it, where the cops mention how, after Kira has started killing criminals, the world is slowly becoming a better place. Criminals are committing less crimes; less people are getting hurt. Nobody actually cares about the people that are dying in the prisons. There’s sort of a tacit agreement that even though Kira is doing what everyone wants to do and even though the world is being made a better place, it’s still bad because, I guess, just killing people is bad?
MO: That’s unfortunately— It’s just not good enough, right? Because first of all, just killing every criminal does not solve crime, because that’s not why crime happens. Crime doesn’t happen because we aren’t punishing people enough. Crime happens for a number of reasons. There’s socioeconomic reasons, income inequality, the fact that our society creates abusers that don’t get held accountable until it’s too late. All of these underlying things need to be addressed if you actually want a world with less violence in it, just like treating people who become violent like aberrations that just need to be killed is like— I mean, we already do that. What more evidence do you need? We already do that and there’s still crime. The world that Death Note is imagining, we live in it and it fucking sucks. Right? [Chuckles] So, yeah, it’s just those hidden, those core assumptions that you need to think about when you watch a show. I mean, it’ll make it more interesting. It makes it more interesting for me.
DANNY: Yeah, I agree. And I think the structure of Death Note kind of, sort of pushes the viewer. And a lot of anime in general [do this], but it’s important that I’m thinking about it with Death Note, because Death Note is sort of like, okay, we have this protagonist who we are supposed to root for, not supposed to root for? Because this is the main character. This is the character who we are supposed to follow throughout the show. And if we at any level enjoy the show, then we have to almost cheer for the survival of this morally obscene character in Light. But on the flip side, we have L, who is in a story construction sense an antagonist. He impedes Light’s progress. He’s supposed to work to impede Light’s progress.
And Light is a cop. [Chuckles] Right? For all intents and purposes, he’s a cop. So, on one hand, we are supposed to be like, okay, we’re supposed to root against Light because we want the story to continue, because maybe we enjoy the story. But on the other hand, L is a symbol of this kind of justice and we’re supposed to root for him because he is justice and because he is a cop and because he’s kind of taking things into his own hands in the ways that cops do often. So, I think in some ways the show is really useful in seeing how, even just with the construction of the story, we see copaganda as sort of like, well, we’re supposed to root for L because he’s quote-unquote “justice” and because he’s the—
TONI: You mean, you’re supposed to root for Light. Or L?
DANNY: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, even now, it’s complicated.
MO: [crosstalk] Probably a little bit of both.
DANNY: We’re supposed to root for Light in the sense of the story construction, in the way that he is a protagonist and we’re supposed to root for him because we want the story to continue. But on the other hand, we’re supposed to root for L because L is justice and L is a cop and copaganda.
TONI: [crosstalk] Oh, okay, okay, okay. There we go.
DANNY: So there’s this kind of interesting thing that occurs where at once L is an antagonist but in reality, we’re rooting for the antagonist, we’re rooting for the cop, or the cop that takes things into his own hands. So, it’s interesting in a certain way. I mean, I’m thinking through it now, but that’s kind of how I see things and how Death Note works and how it sort of affects our views on cops, on vigilantism, in the sense of alt-right and conservatives and things like that—and cops.
TONI: I also think it’s interesting, because whose voice is left in and whose voice is left out? Like, we never get the perspective of— You gotta imagine the people who are incarcerated when this is happening probably… they’re not having a fun time. They’re just sitting there, watching their cellmate get murdered by this rando and they’re like, “Well, that’s gonna be me next!”
Which is interesting, because there’s also a parallel, I think, between— If I can transition a little bit, I think there’s a parallel between Light and Makima from Chainsaw Man. Right? Makima…. There’s this one very important episode where— The first moment that we really get an indication that Makima is truly evil— And I’m sure our listeners are very familiar with Chainsaw Man, I hope. If you aren’t, go watch it; it’s good. Or read it. The manga is better than the anime, in my opinion. The first real indication that we get that Makima is not a good person, she takes a bunch of prisoners who—I don’t remember if they’re on death row or have life sentences and she just straight-up kills them as sacrifices so that she can kill her enemies, essentially. So, the first time that we see her as evil is when we are seeing her act as an instrument of state violence.
So, from the beginning in Chainsaw Man, we are encouraged to see the person who will—and I don’t think this is a spoiler—become the antagonist of the show aligned with state violence and that being the thing that makes them terrifying. And it’s similarly extrajudicial as Light, because she’s not technically a cop, she’s part of public safety, but she’s still an agent of the state, right? So it’s very interesting to think about how Chainsaw Man takes a character who is in some ways really similar to Light and makes them the villain of the show.
MO: But you know, a core distinction between Chainsaw Man and Death Note is that, although I will definitely agree that Light and Makima are in a lot of ways very similar, Chainsaw Man tends to— At least in Part 1. Part 2 is very fun but also very weird, and I’m not sure what to make of it yet. But [in] Part 1, Chainsaw Man tends to align its villains with the state. Whereas in Death Note, Light in this case… he’s a protagonist but he’s a villain. He’s aligned against the state. Because I think Chainsaw Man— When I wrote about it, I argued that Chainsaw Man has a really good understanding of domination and hierarchy and a really good understanding of a lot of the problems with investing so much power in a state.
TONI: So, yeah, Chainsaw Man is really interesting because it has this deep understanding of state violence, and I think it’s pushing the audience to critique state violence and critique the culture of incarcerated people as disposable and the monopoly of the state to enact violence as being justified. There’s even one episode where Makima just straight-up says, “I don’t think you understand that when you do violence it is wrong because you are not with the state. But when I do violence, it is right because it is the state enacting this violence. I’m allowed to do whatever I want.”
So, another really interesting counternarrative of police in anime is Akudama Drive. Mo, you have a lot of thoughts about Akudama Drive.
MO: Oh, yeah. First of all, Akudama Drive, just in general in that season, it was such a sleeper pick. If by any chance Sovia is listening to this, [Chuckles] he will get a good laugh out of this. But it’s this incredibly over-the-top, very bright, very unique-looking anime that feels silly at first, when you watch the first episode. It’s about… essentially, in the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk dystopia of Japan, where—I want to get it right—it’s the Kanto region and the Kansai region, right, that sort of have this conflict.
MO: Right. And so, Kansai is basically a vassal state of Kanto. And after a war that looks a lot like World War II and the subsequent bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kanto basically imposes this police state where the police have the power to designate anyone they want as an akudama, and they impose all kinds of ridiculous punishments. And the story is basically about these people who, yes, have committed pretty violent crimes. I think that’s one of the things I like about Akudama Drive so much, is that it doesn’t shy away from the fact that the protagonists that you’re following are violent people and they have done bad things. But the show says, regardless of that fact, it’s still wrong for the state to treat criminals this way. And I think that’s really, really hard because it’s very easy to find someone who was wrongly convicted or who had a conviction that was wildly disproportionate to what they did and say, “Look at this innocent person that we’ve hurt,” and it’s a lot harder to say, “Even if the people are kind of garbage in this way, what does it say about the system that still treats them as badly as they do?” Right? So, yeah, anyway, it ends, there’s a riot and the police tower falls and it’s so amazing.
MO: And incredibly funny. I would highly recommend— If you’re looking for— I would recommend watching it alongside thinking about abolition, because I think if abolition is on your mind, this show will really hit.
DANNY: Yeah. I think one thing also is like… yeah, it is fantastic and also, when we’re thinking about shows that either act as counternarratives or copaganda, if we think about— You know, the thing with Death Note and I was talking about earlier… I think the thing that makes Death Note kind of infuriating is that I think people have a really difficult time seeing Death Note as explicitly copaganda. And the ways in which the story is constructed kind of makes that difficult in terms of the ways in which L and Light are juxtaposed, the ways in which the characters make particular decisions and there are other characters that are morally this or morally that or whatever. But with Akudama Drive, you’re rooting for these people. [Chuckles] There’s no… I would be hard pressed to find someone who’s not rooting for the criminals. Right? Who is watching Akudama Drive and is like, “Yeah! Get ‘em!” You know what I mean? So, I think that’s something that—
MO: Akudama Drive has a very clear-cut sense of right and wrong. And I appreciate that so much in an anime. I think the hot take of the day is that morally gray stories are super overrated. I think it’s very easy to be morally gray because all situations are complicated and all situations have nuance. It is a lot more difficult to look through that nuance and still say, “This is what I believe in. This is what is right and this is what is wrong.”
TONI: Yeah! And I think that, to build on that, there is this really strong undercurrent in a lot of cyberpunk narratives—that I think Akudama Drive resists—and a lot of narratives in general of this kind of postmodernist nihilism that’s like, “Oh, wow. You know, the world is getting so complex, it is impossible to discern what is right and how to actually meaningfully be a morally good person.” And it’s this very edgelord tendency we see, whether it’s Rick and Morty or whether it’s a lot of different cyberpunk anime, especially, things like Texhnolyze and Serial Experiments Lain and… just [a] long, storied tradition of nihilism, right?
But the thing about these dire circumstances and the thing that an abolitionist lens clarifies so much about these dire circumstances is that they exist for a reason, not because, oh, the world is terrible because it’s terrible. No, the world is terrible because it has to be terrible for certain people for those people to continue to be exploited and for their labor to continue to be used and for them to be kept in place—in enclosure, as Saidiya Hartman puts it. And what Akudama Drive really says is “No, we have to refuse that. This circumstance must be destroyed.” And it is unapologetic about that. And it’s hard for me to see Akudama Drive as being… its message as being anything other than an anarchist message! Even if the state is stable, it is stable because it is insanely violent and must be brought down.
DANNY: And kind of thinking about— So, there are a couple of things that this conversation is really sparking for me, and I really love this conversation that we’re having. I’m like, yeah, I know we’re talking about… You know, it’s very serious but also I’m very happy to be talking about this with y’all because it’s like… [Sighs] You know?
But the first thing that I’m thinking about is this character, Swindler, as someone distinctly not criminal within the ways in which in our reality we think of “criminal,” that term. But as the show goes on really embraces that, and the show presenting as like a positive thing, this idea of fugitivity, not criminality, but the ways [of] fighting against the state, fighting against the police as these state apparatuses. And one thing it kind of made me think about is… There’s a scholar, Fred Moten, who writes about this idea called the undercommons and fugitive study. And Moten is talking about working against the oppressive violence of the university and showing that there is a way to work against that in fugitive study—that’s kind of the terminology that he uses. And Akudama Drive kind of makes me think about that, that yeah, there’s a state and there’s the police and there’s state violence and there’s this institution. And, almost, to be a fugitive is at least one step in the right direction when we’re thinking about abolition, when we’re thinking about the abolition of the state or the abolition of the police or these oppressive state apparatuses. Yeah.
MO: I just wanted to clarify. So, Swindler, her whole deal is she’s basically paying for street food, and she basically accidentally doesn’t pay. It costs like five yen. And because of that, even though it was a misunderstanding and the vendor didn’t care, the state labels her as a criminal. And I think what I love about the show—and it speaks to what you were saying—is that because she was labeled as a criminal, she had to do criminal things just to survive. She had to build on her criminal record, where if we didn’t have a state basically ostracizing people to enforce a rigid system then she probably would not have done any of the other things that she did.
TONI: Right! And I think that that— I often talk about with my students, or I’m trying to explain to them, this idea of transformative justice and why policing is ineffective as a response to harm. Prisons are criminogenic. They create crime, both within them and without them, because they create a circumstance in which a child does not have a father because the father is in prison, so then what does that child have to do to survive? It creates a circumstance in which there is a person who in the prison—maybe they’re a trans woman, maybe they’re one of the less able-to-defend-themselves prisoners—who is going to be raped. There are so many different ways in which prisons and police actually create more violence, both in themselves being violent in state violence and also in inflaming all of the different root causes of violence. I think Akudama Drive really clearly demonstrates that.
MO: What I love about Akudama Drive is that, despite how silly and over the top it is, it has a really good understanding of why criminality exists in a system like ours. And I think to contrast that again to a show like My Hero Academia, a very classic and well-known and well-watched anime… My Hero Academia, it’s all about heroes and villains, and it follows the story of these high schoolers who go to the best superhero academy in the country, and they want to become professional superheroes. And that show is essentially— I’m trying to summarize everything I wrote about it, but the TLDR is that it has no idea why criminals exist. It sort of thinks that they exist because. Because some people are perverts who find it fun to hurt people and that’s just what it is.
And so, it sort of posits that you need symbols like All Might, which is like the Superman allegory of the world, to stand there as a symbol to remind criminals that if they ever step out of line and do what’s in their nature they will be punished. And the big central conflict of the show is that All Might is basically no longer able to do that duty, and because of that, the criminals come out of the woodwork and they start acting in their nature, which is to just hurt people for no reason. And if you contrast— It’s just such a shallow, I think, analysis of why things happen. And it’s shallow in such a way that enables— This is the type of philosophy that justifies why we have police and prisons in the first place. Any Blue Lives Matter, Thin Blue Line person will think the exact same thing: that some people are just bad; some people are just criminals. And they pour money into the very systems that create those criminals and create those conditions that make the problem worse.
DANNY: Yeah, the ways in which the heroes— If you think about abolition in relation to My Hero, we can see the heroes as like— They’re cops. They’re also cops. But I think one thing that My Hero tries to do in a very flimsy sort of way, and other shows— I’m just trying to think of shows that do that, too. But it sort of says, “Well, the heroes aren’t cops because we have cops in the show. Look, the cops are over there! They’re cops. Talk about them. Talk about those cops.” But one thing that I think these shows are useful for—and it’s not to say that the shows are good or anything like that—but it’s to say that these texts are useful to showcase how there’s a way in which we view the agent of the state, in terms of the police or the cop, as “Oh, this person has to have a badge and they have to have a serial number and they have to have a pension, and there has to be a…” and this is how we define someone who is the police. But that’s not… It’s more than that.
MO: We’re talking about the role, right?
MO: The societal role. Like, in My Hero Academia, all the heroes are… they’re technically employees of private companies, right? Which is definitely worse.
MO: It’s definitely worse. But yeah, they’re not literally cops in the legal definition, but they’re cops in that they do the things that cops do and you are supposed to look at them as if you would look at a police officer.
TONI: Right. And I often think about— In any situation, I often think that the definition of a cop in my book, in a state, is the person who has the monopoly on violence, the person who is allowed to be violent without ever being held accountable to it and allowed to incarcerate and arrest. If you have that power, if you have the power to harm and there’s no accountability and it is viewed as morally justified, then bingo, you are probably a cop.
And I think Makima pretty clearly lays that out when in Chainsaw Man she says, like, “Yeah, you don’t understand. Your violence is bad. I’m with the state. My violence is good.” And that’s how you know Makima is a cop. Right? And it is interesting because Chainsaw Man very clearly portrays Makima as— The Devils are not even necessarily the enemy in Chainsaw Man. That becomes more clarified in Chainsaw Man when Makima lays out what the role, for example, of the Gun Devil is towards the end of Chainsaw Man 1. And spoiler alert for Chainsaw Man. If you haven’t read the end of Part 1, I’m going to spoil it a bit. We’ll put it in the podcast notes when the ends of the spoilers are. Yeah, so, you’ve been warned. But it’s really interesting that the Gun Devil is revealed to actually already not be in existence as itself. It’s become this almost atomic weapon, weapon-of-mass-destruction–like weapon for the state to use for violence. And the goal of the state is not to get rid of the Gun Devil but to repurpose it for more state violence. The goal has no interest in the safety of its citizenry. It only has interest in its own power, in maintaining its own power, because if it actually believed in keeping people safe, it would destroy that thing! That thing’s bad!
MO: It’s super dangerous. It kills so many people. Just a countless number.
TONI: I think that Chainsaw Man has this very deep understanding of how police and prisons and state violence operate to maintain the stability of the state and of capitalism rather than to actually keep people safe in any meaningful way.
With that, I think that we’re going to wrap up Part 1 of the discussion. We’ve introduced you to the basic ideas of abolitionism, we’ve talked about how we came to it, we’ve gone into the main, big grounding demand of abolitionism. That’s great for Part 1. We hope you come back for Part 2, where we’re going to go much more in depth about some of the more complex aspects and some of the more debated aspects of abolitionism such as centering survivors, talking about abolition and revolutionary transformation of the state and dismantling antiblackness. And we’ll be talking about anime like Woman Called Fujiko Mine, JoJo: Stone Ocean, Deca-Dence, Michiko & Hatchin. So we really hope that you come back for that in a couple weeks. And with that, we hope you join us for Part 2. Bye, everybody!