Flag: Photo Fixes are a Fool’s Dream

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Flag anime. As a disclaimer, the article also contains some graphic depictions of real-life violence.

Many people have this habit of trying to understand complex conflicts and issues in neat and simplified terms. Their conclusions and solutions have a habit of being even more misguided, as though major conflagrations and crises were ever or could ever be wrapped up because of a singular event or factor. In 2015, a man by the name of Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines. As one of his first exhortations from the bully pulpit, President Duterte called for the death of all those who contributed to the drug trade in his country, believing that their deaths would be beginning of the end for the Philippines’ problems. It was a promise he made on the campaign trail, and he was intent on honoring it. His administration would enact its own official motions to wage his ant-drug crusade. However, the foot soldiers of his war on drugs were vigilantes who felt they had their president’s blessing to shoot dealers and execute backers on their initiative. Dealers were shot dead. Some of their backers were executed too, including local politicians. Their more common victims, however, were suspected drug addicts, and on more than one occasion, innocent bystanders were caught in the crossfire.

Photographers for the news media snapped this photo of a grieving woman cradling her husband’s lifeless body. Her husband was rumored to be a drug pusher. Now he’s a casualty in Duterte’s drug war.

The news media quickly associated the above image with a sculpture by Renaissance master Michelangelo, La Pieta. At the point of his career when he started creating La Pieta, Michelangelo was able to sculpt the illusion of movement to give his subjects greater expressiveness. His talents, plus the Catholic commission, resulted in an exquisitely evocative work depicting the Mother of God cradling the corpse of her dead boy. Anyone with knowledge of Renaissance art or Roman Catholicism can appreciate the significance of the association. The postures and grief of both womanly figures are similar. The images are supposed to evoke compassion, or at least pity. The Filipino people are devout Roman Catholics, and the Catholic Church in the Philippines has disapproved of the violence as ungodly. With exposure from the news media, the Western community has called out the drug war as a violation of human rights. It’s a romantic notion to predict that this evocative image would be the beginning of the end of this reckless violence and hate. It’s 2018, however, and Duterte and his foot soldiers have only doubled down. Duterte retains popularity among Filipinos. Filipinos too believe that  Duterte’s brutal crackdown will solve their country’s problems.

The Philippines is a pretty poor country overall. Even as one of the faster growing economies in recent years, the wealth generated from the country’s growth hasn’t been anywhere close to approach equal distributed among Filipinos. Many were, and are still, quite indigent. The mindset among Filipinos is that if they continued to support his drastic campaign to kill all the drug people, then perhaps the aftermath of his bloody violence will be enough to lift them out of desperate circumstances. They believe, hope, and pray that his actions can end the corruption plaguing governments at all levels and establish order in the cities and the villages, once and for all. In light of these sentiments, to hold to the simple notion that a photo, however symbolic and moving, would be enough on its own to end a war is a fool’s dream. It’s the people working behind the scenes of these photos that determine whether or not there will be peace. In Flag’s quest to end a civil war in the fictional Uddiyana, photo-journalist Saeko Shirasu learns that lesson first-hand.

Like with the rise of Duterte and the inauguration of the Philippine drug war, the civil war in Uddiyana turns out to be more complex than a grab for power by a strongman or a faction may have you believe. The Philippines has its poverty, its corruption, and a people who are sick of both.  Uddiyana has its two religious institutions which have antagonized each other for centuries. These religious institutions are the Kufura tradition and the Buddhist Gelut sect. Both these religious establishments claim cosmological and theological authority in contested areas.

Followers of the Kufura tradition believe in the return of the sun and the revitalization of life.

Followers of the Gelut sect believe in the decaying of the moral order and the need to prepare for its coming end.

The Buddhist Gelut sect is revealed over the course of Flag to be acting clandestinely as spoilers to a peace agreement that, if successfully signed and ratified, would end the civil war in Uddiyana. To that end, they steal and hide a modified UN flag. Due an the iconic photo taken by Saeko published worldwide, the flag in question bears a message of peace for the Uddiyana people. In lit silhouette on the flag are religious figures of the Kufura faith, praying as they bask in the sunlight. The photo is symbolic. It is moving.

To the poetic-minded, the photo could be understood as a metaphor for Uddiyana’s revitalization now that the victory of UN-backed forces (its soldiers seen cheering on the photo’s borders below) seem to augur the beginning of the end for the civil war. To the propaganda-minded, the photo could also be understood as enhancing the reputation of the Kufura tradition, possibly at the expense of the Buddhist Gelut sect. ‘

To peace mediators, the photo is an opportunity to use the modified flag and new spirit associated with it to bring about peace between belligerents who understand what the Kufura means to their homeland. To the Gelut, they see it as the threat to their political influence in the region and their religious mission to inaugurate what effectively appears to be the Latter Day of the Law.

The Buddhist Gelut sect is group that is obsessed with eschatology. It is a group that seems fanatical in its willingness to bring about the end times. Eschatology is a branch of theology concerned with questions regarding the apocalypse. Cosmology in Buddhism speaks of an eschatological concept in the form of Mappō, or the Latter Day of the Law. It is a prophesied period in time when the moral order upheld by the Buddha’s teachings begins to collapse due to a decline in Buddhist worship. Societies are steadily engulfed by violence, hate, corruption, and degeneracy. Once the world has been fully consumed by suffering, the moral order would be reset to a purer and more just age.

The real life Aum Shinrikyo is an example of a terrorist group whose violent actions were informed by Buddhism, especially Buddhist eschatology. It was a religious cult that engaged in violence to hasten the end of a corrupt and degenerate world. In that world’s ashes, Aum Shinrikyo would arise from them to dictate terms of the new world order, a moral order that would be purer and more just. It’s not entirely clear if the Buddhist Gelut sect has quite the same intentions to trigger the apocalypse as Aum Shinrikyo. However, the actions of the Gelut to spoil the peace process, combined with the Gelut head broadcasting a message warning about the decaying of the moral order, gives some merit to any comparisons between Gelut and Aum.

The civil war of Uddiyana is complicated because Uddiyana is complex, and as senseless as the war’s violence and hate may seem to outsiders, there is a compelling reason woven in the fabric of Uddiyana’s society that explains why there are people who want to see that war continue. All parties in the Uddiyana war believe that the flag stands as much for the Kufura’s authority as it stands for a hoped-for peace. In the face of resistance to a peace resolution, the Gelut sect stole a symbol of the Kufura’s authority. A symbol is only has power to influence people so long as people believe in what that symbol appears to stand for. For the flag to be stolen so easily is to signal to the belligerents that the Kufura’s authority is weak. As the Kufura loses its prestige, what the Kufura stands for — renewal, revitalization, life, peace — would also be discredited. The belligerents would be more inclined to continue warring as the Kufura means less to their country, and more people would be disillusioned and turn to the Gelut as the alternative authority. The revelation of the flag’s absence during the peace signing would create the media spectacle required to do the most damage to the Kufura’s reputation. Saeko’s photo would be reduced to a flag being waved around by people with guns, just like the Philippine La Pieta has been clinically reduced to just one of many photos of a woman holding a man’s dead body.

Saeko’s journey with those tasked by the UN in secret to the flag is a testament to the fragility of a symbol’s power. It is also a warning to those moved by a symbol to not get complacent. The UN soldiers Saeko documented believed in their cause and did their diligence to retrieve the flag in time for the signing ceremony. The political situation in the Philippines, however, is a different story. Duterte is still popular among Filipinos, and all kinds of people are still dying in his drug war. He has praised Ferdinand Marcos, a Philippine dictator whose abdication from power in the People’s Power Revolution was supposed to spell a new era for openness and democracy in the Philippines. The iconic photos above seemed to herald that. Now, Duterte and his supporters are compromising domestic media outlets that are critical of his administration. Uncertainty abounds as to whether he will step down from power once his term is up. Marcos himself declared martial law to continue his term indefinitely under the excuse that he was still needed. What will Filipinos do?

In the end, something needs to be done about the poverty and corruption of the Philippines, just like something needed to be done about the religious conflict between the Kufura and Gelut in Flag. Photos alone won’t fix things. Nor will any other simple fix.

Management: For more analyses on Flag, check out Pause and Select’s video on Flag and modern warfare.

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