One of the true standout episodes of the year came courtesy of one little girl’s crusade against tobacco smoke.
World Conquest Zvezda Plot united Type Moon writer Meteo Hoshizora and Wolf’s Rain director Tensai Okamura. Together they turned a child-like obsession with world domination into one of the year’s most underrated and most heartfelt gems. Despite the absurdity of its premise and the lasciviousness of its character designs, Zvezda was at heart a story about outcasts coming together as a slapdash yet loving family–a bizarre companion piece to the similarly-themed but tonally-opposite Terror in Resonance. Zvezda was also one of the funniest shows of 2014, and its third episode is an example of some of the best satire I’ve seen come out of an anime.
The story begins simply enough. Zvezda member Yasu lights a cigarette in the kitchen, which sets off a smoke alarm. The alarm, however, jettisons the entire kitchen into the stratosphere and lets it crash in the backyard. This sets the tone for the episode, and the tone for Zvezda in general, whose fearless leader Venera is always 100% serious and 200% committed to overreacting. But she’s got a good heart, and so does the show. This episode in particular executes a delicate balancing act between ridiculous satire, character building, and establishing visual and thematic cues that would run throughout the show. They’re all so deftly woven together, though, that the audience hardly notices it. It’s a masterful script and execution by showrunner Tensai Okamura.
Great satire relies on A) being a proper exaggeration of a real issue, and B) actually being funny. Zvezda meets both of these requirements. Smokers are currently subject to a ton of laws and regulations dictating where and when they can smoke, but things like secondhand smoke are still problems. This recipe for animosity is (literally) blown up by Zvezda, and it derives much of its humor from Kate’s reaction to smokers. Her intentions come from a good and honest place–smoking is indeed hazardous, both for smokers and people around them. But she’s a little kid, and little kids always know they’re right about everything and thus always overreact to everything, so “people shouldn’t smoke” becomes “all smokers should die!” The show relishes in her absolute commitment to her beliefs. Just watch the scene below. The palette changes to a menacing violet, the music becomes tense, Kate stands on a chair so she can leer over him, and she talks about poop, because that’s what kids do.
The episode’s satire is also smart in that it knows not just to exaggerate, but to escalate. It starts with one smoker, but soon Zvezda prowl the streets, dousing cigarettes on the sidewalk and batting used butts back into car windows. Eventually the whole city begins following Zvezda’s lead, forming a Gestapo-like anti-smoking patrol while smokers huddle hidden together in cramped bars as if it were the Prohibition. In the end, it’s Zvezda and a group of 85,000 Udogawan citizens against the last bastion of smokers barricaded inside of a seedy pachinko parlor. The punchline is that Venera’s magical world domination powers don’t work on the smokers, because they’ve abandoned their human souls in their greed and desire. The episode, therefore, is just as much a tale of caution against mob mentality–both sides get waaay out of hand, and ultimately nothing is accomplished. But it isn’t some smarmy South Park “both sides are in the wrong” conclusion, because clearly the smokers are in the wrong. Look what smoke does to the KuruKurus!
Zvezda avoids any further South Park comparisons because the episode also contains a significant amount of warmth. Interspersed with Kate’s anti-smoking crusade are flashes of Yasu and Goro’s pre-Zvezda life in the mob. The two initially bond over smoking, Goro giving Yasu his lighter, which Yasu treasures as a kind of talisman from his superior. Later, however, Goro quits smoking, citing that he can’t be a kid for the rest of his life. Yasu doesn’t understand this, and admits in the present that smoking was an integral part of his “bad boy image.” More so, Yasu doesn’t like change, and doesn’t want to accept that growing up means growing out of things. Smoking is often used as a symbol of being an adult, but this perspective is a glamorization of a destructive habit, and that in some ways is more immature than anything Kate does.
Goro, despite his prickly and occasionally skull-like demeanor, cares a lot about Yasu, and repeatedly throughout the episode he promises to deal with him for Kate’s sake. He wants Yasu to grow up as he had, to find value not in a childish habit but in a child-like sense of strength, which believes that a single loving family is all one needs to take over the entire world. It’s a rejection of the superficially “cool” and masculine for something subtler and more rewarding. Smoke lingers in the show, however, as Zvezda’s unorthodox tactics fail to conquer the smokers, and the big bad governor later manipulates his noxious cigar fumes to suffocate Zvezda. Smoking here symbolizes not adulthood, but our baser and immature tendencies that we like to disguise as part of adulthood. Turns out all we need, though, is an 8-year-old girl to come and tell us how dumb that really is.
There are too many fantastic moments in this episode, so I’ll just list some of my favorites.
- Kate’s version of grace before their metal at a Chinese restaurant, which thanks “the conquerors of veggies, fishies, piggies, chickens, and four thousand years of Chinese history for this meal”
- Kate’s “transformation scene” into Venera, which is just the other Zvezda members helping her put her costume on
- Kate’s stone-faced and inspiring speech to the Udogawan citizens. “If you aren’t brave enough to yell at them, bash their head in! If they refuse to listen, throw rocks at them! If you can’t do any of those things, curse their existence!”
- Goro’s tea set suitcase
- The smokers respond to Kate’s appeal (very generously offering them status as third-class citizens) by shouting things like “we pay more taxes” and “isn’t this bullying? A form of prejudice?” and “smoking is a gentleman’s hobby!” Within the context of the second half of 2014, this is almost a perfect encapsulation of the GamerGate mindset, whose members perceives themselves as victims while simultaneously practicing willful ignorance of the harm they’re doing to the entire gaming community and people outside of it. The episode is satire, but some gamers really do seem to believe that they’re being targeted by a conspiratorial organization who wants to take away their toys. Shoulda called this episode #SmokerGate.