The use of utopian fiction as a vehicle for social commentary stretches back to Thomas More’s Utopia, Giordano Bruno’s Spaccio de la bestia trionfante, and Roger Bacon’s New Atlantis. Modern classics of the genre, more often dystopian than utopian, include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. This fine book by Peter Y. Paik extends the study of this tradition into the area of contemporary popular culture. It examines how “media often dismissed as unserious and [End Page 702] trivial, such as the comic book and science fiction film, are capable of achieving profound and probing insights into the principal dilemmas of political life.”
Chapter 1, “Utopia Achieved,” examines Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel Watchmen (1986–1987). Set in an alternate time line, Watchmen tells how a group of superheroes uncover a plan to sacrifice millions of people in order to forestall imminent nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The central ethical questions of the novel are whether a small percentage of a population should be sacrificed to achieve a perceived greater good and whether a preemptive strike to achieve this objective can be justified. Moore’s characters, “Rorschach” and the “Comedian” in particular, are more fleshed out than the standard superhero cutouts. For Paik, this allows them to function as signposts marking different paths of morality through landscapes—theirs and ours—that are obscured by the political ambiguity and moral fog of the Cold War, the Vietnam conflict, and (now) the invasion of Iraq. (A timely analogue to Watchmen and its refractive commentary on the contemporary political scene may be found in DMZ, a serial graphic narrative written by Brian Wood and drawn by Riccardo Burchielli.)
In chapter 2, “The Defense of Necessity,” Paik unpacks Jang Joon-Hwan’s 2003 film, Save the Green Planet! Its plot revolves around an apparently disturbed man, Lee Byung-Gu, who kidnaps and tortures Kang Ma-Shik, a powerful executive whom Byung-Gu believes to be a prince from a hostile alien civilization. In one scene, Ma-Shik, in a desperate attempt to save his life, spins a fantastic story about benevolent aliens who wish to preserve humanity, prompting Byung-Gu to reconsider his actions and purposes. The audience undergoes a similar process of reevaluation when Kang Ma-Shik’s true extraterrestrial identity is revealed and the earth is destroyed. According to Paik, these and other twists throughout the film are not only clever plot devices. Instead, Jang purposefully shifts the perspective on subjects ranging from political assassination to the use of torture for security reasons. As a result, the audience is compelled to reflect on the dangers of imposing simplistic binary worldviews on complex situations.
Chapter 3, “The Saintly Politics of Catastrophe,” examines Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Paik is one of the few academics who discuss the postapocalyptic classic in its manga format (1982–1994) rather than its more famous two-hour anime version (1984), which, despite its artistic value, rarely rises above an ecological fable about good and evil. In contrast, the manga Nausicaä—seven volumes in its English translation—is backlit by a nuanced conceptual universe that is far more ambiguous in terms of morality, as Paik demonstrates. The two dominant powers, the Dorok Empire and the kingdom of Torumekia, are loose [End Page 703] analogues of the superpowers whose Cold War struggle dominated the years during which the manga was created. Their motivations are complicated, as are the drives and purposes of the story’s main characters, including Princess Nausicaä herself. As with Watchmen and Save the Green Planet! the inherent complexities of the manga Nausicaä permit it to serve as both a mirror and a critique of modern society, especially on issues of prophecy, messianic expectation, the environment, and the uses and abuses of science.
In chapter 4, “Between Trauma and Tragedy,” Paik surveys a range of dystopian films...