THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHINESE AND JAPANESE

As an international relations buff, one of my pet peeves is when people can’t tell the difference between China and Japan. They have close links and many cultural similarities. Japan owes much of its civilization to Chinese influence. Chinese and Japanese people superficially look similar. There are other cultures that get confused often, like Spain and Mexico or Ireland and Scotland. But I still find the confusion hard to forgive. Anyone with at least a little knowledge of international affairs should be able to tell the difference between these 2 countries, since there are many, and fundamental ones too. China and Japan were never the same country and developed in isolation for most of their history. Their cultures are very different. It would be like confusing Russia with Britain — but I honestly feel that the difference is even greater.

Someday I may write a blog post on the many factors that distinguish China from Japan, but for now I’ll focus on one aspect that’s often misunderstood: language. Language is probably the easiest and fastest way to tell where something is from (written language in particular). It’s also something that’s rarely well understood by those who don’t try to actually learn the language, since languages are so complicated. In addition, language is considered a core element of culture, indeed one of its fundamentals, and a basic way of dividing them.

Does Japan use Chinese characters? Yes. This is a common source of confusion and probably one of the main reasons China and Japan are so often confused with each other. The details, of course, are a little complicated, so I’ll explain.

Chinese characters are logograms, meaning that each one represents a different concept (like “honor”) or thing (like “wall”). They are famous (or notorious) worldwide for their complexity and distinctiveness. In fact, they’re the only logograms that are still used (aside from some minor languages that use Chinese-derived script). While Chinese characters represent things, they also have pronunciations, since those things have their own pronunciations. Confusingly, the pronunciation often changes depending on the context; you have to learn which one to use based on the context. Many Chinese characters look abstractly like the things they represent (like 川, “river,” or 心, “heart”), but most are too complex for that; instead, a typical formula is to use one element (a “radical”) that represents the concept, and another element that gives a clue about the pronunciation. For instance, 腕 (“arm”) contains the “moon” radical (月), mostly used for body parts, and the radical 宛, which shows you that it’s pronounced wan. And just to make it more confusing, the thing Chinese characters represent also changes depending on context; so 明 can mean “clear,” “bright” or “understand.”

China, as the fount of culture in East Asia, spread its writing system to other countries; this included Japan. But the Japanese language is very different from Chinese. Not all of it can be expressed through Chinese characters. As a result, the Japanese developed their own writing systems, hiragana and katakana, to represent these words. Both hiragana and katakana (together called kana) are syllabaries, meaning that each character represents a syllable (so Japanese is thought of as made up of syllables rather than letters). Hiragana looks like this:

あたまがいつもいたいけどしごとにいかなくては

And katakana looks like this:

ラブリーチャーミーセクシーキューティワンピース

Both were originally derived from Chinese characters, but katakana is a more direct borrowing, as you might be able to tell from the blocky, straight lines. (Some of them, in fact, are just unusually simple Chinese characters.) Historically, katakana has been used more often, but in a series of post-World War II writing reforms hiragana was installed as the main script for representing basic words.

Does that mean katakana is old-fashioned, or no longer used? Hardly! Katakana is still used all the time in Japanese, but to represent foreign or made-up words, or just to write sounds with no obvious meaning. This means that Japanese, uniquely among languages, uses 3 scripts together. And I don’t mean like Serbo-Croatian or Hindustani, either (those languages can use either of 2 different scripts). In order to read Japanese you have to learn all 3 scripts, since they are used together. Reading any Japanese text will confirm this. Here’s a sample:

レゲエ は、狭義においては1960年代後半ジャマイカで発祥し、1980年代前半まで流行したポピュラー音楽である。

The first word is “reggae,” which is foreign, so it’s written in katakana. Katakana appears again with ジャマイカ (Jamaica) and ポピュラー (popular), both English words (the vast majority of the foreign words incorporated into Japanese are English). The Chinese characters you see express difficult or advanced concepts: 狭義 (narrow sense), 発祥 (originate), 音楽 (music). As for the hiragana, they mostly appear as particles, which are very basic 1 or 2 syllable words like は (is), で (in), まで (until), いつ (when), and so on. The final word, ある (“to be”), is an example of something so basic that it’s not usually written in Chinese characters, as is おいて (as for).

Do you have to use all 3 scripts together? No. The two kana sentence examples above prove that. But to Japanese, they look awkward. The hiragana example would almost always be written with several Chinese characters to express advanced concepts. The katakana example is a strained attempt to use cheesy English adjectives to describe a dress (called “one-piece” in Japanese, hence written in katakana). It is certainly possible to stick to kana only (or even just hiragana, if you can manage the difficult task of avoiding foreign loanwords), but in almost any situation, Japanese just don’t do it. (The main exception I can think of are children’s books, since kids can’t read Chinese characters yet.) Foreigners might pull their hair out and gnash their teeth at the prospect of memorizing thousands of Chinese characters that are much more complicated than the kana they could be written as instead, but Japanese don’t care. It is The Way Things Are Done, and many, many hours of elementary school education are devoted to drawing Chinese characters to drill their use into kids’ brains.

Why does Japanese use Chinese characters still? It’s a difficult subject that’s a little too complicated for this blog post, but suffice it to say that it can be easier to read (provided you know the characters) and immediately understand the concepts. The hiragana example sentence above looks like a blur to Japanese speakers; the Chinese characters separate concepts and words more. Japanese contains lots of words that sound the same, but using Chinese characters makes it obvious which meaning is meant. There are lots of opportunities for wordplay that would die if Chinese characters were phased out. And, probably most fundamentally of all, the Japanese are used to it and are uncomfortable with such a drastic change.

While Japan uses Chinese characters, there is a distinction between the Chinese characters used in China (hanzi) and the ones used in Japan (kanji). Kanji were simplified in the aforementioned postwar writing reforms, mostly using shortcut versions common in China. As a result, kanji aren’t quite the same as hanzi. Here are some examples of differences:

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Japanese
广
驿

But that’s not all! As you can see in the table above, there is a distinction between Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters as well. China simplified its characters in the 1950s as a compromise between just switching to the alphabet and grappling with tens of thousands of complicated characters. Other Chinese-speaking countries (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore), overseas Chinese communities, and Korea and Vietnam continue to use Traditional characters. The difference between these characters can be quite drastic, as seen here.

Simplified Traditional

So effectively, there are 3 different kinds of Chinese characters: Simplified, Traditional, and Japanese (kanji). Where do the Japanese variants fall? If you’re interested in learning Chinese characters but aren’t sure which type to choose, I recommend Japanese, actually, since they fall roughly midway between Simplified and Traditional in terms of complexity. They lean Traditional, however; kanji readers have an easier time negotiating Taiwan than China. Those who don’t care about Japanese and just want to learn Chinese usually opt for Simplified given how much more important China is than other Chinese countries. (This wasn’t always the case, though: during Communist rule, China was so closed-off from the outside world that foreigners got more use out of learning Traditional.) The downside is that deciphering Traditional characters is much harder for Simplified-readers than vice versa. In any case, Traditional characters are still sometimes used in China, and anything from before the 1950s obviously uses them, so most students of Chinese pretty much have to learn them both at some point or to a certain extent.

Can Chinese-speakers read Japanese (and vice versa)? Sort of. Since they’re all basically the same characters, Chinese and Japanese can read many of each other’s texts. Simplified characters are hardest for Japanese to decipher. Snatches of phrases, or scattered words or concepts, are decipherable or the same. But entire sentences are hard to figure out. Japanese uses kana, which Chinese don’t know or use; meanwhile, Chinese uses a bunch of characters that Japanese doesn’t (because it substitutes kana for them). Some words are also expressed with different characters in the different languages; the classic example here is 手纸/手紙 (“hand paper”), which means “toilet paper” in Chinese and “letter” in Japanese. Basically, Chinese and Japanese can read parts of each other’s writing, but nowhere near enough to make out long passages.

Besides, even if they could read each other’s languages, they wouldn’t be able to speak them… which brings us to the spoken part of Chinese and Japanese.

This is what spoken Chinese sounds like:

As you can tell, it’s a tonal language. That means vocal tones go up and down while speaking. Each word must be expressed with the right combination of tones to convey the meaning properly. Chinese also contains sounds like dung, huang, sher, bien, chiao, fuhng, and shwei. Examples of Chinese names include Xu Jinglei, Hou Xiaochun, Li Ying, Zhou Nong, and Wang Renmei — in other words, they’re short and usually follow a 1-2 syllable combo. Chinese place-names look like Cao Hai, Xiexing, Ningxia, Yangming Shan, and Qingdao. (Note that they aren’t necessarily pronounced that way. Explaining how Chinese is pronounced is a little off-topic, but for example, “c” is like ts, “x” is like ksh, and “q” is like ch.)

On the other hand, spoken Japanese sounds like this:

Completely different, right? It’s not tonal — vocal tones are consistent and smooth. Japanese generally is more flowing than Chinese, which is choppy. The language also sounds very different; it is very vowel-heavy, and the vowels are the 5 basic ones (a, i, u, e, o). Consonants are also pretty simple, and syllables come in basic combinations (ka, tsu, shi, no, me — nothing like shlang or crap). Examples of Japanese names include Tsutomu Okumoto, Hiroko Kitahashi, Nobuo Okunoki, Fumiko Uchida, and Kenji Shimizu — they’re longer than Chinese (and there are also many more of them). Japanese place-names look like Kyouto, Saitama, Fukuoka, Biwa-ko, and Shikoku. They are easy to pronounce; it was not difficult to figure out how to romanize Japanese (that is, render it in the Roman alphabet).

Despite many similarities in Chinese and Japanese cultures, the languages actually have different roots. Japanese is unrelated to Chinese. In fact, it’s unclear what other languages Japanese is related to (well, probably Korean). It’s even unclear where Japanese people originally came from. The most likely explanation is somewhere in Siberia, leading some scholars to claim linguistic similarities with obscure Siberian peoples and even the Finns (who are way, way, way far away on the other side of Russia).

That being said, there are similarities between spoken Chinese and Japanese too. Japanese imported a lot of Chinese vocabulary along with its characters, and like French vocabulary in English, these words now fill up the Japanese dictionary and make up the bulk of Japanese words. Many of them sound fairly different, however. Here are some examples:

(Mandarin) Chinese Japanese English
gānbēi kanpai Cheers!
(pronounced “ssuh”) shi four
dìguó teikoku empire
ānquán anzen safety

Note that this flow wasn’t just 1-way, either: after Japan’s epochal Meiji Revolution, when it opened up to European influences and modernized, China adopted a bunch of words for “modern” concepts like “revolution” (Japanese: kakumei; Chinese: geming) and “telephone” (Japanese: denwa; Chinese: dianhua) from Japanese.

Does all this seem confusing to you? In fact, there are a few factors I still haven’t considered. 1 is other Chinese languages. You see, the language commonly known as “Chinese” is actually Mandarin, the official and dominant Chinese language. But there are others, like Wu, Cantonese and Xiang, and they have their own sounds while sharing the Chinese characters. It’s hard for foreigners to tell from the characters whether the language is Mandarin or something else. And then there’s Korean, which sounds sort of like Japanese but has sounds and a cadence all its own. It stands out clearly from its neighbor languages with its distinctive writing system, hangeul, full of circles and short lines.

But I think those are too much for this blog post. You shouldn’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Remember these basic facts:

  • Spoken Chinese is tonal and choppy and uses comparatively short names.
  • Spoken Japanese is not tonal and flows and uses simpler sounds than Chinese and comparatively long names.
  • Written Chinese uses complex characters. If they’re more simple, they’re from China; if they’re more complex, they’re from somewhere else (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.).
  • Written Japanese uses both Chinese characters and simpler kana symbols together.

Yes, there are ways of telling from the specific Chinese characters used, but for ordinary people this is probably asking too much. Thank you for reading, and good luck!

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ANIMANIA

Akiba

Akihabara, the mecca for anime and manga fans everywhere. Image source: 4chan

Japan has a rich, elegant and subtle culture. It’s famous around the world for its architecture, its warrior code, the tea ceremony and kabuki theater. …. But in modern times, it’s as or more likely to be associated with technology and electronics than its traditional culture, and the new face of Japan, for good or for ill, is its cartoons: anime and manga. They have a somewhat negative reputation, and it’s not entirely undeserved, but they’ve been around for such a long time, and span so many works and genres, that it’s mostly unfair to stigmatize them.

Anime and manga have developed a strong, passionate, and very nerdy fanbase, but they remain obscure and strange to most people. Since this blog is all about examining foreign lands and explaining them to outsiders, I present to you my overview of Japan’s cartoon industry.

Note: This article mostly covers anime because it’s a smaller and less complex subject, but much of what it says can also apply to manga.

BACKGROUND
Cartoons in Japan actually have very deep roots. Long before modernization, artwork thrived in Japan; some of it, especially drawn on scrolls, told a story that advanced from picture to picture. By the early 1900s, this evolved into both comic strips (manga in Japanese) and animation (called “anime” for short in Japan).

The very first anime, from 1907. The characters say “moving pictures.”

Comics and animation developed more or less parallel to their counterparts overseas, but at first Japan lagged noticeably behind, as it was a much poorer country than its competitors in the West. It produced its own cartoon movies during World War II, but they were in black-and-white, lacked coherent stories, and had more stilted and cheap animation than anything Disney came up with. Japan failed to produce any internationally successful characters; imports like Mickey Mouse and Popeye were more popular, despite government discouragement. Comics fared a little better, since they were easier to make, but were still creaky and basic.

Japanese cartoons improved dramatically after the war, partly due to a more liberal creative atmosphere after the fanatical military dictatorship was disbanded. The single most important figure here — and in basically all of anime and manga history — is Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka was a medical student who grew up idolizing Disney cartoons (especially Bambi) and added cartooning to his career. His comics were much livelier, more dynamic, and more interesting than any of the competition. He opened up new genres that wowed audiences used to cheesy gag-filled stories: action-adventure, science-fiction, fantasy, and historical drama. Tezuka is especially amazing because he created Japan’s first iconic, marketable characters (Astro Boy, a flying robot hero boy; Kimba the White Lion, a young King of the Jungle with the difficult task of bringing predators and prey together; Black Jack, an incredibly skilled surgeon) as well as crafting intricate, philosophical dramas with well-written characters and a cinematic sense of style. And he drew over 700 volumes of comics in his lifetime. Aand he created Japan’s modern animation industry along with its modern comics too, with animated adaptations of his most popular works. It’s hard to pick which aspect of Tezuka is most amazing.

Following Tezuka’s lead (as well as some improved cartoon movies in the 1950s, like Legend of the White Serpent), manga and anime finally took off in the ’60s and ’70s. Cute cartoon characters like Anpanman and Doraemon captivated little kids. Other creators made bigger, more exciting robots than Tezuka’s Astro Boy, until they were skyscraper-sized and battling giant monsters while being piloted by teenagers. The energy and dynamism that exemplified that heady era was channeled into sports sagas about aspiring athletes that trained every day in brutal conditions to hone their craft to its utmost potential. Unusually for its time, the manga industry discovered the power of female consumers, and produced stories of romance, growing up, and the social anxieties of puberty for girl readers. Space sagas like Space Battleship Yamato and Captain Harlock presented an image of masculinity and bravery that appealed to a Japan that had lost a big war but was determined not to lose its vim and vigor.

This is today a bygone era with a very narrow fanbase, and it’s easy to see why. The animation was usually still pretty bad (especially in the ’60s); anime studios cut corners wherever they could, resulting in limited animation and lots of recycled footage. The art was basic and less differentiated from Western cartoons than it is today. Storylines could be glacially slow and relied on melodrama. But they made Japan a cultural force to be reckoned with, as many of the less culturally specific anime were exported to West Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

This fun video shows the exuberance (and emerging nerdiness) of anime in the early ’80s. Don’t worry too much about what it all means, though.

Despite some porno and a few edgy movies like Belladonna of Sadness, most anime was still more or less kids’ fare, though. This changed in the ’80s, when movies like Akira came out. Disturbing, energetic, lavishly drawn and animated, and with a futuristic, cynical edge, it spoke to a foreign audience that had long lazily assumed that animation was for kids. Anime started getting edgier, more violent, and more sexually explicit. It also started working with more sophisticated plots and themes and getting more stylized. Although it was much more niche back then, an open-minded, international fanbase began to take notice of a country that was going in interesting directions with its cartoons — and all without losing sense of the fun that most people associate with cartoons.

In the ’90s, anime finally went mainstream (at least to an extent). Sailor Moon combined the tropes of girls’ romances with those of transforming action hero stories, striking gold worldwide. Dragon Ball gradually spread overseas, enchanting boys with its muscular, super-powered fight scenes, science-fiction trappings, and goofy, unique sense of humor. Most importantly, the end of the decade saw Pokemon, an international monolith that combined a wildly popular video game series with trading cards and an anime. For a few years around the turn of the millennium, I remember Pokemon being more popular among kids than anything else — surely this must count as one of Japan’s greatest triumphs.

Knights of Ramune

Knights of Ramune, an especially exaggerated example of ’90s anime art style. Image source: Maybe Later

CURRENT SITUATION
While anime hasn’t ever quite reattained the peak in popularity that Pokemon reached, it’s still very popular worldwide, bolstered by a newfound interest in manga, which was seldom exported last millennium. The formula of long-running TV shows with an action theme and plucky, likeable heroes continues, winning audiences for shows like One Piece and Naruto. The more popular shows with mass appeal get picked up for TV. But the vast majority of anime is now a niche pursuit, watched (legally or otherwise) online or through DVDs sold online. Much of it requires a knowledge of Japanese culture and some sort of familiarity with anime style to really appreciate. Most of it is also made mostly for Japanese audiences, which means there are references that will go over foreigners’ heads (especially kids’ heads).

Although there is plenty of anime for younger kids and some for adults, anime mostly aims for teenagers now. This means lots of teenage protagonists (even when this would be really implausible), lots of settings in junior high and high school, and a preoccupation with romance and interactions with the opposite sex. It has also led to the development of a big nerd fanbase. Anime fans, called otaku (“house,” because that’s where they spend all their time), have a reputation, especially in Japan, for being very hardcore in their hobby. They buy figurines and wall scrolls of their favorite characters, listen to anime soundtracks, draw fanfiction expanding on their favorite stories, and dress up (“cosplay”) as anime characters. This has led to a closet industry of anime-related merchandise; while mostly underground, it is visible in Japan in the Toukyou district of Akihabara (pictured above) and the Oosaka district of Den-Den Town, both of which used to be electronics-oriented. Voice actors have cult followings. Comiket, a twice-a-year gathering of fan artists, attracts around half a million visitors.

As a result of pandering to teenage tastes and cultivating such a nerdy fanbase, anime has taken on a rather sleazy edge. Ever since the ’60s, porno, or at least sexually explicit anime, has been part of the medium. This is still underground (or rather, behind the curtains) in Japan, but a lot of anime runs on “fanservice,” which are elements included just to titillate fans. Girls wear short skirts; the “camera” lingers on long legs and boobs; guys keep walking in on girls when they just happen to be naked; stories find more and more excuses for girls to get naked. In recent years, there’s been a trend towards eliminating male characters completely, since the target audience doesn’t care about them. Since the sketchy days of the ’70s, anime art has evolved toward subtly sexualizing characters; it now strikes a sweet spot, where characters look just realistic enough to be sexy but just cartoony enough to be relatable. Some of that anime merchandise, like body-length pillows of cute, half-undressed girls, encourages otaku to get turned on by anime girls.

This would be why anime now has a bad reputation, and it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t get a little creepy sometimes. Arguably the worst part is that Japan’s obsession with cuteness leads the ideal to tread a narrow line between cute and sexy; a lot of anime fans topple over that line and start fetishizing little girls. (Even back in the ’70s, A LOT of those family-friendly shows focused on little girls, and the UN has frequently criticized Japan for having too much child porn.) But it would be wrong and a jump to conclusions to assume that anime fans are necessarily creeps and perverts. A lot of anime is straightforward and even family-friendly by some Western standards; the fanservice is mostly there to nudge and wink the more horny fans (who also spend the most money on the industry). Sexually explicit scenes are also pretty rare in anime; anime and manga set in high school tend to be pretty chaste and rely more on hints and sexual tension than on outright hanky-panky. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that anime has plenty of female fans, and there’s almost as much fanservice to appease them as there is to appease men.

Shirobako

The recent anime Shirobako, a mostly realistic behind-the-scenes look at the animation industry itself, is also a good example of how cute girls (technically young women in this case) have practically taken over the medium. Image source: Shirobako official site

It’s also important to remember that anime spans a dizzying array of genres. Action and romance remain prevalent, but anime now dabbles in mystery, horror, political drama, wacky comedy, satire, workplace stories, lazy slice-of-life tales, cute girls just doing cute things, and weird combinations of some of the above. In general there’s a preference for “speculative fiction” that involves the supernatural and magical powers, partly because the target audience likes that and partly because animation lends itself to that, but these days anime can pretty much be about anything — even fighting bad guys with nose hair or a bibliophile reincarnated as a dog kept by a sadistic, scissors-wielding writer. And that’s not even counting manga, a much richer, more prolific field with subjects ranging from mahjong to office ladies drinking beer together.

Anime and manga are easily most popular in their homeland, but they have also achieved popularity across East Asia, especially in South Korea and Taiwan (which has a small version of Akihabara in its capital city). Elsewhere, they are still mostly cult phenomena, popular mainly among comic book nerds and kids (or those who haven’t completely grown up). Some anime from the ’60s to the ’80s are more popular in Latin America, Europe and/or West Asia than Japan. North America is probably the non-Asian market of most interest to the anime industry; its conventions attract thousands of fans and are the closest things otaku there have to Akihabara (a place where they can mingle with like-minded fans and buy anime-related merchandise).

One exception to the underground popularity of anime (besides the big kids’ shows mentioned earlier) is Studio Ghibli. Often described as Japan’s answer to Disney, this is the studio that puts the most effort and care into its craft, producing movies usually considered “magical” and “enchanting.” With a simple but appealing art style that’s remained mostly the same since the ’80s, a love of the fantastic, mostly wholesome stories, superb animation and a feminist, environmentalist and pacifist tilt, it’s gradually gained the appreciation of snootier cinephiles around the world. Like Disney, it mostly aims at kids, but its stories contain enough depth and sincerity to win over lots of adults too. Unfortunately, it’s been heavily dependent on 2 artists, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, both of whom have retired. Its future is now uncertain.

Anime can be sleazy and creepy. Sometimes it’s stupid and blatantly commercialized. After over 50 years, it recycles a lot of its most successful stories and tropes. Of course, its famous art style gets it a lot of hatred. But love it or hate it, anime and manga have become two of Japan’s most recognizable symbols and part of the national identity. Even if most Japanese don’t watch anime, they’ll still remember favorite characters or shows from their childhood, and cartoon characters are ubiquitous in the country. If nothing else, it gives the country a cute and/or cool image that does a lot to compensate for its sometimes harsh and soulless reputation.

If you’re interested in learning more about anime and manga, check out the website I work for, Anime News Network. If you’d like to sample a few classics and don’t know where to start, here are my tips.

BEASTS OF NO NATION

It’s Oscar night, and this year has more controversy swirling around the awards than usual. All of the nominees are white. It has prompted a boycott and a campaign to overhaul the voting process and the Academy’s membership. This post isn’t about that controversy, but it is about one of the movies that was noticeably snubbed this year: Beasts of No Nation. It’s not a movie for everyone. It’s one of those monumentally depressing movies you see because you feel you have to, not because you really want to. But it’s still an important and worthwhile movie that touches on a tough subject.

Beasts of No Nation follows Agu, a preteen boy in an African village. He lives a hard life, pretending a hollow TV is real and rustling up some money by blocking a road and shaking down the drivers. We see his country has had some civil turmoil, since Nigerian soldiers are occupying the village. But no one is prepared for the storm that bursts when rebels overrun the village, sending civilians fleeing in panic. Agu’s mother and sister manage to take a bus out in time, but the rest of his family are captured and killed by the rebels. Agu barely manages to escape into the hills.

There he’s caught by the rebels and their intimidating commandant. You might think Agu’s time is up, but no, instead the commandant sees potential in him. The commandant’s army is mostly made up of boys, orphaned or separated from their families and trained to be merciless and almost unthinking killers. Through a combination of strict training, military discipline, swaggering charisma, and a lack of other options, Agu joins the rebel army and becomes a hardened soldier.

We see the usual atrocities associated with African wars: massacres of innocent civilians, gang-rapes, rampant plundering, sadistic execution of prisoners through grenades in their mouths. Agu gets a little too close to the commandant. Besides the catharsis of sex and destruction, the boy soldiers are placated by the camaraderie of combat and some kind of drug. We also see a glimpse of the politics swirling in the background of the conflict: the commandant is summoned to rebel HQ by the Supreme Leader, but the leader keeps him at a distance, seemingly unnerved by the commandant’s success and popularity among his men. Instead, the leader gives priority to the Chinese businessman who has no qualms about meeting with a war criminal. (Whites aren’t really part of the narrative, by the way — we briefly glimpse some white faces through the windows of a UN van, and that’s it.)

As I wrote before, this story is not for everyone. Some viewers might just see it as another tale of tragedy and horror filmed to wring easy tears from a guilty audience. But it’s essential for getting an idea for how the phenomenon of child soldiery works. We get to see the story from Agu’s point of view. Yes, he does horrible things and commits crimes he should be way too young to be part of. But can we really blame him? What other choice does he have? He is surrounded by armed boys deep in the jungle, his family far away or murdered. For him it’s kill or be killed. We see he doesn’t really want to slaughter innocent people — he even knows what that must feel like — but it’s him or them. And if your country has fallen apart in civil war, why not join one of the armies and at least have a fighting chance of surviving?

That is not to say that Beasts doesn’t have its problematic aspects. An article in the Huffington Post points out that although, following the source novel, it doesn’t specify any African country in particular, it was filmed in Ghana, and the actors are Asante. Ghana is one of Africa’s success stories, with a peaceful history and no record of child soldiery. (The original novel was inspired primarily by Nigeria’s civil war; Cary Fukunaga, the director, mostly researched the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.) Non-Africans wouldn’t know the difference, of course, but imagine watching a movie about World War II with actors speaking Swedish. Professor Noah Tsika complains that the movie’s distribution on Netflix keeps it pretty much locked out of West Africa, and reminds us that it’s only one of a series of books and movies about the subject of child soldiers.

Perhaps most of all, Africans and those with an interest in Africa tend to get annoyed by movies like Beasts because it perpetuates a tired, deeply unflattering image of Africa as hopelessly corrupt, poor, violent, chaotic, and in need of help. Many of Africa’s worst stories are in the past, and the continent in general is trying hard to put frenzied wars like the ones seen here behind it. Countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Mozambique are moving forward and healing the rifts torn upon bloodily in past decades. And it’s true that Africa’s vibrant film industry is almost unknown overseas, with the result that normal stories about Africa are ignored in favor of traumatic, gut-wrenchingly bleak ones. But it’s also true that some parts of Africa are still mired in conflict and war crimes — including, interestingly, Nigeria (hey, it’s a big country). Child soldiers continue to get drafted into mass killings today in South Sudan and Somalia (and, outside of Africa, in Syria and Yemen too). Boko Haram’s mass kidnappings and the ethnic bloodshed in the Central African Republic are very recent memories.

In any case, Beasts of No Nation is worth watching just because of what it illuminates of the human experience, aside from any political or racial questions. (Do we snub movies like Schindler’s List because Germany doesn’t slaughter Jews anymore?) As the title suggests, this isn’t about 1 country in particular, or even a continent. It’s about what happens to humans, even young ones, when they are put into an extreme situation with bleak options, although one allows them to survive and thrive. It’s about what happens to societies when corruption and ill governance lead to a complete breakdown in government authority and cocky warlords take matters into their own hands. And it’s also, thankfully, about the potential for human redemption and rehabilitation. Despite the agonies that Agu goes through (and inflicts), I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with a tone of hope that forgiveness and patience can save even the most seemingly hopeless cases.

Beasts of No Nation is not easy viewing. It’s understandable if its subject matter makes you pass it up or if the political context makes you uncomfortable. But it’s a vital story that tells an important part of the African experience, and I think it’s well worth taking on.