Welcome to Karl Marx the animation: The Daddy of Communism.
As a (fake) Chinese, I can tell you zero things about Karl Marx because the British education system has failed to teach me history of other places other than ‘Great’ Britain. My parents as ex-members of the communist party didn’t educate me on the topic either, if any Chinese is reading this, they are probably calling me out to be a traitor, as they have already, many times.
With that said, I genuinely do not know too much about Karl Marx, nor have I read any of his work, while you might argue that I can’t possibly
review this not knowing about the main character, I want to give you my two cents anyway in regard to the purpose of the anime. After all, this is suppose to educate those who do not know about him right?
The premise of the show stated that the anime is made to commemorate Marx 200th anniversary with a serious tone, while most of us (in the west) is taking the piss out of it. I can’t unseen that joke someone made on tumblr calling this as Xi Jinping’s way of making communism appealing to the younger generation, as hilarious and meme like that text post was, some truth lies underneath it. One simple click on Google will tell you that the anime is in fact funded by multiple government authorities, ie. The Government’s Marxism Office. It’s definitely propaganda alright. After more clicks around the internet and watching the anime myself, I don’t really understand who the target audience is.
Responses from the public:
Since I never read any of his work, I can’t confirm how accurate the dialogues are. But I don’t feel like I’ve learnt much from the anime. One of the criticisms I’ve seen Chinese people commenting is that the content doesn’t appeal to a specific audience, it’s too simplistic for those who knows about Marxism, but too complicated for those who know nothing.
There’re not many negative comments of the show under the episodes, the review function for the anime is blocked on the Bilibili platform where the show is streamed (I wonder why). I had to look else where for reviews. On the site Douban, out of the 1527 reviews, 50.3% are 1 star and the anime have a rating of 4/10 (as of today 07/03), if that doesn’t tell you something about how bad the show is, I don’t know what will. People don’t seem to have a problem making sarcastic comments and rating the show 1 star due to the quality of it. What’s bloody hilarious is that people are commenting on how Marx will be disappointed if he knew that Bilibili is charging people to watch the latest episodes, capitalism at its finest, yeah baby.
The ONLY reason I can write this review a week early is because I have a paid membership with Bilibili and I have access to the show. I guess it sucks to be you if you can’t afford one, huh.
The animation, music, writing:
The first thing you will notice is that the animation is damn awful, it’s so inconsistent, it switches from 3d to 2d and back to 3d then 2d and 3d and 2d every 6 frames, it’s really annoying and harsh to the eyes, as soon as you get used to the style it changes. Episode five was just a train wreck, the faces looked funny, there was illustrations inserted that was just in a completely different art style and appeared out of place.
The choice of depicting Marx and Engels as hot bishonens is also a mystery to me, I’m not saying they weren’t hot when they were young, I don’t know I can’t find any photo evidence of it (huh I wonder why), but this is what I mean when I say who is the anime for? It’s supposed to be serious toned propaganda for the communist party, yet they adopted a Japanese bishie otome game style. In episode 3, there’s also a weird ass aura between Marx and Engels, the whole show seems like a doujin to me. The ED is also one hell of a meme, the lyrics is all glory and communism with a comical rap section.
It really feels like it’s very low budgeted, neither the animation or writing is great, disappointing considering the government funded this. The pacing of the story is too fast, many characters are introduced but never gets another mention, the concepts are glanced over and never discussed in depth. In episode five, Marx literally aged 20 years and they skipped over probably the most important parts of his life. Engels on the other hand has about couple minutes of screen time the entire show, considering he is equally as important as Marx, he did co-write the The Communist Manifesto for god sake, oops, sorry my bad, god doesn’t exist in communism.
If the purpose of the anime were to educate, I don’t think they should chicken out on the details. Literally everything that was said in the show have gone over my head.
Would I recommend this? It’s up to you and what you want out of this, watch it for a good laugh but don’t expect anything out of it, if you are even remotely interested in Marx, I presume you are intellectually enough to read some books and journal articles.
Enough shit from me, I will now educate myself by reading a free copy of The Communist Manifesto. Ride on my comrades, peace and out.
The Leader is a work with the ability to set any revolutionary's heart alight with pride. It is not often that these kinds of cartoons carry with them such weight, but this is no ordinary cartoon. It is a work designed to inspire a new generation of Marxists to carry forth the torch of Communism to a brighter tomorrow.
I was deeply impressed by the characterization of Marx and his comrades. This show is not just a picture of Marx, it is a mirror in which the audience can see themselves reflected in the actions of Marx and the revolutionaries of
the past. The Leader makes Marx more than just a face in a textbook, it makes him human.
Technically, the show is lacking in many aspects. The art is sub-par, with the transition between 2d and 3d being quite jarring at times. The sound design also leaves much to be desired. However, it would be improper to place as much weight on these aspects as the true meat of the story. This show needs neither impressive visuals nor immersive sound to draw the viewer in with its powerful message of revolution.
Overall, I was astounded by the degree to which this show moved me. As a show produced under the direction of the Communist Party of China, I was suspicious that it would dilute Marx's revolutionary character, but it seems even the revisionist CPC recognizes his great contributions to the world.
I understand that to one ideologically opposed to Marx, this show might be rejected on its basic premise. However, I believe that even a reactionary can be moved by this humanization of Marx. Too many people understand Marx only by "Marxism." They understand him only by the number of deaths that are falsely attributed to him. But to truly understand Marx the philosopher, one must understand Marx the revolutionary.
This January there was some strange news from China, the airing of a Karl Marx animated series usually called Karl Marx the anime, but actually titled The Leader. There was quite a bit of fuss on news sites and social media, but oddly once episodes started floating around the net it quickly disappeared. It doesn't seem to have gained much traction even in the circles that make image reactions and jokes.
I found a youtube channel that not only uploaded all seven episodes but had also fansubbed the Chinese dialogue into English and Russian. I watched the whole show, and I think I see why it
didn't last. Using the channel statistics as a guide, episode one has 100,000+ views, episode 2 though plummeted to 15,000 and the drop continued with the last episode getting around 7,000. There's a lot to untangle so I'm going to break it down a bit.
I wasn't expecting much going in, its a biopic of Karl Marx that's seven episodes long. Each episode is around 24 minutes long, but at least four of those minutes are dedicated to credit sequences and a preview of the next episode. I was expecting more of a brief timeline and introduction to his ideas and inspirations. This seems to be what they were aiming for and some episodes mostly live up to this but the rest fall quite short.
Bluntly the show is very incompetent, both in animation and story structure, it seems to have deliberately gone out of its way to show off how poorly made much of it is. There's no consistency, it switches between 3D and 2D animation styles arbitrarily, the models are extremely janky in movement and stick out from the backgrounds. They often look creepy especially when laughing.
The models are also recycled heavily, Marx doesn't appear to age or change his clothes much from age 17 until the 1850's when he starts to show the beginnings of a beard. His wife Jenny is usually seen wearing her wealthy noblewoman dress and her maid is wearing a sexy formal French maids outfit. The crowds are some of the laziest I've ever seen, a good chunk of multiple episodes are dedicated to Marx giving a speech, and we get reaction shots from the audience, but what's weird is that these audiences usually stay motionless until the speech is finished, and then they applaud robotically. Most do not even emote during, and many not in the front row despite being clearly visible often do not have faces.
This is not the worst example of lifeless crowds, this is only the first example. From the first episode, about two minutes in
It looks cheap and it's very jarring. Even the show opener highlights many of the worst features of the animation. But what's really strange is that the first episode is the cheapest looking one, every other episode while not perfect is an improvement. Now animations having spikes and drops in quality is nothing unusual, budgets of both time and money can affect production, but I've never known the opening episode to be the one that's the cheapest looking. I honestly had to pause the episode multiple times to process what I was looking at, it's not just that it looks bad, it often actively confuses.
I think the last episode looks the best, and it's much easier to follow, but that's mainly because aside from an epilogue it focusses mostly on Marx coming to terms with his age and ill health. The section with him and his wife Jenny was surprisingly quite emotional.
I was expecting this to be a brief introduction friendly to people who knew nothing of Karl Marx, and I think that was the intent, but it often falls short. I personally think it might be better to skip episodes 1 and 2 and start with 3, not only do the production values increase but not much is lost. Though later episodes do still have some pretty serious issues.
It presents the information in small chunks, but sometimes it does so in a way that only makes sense if you were already familiar with the topic at hand. The bits on Hegel and Kant are pretty blatant examples. Episode 2 covers the deep impression Hegel made on Marx, particularly the "Dialectic" but it doesn't explain what that is, and both philosophers and many others that pop up in the show are reduced to some very quick summaries that rely on terms that aren't in common usage.
Another time Marx is outlining his ideas on Historical Materialism, and his brief explanation is overlaid random scenes on a street in Brussels, but the connection between what he's saying and the imagery is not made clear.
Episode 5 the highpoint for me, is the best at this, it takes its time explaining some of the passages from Capital, and its framing works in the episode. It also has effective use of colorful imagery, the Vampire like a capitalist relationship. Other than that its main problem is its brief run time, big and important ideas and lessons are briefly mentioned and then everything has moved on.
This overlaps a lot with both education and looks, but I wanted to make this its own section for clarity sake. While focussed almost exclusively on Marx, -with one exception to be dealt with later- it does reference and introduces, often for less than a minute some of the other political radicals that Marx rubbed shoulders with. Including his criticism of them. with the exception of Ruge whose briefly mentioned before he appears everyone else Marx interacts with just turns up is introduced by a brief nameplate, cross swords with Marx and either immediately leaves to be banished forever, or like Engels sticks around to become his admirer.
Episode 4 takes this to the extreme. Wietling walks into the Marx home, is briefly introduced for his accomplishments, he then talks and moves incredibly smugly, talks about Christian communism for a bit and toasts himself before Marx speaks up. Every part of this scene, the dialogue, the character movements, facial emotions, etc. Is telling the audience to dislike him, but the argument between him and Marx is so quick and surface level its mostly just angry words. The only part of the disagreement that's clear between the two if you don't already know all about their ideas is that Wietling thinks workers allying with the bourgeoisie is a mistake because they are enemies, and Marx disagrees because of his views on history.
Who was right? Well, we're supposed to sympathize with Marx and Wietling literally storms out of his house never to be seen again so I guess that's a win for Marx*. The International Working Men's Association is depicted as being the soul fruit of the labor of Marx, and it largely accords with his views. The reality was that it was a diverse body full of people he couldn't stand and didn't fall under his direct control until 1872 when it promptly hemorrhaged members and collapsed.
In episode 6 there is a Marx/Bakunin standoff at the Hague Congress, Marx ridicules Bakunin as a conspirator, Bakunin has no allies, and he and his group are expelled. In reality Bakunin was never at the Hague Congress, Marx's motion to expel Bakunin failed, he was later expelled for questioning the new General Council, and when he left the majority of the membership also left, either to join him or like the other non-Marx non-Bakunin aligned groups like Blanqui's supporters simply to get away from the direction Marx was driving. The narration and the final episode don't acknowledge this at all, they give the impression that Marx's decision to prevent a split of the international, by well splitting the international was roaring success.
This episode (heh) demonstrates a key failing in The Leader. It's supposed to be biographical, but it won't tolerate even mild and universally accepted criticism of Marx as a political advocate or as a human being. Marx is apparently faultless when I saw they were including Helene Demuth the maid I wondered if they'd dare depict him getting her pregnant. They didn't, it'd probably get in the way of depicting his relationship with Jenny as a fairy tale romance. His well-known binge drinking is also absent, at one point he even criticizes other revolutionaries for drinking too much. His behavior with his enemies real and imagined is always depicted as noble and correct, but it can't go into detail about their opposing views and criticisms even to set up their defeat, so it all comes across as extremely shallow, which also makes Marx the character seem shallow and clueless. Marx never really convinces by the power of his argument, he just registers his dislike and the reactions of the characters do the hard work of presenting this as a victory to the audience.
Again this is tied in with all the other examples. A bizarre fault with the show is that it kept undermining what it was trying to achieve. An early scene in episode one that seems based on that famous scene from Good Will Hunting with the Bully is supposed to establish Karl Marx as a genius but it totally undermines itself. Marx does this by reciting a very simplified explanation of Kant's views on dogmatism and skepticism, which shouldn't be a problem, but this is shown to stump all the other students, and more importantly, the scene immediately before that was Karl Marx in a classroom listening to his teacher tell him this. So we're supposed to be impressed by his ability to remember basic information told to him three hours earlier.
Another example in episode 3 and 4 they address the poverty of the Marx family, but each time this done while the maid and his wife are onscreen in there expensive clothing, because they were too cheap to update their models. Shortly after criticizing Wietling, Marx starts ripping into Kriege's ideas on universal love, specifically the absurd notion that capitalists and lenders can be reached by appeals to their better nature. He's saying all of this to his good friend and dependable comrade Friedrich Engels, whom the show has established is a factory manager and was moved to become a Communist because witnessing the plight of the working poor appealed to his better nature.
Lest you feel I'm being a bit hard, I personally agree with the criticism of Kriege, it's just that The Leader is just giving out mixed signals in its incompetence.
Last but not least, there's the case of Pierre Proudhon. Engels gives Marx a copy of his Proudhon's new book Philosophy of Poverty. While Marx is holding the book unopened, two random people start throwing out snippets of Proudhon's beliefs. At which point Marx still holding the unopened book starts ranting about Proudhon's "Petits-bourgeois" socialism and declares he will write a criticism called Poverty of Philosophy. It was at this point that I wasn't sure whether some of the instances of self-sabotage were deliberate or not, Marx did write Poverty of Philosophy as an attack on Proudhon, and for many years it was considered a masterpiece in Marxist criticism.
Until people started reading Proudhon's book, where it was discovered that many of Marx's criticisms were incredibly inaccurate if not made up.
AKA, the reason this was really made. The Leader isn't really supposed to be an educational text, its made to capitalize on Karl Marx and use his legacy to legitimize the Chinese Communist Party. The CPC fully supported the creation of The Leader, particularly the Propaganda Department of the Communist Youth League and the Central Office for the Research and Construction of Marxist Theory were involved.
It was made and released just before the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx's death, and the first speech Karl Marx gives on the show “Reflections of a Young Man on the Choice of a Profession” was also chosen as an extract for Xi Jinping's speech commemorating the 200th anniversary.
“If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually be at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.”
Even the titles for the episodes sound like they were taken from propaganda posters
1. Different Youth
2. Defending the Rights of the People
3. New World View
4. Scientific Socialism Shines Brightly
5. Great Work Das Kapital
6. First International
7. Marx Forever
The name of the series The Leader isn't exactly subtle. But in case you didn't get it the last part of the final episode really drives it home. The ending credits are a timeline of key events in Marx's life, except for episode seven. In that episode, the timeline is replaced with a history of Marxism-Leninism, through to the present day in the People's Republic. Complete with a narrator praising Mao Zedong, then Deng Xiaoping then the Three Represents and then finally Xi Jinping.
Xi Jinping's new era of socialism with Chinese Characteristics together will bring the people forward into a new era for China
The intention is, of course, is crystal clear, Karl Marx is the indisputable leader of Communism, and the CPC is the heir to Communism, and so it is the heir to Karl Marx.
There is some attempt to justify this posture though, in an early episode Marx is absolutely indignant at the oppression of peasantry by the landlord class, and the Paris Commune is criticized for not having strong central leadership. Also, Marx did briefly talk about the importance of theory adapting it to historical conditions and reality. Which the narrator echoes at the end by claiming that Maoism through to Xi is just the Sinification of Marxism.
I also think though this is speculation that the propaganda potential of the series is the explanation for its poor production values, especially in earlier episodes. The series premiered on the 28th of January, with an episode a week, meaning it ended roughly around the anniversary date. If the decision to make the series had come late, with the anniversary being the hard deadline it must reach, then that would explain why the earlier episodes are the worst with the most obvious time and cost-cutting. The later episodes which look much better would have had more time available to work on. But even in the last episodes, there are obvious signs of short cuts in some sequences.
I think The Leader is doomed to be a curiosity unless the CPC believes it was successful at propagandizing to the youth of China I can't see this experiment being repeated. Its a shame but I don't recommend it, it's not without its charms, but the combination of animation issues, shallow information, and propaganda distortions -and there were many more examples I could have listed- leave this as something best avoided.
Which is a shame, as I don't believe the idea of an animated series is without merit, the Manga adaptation of Capital was largely a success, the films Young Karl Marx and the West German film about Rosa Luxemburg were very informative and interesting to watch, and historical drama is becoming increasingly common and more refined. If the CPC didn't cobble this together to meet its targets and it was allowed artistic freedom it could've been something great. For all its faults the final episode was quite good so the people doing the actual work of making the production seem to have been capable of doing good work.
* Incidentally this same episode covers the revolutions of 1848, during which time many of Europe's bourgeoisie eventually allied with their despotic aristocracy to destroy the more radical workers and student revolutionaries. So it seems like Wietling was largely correct on that point but this is never addressed.