The Fascinating and Problematic Setting of The Combat Baker and Automaton Waitress
I mentioned in my The Ryuo’s Work is Never Done! blog post that I liked Bookwalker Global’s other exclusive light novel release: The Combat Baker and Automaton Waitress. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading volume 2, I figure I should write a post explaining why I like it.
Put simply, I’m a fan of the setting of The Combat Baker. It is a postwar story about a former soldier who takes on a mundane-sounding job in a fantasy European setting. I guess in that broad sense it is like Violet Evergarden, although the tone of the story is very, very different. The Combat Baker also puts a heavy focus on the political backdrop of its postwar setting, as well as how that affects people in a rural town. I quickly found myself sucked into this world that SOW had created.
As cute and fluffy as the cover images make it look, there are some disquieting elements to the setting of The Combat Baker beneath the surface. Thanks to the presence of fantasy technology, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact time period it’s based off, but the general “mood” of the story makes me think it’s around World War I. The victor of this fictional war is a country named Wiltia, whose citizens have Germanic names and whose physical appearances are defined by their blonde hair and blue eyes.
So, obviously, fantasy Germany won the war and annexed an entire continent.
I wasn’t too bothered by this scenario for a few reasons. Firstly, this appears to be a post-World War I setting, or at least there’s no Nazi-coded imagery or anything. Secondly, Wiltia as a nation-state is not portrayed in a positive light. People have justifiable reasons to be angry at Wiltia’s war atrocities and colonialism. This is represented through the sympathetic character of Milly.
However, I did raise a few eyebrows when I read the bonus short story that came with volume 2, which mostly concerned itself with The Combat Baker’s analogue for Japan.
The presence of Not-Japan in this Not-European setting did not come out of nowhere. Japanese bread and martial arts were mentioned in volume 1 as exotic things that came from “the East”. The volume 2 bonus story, however, amps up the self-Orientalism considerably.
Not-Japan is described as follows:
Up until half a century ago, this nation didn’t even trade with the rest of the world, but after opening itself up, it immediately modernized with tremendous vigor, and was able to battle on equal footing with the nations of Europea.
This is obviously referring to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (and since this happened approximately fifty years ago in the story’s timeline, the World War I setting checks out). The reference to battling “on equal footing with the nations of Europea” probably refers to the Russo-Japanese war. Japanese war propaganda from this time makes out that Japan fought on equal footing with a European nation, but the European powers did not see Japan the same way. This story, which is told through a European character’s point of view, just repeats Japanese propaganda, but whatever. It’s evident that Not-Japan was a more globally significant power than the historical Japan at this time.
As in the real world, Not-Japan then sided against Not-Germany in World War I. Here, The Combat Baker indulges in some more propaganda, this time a lot more blatantly:
. . . It appeared that the people of this country had an unusual cultural custom, whereby they were forbidden from humiliating their prisoners.
Instead they treated them with as much good will as possible, almost as if they were guests rather than prisoners of war.
Erm, yeah, what to say to that?
It probably goes without saying that this was not true of… well, any country ever.
It is also worth noting that the historical Japan had already annexed Korea by the time World War I had started. So even if Japan hadn’t committed their well-documented World War II atrocities by this time, they were already an imperialist nation. Their hands were not clean.
Getting back to the fictional world of The Combat Baker, as a result of their “cultural custom”, Not-Japan decided to become an official ally of Not-Germany, quite contrary to the complicated circumstances that caused this to happen in history.
My overall impression was that this is alternate history of a kind even goofier than the magic mecha AIs that already existed in this story.
It is a good thing that all of this stuff about Not-Japan was just contained in a bonus story and wasn’t baked (lol) into the narrative proper. It makes it easier to ignore. I like The Combat Baker better when it doesn’t try to draw any direct historical parallels. It is a fun novel series because it has several layers of unreality and only tries to capture the general vibe of World War I.
However, I also cannot deny that I am more curious about The Combat Baker than ever, if only because I am mildly surprised that the author would go out of his way to say those things about Japan in a story that’s not about Japan at all.
I hope my post doesn’t discourage anyone from trying out this series, because it really is a charming story that generally handles its postwar themes well. Just avoid the bonus story that comes with volume 2 because it doesn’t add anything to the series at all.
Addendum: “Shylock and The Jewish Question” in Volume 3
Volume 3 has a Jewish-coded character named Shylock who is portrayed as an evil greedy merchant. This is obviously problematic, although I would consider it “lazy writing” rather than “fascinating”.
Yes, it’s pretty much a direct homage to the iconic character from the Shakespeare play The Merchant of Venice. This is the kind of thing that few Japanese readers have commented on, but will stick out like a sore thumb to a Western reader.
One thing I’d like to note is that The Combat Baker follows modern interpretations of The Merchant of Venice, which cast Shylock as a sympathetic villain rather than the stereotypical anti-semitic figure that he has historically been perceived as. Perhaps SOW has read Martin D. Yaffe’s Shylock and the Jewish Question, or at least he is aware of the reading of The Merchant of Venice that Shakespeare was criticising the anti-semitism in his own society. The Combat Baker spends time establishing that the Not-Jews are an oppressed minority, and turns Shylock’s arc into more of a “war makes demons out of all of us” sort of message rather than a racially targeted diatribe.
I’m personally of the opinion that Shylock’s cultural legacy has done more harm than good; whatever nuance Shakespeare may have intended with his portrayal was certainly not injected into performances of the play before or during the Holocaust. But your opinion on Shylock’s character in The Combat Baker will likely depend on how you feel about The Merchant of Venice itself, and there’s no simple answer to “the Jewish question”.
Disconnected from Shakespeare’s Shylock and all of his cultural baggage, I think that The Combat Baker’s depiction of an angry oppressed minority is in line with the rest of the series. I am irked by the laziness of the homage more than anything.