One of fiction’s most enduring appeals is the possibility of representation it offers.

There is this hope that you – the consumer of fiction – will get to see yourself in a story. This idea that your desires, frustrations and experiences will be reflected back at you. And not just your individual experiences, but also things that you consider a part of your identity – culture, language, nation, religion, and so much more. This desire is intrinsically human. Hence, entire industries are devoted to the craft of story-telling through various forms such as novel, comics, television and film.

Pakistanis are no different either. They too desire to be seen, represented and reflected in stories they consume, and in a way that aligns with how they perceive themselves. And not just to be seen in their own stories and on their own screens, but also globally. There is this implicit understanding that while your own stories matter, what others tell about you is also important and has tangible consequences.

Your perception abroad can significantly alter how the world treats you. How your story is told can make you either seem like a citizen of a pariah state or of a respectable country. Thus, many Pakistanis have felt deeply slighted whenever their country, culture and customs have been treated unfairly by foreign media or even media from across the border.

Pakistanis feature in global screens largely through the prism of a few limiting themes – terrorism, militancy, backwardness, poverty – that do not capture the rich cultural and social fabric of the country. It is in this context that I look at Yugo the Negotiator, possibly the first and only international anime set in Pakistan.

Credit: Screengrab/Youtube

Yugo started off as a manga in 1994, written and illustrated by a duo from Japan. It was published by Kodansha, the largest manga producer in Japan, in its monthly Afternoon anthology. Yugo was envisioned as a seinen story – manga directed at adults aged above 18. The first run of the series lasted from 1994-2004 after which it was moved to another anthology where it ran till 2015.

At the end of the first run, Yugo’s rights were bought by a smaller animation studio in Tokyo which adapted it into an animated series, Yugo the Negotiator. The studio hired an up-and-coming director and screenwriter to adapt the first arc of the manga, which was set in Pakistan. This arc lasted six episodes. The rights then passed on to another studio which adapted the manga’s Russia arc.

The premise for Yugo is this: our protagonist Yugo Beppo works as a hostage negotiator for different clients and uses his skill set to rescue hostages. The stage for the story is set when a Japanese trader working in Pakistan gets kidnapped in Sindh by anti-government dacoits. The trader’s initial release fails because the Pakistani military intervenes in the negotiations and consequently puts the dacoits on edge. The wary dacoit leader refuses to return the hostage until all his demands are met.

At this point, the trader’s daughter contacts Yugo in Tokyo and asks him to negotiate for his father. Yugo agrees but with the added condition that this will be done covertly and without attracting the Pakistani military’s attention. Thus, the main story begins as Yugo arrives in Pakistan.

Credit: Screengrab/YouTube

The show never achieved a high level of popularity in its time. First, the show’s entire premise was unique. In an era where energetic action animes were the norm, this was a story where the protagonist saved lives through what basically amounted to talking. Second, Yugo was a seinen story decidedly targeted at adults and, therefore, was firmly committed to a gradual thematic exploration of the narrative instead of fast-plotting. Third, Yugo was set in a country that most anime fans had no interest in or knowledge of. The fact that this anime even got made is an achievement in itself.

So, how exactly does Yugo perceive Pakistan? The answer is complicated. In some ways, it follows a Hollywood template for Pakistani representation. Yugo applies certain stereotypes to the country as it highlights militancy, faith, unequal gender relations and power politics. It also doesn’t make any attempt to clarify that Pakistan is a distinct place from the Middle East with a different language – some anime critics actually praised it for showing life in the Middle East.

However, where other stories often just stop at stereotypes, Yugo goes further. In this series, Pakistan is not an exotic and dangerous land full of tyrannical terrorist warlords, but a real country where human beings live and breathe. Yugo’s different approach to Pakistan is highly visible in how it presents Pakistani characters and how it perceives different forces at play in the country.

The main antagonist is Yusuf Ali Mesa, the chief of dacoits based in the Kirthar mountains. Mesa is a tall, imposing man who has spent years taking down his rivals and establishing himself as the main bandit leader. With jihadist undertones and vague allusions to militancy, it was easy to make a character like him one-dimensional. His initial introduction too reeks of stereotyping.

Haji Rahmani. Credit: Screengrab/YouTube
Yusuf Ali Mesa. Credit: Screengrab/YouTube

Somehow though, over the course of the next few episodes, Yugo avoids this pitfall and what we get instead is a complex characterisation of Mesa. He is a man who is not just a dacoit, but also a rebel with genuine reservations and views against the military and current government. His character motivation is rooted in two things: the protection of his people and a strong code for honour – as he defines it. Mesa admires heroism in people and despises cowardice. His interactions with Yugo are compelling because both men have a strong inner core and contrasting worldviews.

Then there is Haji Rahmani, a former dacoit-turned-imam and Yugo’s main ally. He is Mesa’s fallen rival who has spent years carrying the pain of dishonour. Now, he seeks to restore it by aiding Yugo in finding Mesa. The show writers particularly succeed with this character by making his redemption one of the driving forces in the narrative.

The story also introduces other interesting characters. One is Rahmani’s observant and sharp-minded son, Ahmad, and the other is Rashid, the well-informed but anxious journalist friend of Yugo’s. Then there is Colonel Shadle, a ruthless military official who doesn’t seems too concerned with the hostage’s life. However, the anime gives depth to the character by showing us his perspective and highlighting how the military understands the dacoit threat.

The animated landscape of Pakistan shows a reasonable level of detail. The first two episodes are set in Karachi, where there is a distinct style visible in the form of art-laden trucks, horn-blazing cars, tight bazaar gullies, graffiti, eateries and shouting street vendors. There are constant sounds of the city buzzing with voices of children, azan, motorbikes and random background conversations.

Of course, the anime still doesn’t capture the complete pulse of Karachi, but the place never feels like the desolated wasteland that Hollywood movies imagine Pakistani cities to be. This may have something to do with the medium itself where the animators have to actually study the images of a city to draw it.

Karachi is a living, breathing city in the series. Credit: Screengrab/YouTube
Credit: Screengrab/YouTube

Whereas the troublesome Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the usual go-to spot for most films/scenes set in Pakistan, here the rest of the story takes place in Kirthar, Sindh. The show’s rendition of barren and scorching mountain ranges is very fine too. The creators seemed to have clearly put a lot of thought, and a dash of imagination, into how the lives of dacoits would be like. Far from being a set of native goons holed up in a mountain, the dacoits feature as a very human community with their own set of beliefs, fears and superstitions – something which Yugo recognises and makes good use of.

Character designs in the anime follow the same pattern. There is a good bit of detail present in how Pakistani characters are drawn. Of course, historically speaking, anime as a medium has had a distinct way of drawing Indian characters with brown skin and slightly hardened faces. Yugo uses the same template for Pakistani characters. More importantly, every Pakistani character has a different face and no-one has been caricatured as an evil-looking native.

Yugo’s approach to faith is fascinating. The anime presents many characters as strong believers and yet, refuses to make belief their entire personality. Faith is given more thought by the story-tellers here: it is this raw force that helps characters make sense of things and to find their way in this world.

There is a lengthy philosophical conversation in the first episode between Yugo and a Japanese professor where they suggest that historically, the strength of faith is often felt by oppressed people as a mechanism for resistance against the powerful. This oppressed/oppressor allusion repeatedly pops up as we get to see the fragile balance between the military and the dacoits.

Given that this anime is most likely set in the Musharraf era, the story also does a good job at contextualising Pakistan’s domestic situation and the hold that the military had on the country. The political situation is always in the background, but it has significant implications for all characters involved. Fortunately, the story makes it clear that the show’s entire conflict is domestic and firmly situated in a local context. There is no global terrorist conspiracy at play and no global powers vying for power.

Even Yugo, the story’s protagonist, is not shoehorned into the story as its big saviour, something that Hollywood movies love to do with their White heroes. There is not a single scene in the entire Pakistan arc where Yugo goes on an Indiana Jones-type killing spree against the native villains.

The series had to imagine Dacoit life. Credit: Screengrab/YouTube
Credit: Screengrab/YouTube

Unfortunately, there is one major flaw in the series. Even though the whole plot kickstarts with a woman’s plea and there is lots of talk about women’s honour and protection, Yugo seems to follow an exclusively male narrative. The only female Pakistani character featured in the story is Laila, a dancing woman Yugo and Ahmad rescue from her captors.

Laila’s character is where the story lags the most. In a show which seems to gradually break down typical perceptions of Pakistan, Laila is stereotypically featured as a damsel in distress who gets attached to her liberator, Yugo. On the other hand, and this is to the credit of the show-makers, she definitely gains more agency as the story progresses and ends up being integral to Yugo’s attempts in rescuing the hostage. Moreover, she makes deliberate choices in the story that go against what her male companion asks her to do. This is still not enough, though. The series needed to do a lot better with regards to its female characters.

Despite this major flaw, Yugo is not a bad show by any means. By industry standards, it was considered a good-ish anime, with a decent storyline and above-average visuals. Although, as far as the representation of Pakistan goes, it is superior to what most of Hollywood and Bollywood attempts have to offer.

While the show still imagines Pakistan with the same basic tropes, it affords respect to the country and its people. This is a story as much about Pakistanis as it is about Yugo and his efforts to rescue his compatriot. Interestingly, the anime’s second arc, set in Russia, was heavily criticised for its poor research and contrasted with the Pakistan arc, which was considered a genuinely good attempt.

Of course, better representation will have to wait for a while. Yugo couldn’t have possibly diverged a lot from the global perspective on Pakistan, especially back in 2004. Nonetheless, the show offers a chance to see Pakistan in a slightly different, but not-so-different, form. More importantly, as a Pakistani, you might feel some level of satisfaction in watching your country being portrayed and animated in one of the most popular story mediums of the world.

Maybe one day we’ll create an anime of our own and represent our country and its people in whatever way we desire. But that’s a faraway dream. Till then, we’ll have to make do with what we have.

Hamza Sarfraz is a social researcher interested in speculative fiction, animation, history and the power stories hold in our real life.

This article first appeared on Dawn.