Art plays a pivotal role in the healing process in the wake of national disaster, channelling a country’s collective grief and creating something from the calamity. Director Makoto Shinkai said the success of Your Name is due in part to the natural disaster at the centre of its narrative, chiming with a country still processing the fallout of its most powerful earthquake, the tsunami it triggered, and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The film tentatively tries to make some sort of narrative sense of the disaster. Working in Tokyo at the time, Shinkai was forced to evacuate. According to The Ecologist, 2,000 people died from evacuating radiation exposure, with another 5,000 predicted to die from cancer. In the following years, a number of suicides have been attributed to the event, and only now is Japan beginning to process what happened through art.
Speaking to The Guardian, Shinkai said:
“People still have huge regret about 2011. Everybody was praying for everyone. It affected all of us, including me. So I really wanted to create something like a miracle. OK, it might be a fiction, it might be a lie, but we still want to have hope. That’s what I was thinking when I was making this film.”
Art, as both a reflection of the real and its abstract, plays a pivotal role in dealing with tragedy. On a personal level, it can help an individual work out their trauma, but on a national scale, it allows a country to heal its cultural wounds. This shared meditation is almost unspoken, automatic in the way a trauma takes on life and potency through media, providing catharsis for creators and for those that interact with it. Anime is no different, as it takes small steps towards exploring Fukushima in how it does (and doesn’t) approach Japan’s role in World War II.
Without declaration or provocation, Japanese forces attacked the US Pacific fleet moored at Pearl Harbour on Sunday 7th December 1941. The sky was filled with some 353 Japanese bombers, fighters and torpedo planes. While Japanese casualties numbered 100, the losses to the American forces were substantial, with more than 2,400 killed and another 1,200 injured.
The devastation is attributed to its complete surprise in the face of failure by US military intelligence. The US had previously deciphered Japanese radio codes, though in the case of Pearl Harbour, the raw data hadn’t been interpreted correctly. The root of the attack stemmed from heated rivalry between the two nations in the Pacific. Japan had made its intent clear as early as 1931 when it invaded Manchuria, strategically located in Northeast Asia. Tensions grew when Japan left the League of Nations in 1933 and deployed aggressive foreign policy in a bid to create the ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’ – an empire the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the European models of the 19th century.
Japan was now seen as a serious antagonistic power to the respective US and European forces in Asia. By 1937, with Japan engaged in all-out war with China, US President Theodore Roosevelt imposed economic sanctions on Japan who turned instead to Axis powers, and signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940.
The Japanese spent a year rehearsing the Pearl Harbour attack, practicing with a model until they achieved an 80 per cent hit rate. After hearing news of its success, Hitler is quoted as saying: “Now we can’t lose the war! We have an ally that has not been defeated in 3,000 years of history”.
Art and entertainment is a means of dealing with disaster, but this assumes art is only a reflection, not provocation. Art itself can be a weapon, and WWII proves the potency of using media for subversion, recruitment and to discredit the opposition. Both the Axis and Allied forces utilised propaganda throughout the war effort, in obvious campaigns and more insidious examples. One need only look to the first issue of Captain America from March 1941 with Steve Rogers giving Hitler his best right hook. Or the infamous Looney Tunes short ‘Tokio Jokio’ from 1943, which crucially aired after the Pearl Harbour attack when racial tensions were reaching boiling point. Japan was no exception, and deployed its own propaganda.
By 1942, Japan’s film industry was operating under state control. Spurred on by the growing popularity of animation, the country’s Imperial Navy endorsed the Geijutsu Eigasha-produced Momotaro no Umiwashi (or Momotaro’s Sea Eagles). It’s believed to have been the longest and most expensive example of Japanese animation at the time, though its 1944 successor Momotaro: Umi no shinpei (Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors) is credited with being the industry’s first full feature-length film.
Momotaro no Umiwashi was distributed only three months following the Pearl Harbour attack, and followed folkloric hero Momataro the Peach Boy as he leads his gaggle of animal companions on a bombing raid to Onigashima (or Devil’s Island). The “demons” were thinly veiled caricatures of British and American forces – cowardly, gluttonous and white. But the animation did away with innuendo and euphemism by using actual footage from the attack.
Just as the Allied forces would lampoon and discredit Hitler, Mussolini and Japan’s own Emperor Hirohito, as well as Nazi and Japanese soldiers, throughout their propaganda films, so too did Momotaro no Umiwashi. It was one of a handful of Axis examples to subvert American iconography in such a way, using Popeye’s Bluto appearing drunk as a slur on American values.
Japan’s President Shinzo Abe was the country’s first leader to visit Pearl Harbour, marking 75 years since the attack by paying tribute to the fallen during a visit in 2016. Abe’s announcement came six months after Barack Obama became the first sitting American President to visit Hiroshima, where the US atomic bombing of the city heralded the end of the conflict.
But for Japan, it was the start of a long cultural mourning, a baptism by fire that the nation is still trying to makes sense of through its art, with some of the most overt and oblique examples being anime. In the next installment, the focus is on how the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima have resonated through decades of anime, and what effect they’re still having today.