With frank discussions of war, death and destruction, this piece isn’t an easy read, and may upset some readers.

In the first instalment of this series, we explored the origins of anime as a propaganda tool in Japan’s war effort, specifically around the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941. The focus of this follow-up will instead be on the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the effect they have had on anime as creators and individuals alike try to make sense of and rationalise the tragedy through art.

The Japanese identity was so thoroughly altered after the bombings, it needed to re-contextualise its relationship to itself. This takes place in art, with imagery the vehicle rather than language. Survivors of the holocaust, for example, claimed that the atrocity represented the death of language, that words failed to convey the horror. Art is far better equipped to process this level of trauma, both as a cultural coping mechanism, and as a means of allowing outsiders a framework to understand and empathise.

Allegory offers a potent tool to explore an event or idea from a safe space, and to reclaim some sense of identity. Although J.R.R. Tolkien, perhaps the most famous English writer of his generation, bemoaned the use of allegory, it allows for marginalised, traumatised or otherwise affected peoples or individuals a means to better understand and resolve their issues. While this literary device is hardly the preserve of the Japanese alone, it is prevalent in many of their narratives which deal with – or allude to – national traumas. As mentioned in our previous instalment, the most recent example is the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the presence of which could be felt throughout the second half of Makoto Shinkai’s Your name.

Anime’s definitive war film, Grave of the Fireflies

The events of World War II and its aftermath more commonly manifest as allegory in anime, perhaps as a means of re-contextualising its own part in the war, painting its protagonists as the ‘good guys’. Following the signing of the Tripartite Pact in 1940, the combined forces of Germany, Italy and Japan were named the Axis powers. This isn’t to say Japan is glossing over its part, but perhaps still coming to terms with it on a subconscious societal level. Or it might be that by using alternative history and more fantastical settings, anime makers can explore this period without worrying about the roles of their forebears. In any case, this is a fertile subgenre, especially of late, with Pumpkin Scissors, Zipang, The Sky Crawlers and Izetta: The Last Witch all from the last fifteen years alone.

Japan’s contemporary age was calcified in nuclear fire, with the Allied forces’ twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August 1945 respectively. Much like the events of 9/11 in the US, every Japanese native was affected in one way or another by the bombings. For example, 70,000 people were immediately killed in the impact of Hiroshima, with as many more dead from radiation by the end of the year. This shared trauma will inevitably manifest in art, through a purposeful channelling or a subconscious purging of grief, with Neon Genesis Evangelion, Akira and anime’s definitive wartime story, Grave of the Fireflies, all in conversation with the same trauma, though in startlingly different ways.

Although allegory and allusion offer artists new language to deal with pain and trauma, some of the finest works in this field are those that deal directly with the bombings, the war or both. For 1991’s Ushiro no Shoumen Daare (or What’s Left Behind as it is known in English), the theme is the death of innocence.

Based on the autobiography of Kayoko Ebina, it tells the story of a young girl in 1940, content to sing and play with her friends, happy in her family life and looking forward to being a big sister. Through flashforwards, we see the encroaching warfare and the impact it is having on Kayoko’s family and the lives of those around her. At first, being drawn into the war effort is fun, a game, as she and her friends sing martial songs in school, or she donates her plastic dolly to help make explosives, all detached from reality. Later, she is sent to the country, fleeing the American bombing of her city. From there, she can see the light of Tokyo, a beacon in the night offering her hope and some semblance of safety, until the lights dim and the city is fire-bombed by American forces.

Kayoko searches for signs of her family

As the war ends, Kayoko returns to what remains of her neighbourhood a different girl. The landscape is bleached and barren, buildings either levelled or sinking into themselves, and telegraph poles poke up like stripped bare trees. Kayoko wanders through the destruction, the air echoing whispers of the dead around her, and the sky a purple bruise with the sun an orange smudge. She stares, eyes wide in disbelief, near unable to comprehend what she sees and we, the viewer, are privy to a more intimate death – the death of innocence. Kayoko stands for all children as she takes in the landscape, looking for her own home. She finds kanji carved in a step, marking out this ruined building as her own. There she finds a container half buried in the dirt and ash, and shouts for her family, finding then a pair of chopsticks, an abandoned bowl. She finally falls to her knees, hands clutched to crying eyes, alone in the deathly landscape.

And then a moment of beauty, imagining her dead family, floating down to the damaged earth. Kayoko can bid them goodbye as they ascend back up into the sky as the sunlight breaks through and the lingering images are not of suffering or loss, but of hope.

Like Ushiro no Shoumen Daare, Barefoot Gen tells the story of the war from a child’s perspective, with the original autobiographical manga penned by Keiji Nakazawa who was just six years old during the bombing of Hiroshima, the same explosion that claimed the lives of his family. He later dug what remained of them from the ruins of their home. Though the 1983 anime adaptation condenses and cuts the manga, it manages to convey the same story, showing the bomb and its aftereffects through its young narrator’s eyes. Its animation style may be at odds with modern viewers, but one thing that can be agreed upon is its raw power. It doesn’t shy away from displaying the effects of radiation sickness, or taking an unflinching look at the atomic explosion itself. We see the inside of Enola Gay as the bomber flies over the city and the order comes through: “Release the bomb”.

Burning death in Hiroshima

A whistle as the bomb descends. Silence. And the explosion. The clock face reads 8:15. Bodies mutate and disperse, vaporised as the impact spreads. A mother crumbling into ash throws her failing body onto what’s left of her baby. The buildings quake and fall. People are pierced by glass and buried under rubble. The mushroom cloud is animated with power and clarity. Japanese identity is burned from the earth, and in fire the Showa era is ended.

In 1979, Barefoot Gen became the first fully independent manga series translated and published in English. It has since become a critical keystone of literature and wartime history, but proved controversial in its native Japan. The narrative was all but shunned by mainstream publications when it first appeared in the early seventies, with its author left an outsider. In this modern Japan, the bombings were a spectre seen but never spoken of. But an undeterred Nakazawa has spent his career exploring and making sense of his wartime experiences through the art of manga and animation. It’s interesting to note that he places the blame for the horrors of Hiroshima less on the American forces than the Japanese military, whom he said started the war.

In 2016, one of anime’s most successful years at the world box office to date, Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World depicted the life of a young woman in the lead-up to the war, its apotheosis and Japan’s eventual defeat. Rather than focus on the political intricacies of the conflict, it instead centred on the people caught in the middle.

As with Ushiro no Shoumen Daare, In This Corner of the World follows a carefree girl, Suzu, whose forgetfulness and detachment from reality is a constant target of teasing. The movie, although based on true events, is a work of fiction. The original manga was penned by Fumiyo Kouno who, born in 1968, had never lived through the events she depicted. This was subsequent generations dealing with the trauma of their elders.

Making sense of suffering through art

Filling in the gaps in her memory, Suzu turns to pencil and paper, where she doodles her own narrative based on what she sees around her. In 1945, Suzu, aged 18, is swept off her feet by a suitor and moves from her Hiroshima City home to the nearby naval port of Kure City. Anyone familiar with Japanese history will know this was where the iconic Yamoto spent much of 1943-44, until it was sunk. Looking down over the port, the sight of the battleship filled Suzu with a wonder soon punctured by bullets and fire.

During an early air raid on the port, Suzu watches the American planes criss-cross the skies, the distant clouds of smoke and shrapnel. She sees the panorama as paper or canvas, the explosions ink spots or coloured brushstrokes. Earlier she’s accosted by military police for drawing the port and its ships with accusations of espionage. Some time after, she’s caught in the explosion of a bomb, in which she loses her right hand and the life of her young niece. This moment in the film is a departure from the animation we’ve grown used to. It is a breakdown of art, as its usual rendering isn’t equipped to process or convey this tragedy. Instead, the screen is smudged black with flickering chalk drawings scattering inconsequential events with the moment the bomb explodes over and over, connecting this war-torn Japan with Suzu’s own past of scrawling on pavements. As she later reflects and mourns the loss of her hand, the room is rendered in wonky lines and blemishes, as if drawn by her left hand.

Suzu breaking down

Of course, set in and around Hiroshima, the audience knows the outcome, and so we wait for the inevitable. From fifteen miles away, the bomb is but a flash, with the colour draining from the screen for a moment, a scene so different from Suzu’s bright childlike painting of an ocean of white rabbits. A few seconds of rumbling follows. In the days after, artefacts and objects fall from the sky, carried from Hiroshima by the explosion. The family discuss the bomb in simple terms, a little detached from reality themselves. There are no words, and the radio heralds the end of the war.

A Suzu more like her younger self visits the bombsite and what remains of the city with the full knowledge of her family’s death, save for her sister who is slowly succumbing to radiation sickness. A feeble child leaves the rotting body of her mother and finds Suzu who takes the girl home, seeking forgiveness, perhaps, for the loss of her niece. The film ends with the families of Kure letting their homes fill with light without fear of air raids. The war is over. The country can heal. But the presence of this film alone shows that old wounds are still a source of pain.

In the final instalment, we’ll look at the post-war generation both at narratives from the sixties and seventies and modern series that explore that period.


Notes and references

For Ushiro no Shoumen Daare, I was working with plot synopses and the un-subbed Japanese audio of the movie, so if there’s any plot errors, let me know in the comments.

A short but fascinating piece on Barefoot Gen over at The Geek Show provided some key background and contextual information.

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