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.
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.