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The post-war kids: anime after annihilation

1952 was a key year in Japan’s cultural identity, marking the end of the American occupation and the publication of the first chapter of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. With the titular character’s spiky hair and big stylised eyes, the anime aesthetic had arrived, and by 1959, the series was enjoying the first of many animated adaptions. It’s fitting that a series that imagined a futuristic society where man and machine coexist would be the launchpad for Japan’s anime and manga industry. It’s easy to forget that at the time, Japan wasn’t a nation famed for its leading science, technology and consumer goods. This was instead the emergence of a new identity after the defeat and occupation by a foreign power.

Following its surrender in 1945, the US led the Allies in the occupation of Japan, and during a seven-year period, instigated military, political, economic and social reforms that fundamentally changed the fabric of Japanese culture and society. Centres of political power in Japan had become increasingly westernised since the mid-1800s but now the modern age was thrust upon the country, whether they wanted it or not. During this period, all criticisms of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were prohibited, and so art, literature and cinema become important cultural outlets for national trauma. This attitude continued after the end of the occupation and, generations later, helped nurture increasingly abstract and allegorical explorations of the effects of nuclear war.

In the previous instalment of this series, I explored some of the most important autobiographical manga produced by people who witnessed first-hand the devastation and aftereffects of the bombings. These were personal accounts that gave voice to an entire nation’s grief and trauma and helped aid the healing process. Like Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka, Hayao Miyazaki witnessed the bombings as a child and rather than utilising autobiography to make sense of those events, he instead used fantastical plots and settings. Of all his films, it’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind from 1984 which most overtly confronts the dark events of his childhood. The film, based on his own manga, is set in a post-apocalyptic land populated by radioactive mutants and very early on it’s stated that this unnatural mutated state occurred as a direct result of mankind’s misuse of nuclear technology.

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Surviving in a new world in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

In Nausicaa, Miyazaki can quite pointedly be said to abhor the use of the bombs in what can be interpreted as anti-war sentiment. It’s interesting to compare the film with The Wind Rises thirty years later. Released in 2014, Miyazaki’s supposed “last film” painted a sympathetic portrait of Jiro Horikoshi who used his impressive engineering skills to design the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane that Japan utilised in Pearl Harbour among myriad other assaults (more about that attack can be found in the first instalment of this series). The film focussed on his hard work, dedication and passion, eulogising Horikoshi’s life at the extent of exonerating his role in WWII. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it stirred up controversy in the US and sparked new claims that Japan refused to acknowledge its role in the atrocities committed during the war.

However, it should be noted that Miyazaki has spoken out on numerous occasions about the nation’s imperialist past. The film’s subject matter and Miyazaki’s complex relationship to it remains part of a long cultural healing process. Speaking to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper at the time, Miyazaki said: “Including myself, a generation of Japanese men who grew up during a certain period have very complex feelings about World War II, and the Zero symbolizes our collective psyche.”

But what of the generations of creators that came later? Many of the most influential figures working in anime and manga during the eighties, nineties and noughties were born during the sixties, a transitional period in Japanese history. These were creators that embraced post-modernism and pushed the boundaries to explore, among other things, the spectre of nuclear war. In 1982, almost forty years after the bombings, Katsuhiro Otomo released the first manga in his magnum opus, Akira, which depicted a dystopian future for Japan still haunted by the events of August 1945. The 1988 film adaption – which Otomo wrote and directed himself – begins with the nuclear bombing of Tokyo, and, thirty years later, the film is set in and around this impact crater. The ghost of the bombings haunt the lives of main characters, Kaneda and Tetsuo, who grew up together in an orphanage and exist as proxy for an entire displaced generation. The threat of nuclear apocalypse permeates Akira and, combined with its depiction of a fascistic military and government, and the effects on younger generations, it paints a damning picture of war.

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Tokyo explosion in Akira

As with Akira, Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion is almost impervious to interpretation because of its depth and complexity. The narrative can be read as much about mental illness as it can about war, but there’s no denying its nuclear undertones and the references and imagery that allude to the bombings. Produced in 1995, the series takes place in 2015 in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo and although the series never once mentions the word “nuclear”, there are obvious parallels. The N2 mine employed to fight the ravaging angels attacking the city look like atomic bombs and result in a mushroom cloud when detonated. Yet more interesting than these similarities is that the mines never manage to defeat an angel outright, instead they’re deployed to halt their progress. If we agree that the mines are stand-ins for nuclear bombs, then the series could perhaps be read with the message that despite their inherent destructive power, these weapons fail to win conflicts, that they are by their very nature flawed and don’t offer any lasting solution.

There are subtler allusions to war that can be gleaned throughout the series such as its weather. With its long summer days and themes of adolescence, Anno could be portraying that endless sense of summer we all remember as kids. But he might also be providing a similar backdrop to many of Japan’s most significant events during WWII. Pearl Harbour, the bombing of both Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender all took place in summer. (For a more exhaustive list, check out this insightful piece from ReelRundown)

The third influential creator born in the sixties I want to focus on is Shinichiro Watanabe. The effect of the bombings can be seen in the devastated state of earth glimpsed in his seminal Cowboy Bebop, but its to a later series that I want to highlight, one which explores the day-to-day lives of that generation born during the occupation and who came of age during a period of political and economic stability. During the occupation, Japan was introduced to western art and ideas and chief among them was jazz, a musical form that itself was born from a fusion of different cultures and styles. It’s in this heady mix that 2012’s Kids on the Slope is set.

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The power of music in Kids on the Slope

Based on Yuki Kodama’s 2007-12 manga series, and artfully directed by Watanabe, the series revolves around two teenage boys in 1966. The first, Kaoru Nishimi, is a bookish, reclusive and classically trained pianist from a well-off traditional family, representing the old Japan struggling to find its place in the newly democratised nation. His father’s career means they never settle in any one place long enough to call it home, leaving Kaoru lost, a stranger in his own land, unable to connect with anyone else, so he regresses further inside his own isolation.

If Kaoru is a stand-in for the war’s lost generation, then fellow first-year student Sentaro Kawabuchi is the hybridised Japan, with his American soldier father. Because of his father’s genes, he towers above the other kids, his physique broad and muscular, and with his hazel hair he’s a social pariah, the other kids at first tormenting and then fearing him. Though he embraces this thuggish role and, by extension, the bogeyman of the American military, Sentaro is a passionate and kind-hearted kid, one whose meeting with Kaoru changes both boys’ lives through their mutual love of American music.

The playing and adoration of jazz shows a Japan exploring and reinventing its cultural identity and using art as the catalyst. This is a series that sees the generation born well after 1945 regaining its childhood optimism and beginning to dream again. Crucially, the war can be glimpsed only from the side-lines of the series. Kids on the Slope is about that first generation of real teenagers in Japan, a generation that were looking ahead, not behind them. But like Katsuhiro Otomo, Hideaki Anno and Shinichiro Watanabe himself who were born in the sixties and became teenagers in the seventies, the deep cultural wounds of WWII were never too far out of sight. The themes of nuclear fallout and apocalypse can still be seen in anime today as old cultural traumas heal. But with political tensions heating up around the globe, doubtless they’re not going away anytime soon.

4 Comments on The post-war kids: anime after annihilation

  1. This was a great read and certainly one that got me thinking. There are a lot of obvious allusions to nuclear explosions to be found in anime but I like how you looked at some of the more subtle ways anime and literature were influenced by these events. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Karandi! There was an overwhelming amount of examples to choose from, but I tried to focus on the most iconic and influential ones. There was still plenty more I wanted to talk about but the word count was getting away from me, haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Absolutely agree with Karandi here, great stuff my dude. I think the inclusion of Kids on the Slope was a nice touch and wraps up the idea of *maybe* moving on quite nicely.

    Liked by 1 person

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