The Legacies of the Atomic Bomb in Anime
It is often said it is almost impossible to separate the art from the artist. To extend this statement further, one could argue it is almost impossible to separate the art from its contextual circumstances. Factors such as cultural and historical origin also inform the work.
Take for example the genre of Film Noir. Categorized by its existentialism themes, stark lighting, and cynical protagonists, it is not a coincidence the genre began to gain popularity during the post World War II era. Translated from French, the term “Film Noir” means dark film. The genre prospered in the United States, because of its ability to reflect the heavy disillusionment felt throughout the US at the time. The looming threat of atomic warfare during the post-war era also contributed to this sense of national anxiety.
We can observe the pattern of these various circumstances shaping both what art is produced, as well as how it is perceived by the public time and time again. This article will attempt to outline these trends in the development of Japanese Animation, specifically examining the effects of the Atom Bomb on Anime.
In Western storytelling audiences are accustomed to narratives that follow a hero who must face great danger and insurmountable odds to save the world from certain peril. The cliche of our protagonist having to cut the correct wire to stop a bomb from going off with only a matter of seconds to spare is very familiar in the West.
In the United States, specifically, the way the outcome of World War II is viewed imitates these story beats much the same. They are the hero who rushed in and saved the world from ultimate doom at the hands of the evil Axis powers. Or so they are told.
However, the Japanese people experience a very different version of history. It is not one of preventing disaster, but surviving after disaster has struck that defines World War II’s outcome for Japan. Anime reflects this reality in several ways. Perhaps the best and most well known instance of this is Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 film Akira. Taking place 31 years after a nuclear bomb is dropped on Tokyo, leveling the city, the film focuses on a teenage boy named Kaneda as he navigates the broken and demoralized world of Neo Tokyo.
Kaneda is a delinquent and leader of a biker gang comprised of himself and his childhood friends. He is forced to resort to violence due to the harsh economic realities of the world he inhabits. Otomo highlights the confused world which Kaneda inhabits with displays of vibrant neon lights and atypical architecture in Neo Tokyo. These overly saturated elements of Akira’s visual style showcase the superficial distraction that diverts the minds of many citizens from the less desirable and more corrupt framework of the city. This style provides a numbing force against the true hardships many inhabitants of the city face.
Otomo communicates an emotional and visually stunning tale of human resilience, detailing many hardships shared by Japanese civilians left to rebuild nuclear strikes. Akira premiered more than thirty years after a nuclear holocaust was released on Tokyo during the War, but it still manages to capture the gruesome and terrifying nature of nuclear warfare and the impact it has on the world.
It is important to recognize the impact of Akira on an international level. Being one of the first to air in Western nations on a large scale, Akira provided a new style and look at storytelling many people in the West had little exposure to before. Akira’s success is reflected in its box office results. Despite having aired in the late 80s, Akira remains in the top 50 highest grossing Japanese films of all time.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Just eight years after the theatrical release of Akira, Hideaki Anno’s internationally acclaimed Neon Genesis Evangelion made its broadcast debut. Evangelion takes place in a post-apocalyptic Japan devastated by Lovecraftian cataclysms, destroying much of earth’s environment and permanently raising the planet’s temperature. The planetary threat is perpetuated at the hands of monstrous beasts called “angels”. The series explores the psyche of its characters as they attempt to make sense of a world that fundamentally does not make sense. Evangelion’s protagonist Shinji acts as the feature vantage point for the audience to view the show. Shinji is a teenage boy riddled with insecurity, neglected by his father, and without a mother.
Much like Akira, Evangelion portrays the nuanced struggles of life after disaster, and the dubiety of growing up. The magnitude of these struggles are amplified by the show’s atmosphere. A post-apocalyptic world, much like the one experienced by victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, provides a sense of hopelessness. That prosperity is impossible and an existence consisting solely of a need to survive is all these characters will scrape together from the ruins of past civilization. It is through this marriage of theme and atmosphere that Evangelion communicates a feeling of tragedy and desperation so effectively.
The heart of Evangelion rests in its characters. For the purposes of this article, one character in particular stands out as a prime example of a person tormented by a past horror and burdened to survive. This character is Misato Katsuragi. To write the character of Misato, Anno draws on the real anxieties and existential panic he felt while producing Evangelion. As a result, her character arc feels undeniably raw and unfiltered. While staying at her father’s research facility in Antartica, Misato was made the sole survivor of a event known as the second impact – a explosion of massive proportion that ravened the earth and left Misato nonverbal for years.
The trauma of this event held Misato captive, preventing her from fully developing as an adult and causing relapses of toxic behavior, particularly in her personal and romantic life. Misato’s role as care taker of Shinji creates a fascinating dynamic between the two characters. Both are haunted by their pasts and bound in a seemingly inescapable limbo between life and death, unable to partake fully in either. Misato is in many ways a warning to Shinji of the undesirable future that awaits him as an adult, if he cannot overcome his own demons. For Misato, Shinji is a remainder of her own ailments, for they share many of the same struggles.
However, it is not Evangelion’s artistic merit alone that has made it a staple of Anime buffs’ watch lists for decades. The effects of Evangelion were further intensified by the context of 1990s Japan, when it was released. During this period Japan experienced an era of economic stagnation and recession. The economic situation was so poor during the 90s that the decade has been coined Japan’s “Lost Decade”.
As a result, Hideaki Anno’s personal feelings of depression and isolation, expressed through Evangelion, struck a chord in the millions of people struggling to make their way in the world already. The show’s success acts as an example of how the context of art can magnetize a work’s influence, as well as how the concept of post-disaster storytelling expresses itself in Anime.
Perhaps one of the most recognizable elements of Anime is its creative use of technology as a thematic device as well as superficial draw for the audience. Much like the films mentioned previously dissect the nature of catastrophy, influenced by the legacies of Atomic weaponry, the subgenre of Mecha Anime uses technology to express a cynicism of technological innovation.
Mecha Anime is classified by its imaginative technology and large scale robotic battles. Popular Mecha Anime include GoShogun, Iron-Blood Orphans, and Code Geass. Western creations such as Transformers and Power Rangers have also cited Mecha as a source of inspiration.
A common occurrence in Mecha Anime is the presence of a demonstratively powerful weapon or set of weapons. An example of this would be the Field Limitary Effective Implosion Armament (F.L.E.I.A.) weapon from Manga authors Ichirō Ōkouchi and Gorō Taniguchi’s acclaimed series, Code Geass. The F.L.E.I.A. bomb represents the ultimate form of destruction in the world of Code Geass, much resembling a atomic bomb. While used only a few times throughout the series, the bomb’s use is marked by a fundamental shift in the story and world of Code Geass.
Mecha’s dissection of technology and what role it should play in our society was integral in some of the earliest Anime. One of the best known cases being Osamu Tezuka’s 1963 work, Astro Boy. Being one of the earliest Anime to ever air in Japan, Astro Boy has been heavily influential in forming the landscape of contemporary Anime.
The show follows a youthful robot boy named Astro as he navigates the futuristic Metro City. The city is composed of both robots, who work primarily as servants, and humans. Astro is a highly advanced robot who was abandoned by his creator and raised by scientist Dr. O’Shay. Having experienced the love Dr. O’Shay directs towards Astro as a father figure, Astro supplies the ideal perspective from which the audience can view the show. Astro knows both worlds that occupy Metro City quite intimately. He is a robot with affection for his human family. At many points throughout the show the question of how humans and robots can live symbiotically is raised. Depictions of robots being abused as well as robots lashing out violently towards their human counterparts appear often. As a bridge between these two elements of Metro City’s society, Astro must grapple with his own identity and help create a more comprehensive human robot understanding.
It is typically as Astro faces his greatest foes in battle that he unlocks previously unknown abilities to defeat them. In other words, he becomes more advanced mechanically as he fights. This takes place in conjunction with Astro’s growth as a individual who is still learning about the world he occupies. The combination of growth as a robot as well as a emotionally apt individual is in essence the promise of future cooperation between robots and humans.
It is often that circumstances such as the ones mentioned above appear in Mecha Anime, to act as both a study of the potential danger posed by progressing technology, as well as an examination of human nature.
Not much earlier than the creation of the first widely distributed anime, Tomoyuki Tanaka’s now globally famous Godzilla first graced the silver screen.
The film follows the prehistoric amphibious reptile Godzilla, who is awoken from a long slumber by an American nuclear submarine. Shortly after his awakening the beast begins to wreak havoc on Japanese cities.
Godzilla is a source of catastrophic destruction throughout the film. The fact that Godzilla was awakened by US military forces in Japan further symbolizes the ruination the US had brought to Japan’s cities in the previous decade. While not a Anime, Godzilla is a larger than life (literally) cultural figure in Japanese film history. He is an example of the large scale influences of the atomic bomb on multiple forms of Japanese media even outside of Anime.
Director Ishirō Honda stated the following during a interview on the film:
“If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”
Depictions of Nuclear Destruction
When observing the way nuclear weaponry is depicted in Japanese media compared to how nuclear weaponry is depicted in the other nations, the difference is stark. One narrative exploring feelings or tragedy, remorse, and resilience; the other using the event as a tool for exaggeration. The representation of the mushroom cloud in Western media demonstrates an ability to make light of the use of nuclear weapons, while the Japanese people must bear the brutal reality of the weapons’ history.
Comical or casual depictions of the mushroom cloud, such as the still from the American children’s cartoon from “SpongeBob” and “Avatar The Last Airbender” shown above, continue to be a source of immense controversy in Japan. In 2018 the popular K-Pop group “BTS” was barred from appearing on radio stations in Hiroshima, and had to cancel an appearance on TV Asahi’s Music Station. This is due to photos of one of the group members wearing a shirt containing imagery of the mushroom cloud produced after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. The shirt was also inscribed with Korean liberation slogans, used by freedom fighters during Japan’s occupation of the nation before Korean liberation at the end of the war.
BTS’s controversy displays the seriousness with which the Japanese people take the depiction of nuclear weaponry, and the vast difference with which these weapons are viewed elsewhere. For one, a heroic symbol of American glory. Another a symbol of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in world history.
Examples of the atomic bomb’s legacies in Anime are numerous; however, they do not dwell on the tragedy of the past. The story of Akira is not one of ultimate tragedy, but one of the hopefulness and endurance of the human spirit in the face of destruction. Neon Genesis Evangelion is not a story of lost people, but one of individuals finding themselves through trials and tribulations. These are the stories reflected in these artists’ works. They are the powerful legacies of the atomic bomb in Anime.
- “BTS T-shirt: Japanese TV Show Cancels BTS Appearance over Atomic Bomb Shirt.” BBC News, BBC News, 9 Nov. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-46147777.
- “Neon Genesis Evangelion (anime).” Evangelion, evangelion.fandom.com/wiki/Neon_Genesis_Evangelion_(anime).
- “Rick Moody on the Original Godzilla.” The Guardian, 8 Aug. 2017, www.theguardian.com/film/2005/sep/30/2.
- Stewart-Ahn, Aaron. “Never ending Evangelion.” Polygon, 19 June 2019, www.polygon.com/2019/6/19/18683634/neon-genesis-evangelion-hideaki-anno-depression-shinji-anime-characters-movies.
- “This Browser is No Longer Supported.” Twitter, twitter.com/garflyf/status/1084965991551971328.
- “Why Akira is the Most Important Anime Ever Made.” YouTube, Dorkly, www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-kFajUn-TI. Accessed 30 May 2019.
- “‘Akira’ is Frequently Cited As Influential. Why is That?” Film School Rejects, 22 Dec. 2020, filmschoolrejects.com/akira-influence-12cb6d84c0bc/
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