Japan’s actions during the Second World War are well known, as is the following American occupation and the ways in which the Japanese economy and government were deconstructed and rebuilt. The effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been studied extensively, from medical effects to economics to how Japan transformed from a militarily aggressive country into a nation of peacekeepers. But something that has not received much attention or scholarship is how the experiences of the Second World War and the bombs have been lodged in the historical memory of the country, and the ways in which it has reshaped Japanese identity and psyche. Japanese society had been devastated by the war, their pride shattered by their surrender, their souls shaken by the horror of America’s new super weapon. Even their conception of their own history was altered, divided into “before” and “after.” From the ashes of their great cities, the Japanese had to learn how to redefine themselves based upon the difficult lessons they had learned. Who were they now, the vanquished, the conquered, the nuked? Who would they be once the occupying Americans left their shores and turned their new government over to them? Key to the rebirth of a new, post-war national identity is the extraordinarily popular phenomena of Japanese cartoons, better known as anime. “Japan’s experiences during the Pacific War have had a profound effect on its animated culture as well as its national identity.” In a country which considers the bombs taboo, which does not teach the war in their classrooms, which refuses to acknowledge or accept responsibility for their atrocities, one must look further than textbooks if one wishes to understand the true Japanese perspective on things. The historical memory of the Pacific War and the trauma of nuclear weapons have been preserved and explored in the medium of Japanese comics and animation.
Cartoons, regarded in America largely as children’s entertainment, may seem an odd topic for scholarly study. However, in Japanese culture, these cartoons are so much more than just a way to distract the kids while attempting to cook dinner or have a quiet moment to ones’ self. Anime appeals to a wide demographic in Japan, from the youngest children to grown adults. When taken as a whole, anime reflects the evolving ideals of particular Japanese age groups as they grow and mature. Universities in both Japan and America have even begun to offer courses in anime for just that reason: the brightly colored cartoons reveal much about Japanese culture and society. Even in America anime has a wide following, its fans ranging in age from early teens to fully grown, intelligent, educated adults. This is because, unlike American cartoons with their formulaic plots and clear, simple delineation between good and evil, anime deals with complex themes and features fully-developed characters with depth and complicated motives. Given that the Japanese written language has evolved from pictograms, telling stories through the medium of pictures is, for them, quite natural. Perhaps this is why comics, known as manga, make up the largest portion of the Japanese publishing industry and animated features account for half of Japanese box office revenues. Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature Princess Mononoke is the highest grossing Japanese film of all time. It is for all these reasons that anime must be taken seriously as a window into the Japanese psyche.
World War II as Seen Through Animated Eyes
Anime developed from manga, which developed from the early 19th century wood block prints of Katsushika Hokusai. Other artists began adding captions to his images to express themselves in ways that had been forbidden by the government. Manga and anime have carried on this tradition, their artists frequently using vivid characters and engaging story lines to convey opinions which otherwise might be considered too taboo, political, or controversial for polite conversation. In Japan, the war and the bombs have long remained a painful topic. Like the way anger over the American Civil War is often passed down through generations of Southern families, or rage over slavery is passed from parent to child in African-Americans, the deep psychological wounds from the Pacific War have been passed from survivors to their descendants. These scars, and the issues causing them, are frequently expressed symbolically in the popular medium of anime, leading to the repetition of particular themes across the genres. My own studies have thus far focused on a few key themes, which I have summarized and linked for you, dear reader, below.
Anime is perhaps best known for it’s flashy technology, from starships to movable castles to gigantic meca suits. Yet this technology often bears a message; perhaps is represents the loss of identity to technology as it does in Neon Genesis Evangelion, or perhaps it is a study in the dichotomy of nuclear energy as it is in Trigun – I provided a brief overview here in my post “Technology and Science: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The topic certainly bears expansions, and someday I’ll get to that. In the meantime I went in great depth on this topic with Akira. Beautifully hand animated, graphic and violent, Akira helped bring anime into the West in a way that had never before been accomplished. But it is more than a story of street teens, motorcycle gangs, and mad scientists: It is instead a warning about science pursued without morality and presents a sharp criticism of government and military.
Watch enough anime and it becomes impossible to avoid the themes of Apocalypse, Death, and Rebirth. I provide only a cursory examination of this topic as it is so wide as to be oceanic in scope, but I take a look at animes such as Vampire Hunter D and Cowboy Bebop. The Japanese lived through their own apocalypse in the nuclear bombs and their death as am empire following their surrender, not to mention the literal death of approximately 3 million of their friends, family, and neighbors. From the ashes of Hiroshima arose a democratic nation that was to become a great economic power, and from this experience comes a theme in anime which is virtually inescapable.
More in depth is my study on the theme Responsibility vs Victimhood as seen in the series Paranoia Agent. A scathing commentary on Japanese refusal to acknowledge their responsibility for the Second World War, this series is an intellectually dense as it is surreal. Consider this a “cheat sheet” for understanding what the heck that show is about, give it a read, and then check out the series because it is seriously worth it. This post also serves as a primer on Japanese war crimes, something which is nearly as neglected in our own curriculums as it is in Japan. It is an important, if ugly, read. For the TLDR version check out my original work on the series.
Each of the above studies provide only a snapshot into the Japanese psyche at the time they were created and as such I sought to place them in context. However, the Space Battleship Yamato franchise provides a truly unique opportunity for the scholar – an evaluation at how Japanese attitudes towards the war have evolved across a fifty year period. Read my work here – it was definitely my favorite part to write. The franchise is prolific and has given rise to numerous tv shows, films, and product lines, but also captured the nationalistic spirits of the 1970s in it’s original form. In Yamato 2199, we see how this nationalism has evolved and softened into a quest for forgiveness and redemption. Incidently, I cannot recommend 2199 enough!
(I have affectionately dubbed it “Space Nazis.” Watch it and you’ll see why.)
Beautiful animation, interesting characters, and some of the absolute best space-battle scenes in all of science fiction, and I am something of a connoisseur in that area. 😉 Find it, watch it! That’s your homework.
In conclusion, ladies and jellyspoons (I stole that from Eddie Izzard, please don’t sue me, I love you) – – – Using the cover of science fiction or fantasy, anime often portrays the events of World War II and explores Japanese feelings about them. A study of anime over the past sixty years reveals not only these feelings, but how they have evolved. Immediate post-war manga, from which anime developed, focused primarily on heroics and dedication, skating over the issues of loss, surrender, and the bombs. Even today anime generally avoids overt mention of these painful topics, yet as time has passed more and more animators have chosen to tackle the issues head-on. This growing boldness can be seen as indicative of Japan’s returning confidence as the nation has become reestablished as a world power.
 S.T Cartledge, “Rebuilding Neo-Tokyo: The Search for Normality in the Apocalypse of Akira,” http://themanifold.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/rebuilding-neo-tokyo-the-search-for-normality-in-the-apocalypse-of-akira, (accessed May 5, 2014).
 Jack Singleton, “Japanese Animation, the Pacific War, and the Atomic Bomb,” http://www.impactnottingham.com/2011/08/japanese-animation-the-pacific-war-and-the-atomic-bomb, (accessed May 5, 2014).
 Shelia Fling, “Psychological Impact of Hiroshima/Nagasaki Bombings: Photograph and Film Teaching Materials,” (speech, San Marcos, Texas, June 24-27, 2003).
 Frank Robert Fuller, “The Atomic Bomb: Reflections in Japanese Manga and Anime,” (PhD diss., Clark Atlanta University, 2012), 16.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 7.
 Susan J Napier, Anime: from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (New York: MacMillan, 2005), 232.
 Fuller, 7.
 “Nuclear Weapons Taboo,” TV Tropes, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NuclearWeaponsTaboo (accessed May 5, 2014).