Responsibility vs Victimhood

A common thread is that of responsibility and victimhood. Animes which portray these themes are doing more than trying to moralize; they are often a commentary on Japan’s own role in the war. Rather than acknowledge the role Japan played in starting WWII, the crimes she committed, her reckless decision to involve the United States, and the hand she had in encouraging the use of nuclear weapons against her own people, all too often the government downplays their responsibility in the whole mess. For instance, as recently as February 2014, a government official denied the atrocities perpetrated at the Nanking Massacre.[1] Japan tends to focuses instead on the horrors and hardships they faced, particularly in regards to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in an attempt to absolve them of their own guilt by making them a nation of victims.

“It has been proven that I’m not responsible… I’m the victim,” states one of the characters in Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent. In this series about a boy on skates with a baseball bat who commits random hit-and-run assaults, Kon sharply criticizes his government’s refusal to accept responsibility for the war.[2] “Shounen Bat” does not make his attacks randomly; he comes when people have gotten themselves cornered and are desperate for a way out. As the series progresses, the two investigating detectives discover that each of the “victims” were seeking to avoid responsibility for their own poor choices, and we actually relieved to be victimized because they felt it absolved them of their guilt. There were some in Japan who saw the Hiroshima bombing as the “golden opportunity” for Japan to get out of the mess she had created and surrender.  After all, who can defend against such a terrible weapon?[3] Shounen Bat becomes a sought-after folk-hero, the answer to all one’s guilt and troubles, and by the end of the series he has grown from a small boy, to a monster, to a great black sludge that swallows and destroys Tokyo. He is only defeated when one of the characters finally accepts responsibility and apologizes. Death gives way to rebirth, and Tokyo rebuilds in two years, leaving the viewer with the hope that they’ve learned from their mistakes.[4]

While international society is becoming more and more engulfed by a culture of victimhood, Kon’s message is not a general criticism – carefully planned visuals make it clear that he is referring specifically to WWII. For instance, the opening sequence of the series features mushroom clouds, and he cleverly hid an image of a saluting Hitler within one character’s toy collection. The last line of the series reiterates his point; one of the detectives looks over the ruins of Tokyo and comments, “It’s just like right after the war ended!”[5]

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“The lost children are a giant mushroom cloud in the sky,” say the lyrics which accompany this image from the opening sequence of Paranoia Agent. Kon is not being subtle here: he wants his audience to know exactly what his message is about.

Grave of the Fireflies is one of the scarce films which deal with the war directly.  Grave seeks to deflect responsibility entirely by using the story of two war orphans to evoke sympathy and demonstrate that Japan, too, suffered. Their mother killed in the firebombing of Kobe, their father off to sea and presumably dead, 14-year-old Sieta and his little sister Setsuko find themselves homeless and starving to death.[6] The issues of the war are ignored entirely and the viewer sees only how American actions hurt the most innocent of individuals. A victim’s history, Grave seems to idealize victimhood on the pretext that it gives depth to the Japanese soul.[7]

Another of the rare war features, Barefoot Gen takes a different tack. This anime, adapted from an actual memoir, shows the bombing of Hiroshima in gruesome detail, an animated vision of hell. But while it does acknowledge the suffering of the victims in a manner that could give even the most stalwart nightmares, it does not point the finger at the United States. Instead, the disgruntled father figure criticizes the Japanese government for their actions and questions their late surrender. The memoir’s writer, Keiji Nakazawa, began writing about the bomb because he felt that his people had neither confronted certain issues nor accepted their responsibility for the events which brought the bomb upon them.[8] But while the suffering in the film is intense, Barefoot Gen ends on a note of hope and rebirth as our main character realizes that his hair has begun to grow back.[9] Like his hair, and the new flower his father has plucked from the ruins of the city, Japan too will experience her own rebirth from the ashes of Hiroshima.

[1] Shannon Tiezzi, “NHK Governor: Nanjing Massacre ‘Never Happened,’” The Diplomat,  http://thediplomat.com/2014/02/nhk-governor-nanjing-massacre-never-happened/ (accessed February 7, 2014).

[2] Paranoia Agent, dir. by Satoshi Kon, (2004; Tokyo: Madhouse Studios, 2005), DVD.

[3] John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), 792.

[4] Paranoia Agent.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Grave of the Fireflies, dir. by Isao Takahata, (1988; Tokyo: Studio Ghibli, 2012), Blu-Ray.

[7] Napier, 229.

[8] Alan Gleason, “Keiji Nakazawa,” The Comics Journal 256 (2002) http://www.tcj.com/256/i_nakazawa.html, (accessed February 7, 2014), 1.

[9] Barefoot Gen, dir. by Mori Masaki, (1983; Tokyo: Madhouse Studios, 1992), VHS.