Assorted Musings from an Unknown Historian

Bourbon, Books, and Bemusement


Anime and WWII

Anime and WWII: The Connection

Japan’s actions during and the Second World War are well known, as is the following American occupation and the ways in which the Japanese economy and government was 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 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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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 certain actions, one must look further than textbooks if one wishes to understand the true Japanese perspective on things.[3] The historical memory of the Pacific War and the response to being the only victims of nuclear weapons have been preserved and explored in the medium of Japanese comics and animation.

Cartoons, regarded in America strictly 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]  Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature Princess Mononoke is the highest grossing Japanese film of all time.[7]  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 in turn developed from the early 19th century wood block prints of Katsushika Hokusai. Other artists added captions to his images to express themselves in ways that had been forbidden by the government.[8]  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 especially 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.[9] 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.

Using the cover of science fiction or fantasy, anime often portrays the events of World War II and explores Japanese feelings about them.[10]  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.[11] Yet even today, most anime only deals with the war and the bombs in terms of symbols, leading to recurring themes that can be traced across the genre.

[1] S.T Cartledge, “Rebuilding Neo-Tokyo: The Search for Normality in the Apocalypse of Akira,”, (accessed May 5, 2014).

[2] Jack Singleton, “Japanese Animation, the Pacific War, and the Atomic Bomb,”, (accessed May 5, 2014).

[3] Shelia Fling, “Psychological Impact of Hiroshima/Nagasaki Bombings: Photograph and Film Teaching Materials,” (speech, San Marcos, Texas, June 24-27, 2003).

[4] Frank Robert Fuller, “The Atomic Bomb: Reflections in Japanese Manga and Anime,” (PhD diss., Clark Atlanta University, 2012), 16.

[5] Ibid., 70.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Susan J Napier, Anime: from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (New York: MacMillan, 2005), 232.

[8] Fuller, 7.

[9]  “Nuclear Weapons Taboo,” TV Tropes, (accessed May 5, 2014).



Responsibility vs Victimhood

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]


“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, (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), (accessed February 7, 2014), 1.

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

Technology and Science – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Technology and Science – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

            Many of the themes in anime are lessons or messages the older generation feels needs to be passed down to the youth of Japan. One of these lessons focuses on science and the resulting technology: the benefits, the uses, but especially the dangers of it when misused. Animes frequently warn that science and technology should never be used without thought to the consequences, or to gain power. Thus, using science to create advanced technological weapons and wage war is always presented as a very bad thing. These story lines are often, in part, criticisms aimed at America for wielding a largely untested weapon against Japan in order to force a surrender. Even today, many scholars and especially the Japanese feel that the use of the nuclear bombs was unnecessary and done more in the name of scientific experimentation rather than military necessity.

Yet science and technology were not to play only the villain in the history of Japan.  Following the war, Japan experienced a technological boom that transformed her into an economically relevant country and enabled her people to achieve one of the highest standards of living in the world.  “In World War II, Japan experienced the devastating power of technology in the… atomic bomb.  In post-war Japan, technology would become Japan’s savior,” thus facilitating Japan’s own cycle of death and rebirth.[1] Today, Japan’s top four exports are technology related – vehicles, machinery, electronics, and medical instruments.[2]  Japan also leads the world in industrial robotics.[3] This scientific/technological dichotomy is frequently played out on screen.  Anime is perhaps best known for its science fiction settings and its sleek, sexy technology, yet the gadgets for which the genre is famous often carry with them an underlying warning that these things must not be misused.

Few animes hammer this warning home as thoroughly as Akira, a film about the quest to reach the title super-weapon which destroys Old Tokyo at the beginning of the film. The super-weapon, it turns out, was a child who was given psionic abilities in a military experiment that soon spun out of control. The film takes place many years later. Tetsuo, a gentle teenager,  becomes mixed up with the military and is forcibly given the power of Akira.  At first Tetsuo hates his new abilities, then becomes so obsessed with them that he is literally consumed in a violent scene in which the city is again destroyed by a white light.[4] The film is more than just a warning against irresponsibly used science; it is a scathing commentary on the behavior of the war time government of both countries and especially on the international development and use of weapons of mass destruction. In the film, caricatures meant to represent science and the military carelessly proceed in their quest to develop Akira’s power, in spite of the fact that both know it cannot be controlled.  In the end it kills them both, and Tokyo is again destroyed.  One of the military’s experiments, a young girl named Kiyoko, says it well: “Don’t use your power in this way.  It’s wrong… because in the end you won’t be able to control it, and it will control you…(it is) way too big for us as we are now.”[5]

Akira’s writer, Otomo Katsuhiro, was the child of a “Hibakusha” or A-Bomb survivor.  He shared his parent’s trauma with the world through the medium of Akira, reconstructing the experience for the younger generation and using the film to preserve the pain and lessons from the bomb. From the irresponsible physicist who bears a striking resemblance to Albert Einstein to the volatile political/military situation, it is “Otomo’s way of calling on Japan and the international community to learn from World War Two and to be wary of pursuing power through science or technology…”[6] One of the most striking images of the film is the maddened Tetsuo, wearing a tattered red cape and sitting on a throne of his own construction, the very parody of power. His arm was torn off in an earlier battle and has been replaced with a prosthetic he fashioned using his abilities; now out of his control, it morphs and mutates, growing until it swallows him and the city.


Tetsuo the Tyrant. Note how his arm is beginning to grow out of his control. Behind him is all that is left of Akira – a collection of jarred specimens.

Another anime which warns of pursuing power through technology is Aldnoah Zero, a new series currently on the air. The discovery of an incredible alien weapon said to have god-like powers enables the colonists of Mars to build the powerful Vers Empire and to wage an aggressive war against Earth for the conquest of her resources. The use of the weapon in the first war- which, like the first nuclear bombs, is little understood – destroys the moon and nearly the Earth; the resulting armistice is shattered as the series begins. As Vers invades the Earth in the first episode, we see powerful weapons derived from the mysterious alien technology known as Aldnoah lay waste to our greatest cities in blasts that produce mushroom clouds. If the invaders continue to hammer Earth which such destructive technology, they will destroy it for everyone and their attempt at conquest will have been in vain.[7]

Unlike the grim warnings given through Akira and Aldnoah Zero, the western-style sci-fi series Trigun reminds us that technology – specifically nuclear power – can be used for good or bad. On the desert planet known as Gunsmoke, towns are able to survive thanks to the development of a special type of sentient power plant which, we learn, is powered by scientifically engineered humans who serve as the core, much as plutonium is the heart of nuclear power plants. Trigun’s message is delivered through the tale of a pair of brothers by the names of Vash the Stampede and Millions Knives. Vash and Knives were scientifically engineered to be the hearts of two of these power plants, but when their ship crashed on Gunsmoke they got loose and lived their lives as humans instead. Each carry the power intended for use within the plants in their “Angel Arms,” a power which, like nuclear energy, can wipe out a city entirely or help it to thrive. The brothers represent this duality. Vash, painfully aware of the terrible power of his Angel Arm, refuses to use it as a weapon. He does, however, use his abilities to save an entire city by repairing a plant on the verge of explosion. Knives, however, is a mass murderer who wishes to eradicate all life on the planet Gunsmoke. He uses his power to kill indiscriminately, just as Fat Man and Little Boy did in the summer of 1945.[8]


The two faces of technology: Vash the Stampede, and Millions Knives

[1] Mark Gilson, “A Brief History of Japanese Robophilia,” Leonardo 31, no. 5 (1998): 367, (accessed May 5, 2014).

[2] Daniel Workman, “Japan’s Top Ten Exports,” World’s Top Exports, (accessed August 2, 2014).

[3] Mike Hanlon, “Foxconn Gears Up to Build Industrial Robots – World Industrial Robot Populaton to Double,” Gizmag, (accessed August 2, 2014).

[4] Akira.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Angie Koo, “Japan’s Vision of the Future: An Essay on Akira,” Disasters and Rebuilding in Japan, (accessed May 5, 2014).

[7] Aldnoah Zero.

[8] Trigun.

Apocalypse, Death, and Rebirth in Anime

Apocalypse, Death, and Rebirth

By the time Japan surrendered in September of 1945, approximately three million of her citizens, be they soldier or civilian, had paid the ultimate price and lost their lives in the name of the emperor. Nearly seventy of her cities had been gutted by firebombing. Over two hundred thousand civilians had been killed in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Upon their surrender, the United States dissolved the Empire of Japan and forced the nation to accept a democratic form of government. During seven years of occupation, Japan struggled to rebuild her shattered infrastructure and devastated sense of pride and identity.  What rose from the ashes and rubble of war was a country entirely different from what it had been – Japan had died, and been reborn.  It was from this experience that anime has taken its most common and recurring theme – that of death and rebirth.

“The aggression displayed by the American military carpet-bombing Japan, along with the use of the atomic bomb…forever imbedded a never-ending obsession with doomsday themes in…anime.”[1] Many anime tales take place in post-apocalyptic worlds: indeed, “the atomic bomb trauma and the ruined, burned, and scorched city became… ‘the original experience and the original picture’ of (anime).”[2]   Yet all does not remain ash and dust; society has either rebuilt entirely or is in the process of rebuilding.  Take, for instance, the cult-hit Akira, set in the highly technocrized city of Neo Tokyo, rebuilt after old Tokyo is destroyed by a mysterious white light.[3]  Neon Genesis Evangelion, another popular series, also takes place in a newly rebuilt Tokyo.  The original Tokyo was flooded and destroyed by what is known as “The Second Impact,” which we soon learn was the violent arrival of giant “Angels,” aliens from another world which could be said to be representative of the American attackers. [4]  Aldnoah Zero also takes place in a reborn Tokyo, fifteen years after a war with the aggressive colonies on Mars nearly destroyed the Earth.[5]  Cowboy Bebop is another anime in which the world has been destroyed; the explosion of the Moon Gate rendered Earth unlivable, and humanity has abandoned it for life among the stars.[6]  In Trigun, a lone gunman wanders a desert wasteland amongst cities that have been destroyed by a mysterious weapon or are dying from lack of resources – much as Japan suffered as the war progressed.[7]    Another lone wanderer is the mysterious hunter D, who rides beneath broken highways, through forgotten oil fields, and past the ruined satellites at SETI in the strangely empty world of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.[8]



The list of animes which feature worlds experiencing death and rebirth stretches long; the few mentioned above are just a small sampling of the post-apocalyptic worlds which abound throughout the genre. In each of these animes, the old world has died, much as the last vestiges of the Japanese empire died with the falling of the atomic bombs.  And like Japan, each society has been rebuilt in a new and different form.  Anime is being used to emphasize Japan’s post-war hope that in spite of their devastation and whatever mistakes they have made, society can be rebuilt and reborn.  In the early post-war years, this was meant to give the desperate populace hope in the future.  The theme lingers today as an enduring reminder of what has been overcome.

[1] Fuller, 124.

[2] Jean Marie Bouissou, “Manga Goes Global,” in Proceedings of the Global Meaning of Japan Conference, Sheffield, England, 19-22 March 1998 (Paris, Centre for International Studies and Research, 1998), 22.

[3] Akira, dir. by Ohtomo Katsuhiro, (1988; Bandai Co., LTD., 2009 DVD).

[4] Neon Genesis Evangelion, dir. by Hideaki Anno (TV Tokyo, 1995-1996; Gainax, 2002 DVD).

[5] Aldnoah Zero, dir. by Ei Aoki, (ABC, 2014).

[6] Cowboy Bebop, dir. by Keiko Nobumoto, (TV Tokyo,1997-1998; Sunrise Studios, 2000 DVD).

[7] Trigun, dir. by Yasuhiro Nightow, (TV Tokyo,1998; Madhouse Studios, 2010 DVD).

[8] Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, dir. by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (2000; Madhouse Studios, 2002 DVD).

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