The tagline of the 1988 cult film Akira, ‘Neo-Tokyo is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E’, exemplifies the manner in which the memories of World War II remain embedded in Japanese animation and culture. It was during the Post-War era that anime and manga became established in Japan’s society. The 1960s saw a wave of popular manga artists and writers such as Osamu Tezuka begin to explore the events of the 1940s through their work, which has subsequently influenced generations of artistic talent. While Japanese cinema may have become the main channel for creating a national identity, many directors have tended to steer clear of the controversial nature of 1945. Nevertheless, while some films like Grave of the Fireflies directly recount the tragedy, the events of Hiroshima and Nagazaki have left a legacy that has inspired various manga and anime.
Adapted from Katsuhiro Otomo’s influential manga series, Akira deals with global conflict, social disintegration and anarchistic youth, all in a futuristic and apocalyptic setting. It’s a complex narrative that looks deeply at philosophical and psychological themes, but undoubtedly draws heavily from Japan’s experience during the 1940s and 50s, e.g. the opening shot of Tokyo being destroyed by an ‘atomic-like’ blast directly references the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meanwhile, the representation of corruption within power and a government that fails to recognise modern methods harks back to similar issues during WWII. The film also conveys a constant atmosphere of fear that not only contaminates Neo-Tokyo but also the entire fictional world, mirroring the global reaction to America’s ‘atomic power’. Another franchise that draws similar influences is Neon Genesis Evangelion. Yet, while Akira concentrates on the ‘fall of humanity’ at humanity’s own hands, Evangelion conceals its portrayal of atomic destruction with the use of an extra-terrestrial invasion – with religious symbolism also present. However, it still follows a similar tapestry to Otomo’s creation with its depiction of a government in disarray and a society suffering from an over-zealous military. Evangelion’s main characters come in the form of 14-year-old children thrust into a world at war, without parents for guidance or protection. Both these films aim to replicate the consequences of war from young perspectives, often a key trait in anime.
In stark contrast, the Pacific War’s profound and horrifying effect on Japan has been portrayed more forthrightly, realistically and emotionally in family-orientated films. Rather than censoring events, animation studios such as Studio Ghibli have retold stories and experiences in their true light. Hayao Miyazaki introduces the themes of war and humanity’s destructive tendencies in his films Howl’s Moving Castle and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, showing the heavy handed tactics of the military. However, two films stand out as being highly instrumental examples of ‘post-war’ animated cinema: Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies and Mori Masaki’s Barefoot Gen.
Grave of the Fireflies takes a heartfelt approach to storytelling, set in a very ‘real’ world, with ‘real’ characters. Loosely based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s own experiences, director Isao Takahata shrugs off the child-friendly constraints of Studio Ghibli and really emphasises the devastating impact of war on the innocent and on the human condition. Following Setsuko and her older brother Seita, Grave of the Fireflies doesn’t shy away from scenes of horrifying violence and distressing events of abandonment and helplessness, all of which involve children. Moments of humanity and contentment are built from Ghibli’s beautiful portrayal of nature, culminating in the imagery of the fireflies. Though these are few and far between – the constant threat of bombers lingers throughout the film, representing the endless firebombing of Japanese cities and towns during the war.
An equally important and influential take on ‘victim history’ is Barefoot Gen, originally a manga series written by Keiji Nakazawa, a Hiroshima survivor. The 1983 animated film follows a young boy, Gen, as he deals with the tragic loss of his family during the bombing. In contrast to the tearful sympathy and the overriding sense of despair and powerlessness that Grave of the Fireflies creates, Barefoot Gen achieves an unconquerable sense of resilience and leadership, whilst directly tackling the horrendous bombing of Hiroshima. Its grotesque and apocalyptic portrayal of the disaster creates a haunting and disturbing vision of ‘Hell’, one that live-action films would fail to depict as powerfully. However, intertwined with its brutality are genuine moments of triumph and hope; friendships are forged in the barrenness of Hiroshima. But whilst both directors have crafted sharply different narratives, there are still visible morals that they both address; actively showing the pain, terror and reality of war, but also questioning the Japanese Government’s late surrender, rather then pointing the blame squarely at America.
Overall, Japanese anime has tended to focus on creating social and individual identities through ‘slice of life’ dramas and fantasy adventures. Yet historically, Japan’s twentieth century remains largely untouched in the world of animation, particularly when compared to its ‘samurai’ past. Akira and Evangelion offer examples of how Japan’s heedful nature has used the cover of sci-fiction/fantasy to portray the events of WWII, whilst the emotive and elegiac manner of Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen has enabled these films to truly narrate the past. But it still remains clear that Japan’s experiences during the Pacific War have had a profound effect on its animated culture, as well as its national identity.