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August 9, 2020

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Atomic bomb’s deep influence on Japanese anime and manga

At the end of Katsuhiro Otomo’s dystopian Japanese anime film “Akira,” a throbbing, white mass begins to envelop Neo-Tokyo. Eventually, its swirling winds engulf the metropolis, swallowing it whole and leaving a skeleton of a city in its wake.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — along with the firebombings of Tokyo — were devastating experiences for Japan. Part of the healing process meant returning to the bombings’ horrific imagery in literature, music and art.

The finale of “Akira” is only one example of apocalyptic imagery in anime and manga. A number of anime films and comics are rife with atomic bomb references, which appear in any number of forms, from the symbolic to the literal. The heartbreaking after effects — orphaned children, radiation sickness, a loss of national independence, the destruction of nature — would also influence the genre, giving rise to a unique, and arguably incomparable, form of comic books and animated films.

Directors and artists who witnessed the devastation firsthand were at the forefront of this movement. Yet to this day — 75 years after the bombings — their successors continue to explore these themes.

Paving the way

The lasting images of the firebombings and atomic bombs are apparent in the works of artist and director Osamu Tezuka and his successor Hayao Miyazaki. Both witnessed the mass destruction of the bombings at the end of World War II.

Tezuka was especially obsessed with the atomic bomb. His films and comics address themes like coping with grief and the idea that nature, in all its beauty, can be compromised by man’s desire to conquer it.

His stories often have a young character orphaned by particular circumstances who must survive on his own. Two examples are “Little Wansa,” a puppy who escapes from his new owners and tries desperately to find his mother, and “Young Bear Cub,” who gets lost in the wild and must find his own way back to his family.

Technology-fueled tensions are apparent in the works of Tezuka and his successors. In Tezuka’s “Astro Boy,” a scientist attempts to fill the void left by his son’s death by creating a humanlike android named Astro Boy.

Astro Boy’s father, seeing that technology cannot completely replace his son, rejects his creation. After he is taken under the wing of another scientist. Astro Boy eventually finds his calling and becomes a superhero.

Like Tezuka, Miyazaki witnessed American air raids as a child. His work often references the abuse of technology and contains pleas for human restraint. In “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” radioactive mutants populate the land. At the film’s outset, the narrator describes the strange, mutated state of Earth as a direct result of man’s misuse of nuclear technology.

In postwar years, Japan grew into an economic superpower. With a fascination for technology, the country became a world leader in the production of cars and electronics. Yet characters like Astro Boy embody many modern-age tensions, like the idea that technology can never replace humans, and its capacity for helping mankind can also lead to humanity’s destruction.

There were also traumatic after effects of the atomic bombs, some of which are still felt today — parentless children and people left permanently disabled by radiation.

For these reasons, a recurrent theme in anime films is the orphan who must survive on his own without the help of adults (many of whom are portrayed as incompetent).

Akiyuki Nosaka morphed his personal experiences as a child during the war into the popular anime film “Grave of the Fireflies,” the story of a young boy and his sister who escape the air raids and firebombings, scraping by on whatever rations they can find during the last part of the war.

Meanwhile, there are often young, powerful female orphans or independent female youths in Hayao Miyazaki’s works, including “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Castle in the Sky.”

Likewise, in Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira,” adults are the ones who squabble. They jockey for power, and their lust for control of the strange, alien technology of Akira causes an atomic-bomb-like catastrophe at the end of the film. The teenage characters, on the other hand, display common sense throughout.

The film sends a message that adults can be reckless when man’s desire for power and ambition outweigh what is important. And children, still untainted by the vices that overtake humanity in adulthood and innocent enough to think rationally, are the ones who end up making the most practical decisions.

A number of films feature characters who display special powers or abilities, with radiation often the reason why. Several films explore the idea of unusual events or experiments resulting in young people with exceptional abilities, including Inazuman in a comic with the same name and Ellis in the comic “El Cazador de la Bruja” (“The Hunter of the Witch”).

Additionally, the manga series “Barefoot Gen” tells the story of a family wiped out by the atomic bomb, with a young boy and his mother the only survivors. Author Keiji Nakazawa loosely based these comics on his life. Growing up, he watched his sister die several weeks after birth from radiation sickness, and saw his mother’s health quickly deteriorate in the years after the war.

Tezuka believed the atomic bomb is the epitome of man’s inherent capacity for destruction. Yet while he commonly referenced death and war, he also believed in the perseverance of mankind and its ability to begin anew.

In some of his stories, both a futuristic and historic Japan are portrayed, with themes of death and rebirth commonly used as plot devices to symbolize Japan’s wartime and postwar experiences. But much like the phoenix — the mythical bird that sets itself on fire at the time of its death only to experience a rebirth — Tezuka’s Japan experiences a resurrection that mirrors Japan’s real-life postwar ascension to world superpower.

Other filmmakers have repurposed this theme. In “Space Cruiser Yamato” (also known as “Star Blazers”), an old Japanese warship is rebuilt into a powerful spaceship and sent off to save a planet Earth succumbing to radiation poisoning.


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