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

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – as well as the incendiary bombings of Tokyo – were traumatic experiences for the Japanese people. It’s no surprise that for years devastation remained at the forefront of their consciousness, and that part of the healing process involved returning to that imagery in literature, music, and art.

The final of Akira is just one example of apocalyptic imagery in anime and manga canon; a number of animated films and comics are full of atomic bomb references, which appear in many forms, from symbolic to literal. The devastating sequelae – orphaned children, radiation sickness, loss of national independence, destruction of nature – would also influence the genre, spawning a unique (and arguably unmatched) form of comic book and animated film.

Directors and artists who witnessed the devastation firsthand have been at the forefront of this movement. Yet to this day – 70 years after the bombs – these themes continue to be explored by their successors.

An iconic filmmaker leads the way

We can see the enduring images of firebombs and atomic bombs in the works of artist and director Osamu Tezuka and his successor, Hayao Miyazaki. Both had witnessed the devastation of the bombings at the end of the war.

The bomb became Tezuka’s particular obsession. Both his films and comics address themes such as dealing 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 who is orphaned by special circumstances and must survive on his own. Two examples are Little Wansa, about a puppy who escapes from his new owners and spends the series looking for his mother; and Young Bear Cub, who gets lost in the wilderness and must find his own family.

Misuse of technology

The tensions of technology are apparent in the work 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 human-like android named Astro Boy.

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

Astro Boy is one of many characters who symbolize the fusion of technology and nature, and the tension created by his capacity for both advancement and destruction.

Like Tezuka, award-winning host Hayao Miyazaki witnessed some of America’s air raids as a child.

Miyazaki’s work often refers to the abuse of technology and contains calls for human restraint. In Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, radioactive mutants populate the earth; at the beginning of the film, the narrator describes the strange and mutated state of the earth as a direct result of the misuse of nuclear technology by humans.

In the post-war years, Japan became an economic superpower. Possessing a fascination with technology, the country has become a world leader in the production of cars and electronics. Yet in characters like Astro Boy we see some of the tensions of the modern age: the idea that technology can never replace humans, and that the ability of technology to help humanity does not. equal to its ability to destroy it.

Orphans and mutants

There were also the aftermath of the bombs, some of which are still felt today: children left without parents, others (even unborn children) left permanently paralyzed by radiation.

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

Akiyuki Nosaka recounted his personal experiences as a child during the war in the popular animated film Grave of the Fireflies, which tells the story of a young boy and his sister escaping air raids and firebombing, scratching all the rations they can find. during the latter part of the war.


The Tomb of the Fireflies trailer.

Meanwhile, there are often powerful young orphans or independent young women in the works of Hayao Miyazaki, whether in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, or Castle in the Sky.

Likewise, in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, it’s the adults who bicker: they vie for power and their thirst to control Akira’s bizarre alien technology causes the atomic bomb-like catastrophe at the end of the film. The teenage characters, on the other hand, show common sense throughout the film.

The message seems to be that adults can be reckless when man’s desire for power and ambition trumps what’s important on Earth. And children, still untouched by the vices that pervade humanity in adulthood and innocent enough to think rationally, are the ones who end up making the most practical decisions on the whole.

Many families were orphaned because of the war, as well as the bomb, so a number of children were also transferred or affected by the bomb. In the anime and manga, this shows in the form of radioactive mutations or having extraordinary powers, in addition to taking on more adult responsibilities at an early age.

A number of films feature characters who display special powers or abilities, with radiation often being the primary cause. Several films exploring the idea of ​​unusual events or experiences resulting in young people with exceptional abilities include Inazuman in the comic book of the same name and the character Ellis in the comic El Cazador de la Bruja (The Witch Hunter ).

Additionally, the Barefoot Gen manga series tells the story of a family devastated by the atomic bomb, with a young boy and his mother as the only survivors. Author Keiji Nakazawa loosely based these comics on his own life: Growing up, Nakazawa saw a sister die weeks after birth from radiation sickness and saw her mother’s health deteriorate rapidly in the years that followed. followed the war.

Death, rebirth and hope for the future

Osamu Tezuka believed that the atomic bomb acted as the epitome of man’s inherent capacity for destruction. Yet while Tezuka commonly referred to death and war, he also believed in humanity’s persistence and the ability to start over.

In a number of his works, we see both a futuristic and historic Japan, with the themes of death and rebirth being commonly used as plots to symbolize the experiences of Japan (and the lives of many Japanese) over time. war and post-war, including the consequences of its destruction after the bombs fell. But just like the Phoenix – the mythical bird that ignites at the time of its death, to experience a rebirth – Tezuka’s Japan is experiencing a resurrection, which reflects the real rise of post-war Japan to the global superpower. .

In fact, Phoenix was the title of Tezuka’s most popular series, the one the artist considered his magnum opus. The work is a series of short stories dealing with man’s search for immortality (given or taken from the Phoenix, which represents the universe, by man drinking part of his blood); some characters appear multiple times in the stories, mainly from reincarnation, a common tenet in Buddhism.

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

In essence, what we have seen is that the atomic bomb indeed affected Japan to the point that the works of Tezuka and later artists inspired by him reflect the effects of the bomb on families, society, and the psyche. national. Much like the cycle of life, or the immortal Phoenix in the case of Tezuka, Japan has known how to reinvent itself and come back strong as a powerful global actor capable of starting from scratch, but with the idea that humanity must learn from mistakes and avoid repeating history. .

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.


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