Like Hollywood in the 1970s, with its queasy procession of upside-down ships, crippled airplanes and towering infernos, postwar Japanese popular culture has had a taste for disaster.
The sublimely cheesy, enormously popular “Godzilla” films launched in the 1950s depicted a dinosaur-like monster, spawned by underwater nuclear detonations, crashing through the streets of Tokyo. The popular 1973 novel “Japan Sinks” envisions the island nation being physically split in two by a combined earthquake-tsunami. And in the landmark 1988 animated sci-fi film “Akira,” adapted from a manga epic, a nuclear explosion levels Tokyo and precipitates World War III.
The three-headed calamity of earthquake, tsunami and near nuclear meltdown that has ravaged Japan this month has awakened some of the country’s most familiar disaster narratives. From short stories inspired by previous natural calamities to comic book series based on survivors’ accounts of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some of these apocalyptic narratives are being evoked by commentators in and outside Japan to draw meaning from the latest catastrophes that have rocked Japan.
“Certainly the specter of the smoking nuclear reactors is a very scary one, and just echoes some of what we’ve seen before in animation and manga, where entire cities may be wiped out, or entire planets in some of the wilder science fiction,” said Charles Solomon, an L.A.-based animation critic and historian, referring to recent imagery of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Practically all world cultures have produced creation and destruction myths, stories and imagery that herald new beginnings or prophesy imminent doom. But few rival Japan for the sheer profusion and specificity of such narratives.
The apocalyptic streak in post-World War II Japanese pop culture has two primary sources: the country’s precarious geography, perched at the intersection of shifting tectonic plates; and the Allied bombing raids that devastated Japanese cities, culminating in the horrors of the atomic attacks of August 1945.
In subsequent decades, a resonant motif has been the idea of scientific experimentation run amok and science “being used secretly and being involved with government and industrial cabals,” Solomon said. That theme has gained traction this month as Japanese have expressed fears about the country’s disaster preparedness and voiced doubts over government assurances that the radiation leaking from the crippled power plant is not life-threatening.
Akira Mizuta Lippit, a USC professor of cinematic arts and East Asian languages and cultures, has seen Japanese media reports in which civilian survivors of the Fukushima Daiichi leaks are being referred to as hibakushi. The term literally means someone who has borne the brunt of a fiery attack, but since World War II specifically has referred to Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. “I don’t think anybody thought this word would be used again in this generation, but that word has gone back into circulation,” said Lippit, who spent much of his youth in Tokyo.
The ongoing problems at Fukushima Daiichi have underscored the “horrible irony and paradox” of Japan being both the only country ever to have been attacked with nuclear weapons as well as an avid promoter of the nuclear power industry, Lippit said. “There’s a way in which the events that are happening now open up the events of 1945 and make you wonder if that event ever ended,” he said.
Other disturbing echoes of Japan’s real-life and pop-culture pasts have resounded in recent days. The “Godzilla” movies were famously inspired by an actual event: the contamination of a Japanese fishing trawler and its 23 crew members by radioactive fallout from a U.S. hydrogen bomb test explosion in the Marshall Islands. Now, some Japanese fishermen are concerned that radiation could contaminate their hauls, despite officials’ assertions that this is unlikely.
A well-known 1978 science fiction story, Shinichi Hoshi’s “He-y, Come On Ou-t!,” evinces a similar anxiety about nuclear power and skepticism toward the officials in charge of public safety. In Hoshi’s tale, a destructive typhoon sweeps away a small village shrine, leaving a hole “at least five thousand meters deep.” The town’s mayor allows a concessionaire to turn the hole into a dump, “perfect for the disposal of such things as waste from nuclear reactors,” dead animals “used in contagious disease experiments” and “boxes of unnecessary classified documents.”
“The people of the village were a bit worried about this,” Hoshi writes sardonically, “but they consented when it was explained that there would be absolutely no above-ground contamination for several thousand years and that they would share in the profits.”
Ambivalence toward “scientific progress” also can be seen in the influential movie “Akira” of 1988. Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, it depicts a postmodern metropolis, Neo-Tokyo, that rises from the ruins of old Tokyo, but it’s undermined by gang violence and governmental corruption.
“Akira” expresses not only fears of nuclear catastrophe but also a leeriness toward the idea that “rebuilding” after disasters is simply part of a natural cycle in which cities and societies can be repeatedly blown up and reconstructed through “a kind of capitalist reinvestment,” said Thomas LaMarre, a professor of East Asian studies and art history at McGill University in Montreal. In the reconstructed Neo-Tokyo of “Akira,” prosperity has returned, but only because other systemic problems have been swept under the rug.
“That’s sort of the key to understanding what’s going on in Japan,” LaMarre said, “this kind of sense that obviously you want to be bailed out, you want to be rebuilt, you want things reconstructed. But at the same time there’s a desire for a definite break with the past.... And as we all know, Japan’s been having a lot of economic problems for a long time, and there’s growing problems with immigration, unemployment, aging. And so there’s a strange sense of not knowing whether to want things to go back to the way they were or to really have change through these catastrophes.”
Like their Western counterparts, some of Japan’s disaster narratives are allegories, morality tales or alternative histories that allow artists to selectively rewrite Japan’s problematic imperial past, or project that real-life past into a dystopian future. Kazuaki Kiriya’s anime-steampunk movie “Casshern” (2004) posits a Japan-like, militaristic country that colonizes Asia and Russia and inflicts grave environmental damage. One critic observed that “the real context of ‘Casshern’ is … the expression of collective guilt over Japanese wartime atrocities.”
More personal and psychological forms of disaster-induced trauma are explored in “After the Quake” (2002), a short-story collection by Haruki Murakami, inspired by the devastating 1995 Osaka-Kobe temblor. One of the stories titled “UFO in Kushiro” suggests that Japan has papered over existential threats with material affluence. “The economy was healthy, real-estate prices were rising, and Japan was overflowing with money,” Murakami writes. “People’s wallets were bursting with ten thousand-yen bills, and everyone was dying to spend them.”
The story’s protagonist, a Tokyo electronics salesman, has been living a safe and comfortable if dull existence. But then his wife, who has been fixated on TV coverage of the Kobe quake, mysteriously leaves him, and his sense of well being begins to unravel.
Another story in that collection, “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” unfolds almost as a parody of the comic-book superheroes (such as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) that have been so prevalent in postwar Japanese pop culture. In the story, a giant Nietzsche-quoting frog shows up in the apartment of a humdrum, self-sacrificing bank loan collector named Katagari to announce that it has come to save Tokyo from destruction by an earthquake triggered by a huge, malevolent worm. At its conclusion, the story indicates that the anthropomorphic amphibian is a projection of Katagari’s desire to be a superhero savior rather than an ordinary Japanese citizen bearing his ordeal with compliant stoicism.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Japanese filmmakers were dissuaded from making war-themed films, but “monster” and “ghost” genre films sprang up to give vent to the country’s suppressed anxieties, Lippit said. The terrifying and tragic events of this month, he added, will provide “another test for Japan to attempt to seize control of its image in the world.”