Akira, Anime, World War II, & Apocalypse

I watched Akira last weekend.  At first, I didn’t have any fucking idea what to think about it.  Not so great, I thought.  Then, it dawned on me: Akira, and a lot of anime films (Berserk, Evangelion, and according to my gf, many others), are really allegorical re-tellings of WW2 up to the bombings (notice the Japanese-specific obsession with apocalyptic end-of-Tokyo/end-of-the-world endings to films, often with a nuclear-like explosion).

I think a comprehensive analysis of anime film could be done to show how they are essentially obsessed with making sense of modernization before and after the apocalyptic event that was WW2–the Japanese are obsessively trying to come to terms with that point in their past, which essentially marks the origin of their present society, and they do it through film.  WW2 is a trauma in the culture that they repeatedly confront through cultural representation.

They certainly do not come to terms in the schools, where the history of WW2 is largely suppressed: according to the pedagogical system, there was kind of a war in the 30s and 40s, and from somewhere to the West, a couple of bombs fell on Japan for some reason.  Up through high school, that’s basically the education one receives.  Anime films fill a void, by both retelling and reinterpreting the event of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by recasting the military (especially General Tojo, the benevolent military leader: the Colonel in Akira), the power hungry imperial-type leader (Hirohito: Griffith in Berserk, Tetsuo in Akira, Shinji‘s father in Eva), an arcane scientific/quasi-scientific modernity that runs out of control and eventually kills everyone (Akira in Akira, Griffith’s transformation in Berserk, the exo-suits in Eva), and finally, the good guy, the good conscience of the common people who are moved toward apocalypse against their will, either through weakness or unable to overcome the massive momentum toward catastrophe (Shinji in Eva, Kaneda in Akira, Guts in Berserk).  The last category could be considered a misrepresentation of facts (the Japanese people did not resist imperial expansion during WW2, like Kaneda or Guts), or a correct interpretation (they were too misinformed [weak] to really speak for their own interests, like Shinji), or perhaps more properly, as a re-reading of what the Japanese people WOULD have done if they could have: these characters, except Shinji (who is a tragic character), represent the progress of Japanese consciousness through history, and it is only in this way that these films may actually deviate from a true allegory for WW2 apocalypse–for reasons that are clear, since in the end, in spite of apocalypse, they leave the suggestion of hope, and a narrative that allows the Japanese to identify with something that refuses the role of the Japanese people in the past.  But, more importantly, for hope, there is always at the end of these films either a hint or an explicit statement that rebirth will bring about a new world or new Japanese society.  One sees this most clearly in Eva and Akira, but it’s also there in Berserk, since Guts does escape apocalypse and seek to right past wrongs.  In other words, after the point of apocalypse there is a rebirth of a New Japan, and a promise for perhaps an even more vibrant world, where the corruptions of the past (imperial Japan) are erased.  In spite of apocalypse, the movies manage to suggest that the endings of these films are not tragic–although many people die, it is possible, even, to consider them a source of a new hope.  But, the anxiety and indeed the warning of the overwhelming possibility of science/magic/modernity to spiral out of control of the people hangs nonetheless–and provides the Japanese with a verification of a perpetual anxiety that hangs over the Japanese consciousness as a result of their history in the 20th century.

Whereas for Japanese anime, the enemy comes from the inside and succeeds in destroying the world, reflecting that defeated historical consciousness of Japan (and defeated countries always blame an internal element)–for US film, the enemy comes from the outside and is foiled by the good US guys and prevented from destroying the world, reflecting the dominating historical consciousness of America.

Princess Mononoke

There are of course a ton of other messages in Princess Mononoke.  A commentary on the relationship between nature and modernity is the most explicit, but there’s also a discussion of gender relations throughout the movie.  At an extremely superficial level: dominating female characters and weak/stupid male characters is a constant theme, even going so far as including the stupidity of the male boar-god and the intelligence of the female wolf-goddess; also, female dominance is explicitly linked to the rise of Iron Town’s technology, when women can come to replace male warriors–and are actually preferable to them–because of the advent of gun technology.  One might also notice the overt sexual expression of the female Iron Town females–and the lack of any such expression on the part of the males.  The exception to this pattern, of course, is the male protagonist, who overcomes partisanship and saves the day… that notwithstanding, the theme is there and could be looked at in more detail.

What does this mean.  I’m starting to think that there’s one basic infrastructural narrative to a large portion of anime, basically all anime i’ve ever seen has this structure that I’ve characterized in this post… I’m sure there are some animes that depart from it with a completely different structure, but this structure predominates.

This brought to my mind the question of whetehr America has such a structure, although a different one, and in most dramas, I’d say yes.  I already characterized it in that paragraph after “a side note” or whatever.  Anyway, I’ve never even thought about it, so I don’t even have the reference point to think about it at the moment.  If so, then that brings about a certain possibility, namely this.

All movies within a culture have a certain predominant structure, where different genres (e.g. romantic comedy vs drama) are basically a different take at that same strucutre.  Now individual narratives that take place within that structure offer entirely different interpretations of that structure, which makes it seem to us that the structure doesn’t exist, as most of the details are different–even if overlaid over a foundation that remains the same.  That is to say, everything changes except this strucutre, and since the structure constantly remains the same, while the details change, we think that everything changes, since we don’t even see the structure due to the fact that it always remains the same.  But everything does not change.

To move on with a couple more implications.  Every interpretation of that structure is actually an interpretation of a moment in time, based upon what that structure serves as a metaphor for in historical time.  For example, this structure of the exploding world, then rebirth, etc. in anime is a metaphor for the “creation event” that was Nagasaki and Hiroshima in WW2.  And, every difference in the narrative is really just a different interpretation of the implications of these events for Japanese society, given that each narrative emphasizes different themes (i.e. dream control, environmentalism, etc.).  So anime/film becomes a competition of different themes with each other, an interpretation of the world once it is take for granted the importance of a given theme (according to the writer of the anime or film), given the basic constraints of what is taken in the popular consciousness as the “creation event” (whose metaphor undergirds the entire structure of all films).  In otehr words, film becomes an expression of a particular perspective on a virtually universally accepted (within a society, at least) historical consciousness within a given society.

A last implication would be this.  Film-watching directors would be said to be in a dialogue with other directors, meaning that there is a kind of dialectical relationship of continual interpretation going on in the creation of film.  Particularly film-literate directors–e.g. Tarantino, Nolan–should be most recognizably be seen to be doing this.


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