International Writers Magazine: Animation
Horror in Animation
is it about Japanese culture that has lead to the use of animation
as a major medium for exploring the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima?
We watch, eyes agog, as flesh melts from a young girls face
whilst her eyeballs fall from their sockets and squelch to the
ground. Seconds later, a young boy and his pregnant mother are
forced to leave their family to burn alive as toxic rain falls
all around them. Animation this is, but a cute and cuddly story
it is not.
animated adaptation of Hadashi no Gen (1983) the manga by Hiroshima
survivor Keiji Nakazawa trod where no anime had trodden before, by depicting
the immediate and after-effects of the nuclear bomb blast. Each one
of the many graphic and disturbing images was drawn out by hand, the
obvious low-budget adding to rather than detracting from the overall
message of the film.
It took many years for the Japanese film industry to begin to address
the issue of nuclear warfare. In the years immediately following the
war Allied Forces occupied Japan, and media output was heavily censored.
The people of Hiroshima were more concerned with immediate affairs like
rebuilding their shattered town and attempting to return to a state
of normality than mourning for those who were already dead. The sense
of chaos that is portrayed in Hadashi no Gen continued to abound in
Hiroshima, as Nakazawa says, "The confusion lasted for one or two
years after the nations defeat in the war."
As a nation, it seems that Japan has avoided acknowledging events that
took place during World War Two, "In its place is substituted a
vague notion of "unfortunate events" and Japan as the perpetual
victim of intercultural "misunderstandings"."(Shapiro)
. In particular, Japans isolationism leads to a desire not to
discuss such events as the nuclear attacks with outsiders,
or non-Japanese. Despite living in Japan for many years, a Westerner
will still be part-stranger, even to his closest Japanese friends. So
why would such a repressive and isolationist culture such as that of
Japan use the most graphic of filmic genres in which to render its most
personal and painful of memories?
During the eclectic 1960s in Japan, many creative people in the film
industry - particularly directors - began a movement towards a more
independent work ethic, moving away from strictly controlled studio
work and into a realm where they were able to explore such subjects
as were important to them. This became known as the Japanese New Wave,
and confronted not only cinematic traditions, but also repressive traditions
in Japanese society, for example the emphasis on group conformity and
patriarchal hierarchy. Without this movement in Japanese film it is
possible that Hadashi no Gen would not have been made in animated or
live action form.
As it stands, before the animation Nakazawas manga was made into
a three live-action films produced by Gendai Production and directed
by Tengo Yamada in the late 1970s. However these films have disappeared
into relative obscurity after the popularity of Masakis animated
version. The animation may be low-budget but the sincerity of the intentions
and the poignancy of the storyline mean that this is soon irrelevant
to the viewer. Animation is a medium that is used to portray the fantastical;
in Disney films it means that pumpkins can be turned into carriages
and beasts can become handsome princes. But in Anime it has also been
used to explore taboo subjects like the use of nuclear weapons in Japan,
and other tragedies that befell the country during the Second World
War. Takahatas Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies,
1988) uses two orphaned children to recount the horrors of the firebombing
carried out across Japan, and other post-apocalyptic anime, such as
Katsuhiro Otomos Akira (1988), also deal with the nuclear
image. These images are fantastical, almost beyond comprehension - the
difference being that these have happened and could happen again unlike
the fairy sparkles and talking animals of the Western cartoon.
The other similarity shared by all the films mentioned above is their
use of young children as the main protagonists. The child motif,
as Shapiro refers to it, is common in atomic bomb cinema. Taking his
cues from Jungs theory of psychoanalysis, he feels that "In
bomb films the "child" is typically a harbinger of crisis
and the apocalypse". In these animated films, however, children
are not only a sign of the coming of apocalyptical events, but also
the symbol of endurance and survival. Gens mother is ready to
give up and die with her husband and children, but Gen pulls her away
and provides for her in the way that his Father has told him to. "Children
in Japanese culture, for example, are taught that they should repay
the sacrifices made for them by their parents by making similar sacrifices
for their own children." Gen starts early by repaying the sacrifice
that his father has made (to die without his wife and unborn child)
by saving his mother and delivering her child. Throughout the rest of
the film, Gen provides for his mother by scavenging and working for
food and supplies, highlighting also the importance of family in Japan,
and the patriarchal attitudes to man as provider.
Whilst some children promote survival in Hadashi no Gen, younger children
also represent the greatest loss through the recurring image of babies
and mothers separated. In a particularly difficult scene to watch, Gens
mother, Kimie, finds that her own breast milk has dried up, and goes
in search of another mother who can feed her child. She sees a lady
nursing and rushes over, only to discover that the baby is suckling
tragically at a dead womans breasts. The next mother she encounters
threatens to kill Kimies newborn daughter because of the grief
that she is feeling over her own baby, who lies dead on the ground nearby.
It is unlikely that such unpleasant images would be created by a Western
animation company. Not only would the subject matter be considered too
difficult or disturbing for children to watch, the depiction of a womans
naked breasts would also be considered unsuitable. The naked body is
very common in Japanese manga, and the Japanese are very unabashed about
reading these graphic novels. This is in contrast to their disapproval
of actual public affection, to the extent that in some areas, holding
hands would be frowned on.
But more than anything, children in Hadashi no Gen are symbols of hope.
The importance of children in Japanese culture is epitomized by festivals
on March 3rd and May 5th, known as Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival, a festival
for girls) and Tango no Sekku (a festival for boys). During tango no
sekku, families that have male children fly koinobori outside their
houses. These are large carp shaped kites: "The carp was chosen
because it symbolizes strength and success; according to a Chinese legend,
a carp swam upstream to become a dragon." In Hadashi no Gen the
carp symbolism is also important, as Gen and Shinji steal a carp from
a local pond because they are told that drinking a carps blood
and then eating the carp would make their mother better.
Superstition still plays a role in everyday life in Japan, to the extent
that guidebooks and websites give advice on certain guidelines you should
follow in Japan. Many of these superstitions derive from the myths and
legends that have been used to tell the story of the creation of the
world since 11,000 BC. Mythologies have also grown up around spirits
that are believed to live in trees, plants, stones and animals as part
of the Shinto religion. The other major religion in Japan is Buddhism,
which is where the countrys idiosyncratic artistic style stemmed
from. For hundreds of years, the Japanese have used woodcuts to tell
stories and to allow people to enjoy a life that they are not able to
live themselves in a similar way to European oral and literary
fairy tales. This tradition developed into manga, known in the West
as comic books or graphic novels, and it is
probable that this is where the countrys aptitude for animation
Manga and anime are not confined to being for children in the way that
we pigeon-hole them in the West, but it does mean that the subject matter
of Hadashi no Gen is much more shocking and urgent to us, because we
are not used to seeing such images in a style that we associate with
children. It seems that the Japanese credit their children with more
intelligence than we do. In Britain, Hadashi no Gen was recently released
on DVD rated 12, but in Japan, the film is often shown to school children,
even those in primary school. This happens particularly in Hiroshima
itself. Hadashi no Gen is a way of remembering what happened to the
city and passing the message on to future generations the generations
that will one day be in charge that this is the pain and devastation
that nuclear bombs will cause. The overwhelming sentiment of Hadashi
no Gen, the manga and the anime, is "Dont let this happen
aim was to spread this message as far as he could , animation does not
appear so unusual a choice not only does it seem controversial
in the West because of the subject matter, animation is also easy to
dub into other languages therefore encouraging worldwide distribution.
In Japan, animation can be identified as a serious art form, audiences
know that there are varying genres within animation and so can take
an animated film seriously in the same way as a live-action film. The
devastating images can be portrayed in animation without fear of the
comedy that so often comes with low budget special effects. The grotesque
and violent images of human death caused by the atomic blast are portrayed
in a gaudy palette of pinks, purples and blues, a strong contrast to
the more natural shades of the beginning portion of the film.
Hiroshima is distorted at every level. Each mind and medium it passes
through narrows it, widens it, places it, or shifts it.
word Hiroshima is automatically linked to the atomic
bomb in the minds of people across the world. A city whose identity
was wiped out along with its history and its people. Much more so
than Nagasaki, also victim to the atomic bomb, Hiroshima has come
to represent the greatest in human-imposed tragedy. The Japanese
are somewhat ashamed of Hiroshima. In the 1960s when Nakazawa began
writing Hadashi no Gen he wanted to challenge these preconceptions.
He explains: "People
in Tokyo looked at you very strangely if you talked about it, so I learned
to keep quiet. There was still an irrational fear among many Japanese
that you could "catch" radiation sickness from A-bomb victims.
There were plenty of people like that, even in a big city like Tokyo."
With an almost racist attitude towards atomic bomb survivors, the rest
of Japan was embarrassed about Hiroshima they wanted to pretend
that it hadnt happened, in the same way that they do not like
to teach about their countrys own atrocities in Japanese history.
It was this sense of shame and prejudice that Nakazawa also wanted to
challenge whilst spreading his anti-nuclear message.
It is fair to assume that the general reaction to Hadashi no Gen in
Hiroshima itself is favourable. Whilst many of those who remember the
attack find it almost impossible to talk about, most tend to agree that
the message should be spread to stop anything similar from ever happening
again. The fact that Hadashi no Gen delivers this message is unquestionable.
It is ironic that through animation, the greatest sense of reality can
© Kayt Solomon June 2006
Kayt is a recent graduate from the University of Portsmouth
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