The International Writers Magazine: Animation

Real Horror in Animation
Kayt Solomon

What 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 girl’s 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.

Mori Masaki’s 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 nation’s 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, Japan’s 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 Nakazawa’s 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 Masaki’s 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. Takahata’s 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 Otomo’s 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 Jung’s 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. Gen’s 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, Gen’s 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 woman’s breasts. The next mother she encounters threatens to kill Kimie’s 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 woman’s 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 carp’s 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 country’s 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 country’s aptitude for animation comes from.

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 "Don’t let this happen again."

Because Nakazawa’s 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.

The 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 hadn’t happened, in the same way that they do not like to teach about their country’s 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 be achieved.

© Kayt Solomon June 2006

Kayt is a recent graduate from the University of Portsmouth

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