Of the many images of disaster coming to us from Japan, one continues to haunt me: a dark, angry, roiling wave of water, thick with cars and homes and soil, sweeps across a flat landscape and swallows farms and fields into its churning blackness.
I can’t help but be reminded of the climax of the classic 1988 animated film Akira, when the title character, mutated by government experimentation and adolescent hormones, finds his body swelling out of control and consuming everything that gets in its way.
I was on a bus in central Tokyo with the Japanese American Leadership Delegation when the quake hit, but became aware of the extent of the destruction only hours later, as the horrifying images of the tsunami on the northeastern coast began to spread. In the days after the disaster, those scenes unfolding on television and the Internet have spontaneously called to mind countless images of devastation, all built up from a lifetime of Japanese monster movies, manga, anime, and videogames.
Of course, no cinematic scene, however terrifying and unforgettable, can compare with the ongoing horror of Japan’s very real tragedy. Yet in times of disaster, the human mind often turns to fiction to make sense of an overwhelming reality, while fiction, in turn, has helped shape the way we view the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, Japan has long been more fascinated with imagined catastrophes and fictional apocalypses than any other culture.
In the years since World War II, fictional disaster has been visited upon Japan—and especially its capital city, Tokyo—more frequently than any other place on the globe. From silent movies depicting the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 to the 2006 blockbuster Japan Sinks, the country has fallen victim to fires, floods, cyclonic winds, volcanoes, alien invasions, supernatural curses, viruses, toxic pollution, all nature of giant monsters, robots, blobs, and repeated nuclear explosions. Through most of the postwar period, and certainly since the mid-1960s, Japanese audiences could view the fictionalized destruction of their nation on television or at a nearby movie theater at least every week, and sometimes every day.
These fictional disasters have mirrored Japan’s real-world vulnerability to catastrophic events. In its five centuries of history, Tokyo may well have been destroyed and reconstructed more than any other major world city, suffering numerous horrific fires, a devastating earthquake in 1923, and the 1945 firebombings. Other Japanese cities have also suffered substantial catastrophes—the storm surge that swept across Osaka in 1934; the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, which struck Kobe in 1995; the wartime bombings of 66 urban areas, including the atomic attacks that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Among these real-world disasters, the atomic bombings have cast the longest shadow on Japanese popular culture. Gojira, the 1954 classic that launched the Godzilla film series, tells the story of a Jurassic survivor rendered huge and radioactive by U.S. hydrogen-bomb testing in the South Pacific. The monster attacks and devastates Tokyo, rendering the city a smoldering, flattened wasteland, much as it had been in 1945. A generation later, in the 1970s anime Space Battleship Yamato, bombs launched by a hostile planet leave the surface of the earth cratered and irradiated, with humans forced to retreat to underground tunnels.
Many scholars and critics have seen in the fictional disasters of Japanese pop culture a country struggling with its unresolved fears and feelings of historical vulnerability, as well as guilt over the war and lingering animosities from the atomic bombings, defeat, and American occupation. In her influential 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” Susan Sontag describes how Godzilla and the other creations of Japanese science fiction provided a distraction for moviegoers in the anxious Cold War decades while also numbing them to the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust.
There is indeed an element of catharsis in Japan’s apocalyptic pop culture. Movies, TV series, animation, comic books, and videogames have allowed audiences to explore painful and profound issues that aren’t discussed in polite Japanese society. They have reenacted very real horrors, but at a safe distance. And they have prepared their Japanese viewers for unknown disasters to come.
But for all the darkness and nihilism, Japan’s disaster fantasies have also revealed a tremendous sense of optimism, a profound faith in progress, and a celebration of the power of community. Despite all of Godzilla’s destructive fury, the monster is eventually defeated, and the Japanese nation, even if wounded by this latest radioactive menace from across the seas, endures at the end. In the long-running Ultraman television series, Tokyo is devastated every week by monstrous aliens, only to be magically regenerated, as good as new, for the next episode. Even in Space Battleship Yamato, the earth is eventually restored to lush greenness by a radiation-scrubbing device called the Cosmo-Cleaner. As in real life, where Tokyo has always rallied back from destruction, Japan’s apocalyptic pop culture affirms the promise of science, the resilience of the Japanese people, and the hope for an even better, brighter future on the other side of disaster.
In its uncertain days and months ahead, Japan will need to draw upon this spirit of optimism amid the gloom. The challenge will be overcoming not simply the ravages of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis but also a recent history of stagnation, division, and discouragement. For as long as most of us can remember, Japan has seemed rudderless and adrift, with an economy mired in a tenacious recession, a fractured political order that has seen 14 prime ministers in the last 20 years, and an antiquated educational system that emphasizes conformity over creativity. Japan’s youth have been criticized by the older generation as lacking in character and content with just getting by; Japan’s elder elites, meanwhile, have been damned by the young as rigid, unreceptive to fresh thinking, and overly invested in a system that has failed.
If the exuberance of Japanese popular culture today holds any lesson for us, it is that Japan’s younger generation—those who create and consume anime and manga, cult movies, and TV serials—has no shortage of imagination, energy, or aspirations. But Japan, and especially its youth, now face a defining moment. The catastrophes rehearsed countless times in monster movies and animated fantasy worlds are now chillingly real. And, regrettably, Japan can’t count on cinematic happy endings, on the timely intervention of Ultraman, or on the discovery of a miraculous Cosmo-Cleaner. Only time will tell how a generation of Japanese weaned on fantasies of disaster, but raised in one of the world’s safest and richest societies, will rise to this ultimate test.
Tsutsui is dean of Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences and professor of Japanese history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and author of Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters.