Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Bomb

I bring ANIME MONTH to a close by cheating a bit and invoking MANGA MONTH, although the manga in question has been adapted as an outstanding anime film itself. I am speaking of none other than Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo, the fourth volume of which I read just last week.

At this point I am two-thirds of the way finished with the manga epic, and well past most of the story elements I’d recognize from the film. I had originally started reading Akira because it’s a modern masterpiece, not just among manga volumes but held up against anything in western comics as well, and it just seemed appropriate to have it under my belt. Plus, as fascinating as the anime film is, I thought I might understand the story a little better if I went back to the original source material. On that latter point, the end result remains to be seen. It’s still an incredibly dense and fractured and chaotic story across thousands of pages, and I have two books left to go. Maybe it will all make perfect, elegant sense when I finish the final page, or maybe the unanswerable mysteries of the movie simply echo the ambiguities of the manga. We shall see!

For a while there, I was working on this theory about a trend in apocalyptic entertainment, specifically in the 1980’s, that manifested itself especially clearly in works like Otomo’s Akira and Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen. Basically as the Cold War progressed, the fear of nuclear war became less and less oriented on the Soviet bloc enemies and more fixated on the weapons themselves. Humanity had invented this process for destructively releasing atomic energy and built it into objects which possessed no ideology of their own, and that in itself was fairly terrifying. We might stockpile hundreds or thousands of missiles armed with nuclear warheads, but what if a warhead were stolen? Or a missile launched by accident, or by terrorist takeover of a silo, or any other scenario? If we should lose physical control of one of these doomsday devices, nothing would prevent them from being turned against us.

So from this nightmarish hypothetical arose the idea (fortunately only ever manifested in science-fiction) of weaponized human beings. The titular Akira is a little boy bred to possess psionic powers just as devastating as H-bombs, and in fact he ends up leveling Tokyo. (And then later, leveling Neo-Tokyo.) Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen is the product of an experimental accident rather than a purposeful creation, but he too has origins in government/military operations. At first glance, this seems like the answer to the conundrum. If a U.S. nuclear weapon were to fall into the wrong hands, it could be used on Washington, D.C. or any other target. But if Doctor Manhattan were to fall into the wrong hands, he presumably would not lay waste to the American capital because he himself is American. The combination of megatons of power and moral fortitude could close up a major weakness in the arms race strategy.

Of course, things never work out as planned, as all stories about nuclear armageddon are about hubris and other moral failings. Akira doesn’t need to be stolen or manipulated to destroy Tokyo, he simply can’t be controlled because he’s a willful child. Doctor Manhattan becomes so powerful that he transcends human morality (and that comes long after he transcends petty nationalism). Somehow in these stories the military and political powers convince themselves that people are more predictable and easier to control than inanimate objects, much to their eventual chagrin.

Like I said, it’s only a half-baked idea, but it remains lodged in my brain somehow. Probably because I grew up with air raid drills in the suburbs of New York City, with nuclear holocaust lurking as a very real possibility during most if not all of my formative childhood years. (If I had ever pursued some kind of masters degree in American Studies I almost certainly would have oriented my work around my morbid recollections of nuclear war in 70’s and 80’s children’s entertainment.) I bring this up now because it feels like the elephant in the room at the end of ANIME MONTH. Sword of the Stranger is set in feudal Japan, so it gets a pass, but Tokyo Story is set in the early 1950’s and Grave of the Fireflies is literally about the end of World War II, yet neither of those films really addresses Hiroshima or Nagasaki at all. I would expect that kind of literally earth-shattering event would creep into everything in the country where it happened, one way or another. Maybe it was simply too monstrous, too heinous to make any sense of. Or maybe the casualties of the birth of the atomic age were ever-present in everyone’s minds and conscious decisions were made to create art which did not directly represent it, to provide some kind of respite. Whatever the case, Otomo clearly had no problem confronting, and conveying, images of ruined and devastated cities for the sake of his story. It seems weirdly distant now, a future no longer eerily possible, only eerie. But at the time it was published, it must have been incredibly shocking.

I can remember studying World War II in high school and being indoctrinated with all of the arguments about how dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a necessity which saved lives on both sides, as the Japanese would have fought to the death and never surrendered if not for our excessive show of unstoppable force. And I can also remember near-constant warnings about how the Japanese were going to take over the world economically thanks to their work ethic of tireless dedication. Obviously that didn’t happen, which sometimes makes me wonder how the predictions could have been so wrong. Now I wonder if maybe there was a kind of collective, subconscious, unspeakable guilt at work, remorse for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a belief that if Japan did rise again and dominate us all, that we more or less deserved it. But there’s peace between us and Japan now on all fronts, and I’m free to enjoy as much anime and manga as I can stomach. Things could be a lot worse.

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