“Postwar extends forever.” This is one of the most memorable lines to come out of Shin Godzilla, Hideaki Anno’s ambitious reboot of the Godzilla franchise. In context, it’s a powerful moment. Our protagonist Yaguchi looks around at the world disrupted by Godzilla’s existence and voices something that he has always felt – that the problems which Godzilla laid bare were always there, and that this is the burden Japan must bear into the future.
12 Days of Anime
#3 – For Japan, the Postwar Extends Forever
Shin Godzilla is the most politically charged Godzilla film to date, which is remarkable considering that the franchise has always had strong symbolic importance in postwar Japan. In the original 1954 film, Godzilla is an allegory of nuclear power gone awry. By trampling over Japan’s largely ineffectual Self-Defense Force, the monster affirms just how powerless Japan has become under the American Occupation. New Godzilla films tend to pop up whenever Japan deals with heightened anxiety about its own security as a nation. For this reason, Godzilla’s enduring popularity is an emblem of Japan’s never-ending postwar.
Unlike the direct sequels to the original Godzilla, Shin Godzilla shows us Godzilla’s very first appearance, only in modern Japan. No one knows what to make of the beast, and the modern Japanese government initially can’t even decide whether to kill Godzilla or protect it as rare wildlife. The film’s sharp criticisms of Japanese bureaucracy feel particularly relevant in a country still reeling from the government’s tragic mismanagement of the Fukushima crisis. Shin Godzilla was a loud and angry film, but it ended up being the highest-earning live action film produced domestically in Japan since 2013 for that very reason.
I’m glad I got to see Shin Godzilla. It reminded me a lot of Sho Aikawa’s script work on Concrete Revolutio in that it demanded a great deal of cultural literacy from the viewer to piece together the significance of what’s happening onscreen. At times like these, my Japanese degree comes in handy, but I’m sure a lot of extra layers went over my head anyway.
But it wasn’t just my textbook knowledge of Japanese history and politics that helped me appreciate Shin Godzilla and Concrete Revolutio. In 2016, I began to engage with the issues of postwar Japan on a more emotional level. I don’t mean to say that I became particularly educated on the subjects, although I did do some reading here and there. Rather, I spent more time grappling with a certain question in my mind.
What would it be like to grow up in a country that lost the war?
A country that lost the war cannot be allowed to forget that it lost. It must continue to deal with the consequences of war, for it cannot claim victor’s justice.
This question was what led me to investigate the Japanese reactions to the Gate anime, which ended up being one of my most popular posts this year. Despite being as pro-military as your average American blockbuster film, the Gate anime attracted huge controversy on both sides of the Pacific. I personally think that Gate is a pretty mediocre anime, but it did stand out to me how Japan was being judged by different standards from the rest of the world. While I’m no fan of nationalism of any stripe, there’s simply no indication that Japan will return to its imperial past, and yet its memory is constantly invoked.
In 2016, I also watched Space Battleship Yamato 2199. I never blogged about it at the time, but actually it ended up becoming one of my favourite anime of all time, precisely because of how it dealt with these issues of war and memory.
The basic premise of Space Battleship Yamato 2199 is one of historical revisionism. The Yamato was the name of one of the heaviest and most majestic battleships ever built. It was supposed to be the saviour of the Imperial Japanese Army, but it was sunk almost immediately in the Battle of Okinawa. In the romantic sci-fi opera world of Space Battleship Yamato 2199, however, not only does the battleship return from a seemingly hopeless journey into space, it also succeeds in saving the world many times over.
On the surface, this seems like nothing but historical whitewashing. But the crew of Space Battleship Yamato deals with war guilt and personal loss throughout the tale. The anime presents a romanticised picture of what the Yamato should have been, instead of what it was. It’s this deep pathos behind the fiction that gives the romantic tale its emotional weight.
By the time the real-life Yamato set sail on its final voyage, the war was already lost. There was no way that the Yamato could turn it around. She might have been an impressive ship in her own right, but she was on the losing side of the design war. Large warships were falling out of vogue by World War II, replaced by the lighter and speedier aircraft carriers. The Yamato never stood a chance against repeated aerial bombings.
And even if Japan had won that battle, what then? The war was a hopeless venture from the start. Even if Japan had won the war, its people would have lost.
I believe that a story like Space Battleship Yamato could only have emerged from a country that had lost the war. Above all else, I interpret Space Battleship Yamato as an expression of grief. Japan lost, not because its leaders were right, but because they were wrong, and the only way to make things right was to put faith in the new generation.
The real-life Yamato was also a symbol of hope, but now it is a grave in the ocean.
That’s why Captain Okita swears that he will see Earth again, even though he is deathly ill. He moves forward for the sake of the new generation, so that there will be no more hopeless sacrifices.
There’s a scene at the very end of episode 7 where Kodai and Mori, the two young officers, look back towards Earth for the last time before their ship loses contact with the planet. Instead of falling into fear, the two of them are full of hope. “We will come back,” Kodai insists. “We will come back!”
These words are in the lyrics of the anime’s famous opening theme as well.
When I listened to these words, I thought of an entire lost generation, sleeping at the bottom of the sea… and I began to cry.
Very interesting article. Although the war is buried quite deeply its presence can still be felt in even – perhaps especially – the more remote corners of Japan. A very complex subject to explore, so thanks for sharing this.
Thanks for the comment! Glad you find the post interesting. I also find the theme of war and memory fascinating, perhaps because the Japanese experience has been so radically different from that of the ANZACs. It makes me want to look for the traces of the war in my own society, separate from the embellishments and legends.
The Battleship Yamato was sent off alone on a suicide mission against the US Navy because the Japanese didn’t want it to be captured. Instead of dying in a blaze of glory against its intended target, it was put down ignobly quite a distance away by Allied aircraft.
It would almost be funny if it weren’t so miserable. What an epic fail…
I apologize in advance for this, but your reflection on the Yamato made me think a bit of the KanColle version of the ship (I’m sorry I’m sorry), where she awaits on a hidden island, unused because of the massive amount of resources she requires to operate. Eventually, the ship appears to take part in a certain mission (she saves the day, leaving the island in a shounen-style heroic entrance, only partially fueled, but there nonetheless).
All that aside, there’s a strange sense of melancholy to the thought of this powerful ship sitting unused on an island by herself. Powerful, but ultimately crippled and unable to achieve her full potential, even in a moment of heroism.
I dunno if I have any other thoughts, but that sense of melancholy tied to the Yamato… perhaps the most nuanced the KanColle anime ever was…
I never watched or played Kancolle, so thanks for the sharing! It’s really interesting. Even to us non-Japanese, there’s something haunting about the story of Yamato…
[…] I cried over Space Battleship Yamato 2199. […]
One of the things I did back in college was research the birth of anime as a presentation to the club, and that’s when I realized Yamato’s effect on Japan’s culture, and… well, you captured it really well here. The only thing I’d like to note is that ALL of the Battleship Yamato media (including the high budget life-action movie) has these themes — that Yamato, unlike the real ship, will face insurmountable odds and somehow always bring hope back.
I do wish to note one thing:
That’s because you rarely hear about it in the western world. I assure you, countries like India and Indonesia would very much like to see the Imperialistic powers like Great Britain and Netherlands apologize for their actions, and they press for it too (to a degree). The only problem is that there’s no desire to be apologetic. Well, what’s India going to do? Start another war to force an apology?
Japan and Germany is different because NOT JUST the victims of their aggression demand justice, but it’s become recognized worldwide as an injustice (the media sees it as acceptable and thus reports on it). Whereas… articles about how Churchill starved millions of Indians to death in WW2 due to his food policies? Or how the Americans hoped to starve post-war Germany back to an agrarian state until the Marshal Plan turned it around? (not kidding; there were documented reports of American troops turning back the Pope’s food parcels for orphan children — how callous do you have to be for that?). You just never heard about this because in the end, the western media is driven by profit — and nobody wants to learn that their ancestors were terrible people.
Btw… Japan actually has it EASY, compared to Germany. I’m frankly surprised Germany never mentions this when people (like Greece) raise the topic of Nazi atrocities:
(*the minimum human metabolism is 1500 calories a day. So essentially, the Allies turned the entire country into a giant Concentration Camp for 2 years)
That… is real Victor’s Justice. Not just some words of accusation, but actual, brutal punishment. McArthur went lenient on Japan so this never happened to them (also helpful that Chiang Kai-shek was too busy with a Civil War to send ‘garrison troops’ as agreed upon, because he did hate the Japanese).