Japan: The Imagination of Disaster

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Last week, Japanese-American historian Bill Tsutsui found himself in Tokyo in the middle of the earthquake: “We were outside this hotel and the earth started moving.  And all of a sudden people started running out.  First just a few, but then wave after wave.  And after it was over, one of my colleagues turned to me and said, ‘You know, that reminded me of a Godzilla movie.’”

There’s a reason why Japanese horror movies come to mind in the middle of this catastrophe.  Disasters — natural and man-made — have marked Japan for centuries.  And they’ve become powerful (and popular) archetypes in Japanese culture: from the most famous image in Japanese art, Hokusai’s Great Wave, to the post-apocalyptic anime film Akira.   Japanese pop culture has been deeply affected by what Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster”:  

For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. ... One of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.

                                                                            — from Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966)

Kurt Andersen talks with Tsutsui, author of Godzilla on My Mind, which looks at nuclear war and monster movies.  And Roland Kelts, the Japanese-American author of Japanamerica, who describes how artists are already responding to the tragedy with images of classic superheroes helping with the relief effort.

(Author unknown)

As we gathered materials for our segment, I trawled YouTube for clips of Akira, Grave of the Fireflies, and others. Barefoot Gen contains the most graphic and heartbreaking scene of nuclear destruction I’ve seen.  In three minutes, Hiroshima dissolves into a wasteland of ash, debris, and human remains. You’re forced to watch every element of that dissolution in vivid detail and in silence, as often happens in the most horrifying moments in anime.

Yet Tsutsui says the images of destruction that have been so persuasive in Japanese film ultimately contain something hopeful. "As many times as Tokyo gets destroyed,” he tells Kurt, “it also gets reborn, rebuilt."

We’ll continue to watch, wait, and hope for good news from Japan.

(Author unknown)

Music Playlist

  1. Incidental Music from the film Godzilla/Gojira

  2. Ponyo Rides a Sea of Fish

    Artist: Joe Hisaishi
    Album: Ponyo soundtrack
    Label: Phantasm Imports
  3. End Titles Theme

    Album: music from the motion picture Grave of the Fireflies