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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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“Artist don't create worlds, they reflect it.”

 —Ben Elton

“This picture—[of a transformer]—man mounted on a machine, a joystick gripped in each

hand, was and is the epitome of Japan's technological dream.”

—Ron Tanner, “Mr. Atomic, Mr. Mercury, and Chime Trooper: Japan's Answer to the

    American Dream”

In the spring of 2005, renowned Japanese artist Takashi Murakami curated an exhibition titled “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture,” which consisted of a major installment at the Japan Society Gallery and a series of artworks installed in New York City's public spaces and mass transit system. It explored otaku culture, a subculture of geeks who admire—and in some cases, revere—Japan's pop culture, of the current day and featured media such as science fiction novels, video games, comic books (manga) and animated movies (anime).

The project title, “Little Boy,” echoed the codename for the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. According to the exhibition's official description on the Japan Society's website, the exhibition featured some 1,500 objects including over 600 original drawings and cells by leading anime artists Tohl Narita, Shōji Ōtomo, Hideaki Anno, and Takai Arai; 320 vintage Japanese toys from the Kitahara Collection; and hundreds of merchandise items representing famous characters of postwar and contemporary Japanese visual popular culture as Doraemon, Godzilla, and Hello Kitty (“Little Boy: The Arts”).

Furthermore, the exhibition also includes many references to the most well-known and influential anime of modern Japan, including two commercial and critical successes: the feature film Akira and the TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Akira, from its first screening in 1988, has shocked audiences with its portrayal of a future Tokyo twice-destroyed in an all-encompassing blast. On the other hand, Neon Genesis Evangelion, which appeared in 1997, chronicled social and psychological disintegration as apocalypse descended over another once-demolished future Tokyo, this one peopled with sinister robotic creatures. However, these dystopias are not outliers; the imagery of the atomic bomb and mass destruction dominated the narratives that Murakami had collected.

Half a century earlier, in a paper titled “What is Sociology of Art?” delivered at the Nineteenth Annual Convention of the American Catholic Sociological Society, historian Rudolph E. Morris of Marquette University stated that art, especially visual, are communicators of three different kinds, according to the particular sociological conditions in which they appear:

“…a. Art can be the intermediary between ideas, beliefs, and thoughts, on the one side, and the public on the other (e.g., medieval church architecture and in general the visual

arts in the churches).

b. Art can serve as the esoteric language of an elite group, thus a hidden and hiding language, communicating only to a selected group.

c. Art may serve as the agent that reveals new insights (e.g., expressionism, symbolizing and presenting in a concentrated form some basic ideas and value orientations characteristic for our society) …” (318)

Within Morris' framework, the narratives found in “Little Boy” function as both the intermediary and the agent; that is, not only do they communicate to the public the artists' opinion on contemporary society and technology but they also make explicit the underlying anxieties of the atomic bomb, which in Japan was very much “characteristic for [their] society” (Morris 318). In this sense, Murakami's collection can be understood as an origin theory of Japanese popular culture, and the thesis of the exhibition is thus: through appropriating cartoons and animation, Japanese artists have found a channel to resolve the trauma of atomic war and the devastation of defeat. With frequent references to atomic explosion and technological annihilation or salvation, they have created a subculture obsessed with the post-nuclear hope for a renewed future.

As popular culture evolves through history, it betrays what Roberta Smith, art critic of the New York Times, calls “an especially direct view of the repressed unconscious of creator, consumer, and society alike” in her review of Murakami's exhibition (B27). This paper does not seek to prove or disprove Murakami's thesis; rather, it is dedicated to delineating the history of anime within the broader scope of Japan's past and show a shift in opinion over several periods of time regarding technology and its capabilities, demonstrated through notable examples of Japanese animated mass media, in order to contextualize and legitimize this art form as a subject suitable for further formal sociological or anthropological examination. In particular, the paper is focused on a specific genre of science-fiction anime, mecha, due to its intimate relations with technology and subsequently the anxieties that accompany that field.

In three major sections, the paper begins with a brief account of anime's history, in context of the economic, technological, and social changes within Japan, and then proceeds to examine the characteristics of certain anime series made during two periods in the history of Japanese animation: 1955-75 and 1985-2005. These two periods have been chosen for their historical significance; during the former period, after the Allied occupation of Japan had ended, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan was established and rapid industrialization began; during the latter, much economic and social upheaval took place, with the asset price bubble, the Lost Decade of price deflation and stagnancy, and the sarin gas terrorist attacks carried out by Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult. The paper concludes with an assessment of mecha's role in the 21st century.

I. A Brief History of Anime

Anime in its contemporary format has only been produced since the middle of the 20th century, for though the first Japanese animated film, Momotaro, was released in 1918, the Japanese government quickly seized the medium as a vehicle for propaganda throughout the two World Wars. In this period, artists were told what to draw, and more importantly, what not to draw, as disobedient screenwriters could be imprisoned or forbidden to write (Gresh et al 9). Afterwards, during the postwar period, the Japanese animation industry underwent a renaissance: inspired by American companies such as Disney and Hanna-Barbera, studios were now emboldened to experiment with a rediscovered medium.

The first animation studio that was not co-opted for propagandistic purposes was Toei Animation Co., which began productions in 1956 and created its first full-length theatrical feature in 1958. In the spirit of their American successors, their animated movies “followed the Disney formula very closely: each film was produced a year apart, the stories were based on popular folk tales, and the heroes always had a number of cute, funny animal companions” (Gresh et al 21). However, this common formula changed in 1963 with the debut of Osamu Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atomu (literal translation “Mighty Atom,” official English title Astro Boy), the first animated science fiction series on New Year's Day. The series, which showed both the adventures and the day-to-day life of a humanoid robot, immediately gained a following: by the end of the 60s, this genre was so overwhelmingly popular that Toei began producing science fiction-themed content alongside with its folklorish offering (Gresh et al 22). Tetsuwan Atom is further credited as the first feature to jump-start the entire industry:

“Astroboy was the first 30-minute, weekly animated TV series produced in Japan, and is considered to be the beginnings of “anime” — or...one of...two main streams that flow into it. First broadcast on 1 January 1963, Astroboy is based on the manga. . .series... created by the “god of manga,” Tezuka Osamu. Tezuka occupies a huge place in the Japanese imaginary and the history of its postwar mass culture in that he lays claim to being...creator of both manga and anime as we know them...” (Steinberg 7)

To some extent, the growth of this genre in particular—and of anime in general—stood in contrast to the decline of the domestic film industry, having peaked in the early 1950s and now faced heavy competition from television as well as American imports (Napier 35), with television being more accessible and American films more engaging to Japanese audiences. Additionally, the next ten years proved a time of growth to the animation industry as toy manufactures began to cross-market consumer goods, since it was discovered that toys related to most-viewed TV shows and comic books sold better and that there were few laws governing cross-marketing goods (Gresh et al 23).

The commercial success of science fiction anime gave rise to a more specific genre, mecha anime, which is defined by Napier to be “the hard science fiction anime [that] revolves around a quest to contain the body, quite literally in the form of some kind of technological fusion…Usually huge, with ripping metallic “muscles” and armed with a variety of weapons to the extent that it almost parodies the mail ideal, the mecha body clearly plays to a wish-fulfilling fantasy of power, authority, and technological competence” (105). This genre went on to dominate the screens from the 1970s onward: the adventures of giant robots were played out daily on television channels, the movie theatre, and in the toy and novelty market. Significant mecha titles have included Gundam and Space Battleship Yamato; in general, these featured a mixture of galactic empires, humanoid robots or robots worn as armor by human pilots, and combat. In particular, the series Chojiju Yasai Macross attracted international attention: it had garnered a fan-base not only in Japan, but in the United States as well (Gresh et al 25). Until then, the majority of these series have portrayed technology as being used ultimately for good; however, this would radically change with the introduction of cyberpunk, courtesy of Blade Runner's debut in 1982.

By the late 80s, anime took a more ambivalent stance on technology; not only did artists create worlds where adorable robot boys go to school, but they also incorporated the underbelly of the Japanese conscience into their work. The technology depicted on-screen had the possibility of utter destruction, and an example could be found in Akira; the titular character, with powers that paralleled that of gods, was “trained” by the Japanese government to become a living weapon. When he lost control and lashed out, Tokyo was completely destroyed, engulfed in a radiating blast that assumed the shape of a mushroom cloud. Akira, as well as many other titles in this era, suggested the idea that technology was not innately good: when man cannot control the applications of his tools, technology being the most potent of them, he risks annihilation.

An important change in the anime industry was the development and subsequent global growth of direct sales that completely bypassed television networks or movie releases; these sales are commonly referred to as Original Anime Videos (abbreviated as OAVs) (Gresh 27). Their accessibility, especially to an international audience, facilitated the diffusion of anime to other markets. The lack of regulations that would normally serve to censor animation led to an increased variety of subjects and tastes: there now existed an avenue through which violence could be shown.

The anime industry expanded exponentially in the 90s. In 1998, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review, Evangelion in particular had grossed around $22 million “from movie distribution in Japan—but five times that amount in CDs and videos,” out of a film industry with “20 to 40 percent of its domestic revenue coming from animations” (Amaha 37). International demand was high; in the same year, it was reported on Billboard that the European market had increased significantly:

“Since the video release of “Akira” in 1992, the European anime market expanded faster than demons appearing in an arcade game. The U.K. currently holds first place with wholesale revenues of 2.5 million to 3 million pounds ($3.75 million to $4 million) wholesale, followed by Spain, and France, then Germany, Benelux, Scandinavia…British shipments average 5,000 cassettes at 9.99 pounds ($15) suggested list. Market leader Manga Video skews high and claims a 15,000-unit average, aided by top sellers Legend of the Overfiend and Akira, which did 20,000 and 80,000 tapes respectively. The next goal introduced more sports, children's, women's, and educational releases broaden the genre and boost the numbers.” (Dean 71)

Though the industry suffered briefly in the aftermath of Aum Shinrikyo's attacks on Tokyo's subway stations in 1995 due to the cult's purported ties to anime and pop culture, commercial successes like Cowboy Bebop still brought the anime industry into the new millennium with significant reception both international and domestic; by 2003, the anime industry had included manga sales totaling over 4 billion eurodollars in 2003, compared to over 110 million eurodollars in American comics and almost 220 million eurodollars in French comics, with manga outselling the nearest competition nearly twenty times (Pasamonik). To this day, anime remains a significant cultural export for Japan, having been officially endorsed by the government and enjoyed worldwide by audiences of many ages and races.

II. The First Period (1955-1975): Postwar Miracle and Astro Boy

In 1952, the Allied occupation of Japan officially ended. At this point, industrial production had regained this pre-war level, having risen from 1942's figure, which was 27.6% of the prewar level, and by 1960, production had reached 350% (Ichiyo 7). The period of economic growth from the 1960s-1980s was extremely large, with a 10% average growth in the 1960s, then tapering off to 5% in the 1970s and 4% in the 1980s (“Japan: Patterns of Development”).

This growth resulted from Japan's success in completing its industrialization process, which also saw a significant improvement in living conditions and consumption; from 1955 to 1970, the average monthly consumption of urban families doubled (Yamamura 102). Furthermore, the proportions of household consumption was also changing; Yamamura also reported that daily necessities, such as food, clothing, or footwear, made up a decreasing portion, while recreational activities and goods including transportation, communications, furniture, and books were increasingly consumed (102). As the increase stimulated the growth of GDP per capita, it also incentivized production, especially in the manufacturing sector.

Japan's industrialization is thus largely supported by the rapidly modernizing and improving technologies in manufacturing, communications, and transportation. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was instrumental: MITI boosted the industrial security by untying technology imports from that of other goods. The ministry's Foreign Capital Law granted it power to negotiate prices and conditions for technology imports, and the subsequent low cost of imported technology allowed for rapid industrial growth. Productivity was greatly improved through new equipment, management, and standardization. In short, technology became postwar Japan's savior (Gilson 367).

With regard to nuclear technology, Japan and the United States intensified their respective programs during the postwar years. Eisenhower, in his 1953 speech at the United Nations, announced that the United States would devote “its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.” Following the speech, the U.S.-funded “Atoms for Peace” exhibit, which promoted atomic energy as an important component of Japan's future, arrived in Hiroshima in May 1956. In March 1954, Japan's first nuclear power research budget, which was worth 235 million yen, was passed; only a few months before that, the Yomiuri Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper, began a series of articles titled “Finally, The Sun Has Been Captured,” which extolled the benefits of nuclear power (Johnston). The newspaper had been selling nuclear power to the public as a safe, reliable, and peaceful energy source until then, and this series, as well as the “Atoms for Peace” exhibition, played key roles in launching “an uranium craze” in the postwar years. Less than ten years after the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan had purchased its first commercial reactor and had contracted to buy twenty more (Gibson 318). There was a need to persuade the public to believe the safety and the benefits of nuclear technology.

In the same period, Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy in English) and Doraemon, two anime that portrayed technology as a helpful and benign aid to human society, debuted, the former in 1952, the latter in 1970. Both were important precursors to mecha,  Both incorporated designs connoting that their titular characters—robots— as benevolent and innocent. Atom's mechanical body is modeled after that of a prepubescent boy, with none of the harshness or cruelty inherent in the well-defined, muscular, and lethal mechanical bodies that would come to be popular in the 1970s. Doraemon's form, on the ther hand, features “a perfectly round head disproportionately large compared to the rest of his small, soft-edged limbs and body” (Gilson 368). The American influence (from Disney and Hanna-Barbera) is evident; according to Christine Wallgren, “characters are simple, with large eyes (the larger the eyes, the more innocent)… Illustrators were strongly influenced by cartoon characters as Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse.” (1) Thus, in their visual language, the designs of Atom and Doraemon evoke goodness. Aya Kakeda, a cartooning expert and faculty member at New York City's School of Visual Arts, when interviewed on character culture in America, concurred by stating: “Cute characters are a symbol of sweetness or goodness. You can see it in their appearance. The same with ‘bad' characters” (“Vox”).

It is important to emphasize that both of these titular characters are machines with immense ability: Doraemon can create portals across time and space, while Mighty Atom is specifically powered by nuclear energy. However, they have chosen to use these powers to help others and at times, to do so unconditionally. To Mark Gilson, a graphic designer well-versed in Japanese art, “whereas Atom is essentially a model superhuman, Doraemon is closer to a superpet, a cute bearer of the technological wonders of the future” (368). In portraying these characters, especially Atom, positively through language that is visual as well as literary, technology is implicitly described as good. Frederick Schodt, a foremost expert on Japanese comics, noted that “over the years, Atom and robots became linked with a wonderful future that science and technology could provide” (76).

The decision was made to reincarnate atomic technology and potentiality into a bright future; that is, to portray technology as having a positive impact. This was, in fact, not a decision that rested entirely on Tezuka; he recalls that “publishers wanted [me] to stress a peaceful future, where Japanese science and technology were advanced, and nuclear power was used for peaceful purposes” (Schodt 76). His character, Atom, flies with supersonic speed and battles forces of destruction with strength the equivalent of a “100,000 horsepower” atomic reactor. This power is paltry compared to the destruction unleashed in an atomic explosion; a Japanese doctor who witnessed Hiroshima's bombing from the outskirts summed up his memories with the title “The Day Hiroshima Disappeared” (Bird et al 421). However, by transposing this terrifying and largely unimaginable power into a milder reference—the “100,000 horsepower” reactor in the cuddly shape of a young child—Tezuka provides a manageable image of nuclear power, as well as offers an example of nuclear power's positive uses. Although Atom is a weaponized robot (powered by nuclear fission, he has laser beams and machine guns that shoot out of his backside), he is nonetheless employed not to destroy the world's cities but to save them. As he discovers his new capabilities, he represents not only atomic technologies but also humanity itself, learning to use this new power to beneficial purpose (Gibson 315). Thus, Atom's successful use of atomic power to advance peace and prosperity embodies the possible utopia in the atomic age—nuclear power that is used to save, rather than to destroy.

Though the series is a precursor to mecha anime, Atom critically differs from the mecha bodies through his visual characterisation, Through the positive promotion and reception of Atom and his power, as well as the exponentially increasing number of similar TV shows in the wake of Tetsuwan Atomu's success, it is evident that technology is both implicitly and explicitly endorsed as benign and helpful in this period so as to reassure the people of Japan of a future grounded in technology and the atom.

III. The Second Period (1985-2005): Upheaval and Neon Genesis Evangelion

This period saw massive fluctuations in Japan's stable economy and society: from a period of massive growth ending with an asset price bubble, Japan plunged into decline following the bursting of this bubble and a series of terrorist activities culminating in the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway. The depiction of technology on screen now carried a different tone; compared to the optimistic overtones of Tetsuwan Atomu's application of technology, the scientifically engineered children in Akira, alongside the gigantic and lethal battle robots of Neon Genesis Evangelion, are weapons of mass destruction.

The 1980s ended with an economic bubble; the deregulation of interest rates on deposits and the significant appreciation of the yen led to an accelerated growth of Japanese asset prices. When the stock market, whose values were based on asset prices, eventually collapsed, the economy came to a halt

1995, the year when Japan experienced two major apocalyptic events: The Great Hanshin (Kobe) Earthquake, which occurred on January 17, and the so-called “Subway Sarin Incident,” the terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system perpetrated by members of New Religious organization Aum Shinrikyō on March 20. This was also the year in which Japan began to “seriously suffer from the bursting of the 1986 to 1990 asset price bubble in which real estate and stock prices had been greatly inflated. The economic collapse had stopped the stable economic growth of the 1970s and early 1980s, and Japan now faced its most serious decline since World War II” (Motoko 65).

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