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29 December 2023

How Japan’s wartime history haunts its popular culture

In two new blockbusters – Godzilla Minus One and The Boy and the Heron – Japanese filmmakers grapple with atomic bomb censorship and pacifism.

By Yo Zushi

At 8.15am on 6 August 1945, a US bombardier called Major Thomas Ferebee did what he later described as the “one big thing” he had accomplished in his life: he pressed a toggle onboard a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, releasing a single bomb over the skies of Hiroshima. It plummeted for less than 45 seconds before exploding with a flash so bright that it stunned the airmen on the plane. A dark cloud began to rise up on the horizon behind them. Some 60 per cent of the city’s built-up areas were toppled by the force of the blast or the flames that followed; tens of thousands died, most of them civilians.

When news of the world’s first atomic attack reached Tokyo, Yoshio Nishina, the physicist who had headed Japan’s aborted efforts to develop its own nuclear weapons, was dispatched to Hiroshima to investigate. He reported back to the office of the Japanese prime minister Kuniaki Koiso, “What I’ve seen so far is unspeakable. Tens of thousands dead. Bodies piled up everywhere. Sick, wounded, naked people wandering around in a daze.”

Similar scenes unfolded in Nagasaki three days later. In a panic, Japan’s wartime authorities sought to suppress reports of the destruction. They ordered newspapers to bury any stories about America’s “new-type bomb”, and the media complied. (The Asahi Shimbun’s next-day coverage of the Nagasaki attack concluded: “The damage, now under investigation, is expected to be relatively light.”) After Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender in mid-August, censorship of information related to the bombings was briefly lifted. The Western occupation forces, however, immediately reimposed it when they took over in September, fearing an international backlash. Images of victims’ suffering, scientific investigations into the effects of radiation, survivors’ testimonies – all were classified as sensitive military intelligence and largely kept from the Japanese public until restrictions were lifted in late 1949. As a result, the country was unable to fully acknowledge the horrors of the bombings or even to grieve properly in their immediate aftermath. Japan moved on, its trauma submerged.

My six-year-old son, Kurt, gave me two toys for Christmas: action figures of Godzilla and Mechagodzilla, kaiju monsters from the Japanese sci-fi blockbuster series that began with Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film Godzilla. The countless goofy supersized punch ’em-ups that followed in the Godzilla franchise – family-friendly movies in which the title monster became a sort of rubbery wrestler-golem defending Earth from various aliens – make it easy to forget the serious intentions of the original.

Honda’s Godzilla, released just five years after the end of atomic bomb censorship, is a sober polemic against nuclear warfare and irresponsible scientific research whose scenes of Japan’s devastation are thinly disguised re-enactments of the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. (Tellingly, the radioactive monster is awakened from its multimillion-year slumber at the bottom of the sea by nuclear testing.) Those documentary-like sequences were, in essence, Nishina’s account of what he encountered in Hiroshima brought to life, complete with scientists bearing Geiger counters and civilians suffering from extensive burns. Kurt loves Godzilla movies, especially 1967’s Son of Godzilla, but I haven’t shown him this first film. And I won’t be showing him the latest instalment, Takashi Yamazaki’s international hit Godzilla Minus One, any time soon, either.

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[See also: The best film and TV of 2023]

Godzilla Minus One returns the franchise to its roots. The monster is once again a cipher for that dark cloud that rose up in the skies above ruined Japanese cities: it rises out of the sea and, with no real explanation, proceeds to tear into Tokyo. After a scene in which the creature lays the capital’s Ginza neighbourhood to waste, the black rain of a nuclear holocaust begins to fall – people and buildings are incinerated and turned to dust, falling back to Earth in the form of tainted raindrops. The setting of the movie at the end of the Second World War and in the months that followed invites a politicised reading at a time when successive governments have been working to fulfil the late prime minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalist dream of rewriting Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow the country to re-establish itself as a military power.

Yamazaki’s film is a new classic of its genre. Unusually for a Japanese action film, the computer-generated special effects are effective and never distract from the human story at its heart, which is about the death wish of a young kamikaze pilot called Koichi after he fails to fulfil his self-sacrificial task at the end of the war. Godzilla’s appearance, he decides, is an opportunity to redeem himself. Yet, as that premise might suggest, its broadly pacifist message is all over the place. Japan is shown exclusively as a victim of the war and, despite the main characters’ various humanistic statements, Godzilla Minus One clearly expresses deep nostalgia for Japanese naval might. It fetishises the sight of heroes planning and then going off to battle in a way that would have stirred the soul of the novelist Yukio Mishima.

Referring to the government’s suppression of the news of Godzilla’s arrival, a ship’s captain complains, “Information control is this country’s speciality.” That bitter statement evokes atomic bomb censorship and places the heroes on the side of Japan’s pacifists, who blame their military-led wartime government for dragging the people blindly into an unjust conflict. But later a former naval commander bemoans, “We have no defence apparatus of our own to protect our people” – and we’re deep in Abe country. 

Such mixed messages are also occasionally to be found in the cinema of Hayao Miyazaki, whose new anime The Boy and the Heron was, like Godzilla Minus One, an unexpected hit in the US. Miyazaki’s latest phantasmagoria, another story of mourning set during the war years, is a masterpiece in the order of his 2001 film Spirited Away, with which it shares the trope of a child entering a dream realm populated by morally ambiguous fantasy creatures. Drawing on a myriad of sources – from John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things (2006) to Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel How Do You Live?, from which the film takes its Japanese title – Miyazaki pulls us into a world that fans of his production company, Studio Ghibli, by now know well.

After the death of his mother in a hospital fire in the early years of the war, the 12- or 13-year-old Mahito goes to live in the countryside with his father, an industrialist who manufactures parts for fighter planes. In the ancient home of his aunt, he encounters an aggressive heron, which begins to speak to him. What follows is a delicately constructed narrative of Mahito’s emotional development, as he learns to accept both love and his responsibilities in a Dantean realm of magic, fascist parakeets and pelicans that eat souls as if they were Pac-Man dots.  

Miyazaki has vocally opposed the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party’s efforts to repeal the country’s constitutional pacifism clause, and many of his films share the original Godzilla’s scepticism about militarism and technology (the parakeets seem to be a riff on Mussolini). A Miyazaki picture almost invariably resolves all conflicts by its end, not through the protagonists’ victory or conquest but through their hard-earned understanding of others. But the director is 82 years old, and when he feels nostalgia, it is for a Japan that thrived in part because of its colonial experiments and embrace of the Western war machine. The Boy and the Heron might present Mahito’s father as ordinary (if a little pushy), but he services the very militarist authorities that Miyazaki abhors.

As with The Wind Rises – Miyazaki’s heavily fictionalised 2013 biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the chief engineer of Japan’s deadly Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter – The Boy and the Heron leaves this horrific reality unacknowledged. Yet its dark shadow will loom in the periphery for many viewers. The director externalises Mahito’s inner life, dramatising his spiritual growth through his encounters with symbolic magical creatures. To embody the full enormity of Japan’s wartime history – both as aggressor and victim – he’d probably need to dream up a creature the size of Godzilla.

[See also: Maruyama Ōkyo: artist of the frozen world]

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