The Bomb in Japanese Popular Art

Russ Islam
March 16, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015

Repressed Emotions (and Beyond)

Fig. 1: Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami in 2010 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

The atomic bombings left a pervasive sense of defeat in Japan that has arguably been channeled into anime and manga. Some believe that the Japanese have not come to terms with the violence of World War II (both committed by and against Japan), and rather than discussing such feelings openly in political or otherwise formal arenas, the Japanese have pushed these repressed emotions into popular art in the form of excessive violence. [1] Although there may be some truth in the idea that repressed emotions contribute to the sometimes ridiculous level of violence in anime, a more optimistic alternative should also be seriously considered: perhaps this portrayed violence serves a satirical purpose. Anti-war and anti-violence messages often pervade these violent anime works, and violence may be used to enhance the emotional impact of these messages. One should not necessarily believe that the gravity of the atomic bombings and war in general is somehow undermined by openly depicting violence. The fact that this violence is often exaggerated may also simply be a norm in the medium of animation, since animated works generally exaggerate movements of characters and sceneries. There is often a perception in the West that animation is a medium for children, but in Japan very serious animated works are often aimed toward adults and are as valid an art form as live action cinema is. Though there are a number of Japanese animated works, such as Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies, that portray the bombings in a stark and serious manner, here a few works are presented that straddle the line between serious and ridiculous because they seem to offer greater insight into the Japanese collective unconscious. [2]

Destruction in AKIRA

AKIRA is a cyberpunk animated film released in the 1980s that is noted for its bleak depiction of a futuristic yet decaying Japan. The opening scenes show the destruction of Tokyo in 1988 by an explosion reminiscent of a nuclear bomb, and near the end of the film a psychic blast from the titular character levels Neo-Tokyo in 2019 in a manner also highly suggestive of a nuclear detonation. [2] It is interesting to note that although the first time Tokyo is destroyed in the film, it is a result of fictional World War III, whereas the second time is a result of Akira, a Japanese citizen. One interpretation is that the destruction of Tokyo is not only a trauma that originates externally, but something that is capable of being brought about by the Japanese upon themselves. Themes of government corruption and the police state also echo dark memories of militaristic Japan during World War II. Exactly what is being said in works like AKIRA is not made explicit, and this ambiguity is a hallmark of postwar popular art.

Evangelion and N2 Mines

Neon Genesis Evangelion, a short but popular and widely influential anime from the 1990s, serves as a striking example of nuclear undertones in Japanese popular art. The show takes place in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo where a handful of teenagers are forced to pilot large military robots to fend off extraterrestrial monsters. [3] The forced conscription aspect of the show is explored deeply as the teenage characters struggle between their hatred of piloting the robots and their sense of duty to protect Japan. Moreover, a special type of weapon called an N2 mine, which resembles an atomic bomb but emits no radiation, is often used to fight these monsters. These mines produce mushroom clouds, but the word "nuclear" is never mentioned in the show even though the inspiration for the weapon is clear. The existence of nuclear weapons in the world of the show is not discussed either. The N2 mines used in the anime never successfully defeat a monster singlehandedly; the bombs are used only to halt its movement before the piloted robots finish the mission. It is somewhat ironic that N2 mines (and perhaps, by extension, nuclear weapons) fail to win battles despite their destructive power, while human-operated machines are the technology that saves the day. One interpretation is that human might is more powerful than nuclear weaponry, an uplifting idea in light of the helplessness felt in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the War.

Murakami's Paradoxical Art

Time Bokan is a comedic anime that originally aired in the 1970s. At the end of each episode, the primary villain disappears in a giant cloud resembling a skull inside a mushroom cloud, only to reappear with the same cloud at the beginning of the following episode. That a mushroom cloud could be used as a comedic device in a children's show only thirty years after the bombings is startling. Renowned contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, pictured in 2010 at his exhibit at the Palace of Versailles in Fig. 1, alludes to this show in a 2005 exhibit titled "Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture", named after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. [1,4] Murakami is a major proponent of the notion that Japan's obsession with anime, manga, excessive violence, and even cuteness derives from denial of the emotions brought about by the atomic bombings and Japan's aggression during the Second World War. In the exhibit, Murakami combines the usually sobering motif of a mushroom cloud with a cute aesthetic to produce a sense of confusion in the viewer: the juxtaposition of nuclear holocaust with bright colors may be a satirical critique of anime's tendency to embellish serious subject matter to the point where realism is lost. [4]

Why Care About Pop Art?

Nuclear weaponry has been an emotionally charged subject since the technology was conceived. The history of nuclear energy in general is closely tied to modern war and its impact on civilians, and in particular Japan's modern history has been tremendously shaped by the dropping of the bomb and by the mix of defeat and nihilism that has been carried on since that time. While it is important to understand government policy toward nuclear weaponry and energy, to understand Japanese public opinion on nuclear matters one must study the media the Japanese public consumes. It is through the creation and consumption of art that the public expresses its opinions and debates with itself. There are lessons to be learned from studying popular art that cannot be learned simply through economic and political research. Although the study of art is not as clear-cut and quantitative as economic and political research may be, it is nevertheless important to consider messages expressed through art when shaping public policy. Art is perhaps the loudest voice with which the public conveys its fears and desires.

© Russ Islam. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. Nanda and R. L. Warms, Cultural Anthropology, 11th Ed. (Cengage Learning, 2013), p. 296.

[2] D. Deamer, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema, and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).

[3] D. Redmond, "Anime and East Asian Culture: Neon Genesis Evangelion," Q. Rev. Film Vid. 24, 183 (2007).

[4] R. Smith, "From a Mushroom Cloud, a Burst of Art Reflecting Japan's Psyche," New York Times, 8 Apr 05.