WW2 has become a stripped-down fable of Star Wars proportions – a few brave heroes, taking on a force of terrifying evil against impossible odds. On the Good Side, the rag-tag hard-pressed Alliance. On the Bad Side, the dark empire, with its storm troopers and its nice uniforms. The good guys win, and the good guys are us.
This doesn’t work in Japan.
Though Western sci-fi is still fascinated by the concept of an alien race with a god-emperor, a suicide religion, beautiful elfin women, and food you have to eat with sticks, the Japanese have had to come to terms with the fact that *they* are often the inspiration for the evil empires of sci-fi. They are the chigs in Space: Above & Beyond, or the bugs in Starship Troopers, and that can hurt. Though critics often like to see WW2 in the big bomb of Akira, the rest of anime is scattered with far more interesting references – from the red, white, and blue Gamilon attack-ships in Star Blazers, to the suicide pilots of Evangelion.
In Gunbuster, our brave Japanese heroes are defending the Earth from a vicious alien invasion, only to discover that the “aliens” are actually the defence mechanism of the galaxy, designed to protect it from harmful parasites… them. The war goes on, but the heroes realise that they are on the wrong side; that they are the ones who should surrender.
Leiji Matsumoto’s The Cockpit tells three war stories from the Axis point of view. Each focusses on the noble sacrifice or heroes who are just as brave as those in US war films, but who happen to find themselves fighting on the wrong side – the side that is going to lose. The Cockpit plays the nuclear card (as most Japanese war-films do), with the story of a Nazi airman ordered to escort a plane carrying the German A-Bomb. Rather than “sell his soul to the devil,” he allows the plane to be shot down, saving Britain from an atomic V2 attack.
The Dirty Pair’s oft-repeated plea “It wasn’t our fault” should be stamped on the front of every war-anime. Isoroku Yamamoto, the man who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, is more famous in Japan for being the “reluctant admiral,” for trying to talk his bosses out of attacking America. As in The Cockpit, many Japanese war-films like to blame evil superiors – Star Wars from the point of view of a humble storm trooper, wishing that the Death Star wasn’t going to blow up Alderaan, but only following orders.
This all changed in 1979, with the broadcast of an educational anime TV movie – The Diary of Anne Frank. Canny producers realised that children were perfect for their needs. Children in wartime are completely innocent of any blame, simply bearing the consequences of their elders’ actions – an appealing idea to the generation that grew up after the war. Or if you like, Star Wars from the point of view of Grand Moff Tarkin’s grandson, trapped on the Death Star while Luke Skywalker blows it up. This idea has created a whole sub-genre of anime – conspicuously worthy films in which carefree childhoods are brutally destroyed by Allied bombs. Many places in Japan have been the subject of anime about Allied attacks, including Okinawa, Osaka, Tokyo, Nagasaki and Fukuoka. The most famous is Barefoot Gen, the true story of a boy who survived Hiroshima, though the best is Grave of the Fireflies, a heart-rending movie about the fire-bombing of Kobe, based on a story by Akiyuki Nosaka, whose own sister died of malnutrition in the aftermath.
Recent years have seen a return to depicting WW2 as sci-fi. This time, the Japanese have simply put themselves on the right side, as in Kishin Corps and Sakura Wars, when the nations of the world unite against an alien threat instead of fighting the world wars. There’s also the alternate universe series Deep Blue Fleet, in which the Japanese shoo the Americans out of the Pacific, and then declare war on the Nazis. They are able to do this because their leader has fallen down a time tunnel from the future, and wants to save them from defeat. But no amount of revisionist tomfoolery will ever hide one unchangeable historical fact – the first full-length anime feature ever was Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, a 1945 propaganda movie in which an animal army defeats evil British ogres.
(This article first appeared on the UK Sci Fi channel website, May 2002)