Nuclear Anxieties in Japanese Visual Culture

Shortly after the devastating earthquake and ensuing Tsunami hit the north-eastern coast of Japan, the Japanese Prime Minister Kaoto Kan addressed the assembled press in Tokyo with a brief statement expressing his sympathies to those affected by the disaster. In his short statement, Kan alludes to a deeply harbored anxiety in Japanese culture as he says the following:

“Some of the nuclear power plants in the region have automatically shut down, but there is no leakage of radioactive materials to the environment.”

This message might come to haunt Kan as conflicting news is already emerging from a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Perhaps to avoid a panic, Kan seeks to quell the anxiety of a nuclear disaster that operates very powerfully in the only country on Earth to have suffered the explosion of an atomic bomb. Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fears caused by this nuclear trauma are an important part of Japanese visual culture.


Akira Kurosawa, Dreams, 1990

Fictional representations of a nuclear apocalypse – now eerily reminiscent of the actual news footage emerging from the disaster zone – are a constant theme in Japanese cinema and anime. The eminent director Akira Kurosawa for instance, in his portrayal of a bizarre collection of dreamscapes, depicts Mount Fuji (an ideological symbol for the nation) surrounded by explosions and steeped in the colour red. The protagonist in Dreams (1990) wonders if there was an earthquake. No, far worse he is told, Japan was struck by a nuclear disaster.


Tokyo after ‘Third Impact’ in Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1995

Kurosawa’s post-apocalyptic vision is similarly evoked in the classic anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion by the director Hideaki Anno. The young boy protagonist ventures through a deserted Tokyo struck by a massive disaster referred to in the series as ‘Third Impact’. If the Kanto earthquake from 1923 represents the first impact, and the Allied firebombs in 1944/45 represent the second impact, the ‘Third Impact’ in Neon Genesis Evangelion refers to an event that is yet to come. First screened in 1995, Neon Genesis Evangelion stirred a deeply felt anxiety amongst Japan’s youth that the world would come to an end in the year 2000. This was partially related to the global fears of the Y2K computer virus and the popularity of Nostradamus’s predictions amongst followers of new religions.


Neon Genesis Evengelion, Episode 1, 1995

However, rather then seeking a reductive explanation for a complex set of causalities, I believe that post-apocalyptic visions in Japanese visual culture are the state’s equivalent to a psychoanalytical condition: post-traumatic stress syndrome. The disasters and ‘Third impacts’ in fictional Japanese visual culture can never be entirely disassociated with the actual experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The most famous example for the relationship between nuclear fears and Japanese visual culture remains to be the iconic Godzilla movie. First screened in 1954, in the film Godzilla was created following a nuclear detonations and acts as a powerful metaphor for nuclear weapons. Godzilla must be considered in the aftermath of Hiroshima, but also, the continued testing of nuclear weapons on the Bikini atoll from 1946 to 1958 by the Americans. In other words, Godzilla is the fictional manifestation of global arms race that was yet to peak at the height of the cold war.


Godzilla, 1954

There is no question, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are a natural disaster. Yet the possibility of a nuclear meltdown or atomic ground zero is created by man. It is this dichotomy between man and nature that the Prime Minister of Japan maybe inadvertently evoked in his speech to the press. Man cannot control nature, but neither should an ever growing risk of a nuclear disaster control man. If the many references of a nuclear apocalypse in Japanese visual culture are anything to go by, the deeply embedded anxieties of a people should have been taken more seriously.

If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.

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