Thursday, December 30, 2010

Japan in the World, Tezuka and Miyazaki

In 1951, Osamu Tezuka published a manga, Next World, that imagined Japan as a relatively small nation in a world dominated by two superpowers. Over 30 years later Hayao Miyazaki released an animated feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, where the People of the Valley were caught between two warring states. There’s no reason to think that Miyazaki meant to evoke Tezuka’s manga in making his film (or writing his manga of the same name), though he may well have known it. I rather suspect that he crafted his film in that way because that, more or less, was Japan’s situation in the world, a relatively small nation caught between two superpowers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union.

Let’s take a quick look at these two stories separated by three decades. Tezuka wrote his manga in the wake of Japan’s defeat in WWII. Japan’s bid to become a world power was crushed. The Japanese had to rethink their position in the world.

In Next World Tezuka created a world in which the socialist state of Uran (standing in for the USSR) was pitted against the capitalist state of Star (USA). Japan was in neither camp. Through an improbable series of events Star and Uran went to war against one another but were held in a stand-off by a super-advanced people called the Fumon. The Fumon seemed to have been the result of mutations caused by atomic radiation acting on human beings somewhere in the South Pacific and the result of atomic testing by Uran and Star. The radiation caused other mutations as well. It’s the discovery of some those mutations that starts the story.

It don’t want to tell the whole story, which is strange and complex. All I’m interested in is the basic political configuration, Japan between two powers, and the presence of mutated organisms. For Miyazaki uses the same configuration in Nausicaä.

The setting would seem to be Earth, though at some remote future after a war had devastated the planet and resulted in the emergence of extremely large insects dominating life in the jungles. Nausicaä and her people form a small polity that lives in a relatively protected valley. They appear to be farmers. They're caught in a war between two much larger polities, the Pegites and the Torumekians. The leaders of both of those states have declared the other state to be evil and have asserted that their own state wants to rule the world for good purposes. Nausicaä and her people have become the battleground over which the Pegites and Troumekians are fighting. Both want the people of the valley to unite with them and Nausicaä thinks both of them are nuts and wants them to stop. And that is our point of entry into the film, through Nausicaä and her people.

Now, the film came out in 1984, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1984 how many Japanese saw Japan in much the same position vis a vis the USSR and the USA? I don’t know, but I can’t help but think that Japan’s position in the world would have made the film deeply resonant.

But what stories were told in between these two, Tezuka’s 1951 manga and Miyazaki’s 1984 film? Tezuka’s story was explicitly about Japan while Miyazaki’s was not. But they share the basic geo-political configuration: a small state caught between two larger ones in a world whose plant and animal life had been corrupted. Had that configuration become an aspect of Japanese national consciousness?

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