It’s not yet time for rebuilding.
Whatever else it was, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of Perestroika and the end of the Cold War, 1989 was a wonderhell of a year for Japan. It marked the passing of an Emperor, the beginning of a long, cold dark of a downward spiral for the Japanese economy. And it marked the death two popular cartoonists, Suiho Tagawa and Osamu Tezuka.
For Japanese culture, these deaths were a visceral loss. Giants had passed, or worse yet, simply vanished. Suiho Tagawa was thoroughgoing and meticulous, a consummate professional. And his creation, the cartoon-dog Norakuro, quickly came to fill the same sociocultural gap that Felix the Cat did in Western popculture. But more than simply another graphic story-form, Norakuro was a link to a glorious storehouse of the past, filled to brim with narrative art.
Osamu Tezuka’s was arguably a greater blow. Honored with the title ‘god of comics’, Tezuka is almost singlehandedly the reason that even today, commuters read comics on their way to work. His honorific came from the idea that the tireless work he had contributed to the growth of the comics medium in Japan since the early postwar days, far exceeded the titles of either ‘elder’ or ‘teacher’. The sheer enormity of Tezuka’s contribution made any title other than ‘god of comics’ disingenuous.
But 1989 was a double blow to Tezuka’s legacy. Since the mid-‘80s, a contestation between Tezuka and rising star Katsuhiro Otomo had erupted. Otomo exploded in the popular imagination after winning the Science Fiction Grand Prix in 1983, the first graphic novelist to ever do so, for Domu.
Domu represented a paradigm shift. Rather than the highly iconic form of Tezuka’s artwork (think of the endearing simplicity of Disney’s animated animals), Otomo offered near-photorealistic characters set against an even more detailed physical backdrop (think of Brian Bolland’s Batman: the Killing Joke).
But even more than presentation, Otomo offered readers, within and without Japan alike, an entire paradigm-shift in the kinds of stories comics were capable of telling. Tezuka’s stories, like his artwork, seemed emblematic of a popular Meiji-era slogan Oitsuke! Oikose!, which encouraged modernization by exhorting people to “Catch-up! Exceed!”.
Tezuka’s stories animated the spirit of a different age. Thrown-away robots, their optimism undiminished, forever tilting at becoming fully human in Astro-Boy, super-skilled surgeons that seek redemption by immersing themselves in danger in Blackjack, the hunt for love that ensures immortality in Phoenix, Tezuka’s characters and stories speak to that intellectual and material wealth that Japan experienced during the 1970s. It was a hard-won wealth that had already been building since the postwar ‘50s. And with the optimism of his work, Tezuka stands as one of that era’s chief chroniclers.
Domu was something entirely darker. The story of a brutal war fought between psychics in a mega-apartment block complex that is so disheartening it allows for one psychic to manipulate residents into committing suicide, Domu represented the gulag of Japanese economic success, and the first knells of economic downfall. Convincingly, Otomo was the chronicler of collapse in the same way Tezuka had been the chronicler of optimism.
Already during the Science Fiction Grand Prix award ceremony, Otomo was busy publishing his successor work Akira. Running more than 2,000 pages, it was Akira that would stand as Otomo’s magnum opus. And it was 1989, the year marking the passing of Osamu Tezuka, that would see Akira translated and released across Europe. 1989 was a tonal shift in Japanese popculture, both inside and outside Japan’s borders.
But it wasn’t simply the infinite optimism that seemed to run dry. It seemed all popular culture had been affected. After Domu but particularly after Akira, you couldn’t safely watch Ultraman or even Godzilla movies without wondering, perhaps even only vaguely, at the cost in terms of the devastation of human infrastructure. But far and away from brokering despair, Akira was a love letter to the human spirit that is able to perpetually endure and rebuild. Rather than the seemingly cosmic-scale of destruction, Akira is about tomorrow.
It’s not yet time for rebuilding. Not yet. Friday’s quake was so immense it shifted the earth off its rotational axis by some 2.5m. And shifted the entire Japanese archipelago some 10m closer to Asia. What happened a little before 3pm local time this past Friday is Japan not having been hit a quake. Which is to say, the quake’s epicenter was some 105 miles off the coast into the Pacific. The word mega-quake is barely able to cover the tragedy of the quake alone, but “horror-quake” comes close.
What must it have been like to see the faces of commuters? Not when the quake hit, not during the actual event. Japan sits on the intersection of two tectonic plates, the Asian and the Pacific plates, and quakes are frequent. Years where as many as 1,000 quakes hit, are not unheard of. But what terror on the faces of commuters when it was announced that transit services would be suspended? In Japan, transit never suspends. Even 30 seconds is sufficient delay for the transit authorities to issue mass letters of apology for commuters to provide their bosses with exculpatory evidence for being late.
And the worst, by far, had not yet happened. As commuters filed out of the Tokyo subway, Sendai was unknowingly in the line of fire for at 30ft wave to hit. These massive waves happen so frequently in Japan, the word for them is even Japanese. Tsunami, meaning “harbor wave”, a wave so forceful it can break fortified barricades and break into the harbor itself. Waves so powerful that they can be felt up-river where many harbors are frequently constructed as safety measure.
The magnitude of what happened in Sendai can scarcely be imagined. A death-toll that is still creeping slowly upwards to 2,000 pales in comparison to the near impossible task of rebuilding. As a predominantly fishing- and farming-district, Sendai is most likely crippled economically for the foreseeable future.
And of course there remains the failure of critical infrastructure in Japan. Failure that ends in nuclear warnings and possible radiation leaks in Fukushima and Onagawa. Failure of infrastructure that prevented the successful curbing of the oil refinery fire in Chiba City, moments after the quake.
And then there’s the weather. It will be Spring soon, but hardly soon enough. Survivors in Sendai face temperatures that range from near-freezing at night to barely above 50F. And of course, as CNN’s Anderson Cooper reminds us, the quakes aren’t at an end at all. ‘Aftershocks’ of magnitude 7 and up will continue hitting for as long as a month.
If anything, this honestly feels like the deepest, darkest time, and it’s hard to see a way out of this.
But I know this. Popular culture will flow out from Japan again. As dark a hole as this seems, Japan has always been a testament to those who make a stand, to those who can dig deep, to those who can rebuild. Not yet but very soon, a train ride out from Narita international to Shibuya will make you feel like a soldier, and not a victim. Of course we’ll rebuild, what other option is there.
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