Stand on Earth: Reading Manga During Fukushima

Akira Enthroned: Otomo's shift towards a darker field in the popular imagination is also a love-letter to human resilience and the capacity to rebuild

The horror-quake that hit Japan this past Friday has no context in recorded history. The human price is unimaginable. But it is a cultural shift in the popular imagination from the 1980s that allows us to understand the simple heroism of perpetually rebuilding.

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.

Nothing this bad, on this scale, has ever happened to you, or anyone you know. Please do not give generously, simply give. Inside the US, text "REDCROSS" to 90999 make a $10 donation to the Red Cross. Locating loved ones and friends can be done through Google's People Finder.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.