Kanto, Keynes, Konya Wa Hurricane

Kanto, Keynes, Konya Wa Hurricane

A disaster at the beginning of the 21st Century turns Japan into a cyberpunk nightmare.

On March 11th, less than a month ago, the most potent earthquake that Japan has ever recorded struck off the coast of the Oshika Peninsula. The 9.0-magnitude quake generated a massive tsunami that has (as of this writing) resulted in over twelve thousand dead and over fifteen thousand still missing. Nuclear power plants at Fukushima have undergone partial meltdown, and the radiation level in Tokyo rose precipitously through March. The devastation challenges our ability to comprehend.

When the United States suffered a terrorist attack in 2001, leveling the World Trade Center, one of the frequent comments was how much the destruction felt like a movie. New York had been destroyed on film before – most recently in Jerry Bruckheimer’s CGI adventure Armageddon – so the images of collapsing skyscrapers and panicking civilians weren’t new. And yet the reality of the horror made the cinematic depiction of that horror seem almost quaint. Real explosions don’t blossom in slo-mo.

Similarly, Japan has been destroyed many times in science fiction, particularly in anime. While the future of Japan following the Tohoku Quake may be nothing like the futures depicted in fiction, it may be worth revisiting these stories anyway. Written in times of safety, these anime illustrate the fears that Japan had regarding its future.


I’m probably the least knowledgeable on anime on the OTI staff. But I can think of at least two popular anime that were set in a Tokyo rebuilt after some epic disaster: Bubblegum Crisis and Akira.

Bubblegum Crisis, the less famous of the two, is set in 2032, seven years after a tremendous earthquake levels Tokyo. Tokyo has been rebuilt as Mega-Tokyo, a geographically and economically divided urban sprawl. Freeways wind between skyscrapers and arcologies. Corporate enclaves glitter against the night, while the poor huddle in the shadows.

Mega-Tokyo is served by Boomers, powerful androids built by the GENOM Corporation. Boomers have an unfortunate habit of going berserk – bad news for the occasional domestic servant, worse news for military models with heat rays built into their chests. Mega-Tokyo’s “AD Police” unit is hard-pressed to deal with threats of this caliber. Fortunately, there’s a team of power-armored vigilantes, the “Knight Sabers,” who have plenty of firepower.


Bubblegum Crisis is the child of an odd couple: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire. It blends rock-and-roll attitude with existential angst. Many of the Boomers are drones, ready to be blown up, but some of them just want to be human. There’s also exploration of how the corporate world can chew up a person’s spirit, and the destructive ambition that results when military and industrial interests unite.

Tokyo in the 80s was already becoming pretty dense. But to recreate the Blade Runner look, the producers had to add even more density. Arcologies the size of city blocks, soaring towers and wrecked slums. Hence the need to wipe the map clean. Hence the Second Kanto Quake.

The Great Kanto Quake of 1923 may not have been the most severe earthquake in Japan’s history (on the Richter scale), but it was the most deadly. Over one hundred thousand people died. Fires swept through Tokyo and the surrounding cities. In the times of hardship and deprivation that followed, suspicion fell on ethnic minorities, with hundreds of Chinese, Koreans and Okinawans being killed.

So for Bubblegum Crisis to call the disaster that levels Tokyo in 2025 “the Second Great Kanto Quake” is to open with a high bid. To a Japanese audience, such a reference would evoke death, suffering and panic. In the aftermath of such an event, it would make sense for Mega-Tokyo to be an unrecognizable metropolis.

Bubblegum Crisis never really caught on in Japan, and, due to its original run of only 8 episodes, had a pretty small following in America. Akira, on the other hand, did not have that problem. Widely considered one of the most epic animated movies ever produced – in either hemisphere, in any decade, on any subject – it was the watershed moment that made anime popular in the West.

Akira begins thirty years after Tokyo is vaporized by an atomic explosion, heralding the start of World War III. As the story unfolds – do I really need to post a SPOILER ALERT for Akira? on this site, of all sites? anyway – it turns out that the explosion was caused not by an atomic bomb, but by the psychic energy of a young boy named Akira. Akira is locked away by the government until a gang member named Tetsuo is discovered, who appears to have some psychic connection with Akira. Government scientists kidnap Tetsuo and experiment on him, giving him tremendous psychic power. The ensuing battle between Tetsuo and the army causes tremendous damage to Neo-Tokyo.

While Bubblegum Crisis touches on power and corruption, Akira treats with it in much greater detail. The destruction that necessitated the rebuilding of Tokyo into Neo-Tokyo is not the result of a natural disaster, but the result of government experiments with the mind of a young boy. It wasn’t an atomic bomb at all (which is fortunate, given the Nuclear Weapons Taboo in anime), but a frustrated child. When a similar power is unlocked in Tetsuo, his frustration causes almost as much damage to Neo-Tokyo thirty years later.

In both Bubblegum Crisis and Akira, a disaster unmakes the familiar Tokyo. A new Tokyo is built to replace it. This new Tokyo has a much larger corporate presence than the old – which, by the 80s, was already pretty corporate. In fact, visible power structures like skyscrapers, fortress-buildings and neon lights dominate the landscape. Everywhere, the message is clear. Out with the old and traditional; in with the new and glossy.

15 Comments on “Kanto, Keynes, Konya Wa Hurricane”

  1. Redem #

    I now have Konya Wa Hurricane stuck in my head, I hope you are happy!

    It remind me Le Corbusier once had a plan to radically redesign Paris in the 30’s,the plan never got through, but a digital artist tried to make a picture of what it look like now

    It make the french capital look very tokyo-esque in my opinion


    I for one think from all the genre of science-fiction, think Cyberpunk is were we are heading


  2. David #

    Allow respond to one part the article:

    “Outside of games like Civilization, no one ever builds a city by picking a spot at random and saying, “There.” And when people try, the result often falls apart (see Dubai). Watch what happens to a city when its primary resource — such as manufacturing in Detroit, or credit in Las Vegas — is threatened.”

    This deserves a small ‘well, ACTUALLY’. In fact, quite a number of cities have been built from scratch. The main example is Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, which indeed was built out of nowhere as a result of a constitutional clause that the country needed a capital in central Brazil, instead of coastal Rio de Janeiro.

    A slightly less extreme example is Ankara, another capital city from the modernist, post World War II era. Whilst it did exist before becoming Turkey’s capital at Ataturk’s decree, it amounted to so little that you may as well consider it a newly founded city altogether. In both instances, the places were picked quite randomly, although a central position in the country did help. However, it could have been 20 miles east or west without too much trouble.

    This does not necessarily play down the article’s main point, but I guess that depends on how successful one considers these two examples as examples of city-building. My perception is that in both cases, everyone who is not a bureaucrat avoids them as much as possible. However, ‘fallen apart’ they have most certainly not.


    • David #

      Oops, my HTML skills let me down severely there… Feel free to edit my previous comment into something more orderly.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Most of the Brazilians I know (or have read online) don’t think much of Brasilia. Ankara I couldn’t speak to. Good to have these as examples, though!

      To get a little more badical: while I can’t quite call Washington D.C. a “failed city,” I don’t think I’m out of line by saying that it’s not the greatest place to live. Crime and poverty have long been an issue in wide swaths of the city, and the surrounding suburbs are tremendously expensive. The city only produces two things: legislation and failed sports franchises. And unless you can tap into either, there’s not a lot there.


      • Valatan #

        Yeah. Brasilia is considered an inaccessible failure.

        DC has other issues associated with it–mainly that it doens’t have the ability to truly govern itself (Congress has ultimate authority over DC, which makes DC non-statehood even more messed up when you think about it). It’s a complicated case to bring up in the ‘constructed cities tend to fail’ argument.


      • Lorenzo Benito #

        Well, there’s Madrid, which was a little village on a small river until Phillip II decided to move the court there, instead of putting it in one of the large existing cities like Zaragoza or Seville. 5 centuries later, it works (as well as any other city in Spain, anyway).

        Who knows? Maybe the only thing Brazilia and DC need is 5 more centuries.


  3. Brian #

    The only thing I know about economics is from reading Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” which is a great book, but the whole time reading I was cowardly thinking “I can’t beat ’em, so how do I join ’em?” Then the show “Treme” showed how preserving the local culture in face of disaster is done; it also has a Japanese investor who supports the local music culture.

    So is the question why can’t these institutions promote or coexist with a culture other than their own, and through intimidation at that? Like the Japanese investor in Treme doesn’t force the guy to play the Japanese national anthem or anything.

    Also, according to Mad Men there is no fog in London, the “fog” was euphemism for the heavy industrial coal smog at the turn of the century.


    • Gab #

      The Shock Doctrine is a great read, albeit kind of depressing/ moral-outrage-inducing (or at least it was for me). Admittedly, I hadn’t even thought of it in this context, but now that you bring it up, I genuinely wonder what “school” of economics will win out in the reformation of Japan’s economy.


  4. Redem #

    “Outside of games like Civilization, no one ever builds a city by picking a spot at random and saying, “There.” And when people try, the result often falls apart (see Dubai)”

    Can’t help but wonder how ghastly Dubai if turned into something like detroit a couple decade from now


  5. Howard #

    Economic stimulus in the form of direct spending seems to have fallen out of favor with conservatives. Their preferred vehicle is tax cuts. After all, zero Republican members of the house and three Republican senators (Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter) voted to pass the stimulus bill back in 2009.

    I also find it interesting that you wrote “sarari-man” instead of “salary man”, since I’m pretty sure that Japanese borrows those words from English. I guess the phrase does have a specific connotation in Japanese, though.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Yeah, sarari-man seems uniquely Japanese, even though it’s a Nipponization of an English (well, Romance-language) word. It’s similar to how “douche” means something different in American than it does in France.

      And while conservatives in America may not use direct expenditure as an economic stimulus, tax cuts to one sector while raising year-over-year spending are an indirect form of wealth distribution. Which is ultimately the same thing (though a neo-Keynesian might distinguish between the two, since one is G and the other is T and a bit of I, but I crave pardon).


  6. Mia #

    I haven’t finished reading this yet, but it’s interesting to note that there was an anime series made recently (in 2009, according to the almighty Wikipedia) called Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, which is an imagining of what might happen if, as the title suggests, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck Tokyo and the surrounding regions. The makers claim to have tried to make it as realistic as possible, although it is somewhat dramatized and large objects have a propensity for almost falling on the protagonists in nearly every episode. Anyhow, I thought back on that series when the earthquake struck Japan in March, and shivered a little.


Add a Comment