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.