February 18, 2010
The world ends (and I feel fine)
This year's NHK historical docudrama is about Ryouma Sakamoto, Japan's most brilliant and charismatic 19th century revolutionary (in the traditional sense of being open to new ideas and then seeking pragmatic ways of implementing them).
As the program vividly illustrates, the arrival of Commodore Perry's "Black Ships" was no less shocking to both the populace and the powers-that-be than an invasion from outer space.
Two centuries earlier, Japan could boast of having one of the most advanced societies in the world. But in 1853, Perry's steam-powered warships confronted the Japanese with technology beyond anything they could imagine.
A mere fifteen years later, after ruling uncontested for 250 years, the Tokugawa regime was crushed and swept from power in a civil war that lasted a matter of months.
Add to that regular earthquakes, volcanoes, and typhoons, the occasional suicidal end-time cult, two atomic bombs and losing a world war, and it's no surprise that the apocalypse has become part of the national consciousness.
Japanese F&SF writers love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic plots. And perhaps perversely, Japanese love being entertained by them. They come in all shades and varieties. To name a few of the sub-genres off the top of my head:
- Japan sinks into the Pacific (Japan Sinks).
- Japan (or parts thereof) is destroyed by rampaging monsters. Or robots. Or aliens. The Gozilla series covered all of these at some point.
- A secret conspiracy destroys Japan (or parts thereof) to keep an even bigger conspiracy secret (Vexille). Attempts to explain said conspiracy usually result in much tangled logic and head scratching in the denouement (Evangelion).
- More specifically, Tokyo gets destroyed. Repeatedly (Akira).
- Instead of destroying Tokyo, aliens park the whole city in a different dimension (RahXephon).
- The oceans rise, threatening to inundate most of metropolitan Japan (Patlabor). Toss in a mutant sea monster (Patlabor: W-13).
- Earthquakes, with both natural and supernatural causes and effects, wreak havoc (Demon City Shinjuku).
- The planet is rendered unlivable by external astronomical events, like the Moon exploding (Cowboy Bebop).
The apocalyptic event is often an excuse to wreck the current social order (Burst Angel). Japan is such an orderly society that if you want to inject a Mad Max element--or postulate that everybody's as well-armed as Americans--you need an upheaval first to make it believable.
The cheesy but fun (and even poignant at times) anime version of Witchblade combines a Tokyo-wrecking conspiracy with supernatural earthquakes, rising seas, and law & order so gone to hell that superhero gunfights (among barely-dressed babes) can break out at any moment.
The best defeat of an invading extraterrestrial force is in Magic User's Club, when the heroine turns the alien spaceship into a giant cherry tree.
My favorite post-apocalyptic series is the manga (not yet available in English), Yokohama Shopping Log. A combination of natural disasters and rising oceans has destroyed most of the "post" in postmodern Japan. But all things considered, life didn't turn out half bad.
Think of Little House on the Prairie with modern plumbing and an android as the protagonist. Seriously, reading this manga is better than an antidepressant. Alas, though hope remains, the myth rightly warns that opening Pandora's box unleashes upon the world evil, not utopia.