After enduring two of the most barbaric acts of World War II — the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the Japanese have developed a strong anti-war tradition. Anti-war sentiment now pervades Japanese culture and manifests itself in even the most unlikely forms of popular entertainment.
The most obvious examples, as far as most Americans are concerned, are the Godzilla films, in which a giant, radioactive monster serves as a constant reminder of the horrors of atomic warfare. (I’m ignoring the goofy Godzilla-is-a-friend-to-all-children movies of the late ’60s, as do most other Godzilla fans.)
But there is more to it than movies starring men in rubber monster suits.
Unlike in America, where animated cartoons are seen as mere children’s entertainment, in Japan there are animated films and television programs for every age group and spanning every genre.
Japanese animation, called anime, is now one of Japan’s most successful exports to the West. Anime videos and DVDs are found in most every American video store. Television channels like Cartoon Network and the Encore Action Channel devote several hours each week to anime programming.
What was once a cult phenomenon in America has gone mainstream, attracting the attention and praise even of establishment film critics like Roger Ebert.
If your kids are anime fans, chances are you know what I’m talking about. (And you’re probably willing to offer me a good price on some used Pokémon cards now that the Pokémon bubble has burst.)
But for my purposes, the most important anime TV series is one that has played a central role in the development of Japanese animation since 1979: Mobile Suit Gundam, which is available on home video and DVD and airs periodically on Cartoon Network.
The Gundam saga is full of warfare. Mobile Suit Gundam, the first of a long line of Gundam TV series and movies, perfected the "giant robot" genre, in which warring factions try to obliterate each other, and huge, humanoid robots are the primary weapons of mass destruction.
Superficially, giant robots are simply "cool" entertainment for youngsters, but the subtext of most giant-robot anime, especially in the case of Gundam, is that war is a terrible thing that should be avoided at virtually any cost.
One of the more recent Gundam-related programs is Gundam Wing. The heroes of the series are five young Gundam pilots, sent from Earth’s space colonies to strike at the oppressive military junta that has taken control of Earth’s government.
Some critics have described the pilots as terrorists, but the boys attack only military targets. As military historian and novelist Caleb Carr defines it in his book The Lessons of Terror, terrorism is "warfare deliberately waged against civilians with the purpose of destroying their will to support either leaders or policies that the agents of such violence find objectionable."
By that succinct and sensible definition, the boys in Gundam Wing are not terrorists, but many governments are. How else would one describe America’s war of sanctions against Iraq, intended to "encourage" the Iraqi people overthrow Saddam Hussein?
Used as pawns by both sides in the conflict, the boys eventually join forces with a princess devoted to military disarmament and pacifism.
The villain of the series, on the other hand, is devoted to a martial philosophy. He believes that human nature can express itself only through combat. And while he is portrayed sympathetically, he ultimately faces the fatal consequences of his beliefs.
Gundam also takes up the issue of secession.
The original Gundam series, Mobile Suit Gundam, chronicles the One Year War, in which Earth battles a secessionist colony called the Principality of Zeon.
In this series, the secessionists are the villains, ruled by a corrupt and fascistic royal family. But in subsequent series, our sympathies change.
In the first sequel, Zeta Gundam, the main characters from both sides of the One Year War join forces to oppose Earth, which has become tyrannical in its zeal to wipe out its remaining opposition. The space colonies become the victims, justified in seeking greater autonomy.
One anime that built upon the success of Gundam is Super Dimension Fortress Macross.
Macross starts with a solidly anti-war premise: War and civilization are incompatible.
In Macross, humans face an extraterrestrial enemy, the Zentradi, a genetically engineered race that knows only war. The Zentradi have no conception of culture and don’t know how to react when faced with something so seemingly innocuous as a pop song or a man and woman kissing.
Although vastly outgunned, the human heroes are able to use culture as a weapon for sorts, literally bombarding the Zentradi with love songs.
Eventually, after much hardship, a remnant of humanity prevails and joins with surviving Zentradi defectors to spread human civilization throughout the galaxy.
The message is clear: Culture, art and civilization mean peace.
Macross, more than any other anime, demonstrates the libertarian insight, best expressed by philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe, that there is a fundamental dichotomy between communication and force.
Anime also casts a withering eye upon military occupation.
Leiji Matsomoto is one of Japan’s most respected manga (comic book) artists. Among his most famous creations is the space pirate Captain Harlock, who has appeared in several anime TV series and feature films.
Harlock’s tale serves as a metaphor for America’s military occupation of Japan following the war and continuing even today, much to the displeasure of the Okinawans.
In the film Arcadia of My Youth, Harlock starts out as captain of a military starship. But following Earth’s defeat and subsequent occupation, he is forced to become a "space pirate." Harlock states explicitly that his Jolly Roger emblem is a symbol of freedom. When the law becomes the tool of an occupying force, one has no choice but to become an outlaw. Frederic Bastiat would sympathize.
But Harlock is fatalistic. He may fight tirelessly to liberate Earth, but he has lost both an eye and the woman he loves to the cause. He knows the price of war is always too high.
Even when there isn’t a war on, the military is something not to be trusted, especially the U.S. military.
The bad guys in the recent animated feature Spriggan are part of a top-secret U.S. military unit, sent to recover a dangerous artifact for the Pentagon. The good guys are a private organization.
And in the anime classic Akira, a group of military leaders and scientists unleash destruction upon Tokyo not once but twice. It is probably no coincidence that the chief scientist in the film bears a strong resemblance to Albert Einstein, whose theories paved the way to the atomic bomb, which was also the joint creation of scientists and the military.
Lastly, there is the anime film that is probably the greatest anti-war movie ever made, animated or live-action.
Director Isao Takahata’s masterful Grave of the Fireflies is the disturbing tale of two Japanese children orphaned by the American firebombing of Kobe in 1945.
Takahata lets us know in the opening minutes that young Seita and his sister Setsuko are destined to perish, and then he dares us to watch. He wants us to know that, above all else, war is the failure of humanity to perform its most important task — protect its innocents.
At present, the United States is pushing Japan to take a more active role in our "War on Terror," and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, unfortunately, seems eager to oblige.
Fortunately, Koizumi has several generations of anti-war feelings to overcome, which may make his task impossible.
Meanwhile, as American youngsters are increasingly exposed to Japanese culture through anime, they will hopefully absorb some of that same anti-war sentiment.
Unfortunately, they will have several older generations to overcome, too.