Nuclear Angst and Self-Absorbed Anime Fandom

This post contains minor spoilers for Chapter 14. It's also more personal than other notes have been. This notes section isn't a personal blog, but it covers all aspects of writing and publishing Meipouchou, and writing is often a personal process. Because I am remaining anonymous, I won't get too personal.

Children can absorb an amazing amount of information without fully understanding it. As a young child, I knew that nuclear bombs created large explosions, and the USSR and the United States had enough nukes to destroy the world. Neither my parents nor my teachers taught me this, but they didn't have to. In the twilight years of the Cold War, it was something everyone knew, but no one I knew particularly worried about. Because of this, nuclear bombs occupied a space in my mind similar to the cartoonish bombs of Looney Tunes—Destructive in abstract, but not something that could affect the real world.

It wasn't until my parents rented the original Godzilla for movie night that I was exposed to the idea that nukes were bad. At the time, I didn't know why this statement would come from a Japanese movie. When I started getting really into anime in my early teens, I saw this message repeated in many series and movies. By this time, I had internalized the message. Yes, nukes are bad, I would tell myself, without questioning why the sentiment wasn't as prevalent in Western media. I wouldn't learn about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki until high school.

I finally made the connection when watching Akira for the first time. For the last third of the movie, I was crushed beneath a wave of guilt. My freshman social studies teacher had made a point to emphasize the pain caused by the atomic bombings, assigning John Hersey's Hiroshima as required reading for the class. That pain, I realized, had become an inexorable part of the Japanese media I enjoyed.

As I sat alone in a dark room, unable to tear my eyes from the movie, I asked myself how anime would be different if we hadn't dropped the bombs. Would I have still enjoyed it? I tried to imagine where I would be in such a world. My grandfather served in the US Navy during the war. If the bomb really had hastened the end of the war, would he have been injured or possibly killed? I might never have been born, or our family circumstances might have been different. I didn't know enough to answer those questions. I still don't. But I knew that, at that moment, I was healthy, affluent, and comfortable because my parents were born into the American middle class in the aftermath of the war, and I was enjoying art born, at least in part, from the suffering we inflicted on our former enemies.

It was this feeling that inspired the quasi-religious Penance Day holiday in Meipouchou. Although it may come from a good place, it is ultimately self-absorbed and self-important. The writers of anime like Barefoot Gen, Gundam, and Akira didn't set out to make American kids feel guilty. They weren't writing for a Western audience at all. There is a real tendency of anime fans, myself included, to consume media through a self-absorbed lens, and this is what I wanted to emphasize in Chapter 14.

The reality is that, unless you were one of the very few people involved in the manufacture of nuclear bombs or the decision to use them, you're not responsible for what happened. It is perfectly normal to feel bad about them, but you, individually, aren't important enough to have caused the bombings. We should to recognize the economic and societal advantages we were given as a result, and it would be sick to enjoy anime because of the pain inflicted by the war, but rather than feel misplaced guilt for it, we should work for a better future.

On that note, I should acknowledge that I posted a chapter this last Tuesday, despite a call to pause business as usual to protest racism and police brutality. My decision to do so was definitely self-absorbed. At the time, I mistook the action as a cynical ploy by corporations to promote themselves as aligned with the protests currently taking place throughout America. I did not want to use them to promote my small book, in the same way I had seen banks and companies with a history of racism use the situation to promote themselves. I also did not want to fall into the trap of thinking that whether or not I posted the chapter would matter at all.

But I shouldn't have made the decision on any of those criteria. This was a request from marginalized and oppressed people, the easiest such request I could have ever granted. It would have cost me nothing to delay the chapter. Americans are already living in the same kind of low-key horrific authoritarian state depicted in Meipouchou, albeit a less successful one. That won't change unless we start listening to those who the system has failed, as those for whom the system works well are not incentivized to change it.