WW II: Attitudes, Tones and Memories Reflected Within Animation

by Miguel Douglas


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Part One

Pre-war and post-war Japanese animation: from propaganda to exportation

When one looks at Japan through the eyes of conflict, one can undeniably point to their history in relation to World War II. After the horrific Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, Japan went through a stage of uncertainty, despair, and defeat as they went to pick up the pieces to rebuild their country. The island country that thought they were undefeatable, were rudely awakened and showcased their vulnerability as a nation. This effect has been tremendously influential in the creation of many Japanese arts, nonetheless expressed within the medium of animation, or what the Japanese refer to as anime. This form of expressing ideas through moving images has long been an intricate part of Japanese artistry long before the introduction of World War II. Considering this aspect, in order to fully comprehend the influential nature in which World War II has had on animation within Japan, it’s best to look at some of the earliest forms of Japanese animation and how it has been utilized to promote ideas, thoughts and persuasion within the context of Japanese society. I will firstly be taking a look at the usage of animation shortly before World War II, then explore its usage during it and finally take a look at the influence World War II has had upon its animated works.

In order to realize the usage of animation within the context of war, we begin by taking a look at the year 1934. It is this year that we begin to see the how animation has been utilized in order to motivate and inspire Japan and its militaristic endeavors. It is this militaristic praise that we notice in Mituyo Seo’s 1933 cartoon Private 2nd-Class Norakuro and Corporal Norakuro in 1934. Both features were relatively short and featured the likes of a little dog by name of Norakuro. Norakuro was portrayed as an anthropomorphic soldier and chronicled some rather humorous incidents he engaged in within the military and the rivalry between his group and the Mountain Monkey Battalion. This approach to animation presented a propagandized setting masquerading as cute and funny entertainment. This was just the beginning of what was to become a strenuous effort to indoctrinate the Japanese public through the use of propaganda cartoons.

corporal norakuro

Corporal Norakuro © 1934

With Japan going to war with China in 1937, Japan amped up their animation production in order to accommodate and contribute to the propaganda effort established by the Japanese government. The use of censorship by the government allowed for an abundant stream of militaristic propaganda to filter through and became important elements towards the war efforts. This effort eventually led to the Imperialistic military government of Japan to animate a full-length animated feature to reinforce the war effort as well continuing to propagandize to the public. Animation of the film began in 1943 with the authorization for animation director Mituyo Seo to take charge over production of the film. The nearly 74-minute film was entitled Momotaro’s Gods-Blessed Sea Warriors and portrayed the Japanese Imperial Navy as anthropomorphic sailors who were seen as liberating Malaysia and Indonesia. The film also showcased the act of liberating the two countries from the likes of the Allied occupiers, who were portrayed rather devilishly; they had horns on their heads. This reinforcement of portraying the Allied powers during World War II as devils was something that was utilized to dehumanized the opposition and make them appear to be less than capable of fighting. The propagandizing efforts put forth by the Japanese Imperialistic government at the time were not just directed at Allied forces, but included the likes of the China as well. Resulting from the China Incident, many animated shorts and comic strips portrayed the Chinese as pigs who were effortlessly slaughtered by the Wild Dog Battalion, the battalion that the anthropomorphic Norakuro belonged too.

After the conclusion of World War II, the use of animation gradually returned to the individual filmmaker. This allowed a return to more creative freedom from the likes of filmmakers, which was essentially unheard of during the war era in which animated propaganda took high priority over any sort of creative effort. We also have to consider the reconstruction of Japan as a nation; slowly recovering from World War II, it took a tremendous amount of effort to essentially rebuild the Japanese economy from the ground up. Alongside this reconstruction was the rebirth of Japanese animation and its place within the world of animated works. A post-war allied-occupied Japan meant the absorption of many cultural and societal practices from the Occupation forces. In this regard, Japanese animation studios began to slowly adopt many measures that American studios utilized, henceforth creating Japanese animation studios that followed the American studio model very closely. This in turn allowed Japan to rejuvenate and export its animated creations throughout the world under the popular term anime.

Part Two

World War II and its effects on contemporary Japanese animated films and television series

Considering the disastrous effects World War II has had on Japan, it should come as no surprise that Japanese filmmakers would have conveyed similarities between the war and their constructed animated tales. This observance for the war has produced many animated films that include elements of destruction and eventual rebirth. One such observance can be viewed in the 1988 film Akira by Katushiro Otomo. Based on the manga of the same name, Akira begins by showcasing that in the year 1988, Tokyo was destroyed by an explosion similar to that of a nuclear bomb. This explosion eventually led to the start of World War III. Right from the beginning, we as the audience witness a correlation between the Atomic Bombings of Japan during World War II with the utter destruction of Tokyo. Stemming from the explosion, we then flash forward thirty-one years later to find out that Tokyo has been rebuilt and is now entitled Neo-Tokyo. This megalopolis is entirely different from the city it once was before though; it has become a place of total social and political unrest. Throughout the course of the film we are introduced to many of the films characters, including two young teenagers by the name of Kaneda; leader of a motorcycle gang, and Tetsuo; the youngest member in the gang. Their rivalry is showcased throughout the film and is one of the focal points in explaining the relationship they have. After a rather tumultuous journey in which the end result has Tetsuo becoming endowed with physic powers, he attempts to rule Neo-Tokyo. A final confrontation takes place between Tetsuo, Kaneda and the military which cultivates in the mysterious title character Akira returning. His return creates a similar explosion like the one witnessed in the beginning of the film. Tokyo is destroyed once again through the use of massive force, utterly devastating the landscape.

akira and hiroshima

Akira © 1988 | Hiroshima

What’s surprising here is that we notice that the imagery of destruction is very similar to the photos taken on the ground level of the Hiroshima bombings. It also evokes imagery of the Above Ground Testing regime that took place within America. The destructiveness of energy released by Akira’s return literally rips through Neo-Tokyo, destroying everything in its path. The devastating blast seems to encompass a majority of the inhabitants of Neo-Tokyo. The social and political unrest witnessed previously in the film is seemingly washed away by the blast. In a sense, the destruction brought about a sense of cleansing and rebirth for city; a removal of the old ways for the new. One can view the parallel to that of the Atomic Bombings taking place within Nagasaki and Hiroshima, hence concluding the end of World War II with the surrender of Japan. After the destructive force of the bombs was utilized, Japan became occupied by Allied forces and the imperialistic system was done away with. Similarly to what was expressed in Akira, Japan essentially became cleansed and reborn; in Japan’s case, from an imperialistic and militaristic system.

japanese warship yamato

Space Battleship Yamato © 1974 | Japanese battleship Yamato

Another influence that Japan gained from their experience in World War II was that of an extreme fondness for military technology. This desire can be viewed in countless anime films and television series. One such series brings about such elements of Japanese World War II weaponry within its primary focus; that of the 1974 television series Space Battleship Yamato. This particular series takes place within the backdrop of a war torn future in the year 2199, when an alien race known as the “Gamilas” unexpectedly began raining radioactive bombs upon Earth’s inhabitants, leaving the entire surface of the planet uninhabitable. This established setting already alludes to the use of radioactive bombs that were utilized against humanity by a foreign and unknown race of aliens. The use of destructive bombs against Earth can be transmitted to usage of them being utilized against Japan during World War II. The comparisons go even further; the inhabitants of Earth now live underground and secretly begin to build a spaceship inside the ruins of the World War II Japanese battleship Yamato. The usage of Japanese wartime ship Yamato pinpoints another direct correlation between the animated work and World War II. This specific class of battleships was very much prized amongst the Imperial Japanese Navy and its use within Space Battleship Yamato is no coincidence. A most powerful ship during World War II, in the series it was originally planned as a sort of “Noah’s Ark” for humanity but steered away from this course to have the ship operate as a war vessel in order to battle the Gamilas. This resurgence of Japanese military technology to battle enemies that were once thought technically superior is a theme that runs throughout the entirety of the series. It’s symbolically represents an idea that Japan will once again prevail from the ashes of defeat, symbolized through the use of weaponary.

Part Three

Barefoot Gen 1 & 2: post-war reflections and memories

Released in 1983, Barefoot Gen is an anime adaptation of a Japanese manga series by author Keiji Nakazawa, in which the story is loosely based upon. The animated film chronicles the 1945 Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima through the eyes of a young boy named Gen and his family. Barefoot Gen is a very interesting film because it deals with rather taboo subjects that surrounded Japan’s involvement in the war and how it specifically looks at how the public began to view the war towards its conclusion. We also get an alternate perspective concerning the role of America and how it played into the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Japan, more specifically Hiroshima. This alternate view is explored heavily with comparisons between the “enemy” known as America and the “enemy” known as the Japanese government in response to the population living through the war period in Japan.

The film opens to both Gen and his brother Shinji listening to their father explain the analogy between life and the wheat fields and correlates how one can be strong and overcome all adversity like the wheat. This analogy is obviously used as foresight towards what’s to come, but can also applicable to how some Japanese citizens began to view the war as a whole. There are some key points to notice throughout the film that seemingly reflect the attitudes of some of the individuals who experienced war. The use of classism is brought up numerous times in the film’s first half, more specifically through the remarks made by Gen’s father. Since all Japanese citizens at the time were to pay tribute towards the Emperor, the film explores the concept of the rejection of these ideals using Gen’s father as the catalyst. He consistently speaks out about how the Japan’s involvement in the war was due to the greed of ruling class. His utter distaste for Japan’s involvement in World War II even provides a counterpoint to the indoctrinated culture at the time. The ramifications of this kind of thinking it extensively portrayed even more so in the manga version; Gen’s family is outwardly considered traitors for not respecting and adhering to the policies of the Imperial government at the time. Gen is even mocked in school for mimicking his father’s views on the war and is also punished by his father for spouting propaganda learned in school, which presents a contradiction of feelings for Gen.

This film also explores the role of the “enemy”; more specifically the Allied forces, America and the Japanese government. The film focuses on the numerous air raids that have been conducted by the American forces throughout the country of Japan, which is increasingly devastating the mainland as the American forces move closer. What’s astonishing to view here is that the Americans are not exactly classified as such in the film; they are presented almost entirely as an unidentified enemy without a nation or agenda. The avoidance of outwardly expressing the American forces as the enemy, and to be defined as such, awkwardly expresses the post-war ideology of avoiding pinpointing the “true” enemy as just the “Americans” but more so focusing on and actively suggesting the Japanese hierarchy as being the true enemies of Japan. The exclusion of explicitly labeling America as the enemy can even be viewed artistically in the use of having the air raid planes being unmarked and indistinguishable; any suspicion that the bombers were American was significantly removed from the film.

Barefoot Gen © 1983

This goes even further into the film with the bombing of Hiroshima. The Americans within the Enola Gay are shown as calculated and stringent individuals who are steadily conducting the bombing rather routinely; there is no contemplation or emotional reaction towards the actions they are performing. This envisions the “enemy” as almost robotic in nature, doing their job and thinking nothing of it. There is no distaste, sympathy or remorse shown for Japan by the pilots. This detachment also allows for the focus to be on the citizens that lived through the bombing rather than focus on the individuals who perpetrated it. The presents a conundrum in which we witness two exterior forces (the Japanese Imperial government and the Americans) come into play in the lives of the citizens of Hiroshima, and most certainly to the extent of Japan as a whole. There is no right side or wrong side to put the entire blame on here, both exterior forces are somewhat put to blame for what cultivates in the bombing of Hiroshima. Author of the Barefoot Gen manga, Keiji Nakazawa had this to say when asked about the message he conveyed in his work:

“They wanted to know what the war and the atomic bombing was really like. It was the first time people had heard the truth. That’s what they told me everywhere I went. The government didn’t want to risk encouraging anti-American sentiment. But the facts are the facts. People should be told what happened. If you live through something like the A-bomb, you know that war is too horrible not to be avoided at all costs, regardless of the justifications offered for it.”

The next film in which I would like to look at is 1986 film Barefoot Gen 2. This is a pseudo-sequel of sorts of the original animated film and can be viewed almost entirely as a different work far removed from the original in terms of approach. The film deals more heavily within the realm of post-war philosophy and how the citizens of Japan are attempting to rebuild their identity as a nation. The story takes place roughly three years after the bombing of Hiroshima, and hence explores the Allied occupied forces in control of Japan. The American presence within Japan drastically affects how the Japanese perceive themselves within the film, and we get to view the ramifications of losing such a massive war; the loss of honor plays heavily into reshaping Gen and his ideology of the world around him. The semblances of normality are showcased within the film as well, and we get to see such institutions as schools begin to start up again and some of the citizens returning to working at their jobs.

barefoot gen 2

Barefoot Gen 2 © 1986

The film still primarily focuses on Gen and his excursions in surviving a post-war world. The struggle of Gen to support his family and take responsibility in the absence of his father is one of the key facets in exploring Gen as a character. While still very reminiscent to the Gen we’ve gotten to know during the first film, Gen has essentially been forced into a life-changing situation after the dropping the Atomic Bomb. He can’t simply live life as carefree as he did once before, and must struggle to support others outside himself. Similarly, we can view Gen as metaphorically representing Japan as a whole after the war. Struggling to rebuild from the devastation they had to endure during the war period and looking for a way to survive plays a key component in understanding Gen as a character as well as Japan. While still addressing the rather harsh reality that Gen has to live through, Barefoot Gen 2 still instills a glimmer of hope considering this. Both Gen and Japan can be viewed as a person/nation that has been brought forth from destruction, striving for a more hopeful and desirable future.

To be continued in the next installment.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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  • Alvaro Zendejas

    It is very telling how nations express through their artistic creations what psyche that culture or society is going through. I think that’s what is so fundamentally admirable and attractive about anime and it’s variety. It all stems from this one simple element, rebirth. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it’s inevitable not to put two and two together.

    Awesome article, and having seen the films cited in this post, I can definitely appreciate now even better how Japanese artists feel about their own history and identity.

    I hope the next installment of this essay talks about Grave of the Fireflies. Sorry for jumping the gun, I can’t bare to see the film again, but I am very very curious to what Doug has to say about it in the context of Post-World War II sentiment.

  • Douglas

    Thanks for the your kind comments Alvaro. I don’t think you’re reading too much into it at all, it’s all viable thinking when dealing with huge subjects such as World War II. You’re right, Japan’s handling of World War II through the medium of animation shows the great variety that it can offer, and shows how powerful and mature it can be too.

    I plan on including Grave of the Fireflies in my next portion of the essay, so please look forward to that. Thanks again!

  • Grumpy Jii

    An interesting topic for an article, Douglas. I hope you plan to continue it.

    In looking at early anime that reflect post-war Japan, you should also check out some of Osamu Tezuka’s shorts. As with many Japanese of the post-war era, he was a pacifist. This shows in the anti-militarism of “Tales of a Street Corner”, which is clearly WW2, as well as the negative depiction of soldiers in a segment of his “Pictures at an Exhibition” (which is not specific to WW2), among others. (It also plays out in his manga “Adolph”, but that’s not an anime.)

    I’m tempted to type a lot of other thoughts, but I think I should wait and read the rest of your article. I’m looking forward to it.

  • Douglas

    Thanks for the comment Grumpy Jii. I have read a little bit of the Tezuka’s “Adolph”, which I plan on completing soon. Anyways, I will check out some of Tezuka’s shorts for sure, so thanks for the recommendation!

  • Paul Miller

    Wow I never read this before but I gotta say nice work on this article Doug. I’m not the most knowledgeable on the subject but a very fascinating read.