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 extraterrestrial invaders occurs in Magic User's Club, wherein the heroine turns the alien spaceship into a giant flowering cherry tree.

My favorite post-apocalyptic series is the Yokohama Shopping Log (not available in English). 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. Maybe the world ought to end on a more regular basis.

Related posts

The Big Bad
Apocalypse not now
Demon City libertarianism
Oh yeah, we're baaad

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# posted by Blogger Joe
2/20/2010 6:22 PM   
One thing that cracks me up with these story lines is how un-apocalyptic they are. Drop Tokyo into another dimension with a fraction of the population and how exactly is going to survive as is? Where is the power and water going to come from?

Yes, humans would survive the most devastating apocalyptic conditions--"we" survived the super-volcano of 70,000 years ago--but it isn't going to be comfortable. Little House on the Prairie would look like heaven by comparison.

Having said that, the notion that even the slightest disruption in our technology and/or infrastructure will thrust us back to the stone age is absurd. Afghans and Iraqis can still watch porn on their satellite TVs, cool their beer in their refrigerators run by Honda generators and drive to work in their beaten up cars.

(I love The Road Warrior, but it is patently ridiculous. They have enough people and know how to rebuild a fairly modern city, very quickly. Some capitalist would have already drilled for oil and made a killing--it simply isn't that hard to drill, recover and refine oil. [it is hard to do it cleanly, but in an apocalypse without lawyers, the EPA or environmentalists, who gives a damn?])
# posted by Blogger Eugene
2/21/2010 11:44 AM   
Implicit in these post-apocalyptic fantasies is a romanticization of the Edo Period, during which Japan closed itself off (except for a trickle of foreign contact) from the outside world and was self-sustaining. Along with natural disasters and famines, the Malthusian trap was avoided by delayed marriage, abortion, and infanticide that maintained the population at 30 million (versus 120 million today) for two centuries.

That's a big reason that Japanese are rather sanguine about predictions of a halving of the population over the next century.

As with historical romances, Edo Period melodramas are about upper-class merchants and middle-ranked samurai, not the peasants. A highly-structured feudal system turned the samurai into an educated bureaucratic class, capable of preserving enough intellectual capital to keep the ship of state afloat. Though the result was a technologically moribund society. By the mid-1800s, Japan's infrastructure was two centuries out of date.

But looking at Japan following the Meiji Restoration or WWII, or South Korea following the Korean War, and even the last twenty years in China, it's amazing what people starting from practically zero can accomplish with a stable government and access to trade and capital.
# posted by Blogger Joe
3/01/2010 9:56 AM   
Hulu had Vexille, so I watched it. Gorgeous movie, but beyond confusing. Had I not read the synopsis elsewhere, I would have been lost. Well, not really. The plot is paper thin, but I would have felt lost!

What cracked me up is they just started out with Japan isolating itself. I assume that the west not knowing what was going on in Japan despite satellites is part of the the-west-doesn't-understand-us conceit. While all of this is a cheap way to set up the action, it does seem, though, that one of the points of Vexille is that Japan isolating itself is a very bad idea--kind of mocking the romanticization of the Edo period.