This year marks the 69th anniversary of the only time in recorded history one nation (the United States) has used atomic weapons against another nation (Japan). Japan's memory of the bombs is long and deep, and has fed its popular culture from beneath in too many ways to count. It's tempting to think that watching any of the entertainments that can trace their influence back to the bomb — whether it's AKIRA or Godzilla — can serve as a full understanding of the bomb's importance. Part of it, certainly, but far from all of it.
This is not me saying that Katsuhiro Otomo had no right to appropriate such things for his work. This is me saying that entertainments that draw on history are only half the picture history can give. A colorful and engaging half, but half all the same, because the cultural influence of history is not history itself. It cannot be.
It's useful to examine how a cultural product — a TV show, a movie, a book — makes use of history, either by portraying it explicitly or by alluding to it. But to do that properly, you need to know the history itself. You can't get the whole story from such a presentation, because it's not meant to be the whole story in the first place. It's a distillation and a reduction, actions that are the essence of good art.
Grave of the Fireflies -- both the film and the book it was derived from — had a great deal to say about the emotional and personal side of the end of WWII from a Japanese civilian's point of view. It inspires some reflection on how the firebombing of Tokyo had a ghastliness of its own that is often overshadowed by the discussion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a noble piece of work. But to engage with it alone and then call it a day for that subject is to cheat ourselves. There is no swapping history with aesthetics, one-for-one.
Some people would argue that history itself is a subjective enterprise, and that one story of it is as good as any. A kernel of truth lies there: no history of the bombings written by either side is going to have the same perspectives, the same emphases, the same conclusions. In fact it would be foolish for them not to be like that; the very fact they are dissimilar is part of how we widen our own lenses. But the fact they don't agree with each other is not a sign that we should wring our hands and despair of any truth coming out. It's not a sign we should retreat into fiction because that's as good as any other narrative. It's a reason to appreciate historical truth as widely — and critically — as possible.
To watch, say, AKIRA and then claim by that token alone you have some allegorical understanding of Japan's mindset in the wake of the bomb is folly. Well-intentioned fully, but still folly. Such a thing is itself a form of forgetting, of replacing history's wormy truths with the more palatable, smoothed-down edges of fiction. All forgetting, especially the forgetting that does not seem like forgetting, comes at our own peril. Great art can illuminate our condition, but it cannot substitute for it.
Professor Ian Johnston, in a lecture on Shakespeare's The Tempest, made the same point in a different way:
Dreams may be the stuff of life, they may energize us, delight us, educate us, and reconcile us to each other, but we cannot live life as a dream. We may carry what we learn in the world of illusion with us into life, and perhaps we may be able, through art, to learn about how to deal with the evil in the world, including our own. But art is not a substitute for life, and it cannot alter the fundamental conditions of the human community. The magic island is not Milan, and human beings belong in Milan with all its dangers, if they are to be fully human. Life must be lived historically, not aesthetically.
I am not sure if I agree that art "cannot alter the fundamental conditions of the human community", if only because I am optimistic enough to believe our lives can imitate the best in our art just often enough for it to matter. But on that last point, I agree completely.
Those of us on the other side — of the Pacific, of the intervening decades since 1945 — owe it to ourselves to not let the art substitute for the history. If you're really curious about how the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki inspired everything from Evangelion to you-name-it, go to history itself — in all the ways you can find it — and do not look away. The art is a good starting point, maybe also a good conclusion. But it is not the whole of that journey. Because by and large, our lives are lived historically, not aesthetically, whether we like it or not.