Thursday, January 3, 2013

1964: Confronting World War II Through Animation

(As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade, Miguel Douglas has written for Midnight Eye, PopMatters, Manga Life, Directory of World Cinema: Japan, Shadowland Magazine and Miguel is also the editor-in-chief at, a website started in 2008 as an outlet for the exploration of Asian cinema and animation, and runs the @iSugoi Twitter account.)

Coming in the wake of perhaps the most influential year for Japanese animation, 1964 arrived with considerably less impact on the animation industry as a whole. With the massive success of such titles as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor) just a year prior, the industry was attempting to essentially recuperate and further explore what the medium of animation could offer in terms of storytelling.

Stemming from this effort, 1964 saw the release of only three animated series: Shōnen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru ("Fujimaru of the Wind"), Big X, and Zero Sen Hayato. While numbering only three, these series would provide production studios and directors an opportunity to explore Japan’s traditional past, confront controversial issues of patriotism surrounding Japan’s involvement in World War II, and even exploring the social philosophy of eugenics during the war. Certainly these were difficult subjects to elaborate upon within animation—most would even suggest taboo—but seemingly mature thematic material was increasingly finding the medium of animation as a viable platform within Japan. This year also saw the release of only one theatrical film, Tetsuwan Atomu: Uchû no Yûsha ("Astro Boy: The Brave in Space"), a production featuring the recently famous robot boy created by Osamu Tezuka, introduced to the world only a year prior.

At forty-one episodes in length, Zero Sen Hayato was the first title to be released during this year and focused on a very contentious theme within Japanese society—World War II. Through the actions of the Zero fighter pilots, director Naoki Tsuji’s (of Tiger Mask fame) series returns to the memories of World War II as a way to elaborate on the patriotic duties of the Japanese people at the time and the radical circumstances that affect the ideology of Japanese society to this very day. Following a young pilot by the name of Hayato Azuma, the series chronicles his squadrons’ adventures over the South Seas against an enemy whose nationality remains unidentified throughout the show.

Zero Sen Hayato was the first postwar anime series that referred to World War II directly, which had been a rather taboo subject for quite some time in a variety of artistic mediums. Prior to this series, references to World War II in anime were only expressed within Japanese wartime propaganda. While not exactly being apologetic towards the actions of the Japanese Empire at the time, the series looked at the role of soldiers during this era of conflict, focusing more on their bravery rather than who they were actually combating.

Shōnen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru was the second series to be released during this year and derived from the manga by prominent artist Sanpei Shirato. With sixty-four episodes total, Shōnen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru was also one of the earlier series that Hayao Miyazaki worked on as an animator, further developing his own artistic style as well as gaining experience that would later be realized in his later works. With a career that began in 1957, Shirato had become one of the most regarded Japanese illustrators and screenplay writers in a relatively short period of time, and in 1964 he was already quite well known throughout the industry. As a stringent admirer of Japanese history, Shirato drew inspiration for crafting his stories from the traditional tales of one of Japan’s oldest arts, the ninja.

As the first animated production and adaptation of Shirato’s manga works, the series follows a ninja’s pupil by the name of Fujimaru as he uses his ability to control wind to fight enemies in an era of Japanese history torn apart by civil strife. This niche for the ninja would also be seen in Shirato’s later creations as well, works such as Sasuke (1968) and Ninpû Kamui Gaiden (1969). Shirato had showcased extraordinary skills towards adhering to the complex world of the ninja juxtaposed with that of an authentic sense of realism. In many of his works, Shirato contrasts the past with that of the present, looking intently at the problems and contradictions that are often found within a modern society.

The final series to be released during this period was Big X, another animated creation stemming from the work of Osamu Tezuka, who was by now widely well known as an accomplished artist. After Tetsuwan Atomu and Ginga Shônentai ("Galactic Boy Team") were released in 1963, Big X became the third manga series from Tezuka that made was adapted into an animated television series. With Big X, Tezuka once again decided to explore rather mature themes in the context of the medium of animation, this time looking at the effects of genetic engineering.

The story follows a Professor Asagumo, who is invited by Hitler himself to study and produce Big X, a new drug that enlarges the molecular cells of living beings. Years later, with Professor Asagumo having been killed, his son Akira uses the hidden secret of the drug to battle the nefarious Nazi League. The criticism of the Nazi party is quite significant throughout the series, with Tezuka injecting a sense of authenticity as the Nazi Party did in fact commit numerous crimes during World War II for the sake of genetic engineering and research. In a strange sense of irony, many of the references towards the drug Big X in the manga were deemed inappropriate for television showing, so much in fact that the television series had to show Akira using a magical amulet to transform rather than the intake of the drug in order to avoid censorship.

With the 1964 only seeing the release of three animated series, the film version of Tetsuwan Atomu was deemed as a fantastic ode to one of Japan’s most loved series. Working as a compilation of Episodes 46, 56, and 71 of the original television series, Tetsuwan Atomu: Uchû no Yûsha was a film that appealed to both fans of the series and newcomers alike. Segments of the compiled episodes were featured in color, with the film offering a look into the possibility of a fully animated color Tetsuwan Atomu—a possibility that would be fully realized in the future.


As the year 1964 came to a close, the likes of series such as Shōnen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru, Big X, Zero Sen Hayato, and Tetsuwan Atomu: Uchû no Yûsha had shown that Japanese animation was continually expanding the medium as a whole. Osamu Tezuka would also continue to gain immense popularity as one more of his animated creations was brought to the television screen, as well as the theatrical version of one of his most popular works. While 1964 proved to be a slow year in terms of production, it continued the tradition of expanding the thematic framework of what constituted animation, with Japan further paving the way for what was to come.

While 1964 proved to be a slow year in terms of production, it continued the tradition of expanding the thematic framework of what constituted animation, laying the foundation for future titles to come. Tackling taboo subjects such as eugenics, World War II, and Japan’s history of domestic civil strife was not an easy thing to do, let alone through a relatively young animation industry still attempting to take shape. However, what the Japanese animation industry accomplished in 1964 further differentiated Japan from many other countries in terms of how one perceived the medium of animation, using it to explore genuine elements of history—remnants of which can still be seen within anime to this very day.

(Next time: The Anime of 1965. Two full years in, and anime starts to grow its roots...)

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