The Prescience and Divergence of Disaster Manga

So, here we are, closing in on two months since the earthquake and tsunamis caused so much damage and chaos in Japan.  Honestly, it has taken me this long to shake off the dread and discomfort of what happened enough to comment on the topic of today’s Animanga Viewpoint.

The reality is, no matter how horrific the quakes, tsunami, and aftershocks were, the Japanese knew they were coming.  Japan is a first world nation and proud inhabitant of one of the most active seismic and volcanic zones on the planet.  They have had cities wiped out before because of these things and they know they will again.  Hell, they even lived through Curtis LeMay’s policy of firebombing cities from low altitude at night, let alone having two cities nuked.

The Japanese know disasters happen, both natural and man-made.

Knowing doesn’t make it any easier to actually live through, though, especially after a generation or two.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s manga discussion.  You see, disasters – man-made, natural, or alien-induced – are one of the more fundamental backdrops used by manga and anime creators in their world building.  I want to share an overview of three currently running manga, each of which has an eerie tie-in in form if not fact to the recent Japanese calamity.  These manga are: Kanojo wo Mamoru 51 no Houhou (51 Ways to Protect your Girlfriend),  The Meteor, and Coppelion.

All of these manga are not yet available via US distributors.  They can, however, be accessed at mangareader.net and other online readers.

We’ll start with Kanojo wo Mamoru 51 no Houhou by Furuya Usamaru.  The main characters are Mishima Jin, a young man seeking his first job with a Tokyo TV station and Okano Nanako, a young woman from Jin’s past who happens to be in the same area of Tokyo Odaiba when Jin arrives for his interview.  There are a host of other characters, as well, but I’ll just mention Jin and Nanako (who is referred to by her last name, Okano, in the manga).

So, the basic set-up is that fate has brought these two together again after some rather scarring incidents happened during their high school years.  They briefly meet in the street but the changes that have occurred in the intervening years immediately present a wall that Jin can’t cross even to just talk to Okano.

Time slips by, Jin finishes his interview, but on the way out of Odaiba, he runs across Okano being bullied by other groupies of the rock group she follows.  He chases off the abusers and then finally gets a chance to glimpse into the weird world that Okano has fallen into after the trauma she endured in high school.  One thing leads to another and Okano ends up stalking off in a huff.  After a moment’s reflection, Jin runs off to find her.

He catches up to her in the middle of a bridge, lost in praying to her made up rock-n-roll gods.  His memories and regrets catch up to him and he tries to apologize for not defending her in the past, but that’s when it happens.

Tokyo gets hit dead center by a major (8.0 or higher) earthquake.

This is where the story really begins.  Now, understand that Jin and Okano’s reunion is a backdrop, the empathy-building background we need to care about whether or not our viewpoint characters survive.  However, what Kanojo 51 is really about is showing a plausible extrapolation of what could happen to Tokyo and the people living there if the city were out and out smacked by the god-hammer.

The author has obviously done his research.  Liquifaction, structural distortion, fires, disruptions of key services, all the factors that go into what makes a disaster like an earthquake in a major city so horrible are all there.

Then he goes after the societal break down.  Once people start to realize that the strictures of society are gone, the abuses start.  Theft, murder, and especially rape start to run rampant.  I think, frankly, that the author focuses too much on rape.  In fact, my impression is that the author honestly has little to no belief in the ability of human beings to attempt to do much good for each other and it comes out in the story.

Then again, he’s not exactly alone.

The Meteor, by Hayashi Fumino, is another cataclysmic disaster manga, this time set in an undesignated city in the mountains of Japan.  This story is different from Kanojo 51 in that the cast of characters is better defined at the beginning.  The titular main character is Kawana Tomoko, a girl currently being ostracized within her school due to a relationship she had with a  teacher.  She does her best to ignore the rumors and jibes directed at her, but just as her temper grows short and she turns to snap at her tormentors, something massive falls out of the sky and smashes their city.

The structure of The Meteor is one of a mixture of personal back stories mixed with current events in the plot line.  Each character has a tale to tale preceding the event and their stories move forward within the framework of the disaster that the whole group must overcome.  The result is a noir adventure story with every viewpoint character’s trials and tribulations preceding the disaster greatly influencing their actions during the crisis.

The Meteor also features extrapolations of the difficulties inherent in surviving a massive disaster, this time a sizable meteor impact with an added pandemic of unknown origin.  It moves more quickly into the “breakdown of society” meme than Kanojo 51, though, and that’s where the real focus of the story lies.  The technical details that populate Kanojo 51 are more or less absent from The Meteor, but both works share a view that humanity will immediately balkanize and begin turning feral once the cuffs of civilization are off.

Frankly, I haven’t heard those kinds of stories coming out of Japan following the recent tsunami.  Instead, we heard about the problems with the one reactor that caused a great deal of panic and consternation, but we also heard tertiary stories of how people were attempting to work together to deal with the various hardships and emergencies.  Perhaps this is more indicative of the nature of the rural areas that the tsunami hit.  If Tokyo had actually been significantly traumatized, maybe there would have been a massive amount of civil disorder and violence.  Hopefully we’ll never know.

Speaking of the nuclear plant issues, the last manga I’ll mention is Coppelion by Inoue Tomonori.  Coppelion is the story of a group of school girls, Narusae, Aoi, and Taeko as they go on an outing to Tokyo.  (Yes, Tokyo again.)

Now, what’s a bit different here is that nobody generally goes to Tokyo anymore.  This is because 25 years ago, Tokyo was contaminated by a major nuclear disaster and has been flooded with lethal levels of radiation ever since.

The girls in actuality are genetically engineered clones created with a specific body chemistry that allows them to survive in high-radiation environments.  Their “outing” is actually a graduation mission from their training school to locate and rescue “survivors” still populating the area.  (The survivors live in regions of lesser radiation but still have to wear survival suits.)

To be honest, Coppelion’s  prognostications are little more than anti-nuclear scaremongering.  The disaster at the nuke plant in Japan is not anything to laugh at, but it’s not exactly Chernobyl, either, and even Chernobyl isn’t as bad as the nightmare of contamination that Coppelion calls down upon chicken little’s head.  Still, it makes a sufficient backdrop for the story and it’s a far more palatable story than either of the other two manga I mentioned.  In fact, the idea of people helping others to the best of their ability is core to Coppelion.  The girls are there to help and what they find are people who are also working together to get by in increasingly difficult times.  Whereas the first two manga I mentioned expect the worse of people, Coppelion offers up the best (so long as your Japanese, that is.  A negative foreign influence is hinted at recently in none too subtle a tone.)

And I think that a hopeful element is important.  Yes, people can be shallow and selfish and cruel.  They can also be noble and selfless and caring.  Authors present what they expect people to be, whether they intend to or not.  Either that or most authors think that stories of people doing their best in difficult times are boring.  My personal tastes, though, are to root for people facing great difficulties together and overcoming.  Ergo, of these three views of possible disaster in Japan, I prefer Coppelion over Kanojo 51 or The Meteor.

That having been said, all three eerily parallel what has transpired in Japan this year in terms of potential disasters become reality.  Let’s hope the majority of what the posit remains fiction.

–Darwin Garrison

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