ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 11, Number 2 (May, 2014)


Apocalyptic Animation: In the Wake of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Godzilla and Baudrillard

Dr. Alan Cholodenko
(Honorary Associate, University of Sydney, Australia)

To begin to resemble the other, to take on their appearance, is to seduce them, since it is to make them enter the realm of metamorphosis despite themselves (Jean Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images).

In Japanese civilisation, there is always at bottom a void zone; and it is finally around this void that things organise themselves (Jean Baudrillard, Figures de l’altérité).

Jean Baudrillard is not only a thinker of animation—of the at once life and motion of people and things, subjects and objects, the mass and the media (including film), thought and the world—and of the animatic processes—processes of Seduction, Illusion, Evil, radical irreconcilability, reversibility—in which they are caught—but an animatic thinker of them, which means his work not only fictions but performs, not only reanimates but seduces. Of course, this means that all that I say about and after Baudrillard is likewise fictional and performative.

This essay, like my ‘“OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR”: The Virtual Reality of Jurassic Park and Jean Baudrillard’ (Cholodenko, 1997), takes up a place in my ongoing project of theorising film and animation, indeed film as a form of animation, after Baudrillard, and vice versa. It focuses on one of the major modes of animation—apocalyptic anime, the post-World War II animation of Japan. Apocalyptic anime is in the wake of The Bomb, in the wake of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and as well for us Godzilla. I will consider animes most astonishing example to date—Akira, made by Katsuhiro Otomo in 1988, which not only put anime on the map in the West but exploded onto the West, in the process ‘devastating’ not only the West but that map. And I shall elucidate its extreme nature and processes after, in the wake of, Baudrillard.

Here a further reason surfaces for interrogating anime and Akira through the work of Baudrillard, and vice versa. Baudrillard has addressed not only the subjects of the Apocalypse and The Bomb but also that of post-World War II Japan, including in terms of the global, the universal and the singular. For us, Baudrillard’s work offers a singular take on and performance of the animatic processes at play not only in film animation but of film animation, not only in the world but of the world, and at play between and across them—in this context the extreme processes at play—the hypertelic, the viral, the paroxystic—not only within post-World War II Japanese film animation and American film animation but between them, at play not only within post-World War II Japan and America but between them, and at play across them. The radical, inextricable co-implication, short-circuit and implosion of film and reality for Baudrillard—for us, film and world, too—results for us in an increasingly definitive lack of differentiation between film animation and nation animation—this, too, the play of the animatic.

It is a classic humanist and media cliché to say that the war—World War II—ended in 1945. This is just too easy. In On War, von Clausewitz says ‘War is merely the continuation of policy [politics] by other means’ (von Clausewitz, 1984 [1976]: 87). I would say that politics, economics, science and technology can be the continuation of war by other means. The Japanese ‘economic miracle’ can be, and obviously has been, so thought by many, including many Japanese commentators. For example, Frederik L. Schodt writes how Professor Takemochi Ishii claimed that the very roots of Japanese post-war progress lay:

not only in political changes but in the fact that Japan was overwhelmed by being a guinea pig for Western military technology. ‘World War II was technological competition between nations’, he [Professor Ishii] writes, ‘like that between corporations today. Japan, which had not even fully mastered the mass production of automobiles, never had a chance’. The result was a bloody lesson, pounded into the brains of every man, woman, and child (Schodt, 1988: 77).

Ishii here acknowledges Japan, Inc.’s connection to and continuation of war in its global campaign for technological supremacy.

My point here is a corollary. Japanese cinema and anime can also be thought as the continuation of war by other means.

In The Evil Demon of Images, Jean Baudrillard writes of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, ‘War becomes film, film becomes war, the two united by their mutual overflow of technology’ (Baudrillard, 1987: 17). The association of war and anime has a long tradition in Japan, as Kosei Ono explains in his essay ‘The Long Flight of Manga and Anime’.1  Animation was enlisted by the militarist Japanese government in its World War II effort. Ono tells the astonishing story of a Japanese animator who, seeing Disney’s Fantasia in the last months of the war, realised Japan could not win it! He also relates how the anti-American propaganda anime made during the war regularly had elements evincing a love for the US and its animation—an ambivalence which comes to mark anime’s post-war form as well.

Baudrillard states that cinema, TV, media images, are the continuation of war by other means. This would, of course, include the cartoon, include animation. I propose that anime, as a form of hypercinema, of hyperanimation, is also a continuation of (that) war by other means, or rather, given the hyperreal pure and empty form of both anime and war today, is precisely the continuation of the absence of (that) war by other means—what might be called a war game in virtual form, a virtual war game, a game of virtual war, even as such hyperwar is a continuation of hypercinema, of hyperanimation. But not solely. As we shall see, after Baudrillard, the game is not over.

It is arguable that apocalyptic animeanime in the wake of The Bomb—in general and Akira in particular have a major precursor in Godzilla (1954), the first Japanese monster film. Godzilla is about a prehistoric creature reanimated and irradiated by American nuclear bomb testing who in turn irradiates and otherwise lays waste to Tokyo until ‘destroyed’. In his Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!: The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films, Stuart Galbraith quotes Godzilla’s director Ishiro Honda on what inspired his work:

 …when I returned from the war and passed through Hiroshima, there was a heavy atmosphere—a fear the earth was already coming to an end. That became the basis for the film (quoted in Galbraith, 1998: 23).

I agree with Susan J. Napier (1993)2  and Freda Freiberg (1996),3  who consider that Godzilla is a precedent for Akira—for Freiberg not only because Akira also inscribes the war, Hiroshima, The Bomb, the US Occupation, but because Akira was only the second Japanese film to break into the Western mass entertainment market, the first being Godzilla. This latter reason can also be read as an aspect of war.

Of Godzilla, Galbraith states: ‘Through the character [of Godzilla], Honda sought to, in his words, “make radiation visual”’ (Galbraith, 1998: 23). He made Godzilla a symbol of the Atomic Bomb (see also Freiberg, 1996 and Noriega, 1996). And for Chon Noriega, Godzilla is more. It is a hybrid creature, representing not only the US but Japan, a Japan, writes Noriega, ‘as transitional monster caught between the imperial past and the post-war industrial future’ (p. 62), in other words, a hybrid within a hybrid, a monstrous doubling. And in my view, it is more again, as we shall see.

What of the ‘place’ of Akira and anime in film animation ‘history’? In his essay ‘The Animation of Sound’, Philip Brophy (1991) contrasts the symphonic character of Disney with the cacophonic nature of Warner Bros, describing how, as opposed to Disney animation, Warner Bros animation is about speed, technology, violence and war. He especially cites the Road Runner movies of Chuck Jones as examples.

What for Brophy is classical Disney animation and modernist Warner Bros animation is superseded by ‘postmodernist’ animation—anime. The cute of Disney animation is exceeded/superseded by the hypercute of anime, even as the speed, violence and war of Warner Bros cartoons is exceeded/ superceded by the hyperspeed, hyperviolence and hyperwar of anime. In this regard it is highly significant that Brophy, in his paper ‘Sonic—Atomic—Neumonic: Apocalyptic Echoes in Anime’ (1995),4  focuses on Akira more than any other anime.

Both Napier and Freiberg describe Akira as postmodernist. For Napier, Akira’simage ‘of social, material, and … spiritual collapse’ (Napier, 1993: 329)—of the corruption of all forms of authority and authenticity—is unrelentingly dark, ‘nihilistic’, postmodernist, offering, rather than a moral centre, a ‘dystopian center’ (p. 344), for me, a black hole.

But here let me pause to describe the plot of Akira. Akira begins on July 16, 1988, as World War III begins, with the unleashing of The Bomb on Tokyo. After flashing its title, the film jumps from the crater—the black hole—of what was Tokyo to Neo-Tokyo 2019—2019 is the same year in which Blade Runner is set—a Neo-Tokyo very reminiscent of the dystopian Los Angeles of Blade Runner. Here, we find a mise-en-obscène of civil and millennial chaos, with delinquents in bikie gangs warring with each other, with revolutionary terrorists and religious sects also running riot, with civil government, run by corrupt and stupid politicians, collapsed, with the military going to war against the police. All the while, an enigmatic army Colonel charged with state security is inexplicably involved with scientists who are continuing their secret medical experiments with esper mutants—espers are those possessed of tele-kinetic powers—in the quest, it seems, to acquire the power over and of pure energy, to unlock the memory of, and harness, the life force animating the universe, ‘even before the beginning of time’, says Kyoko, an esper mutant, through Kai, a revolutionary, a force animistically resident in ‘all things in existence’, even in an esper’s aura.

In this setting appears Tetsuo, a young, short, small bikie delinquent plagued with feelings of insecurity and hostility, and his friend Kaneda, who plays the role of big brother to him, but at the same time, like the other bikies, tends to patronise him. It is when Tetsuo encounters the mutant Takashi, who is trying to escape the experimental hospital with the help of a terrorist, that the plot kicks into hyperaction, for Tetsuo is taken back to the hospital with Takashi; and there Tetsuo is tested, the results suggesting that he has powers that resemble those of Akira, who reached the limit stage of their experiments and was in some way responsible, with his psychic powers, for triggering World War III. Given Tetsuo’s sociopathic nature—the association with Dr Frankenstein’s creature from the 1931 film, as well as Dr Strangelove, will be made—and the experiments upon him, the increasing psychic powers he acquires push him to an extreme, unstable, chain-reactive, runaway state, a delirous, psychopathic condition, against which Takashi and his two mutant allies—Kyoko and Masaru—rally to try to control him, to get him to try to control himself.

But Tetsuo is at once increasingly in control, controlling, and at the same time increasingly out of control, uncontrollable, experiencing more and more paroxysms of mind and body, sending him in search of Akira—to challenge him to a duel to see who has superior power—and sending him to a face-off with the army, Tetsuo even ascending to the Sol satellite weapon being directed against him from its orbit above Japan and destroying it. And then, inside the Olympic Stadium, he undergoes a sequence of mutations, from one where his blown-off right arm is replaced with a prosthetic, cyborg one, recalling that of Terminator’s T-101, which then turns organic, to one where his entire body becomes a mass of uncontrollably proliferating tissue that reaches gigantic size and swallows up not only Tetsuo’s girlfriend Kaori but Tetsuo himself, that is, until Akira—‘absent’ from the film until now (except for the visits by the Colonel and Tetsuo to the underground cold storage capsule beneath the Olympic Stadium construction site where Akira’s remains from his climactic metamorphosis have been kept in a cryogenic state in jars) and now reanimated, ‘called back’ and ‘released’ by the mutants to take Tetsuo away—returns as pure energy Bomb and in turn swallows up and metamorphoses Tetsuo, as well as the mutants. The mutant Kyoko declared this Tetsuo becoming the latest member of the family! In what the head scientist pronounces as ‘like a cosmic rebirth’, the Akira Bomb (A Bomb!) again lays waste to much of the city; but Kaneda, the female revolutionary Kai and the Colonel somehow escape to see another day. As the film ‘ends’, another ambivalent, indeterminate, radically uncertain cycle in the life of Japan—of Neo Neo-Tokyo—is begun.

One could say, after Brophy, that Akira is perhaps the strongest, most extreme example of how anime is itself an extreme form/‘event’/phenomenon, the unleashing, liberating, of extreme energy, of explosive and implosive atomic, nuclear (and psychic) energy, animation that explodes and implodes, including exploding and imploding animation itself, exploding and imploding American animation, including Disney animation, as well as itself. In its ‘constant bombardment and battering of the senses, [its] barrage of high intensity experiences … its stunning spectacles of violence and destruction’—Freiberg’s characterisations (1996: 95), full of terms of war—Akira is ‘literally’ a visceral (or should I say evisceral), gut-wrenching, ‘mind-blowing’, ‘mind-boggling’ experience and technological weapon of hyperspeed, hyperviolence and hyperwar.

So anime can be thought to be at war, continuing Japan’s World War—at war with American animation, at war with America. If one thinks of the nucleus of the atom as a figure of cohesion, coherence and unity, its fission-explosion—and/or fusion-implosion—equate to a loss or absence of cohesion, coherence, unity and interiority, which is played out in anime in all its various modes of narrative, characterisation, mise-en-scène, simulated camera work, editing relations, light, sound, line, etc. That loss or absence of nucleus can be thought  as that postmodernist ‘dystopian center’—that black hole, that void, empty nucleus (noyau) of the nuclear, around which everything happens, everything turns—that Napier finds at the ‘core’ of Akira, figured topographically in the black crater that was Tokyo.

One could call Akira an irradiated, irradiating, atomised, enucleated animation, one not only participating in and conducting a war but exhibiting the effects of one, a war not only of but on image and sound. A war at once ‘external’ and ‘internal’. Also, one could say that the organic metabolism of anime is irradiated, and its operations are irradiating, cancerous, viral, ‘out of control’, running riot, like Tetsuo’s hyperproliferating body at the end of the film. Anime at once materialises the immaterial energies and immaterialises the material forms, including itself, exhibiting and performing a nuclear and biological war, a war of and on the nucleus of both the atom and the cell.

After Baudrillard, it might be said that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the apocalypse of the Apocalypse, the end of the End, and that they will never come because they already have and do so repeatedly, endlessly, in our daily lives, not as actual Apocalypse, actual End, but as virtual ones, and that Akira, like Japan ‘itself’,is a limit case of it. Such would be our ‘Apocalypse Now’, our holocaust, a virtual, simulacral one.

Such an apocalypse is associated for Baudrillard with the hyperreal, the advent of which he perennially describes with reference to Elias Canetti’s words:

A tormenting thought: as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality; everything happening since then was supposedly not true; but we supposedly didn’t notice. Our task would now be to find that point, and as long as we didn’t have it, we would be forced to abide in our present destruction (Canetti, 1985: 69).

These words appear in the tellingly entitled ‘August 1945’ subsection of Canetti’s chapter ‘1945’ in The Human Province. Soon after, he states: ‘… the atomic bomb has become the measure of all things’ (p. 67). Without being explicit on the point(!), Canetti seems thereby to associate the point of (and) passage beyond reality with The Bomb. Its dropping on ground zero at Hiroshima, irradiating and enucleating not only Japan but the world, instituted that dead point, blind spot, vanishing point, black hole as void nucleus (noyau), a point for Baudrillard thereafter impossible ‘as such’ to locate.

In The Evil Demon of Images (1987), Baudrillard characterises World War II by two events—The Bomb and the Holocaust (the extermination of six million European Jews by the Nazis)—through which the world passed beyond the horizon of the real into hyperreality. Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of Holocaust is from the Greek holokaustos, burnt whole, from kaiein, to burn: 1. an offering the whole of which is burned; burnt offering; 2. complete destruction of people or animals by fire [fire as agency of genocide, etc.]; 3. great or widespread destruction. By the concatenation of these definitions, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are Holocausts, too. The Bomb is symbol also of Holocaust. Godzilla and Akira—films and characters—are, too.

Significantly, after treating of Apocalypse Now, including characterising it as ‘a holocaust of means’ (Baudrillard, 1987: 17)—which means a film can be a holocaust—Baudrillard immediately contrasts The China Syndrome and The Bomb with Holocaust the televised event and Holocaust the historical event. For Baudrillard, The Bomb is the last great event of hot, explosive systems. The Holocaust is the first great event of cold, implosive systems. And the media, including film but especially television, are for him part and parcel of the apocalypse, The Bomb and the Holocaust, sites of both modes of nuclear destruction—explosion (fission) and implosion (fusion)—but especially and increasingly post-World War II of the latter, sites of the implosion, the denegation, of meaning, truth, reality, through their hyperrealising, their virtualising. The ‘telefission of the real’ (p. 19).

In anime—animation of the apocalypse and the apocalypse of animation—animation becomes hyperanimation—the pure and empty, virtual apocalyptic and holocaustal form of animation, for which Akira is exemplary. As hyperanimation, animation at once more and less animation than animation, Akira metamorphoses/reanimates American cartoon animation, including metamorphosing/reanimating Disney cute into hypercute (kawaii), most notably in what is arguably the most horrifying sequence in the film, when Tetsuo is attacked by the cute toys.5  Insofar as the theme of the film is metamorphosis/reanimation, insofar as it presents itself as between two apocalypses, thereby suggesting it itself is never not in a process of apocalyptic metamorphosis/reanimation, insofar as it is never not allegorising, dramatising and performing the cyclical, spiralling, spherical processes of at once redeath and rebirth from its ‘beginning’ apocalypse to its ‘ending’ apocalypse, from The Bomb at its ‘beginning’ to The Bomb at its ‘ending’, Akira presents us with an anime whose theme, content, plot, characterisations and narrative of reanimation are conjoined with a style, structure and form marked by reanimation in a mode which is itself that of reanimation—anime. Here, we find the same extreme processes of the explosive and the implosive at work that I spoke of after Baudrillard earlier, processes associated with the chain-reactive life of postnuclear atomic image/sound energies of micro-cosmic and macro-cosmic character that pervade all that Brophy highlights in anime, most of all in Akira.

Even as its theme and form are fractalised as reanimation, Akira is an event, a performing, of reanimation. Insofar as the day the film performs the apocalypse on Japan—its epicentre Tokyo—was the very day it premiered there—July 16, 1988, the date of the beginning of World War III6 and crucially the forty-third anniversary of the US test explosion of the first nuclear bomb at Trinity Site in New Mexico that inaugurated ‘the nuclear age’ and spelled the defeat of Japan in World War II by its avatars ‘Little Boy’(!) and ‘Fat Man’ that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively—and did so within seconds of its ‘beginning’, Akira sees itself not only as an allegory of the apocalypse but as an agency of it. As a weapon of war! As a bomb! As The Bomb!—Trinity Site bomb included. The Bomb not only whose target sur-vives (survivre)—lives on—in its wake, through the target’s ‘own’ metamorphosis/reanimation, but that sur-vives—lives on—in the wake of itself, through its ‘own’ metamorphosis/reanimation. And not only is the viewer the witness to these processes, it itself ‘re-dies’ and is ‘reborn’, to live on in the wake of itself, through its ‘own’ metamorphosis/reanimation, like the film, like Tetsuo. With Akira—the convulsive, paroxystic, seismic events imaged within it as well as on and of it—we are witness to the process of the ecstatic—the pushing of things, including animation, to their limit, to their pure and empty form—even as we are witness therein to the postnuclear, post-apocalyptic, postmodern, metastatic form of the life and motion—the ‘animation’—of energies, exemplified best in the Sergei Eisensteinian protean plasmatic, animatic character that in its metastatic form Tetsuo comes to assume in the climactic sequence at the stadium.7  ‘Deprived’ of its ‘essence’ as of its ‘cause’, ‘animation’ functions all the better in its hyperreal, hyperproliferative, hyperviolent, hypersaturated, hypertrophic, atrophic, enucleated, irradiated, irradiating, cancerous, viral, paroxystic form of ‘the life, moving of itself, of that which is dead’,8 of lifedeath—that obese, obscene, terrorist form that is anime. That is Akira. That is Tetsuo.

As hyperreal hypercartoon, the pure and empty form of the cartoon, Akira takes cartoon animation to its limits, annihilating it. But it does more than that. It takes live action there, too, for it issues a challenge to live action, saying it is more live action than live action. In this sense, it could be said that Akira is more Godzilla than Godzilla. (As it is more Frankenstein than Frankenstein, more Dr Strangelove than Dr Strangelove, more Blade Runner than Blade Runner, more The Terminator than The Terminator, more Alien than Alien, more John Carpenter’s The Thing From Another World than John Carpenter’s The Thing From Another World, more Mad Max than Mad Max …).9 

In fact, at several points I could not tell if I was watching cartoon animation or live action, such are the powers of its animation to simulate live action, to hyperconform to it, seducing it, making it enter the realm of metamorphosis despite itself, even as it simulates and seduces American cartoon animation. Such are the powers of apocalyptic anime in general and Akira in particular. Here we arrive at a crucial turning point, exemplary of many in and of (the) film, for such powers accord not only with the hypertelic, ecstatic process but with the turn—the reversion—of Seduction, for Baudrillard game of challenge (agonistics) and outbidding, of duel, defiance and leading astray, of reversibility—the hallmark of a world of metamorphosis and myth, illusion and the immaterial, the rule and the dual, magic, dance and theatre—that power that is not only animating but of the order of the animatic.

Moreover, such an ironical, paradoxical, strange turn accords with the simulative and seductive powers of ‘post-historical’ ‘snobbish’ Japan, as Alexandre Kojève called it (1980 [1969])10 —a ‘snobbishness’ that would be a strategy of artifice, of affectation, of exacerbation, of pure formalism, of pure and empty form—Japan seducing America through challenge, defiance and outbidding, through simulating, hyperconforming to and ecstasising America, imitating America better than America imitates itself, at the same time preserving, by means of this game, this play, its own distance, its own radical foreignness, ‘Radical Exoticism’—as Baudrillard conceptualises such exoticism after Victor Segalen.

Drawing his image of Japan from Kojève, Segalen and as well Roland Barthes—who filmically visioned Japan as the graphic empire of pure and empty forms and signs and Tokyo (notably for Akira) as a place without a centre11 —Baudrillard offers his own in my view evil demonesque filmic vision, his own animatic vision, which models and mirrors what for him is the ‘model other’ (Baudrillard, 1994: 136) that is Japan, which for me we see in and with anime in general and Akira in particular.

For Baudrillard, Japan offers what I propose Akira offers Tetsuo and anime and Akira offer the viewer—a ‘lethal hospitality’ (Baudrillard, 1993: 143)—at once a hostile hospitality and a hospitable hostility. At once host and terrorist, Japan—what Baudrillard might call the evil demon of nations—takes hostage, miming, absorbing, devouring, assimilating, integrating, incorporating—I’m reminded here of the highly loaded(!) term ‘Japan, Inc.’! —its guest/enemy and its powers, while at the same time neutralising—‘defusing’(!)—them, doing so, I suggest, even to The Bomb, Japan becoming at once more The Bomb than The Bomb and less The Bomb than The Bomb. Japan turns its hostage to its own logics, strategies, advantage, even as it has turned that catastrophe to non-catastrophe, that apocalypse to nothing.12 

And in terms of the global, the universal and the singular, for Baudrillard, Japan is a singular example of the singular, not only ‘as such’ but insofar as it has:

succeeded in globalizing (technologically, economically, financially) better than the whole world without passing through the universal (the succession of bourgeois ideologies and of forms of political economy) and without losing anything of its singularity, whatever one might say of it (Baudrillard, 1997: 177 [My translation]).

Diverting and evading Western universality, Japan for Baudrillard offers its cannibalistic, murderous hospitality to globalisation, absorbing, incorporating, ecstasising and seducing American capital, technology and modernism, thereby paradoxically, strangely returning (un retour étrange) (p. 175) ‘itself’—‘post-historical’ Japan—to ‘itself’—Japan ‘as such’—thus preserving ‘its’ radical foreignness, ‘its’ singularity, the virtual of the third and fourth orders absorbed by, strangely turning into, the ritual, the ceremonial, of the first order, and what enables it—the unconditional simulacrum, pure Illusion, Seduction, Evil—the cruel, savage power of the sign—the pure sign—to erupt.13

For us, Akira allegorises, stages and performs Baudrillard’s visions of ‘hospitable’ and singular Japan, turning Tetsuo’s straight line to the virtual into a détour that is a retour to the singular, a turning away from that is at the same time a turning toward what it always was, an ironic turning toward Seduction, Illusion, Evil, Radical Exoticism. Which is what Japan, anime, Akira do for America, virtual reality, globalisation, capital.14  The point—dead point, blind spot, vanishing point—of the turn turns (on) itself. And Seduction is the turn.

Such seductive processes operate decisively in Akira’s narrative, where Akira, as more and less The Bomb than The Bomb, is reanimated not only by the mutants but arguably by Tetsuo, by his very actions as form of destiny, and ironically returns to swell and swallow the swelling and swallowing Tetsuo, incorporating, metamorphosing and reanimating him in his void nucleus (noyau), his nothing, even in his ‘nuclear family’(!)—a cannibalistic allegory and performance of Japan swallowing, incorporating and reanimating America in ‘itself’, its void, its nothing. Japan, as Baudrillard speaks of it, as phagocyte (1994: 72). As Pac Man.

The double game of Japan, apocalyptic anime and Akira is akin to the fatal strategy of conformity, of seduction, of Leonard Zelig and the film Zelig (Dir. Woody Allen, 1983) as Baudrillard treats of them in The Evil Demon of Images (see the opening epigraph of this essay). Zelig is ‘launched on an adventure of …global seduction’ (Baudrillard, 1987: 15)—making it—the global—enter the realm of metamorphosis despite itself—in that process hyperconforming to and leading astray all interpretations, by means of which the Radical Otherness—the singularity—of Zelig—and of Japan, apocalyptic anime and Akira—its/their ‘eternal incomprehensibility’15 —are safeguarded.16  I would add, such a seduction characterises the seduction of film animation and the world by the snobbish animatic apparatus of film animation ‘itself’—apparatus of not only the illusion of life (simulation) but the life of illusion (Seduction).

Avatar of Godzilla—character and film—Akira—character and film—is (figure of) The Bomb, at once more and less The Bomb than The Bomb, that explodes/implodes both America and Japan, even as it revivifies/reanimates them, even as Tetsuo, the monster-on-the-loose avatar of Godzilla and Akira, takes up his nuclear-powered, chain-reactive, absorbing place within that lineage, donning a red cape to complete the highly loaded tricolour—red, white and blue—in that process metamorphosing not only ‘himself’ but the returned/reanimated/absorbing Akira become ‘saviour’ into something ‘eternally incomprehensible’, enigmatic, Radically Other, around which everything turns—that inexchangeable nothing that, like Eisenstein’s plasmaticness, at once enables and disenables all exchange, while itself being beyond value—that void, empty nucleus (noyau)—dead point, blind spot, black hole—not only (at the ‘centre’) of Akira, not only of the nuclear Bomb, not only of the nuclear ‘as such’, not only of the/its/their animating of the point of (and) passage beyond reality for Canetti but of Japan ‘itself’.

For us, analogous to Tetsuo, and to Akira vis-à-vis Tetsuo, Japan swallows, incorporates, gives its lethal hospitality to, makes a new ‘member of the family’ of, the noyau (nucleus) of The Bomb (that war technology made by America and first tested at Trinity Site July 16, 1945)—The Bomb itself for Canetti having become the measure of all things—the noyau of the/its animating of the point of (and) passage beyond reality for Canetti and the noyau of ‘post-historical’ Japan in its ‘own’ noyau, as it incorporates as well America, globalisation and the West in ‘itself’. Indeed, Japan is for us also ‘avatar’ of the nuclear ‘in itself’, as well as of the Big Bang and the Big Crunch.

Baudrillard writes of this zone vide at the ‘core’ of Japanese civilisation, around which things finally organise themselves:

For Japan, one does not draw a conclusion; but one can see inspite of everything that, even at the summit of a technological, contemporary civilisation, there remains nevertheless a sort of nucleus [noyau] absolutely blind or void, which corresponds to that which Barthes described as the ‘void of the signifier’ (Baudrillard, 1994: 95 [My translation]).

For us,Japan ‘itself’ is dead point, blind spot, black hole—empire of the void, we would call ‘it’—subsuming all into ‘it’, fatal even to ‘itself’. Insofar as for Baudrillard Japan directly associates the point of (and) passage to hyperreality, virtuality and globalisation with its singularity, with its power of ritual (Baudrillard, 1997: 177)—and agonistics and the duel are features of the first order—I propose that that could not but include the associating of Japan, Inc. with The Way of the Samurai (Bushido)—what Inazo Nitobe, in 1905, called ‘the animating spirit, the motor force of our country’ (Nitobe, 1969: 171). Bushido lives on, in business as war game—in Japan, Inc., as well as in America—as the latest paperback publication from The Overlook Press of Miyamoto Musashi’s A Book Of Five Rings (1982) declares and evidences.

For Baudrillard, not only is Japan eternally incomprehensible void, empty, blind nucleus (noyau), so, too, is America, of which Zelig, and Andy Warhol, are exemplary.17  For America as well is singular. And so, too, is that passage between, where the radical significance of Japan rejoins the radical insignificance of America (Baudrillard, 1994: 101)—two absences in ‘communication’, in impossible exchange, we would say, with each other, each offering the other a viral hospitality, each at once completely symbiotic and completely incompatible with the other, forming a Moebius strip, a radical inextricable co-implication, a complicity, a knot that cannot be disentangled—each at once friend and foe, model and mirror—to paraphrase Schodt’s book America and The Four Japans: Friend, Foe, Model, Mirror (1994)—but after Baudrillard equally Japan and The Four Americas …(!)—but where these nations and terms are not only inextricably entangled, exchanging with, reversing/returning on, each other—a friendly foe and foeish friend, a model mirror and mirror model—but where each nation and term is at the same time potentialising on its own, so that at the same time as there is hyperexchanging, there is hypernonexchanging, the virtual conditional form of ritual unconditional impossible exchange—defeating Schodt’s hopes for a yin/yang reconciliation of Japan and America. And making of Canetti’s ‘the atomic bomb has become the measure of all things’ a measure beyond measure. Japan and America—marvellous indistinguishability!

Insofar as for Baudrillard singularities lie beyond measure, cannot be deciphered, understood or reconciled—to themselves or to each other—so Japan, anime, Akira, America, Zelig, Warhol, plasmaticness, the animatic, the objective irony of science and technology cannot be.

Such are the reanimating processes for us not only at work in animation, in anime, for which Akira is exemplary, but the work of animation, of anime, including reanimating nations and their relations. As Tetsuo/America reanimate/metamorphose/seduce Akira/Japan, Akira/Japan at the same time reanimate/metamorphose/seduce Tetsuo/America, absorbing them into its/their game.

Akira and Tetsuo, like Japan and America, are the destiny of the other. Together, Akira—character and film—and Tetsuo demonstrate, through anime, that irresolvable, irreconcilable, fatal, singular monster that is what I call japanimerica—a hyperhybrid, protean plasmatic, animatic monster arguably cryptically incorporated ‘in’ (at the void nucleus of) each and every film animation, country, culture and institution (‘nuclear family’ as much as national film animation industry)—even Disneyworld Company—‘in’ (at the void nucleus of) each and every individual—even the hero of cryogenics, of suspended animation, Walt Disney ‘himself’—and ‘in’ (at the void nucleus of) the passage between each and every element of this constellation.18

Which is to say, not only is it the case that ‘OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR’, peoples, nations, institutions and individuals—in their relation to themselves and to each other—are, too, exacting their revenge—the revenge of the mirror people—for which animatic Japan and America offer singular example. To paraphrase: ‘PEOPLE IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR’.

And the fatal/object theorist is, too. As with (his challenge to and impossible exchange with) Japan and America, Baudrillard issues a singular challenge to world, to thought, to be more, in that very seduction provoking radical uncertainty as to whether he lies in their wake or they in his. Is Japan hyperconforming to him or he to Japan? And what of me? Marvellous indistinguishability!

In the seductive, fatal, snobbish, animatic, singular world of Jean Baudrillard, strange returns spiral around a point, a spot, a void, a sphere, like spiral nebulae around a black hole, appearing to disappear in a singularity.


Note: This paper originally appeared in Baudrillard: West of the Dateline. Edited by Victoria Grace, Heather Worth, and Laurence Simmons. Dunmore Press, Auckland, New Zealand (2001).


Barthes, R. (1982), Empire of Signs, New York: Hill and Wang.

Baudrillard, J. (1987), The Evil Demon of Images, Sydney: Power Institute Publications.

Baudrillard, J. (1993), The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. Benedict, J., London: Verso.

Baudrillard, J. (1994), Figures de l’altérité, Paris: Descartes & Cie.

Baudrillard, J. (1996), The Perfect Crime, trans. Turner, C., London: Verso.

Baudrillard, J. (1997), Ecran Total, Paris: Galilée.

Baudrillard, J. (2000), The Vital Illusion, Witwer, J. (ed.), New York: Columbia University Press.

Brophy, P. (1991), ‘The Animation of Sound’, in Cholodenko, A. (ed.), The Illusion of Life: Essays on Animation, Sydney: Power Publications in association with the Australian Film Commission.

Canetti, E. (1985), The Human Province, London: Andre Deutsch.

Cholodenko, A. (1997), ‘“OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR”: The Virtual Reality of Jurassic Park and Jean Baudrillard’, in Zurbrugg, N. (ed.), Jean Baudrillard, Art and Artefact, London: Sage Publications.

Cholodenko, A. (2000a), ‘The Logic of Delirium, or the Fatal Strategies of Antonin Artaud and Jean Baudrillard’, in Scheer, E. (ed.), 100 Years Of Cruelty: Essays on Artaud, Sydney: Power Publications and Artspace.

Cholodenko, A. (2000b), ‘The Illusion of The Beginning: A Theory of Drawing and Animation’, Afterimage vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 9–12.

Clausewitz, C. von (1984 [1976]), On War, Howard, M. and Paret, P. (trans. and eds), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Eisenstein, S. (1988), Eisenstein on Disney, London: Methuen.

Freiberg, F. (1996), ‘Akira and the Postnuclear Sublime’, in Broderick, M. (ed.), Hibakusha Cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film, London: Kegan Paul International.

Galbraith, S. (1998), Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!: The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films, Venice, CA: Feral House.

Kojève, A. (1980 [1969]), Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, Bloom, A. (ed.), Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Miyamoto, M. (1982), A Book of Five Rings, Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press.

Napier, S. J. (1993), ‘Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira’, The Journal of Japanese Studies vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 327–351.

Nitobe, I. (1969), Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

Noriega, C. (1996), ‘Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When Them! is U.S.’, in Broderick, M. (ed.), Hibakusha Cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film, London: Kegan Paul International.

Schodt, F. L. (1988), Inside The Robot Kingdom: Japan, Mechatronics, and the Coming Robotopia, Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Schodt, F. L. (1994), America and The Four Japans: Friend, Foe, Model, Mirror, Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press.


1. Presented at The Life of Illusion: Post World War II Animation in the United States and Japan, Australia’s second international conference on animation, held in Sydney at the Japan Cultural Centre and the Museum of Contemporary Art, March 3–5, 1995, convened by Alan Cholodenko. Forthcoming in Cholodenko, A. (ed.), The Illusion of Life 2, Power Publications, Sydney.

2. Drawing on Susan Sontag’s pioneering 1965 essay on science fiction, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, Napier proposes that Japanese science fiction, like science fiction in general, has had a distinctly dystopian nature, has revelled in ‘the imagination of disaster’ and that Akira represents the Japanese limit case of this revelling.

3. Neither Napier nor Freiberg engages with animation in its own right nor with what Akira says about and does to animation.

4. Presented at The Life of Illusion conference in Sydney, 1995. See note 1.

5. The Babies’ Room, where the toys attack a second time, is an
architectural celebration of the world of Disney.

6. See Napier (1993: 336, n. 17). She thanks Tony Rayns for pointing this out.

7. On plasmaticness—that formless form that, enabling all form, is never given nor givable as such—see Eisenstein (1988: 21) and Cholodenko (2000b: 10).

8. Baudrillard quoting Hegel, in Baudrillard (1993: 108).

9. Akira operates according to the same hyperreal processes that make of Jurassic Park (1993) a live action film more cartoon animation than cartoon animation (see Cholodenko, 1997). Ditto the Wachowski Bros’ The Matrix (1999), explicitly inspired by—as well as challenged by and challenging—Akira and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, even as it explicitly inscribes Baudrillard. The hypervitality of Akira, Jurassic Park and The Matrix is in the wake of their and the world’s radical loss of meaning, truth and identity, in the wake of their and the world’s radical loss of reality and film—loss of animation in anime and live action in digitally animated ‘film’.

10. Kojève’s (1980 [1969]) characterisation of ‘post-historical’ Japan is complex and itself in need of inquiry, a project beyond the scope of this essay.

11. Barthes (1982: 9) uses the words ‘auditory film’ to describe his experience of Japan as foreigner.

12. In terms of Japan, Inc., the producer of Akira—the Akira Committee—consists of eight Japanese companies!

13. The cruel, savage power of the sign inscribes Antonin Artaud in anime and Akira. See Cholodenko (2000a).

14. More recently, Baudrillard has explicitly linked science and technology with Kojèvian snobbish, ‘post-historical’ Japan, in terms of his two irreconcilable hypotheses—undecidable between them—of The Perfect Crime of virtualisation and the Radical Illusion of Seduction, the latter taking the former as an avatar of itself—as another strange return. See Baudrillard (2000: 53, 55), as well as (1996: 5, 74). This is a reminder of the hypothetical nature of all the speculations in this essay, including of the turn—the strange return—of Tetsuo/Akira from The Perfect Crime to Radical Illusion.

15. Segalen on Japan, quoted by Baudrillard, in Baudrillard (1994: 95).

16. And that fatal strategy is akin, too, to the treatment by Baudrillard after Kojève of Andy Warhol in his significantly entitled ‘Machinic Snobbery’, in Baudrillard (1996).

17. On the void, the nothing, rather than the something, see Baudrillard
(1996: 2).

18. Is Akira’s being stored in deep freeze a nod to Walt Disney?