What Appears After the End of the World? Post-Humanity in Japanese Anime, Manga, and Novel of the 1980s

Memo #375

By: Shota Iwasaki – shota.iwasaki [at] alumni.ubc.ca

Depictions of cyborgs, extraterrestrials, and dystopias in fiction are not about the future, but are about contemporary society and their current transformations. Given this, what fears, hopes, and desires did Japanese science fiction at the height of affluence in the 1980s reflect?

After radical student movements and rapid economic growth became intertwined in the 1960s-1970s, Japan attained economic and material maturity in 1980s. However, while Japan was at the crest of conspicuous consumption society during bubble economy of the 1980s, several manga artists, anime creators, novelists produced works dealing with the end of the world, such as Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä, Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s AKIRA, Buronson and Hara’s Fist of the North Star, Iwa’aki Hitoshi’s Parasyte; Ōe Kenzaburo’s Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, Murakami Haruki’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, among others.

These manga artists, anime creators, and novelists perceived a crisis of conventional humanity and an emergence of something different. Several of these works (e.g. Nausicaä) focused on dystopic worlds after the collapse of civilization. Some (e.g. Parasyte) depicted a possibility of coexistence between humans and extraterrestrial or other non-human forms of life with a special focus on sex, gender, and sexuality. Others (e.g. Rouse Up…) explored what types of humans might cope with rapidly proliferating nuclear power, which even after disasters of Hiroshima/Nagasaki and Three Mile Island/Chernobyl, remained an uncontrollable but still inevitable source of energy for human activity. In other words, those works through narrative, allegory and metaphor dealt with the idea of a “new human” that emerged beyond modern conceptions of humanity.

Michel Foucault, in his Order of Things (1966), investigated the history of the modern concept of the human since the 18th century. He wrote at the end of the book: “one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”

So what appeared after the erased man in sand at the edge of the sea? Japanese science fiction of the 1980s in manga, anime, and novels forms were exploring this question at the apex of Japan’s economic power. Rather than simply reflecting “anti-human” views or a world without humans, they were examining a post-human world, one in which modern humanity was not the high point of evolution but a temporary transition point.

About the Author:

Shota Iwasaki is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia. His research focuses on modern and contemporary Japanese literature and culture.

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An explosion occurs in Neo-Tokyo, the setting of Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s manga series Akira (Credit: Ōtomo Katsuhiro).


Michel Foucault wrote at the end of his book, Order of Things (1966), “one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” (Credit: FreeImages.com).


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