Prosthetic Memory and Anime

by tigermanifesto

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Continued from a series of reviews and articles about Alison Landsberg’s Prosthetic Memory and Susan J. Napier’s Anime.


Napier’s chapter on two historical dramas, Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies, was tailor-made for reading in light of the concept of “prosthetic memory” as elucidated by Alison Landsberg in her book of the same name. Both films to differing extents support the victim narrative that was constructed for Japan after the war. By placing all war guilt on a few elites, the American occupiers hoped to allow Japan to blossom into a democracy without being haunted by the past atrocities committed by its soldiers and abetted and supported by much of its citizenry. The atomic bomb, as Napier suggests,
“[cancels] out responsibility for Pearl Harbor and simply [glosses] over the colonization of Korea and the previous ten years of aggression against China” (162). This idea, along with the country’s constitutionally-enforced pacifism, goes a long way toward explaining why the Japanese treatment of World War II has been so subdued, even muted. While on the level of international politics this has caused no end of conflict between Japan and Korea and China, it also surfaces in these two historical films.

Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies are both both works anchored more in collective memory than personal memory. Being fictional stories, they do not have obvious autobiographical tendencies and, considering that they are both mass-cultural products, their reception by the general public will involve both appealing to and manufacturing new collective memories. Memories that aren’t, of course, “naturally” gained but instead prosthetic or commodified. While this quotation from Landsberg addresses Schindler’s List films, it is broadly applicable to these films as well: “[These films’] impact was due to [their] publicity –a public sphere developed around [them]–and [their] visual power, [their] ability to elicit deep identification on the part of [their] spectators” (Landsberg 121).

In brief, Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies, like Schindler’s List, elicited the reactions and publicity they did because of their ability to make their audience identify with the suffering shown on screen. Grave of the Fireflies portrays its child protagonists as passive and pitiful victims of chance, stand-ins for Japanese citizens, and there is little-to-no discussion of the causes for their suffering. As Napier writes, “Grave of the Fireflies attempts to construct an ideology of victimhood and loss that allows for a national identity in which the loss of the war gives depth to the Japanese soul” (173). The prosthetic memories generated by the film, therefore, are meant to reconstruct the national memory of the war to make it both more specific and more meaningful. It also removes any sense of Japanese guilt or responsibility for the atrocities committed against the children. There is no broader critique of the society itself, so I think it can be safely said that this film fails to be as progressive as Landsberg believes mass media can be. Barefoot Gen likewise recasts the Japanese as heroic resisters, again eliding over the matter of Japanese war guilt and creating a story so personal and impressionstic that it lacks teeth as a criticism of the status quo.

Nevertheless, I do not mean to diminish the beauty and quality of the two films, both of which are transfixing in their depiction of suffering and horror. The shared memories of its audiences are not likely to be ones that glorify war, as both are creative and unrelenting, though there is at leas a hope for national renewal at the conclusion of Barefoot Gen. Grave and Gen both represent stories worth telling that have been told well. That said, by their very nature as art pieces and as fiction (though Grave is based on an autobiographical text), they must exclude some aspects of the actual war situation. In this case, they exclude several key bits of information that would have destabilized prevailing Japanese attitudes about their country’s role in World War II. If these films have introduced many to the realities of the Japanese home front during the war, they have become, as Landsberg puts it, “transference spaces,” where memories of one generation are passed on to the next. And the prosthetic memories they are imparting might be naturally simplified simply because of the utter horror of Japan’s defeat. I think the most hopeful interpretation to be had for these films is that these films, though mass entertainments with all the simplifications and pandering to preexisting assumptions that entails, have preserved fragments of a national memory of suffering, and, hopefully, engendered a resistance to the use of violence in its viewers.

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