Tokyo, Our Favorite Punching Bag

Tokyo, Our Favorite Punching Bag

Shin Megami Tensei IV demonstrates once again that blowing up Tokyo is one of science fiction's favorite apocalyptic gimmicks.

"Neo Tokyo is About to E-X-P-L-O-D-E!"

For nerds of a certain age, that phrase holds a permanent place in their memories. It was emblazoned across the cover of the Streamline Pictures VHS tape of classic anime Akira, one of the first Japanese cartoons to make a real impact in the U.S. without Carl Macek first chopping its component pieces into some kind of Frankenstein abomination. The strapline also appeared across several different pieces of promotional art -- one featuring protagonist Kaneda tearing toward the viewer on his motorcycle, another featuring him cockily wielding a laser gun massive enough to bring a tear of envy to Rob Liefeld's eye -- but most strikingly, it was sometimes overlaid atop an image of Tokyo being blasted to its component atoms by a bizarre sphere of dark energy: A sort of black-hole nuclear armageddon beneath the night sky, the scene's only illumination coming off the explosive nimbus at the sphere's base where its destructive force intersected the city.

Sure, he barely survives armageddon, but he has such a cool bike!

"At 2:17 P.M. on December 6th, 1992, a new type of bomb exploded over the metropolitan area of Japan."

So begins Akira, the Katsuhiro Otomo manga that inspired the movie. Over the course of the manga, Tokyo is destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again, and ultimately restored one last time in a sort of symbolic rebirth as the psychic children of Akira declare squatters' rights over the sea of shattered skyscrapers. Akira himself turns out to be a child blessed with impossible mental powers, his unpredictable destructive potential far deadlier than a nuclear weapon if only for its unpredictability.

A few years after leaving Akira screenings in a state of befuddled shock, anime enthusiasts watched as another rebuilt Tokyo of the future came under fire in the television series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Tokyo-3 is as much a fortress as a city, built to prevent the most important object in the world from being used as a key in a final global apocalypse that would annihilate humaity. The citizens of Tokyo-3 live a harried life as extraterrestrial invaders constantly attack, forcing them into shelters. Over the course of the series, the fortress city is flattened, bombed, and ultimately becomes ground zero of the apocalypse. And what of Tokyo-1, you ask? Oh, it was wiped out with nuclear missiles decades prior.

Japanese media loves destroying Tokyo. Sure, American movies have a tendency to wreck up New York City, but the good guys almost always save the day (and most of the city's eight million souls with it). Not so in anime and manga; from Ghost in the Shell to Dragon Head, any fan of Japanese pop culture has come to realize that providing insurance to a Tokyo homeowner is a fool's errand.

It's so lovely, until extraterrestrials blow massive chunks out of it in their eagerness to get to what's below.

Not surprisingly, this unsettling tendency has surfaced time and again in Japanese games as well -- most recently in this week's major RPG release, Shin Megami Tensei IV. Though the story initially appears to take place in an idyllic (albeit feudalistic) society in long-ago Europe, the true setting eventually reveals itself to be a post-apocalyptic Tokyo overrun with demonic invaders. Though the full story of Tokyo's misfortunes is relayed only indirectly through bits and pieces of information gathered from various NPCs, in time you learn that at some point in the past few decades, Tokyo fell victim to a nuclear attack in an attempt to wipe out the demonic invaders that had begun to run wild in its streets.

Americans are primarily familiar with Shin Megami Tensei through spin-offs like Persona 3 and 4, which take a much smaller and more localized approach to the concept of a demon invasion. But for the core series, the annihilation of Tokyo has been standard fare from the beginning. The original Shin Megami Tensei -- a never-been-localized-into-English RPG for the Super Famicom dating back to the early '90s -- featured a nuclear strike by Americans against Tokyo as a climactic plot point. Its sequel was set in the aftermath of that attack, where decades later the survivors had developed a divided society... and still dealt with demonic invaders, of course.

The desolation of Tokyo is hardly new to Japanese pop culture. It wasn't a fresh concept when Akira made its stunning debut 25 years ago, either. Akira's mind-bomb and Evangelion's angelic marauders were simply two links in a chain of apocalyptic Japanese films stretching back decades to 1954's original Godzilla. Many media critics regard these constant carpet-bombings of Japan's densest urban center as the nation picking at the psychic scars left by the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through pop culture.

"Ishiro Honda’s Gojira is a movie that is not simply a giant monster movie," writes Ian Friedman, "but a visual metaphor for nuclear weapons, interspersed with scenes illustrating both the immediate effect of a nuclear attack and the aftereffects of radiation."

Just think of SMT IV as Cliff's Notes for the Book of Revelation.

In the earliest days, Godzilla offered an outlet for the Japanese to confront their fear and anger over having been the first (and, to date, only) wartime victims of nuclear assault. "The American occupation forces suppressed local media from reporting on the atomic bombings," reports The Escapist. "Even after the occupation ended in 1952 and Japan began governing itself, there was social pressure not to discuss the bombings." The mighty lizard offered an outlet through which to sublimate a decade of pent-up fear and anger and hash things out through the cathartic safety of literature.

But Shin Megami Tensei stands apart from most of Japan's apocalyptic media in that armageddon isn't the point of the story. Nor in most cases is it even something that can be avoided. In all four of the core SMT titles to date, Tokyo becomes ground zero to utter destruction; in the most recent chapter, this serves as the backstory, while Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne's story didn't properly start until after the end of the world. Evangelion, Godzilla, and even Akira to a certain degree revolve around the prevention of the city's demolition or struggling to return things to normal. In SMT, Tokyo's destruction is a given: The implacable constant.

Instead, the player's task is not to prevent the end of the world but rather to build a new reality on the rubble of the old, as they see fit. Generally, this revolves around making a moral choice between law and order or chaos and anarchy, though occasionally -- most notably in Nocturne -- the deciding factors take on a more nuanced aspect. The law-versus-chaos dichotomy doesn't directly correspond to good-versus-evil, despite the fact that the demons the player deals with largely consist of gods and other spiritual beings from every pantheon imaginable, from the nine orders of Christian angels to obscure Celtic deities.

Creation, and re-creation.

Fittingly for a series in which you can ally yourself with Hindu deities, Shin Megami Tensei revolves around rebirth. Each game is a journey to an ultimate conclusion, as the player alone has the ability to determine the nature of the world to be born; the path you travel with your gameplay choices dictates the shape of the new world you create. Shin Megami Tensei doesn't play favorites with any particular religion -- the Christian pantheon tends to fall under the ruling Law alignment, but those higher beings tend to be real jerks about it -- yet its emphasis on this cycle of rebirth and the frequent importance of magatama suggest, to some degree, an innate sympathy to Eastern religions and ways of thought such as Shinto and Buddhism.

But in light of so many other games, films, and works that center on Tokyo's devastation, it's no stretch to regard SMT's focus on rebirth as the flip side of the nuclear metaphors present in so much other Japanese media. Japan suffered uniquely in World War II beyond just the two nuclear detonations that ended the war; throughout the conflict, the nation's major cities suffered a relentless barrage of firebombs that leveled half or more of those locations (Japan's historic preference for wood as a primary building material playing a significant role in the devastating nature of these attacks).

As a result, Japan underwent a tremendous amount of reconstruction in the wake of World War II, rebuilding not only its ruined cities but also recasting its entire society and economy as an industry-driven 20th century powerhouse. Even today, Tokyo feels like a city in a perpetual state of renewal in a way that even other Japanese cities don't. Where Kyoto and Osaka feel properly lived-in, Tokyo gives the impression of a place that strives to remain at the edge of the future at the cost of warmth and intimacy: Like Times Square writ large. Laid low by war -- a conflict that, as is often the case in SMT's demonic invasions, it brought upon itself in some ways -- Japan experienced its own rebirth 60 years ago.

The ruins of Tokyo are forever the backdrop to Shin Megami Tensei.

To put it in the series' terms, Japan's reinvention in the '50s and '60s in many ways seems have fallen very much in line with the Law alignment: The nation is famous today for its orderly conduct, for its strict criminal penalties, and for its people's overall spirit of putting aside individual desires for the good of society. Contrast that to the Chaos alignment, which amounts of anarchy as might makes right and the weak serve as grist for the empowerment of the strong. Interestingly, though, SMT doesn't treat Law alignment as being more ideal than Chaos: Both represent unattractive extreme ideologies. The "proper" path -- and usually the most difficult to navigate successfully -- seems to be a neutral path that rejects both extremes in favor of a more forgiving world than Law yet one that's more cooperative than Chaos.

Japanese media likes to mull over the outcomes of World War II as much (if not more) than it dwells on the nuclear horrors it experienced. Certainly there's far more to Japanese pop culture than meditations on a distant war, but the nation's collective output on the subject varies wildly. At one extreme you have Capcom's 194X series, in which players take the yoke of an American fighter plane and single-handedly ravage the whole of Japan's Pacific fleet; at the other stands Kaiji Kawaguchi's manga Zipang, in which a modern-day Japanese cruiser falls back in time and tilts the balance of WWII in favor of the Axis.

Where apocalyptic tales like Godzilla represent Japan coping with tragedy, and alternate history stories like Zipang mark a sort of wishful thinking of how it could have been, perhaps Shin Megami Tensei's choose-your-path plotlines offer a means to reconsider the post-war reconstruction period. Atlus doesn't craft direct parallels by any means, of course. But then, neither is Evangelion a point-by-point reevaluation of World War II; both series simply use history and heritage to lend substance to their sci-fi narratives. As long as there's still material to be wrung from its demise, chances are that Neo-Tokyo will keep right on E-X-P-L-O-D-I-N-G.

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