Ryan Holmberg was born in Tokyo when his father, a navy personnel, was posted in the city. For a comic book nerd (Marvel, not DC) to stay in the birthplace of manga, a Japanese comic book art form, was a dream. He grew up amidst the craze of manga such as the adventures of Mighty Atom — Japan’s Superman — by Osamu Tezuka and cutting-edge magazines like Garo. Holmberg spent 10 years in Japan, but his adopted home changed when the Fukushima nuclear disaster hit Japan on March 11, 2011.
“I was in Tokyo. The reactors were 300 km away, but there were still talks of evacuation. Until then, the common man in Japan paid little attention to the nuclear industry. After 3/11 though, we were forced to worry about the radiation levels, the detectors we should use and the best way to tape up windows to stay safe,” says Holmberg. Then, to cope with the terrible aftermath of the disaster, writers and readers turned to manga.
Manga contributes to 40 per cent of publication in Japan and spans genres such as action, adventure, sci-fi, erotica, dark comedy, fantasy, and mystery, among others. “They find an equally hardcore fan base in 80 year olds, especially baby boomers, as they do in three year olds. It’s obvious why a lot of people took to manga to document the tragedy and cope with the loss of ibasho (sense of belonging) after 3/11,” says the 39-year-old.
An art historian, critic and translator of mangas, Holmberg delivered a lecture, “Manga after Fukushima” at the Project88 gallery, Colaba on Friday, in the anniversary month of Japan’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Holmberg, a PhD in Japanese Art History in manga of the early ’60s and ’70s, started examining comics being published post 3/11. “The very next day, mangas themed around tsunamis and earthquakes hit the stands. But the stories were about parents losing children and how the tsunami destroyed their homes. No one was talking about the meltdown and the radiation. In the face of disaster, researchers and critics realised that manga was being censored heavily.”
Holmberg’s lecture was richly detailed with examples to illustrate this point. The famous manga Oishimbo (‘gourmet craze’) by manga writer Tetsu Kariya ran into trouble after it sent its two protagonists— food writers — to the disaster site in the comic, who spoke of how radiation had impacted sea food, shell fish and sake breweries. Similarly, the legendary Hakurya Legend comic by writer Dai Tennoji was stopped after the storyline explored a scam in the power industry that was covering up the accidents that occur inside the plant. “These manga opened up discussions about the safety precautions of the nuclear plants. But fearing that it will generate anti-nationalist sentiment, these were stopped,” says Holmberg.
Many comic books spoke about the meltdown by following the lives of the plant’s janitorial staff. “These workers are called hibakushas, which is interestingly also the term used for Hiroshima-Nagasaki victims.” A former hibakusha himself, mangaka Tatsuta Kazuto created outrage as he wrote a first-hand account post 3/11, titled Icchi Effu or 1F, exposing workers’ pitiful working conditions.
Four years after the disaster, not much has changed. Mangas about the tragedy of the tsunami still sell. The looming threat of radiation and the possibility of another meltdown are hushed down. “You can rebuild a broken house, there’s a sure sign of hope. But a nuclear disaster is still a sensitive issue that remains largely untouched,” says Holmberg.
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