“The good old times“. This well-known sentence is used by everyday folk and public figures to inspire nostalgia and dedication to tradition; in our era of economic instability such is the thinking that rules public debate. In Greece, our prime minister talks about how we should go back to traditional Greece, to the *glorious* way we were before the crisis. Most of the other parties follow the same doctrine with little change of language. (1) But was there ever such a bright and shinny “good old” time?
To study this subject I picked up an era relatively close to ours, the mid-20th century. I decided to take Osamu Tezuka‘s MW as reference point to the historical conflicts of the post-WWII era.
*This article contains spoilers to MW‘s story. For those of you who have not read the book, we strongly recommend that you do so*
Chapter One: Hands Soaked in Blood & Utopias
The 20th century is considered by many historians as the most violent era in mankind’s history. One would expect that, with the great rise in the standards of living that the Western World experienced, (2) things would be different, but the record of bloodshed is undeniable; the two World Wars, the two Balkan Wars, the Russo-Japanese conflicts of 1904-1905, the Spanish Civil War and the Russian Revolution, are just some examples of the great collision of powers that cost unnumbered lives.
“It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion, a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past”
General McArthur‘s words historic represented the thoughts of most human beings in 1945; they were proven vain by the wars that followed, none of which was more horrifying than the century’s longest conflict, the Cold War. What made this war different from the rest, was that the Cold War was actually the sum of many smaller -not small- global conflicts. (3) Its ideological nature, carefully depicted in Tezuka‘s work,- reveals the motivation behind such conflicts; the struggle to implement utopias and the cruel way smart cold-blooded minds took advantage of it.
In MW, Takao Yoshimoto is an intellectual known to the public for his extreme political ideas. His little brother finds them violent and dangerous, but Takao easily ignores such concerns. He goes as far as communicating with a total stranger -a disguised Michio Yuki-, even though the unknown man proves himself capable of murder. When, soon enough, the stranger executes another horrific incident -a bomb attack- that kills Takao‘s brother, the shock and sorrow in the intellectual’s heart is great, but not great enough to prevent him from assisting Yuki one more time.
This may seem as unreasonable to most people, but there are two very distinct cases of great individuals with high intellectual capacity that are consistent with this theme; Milton Friedman and George Bernard Shaw. The former was a great believer in individual freedom while the latter advocated for communism and the idea of absolute equality. Their personalities could not be more different, yet some of their choices seem pretty similar.
Both of them had the opportunity to visit the places where there were people willing to implement their ideas, even if that took force to achieve. For Friedman that place was Chile and the person who would take his ideas and bring it to life was the dictator Augusto Pinochet, a man who did not hesitate to kill thousands of people who opposed his power. Following the same reasoning as that of a personal friend of his and great liberal intellectual, Friedrich August von Hayek, he preferred to compromise political freedom -democracy- for economic freedom -the free market-, even if that meant that many people would lose their lives. (4)
Shaw, on the other hand, had the honor of visiting the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), to witness the construction of the Moscow Canal, a canal built during Joseph Stalin‘s reign by Gulag prisoners. Shaw, though famous for his cynical spirit, was more than willing to overlook slave labor so that he could praise the power of state socialism.
One could mention more examples, (5) but the point is that Tezuka accurately depicts the tide of an era when people, especially the smarter ones, still had faith in utopias and were willing to compromise a great deal of their humanity to try to turn them into reality.
Chapter Two: Fear of the Flaming Mushroom
The nature of war changed in the 20th century; for the first time in mankind’s history, there were weapons of absolute destruction that could erase the existence of millions of people at once. The possibility of an attack against innocent civilians spread fear in the big cities and led the public to paranoia. (6)
The 1962 Cuban missiles incident is perhaps the moment we reached closer than ever to a total war of that kind. In the following decades, the debate to reduce nuclear arms in every military in the world was always heated, among enemies as well as friends. Margaret Thatcher’s opinion was that nuclear weapons were necessary to reduce the chances of open war between enemy nations, while Ronald Reagan was a big proponent of the total elimination of such weaponry. (7)
In MW, Osamu Tezuka is more concerned with a common but rarely discussed idea. What if a mad, heartless and persistent person manages to get his/her hands onto such weapons? Though it sounds plausible, thankfully such an act of terror has never occurred so far; the only people that have died from nuclear radiation are either the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their children, or the victims of nuclear accidents.
Still, Tezuka‘s plot is all but unrealistic. Any person that lived through the Cold War was breathing with the possibility of the end of the world, and in most political debates the possibility of a nuclear war was the main subject of argument; one should simply recall the famous Lyndon Johnson/anti-Goldwater television advertisement called “Daisy“, from 1964, to understand the mindset of the era.
Chapter Three: A Cage for Gay Birds
Human beings may be social animals, yet they are also individual entities in and of themselves. As such, in most of the Western world, they are endowed by their nature with certain inalienable rights, such as the right to dignity, reason, conscience, security, equality before the law and liberty. The concept of such rights advances with time, going through perpetual evolution. (8) For homosexuals, 1960s Japan had not advanced enough to be able to respect their rights.
Father Garai and Yuki have a life lasting affair which is unknwon to third parties, in order to protect themselves from public outrage. As the story envovles, we find out that there are many homosexual men that are “in the closet” for pretty much the same reasons. Some of them are Americans who live in Japan, but they are far from being a majority.
When, at some point, the priest is blackmailed by an unknown man, he deeply fears the ridicule and pain the disclosure of his sexual identity will cause. In his effort to stop a newspaper from publishing his story, he meets with the paper’s main editor who is surprisingly tolerant; she has decided to let go of the story and the priest’s reputation is saved. In the end of the chapter we find out that the editor is a closet lesbian.
First, I think that the fact that Tezuka does not depict homosexuality as something sinister is quite extraordinary, if one considers the time of MW‘s publication. Even though Father Garai sees his relationship with Yuki as sinful, as the story evolves, it is obvious that his love for Yuki is what gives him the courage to constantly forgive the latter for his crimes. Second, I find it impressive that we have a lesbian character in such a well-known manga, even if only for a few pages. The very recognition of female homosexuality was a bold move; even bolder was the happy depiction of her life with her partner, a sign that such relationships can be as positive for one’s heart as heretosexual ones.
It is worth mentioning that, though Tezuka‘s stance towards the U.S.A. is all but friendly in MW, when it comes to human relationships he depicts this country as a progressive and tolerant place, compared to Japan. Still, there seem to be many misconceptions about the nature of sexuality -the most obvious one being that Tezuka shows transgender and gay men to be the same thing.
Among the many things that art can be, one of the most precious ones is memory. A reminder to newer generations not just of what happened, but why and how it felt. This is no small duty; when history is naked of feelings and thoughts it can only be as dead as skeletons, but when memory is full of such values it is a story constantly developed and explored from different angles. MW is a masterpiece not because of its powerful design and amazing plot, but because it turns history into a reality, closing the gap of decades. We wish for all fans of great literature to check out this incredible manga.
This is part of the Manga Moveable Feast: History.
1. Conservative parties are usually the first ones to refer to the good old times, mostly by calling for people to show patriotism and to faithfully follow the nation’s traditions. Greece’s prime minister, Antonis Samaras, constantly mentions the word “God”; this, as well as his support for the Orthodox Church’s backwards agenda, is a sign of this attitude. Greek left wing parties are equally conservative when it comes to economic policy and their cowardice to promote bold social change makes them different from right wingers in name only.
2. Such rise seems undeniable but one can also support this from many data. One of my favorite books on the matter is “How the West Grew Rich” by Nathan Rosenberg. A more available source is Hans Rosling‘s “The Joy of Stats“. Another book, which I have not read, yet it has attracted only the best comments, is Matt Ridley‘s “The Rational Optimist“. Check out Ridley‘s great interview on the American show Uncommon Knowledge, or his excellent presentation at TedGlobal 2010.
3. The biggest proponent of the view is British historian Niall Ferguson. In his book “The War of the World” he refers to the wars of the 20th century as a single, solitary, conflict. A documentary based on the book, broadcasted by Channel4, is excellent for everyone interested on the subject.
4. Friedman‘s involvement with the Pinochet regime is a matter of great controversy when it comes to Friedman‘s intention and methods, yet it is a fact that he did adviced the dictator, whether through a personal letter or through his older students, the Chicago Boys. Shaw‘s support for the Stalinist regime is well known to most of his supporters. Niall Ferguson also supports the same thing on his book “The War of the World“.
5. Dictator Fidel Castro and his regime in Cuba have seen much of a support from Western intellectuals, such as Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and various others. The same goes for Hugo Chavez who has seen a lot of support from intellectual Luis Britto García.
6. In the United States such paranoia was turned against many. Japanese-Americans were considered a threat to the nation during World War Two, even though they were little or no evidence that the vast majority of them were unfaithful to their country. Hollywood screenwriters and actors were put into the Hollywood’s Black List, for being suspected as communists -a potential danger for the U.S.A. government during the Cold War.
7. When it comes to Margaret Thatcher, historian Charles Moore expresses the views of the ex-prime minister in great detail during this interview on Uncommon Knowledge.
“Well I think it can be done, I mean she was very shocked, not by SDI, but by Reagan’s belief that you could just do away with nuclear weapons. She did not agree with him about that. She thought that nuclear weapons were the best guarantee of peace in a wicked world because of the deterrent effect. And whenever he said let’s get rid of the whole lot, this really frightened her.”
Ronald Reagan on the other hand, is one of the Republican presidents who left a great deal of heritage when it comes down to disarmament. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation‘s article on Reagan‘s history on nuclear disarmament is very brief but good; thankfully there is a huge plethora of many other options.
8. Most of the rights mentioned have an important position either in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the United States’ Declaration of Independence and the American Bill of Rights. Numerous others texts try to define, and if possible broaden, this concept.