Content Warning: Discussion of COVID-19 and ecological disasters.
A lone Vespa scooter putters through quiet roads overtaken by weeds. Its driver, Alpha, stops at a sleepy gas station where she asks for a full tank of gas. The old station attendant doesn’t seem to be too stressed by the fact she’s the first customer in a week. Alpha continues on through the quiet and empty roads until she comes to an abrupt stop, realizing the sea has risen to flood another road leading to Yokohama.
These are the first few pages of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. At first glance, Ashinano Hitoshi’s 1995 sci-fi world seems no more than a quiet and rural part of modern Japan, but the easygoing protagonists live amidst ruin in what would have been the metropolitan Tokyo Bay. Entire cities have sunk and an untold number of lives have likely been shattered, yet the comic takes solace, even joy, in depicting the beauty of the world as humanity sits back to accept its fate.
I recalled these ruins as I drove down Highway 24 in California on my way to work amid a worldwide pandemic.
Dark grey clouds wafted overhead, but the air was fairly clear and San Francisco’s cityscape gleamed in the distance. There was hardly a car around me, even though I was driving at 8 a.m. What would normally be a packed freeway with bumper-to-bumper traffic, I sped through without pause on my way across the Bay Bridge.
There is beauty in desolation.
Miyazaki Hayao, like Ashinano, grasped this sense of awe in his films. The author and director of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind said during an interview in 2009 at UC Berkeley that he dreams of witnessing the end of civilization, but with no sign of that actually happening, he envisions it for himself. I wonder what he thinks now.
Though Nausicaä depicts a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has taken refuge in pockets of safe zones away from toxic and irradiated wastelands, Miyazaki regularly presents beauty in bleak situations throughout his works. The ruins of Laputa, the flooding in Ponyo, and the ecological destruction faced in Princess Mononoke—many of his films show a world in some state of collapse.
One of the best examples that comes to mind for me is the train ride in Spirited Away.
Sen rides a rural train through a dream-like waterscape after a flood. Though lonely and isolated, the world is depicted as calm and beautiful. This world is literally populated by ghosts, and their featureless expressions whiz by as the train runs through a shallow sea. The scene takes place as a breather between the hair-raising sequence where Chihiro confronts an engorged No-Face and the film’s climactic moments.
There is no sense of dread as the train makes its way. Nevermind that the roads have washed out and homes now sit isolated as islands in the newly made sea; the visual impact inspires awe rather than panic or a sense of loss.
Amidst the turmoil, some find beauty, and perhaps that’s necessary in order to keep living.
The COVID-19 pandemic, if left unchecked, could spread like the grass fires that burnt down the town of Paradise, California in 2018. In a country with next to no safety net like the United States, it could very well kill millions.
I recently have been asking myself, “Am I allowed to smile right now?”
Shinkai Makoto tackled this very question, albeit more in reference to climate change than a pandemic, through Weathering With You. He noted during a Q&A session at the British Film Institute late last year that children living in this terrifying world were not at fault for all that has gone wrong.
“What I was trying to do wasn’t to send a political message, but to show young people living today in this crazy world… getting on with their lives, laughing, loving.”
As Shinkai depicts a new generation metaphorically confronting the catastrophe of climate change, he shows children finding their own happiness in a world that they have come to know as normal.
Similarly, I think of the girls from Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! Though Eizouken makes no formal discussion about the setting Asakusa, Kanamori, and MIzusaki inhabit, the show and manga both make clear they live in a changed world. The world shows signs of a Japanese society that has progressed to make Japan a more diverse and welcoming place through explicit nods that recognizes its multiethnic student body and barrier-free campus. Meanwhile, the kids indulge in the wackiest latest fashion trends, such as backpacks shaped like giant sneakers. Yet, as fanciful and positive as these changes are, the school is also far removed from what we would consider normal today.
Shibahama High School is built near the sea on what appears to be a former industrial plant. Trashed cars litter the grounds and the school’s administrative offices are located at the base of a swimming pool. Quirky as it is, we would not stand to send kids to school in such a setting, but it is the norm to the teens attending Shibahama High. As the girls throw themselves into the joy of making anime, they are also “getting on with their lives”—and living what they might even consider their best lives.
As the girls of Eizouken find their personal joys making anime, I can’t help but wonder what the adults are thinking as they watch the younger generation grow up in a world they may now find disorienting.
I am again reminded of Ashinano’s YKK. Humanity in its twilight settles itself to watch the sun set after a hectic day. It finds solace in the residual warmth from the concrete before nightfall. Society has accepted its fate and now entertains itself with whatever it has left. The young Alpha’s appreciation of this beauty, however, is perhaps different from the older human characters, such as the gas station attendant and “Sensei,” a doctor and roboticist.
The attendant recalls a time when the sea level was just starting to rise. He rides out to what was once a busy highway now buried in sand with a young Sensei. The two take in the devastation, but Sensei notes, “It’s a scene you’ll only get to see now.”
I drove home after work. A sudden and fierce shower passed through, blanketing the road and making it slick. With so few commuters due to the shelter-in-place orders, several people had likely spun out by driving too fast. I passed two accidents as I drove and police had shut down half the freeway at spots. But with so few cars on the road, I sped on by with only a cursory moment of letting off the gas.
I made my way home, disembarked at my usual off-ramp and came to a stop at a light. An empty bus drove past as the cloudy purple sky spanned out before me. Streetlights illuminated the wet boulevard that served as my city’s Main Street. The shops downtown were dark. Hardly any other cars were out.
I started crying.
This moment was beautiful to me, but I could not divorce it from the terrible human cost associated with making it possible. I wonder, will I ever accept this desolation and allow myself to enjoy it too?