Spoilers for Grave of the Fireflies
Between 1986 and 1991, Japan entered an economic bubble that saw the country’s prominence rise sharply. Real estate and stock prices ballooned, and the Japanese people had more money than ever. The economy skyrocketed… until it didn’t. Uncritical faith in the economy eased monetary policy and led to over-speculation until, in 1990, the Nikkei Stock Index plummeted, triggering a decade of decline that many refer to as the Lost Decade. Out of all the people to suffer, the youth of Japan were punished the hardest, inheriting an economy in freefall through no fault of their own.
Around the same time as Japan entered its economic bubble, they also saw a rise in youth biker gangs, referred to as bosozoku, as well as general delinquent criminal gangs, or yanki. Many gang members eventually rejoined society and cleaned up their act once they became adults. A child’s criminal record is expunged in Japan after reaching adulthood, but an adult’s record is permanent and can have serious consequences.
As youths, however, these gangs rejected the conformist ideals of Japanese society, often engaging in violent brawls that left countless people injured. Some estimates determine that during the 80s 15 out of every 1000 Japanese youths were a part of one gang or another. These numbers peaked in 1982, but biker and delinquent gangs continued to be a major presence throughout the 80s and 90s and into the modern day (albeit in far fewer numbers).
Calling for Conformity
Those who held authority in Japan feared these non-conforming ruffians, and the media they produced reflected that. Very memorably, the late Takahata Isao’s anime masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies ends with the two lead characters, who both lost their lives during World War II, looking over a then-modern Japanese city with forlorn expressions. Seita and his sister Setsuko end up starving to death due to his refusal to live under the same roof as his cold, abusive aunt.
Some critics see the film as Takahata’s attempt to show younger Japanese audiences the horror the previous generation had to live through and encourage safety through unity and conformity rather than the rebellion that ultimately leads to Seita and Setsuko’s deaths. The children’s fight is presented as, at best, misguided.
Some see the final scene as a direct address to the audience. Seita turns from the modern buildings to stare right at the audience, on the then-youths of Japan, including those in delinquent gangs. It’s as if he is warning them that it’s best to go with the flow and not question what authority says and does to you. If Seita hadn’t left his aunt, he and his sister would have likely lived.
Except there’s a huge and very real problem here: the adults that the youth were being told to conform alongside and obey would lead the country to economic ruin just three years later. Despite the youth of the country being pressured to follow the instructions of adults, the adults carelessly destroyed their futures in the process. Japanese children inherited a country left in tatters by the very people who demanded respect from them.
This would lead to two perspectives. One was that the youth should reject the society that cared so little for them; after all, if the adults did nothing for them, why should they do anything for the adults? Or, they could fix the society the adults ruined by rebelling and disrupting the status quo. In reality, many of these gangs took the former approach only until they had to rejoin society, but the medium of anime allows creators and audiences to explore the idea of youth reshaping the future instead.
For every manga and anime from the 1980s and 1990s that promoted conformity to society and obeying the rules, there were many others that instead featured delinquents as protagonists, such as 1983’s Bebop High School and 1988’s Rokudenashi Blues and Bad Boys. One such series, Slam Dunk, premiered in Weekly Shonen Jump in 1990, right around the start of the Lost Generation, and found popularity among readers who inherited an economy pulverized by their parents.
Among the many, however, Akira and Yu Yu Hakusho stand as two especially iconic titles depicting delinquents as heroes.The two stories depict a bosozoku and yanki, respectively, fighting against a society that has grown corrupt and dominating. The elder generations in these stories create all the problems our heroes face, yet still demand not only respect but also conformity from them. In Akira and Yu Yu Hakusho, the youth are oppressed and bullied by the society that brought ruination and stagnation to the world, but they enact change through their rebellion against authority.
Fighting to Rebuild
The manga Akira debuted in 1982 and ran for most of the peak popularity of bosozoku biker gangs, until 1990. In it, the older generation has literally destroyed society by triggering a massive explosion that flattened Tokyo in 1988. Over 30 years later, the city has been rebuilt, but those in power failed to learn anything as they attempt to replicate the same experiment, which turns a young, outcast biker named Tetsuo into an unstoppable psychic force of destruction who levels Neo-Tokyo. In many respects, this seems almost prophetic in regards to what Japanese youth would go on to experience after 1988.
While the government tries to create the appearance of economic prosperity by hosting the 2020 Olympics, they also feign obliviousness to the increasing poverty and civil unrest in Tokyo. The city looks run-down, from commercial buildings to homes to schools, as if left to their own devices in the aftermath of global war. Japanese biker gangs remain a constant presence, but the school system’s best solution is to further antagonize kids by beating them into submission. The government ignores the concerns of civilians, instead choosing to create the appearance of greatness rather than offering tangible help to the vulnerable people of Japan and Neo-Tokyo.
The manga and film frame the forces of rebellion, from the biker gangs to the actual anti-government rebellion, as admirable, trying to either live life on their own terms and tear down a corrupt system. Otomo Katsuhiro, the creator of the manga, puts a great deal of focus on characters building human relationships even as society collapses.
While the film is better-known, it only roughly adapts the first half of Otomo’s manga. In the story’s original format, the old government’s actions — from its experimentation on children, neglect of societal needs, and general superficiality — end up causing its collapse. The second half of the manga delves deeper into the reconstruction of society, with two conflicting factions: Akira and Tetsuo’s cultists vs Lady Miyako and the remnants of the rebel forces. It ultimately becomes counterculture and the disenfranchised who decide the path the future takes. Conformity and “boomer” society is completely tossed out.
Morally Dubious Asset
Although Akira served as a prescient look into the ruination wrought by those in control before the economic collapse, another series told how rebellion can bring about revolution as the economy tanked. Debuting in 1990 alongside Slam Dunk, Yu Yu Hakusho focuses on Urameshi Yusuke, a teenage yanki who ditches school and gets into fights.
In a shocking act of self-sacrifice, he dies trying to save a kid from a speeding vehicle. He ends up becoming a Spirit Detective because those in charge of the afterlife failed to predict his choice, and weren’t ready for his passage. As a Spirit Detective, Yusuke must fight demons who attempt to traverse the boundaries between the Spirit and Human Worlds.
Yusuke is shown to be abused by his teachers, who see him as a degenerate and unworthy of love. A number of his teachers, including Mr. Iwamoto and Mr. Akashi, even mock him at his own funeral, expressing he was “getting what he deserved.” These teachers, who Yusuke is told to respect, don’t care about him at all. Later on, Mr. Iwamoto steals several items from around school, including an expensive fountain pen, and tries to pin the blame on Yusuke. Though Yusuke does manage to prove his innocence, Iwamoto ultimately remains a teacher at the school.
It is later revealed that Yusuke was chosen to be a Spirit Detective specifically because he doesn’t see the world as strictly good and evil. At first glance, Yusuke might seem to be a terrible choice because of his morally dubious nature, but his greyness lets him understand different perspectives and show compassion toward demons.
This clarity allows him to help Kurama, a demon he was initially sent to kill, save his mother. It makes it possible for him to welcome former enemies like Kurama and Hiei onto his team, albeit with some snarky back-and-forth. He later even admires and respects Younger Toguro, the big bad of the Dark Tournament saga, due to how powerful he is and how he refuses to subject himself to any authority. He even expresses sympathy for demons who need to eat human flesh in order to survive, seeing nothing morally wrong with them eating to survive.
By contrast, the prior Spirit Detective, Shinobu Sensui, suffered from his rigid sense of right and wrong. Sensui snapped after being exposed to humanity’s wickedness, which he couldn’t reconcile with his understanding of man as good and demonkind as evil. In Sensui and Yusuke’s final battle, Sensui tears a hole through reality hoping that demons will come to destroy humanity.
In many respects, this blind loyalty to a higher authority or way of life reflects the inflexible mindset that ruined many in Japan. Sensui, through his inflexible view of demons, assumed they would be incapable of compassion, but the destruction he was hoping for never comes. The demons, which Yusuke has recognized as more than just evil beings, are not innately determined to destroy humanity.
Sensui was in many ways a pawn to help those in power stay in power by perpetuating a divide between the humans and demons. King Enma, the leader of the Spirit World, first promoted the idea that all demons are evil in order to maintain a sense of order and control. In the anime, it’s implied he’s manipulating circumstances to maintain order, but the manga overtly shows that he brainwashed and manipulated demons, making them increasingly violent, so as to justify his position of power as the only authority defending society from the demons. Yusuke and Koenma, Enma’s son, expose the conspiracy, bringing about revolution in the Spirit World.
Togashi Yoshihiro, when creating Yu Yu Hakusho, deliberately made a character his target demographic might simultaneously admire and make assumptions about. Gang members and punks like Yusuke are entertaining to watch, which multiple other manga-ka noted.
Unlike Seita from Grave of the Fireflies, Yusuke’s rebellion succeeds. Whereas Seita’s rebellion against his abusive authority figures isolates himself and his sister, Yusuke’s fight brings about real change. Yusuke doesn’t just beat the monster of the day, but also attacks the root cause of why those monsters appear in the first place: the institution that allowed them to rise to power in the first place.
A Need for Rebellion
In a strange way, Akira, Yu Yu Hakusho, and even Grave of the Fireflies all exist in a conversation surrounding the conformity demanded of youth by post-war Japanese society. Grave of the Fireflies is a film aimed at the next generation that encourages conformity and framed rebellion as self-destructive. This message, however, ages poorly when the stability touted by this creed fell apart only a few years later.
In contrast, Akira and Yu Yu Hakusho, both of which debuted just before Japan’s economic collapse in 1991 (of which the latter ran until 1994), argue that youth cannot conform to a society that does not care about them. The older generations only look out for themselves. King Enma and Yusuke’s teachers betray the trust of those they serve because of their selfish desire for power. Neo-Tokyo fails because those in control prefer to look for power rather than addressing the needs of the people. Both Togashi and Otomo come to the same ultimate conclusion: the youth and counterculture need to rise up to dismantle a system that has either failed or hurt them in order to begin rebuilding something better.
This message continues to be relevant today for youths around the world. Japan, along with many other countries, is facing a similar problem now, with economic and societal issues arising due to the actions of the adults in power, including both the fallout of events from the 80s and more recent political and economic decisions. Many of the economic crises facing American and British youth are a direct result of adults who don’t care about the younger generation’s needs.
“Boomers” on social media or mainstream media have been vocally critical and derogatory towards those younger than them, deriding even justified complaints about their economic and social needs. This is even worse for minority groups like people of color, members of the LGBTQIA community, or who are neurodiverse.
Those in power tend to silence arguments stating what they’re doing isn’t working. When police shootings, gun violence, and hate crimes rise, those who defend the status quo are quick to find excuses and refuse to question why they are endemic to society. Any successful attempt to solve these problems will require a rejection of the established norms that gave rise to these issues in the first place.
Manga like Yu Yu Hakusho and Akira are more relevant than ever, as the older generation demands respect despite being abusive and exploitative as ever. The power characters like Kaneda and Yusuke possess is that ability to say “I don’t give a damn about who you are or what you think you hold over me. I’m doing what’s right.”