The ballistic politics of Hideo Kojima

How the history of Japan's post-war peace movements can help us understand Kojima's older games-- and maybe Death Stranding, too.

Watching the E3 trailer for Death Stranding was an interesting experience -- it was simultaneously beyond imagination, yet exactly what I’d expected. That’s because we know what Hideo Kojima gives us. He’s the quintessential auteur game designer, an artist who walks between the weird and sublime. And like most auteurs, no one really understands Kojima. There’s a feeling that, like Tarantino, he’s a media child with influences so numerous and eclectic, they’re impossible to disentangle.

But that’s only true if you imagine that Kojima as a Frankenstein creature of Anime and western movies, cut off from worldly influence. And that’s absurd. In fact, Kojima’s work shows heavily influence from the politics of postwar Japan, a time obsessed with war, peace, nuclear proliferation, civilian suffering, and what it means to be a soldier.

Born in a War-Ravaged City

"My father used to tell me stories about the bombing of Tokyo,” Kojima told EDGE in a 2004 interview. “How he was running the streets searching for shelter from the bombs and fires. He told me he carried wounded children to safe places. His stories had a tremendous impact on me.”

Like all Japanese born in the 1960s, Kojima grew up in the grip of a national identity crisis. The war tore Japan down in every sense. It killed and maimed millions, leveled cities, shattered the modern factories the Meiji government had used to pull the country into the 20th century. Yet Japan could rebuild that damage, whereas the deeper wounds were cultural. The country was both proud of its martial traditions, but ashamed -- often to the point of mental rejection -- of its war crimes. Citizens distrusted the military for leading them to disaster, and the civilian government who’d handed the country over to the generals. Finally, the country’s 1947 constitution -- which the United States supervised to the point of ghostwriting -- barred it from forming an offensive military. Japan, a country that defined itself by its martial code, suddenly found itself both sick of war and legally obligated to peace.

These societal changes played out in homes. Kojima’s father, who was 15 when the war ended, always regretted being too young to join the Imperial Japanese Navy. As a hobby he built plastic models of warships. He told his young son that during the war, he’d sometimes carried a Navy uniform with him.

“At the same time he was opposed to the war,” Kojima told EDGE. “He lost a lot of friends and could see all the terror and suffering the war brought down on Japan.”

Indeed, Kojima’s father, Kingo Kojima, went out of his way to impress the horrors of war on his young son. As a child, Kingo -- who regularly discussed films with his young Hideo -- forced him to watch the French documentary Night and Fog, and read its source novel. The 1955 film contains graphic footage of Nazi concentration camps, and sequences contrasting the lives of SS guards with the starvation, torture, and prostitution of the prisoners. It’s an intense film to view even today, and would’ve been even more so for a child in the early 1970s.

In other words, Kojima grew up in an environment where the postwar politics of Japan were pressed into him like the fingerprints of a sculptor on clay. An upbringing like this one -- with respect for the military, disgust for war, and a love of American film wearing away wartime antipathies -- would deeply influence him as an artist.

Fighting for Peace: The Political World of Kojima’s Youth

When American troops occupied Japan, they arrived expecting to fight a grinding insurgency. Bitter lessons in Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa taught them the Japanese were willing to fight to the last man, surrender with armed grenades in their pockets, and convince -- or coerce -- civilians to commit suicide. But following the Imperial surrender, American forces encountered next to no armed resistance. Indeed, Japan proved an enthusiastic partner for reconstruction and disarmament. If anything, the country proved too anti-war for US tastes.

Though Japan has been accused of ignoring its wartime history, the years after its defeat forced the country into a painful reexamination of their prewar society. Leftist intellectuals, previously suppressed under the Meiji regime and brought back to power by Occupation authorities, led this philosophical postmortem. According to them, the militarist leadership had led the country to destruction, while centuries of feudal conditioning had created a public that couldn’t question or resist the march to war. It wasn’t the only explanation -- Marxist intellectuals argued that, since unemployment swept the militarists to power, Japan’s transition to capitalism was ultimately at fault. US officials encouraged these investigations, expanding Japan’s university system in hopes that liberal education would spread interest in democracy and humanism.

Meanwhile, artistic works and memorial writing during the occupation centered on the extreme suffering and loss people experienced during the war. The country’s tradition of ancestor worship steered the collective memory toward an idea that individual soldiers were noble for serving the nation, but that act of war itself was evil and immoral. The result was that the Japanese not only accepted Article 9 of their new constitution -- prohibiting the country from offensive military action -- many argued it didn’t go far enough. In the absence of martial action, Japan began shaping its national identity to embrace and protect its newfound calling as a country of peace.

And it wasn’t long before the Japanese rallied to defend this new order.

In 1951, Japan and the United States signed a treaty granting the US military a right to operate military bases in both Japan and the then US-controlled Okinawa. Japanese conservatives claimed the bases were necessary for defense in the absence of a military, but the treaty remained controversial. Peace advocates argued that the bases -- then supporting the US war effort in Korea -- undermined Japan’s commitment to peace and destroyed the country’s natural environment. As Cold War tensions mounted, local peace activists increasingly rallied against the bases, claiming that they made Japan a target in the event of a nuclear exchange between NATO and the USSR. Opposition to the treaty grew over the next decade. When the Japanese legislature passed a revised version in 1960, student and labor unions staged massive street protests, deploying 300,000 demonstrators around the capitol and forcing the Prime Minister’s cabinet to resign.

But opposition to US bases was only one aspect of the peace movement -- they also rallied against nuclear weapons. In 1949, US authorities stopped suppressing accounts of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, allowing survivors to tell their stories and publish memoirs of the blasts. The writing that emerged resonated with people who’d lost family members and seen their cities burn, but the subject remained taboo in public discourse, deemed “too tragic” for discussion. That changed in 1954, when the Japanese fishing vessel Lucky Dragon No. 5 accidentally wandered into the US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, irradiating the young crewmen. Watching the poisoned men die from exposure brought discussions of nuclear weapons into the public sphere, forming a catalyst for opposition. Throughout the 1950s, nuclear protest groups sprang up in both official and unofficial channels. Labor unions took up the cause, as did groups that set up “peace museums” to both commemorate the atomic bombings and call for NATO and the Soviet Union to abolish nuclear weapons. National media followed the plight of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, some exposed in utero, as they slowly died of radiation poisoning. Given Japanese culture’s emphasis on cleanliness and the Shinto fear of physical corruption, nuclear contamination was almost tailor-made to terrify the national psyche. 

Japanese women cobbled together a particularly robust opposition force, exercising their new voting and assembly rights to launch groups like the Kyoto Mothers Movement. These women’s groups rejected the old Meiji-era ideas that it was their duty to raise soldiers, swearing that they would never again send their sons to war. Teachers passed out reproduction draft notices at schools to remind parents of wartime traumas. This movement was especially strong in the Kansai region, where Kojima would spend his formative teenage years.

By the time Kojima was born in 1963, the peace and anti-nuclear movements were a potent force in Japanese politics, and pivoting to oppose the Vietnam War. Under pressure from the groups, in 1967 the Japanese government committed not to manufacture, acquire, or allow nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. In 1976 they pushed through a measure banning arms exports. Peace was not only a successful national project, safeguarding peace had in some ways coopted and replaced the old military order.

And these politics left a mark on Japan’s emerging popular culture -- further steeping young Kojima in its anti-war message.

The Godzilla-Astroboy Connection: War and Peace in Japanese Pop Culture

The first hint that the atomic bombings would change Japanese film came when Godzilla premiered in 1954, playing on the anxieties surrounding the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident. Like the American war machine, Godzilla was an unstoppable monster who pounded cities to the ground. Like the US military, he swam inexorably toward Japan, devastating islands as he came. And crucially, like the Bikini Island tests, Godzilla announced himself first to a crew of innocent fishermen.

But Godzilla is only the most famous example. In addition, many pioneering Anime and Manga creators experienced the Pacific War in their youth, and acted out its themes in their art. Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka worked at an arsenal in Osaka, where he saw his fellow workers die in a firebombing raid. Anime director Hayao Miyazaki remembers his family fleeing a similar raid when he was four. Director Isao Takahata drew upon his experiences as an air raid survivor when he directed Grave of the Fireflies.

Given the experiences of its creators, it’s no surprise that Anime shared intellectual territory with the peace movement.

Anime heroes are frequently orphans, for example, reflecting the demographics of Manga’s customer base in the 1950s, when many children had lost one or both parents in the war. Likewise, they had strong anti-nuclear sentiment -- think the final explosion in Akira and the radioactive mutants of Nausicaa -- with heroes fighting an overwhelming or environmentally corruptive threat. Many such as Neon Genesis Evangelion deal with children inducted into the military as the last hope against foreign invaders, reflecting the very real -- and very fatal -- conscription of students into labor and home defense units as the war entered its final stages.

Unsurprisingly, Anime also inherited the anti-war zeal sweeping Japan. The medium could be gory, but it also tended to linger on the victims of violence, examining their suffering and humanizing them. Even righteous violence carries a cost. Shinji might suit up in an Eva and save the city, but in doing so he kills a classmate’s family. And much like the post-war perception of Meiji politicians, authority figures in Anime are malicious or self-destructive -- they misuse and manipulate their young troops. Wars in Anime are a thing to be stopped, not declared. The villains have solid motivations and twisted philosophies. Frequently the best swordsmen are those who’ve walked away from conflict. Technology is often our downfall, not our savior.

Like the rest of post-war Japan, trying to square its martial heritage with the ideals of peace, Anime portrays warriors as noble, but war itself as corrupting those who engage in it.

Kojima’s Gambit: Military Heroism Without Hero Worship

At this point, you’ve probably already started matching these themes with Kojima’s work on Metal Gear Solid. The series is itself a non-proliferation story about containing nuclear weapons, but it also argues that war dehumanizes individuals and turns them into villains. MGS antagonists aren’t born evil, they’re heroes gone sour from the corrupting touch of war. From Big Boss’s eye to Revolver Ocelot’s arm and -- well, everything about the Beauty and the Beast unit -- conflict maims and mutates those who experience it. Authority figures aren’t trustworthy, and heroes have to walk away from power structures and follow their conscience in order to do what’s right. This philosophical framework is what you’d expect for an artist who grew up in Kojima’s time and place.

Yet I’d argue that Kojima built on top of that, synthesizing Anime themes and aesthetics with the western action film. He pulls from Anime and 1980s shoot-em-up films with equal glee, adding a third layer by grafting real political topics on top of this weird amalgam of samurai, cyborgs, and nuclear launch platforms.

This Kojima aesthetic -- fusing Anime tropes, real-world events, American action films, and Japanese anti-nuclear rhetoric -- creates a world where Kojima can tell an anti-war story while still indulging Hollywood war fantasies. Despite his obvious love for military hardware and action scenes, MGS retains its anti-war, anti-nuke message because it happens in an absurd fantasy world unmoored from realism. No one in their right mind would join the military because of a Metal Gear Solid game, because we know real militaries don’t have walking tanks and psychic soldiers. Kojima gets to play with the same toys as Call of Duty, yet avoids the worry that he’s glorifying military action by depicting it.

There’s an old saying that it’s impossible to make a truly anti-war film, because war is inherently exciting to watch -- but by mixing western film, Anime, and Japanese peace politics, Kojima has found a third way. That fact alone convinces me that Kojima ultimately knows what he’s doing, no matter how seemingly random his projects get.

When I look at the Death Stranding trailer and see sea life covered in oil, a baby attached to a man with a cable, and five figures floating above the island, I know what I’m seeing -- environmental corruption, a lost child, and an outside force ready to sweep down.

It’s the artistic legacy Kojima carries with him, whether he likes it or not.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp