Even for people in Japan, it's easy to forget how awful World War II was. Entire cities were firebombed. Children were killed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Horrible.
That's not counting the havoc the Japanese military unleashed throughout Asia and the Pacific. The whole thing was rotten. But for famed anime producer Toshio Suzuki, something good came from it: Japan lost.
Obviously, Suzuki was not happy about all the death and destruction caused by the war. Like many in his generation, his parents and grandparents were touched directly by the war. And Suzuki grew up in an era when the country was pulling itself from underneath the rubble.
Suzuki, who was born after the war in 1948, is Hayao Miyazaki's colleague and the producer of such anime as Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle. On Totoro, Suzuki was a member of the production committee. He is also the CEO of Studio Ghibli.
Classic Ghibli anime My Neighbor Totoro is getting a Blu-ray release, and for the Blu-ray release, Suzuki penned a piece called "Seiyou Kabure" (西洋かぶれ) or "Ultra-Westernized Japanese Person" in which he discussed the war.
According to Suzuki, the meaning of "seiyou kabure" has changed in Japan. Initially at the turn of the 20th century, seiyou kabure was used for shallow and elitist intellectuals. The Machiavellian character of Redshirt in the novel Botchan is a prime example of a "seiyou kabure".
"But in the years following the war," Suzuki wrote, "the meaning, more or less, changed."
The change was Europe. "A new 'Ultra-Westernization' was born," the producer continued. That was an admiration of Europe, European history, and European culture—instead of admonishing it. This new type of Westernized Japanese was more interested in art and culture than political ideologies like communisim. Suzuki pointed to famed animator Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) as well as Hayao Miyazaki. "Both of them are heaven-sent products of that era," Suzuki added. Takahata, for example, studied French lit. in college.
Thus, the 1970s saw anime like 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, which was set in Italy, and Heidi, Girl of the Alps, which was set in Switzerland. Japanese audiences did not recoil from these foreign settings or foreign protagonists.
But as time progressed, Suzuki noted, both Miyazaki and Takahata wanted to make anime with Japanese characters set in Japan. One thing that Miyazaki said that stuck with Suzuki was: "Japan owes a great debt. I want to repay that."
For Suzuki, that debt was repaid with My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. Both were set in Japan and starred Japanese characters. "Today, making anime set in Japan isn't rare, but at that time in the Japanese animation industry, it was ground-breaking."
Instead of simply being told Western aspirations were bad, this generation of Japanese creators was freely able to explore Western culture—and after their explorations, they discovered a burning desire to tell stories about Japan. They had the freedom to discover other cultures as well as rediscover their own.
"It's a good thing Japan lost the war," concluded Suzuki. "If Japan had won, I feel like it would have turned into a truly detestable country."