Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?

Disaster movies remain a relatively under-studied “genre” of narrative, particularly in relation to which conventions are used within such narratives. One of the key works is by Yacowar (2012) and not only categorized disaster narratives into eight types, but also highlighted 16 conventions that exist in these movies. However, that study was done in 1976. Furthermore, Yacowar’s study was primarily on English-language narratives. Just as Mileti (1999) has suggested that disasters are “designed” by a range of cultural and social influences, are disaster narratives similarly constructed through inherent cultural and social influences?

This article not only looks at the conventions in 38 disaster narratives covering the 40-year period from 1978 to 2018, but it also analyzes 22 Japanese-language narratives in order to assess the degree to which conventions may be universal. Japanese disaster narratives were chosen due to Japan being linguistically and culturally different from the countries where English-language narratives were made, and that Japan has a developed film industry and one that has produced many disaster movies over the years.

The article finds that many of the conventions suggested by Yacowar no longer apply, but that there are 17 conventions that can be placed into one of three groups; those found in English and Japanese narratives, those found only in the former and those found in the latter. That there are three separate groups reveals that there are clear differences between what constitutes a disaster narrative in different areas. These differences, ultimately, are likely to not only influence the degree to which a narrative will be successful in its own country, but also the degree to which it could be exported to other countries.

For a list of the conventions developed in the article, see Conventions in Disaster Movies.

Published in International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, August 2020, Vol.38, No.2, pp. 176-200.

This is a list of narratives studied (with links to posts about them where appropriate) for the article (Note: Bold text is used to indicate narratives classified as being ‘historical’ for this study):

See also my book Dealing With Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash and my post Narratives on the World’s Worst Plane Crash: Flight JL123 in Print and on Screen (note that these were written prior to the release of some narratives about the crash which are discussed in the IJMED article).

I would like to thank all those people who were interviewed during the course of the research for their contributions. I would also like to thank those who read drafts of the article and provided advice, in particular David Clarke, Nick Hodgin, and Griseldis Kirsch, and also to the anonymous journal reviewers.
I would also like to thank those who have aided with funding the research; Japan Foundation Endowment Committee, Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and Cardiff University.

Although not part of the study, I have also written posts about some other disaster narratives:

The research for the article has also helped me to develop two other publications, which I will post about in due course, and an online lecture ‘Japanese Disaster Narratives: Conservatism and Revisionism‘.