Super-Sized Showa Era Sadness (the Way the Future Once Looked)

These retro-futuristic images from Japanese magazines struck a chord in me. They raised emotions in my breast (bemused sadness and nostalgic longing) which are probably the precise opposite of the emotions their artists, either in the halcyon days of pre-WW 2 Japan or in the wildly optimistic and forward-looking Japan of the early 1960s, intended to inspire when they originally created these images (I imagine the artists, if they had any goal at all aside from cashing a paycheck, wanted to elicit feelings of awe and happy anticipation at the marvels the future would bring).

I think the reason these images inspire bemused sadness and nostalgic longing in me is that they were originally published, not in the pages of Japanese science fiction magazines, but in the Japanese equivalent of our American magazine Popular Mechanics, which meant that these gigantic, awe-inspiring machines were fanciful or fantastical versions of machines which were thought to be (someday) practical and buildable. Suffice to say, Japan never saw propeller driven trains like these envisioned in 1936 (this one’s my favorite in this little selection; just take a gander at those fabulous passengers you can see through the windows!):

Japanese propeller trains from 1936

Or a super ocean liner which, when in distress, could launch self-contained life boat cruisers from a sea-level launching platform (I wonder whether or not the artist had any notion that just a few years after he would pen this drawing, the U.S. submarine fleet would be sending the majority of the Japanese merchant fleet to the bottom of the Pacific; probably not):

Japanese futuristic ocean liner launching life boats in 1936

Or an Arctic exploration vehicle which carries its own biplane (and all with US markings, too, a rather remarkable detail from a drawing published in a late 1930s Japanese popular magazine):

Japanese pre-war US Arctic exploration vehicle

Or this pre-war era car riding on super-sized tires or these boats floating on similarly giant-sized water-propulsion treads:

Japanse futuristic vehicles from 1936

Or these bicycle-like human-powered aircraft from 1965:

Japanese human-powered aircraft from 1965

On the other hand, Japan has witnessed magnetic levitation trains, perhaps not quite as outrageous as this one from 1964, though:

Japanese mag-lev train from 1964 Shonen Magazine

What flittered through my brain as I looked at these images (brought to us by those good folks at the Dark Roasted Blend website, which specializes in daily sharings of retro-futuristic images from around the world) is that the artists who drew them with such optimistic hopes in their souls have either been dead and buried for years or now reside in Japanese nursing homes, and the futuristic vehicles with which they graced the covers and interiors of popular Japanese mechanics magazines either never came to fruition or (like the magnetic levitation train) ended up being super-expensive disappointments.

Oh, well… they’re still marvelous to look at, aren’t they?


  1. Mark McCandless says:

    I think you would enjoy The Wind Rises, Miyakazi’s last animated film (nominated for an Oscar). It is set in the 1920’s and 1930’s Japan and Germany and is about the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero, but includes other familiar and fantastic designs. And, incidentally, a love story. My 18 year old son thought it as an equal to Frozen, the film that won, but of course is very different.

    • Andrew says:

      Mark, thanks so much for this note. I had noticed a few months ago that Miyazaki had a new film out, but then I promptly forgot all about it. He is a big favorite of mine and of my kids, and I think the story’s connection to the Mitsubishi Zero might make the picture even more of a hit in my household than some of his other recent films. Maybe we’ll catch it when it appears on Netflex. I sure do appreciate being reminded of it! Thanks again.

  2. Cambias says:

    That Antarctic exploration vehicle was real! Well, except for the crazy gun turret. A triumph of over-optimistic 1930s design. See here:

    It’s too bad it wasn’t around when Lovecraft was writing _At The Mountains of Madness_.

    • Andrew says:

      Jim, I am incredibly curious — how did you come across this information? Did you read about the Penguin 1 in the Clive Cussler novel Finding Atlantis? Another major difference between the Japanese drawing and the actual Penguin 1 (designed a year after the drawing was published in Japan, interestingly!) was the latter’s lack of an ice-breaking nose. Amazingly interesting! I never would’ve known the Penguin 1 was a real vehicle, not just a concept, if you hadn’t left this note. So thank you!

      • Cambias says:

        No, actually I stumbled across it several years ago while researching Antarctica during World War II for a roleplaying game. I was considering having the player-characters use it to search for the secret Nazi flying saucer base.

  3. I always love going back and seeing things like this. The future just ain’t what it used to be.

    Then again, I remember being a kid and thinking a breakfast of Sizzlean and Tang actually *was* the future. I’ll bet that super ocean liner served both.

    • Andrew says:

      Wesley, thanks for dropping by! I’m always happy to see when you’ve left a comment. Glad you enjoyed this post!

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