When Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was published in Japan in 1878, science fiction fever infected Japanese writers, and within a few years, imitations of Verne’s mysterious submarine and its Captain Nemo cropped up in their adventure stories. The most famous is Captain Sakuragi from Oshikawa Shunro’s six-part series Kaitei Gunkan (The Underwater Warship, 1900-1907).
Like much of Japanese sci-fi literature at the time, one of the prevailing themes of the Captain Sakuragi series reflected Japan’s rising nationalism and its own imperialist goals to defeat foreign threats in order to safeguard Japanese interests.
The premise of the first novel begins with a frustrated Captain Sukuragi leaving the Japanese navy when he decides his country is weak against the potential threat of Western governments. Moreover, he considers the West in competition with Japan’s expansion into Asia. With a group of fellow scientists, he flees to a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean and builds the Denkotei (also translated as denkopan): an underwater battleship similar to the Nautilus in design, complete with its own rotating screwdriver-like horn. The Denkotei is decked out with torpedoes and bombs, and, on a private martial mission, Captain Sukuragi and his crew set off to confront those set against Japan. In the first novel, they successfully fight pirates interfering with Japanese shipping, but later confront British, the French, and Russian forces, defeating them all. Later on, the Denkotei even fights alongside Filipino nationals against American occupation.
This series was highly popular in Japan, especially when the novel’s battles against the Russians predicted the country’s own victory in the Russo-Japanese War. The unintended irony in the captain’s battling the “foreign imperialists” is how the books stridently promoted Japanese imperialism over others’. As Owen Griffith’s notes in his academic article Militarizing Japan: Patriotism, Profit, and Children’s Print Media, 1894-1925:
“Oshikawa’s purpose was to ‘oppose those who oppressed freedom’ and to inculcate in young readers ‘the spirit of resistance at all costs.’ Yet neither Ito nor Oshikawa himself acknowledged Japan’s own imperialist endeavours or its brutal treatment of its own subject peoples. The tendency to lionize one’s own and demonize the other has many antecedents in Japan and elsewhere.”
Later, Captain Sukuragi’s underwater warship inspired a live action film in 1963 (titled “Atragon” in the US) and the anime OVA series Shin Kaitei Gunkan in 1995.
Shin Kaitei Gunkan on IMDB.com