Technology Narratives In Anime and Beyond

‘Culture affects the way technology is perceived and, in a reciprocal manner, technological evolution shapes culture in particular ways’ (Kaplan, 2004: 1). With this in mind, and while this blog is still in its infant stage, I thought it would be useful to briefly examine a few dominant narratives that have long since influenced cultural attitudes towards technology.

In his book Technology and the Spirit, philosopher Ignacio L. Gotz highlights a number of key narratives in the domain of technology, particularly of Western origin. First, let us consider biblical roots. In Genesis, it is the humans who beome the sole problem of God’s world and it is due to man’s corruption that he unleashes a flood upon the land in an attempt to cleanse the earth of the incorrigible vermin of the humans. This, of course, is the story of Noah and his ark (Gotz, 2001: xi-xii). One of the most popular anime to reference Genesis would be the first Patlabor film (Oshii, 1989). The film’s antagonist, Eichi Hoba, intends to bring about the end of the human world using the construction in the middle of Tokyo Bay called the Ark as a catalyst. The Ark in Patlabor: The Movie becomes the would-be cause of humanity’s destruction and metaphorically, the consequent attack of the rogue labours (construction and law-enforcement robots) would be the flood (Oshii, 1989). Interestingly, as Hoba intended, there would be no human’s saved by the Ark, our future would be robotic, only technology would prosper. Of course it is man himself who created this technology and invested so much power and control into it, almost arrogantly. As Aesop, in his fable ‘The Frog and the Ox’, has warned, self-conceit may lead to self-destruction. The ironic subversion of the biblical story offers a biting comment on our technology dependent world. It is a cautionary tale: technological over-dependency is dangerous, an easily exploited weakness.

Of course, in the film, the labour unit saves the day, but I have always had a problem with the film’s ‘too perfect’ ending (Ruh, 2004: 98). I found the finale to be extraneous and misleading. The real climax is when Gota remarks to Nagumo that whatever happens, Hoba won, as the team sets off to destroy the Ark. Hoba has made his point, uncovered the flaw in both the technology and in humanity, we will be the cause of our own demise, self-destruction is in our nature, and in our cyber-age (heading towards a posthuman future) technology will be complicit in this eventuality. The following mecha fray is simply pointless and mundane, probably Oshii succumbing to studio or public pressures.

There is also a reference to the Tower of Babel in the film, Babel being one of the first uses of technology in the Bible, ending in failure (Gotz, 2001: xii). This biblical narrative seems very much alive in contemporary technology myths. And this failure of technology (or man) and its almost inevitable betrayal and rebellion is ingrained more specifically in Western dispositions than Eastern, traditionally at least. Consider what computer scientist Frederic Kaplan has labeled the ‘Frankenstein syndrome’ where due to our corrupted nature, any creation of ours is destined to rebel at some point (Kaplan, 2004: 11). If we are to arrogantly play God, disaster is imminent, as Dr. Frankenstein has taught us. The Frankenstein syndrome is a technology narrative still dominating contemporary science fiction texts, particularly in the West – from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Lang, 1927) to, most recently, Tron: Legacy (Kosinski, 2010). Interestingly, in Japanese spiritual/religious history, no gods created humans (Kaplan, 2004: 12). So perhaps this syndrome is less ingrained in Eastern dispositions than their Western counterpart.

In fact, perhaps Japan’s dominant technology narrative was born with Astro Boy. Consider his upbringing in a normal human environment, he goes to school with other kid and is integrated in human society: harmonious coexistence. And unlike American superheroes whose powers are drawn from magical sources or chance encounters, Astro Boy’s abilities were manufactured from 21st century science and technology (Krebs, 2006: 66). As a result, a more nurturing myth of technology is propagated by Japan (Gilson, 1998: 367), remarkably even despite the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Furthermore, the Greeks saw technology as having divine origins (Gotz, 2001: xii). Consider the TV series Neon Genesis: Evangelion where angels, otherworldly creatures, are harnessed to power giant robot Evas that defend Earth from further angel attacks (Anno, 1995-96). In the Eva universe, man exploits the powers of the heavens, and like Prometheus, for ‘stealing’ from the gods we are punished, as in the bleak, apocalyptic conclusion to End of Evangelion (Anno, 1997). I would not consider this narrative to be a particularly dominant one, but it is interesting nonetheless with roots in Greek mythology.

While there is an abundance of literature over the alleged juxtaposition in Eastern and Western attitudes towards technology (particularly robots), with this post I have tried to be weary of falling into such binary, absolutist discourse. While a lot of their points are most likely true, I am not far enough into my research to be convinced by the clearly defined Eastern and Western thought patterns because, as Kaplan states, neither are coherent wholes (Kaplan, 2004: 1). Nonetheless, what I have attempted to do with this post was to highlight some traditional narratives of technology that are still in existence within certain canonical texts. Of course, there would be many examples that re-appropriate and re-invent these myths and many more that have emerged from a contemporary context. For example, I have not mentioned anything of the struggle – or coexistence – of technology and nature, nor have I explored the cyborg narratives and all the posthuman implications they promote[1]. I have not tried to present a list here of the only technology narratives, I have merely highlighted some dominant ones with a brief look at their traditional origins. I would be interested to hear any reader’s ideas as to other contemporary or traditional technology narratives apparent in anime/manga (or science fiction) today.


[1] This will be given more in-depth looks throughout the (hopefully) long and prosperous life of this blog.

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About shumbapumba

Would-be intellectual keeping my brain busy. View all posts by shumbapumba

2 responses to “Technology Narratives In Anime and Beyond

  • ariannasterling

    Extensive use of citations..wow. Impressive. I could never do that. I loathe citing things. But anyway, good luck with this!

    (And of course you can add me to your blogroll–that’s free advertisement right there, haha. I’ll add you to mine once you have five posts, all right?)

  • shumbapumba

    Sounds like a plan. Thanks mate 🙂

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