Cyberpunk and the Cyborg: Introduction

For me, cyberpunk started it all. It was through cyberpunk (and shonen, to a degree) that I got into anime, so it has always been of sentimental interest to me, but has become increasingly fascinating academically, largely due to its attitudes towards the cyborg. Cyberpunk seems inextricably linked to, or at least concerned with, the creature of the cyborg. But how has this changed over time? And what are the implications of the cyborg as it relates to culture and the anime (and more broadly, science fiction) field? Over the next few weeks (months), I would like to attempt to answer these questions, but the scope is too large for one entry.

What I propose is to present a series of three entries attempting to offer a dual chronology of cyberpunk and the cyborg concept as it exists within the sub-genre. In the first entry, we will define the concept of the cyborg and the cyberpunk genre, offering a (crudely) brief literature review on their relationship. The second entry will deal with the first wave of cyberpunk, from its genesis in anime to its lull in the early 1990s. The third entry will deal with its life from the mid-90’s to the present, offering a comparison in attitudes and values regarding both the genre and the cyborg. I am yet to write these entries so I foresee consistency problems – it may not flow like an essay, but after all, it’s not an essay, it’s a blog. I will retain the same research questions, though, so hopefully what I write will be valid.

In terms of anime texts, I will be revolving most of my viewing around canonical anime. The reasons I am favouring the canon are numerous. Firstly, they are likely to be the texts that are more easily available. Secondly, canons are canons for a reason, it is these texts that have generally been considered in some way important and influential to the medium. Thus, these texts seem the pertinent choice for a study of changing attitudes and values. Also, I am not so foolish as to try and see all cyberpunk-related anime for the purpose of these posts, so I welcome limitations. I will also favour films and OAVs over TV series. I do not have time to get locked into a one hundred episode series for the purpose of three blog posts. But what is this canon? I will be drawing from a range of sources to assist in demarcating some sort of an anime cyberpunk canon, including my own tastes. The result will be a somewhat customised, single-purpose serving canon. The works I will examine will be an amalgamation of the anime reviewed on[1], ‘the canon’ as listed in The Rough Guide to Anime (Richmond, 2009) and my own dialogue with anime scholars and researchers (and if anyone has any further suggestions on texts or methodology, I am interested). I may as well throw my proposed canon out to the readers for criticism and/or approval. Please, feel free to throw in your two-cents. I may knock texts back on the grounds of relevance, availability, and the sheer fact that I don’t have enough time. This list is likely to mutate as the research goes on – lose a few, gain a few – as I have yet to see all these. So, the list:

Akira (Otomo, 1988)

Angel Cop (Itano, 1989-1994)

The Animatrix[2] (various, 2003)

Appleseed (Katayama, 1988)

Appleseed (Aramaki, 2004)

Black Magic M-66 (Kitakubo & Shirow, 1987)

Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 (Hayashi, 1998-1999)

Cowboy Bebop[3] (Watanabe, 1998-1999)

Cyber City Oedo 808 (Kawajiri, 1990-1991)

Dominion Tank Police (Mashimo & Ishiyama, 1998)

Ergo Proxy[4] (Murase, 2006)

Eve no Jikan (Yoshiura, 2008-2009)

Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995)

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Oshii, 2004)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Kamiyama, 2002-2003)

Goku: Midnight Eye (Kawajiri, 1989)

Megazone 23 (Ishiguro, 1985)

Metropolis (Rintaro, 2001)

Parasite Dolls (various, 2003)

Roujin Z (Kitakubo, 1991)

Steamboy[5] (Otomo, 2004)

I will endeavour to track down these titles in their subbed format.

This may be a bit ambitious for a blog, but I think it will be worthwhile. There is a substantial amount of research and viewing to do and it is sure to occupy me for the next couple of months. So, to keep this blog active in the meantime I will write a number of shorter, more acutely focused posts – probably interesting tangents from my former proposed research. Wish me luck.

[1] This is an incomplete list, but useful for what it is.

[2] May only use a select couple of shorts from this, ‘Second Renaissance’ in particular.

[3] Not traditionally cyberpunk but has cyberpunk elements – may be useful.

[4] Not sure if this qualifies yet due to its post-apocalyptic setting – still contemplating its relevance.

[5] May be referenced if steampunk enters the discussion. Many regard Last Exile (Chigira, 2003) another good example of steampunk but I can’t see myself getting round to watching this in time.


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.

Introduction: all aboard the (techno-)orient express!

I used to think blogs were merely excuses for bored kids/students/anyone to ejaculate their intellectual jizz into cyberspace to be read, or more likely not read, by thousands. However, over the past months , I have come to approach blogging as a modern way to develop an idea, find a niche audience for that idea, and draw from that audience; not necessarily to preach to millions, but to make a valid contribution to a smaller audience that is genuinely interested in a specific topic; an audience who may also nurse your idea, feed it, and help it grow. Combining this newfound awareness of blogging’s potential with my decade-long interest in anime, I have established this blog: an academic look at technology’s place in anime and Japanese culture.

I have always found approaching Japanese culture and anime analysis from a Western perspective a wondrously frustrating task; an excursion of paradoxical sentiments. On the one hand, I am fascinated by the blatant differences between our cultures – the foreigness of it, the exotica, the orientalism, I guess. But on the other hand, trying to gain an insight into this culture from a Western perspective, trying to shelf Western dispositions in trying to understand and interpret the giant robots, the animism, the spirituality – the bizarre coexistence of science and religion! – is enough to drive the more curious viewer insane. But there is something about the inaccessibility I enjoy: the mystery of it all, the uniqueness. There is something personal, revelatory even, about the Western interpretation of the East, of anime, that I have come to appreciate. Like getting lost in a big city, you may not end up where you want to be, but you have had an adventure nonetheless; your own little discovery – insight – that is not necessarily correct, but not wrong either. You become the slow younger sibling to the athletic, straight-A big brother: you can’t compete with his obvious prowess, but every now and then you impress the family with your own idiosyncrasies and charms.

While it is the intention of this blog to have a strong focus on technology’s place and role in Japanese culture and anime, it will also inevitably harbour my naïve Western insights. So while you could say we are partaking in a heuristic search for truth, the truth will, at times, be a personal one.

All aboard the (techno-)orient!