Hollywood aside, Japanese anime has explored the ideas of robots, cyborgs and androids far more successfully than many mediums, and in some cases, have been influential on some of our favorite movies and franchises. As any Japanese anime aficionado can relate, cyberpunk anime — SF or fantasy anime based on technology commonly set in a near futuristic, sometimes apocalyptic Earth — is a reoccurring and ever popular plotline in anime. From the earliest incarnations such as the beloved classic Astroboy in the 1960s to Cyborg 009 in the 1970s, cyberpunk anime challenged and influenced Hollywood producers and thinkers for the last decade or more. It has also explored many aspects, to the ills and triumphs, of technologic progress.
One of the biggest influences on the anime genre and Hollywood has been Ghost in the Shell:
This 1995 movie, based off the manga (Japanese style comics) by Masamune Shirow, is one of the most influential anime movies of all time apart from Akira. In the mid to late 1990’s, before the mass market appeal that anime enjoys today, anime fans grouped themselves into two categories; those who favored ultimate anime, Akira, and those who favored Ghost in the Shell.
James Cameron, director of the first two movies in the Terminator franchise has referred to Ghost in the Shell as the “first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence,” and it was reported last year that Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks have secured the rights to produce a live-action version of the film. The directors of the Matrix trilogy, the Wachowski brothers, have also spoken about the influence of Ghost in the Shell on the trilogy. Fans of both GitS and the Matrix would be hard-pressed to ignore the similarities in the highly stylized visuals and direction. It’s a safe bet that the live action Ghost in the Shell movie will be hailed by audiences and critics as the second coming of the Matrix, but legions of anime fans can (and will) remain smug in the influence of our chosen fandom on Western audiences.
Ghost in the Shell follows Major Motoko Kusanagi — the cyborg squad leader of Section 9, the fictional division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission . Major Kusanagi is on assignment to locate the mysterious “Puppet Master” who has hacked into a government official’s brain.
The movie takes place in 2029, a world where humans can “trade up” for cybernetic implants and prosthetics or “trade out” to almost full cyborg “shells” like Major Kusanagi. These cybernetic shells differ from robots as some organic features remain such as the metal-encased brain and the spine. Artificial bodies communicate with the organic brain in a digital nervous system. Brains connect to information networks in what can be described as über 3G communication and web access.
“Maintenance and upgrade”
The resonating impact of the movie comes from the underlying philosophical discourse: what does it really mean to be human, a self-aware and hence, entitled, entity? Is the definitive entity a body of flesh, a consciousness, a soul or “ghost” — a retained personality, one capable of upload into new vessels, capable of navigating information highways, i.e. the internet?
At the conclusion, the “Puppet Master” reveals its genesis: a program who has hacked into various “ghosts.” Through data collection and analysis, this program became self-aware, and in essence, created its own “ghost.” Once self-aware, the “Puppet Master” realizes two elements of survival familiar to humans, creation and death. To evolve, it attempts to merge ghosts with Major Kusangi. The new being in a child-like cyborg body, created out of the merger of the ghosts of Kusanagi and the “Puppet Master,” looks down over the Tokyo skyline and utters the famous, fan-revered line: “The net is vast and infinite…” For Matrix and GitS fans, this scene is reminiscent of Neo’s message to the machines at the end of the first Matrix movie — a message of coming change and a machine controlled world.
This Chiaka Konaka series (1994) spawned two movies and follows the same thread as Ghost in the Shell. In a dystopic future, an overpopulated Earth has colonized Mars with help from “first types” — androids designed to act and look like humans. Yearly improvements lead to “second types,” where the series begins followed by “third types” — androids identical to humans, discovered living secretly among the human populace for years.
The series follows a two police officers: a human, Earth-based, Ross Syllibus, on transfer to the Martian Police Department and his new Martian partner Naomi Armitage, secretly a “third type.” The death of the universe’s last country singer, who has been killed and replaced by a “third type,” leads to the televised revelation of the thirds. Riots erupt on Mars resulting in a purge of “third types” from Martian society. When Ross and Armitage begin their investigation on Rene D’anclaude, the man who leaked the information on the thirds, they discover an even more shocking secret — some of the female “third type” victims are pregnant.
Armitage, in her attempts to stop the slaying of “third types” searches for her creator, a man obsessed with creating “fourth types”, the newest in the line of androids. With a burgeoning romance between Ross and Armitage, the conclusion reveals a human connection even between non-human beings.
Ghost in the Shell and Armitage III show a future where technology allows for android reproductive systems. This controversial future plays out in Battlestar Galactic and the human form cylons that reproduce and create new life forms with both humans and Cylons. With a significant portion of the show’s dialogue dedicated to reaching a consensus (at least on the human end) on the definition of “alive” and the rights inherent to life, BSG presents an intriguing follow-up to Armitage III for cyberpunk anime fans. With getting spoilerific, unlike Battlestar’s wholly unsatisfying end, later Armitage movies go on to successfully explore the ideas of the creation and existence of this new race of machine and human.
The original Masamune Shirow story Appleseed, released in 1988 (the same year as Akira) and updated in 2004, takes place in the 22nd century after the decimation of Earth’s countries in the Third World War. The 2004 incarnation follows the story of Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires — former LAPD SWAT members who out of the war-torn ruins are invited to join a new experimental city called Olympus, a utopian paradise run by bioroids, genetically engineered beings created to serve humanity in a city inhabited by bioroids, cyborgs and humans.
Bioroids — biological androids — differ from cyborgs (of which Briareos is now counted after losing most of his flesh body in the war) in the sense that bioriods are living beings created through “biogenesis.” Think replicants in Blade Runner. Like Blade Runner, Appleseed addresses issues such as the exclusivity of rights to humans. In an emergent future shaped by humans and machines, could humans continue to impose a moratorium on the value of or right to life or will we simply have to share dominant rights with whatever new rival race which emerges?
While Olympus may seem a welcome utopia to some after the turmoil of war, Deunan and Briareous discover a power struggle between human and bioroids with each side bent on the destruction of the other.
Deunan becomes central to the plot when it’s revealed that her scientist parents had worked on a project to give bioroids the ability to reproduce naturally — the Appleseed Project. This process, suppressed by humans, would ultimately eliminate the differences between humans and bioriods. Even more surprising is that the first generations of bioroids developed from her father’s genetic samples, making bioroids her siblings of a sort.
The plot advances when the city’s bioroid leaders, the Council of Elders, discovers that a portion of the Appleseed Project plans remain intact. The Elders intend to release a deadly virus to sterilize the human race, leaving the future in the hands of the bioriods.
What follows is an action packed sequence where humans try to destroy the Council of Elders. They, in turn, mobilize giant fortresses. Appleseed ends with Deunan shutting down the bioriod fortresses and saving humanity. She declares that while humans make mistakes, the next generation always deserves a chance to correct those mistakes and pledges to continue fighting for the rights of bioriods, the children of humanity.
Full Metal Alchemist
Taking a break from doom and gloom, in Full Metal Alchemist, based on manga by Hiromu Arakawa, it is hard to find a downside to cyborgism. The replacing of body part for ones of automail — artificial metal limbs — seems to be a good thing. One episode suggests, with bragging and swaggering, that automail trade is similar to upgrading to the latest and most tricked out models of cars. In the 2004 anime series, gone are the deep philosophical ruminations of identity and meaning tied up in conservative ideals of flesh and humanity.
The series follows the story of two aspiring alchemists, brothers Edward and Al Elric, who in a failed alchemical effort to retrieve their dead mother from the great beyond, are forced in the alchemic principle of “equivalent exchange” give up their bodies. In the process the younger brother Al loses his body completely while Edward, losing only a hand and a leg, single-handedly (har de har) manages to blood-tie his brother’s soul into a suit of armor. Edward later replaces his missing limbs with auto-mail and so the story begins.
Despite many dark undertones to the series, cyborgism is oddly not one of them. Al never experiences prejudice despite his body of armor, and it appears that Edward’s automail limbs have made him a stronger person and an alchemist. Could this more recent series represent a shift in attitudes towards cyborgism and androids? Are the darker undertones and hidden warnings in anime during the 1980s and 1990s misplaced or over exaggerated?
With robots and interactive androids being developed for easier integration into society, are movies like Terminator Salvation and Battlestar Galactica passé? While Terminator Salvation tops the charts, gone are the deep seeded fears and ruminations of the future machinery associated with the franchise (part of the reason for the demise of FOX’s Sarah Connor Chronicles? Still bitter). Maybe these movies were wrong — a knee-jerk projection of our own worst fears. We’ll watch for the future and maybe anime will herald the way.