Monday, July 31

Ready to Explode: Exploring the Cyberculture and Cyberfear of Japan in Anime

by Joseph Babcock

“It's the age of destruction,
In a world of corruption

It's the age of destruction
And they hand us oblivion.”1

-Billy Idol, Neuromancer

“The end of the world was only the beginning.”2

-Akira, 2001 Poster

Introduction: Society, Cyberpunk, and Akira

Japan, circa 1984: the Murai Jun group at the Tokyo Institute of Technology establishes the Japan University Network (JUNET), a computer system linking the mainframes of several universities.3 Japanese society witnessed many such advances in information technology during the 1980s, innovations which promised to greatly accelerate the flow of data and to replace manual labor with automated production.4 One scholar at the time predicted that “the impact of informisation [sic] on society as a whole will be as extensive as that of the industrial revolution.”5

Similar technological developments occurred worldwide during the eighties, as the foundations of the Internet sprang into being. In response, the science-fiction community began to examine the impact that this “computerization” might have on society, creating the Cyberpunk genre. Ironically, the establishment of JUNET coincided with the American publication of William Gibson's seminal Cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984), a brooding vision of an “informatized” society. In Japan, the themes explored by Gibson were echoed in many animated pictures, such as Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 epic Akira. Set in the dark world of 2019 Neo-Tokyo, the film depicts a near-future cyberculture.

In most aspects Akira is far from subtle; boasting vivid imagery and an evocative musical score, it is a dramatic sensory experience. It is through symbolism and metaphor, however, that the themes of the film are articulated. These subtle elements reveal the anxieties surrounding the evolution of information networks in 1980s Japan, fears which are the focus of this paper. In this analysis, I will address two primary themes. One is the importance of information freedom, which is reflected in the conflict between Neo-Tokyo's corrupt government and a rebel opposition group. The second is the threat of information technology to the human form, which is represented by physical transformation in Akira.

While the portrayal of information technology in Akira demonstrates historical trends in public opinion, it also highlights the development of such sentiments over time. Like the computer industry, the Japanese Cyberpunk genre is a changing entity. A secondary purpose of this essay is to address thematic developments in the genre, as reflected in more recent films such as Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell (1996).

The Information Society: A Corporate Vision of Utopia

Beginning in the 1960s, Japanese policymakers predicted that computer-based technologies would revolutionize the nation's existing economic and social structures.6 This future Japan, in which information would be freely transmitted through a digital network, was described as an “information society” by Professor Hayashi Yujiro of the Tokyo Institute of Technology7. In Beyond Computopia (1988), Tessa Morris-Suzuki argues that this “informatised [sic]” society represents a “technocrats' Utopia, a public justification for the policies desired by economically powerful groups.”8 At the time, these groups were the zaibatsu, vertical hierarchies comprised of multiple corporations - mega-corporations of a sort - which rose to dominate the Japanese economy in the wake of World War II.9

Many Japanese citizens worried that the zaibatsu would become further empowered by this new society. Anti-establishment groups claimed that an “information society” would in actuality be a “controlled society”10 dominated by large corporations.11 The primary fear regarding this system, according to Morris-Suzuki, was that an increased freedom of information would allow these corporations to compile detailed “dossiers” 12 about their potential customers - with or without the knowledge of Japan's citizens. The “information society” was seen as a means to control knowledge, not liberate it. The flow of data would move in one direction, towards the zaibatsu. Indeed, Morris-Suzuki argues that the information society was but a “vast mechanism for converting the knowledge created by society into a source of corporate profits.”13 The control of information through technology became a form of power, a notion which, as I will argue, appears in Akira.

Given the massive influence of several Japanese corporations in the 1980s international market, such as the Nintendo company14, it seems small wonder that foreigners also imagined a future of information-brokering Japanese zaibatsu. This impact is clear in the opening to Neuromancer, which Gibson sets in the “Night City”15 underground of urban Chiba. The tensions surrounding the “computerization” of Japanese society in the eighties are mirrored in the work of Gibson and other Cyberpunk authors. Like Japan's citizens, the protagonists of the Cyberpunk world desire freedom and security of information, information which has been exploited by corrupt conglomerates. While Japan was not the only society undergoing “computerization” during the eighties, it held an important position at the head of this technological evolution.

The rest of article is here.

Extremely fascinating article for anime sci fi lovers.

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