Monday, February 18, 2008

Cyborgs in Japanese Pop Culture

Because Doc opened up this can of worms with his link to the Manga Bible and because I’m something of the resident expert on the subject, I thought I’d pull together some thoughts and images about cyborg representation in Japanese manga and animation. For all intents and purposes it all started with this god man, Osamu Tezuka-sensei and his character of Michi from the manga Metropolis first published in 1949. Though Michi was considered a "humanoid" or a robot in human form, Mitchi originated in a batch of protein cells and had the interesting ability to change gender, something that seems very organic and "cyborg" indeed.

Cyborg 009, a team of humans experimented on and given technological enhancements, in 1963 was the first of the team (or sentai) genre of anime and kaiju (monster) programs that is still popular in Japan to this day.

Cyborg or cyborg-ish imagery is an important element to Japanese pop culture and the importance and power of cyborg themes from manga and anime don't seem to be lost on American film companies. James Cameron is currently in pre-production for a film called Battle Angel based on the widely popular Battle Angel Alita (or Gunnm). Interestingly enough the world that Alita inhabits is a cyborg world where the under city of refuse contains the "have-nots" who are entirely cybernetic save for their brains and the "haves" from the beautiful floating city of Tiphanes whose brains have all been secretly removed and replaced with computer processor chips. Alita's cyborg body is continually sexualized and in fact it is this sexualization that plays no small roll in her continued existence as a "female." It isn't until very far into the story when a copy of Alita's memories (computer chip) in used in a male body that the idea of the gender/sex divided is brought to the fore. Through there seems to be a suggestion that though the body might be male the mind is still heterosexual-female identified.

I could continue on and on for pages on this stuff if you'd like me to and I maybe will if someone gives me good cause to. Needless to say there is not shortage of cyborg imagery in anime and manga. The universe of the popular Full Metal Alchemist contains automail that seems to run a a type of magic and steampunk imagination rather than any sort of technology and Lain, with characters designed by ABe, a techno-thriller about the dystopian world within "The Wired," while not strictly cyborg certain incorporates a fair share of cyborg-ish (and not coincidentally lesbian-ish) imagry.

ABe's more recent work, Texhnolyze, focuses on more direct cyborg imagry and follows through dystopia through to the absolute end, the complete destruction of all humanity. Texhnolyze is also interesting in that it tends to be the male body that is sexualized and fetishized. Somewhat of a break from the female centric model and interesting because the target demographic for this super violent anime was clearly young men.

I could spend as long writing about the cyborgs in Ghost in the Shell as all others combined so I'll try to be brief. The main character is Major Makoto Kusanagi and I can think of very few other "female cyborg" characters that so consciously embody the principles of Haraway's manifesto, the best possible literal representation of Haraway's cyborg metaphor. The self-agency and self-identification she constantly asserts pushes her body up against the very technology that defines and her female-ness. Her human nature comes out in ways that display the creative integration of electronic and physical existences she incorporates into her identity everyday. The world of Ghost in the Shell is conscientiously cyborg, and both Shriow Masamune (original creator) and Mamoru Oishii (movie director) visions clearly incorporate Haraway's work. Batou (a cyborg man) and his beloved Bassett Hound is more then a representation of Oishii's obsession with the dogs, it connects to Haraway's important work on the human/animal connection. Even Haraway herself is represented in the second Ghost in the Shell movie and a cyborg coroner named Dr. Haraway (pictured right).

I was also going to include a bit of analysis on a character from Gundam 00 that I'm currently keeping my eye on, but that might have to be another post at some other time.

Additionally, I thought I'd share this with you guys. You can find all of the movie cut up into bits on youtube if you'd like. It's a Korean movie (not Japanese and therefore not very relevant to this post) called I'm a Cyborg, but that's Okay, and it has some really interesting images and suggestions about what it means to be "cyborg."

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