A Very Brief Examination of Japanese Science Fiction

Kenji Kamiyama said in an interview talking about ‘Ghost in the Shell’ that the greatest science fiction is that which touches on important issues within today’s society. What Kamiyama is trying to illustrate is that his version of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is at the cutting edge of science fiction. Indeed some of the greatest science fiction is that which challenge the social ‘norms’. For example Majel Barrett, wife of Gene Rodenberry, claims that ‘Star Trek’ was a vehicle for examining and challenging social ‘norms’ of that period in American history. This can easily be applied to Japanese science fiction. Susan Napier (professor of Japanese Literature and culture) critiques Japanimation as a synthesis of body, carnival and apocalypse. Through these main points she assesses other themes that convey elements and comments on contemporary Japanese society.

These themes are huge and wide-ranging and what is written in this small article is merely the tip of the ice berg. Indeed to comment about such an expansive subject would take a university thesis to do so adequately. However during the course of the article I am going to concentrate in one theme that is a constant within Japanimation: Technology.

Claudia Springer (author of ‘Electronic Eros’) believes that the Japanese (males in particular) are infatuated by technology coining the term “technoerotism”. This infatuation with technology makes it one of the leading countries for hi-tech industries. Indeed it could be said that it was this infatuation which lead to the success of manga. After all with greater employment results in a bigger salary which produces a better consumer. Indeed it was this economic miracle which paved way for Japan’s current consumerist society and as such suffers from excesses of that materialism. Japanese society, and specifically its cyberpunk, relates to this.

In fact, ’Akira’ is the perfect exemplar of this and manifests the excesses of materialism in the whole city of Neo-Tokyo which is built on greedy and selfish materialistic desire. Nezu is perhaps the character we would associate with the phrase ‘power corrupts’. Indeed with power usually comes money, to this end money corrupts also. In many ways Nezu is one of many who represent within ‘Akira’ the whole idea of this city and society in general being extremely materialistic. After all when Nezu attempts to escape he kills his staff! This is not the sign of an altruistic philanthropist, rather a demonstration of one’s corruption by a society in which there is no hope but money. He dies soon afterwards of a heart attack, and while not a common death in Japan, is in many ways in the death of the materialist, considering that 20% of the world’s population has access to 80% of the world’s resources!

In ‘Serial Experiments Lain’, Eiri states that humanity is a nonentity and “do not know what it is that drives them, they keep their bodies merely to satisfy the flesh”. Eiri’s view is that technology is the answer. It is the answer to all man’s problems after all it will allow humanity to evolve into something that is, from Eiri’s perspective, a far better form of life than humanity is currently. (That is for humanity to transcend the ‘Real World’ and escape into the ‘Wired’ through the use of Protocol 7.)

Another theme intertwined within Japanese science fiction is the communication and the impact of technology upon that link. ‘Serial Experiments Lain’ is by its very nature a story exploring communication. Lain herself is an extremely quiet and reserved character with only one true friend. It is our protagonist then who would go to greater lengths to understand the depths of communication far better than any of her friends ever could.

The ‘King’ of anime concerning this type of link has to be ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’. Ultimately the story, according to the series, reaches its conclusion when Shinji Ikari makes a decision about whether he wishes humanity to evolve or to remain as they are. Indeed Human Instrumentality is the unification of every human on the planet together as one. (This is of course far too simplistic! It would indeed be another thesis!) This ties in with another thread of Japanese science fiction, that communication and human evolution are linked together by technology because it is through technology that we evolve and grow.

To explore the ‘technophobia’, the opposite to the “Technoerotism experienced by the Knights and the people of 2015, would now take a trip far into the future rather than just to the 2015 of ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’. Indeed ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ is set a thousand years following the ‘Seven Days of Fire’. This is Miyazaki’s underrated piece that merely gets the attention it deserves by being a Ghibli film. This story can be said to be a return to nature and the conservative values associated with traditional Japan.

Miyazaki offers a story that accentuates the main protagonists being without technology rather than ‘enslaved’ to it through “technoerotism”. Indeed it can be said that those of the Valley of the Wind are depicted as being much more ‘at one with nature’. These people are ideally what Miyazaki would like to see Japan return to, at least in terms of today’s morality.

Indeed Nausicaä is a very unrealistic vision of a young woman today. Chihiro is by far a character that matches what Miyazaki observes as not conforming to a ‘good morality’. She is very puerile. Conversely, at the culmination of ‘Spirited Away’ it is Chihiro who is a very mature young woman and compared with her parents (who are turned into pigs, much like ‘Porco Rosso’!, where the imagery utilised is representative of greed.): she is the greater of the three. This is Miyazaki’s quintessential contemporary Japanese girl.

The people of The Valley of the Wind are the embodiment of Miyazaki’s Japanese ideal: virtuous, brave, kind and one with nature. Alternatively their neighbours and masters are autocratic imperialists set on world domination at any cost! They use a combination of sadistic tactics and technology in spite of the fact that that is the reason why their world as it exists subsists.

In this case Japanese science fiction melds the ecological with the technological to synthesise a story about being more environmentally friendly and a return to traditional values. However this kind of story set in the Sea of Corruption is in itself the opposite to the likes of Knights in ‘Serial Experiments Lain’ and humanity in 2015. This is perhaps the vent for this type of ‘Star Trek’ science fiction where a critique, and often criticism, of modern society is voiced in a futuristic setting.

Individuals, like Nausicaä, have shaped the essence of anime. During the course of this essay there have been mentioned various characters of Lain, Shinji, Nausicaä, Chihiro, Nezu and Eiri. All of these have personified a certain point of view. However some have an extraordinarily large amount layers to their characterisation. Indeed Lain is the interface in ‘Serial Experiments Lain’ and is used to allow the viewer to be able to peel away the story as it becomes ever more complex with every layer the viewer peels off.

So in conclusion, Japanese science fiction is a mixture of social commentary and exploration and the question of Japan becoming more westernised and more technologically advanced or whether it should return to a more traditional past. Add into this mixture the issue of communication and whether technology adversely affects this by exacerbating materialism, consumerism and capitalism.

This is merely the top of the tip of the ice berg. If you have anything to say about Japanese science fiction please feel free to elaborate, if you have any criticism for this piece please also write in. I’d love to have your feedback!