Date: Sun, 29 Sep 1996 14:12:00 +0900


Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism

Toshiya Ueno

Japan as the Sub-Empire of Signs

The word "Japanimation" is a neologism made by two words, Japan+animation. Today, Japanimation is seen in the whole world. And people outside Japan are have become interested in Japanese subculture like Manga, Japanimation, etc. If people once asked, "What is ZEN?" people now ask, "What is OAT?" However, I'm very sceptical about this phenomenon, an effect of globalization and information capitalism.

Under the Fordist economic system of the past, globalization meant nothing more than "Americanization", and media and entertainment were supplied by the Disney Corporation. However, we must now consider seriously the fact that the post-Fordist social environment of globalization is absorbing Japanimation. New readers and viewers as well as the system will ponder its meaning.

In other words, the strategy of this cultural movement is the effect of "sub-imperialism." According to Kuan-Hsing Chen, the sub-empire is a secondary dependent empire which manifests hegemony in culture and economy sphere rather than in the military system. And this new version of imperialism uses sub-culture. By analysing a Japanimation film, I would like to illustrate and criticize Japan as the sub-empire of signs.

"Ghost in the Shell"

The film "Ghost in the Shell" is set in the year of AD 2029 . This near future is not so much information-based--networks of enterprises covering the planet, electrons and light running through them--that nations or ethnicities have completely vanished. East Asia is a huge corporate zone dominated by multinational economic and information operations.

In this world, the lives of human beings are intertwined with advanced technologies. It is a world of cybernetics and sophisticated electronic information networks, where the border between people and machines sometimes becomes blurred or invisible. For some people, reality is only virtual. Many humans become cyborgs, a complex of man and machine. Except for the kernel of their brain, some people have substituted a cybernetic, prosthetic body for their own body.

The main character of the film, a woman named Motoko Kusanagi, is the leader of the "Shell Squad", Section 9 of the Department of the Interior, which has been formed by the government to combat cyber crimes and political terrorism in the information society. Through the net crimes have become more sophisticated and more violent. Conflict and conspiracy arise between departments and agents in the government. The events are concerned with a strange hacker who has the code name "Puppet Master". This unidentified superhacker began as a computer virus manufactured by the Foreign Ministry. The Puppet Master takes over human beings to further his own purposes by using "ghost hacking".

Even though a human in this world may almost have changed its own body into a machine, it still remains human, in so far as it possesses a "ghost". A ghost is a spirit but not of the mind. Indeed, the ghost is unconciousness, itself, but it also exists as memory which helps people establish their identities. According to the Puppet Master, "Memory can not be defined, but it defines mankind." Like water in cup, the identity of a human needs a form or shell in addition to a ghost. We cannot distinguish between the shell and ghost of human beings. But the problem here isn't about the traditional philosophical dichotomy between mind and body. Rather we face with the very basic question concerning SF: Is the cyborg human or a machine? What is the self or identity for the cyborg ma(chi)n(e)? The Shell Squad team as an organization tries to chase and catch the Puppet Master while Major Motoko Kusanagi is trying to answer this basic question. Sometimes Motoko is sceptical about her identity, whether she has a ghost? Because her body is almost a machine, she is paranoid according about her creation as an android provided with a virtual self and an artificial ghost. In fact, some people arrested by the "Shell Squad" like the Puppet Master turn out to be merely agents who were given fictitious personalities by cyber brain hacking. They were "puppets without a ghost", and they have only illusionary images, memories and self-identities.

These problems are closely related to the micropolitics of identity that include the opposition and segmentation between class, gender, ethnicity and "race". Humans and cyborgs belong to different tribes and "race". This context summons the problematic of "cyborg politics" presented by Donna Haraway.

The question here is whether the self is a mind or a spirit, or does the self consist of a suit, a shell of prosthetic technologies? Does the shell or suit incorporate the body and become the self or doesn't it? As the audience of this film, we all share the Major Motoko's question, the problem of the "shellishness of the self", and the question, "Who am I?".

One time, the Puppet Master appears to the Shell Squad and it (or perhaps he) speaks through a ghostless cyber body. He allows himself to be caught. He affirms ,"I'm not an AI. I'm a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information". For natural life DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life, organized into species, relies on genes as its memory system. But for Artificial Life (AL) the problem is different. Computer and cyber technologies are the extension (explosion) of human memory. Some programs can function independently from human will and gain autonomy. If these processes become more complicated and sophisticated, then certain programs or algorithms mimic life itself. Of course, this is very different from the natural life, but at the very least we can define some information programs as Artificial Life. In this sense, the Puppet Master as an AL uses "memes" and cultural genes to control humans and systems. It has a ghost.

Informational capitalism and Techno-Orientalism

Manuel DeLanda has remarked that the interest in AL came out of a reflection of the failure of the AI paradigm. He has stressed the shift from a top down approach to a bottom up approach, for the latter depends upon emergent and autonomous processes in information science. In general, Artificial Life experiments include the design of a simple copy of an individual animal, which must have the equivalent of a set of genetic code to create its offspring as well as transmit that code to its progeny. DeLanda says,

"This transmission must also be 'imperfect', so that variation can be generated.... The exercise will be considered successful if novel properties, unimagined by the designer, emerge spontaneously". (Virtual Environments and the Emergence of Synthetic Reason)

If AL were truly more than a simple program and could become life, it would send some information to its own offspring by "imperfect transmission". The behavior and intention of the Puppet Master in this film is based on this logic. Thus in the end of this film, the Puppet Master proposes to Motoko that they merge. By this unification he would be able to get mortality, as in real life while Motoko could generate variegated offspring in the net.

The Puppet Master exists in our ordinary lives. In fact, it is possible to find invisible manipulators in the market and the financial systems. The market and capital increasingly are becoming dependent on emergent processes and non-linear logic. "Emergence" here means a sudden change of some states in any system or a haphazard phenomenon relying on a radical contingency. In the paradigm of AL, this emergence and bottom up decision making in a system are very important. We can consider the work of huge capitalist corporations and the complicated virtual financial system from the point of view of Artificial Life (or Artificial Market). There is no "invisible hand of God", but there are the invisible hands of certain "Puppet Masters". Of course, this is just an anonymous process, but at least one can say that the Puppet Master is an allegory for informational capitalism.

DeLanda presents a similar point of view about the market.(see "Markets and Antimarkets in the World Economy" in this reader) Any replicating system that produces variable copies of itself in order to get new evolving forms requires "the divergent manifestation of the antimarket". The market for capitalism has always consisted of self-organized, decentralized structures. And it has always also been an "antimarket". The antimarket is an aspect of the non-linear process of the market itself.

To analyse this film further, I would go back to the issue of "Japanimation" itself. Why is this kind of animation so highly developed in Japan? One reason has to do with the gaze of Western people toward Japanese culture. And the problem is also about Orientalism.

For example in 70s when the German techno-pop band "Kraftwerk" used android or machine-like gestures in their live shows, they took the gestures of Japanese businessmen in Europe as their model. It's not surprising that they were interested in robot-like bowing and expressionless laughter. In their influential book "The Space of Identity", David Morley and Kevin Rovins argued that, "Western stereotypes of the Japanese hold them to be sub-human, as if they have no feeling, no emotion, no humanity" (see "Techo-Orientalism: Japan Panic", in The Space of Identity, Routledge,1995). These impressions come from the high development of Japanese technologies. These are phenomena of "Techno-Orientalism".

The basis of Orientalism and xenophobia lies in the subordination of others in various areas of the world through a "mirror of cultural conceit". A host of stereotypes appeared when binary oppositions--like civilization and the savage, modern and pre-modern--were projected on to the geographic positions of Western and non-western. The Orient exists insofar as the West needs it, because it brings the project of the West into focus. Naoki Sakai highlights,

"The Orient does not connote any internal commonality among the names subsumed under it , ranges from region in the Middle East to those in the Far East. One can hardly find anything religious, linguistic or cultural that is common among these varied areas. The Orient is neither a cultural, religious or linguistic unity. The principle of its identity lies outside itself: what endows it with some vague sense of unity is that Orient is that which is excluded and objectified by the West, in the service of its historical progress. From the outset the Orient is a shadow of the West."

If the Orient was invented by the West, then the Techno-Orient was invented by informational capitalism. In "Techno-Orientalism", Japan is not only located geographically, but is also projected chronologically. Jean Baudrillard once called Japan "a satellite in orbit". Now Japan is located in the technological future. As Morley and Rovins say,

"If the future is technological, and if technology has become 'Japanised', then the syllogism would suggest that the future is now Japanese too. The postmodern era will be the Pacific era. Japan is the future, and it is a future that seems to be transcending and displacing Western modernity."

Japanimation is defined by the stereotype of Japan as such an image of the future. The West is seduced and attracted by this model on one hand while on the other hand Japan is looked down upon rather than envied by the West. Furthermore, this complex about Japan seems to contain a psycho-mechanism similar to anti-Semitism. As is well known, Japanese capitalism is highly developed and has become very powerful in many areas such as the US, the EU and Asia. Techno-Orientalism works there as a manipulator of the prejudices about Japan in which Japan is the object of envy and contempt from other cultures and nations. The Japanese are playing therole of the (rich) Jew. In reality it is futile to link the Jew and the Japanese. Rather Jews and Japanese function as the scapegoats of the informational capitalism.

The Japanoid Automaton

The stereotype of the Japanese, which I would like to call "Japanoid" rather than Japanese, exists neither inside nor outside Japan. This image functions as the surface or rather the interface controlling the relationship between Japan and the Other. Techno-Orientalism is a mirror stage or an image machine, that influences Japanese as well as other people. This mirror, in fact, is semi-transparent or a two-way mirror. It is through this mirror stage and its cultural apparatus that Western or other people misunderstand and fail to recognize an always, illusionary Japanese culture. But it is also the mechanism through which Japanese misunderstand themselves. A complete solution for this structure of disavowal through which a "real" Japan could be properly recognized--different from the Lacanian mirror stage--is impossible.

It is rather interesting in the film "Ghost in the Shell", that the metaphor of the mirror is often used. The Puppet Master whispers a passage from the Bible to Motoko when he tries to approach her through cyber hacking. At the end of the film, the Puppet Master says to Motoko, "We resemble each other's essence, mirror images of one another's psyche". And after she merges with the Puppet Master, Motoko cites the Bible as below: "What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror.... Then we shall see face to face. When I was child, my speech, feelings and thinking were all those of a child. Now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways".

There are two mirror stages in this context of Techno-Orientalism. One is about the encounter between the human and the machine, the human and the net. And another is about the relation between Japan and others (Western, other Asian, etc ). These two mirror images constitute the "Japanoid" as an object of envy and hate. I have already mentioned that the Japanese have often been laughed at because of their "automatic" robot-like gestures. Of course, as Freud has observed, there is a very close relationship between automatic action and humor and laughing. But here one consider why androids or robots are ridiculed and why the person laughed at becomes like an android. Rey Chow has an interesting analysis about this point.

"In Chaplin's assembly line worker, visuality works toward an automatization of an oppressed figure whose bodily movements become excessive and comical. Being 'automatized' means being subjected to social exploitation whose origins are beyond one's individual grasp, but it also means becoming a spectacle whose 'aesthetic' power increases with one's increasing awkwardness and helplessness." (see "Postmodern Automatons" in Writing Diaspora ,Rey Chow, Indiana University Press,1993)

To affirm the culture and the industry of the modern world is to summon the "automated other" by introducing the rhythm of technology and the machine of each age into ordinary life. As far as workers, women, and the ethnic, they all have experienced a radical change in work conditions because of high technology; the image of the automated doll is imposed on them. This image also is imposed on the citizens who overadapt to the mutation of technological conditions. Needless to say the Japanese are being seen as the "automated other". Japanimation, which organises the image of automatization and animation(giving it a life form), constructs and presents a "Japan" as an "automaton culture" and as the "Japanoid" in "Postmodern Times".

It is worth returning to the Puppet Master because the Puppet Master reminds us of the control of the "automaton". The one controlled doesn't think he is a puppet, but in fact he behaves as a puppet controlled by a master. It is the same with the relation of an ideology to human beings. Motoko, being a woman cyborg, thinks of herself as an "animated automaton". In order to supplement her void (as cyborg, as woman, as minority, etc.), she agrees to merge with the Puppet Master. She as a minority would abandon her "ghost" to a huge system and net. In turn, the Puppet Master as a system would get mortality and a so called life cycle.

Rey Chow has defined the strategy of the cyborg feminist as rejecting the binary opposition of masculine-human-subject-versus-feminised-automaton. Chow argues that this strategy "retains the notion of the automaton--the mechanical doll--but changes its fate by giving it life with another look. This is the look of the feminist critic. Does her power of animation take us back to the language of God, a superior being who bestows life upon an inferior"? This is the task of the cyborg as half machine, half animal and transgressive being. Conversely, when a subject takes up that tactics of transgression, it unconsciously becomes like a cyborg. For the cyborg feminist, this strategy should be extended further than "animating the oppressed minority". Cyborg feminists have to make the automatized and animated situation of their own voices the conscious point of departure in their intervention. By abandoning and sacrificing her own identity and ghost to the Puppet Master, Motoko takes up the strategy of cyborg feminism.

The "Japanoid Automaton" can be rejected in this way, but this rejection and resistance has always broken down in Japanese subculture. The a-national (or non-national) culture of Japan and Japanese (Japanoid) are "animated and automatized" to be non-Western and non-Asian. In this cultural climate, Japan pretends to separate itself from both West and East as reproduced again and again in the political unconscious of Japanimation (subculture). Though Japanimation has often emphasized the landscape of Asia and Japan in the near future, it is the operation of forgetting and concealing the real situation of Asia and Japan. Japanimation is an ideological apparatus and at the same time an armament of criticism.

Why do Asian landscapes excite the cyberpunk imagination? Certainly it would be possible to reduce the problem to the influence of the film "Blade Runner". But it should be considered that Japanimation has illustrated the mutation of global capitalism itself by appropriating the illusion of Asia or Japan. By choosing Hong Kong as the setting of this film and trying to visualize informational capitalism, the director of "Ghost in the Shell", Oshii Mamoru, unconsciously to criticize the sub-imperialism of Japan (and other Asian nations).

Japanimation is travelling through the cultural diaspora of the world and is translated, communicated and misunderstood. A citation from Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" states: "There is no way to read the following list from a standpoint of 'identification', of a unitary self. The issue is dispersion. The task is to survive in the diaspora." If the image of cyborg shell and suit has been changing, it is not in vain if one discovers the "automated other" in various expressions and in global informational capitalism itself. It is another way to "animate" the other and the minority.