The electronic eden – technology and machines in society

I named this article “Electronic Eden” because I see technology as reminiscent of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in biblical tradition. Consumption of this forbidden fruit, a metaphor for mankind’s meddling with technology, ultimately results in humanity’s fall from grace, a recurring motif in numerous anime. As a whole, the narratives of these same anime then focus upon the trails and tribulations of its protagonists as they negotiate the realities of their brave new worlds.

Thus, the main objective of our essay would be to illustrate the how anime reflect the changing attitudes that Japanese have towards technology and machines over a time frame spanning four decades, and to relating these changes to wider, concurrent developments within Japanese society.

In the first three decades (60s – 80s), technology was something that humans had control over, and machines were mere tools for humans to achieve their aims, i.e. they were soulless. The mid-90s however marked a watershed in the formulation of the mecha anime genre, and presaged a new wave of anime revolving around sentient machines; from these emerged new themes and anxieties such as self-identity issues. This not to say that prior to the mid-90s there were no such anime, just that there was significantly less focus, and this era catapulted an entirely new range of issues and themes into the foreground.

Technology appears to be the solution in achieving an Edenic paradise for mankind, what with all the endless possibilities we could achieve with advancements in technology. However, at the same time, there are hidden dangers in this supposedly tranquil haven. It’s a precarious balance… one that seems to be reflected in anime.  Japanese perceptions of technology and machinery have always been in a state of flux, but in the end, there is always an equilibrium position achieved which balances adulation and abeyance. Our case studies of mecha anime will attempt to illustrate how this equilibrium was attained through post-war residual anxieties regarding the mass destructive potential of technology juxtaposed against a euphoric sense of rapid industrialization, societal progress and the economic boom. In our discussion of the later period, we will try and justify how the paradigm has shifted into a new equilibrium – anxieties over an eroding sense of self-identity versus a new realization of the basic symbiosis between humanity and technology.

From the 1960s – mid-1970s

Japan has had centuries to come to terms with machines that seem human – karakuri ningyo, or clockwork wooden dolls that resembled people were first built in the Tokugawa era.1 However, it was only during the post war era that Japan witnessed a transition from passive receptivity to unadulterated affection towards machines and technology.

Having endured the traumatic and deeply humiliating aftermath of nuclear destruction in WWII, Japan bounced back from defeat and embraced the superior technology of their enemy as a way to match and surpass them. Intensive industrialization during the 1960s coupled with the introduction of robotics in the 1970s bore testimony to the Japanese embracement of technology in the post war era.

The miracle of Japanese economic revival after the utter devastation of WWII led to a media fuelled valorization of the merits of technology. This campaign in turn sparked an even more intimate identification with machines/technology. Ron Tanner describes Japan’s post war culture as having ‘been built on the unflagging belief in the benefit of all things high tech’ and the adorable and phenomenally popular robot icons of the 60s and 70s epitomize the conviction behind such a statement. Tetsuwan Atom and Doraemon may be said to represent this national culture based on an unequivocal affinity towards all things mechanical.

By constantly reiterating the stance that machines and technology could serve as both friends and protectors of humanity, Tetsuwan Atom and Doraemon could be said to have constituted a vital medium in reconciling the Japanese with the traumatic memory of nuclear devastation. As a robot, Tetsuwan Atom was a technological creation capable of reflecting human reasoning and behavior and he demonstrated how machines could work for the benefit of humanity, thus giving a positive spin to technology. Like Tetsuwan Atom, Doraemon, the time traveling robotic cat from the 22nd C, offered a distinctly optimistic and benign version of technology, dazzling his friends both onscreen and off with his fantastical array of gadgets.

Other than Tetsuwan Atom and Doraemon, there were other Japanese anime in the 60s and 70s that portrayed robotics in a positive light, acting as a medium between technology and man. Tetsujin 28-go and Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z were the pioneers of the “giant robot” series, a genre which attained prominence in the late 70s with Macross and Gundam, where mecha super weapons were portrayed as superheroes that fought for all humankind. The most notable characteristic that these early anime transferred to the Super Robot genre was the relationship between machines and humans; established on the premise that machines and humans could act as one, and interact between each other.

The fact that robot icons like Tetsuwan Atom, Doraemon, Mazinger Z and Testujin 28-go have been able to win the affection of the Japanese certainly seems to testify to a special attitude towards technology on their part. Indeed, those who grew up with these popular anime icons seem prepared not only to see industrial robots replace human labor in the workplace but also to welcome humanoid robots in their homes as personal assistants and companions. The typical mindset of this era of the Japanese love affair towards technology may best be summed up by Masahiro Mori: ‘To comprehend the soul of a robot, and to understand its true potential and limitations, we must think of it as a friend.’

Late 1970s to early 1990s

Such a favorable equation and positive outlook for man and machine continued with the advent of action packed mecha anime (such as Gundam) from the late 70s to the early 90s. In the 1980s, Japan’s bubble economy was at its zenith, with innumerable zaibatsu reaping massive successes in the global information technology, communications, semi-conductor and entertainment industries. The 80s, the high point of Japan’s techno-industrial development where she engaged in numerous massive-scale projects, was a period of intense nationwide euphoria with various technological achievements upheld as a source of national pride. Japan had emerged as the world’s second largest economy after America, with home-grown companies like Sony, Hitachi and Toshiba becoming global powerhouses. Interestingly, at the same time, the robot business was also booming in Japan. Robotics R&D then was at its apogee, achieving landmark advancements in multiple fields “ranging from components and working systems for manufacturing, construction and human service industries to space robotics.”

At this juncture was a near unshakeable conviction that the Japanese could achieve anything, even the indistinguishably human robots which had captured the imagination of an entire generation. In 1982, the Institute for New Generation Computer Technology was established to undertake a decade long project to develop a revolutionary series of computers, with the ultimate aim of creating a machine capable of mimicking the complete range of human senses including our neural functions. At that point in time, there was never any sense of discomfiture with the notion of artificial intelligence, only an overwhelming zeal on the part of the Japanese to ‘believe that human beings could duplicate Mother Nature’s work, and probably do it better.’

Thus, in the 1980s, there seemed to be an almost inexhaustible optimism towards technology and machines in Japan especially, in the field of robotics and this sanguine mood was mirrored in numerous mecha anime in the 1980s.

Although gigantic mecha warriors were not a novel introduction to anime, the 80s was THE era of the Giant Robots with dozens of mecha anime such as Macross and Patlabor springing up one after another within in a relatively short span of time. The giant robot anime seemed to symbolize the epitome of the technological optimism that swept Japan in the 80s. Usually featuring metal behemoths, endowed with rippling metallic ‘muscles’ and equipped with a mind-blowing arsenal of cutting edge weaponry, the mecha body clearly panders to a wish-fulfilling fantasy of power, authority and technological competence.

For instance, one very distinctive recurring theme was the almost utopian-like ideal of machines and technology as a universal panacea, in particular for the empowerment and enhancement of human potential via technology and machines. The prevalent belief seems to be one where technology and machines can help humans to achieve ‘power’ that might otherwise have proven almost impossible to attain.

As a case in point, mecha anime, especially those with female protagonists like in Bubblegum Crisis/Vandread/Sol Bianca are highly popular with female audiences not only because of the emotional rapport established – but more so the promise of achieving gender parity with males through their advanced technology’s capacity for physical augmentation: ‘Dressed in power suits, men and women become equal as warriors. Size and physical strength become irrelevant. Victory becomes a question of courage, intelligence and skill. Power suits also allow female warriors to retain their femininity without being rendered passive.’

In retrospect, this era also paralleled many of the contemporary developments, including the very real threat of the Cold War. Poised precariously on the doorstep of Red China and the Soviet Union, Japan’s sense of security was predicated upon technology as a vital means of self-preservation, and the last safeguard against any external threat. Indeed, giant robot warriors, heavily armed interstellar cruise ships and advanced fighter jets were often depicted as humanity’s last line of defense against alien attacks and other external threats. For example, in Macross we see how Earth’s Super Dimensional Fortress (SDF1) and its insignificant fleet of maverick Valkyrie fighter planes/robot warriors gave humanity a fighting chance against an invasion by the vastly superior armada of the alien Zentraedi. In Bubblegum Crisis, the exo-skeleton body suits not only imbued the Knight Sabres with superhuman strength, but also afforded enhanced protection against their enemies.

Hence, in such anime, it can be from these examples how technology and machines empowered humans by enhancing their ability to protect and defend themselves. In other words, mecha anime during this time presented a safety valve or source of secure horror for the regulation and expunging of fears and anxieties stemming from an external conflict beyond Japan’s control. This no doubt paralleled the growing trust and faith that the Japanese invested in machines and technology as representing the key to a better future in the 1980s. However, this dominant theme portraying technology and machines as a means of ‘bettering’ and/or empowering their users in 80s mecha anime also implicitly suggested that humanity, from the Japanese perspective at least, is fundamentally flawed and feeble and that there existed an urgent need to overcome these weaknesses and transform themselves.

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Not surprisingly then, this conception of human inadequacy at a time of inexorable technological progress conjured near limitless possibilities for the future, and fed a intensifying obsession with artificiality and perfection among the Japanese. We saw earlier how this notion had already taken shape in the 60s and early 70s mecha anime through sentient robots (Tetsuwan Atom) and piloted giant robots battling for the survival of humanity but it was really only until the 1990s, with the prominence of cyborgs and androids, were the forms and consequences of this ‘obsession’ truly explored and presented in mecha anime. Exactly how and what this exploration was will be discussed in the 90s section.

Next, one interesting thing to note is that although many mecha anime in the 80s revel in the optimism of technology and machines; this is by no means an assertion that they only reveal the positive aspects of technology. In fact, many mecha anime like Macross and Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam do not shy away from depicting the potentially devastating effects of technology.18 Instead, how the producers and scriptwriters attempted to address this pessimistic outlook was by depicting such destruction as the inescapable repercussions of ‘protecting’ or defending someone, which usually in the 80s meant the entire human population on Earth. This has certain connotations to wartime Japan and its expressed desire to emancipate Asia and Southeast Asia from colonial oppression – above all the idea that “although a deadly military weapon could be potentially dangerous in the wrong hands, when controlled by the enlightened post-war Japanese, mecha itself can be a very useful tool in uplifting [and protecting] mankind” Such an assertion is perhaps best represented in Macross: Do you Remember Love. The entire population of planet Earth- 10 billion people – were annihilated in an instant when the invading Zentraedi20 forces shot a powerful blast towards Earth. Yet it was also the utilization and appropriation of the very same technology that literally destroyed the Earth by the SDF1 that gave them a fighting chance for survival and eventual victory over the Zentraedi forces.

Another common theme in most of the 80s mecha anime was that the machines or robots featured were usually non-sentient and incapable of voluntary function. Unlike Doraemon and Astroboy, who were incontrovertibly in possession of their consciousness and almost always acted upon their own free-will, the giant robots of the 80s were necessarily dependent on humans to operate and control them. Thus, victory was achieved through the aid of technology and machines in these anime; nonetheless it was also unquestionably the human spirit that prevailed in the end. This line of argument presents a reasonable justification for how, in almost all of these Giant Robot anime, the high point of the narrative typically centered on a major confrontation at the climax of the series, where a human piloted robot is pitted against a final, technologically advanced and seemingly unconquerable adversary. Final victory is almost always assured, although usually only after overcoming numerous setbacks, where both machine and pilot have been tested to their limits and demonstrated either teamwork, persistence, the desire to protect someone or something precious (mamoru) etc. Thus, the emphasis here was never on the robot/machine per se, but rather on capturing the spiritual and psychological maturation of the human pilot, typically an adolescent or young adult. According to Tom Gill, the age of the pilots bears a particular significance.

‘The child in the robot can be read as a metaphor for the spirit inside the boy, suggesting that an important theme is that of mind achieving control over the unruly body. This theme runs through Japanese culture: it is there in the popular obsession with gaman (endurance), for instance, and in the ascetic variations of Zen Buddhism. The child in the robot, with his array of buttons and levers, and mastery of all manner of (weapons) is the self in full control – and fully hidden.’

To illustrate, in Macross, aerial battles between the Zentraedi forces (aliens) and the SDF1 pilots (humans) are constantly being waged. However, it is not the side with the superior technology and combat potential that triumphs but rather the one possessing the better pilots, and displaying the more noble/socially desirable social values and objectives. In this sense, there was never any doubt regarding the outcome of battle between the brutish alien invaders and the courageous humans defending their beloved home planet. Moreover, in Macross, the key to the SDF1’s (human alliance forces) eventual victory over the Zentraedi was psychological/emotional warfare waged by Lynn Minmei – a pop songstress, whose music enthralled the aliens into eschewing their belligerence. This, in itself speaks volumes about the quintessential nature of human agency to mecha anime. At the end, the stars of the show were the humans, not the robots, although these undoubtedly captivated the viewers’ attention and imagination in their own right.

Patlabor arguably provides the best case study of the necessity of the human agency in 80s mecha anime.

The huge construction robots called “labors” have no wills of their own. They are vehicles, driven and manipulated by human beings. Levi adds that ‘when they go out of control in Patlabor: The 1st movie, the Patlabor police look for a human culprit and they find one… there’s no sense that the robots themselves are to blame. They aren’t people. They’re just mecha.’ Similarly, the Japanese notion that machines or giant robots in this case, needed to be control and/or mediated by humans can be seen in the Transformers series. In the US – licensed original, the Transformers were sentient robots each imbued with its own personality and character traits. However, when Toei studios appropriated the series fully, the Japanese reinvented the plot such that human ‘pilots’ or power-masters were now necessary to pilot the robots by fusing them. The speech, mannerisms and personality traits were now essentially those of the human pilots, and not of the machines themselves, which were depicted as ‘empty shells’ not unlike massive versions of the exoskeletons used by the Knight Sabers in Bubblegum Crisis.

As such, the underlying message in mecha anime of the 80sm until the early 90s seems to be that in the realm of technology and machines, human control remains the most vital component, with machines only functioning according to its user’s will. This idea of humans being in control, and machines as tools totally subservient to humanity – presented as superior life-forms – was already evident in anime such as Tetsuwan Atom and Doraemon in the 70s but it became more prominent and fully articulated in the 80s. How exactly are these ideas explored can be seen in Bubblegum Crisis. This anime is actually very revealing about the dichotomy of prevailing attitudes towards technology and machines in Japan during the 80s. In Bubblegum Crisis, viewers see how robots are addressed as ‘slaves’ of mankind, machines that are stripped of their consciousness and made to performing menial, undesirable tasks such as being wait staff and cleaners. Bubblegum Crisis essentially posits the question: Are machines and robots meant to be ‘slaves’ for humans? After all, there exists only a very fine boundary distinguishing ‘tools’ and ‘slaves’, for both only function according to their users’ whims.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to note that this idea of human control and machines as ‘tools’ is not without precedent in mecha anime. Back in the 60s & 70s, even in supposedly technological friendly anime such as Tetsuwan Atom, there has always been an underlying message similar to those in the 1980s mecha anime; that technology and machines are ‘tools’, something that humans should retain ascendancy over. The very fact that robots were created to protect and serve humans in Tetsuwan Atom implicitly implies that humans are in some way superior to the robots and that the relationship is fundamentally imbalanced. Perhaps this dominant theme of machines and robots as ‘tools’ in mecha anime could be a reflection of the post-war Japanese mentality and desire to achieve mastery over the very technology that contributed largely to their defeat in the war.

Consequently, with human control established as the key to how machines functioned, unsurprising then is the fact that in most of the 80s mecha anime, technology itself was never depicted as the enemy but rather it was the explicit use or abuse of technology by humans that determined the final consequences. The notion of the machine itself as the subject of anxiety and abjection was not usually articulated in the 80s anime – a stance that was formally expressed in Japan’s General Guideline for Science and Technology Policy, which was approved by the government in 1986. One of the three major articles called for the development of science and technology ‘in ways that are in harmony with the human beings and society that they are supposed to serve’- an admonition expressly warning against human misappropriation of technology.

Indeed, while residual anxieties, related to the mass destructive potential of technology, persisted in the 80s, audiences are always reminded in many mecha anime that technology and machines could go either way, depending on the use or abuse by humans. Examples include Bubblegum Crisis, where in episode 4 “the revenge-crazed Gibson updates his car into a symbiotic interface, blending his mind with the machine and creating something more responsive and deadly.”26The car itself was essentially harmless, perhaps even advantageous as a nifty transportation ‘tool’ but audiences witnessed how, thanks to Gibson’s warped objectives, this apparently ‘harmless’ machine subsequently transmogrified into a serious threat which jeopardized the entire city.

Another very important thing to note in our research on the ambivalent attitudes towards technology and machines in mecha anime is that the idea of the human role in advancing and/or causing the negative consequences of technology and machines was not exclusive to the ‘adult-oriented anime’ nor anime that was produced in the 80s. As mentioned earlier, even in some children’s anime, such themes were already manifested, albeit in a more subtle form. For example, in Doraemon: Nobita and Robot Kingdom27 we see how cute, obedient and sweet, Sunao’s new robotic pet dog Bo was initially compliant with the wishes of its owner.

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However in the subsequent scenes, we see how this sweet robotic dog changed into a rampaging beast that attacked its owner and his friends. Through no fault on its own, the robot dog became ferocious – it was only when Sunao’s friend Giant abused the robot in a fit of irritation that caused it to malfunction, thus reiterating how crucial a factor human intervention represents. Likewise, in Tetsuwan Atom, the same idea is stressed, although in a different permutation. In the series, there seems to be a general assumption among the humans that just because Dr Tenma, the original creator of Atom, was demented and possessed malicious intentions (the destruction and subjugation of mankind by robots), that Atom would by default also harbour similar criminal or malevolent tendencies.

The best way to conceptualize the lack of aversion towards machines and technology is to critically examine the issues presented in the anime Toward the Terra. In the dystopian future, a battered humanity has abandoned its ecologically devastated homeworld and relinquished control to computers. All new humans are spawned in test tubes, delivered to randomly selected couples, and then raised to age 14. On their “Waking Day,” they are taken to space stations where their memories are erased and they become blank slates suitable for training as good, obedient citizens. But sometimes a Waking child develops psychic powers. These psychics, called Mu, can fight off mental conditioning and are considered a threat to the reverentially praised “SD System,” which rules human life.

While on the surface, this mecha anime actually sounds as though it is expressing the anxieties of the later 90s, it must be noted here that the humans have voluntarily surrendered free will to the computers in hopes of a better life. The computers represent the key to salvation and preservation of the human race. The tension in this anime arises not between humans and machines/technology, but rather between humans (who want to safeguard the status quo) against the influence of the alien Mu.

It is clear from the above examples that there seems to exist an implicit idea in mecha anime during the 80s and early 90s that technology and machines are harmless and it is only the projection of human will, benign or otherwise, that ultimately determines the effects and/or consequences of their use.

Mid 1990s – Present Day

Thus, it may be justified to say that in general, the manifestation of human apprehension in mecha anime did not occur until the mid-90s, and the harbingers of this fundamental transformation of attitudes were Masmanune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, and Ganiax studio’s revolutionary Neon Genesis Evangelion. Their release occurred at a point in time when such lofty hopes and aspirations were fading amidst the bleak reality of economic recession, proving that technology was not a universal panacea after all. Disillusionment replaced the enthusiasm and fervor characteristic of the earlier period, forcing a pause and critical reexamination of the issues at hand.

Technology was now evolving at an alarming pace, with increasingly shorter product cycles, and the average person found himself no longer able to keep pace with the rapid new developments. It was within this bleak context, characterized by a loss of faith within humans as the incontrovertible masters of their environments and destinies that the idea of artificial intelligence became profoundly disquieting, and Darwinist/millenarian vision of humanity being overrun by sentient technology became compelling. At the same time, confronted by the exponential rise of social ills in urban areas, pollution, and congestion, the Japanese began to seriously reconsider the role of technology, one touted as a cure-all, but increasingly being linked to more problems.

The real problem here was that the Japanese had for so long, acknowledged that robots and other mechanoids were never ‘merely machines’. However, during Japan’s heyday in the 60s to the late 80s, any angst was kept in check by the remarkable progress in society as well as industrial and commercial sectors. In the decade long slump in the 90s, this aura of self-confidence evaporated, and people began a serious introspection and self-questioning. At the very foundation of such anxieties and feelings of inadequacy lay the phobia of the mechanical displacing and eclipsing the human.

In 1983, Kato Ichiro had already foreseen the trend of social autism, where humans would eventually relate less and less to each other and more and more on machines.29 Technology used to be site of communal sharing and familial bonding, yet recently with the advent of shrinking personal devices such as laptops, PDAs, MP3 players, entertainment became personalized and this trend is characterized by a withdrawal into the realm of the self. This alienation of the individual not only challenged millennia old societal values of cooperation and community effort, but also brought social problems to the fore. Napier’s use of Evangelion as a case study of technology’s alienating qualities is excellent:

’Shielded in their EVA armour… incapable of any meaningful interaction’ Shinji, Rei and Asuka act as a metaphor for the isolating and anti-social effects of technology – the internet, computer/video game addiction – where teenagers alienate themselves from the rest of the world. Yet, for all its detrimental effects, technology is viewed as much as a necessity as a bane – In response to a question regarding why he chooses to pilot the EVA, Shinji replies that ‘his life is pointless otherwise,’ and ‘Without the EVA, I had no value.’ The others apparently have similar revelations concerning their own sense of worthlessness and their need for the EVA to give their lives meaning.

A corollary of this fear was massive retrenchment which took place during the recession, and increasing mechanization of various industries as a cost-saving substitute for human labour. In Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis, resentful humans lead an anti-robot campaign which eventually culminates in a war of annihilation against robots, which they see as challenging their supremacy.

Suddenly, the setting of mecha anime was transcribed not unto a present worth protecting, but unto a post-apocalyptic future where technology reigns supreme. Naturally such a dystopian vision of a technocratic realm inspires dread – man is shown living in uneasy co-existence with his mechanical creations, but which now saturate every aspect of everyday existence and living space. In Metropolis, the human characters are not only physically dwarfed by the gold skyscrapers, but also emotionally and psychologically overwhelmed. The technocratic state is an Orwellian one, where sinister forces lurk beneath the gleaming opulence of man’s towering scientific/technological achievements.

This fundamental tension is what has been underlining and subtly transforming the themes and cultural subtexts in mecha anime of the past 5 years. The basis of this technophobia lies in the apprehension that humans, once having lost their ascendancy over their increasingly sophisticated creations, will become steadily more reliant on technology to the point where machines will ultimately supercede (and supplant) humanity. Such a change of perspective with regards to the relationship between man and machines/technology is readily seen when we juxtapose mecha anime of the 80s/early 90s with those of the late 90s and beyond.

While giant robot warriors are still the key to defeating evil forces, their use entails serious costs. This was certainly not the case in classic 80s mecha anime Mazinger Z, Giant Robo, and even Matchless Raijin-Oh. Machines and technology in anime used to be a relatively uncomplicated affair – the 80s era of ‘giant robot’ anime presented the audience with machines which were incontrovertibly under the control of their human pilots. During this time, these machines were little more than mere tools, devoid of their own personality, much like how someone would regard a forklift or bulldozer.

However, by the mid-90s, mecha prove not only capable of amplifying the physical movements of its pilot/controller, but equally so for his psyche as well. Thus, self-doubt and fear become rampant and debilitating. Asuka Langley of Evangelion runs headlong to confront the enemy Apostle only to be hit by a psychological attack so traumatic that that she is out for the count for the rest of the first series. It becomes more and more uncertain as to whether the pilot controls the machine, or the other way around.

In Rahxephon we have a fully sentient system, which synchronizes with its pilot by drawing out and manipulating his subconscious, manifesting itself as the repressed memory of his objet d’amore. Not only is there a latent anxiety with regards to being manipulated by the machine, there is also a concomitant fear of being consumed mentally and spiritually. In Gundam W, we witness how the noble Quatre loses himself to the hallucination inducing ‘Zero’ artificial intelligence. Not only does the meek former pacifist go berserk and ravage a space colony, he embarks on an interstellar rampage, severely injuring his friends before finally being rescued from his machine-induced dementia.

In contrast, the world of retro gem Bubblegum Crisis/Crash posits a far simpler world. Unlike their anxiety laden latter day counterparts, the female characters here don their mechanical combat exo-suits with nary a complaint, sometimes even with visible enthusiasm. At their most reluctant, all they exude is an affected sense of Weltschmerz. In stark opposition, in Neon Genesis Evangelion: ‘the characters’ attitude towards their high tech body armour is often ambivalent at best. Rather than empowering them, their huge EVAs leave them wracked with pain and deeply vulnerable.

Shinji, 15 year old protagonist of Neon Genesis Evangelion exemplifies the transition towards machines as embodiments of horror, even repulsion. In a classic scene, Shinji is led to a dark catwalk when suddenly the floodlights go on illuminating the monstrous ‘face’ of EVA-01, the machine he is supposed to pilot. Eyes bulging in terror, pupils dilated and mouth agape, Shinji’s reaction is definitely a far cry from his numerous predecessors in the 80s. Gone is the sheer wonderment of mecha pilots leaping enthusiastically into the cockpits of their robots to do battle.

This fundamental schism in concerns depicted in anime from the two time periods marks a transition from post-war apprehensions of ‘dumb’ machines with immense destructive potential (like the atom bombs which leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki) to modern angst related to artificial intelligence and ‘smart’ technology. Thus, a recent trend centered on remaking popular retro mecha classics such as The Big O, Daiguard, Mazinger and Godannar may signify a desire to return to the simpler days when humans, not machines were in charge.

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The primary, unresolved concern: Just how smart are machines? Can they become smarter than humans? At the core of such anxieties lay the possibility that machines would finally become tired of humanity’s incessant demands and manifest an independent will to resist, or even openly rebel against human control. These are the anxieties and fears we are left with as we move into the 90s era when cyborgs and other representations of sentient technology replace the mindless robot warriors of the 80s as the dominant tropes of mecha anime.

Crediting sentience and intelligence to non-living objects is not such a fantastic concept in Japan as it would seem in the west, due to a long Shintoist tradition ascribing life and spirituality to natural phenomena, rocks and trees. These are not only seen as being aware – they actually possess a Soul! By extension, how much mundane it becomes to acknowledge robots – these anthropomorphic super scale versions of humans – as essentially living things.

Such a fear is even more prominently displayed in anime with cyborg characters, where the struggle between human identity/spirituality and mechanization/technological sophistication is constantly fought with the body as its arena. Thus it is more than coincidence when cyborgs and genetically engineered bionoids suddenly replaced giant mecha warriors as the main protagonists. The main issue for examination was that of humanity and identity.

Major Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell) questions her true nature of being. Her biological connection to humanity hangs by a thread – the shreds of brain matter encoded into a computer chip in her almost completely cybernetic brain. Kiddy Phenil from the Silent Mobius series loathes her bionic body – she tolerates it only because of her need for vengeance, after which it is implied, she will self-terminate/commit suicide.

Yet, there remains room for ambivalence here: the cyborg body is a locus of tension and conflict between humanity and its mechanical other; on the hand it is never explicit that such a man/machine fusion will inevitably yield catastrophic results. Despite a ‘deep, visceral repugnance born of Confucian beliefs regarding the need to go whole to one’s grave and Shinto ideas about physical purity’ cyborg characters in anime are typically sympathetic. Clearly the Japanese are less uptight about issues of miscegenation than their western counterparts – the means apparently justify the ends.

If the whole universe needs rescuing, what’s a few more bionic body grafts? The cyborg or robotic body is therefore ‘simultaneously appealing and threatening, offering both power and excitement at the expense of humanity.’ There is however, an apparent aversion towards complete ‘conversion’ – cyborg characters are rarely, if ever, shown to become completely mechanized. According to Levi, ‘Most robots that are completely artificial are also completely evil or at least unreliable… Pure mecha usually equals pure menace’. The focus on the narratives themselves emphasizes the emotional, spiritual and psychological complexities of humanity represented by the human operating at the core of the mecha rather than the sophisticated machinery. Ultimately, the fundamental contention seems to be that ‘mecha protagonists… are first and foremost humans in robotic armour.’

2000 – Present day

In the 21st century, the Japanese economy has been experiencing a gradual but steady turnaround. The 90s also gave the Japanese time to reflect on their relationship with machines and technology. Extremely low birth rates, the world’s largest demographic concentration of the elderly, coupled with the productivity obsessed Japanese work ethic necessitated a new social arrangement in which technology filled the vacuum of absentee family members.

First through entertainment, now increasingly we have robots filling in the role of caregivers. Robots and machines are also becoming very popular as convenient surrogates for friends, children and pets, offering love and devotion with minimal fuss.

So while the fears and anxieties of the earlier decade have evaporated (out of necessity perhaps?), nevertheless, there can never be a complete return to the nationwide adulation and wholehearted embracement typical of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

The recent years have thus witnessed a new awareness of the symbiotic relationship between man and machine and its potential for performance enhancement. Thus, instead of regarding machines and technology as a mere passive tool designed only for the gratification of our desires, the newer mecha anime advocate a cooperative relationship in which the Japanese must constantly strive for self-improvement in order to maintain a stable relationship with their mechanical counterpart. In Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid, Sgt. Sagara Sousuke’s refusal to come to terms with his personal robot fighter, the Arbalest, results in major problems for both himself and his teammates in the Mithril international counter-terror organization.

In one telling scene, Sousuke has an intense discussion with the Arbalest, only to rebuke its uncanny common sense as ‘nonsense’. However, his later reconciliation with robot leads him to successfully operate it and finally activate its secret weapon, the enigmatic Lambda Driver, which converts the pilots will into reality. A similar case can be found in Vandread: Faced with utter obliteration, the mother ship Nirvana’s alien intelligence suddenly and unexpectedly activates, risking its own survival to rescue its ‘friends’ and ‘compatriots’.

Thus, the relationship depicted here is keenly representative of a newly rediscovered affinity between man and machine. Instead of regarding machines and technology as a mere, passive tool to gratify our limitless desires, the more recent mecha anime advocate a cooperative relationship, one in which the Japanese must constantly strive for improvement alongside their ever involving mechanical counterparts, in order to maintain a steady relationship. In this way, each becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Conclusion: Technology and Machines – Hope Tempered with Fear

Mecha anime incorporates both Japanese dreams and nightmares about the future roles and applications of technology and machines in society, and translates these ambivalent ideas onto a screen medium. Antonia Levi sums up this relationship succinctly: ‘Japan has been idolized as a nation at peace with the future, a “robot kingdom” without the doubts that plague Americans. Anime makes it clear that this is untrue. Because of different assumptions and cultural mores, the Japanese have somewhat different fears about the future, but they have just as many.’

The schism between Gatekeepers and its sequel GK 21 highlights this apprehension of the future. Gatekeepers focuses on an international strike force mobilizing super-powered teenagers against a supposedly alien menace in 1960s Japan, and the prevailing mood is one of mono no aware – an intense nostalgia for the technology of the past. In the course of the series, the very first appearances of the colour television, radio, the supersonic train and other technological innovations of the time are captured in all their sepia toned glory, evoking a fond reminiscence for the wondrous gadgets of yesteryear. GK21 on the other hand, is a social indictment on how the interminable influx of technology has perpetuated an alienating, dysfunctional environment where human relationships are fickle and superficial.

Within this grotesque urbanity, the Invaders who were the enemy in the prequel are revealed as disaffected humans rather than actual monsters or aliens. Taken holistically the Gatekeepers series functions as a social indictment of current trends of urbanization and impersonal modern technology, while harkening back to a less convoluted relationship with machines and technology. Thus, mecha anime in the 21st C rationalizes the ambivalence towards technology as an apprehension of the new and valorization of the old, a timeless cycle which is also a uniquely Japanese way of coming to terms with successive waves of change.

Even though the nature of the phobias and anxieties related to machines and technology are constantly in flux, one element remains constant throughout the periods discussed – the importance of human agency. Without a pilot to operate, a human to summon a robot guardian, mecha possesses insignificant meaning by itself. Therefore, in mecha anime, the focus is not on the benefits and deficiencies of technology, but rather on its role as a mirror reflecting human reasoning and behaviour across the ages.


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Anime details

Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy)
*Taken from Anime News

Doraemon: Nobita and The Robot Kingdom:
*Taken from Film

Bubblegum Crisis
*Taken from Anime News

Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam
*Taken from Anime News

*Taken from Anime News

Macross: Do you Remember Love:
*Taken from Anime News

Patlabor 1: The Movie

Neon Genesis Evangelion
*Taken from Anime News

Ghost in the Shell (The Movie)



Full Metal Panic:
The Second Raid
*Taken from Anime News

Toward the Terra
*Taken from Anime News

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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