Archives for category: anime

For those in the developed world, the natural human body has become a form of legend, a unicorn creature of soap commercials and yoga retreats, a demon of odours and dementia.

In the machinated body, nature is a vacant place, a sort of waiting time or glitch in a programme, a stop-over between virtual airports in computer games and adverts, a place to hang jewellery, a piece of kit we plug into other pieces of kit.

Machination attracts and entrances. The music of machines (techno) has a thrilling, artificial perfection, an unremitting, programmed quality not possible for flawed, limited, human musicians with their bodies that tire and fade, their timing a matter of instinct and technique, not applied technology. There is a very particular frisson to music made with synthesisers, an industrial power, with beats and riffs that are like identical components flowing along a conveyor belt, with no human operative in sight. In the eerie hymns of Kraftwerk, men-machines work out or compete in velocipede synchrony, the body is a task and a unit of production, a system of parts requiring updates or replacement, a biorobotic object radiating a cool, cybernetic impersonality. A fake, in other words.

(There are always other words.)

Major Kusanagi is employed to protect the state. An organic body won’t suffice to perform that task: she requires armour, in order to drop fifty floors from a skyscraper window, to wrestle with spider-tanks, to battle fellow cyborgs.

In Eden, there was no society: there was no clothing, no veil between humanity and the eyes of the universe, or between human eyes and the universe, no division between public and private – no division at all, but simply the perfect integration between human beings and nature.

After the Fall, human beings possessed bodies for the first time. Exile from the Garden was exile into the body, and exile into the body was also exile into the mind, and vice versa1.

Human bodies no longer suited the world in which human beings found themselves. Temperatures weren’t stable anymore, seasonality entered everything, existence became a process of adaptation to fluctuating circumstances and changing environments. Human bodies were burnt by the sun or needed to be protected against the cold. And the bodies decayed: human beings died.

Because our bodies don’t fit the world, quite, and we’re aware of it, we begin to modify our bodies – to beautify them, to strengthen them, to mark them with signs and scars, to pierce and mould them. Our bodies become sites of numinous anomaly, the subtle point of disjunction between the self and the world. One always leads to the other, but the path is never straight, there is always this little hiccup of flesh and blood, this hitch of the skull, these inevitable detours into the intense, sensation-haunted fallibilities of wounds, orgasms or dreams.

Machination is more than cosmetic dissatisfaction with the natural, organic body.

Machination is a rejection of nature, and of death, nature’s ultimate claim on the body.

Machinated bodies seek to expel nature from within them, and to attain immortal perfection – a garden with no need of gardeners, a programme in which no bugs can survive.

A totally machinated individual would achieve one dream of humanity: persistent identity – a soul. However, such a machinated individual would have jettisoned (exiled) humanity, and the human foundations of perishable body and mind. It would be all shell, and no ghost – all armour, and no knight.

Major Kusanagi’s fate is to meet with an artificial entity (“Project 2501”) which seeks the organic robustness of reproduction, dissemination, mutation and decay – an AI with a logical death-wish.

1The Fall could also be seen as the collapse from a literal condition into a figural one, exile from a sublime integration into an uneasy, fluid condition of metaphor, where one thing is another. Adam and Eve in the Garden have no need of external or referential truth, because there are no lies: their existence is veracity itself. Their lives are perfect, and there is nothing to be doubted, no competing models of truth, or at least until the serpent arrives as the agent of complexity and the vendor of competing models of correctness.

The title of Oshii’s film, and of Shirow’s manga from which the film derives – GHOST IN THE SHELL/攻殻機動隊 Gōsuto In Za Sheru/Kōkaku Kidōtai, lit. Ghost in the Shell/Mobile Armoured Riot Police: (source: Wikipedia) – addresses the theme of machination.

Technology is one method by which humanity wrangles with its own limits, and limitations.

Major Kusanagi, a fragile identity (a ‘ghost’), is contained within the ‘shell’, or the ‘armour’. The shell encroaches on the ghost, and, like exhausted knights unable to raise themselves from the mud and rain of the battlefield, drowning in their own armour, the ghost is troubled by the weight and extent of the shell it wears, and is.

Ghost in the Shell traces a process of negotiation between ‘natural/organic’ life, on the one hand, and ‘synthetic/artificial/technological’ procedures on the other. The individual human being, and humanity in general, is both the site for, and the fluid product of, this negotiation.

In Oshii’s anime, the process of machination is very far advanced. Major Kusanagi is a cyborg in the employment of the government. The notion of a ‘private individual’ has been dramatically eroded: the Major’s body, including her artificial brain and its memories, is, literally, the property of the state. She inhabits a cyborg shell from which, should circumstances demand it, she could be evicted.

Machination* (the process by which humanity becomes technology) is further advanced in the notion of the cyber-brain.

If we were to study people on a train journey, say, and we saw the amount of time individuals spend on their laptops, tablets or smartphones, the cyber-brain may seem to be an altogether credible and plausible direction for humanity to take: rather than being reliant on these external devices, with their need to be stored, charged and handled, the devices are ‘drawn into’ the body itself, the synthetic device docked to, and integrated with, the organic brain.

This cyberisation of the mind itself is the most extreme form of the process of machination – the cyber-brain is a ‘mind-machine’.

It is in the indeterminate borders between the mind and the machine – the grey areas in and around the grey matter – that much of the narrative and philosophical tension of the film is produced.

Consider how you read this.

*The term ‘cyberisation’ will be used to describe the process by which these organic–technological interfaces are effected, and the term ‘machination’ to describe the wider process of the negotiation between the organic and synthetic elements in humanity, and the resultant change in the profile of human limitations.

Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind then another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself.
—Thomas Hobbes

In the economic and technological world of Ghost in the Shell, people are no longer able to survive simply with natural, organic bodies – the human body of Eden, of ‘nature’, existing in a state of innocence, has been eroded/supplemented by the fitting of cyber-brains, implants and prosthetic enhancements of various kinds and degrees.

Any vision of the future is also a vision of the present, and the present may be described as a dynamic form of negotiation between visions of the past and of the future.

Ghost in the Shell proposes a world in which the organic is under increasing pressure from humanity’s own drive towards, and reliance upon, technology.

It may be said that humanity is unimaginable without technology: the act of creating fire – an act not required of us in Eden – is a method of altering our relation to our environment through the employment of techniques and implements. The ability to build fences, to corral and herd animals, to erect buildings, to work stone, timber, fibre and metal into weapons, containers and tools, these are all instances of humanity’s technological impulse.

As we alter the world using technology – burning off forest, mining out resources – so technology alters us. We shape our environment into cities and states, and we are shaped by these structures and processes.

We adapt and evolve, both as societies and as individuals: because we are human, we evolve and adapt technologically. In using certain tools, or engaging in certain industrial processes, we become prone to certain injuries: for computer operators, repetitive strain injury; or for those working in poor conditions in mines, silicosis. As our eyesight weakens, we can be fitted with glasses or contact lenses. We ‘intervene’ in our own bodies: hips or knees which have worn out are replaced by artificial joints. People injured in war or accident can be fitted with prosthetic limbs. In the ‘developed’ world, certain forms of intervention are so common as to be more or less invisible: the ambient use of antibiotics, for example, or systems of plumbing and sanitation. Plane journeys, street lighting, refrigeration and central heating, and so on, are forms of ambient intervention, and form structures so complex and endemic that it is very difficult to imagine life without them.

If we inflect the term and concept ‘machination’ in an idiosyncratic way, we may say that we are undergoing a process of machination.

In the super-urban Hong Kong of Ghost in the Shell, this process of machination has reached a point where an individual – Major Kusanagi – is uncertain as to whether any part of herself remains ‘natural’, or whether she is entirely machinated.

Ghost in the Shell may be described in one way as an exploration of this process of machination – a secret machination, uncharted, without controlled aim or conclusion – especially highlighting humanity’s relation with that mysterious phenomenon, ‘the web’.

Part of the fascination of Ghost in the Shell lies in the way it sustains a tension between ‘the natural’ (the ghost) and the technological (the shell).

If we imagine two poles:

1 | the natural – in which a human being is entirely “innocent”. This is the state of humanity as suggested in Genesis1, of ideal human beings before the Fall. In this state, human beings perfectly fit their world, and they require nothing to complete human life. They do not farm, they simply gather; they don’t build, they merely exist. They have no need of tools, technology, fabrication, no need to generate, store or channel power: there is no artifice in their lives. This is the state of nature.

2 | the technological – in which human beings have ceased (have met their end), and in which artificial devices are able to replicate and adapt themselves without any human, natural or organic direction or intervention at all2. In this technological world, the Garden of Eden has been replaced by the Garden of Machines (or, perhaps more appropriately, by a Factory of Machines).

The humanity of Ghost in the Shell is poised between these two poles. “Natural” human bodies are augmented by implants and by prosthetic enhancements, and “natural” human brains are amplified and extended by cyber-brains. In imaginative terms, this could be described as the Garden of Eden being colonised by machines – among the fruit trees and the waterfalls, gleaming, snake-like tracks are laid and CCTV cameras pop up on steel stanchions.

This is not simply a state in which people use technology – “I picked up my phone and surfed the web”; or, “I sat in my car and drove to the station”  – but in which people are technology.

The physiques of characters like Kusanagi Motoko and Batou are, in part, crafted, and the line between the organic and the inorganic is blurred. Of Major Kusanagi’s original, biological body, only the brain and parts of the spinal cord survive: the rest is machinery, or a form of machinery.

And you?

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In one sense, Darwin has put an end to humanity. By making humanity ‘open-ended’ – a species subject to laws of evolution – he has removed us from a Platonic world of ideal forms and abstract perfection, and precipitated us into a dynamic world of generation, mutation and decay.

If we look at one model of a biblical universe, we were subject to salvation and damnation, an eternal fate. We would answer to the gods, and, formally, we had the structure of dolls. We were a type of doll which, although individuals would change through a particular life-cycle, would be reproduced unchanged throughout all conceivable futurity. We rolled off the production line, and our porcelain bodies were the same as those belonging to dolls of a generation four thousand years older, just as the human dolls of a million years into the future would precisely resemble our own figures. Because we were always the same, we could be judged from year to year, and we knew ourselves: we knew our place, and our gods knew us and our place, too.

Humanity was a closed system, a self-sustaining, self-referring and repetitive cycle. There were boundaries. There were limits.

So, the production line rolled: we emerged from the classical factory, and performed a certain set of tasks, and died. We were judged and went to a kind of storehouse or repository for our kind, for human dolls: these storehouses were called ‘heaven’, ‘purgatory’ or ‘hell’.

Instead, now, we are a species without a pre-described destination. Our bodies and our minds are fluid, and our limitations are uncertain. Our ‘human nature’ isn’t at all clear. We do not know, and cannot know, where we are going. Our genes will flow along, and they will mutate, and individuals and cultures will contribute to the eddies or floods of this genetic river: some will slip away from the main stream to stand in stagnant pools or form great and fertile lakes; or the stream itself will divide into the crinkled idiosyncrasies of a delta. We will offer ourselves to the current, and the form of that offer will be change.

Exiled from paradise – exiled from a domain in which we are literally ourselves – we must make our way through a world we destroy and build. There’s no heavenly warehouse, no satanic category or stable system of definition, in which we can be kept, no place we will end up, no place we will end.

Really, there is no ‘us’ at all.

It’s rather as if we have fallen off the conveyor belt, with no one to pick us up and put us in a box, no one to buy us, no one to give us a home.

In this model, the gods have lost control of us, or perhaps they don’t want us anymore, or have mislaid us. Because we no longer have the porcelain form into which we can be shaped, we have to make a form for ourselves. We have to limit ourselves, and so become human. (Otherwise, what are we?)

Ghost in the Shell (GHOST IN THE SHELL/攻殻機動隊 Gōsuto in za sheru / Kōkaku kidōtai, lit. Ghost in the Shell / Mobile Armored Riot Police) is a 1995 anime science fiction film based on manga of the same title by Masamune Shirow. The film was written by Kazunori Itō, directed by Mamoru Oshii, animated by Production I.G, and starred the voices of Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka and Iemasa Kayumi.
Source: Wikipedia, 06.10.2014, links retained

Ghost in the Shell is one of the most vivid, dynamic, imaginative, beautiful films of the 20th century. It’s a film growing more and more relevant as time passes: another way of putting this is to say the world is growing more and more like Ghost in the Shell – unlikely as this may seem at first glance.

Ghost in the Shell is a great work of art. Works of art are works of art because they produce a very high output of possible interpretations. They create possible worlds, in which we, the readers or viewers or listeners, are in turn rendered possible – that is, we find ourselves opened to interpretation, because the work of art embodies a kind of life we can’t entirely control, or contain, or understand.

It’s sometimes said that a great work of art is inexhaustible: no matter how many different ways of interpreting it are applied, further exploration is always possible1.

The film won’t be to everybody’s taste. It’s an animated film, and although a lot of prejudice regarding the aesthetic status of animation has been shed over recent years, still, people in certain cultures, or in certain parts of cultures, do associate animation purely with childhood and with childish things – “it’s only a cartoon”. This is a shame, because animation offers wonderful experiences completely unobtainable through traditional live-action films. (A devotee of animation as an art form might find it quite easy to reverse the polarity of the view that it’s “only” a cartoon: they could turn round and say, dismissively, “oh, it’s only a live-action film”.)2

Ghost in the Shell is ostensibly a genre film – it’s “science fiction” or “cyberpunk”. You could also say, it’s an “action” film. It’s also, in many ways, a “spy” film, a film very much haunted by espionage, subversion, terrorism, political unease in an era of unprecedented technological expansion. Or perhaps it’s a very odd “rom-com”?

Profoundly philosophical, dealing with fundamental issues of identity, autonomy, freedom, determinism, the film sheathes within its dazzling pop-graphic aesthetic a sophisticated enquiry into the nature of humanity3.

I intend to post a short series of remarks on Ghost in the Shell. These remarks relate to philosophical issues raised by the film, and concentrate on the film’s vision of humanity as an uneasy interface between nature and technology, the organic and the machine. The general theme of the series is the limit of the human, or human limitations.

Is it a modern theme? A timely one? It’s certainly fashionable, in this era of trans- and post-humanity.

It’s also banal, commonplace, wholly obvious, and yet not necessarily noticed: it’s where you live, where you are reading this text. After all, don’t we each of us stand very simply at the limit of the human? We stand at the frontier, the forefront, because we stand in a place and a time no other human being has stood before. (“Our continuing mission…”) We are the limit of the human. So, we limit humanity.

But now?…

matrix | <notes> [next page]

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The art of animation has been a significant influence on my work. I’m interested in different kinds of animation, and in the work of creators from different cultures (the Brothers Quay, and Jan Svankmajer, for example), but it’s Japanese animation (‘anime’), in particular, to which I’m drawn.

I consider certain anime to be among the greatest works of art of recent times – beautiful and brilliant works, exhibiting a wonderful vibrancy of style and colour, developing imaginative worlds of fabulous depth and subtlety.

I hope to discuss specific anime in other posts, but first, I’d like to look at anime in general, and think about why I find the art form so attractive.

In this post, I’ll discuss anime’s means of creating artistic realities.

1 | Style of representation | One of the things I find fascinating is anime’s mode of representing reality, and how it differs from conventional live-action cinema.

Pre-digitalisation, every frame of an anime’s narrative was drawn by hand. Drawing a human face, and then redrawing it many times over, in a chain of subtly different positions (in order to create the effect of life and movement) seems an extraordinarily primitive and time-consuming process when set against the apparent facility of using film or video cameras to capture the performances of actors. Moreover, it’s surely impossible to draw a human face and to reproduce the delicacy and complexity of actual human features?

While I don’t believe it’s quite right to say that a drawing of a human face (or any other subject) is necessarily a simplification of an original1, I think it’s fair to say that no one looking at the still from an anime would be likely to mistake a drawn face for a living, human face, or for a photograph of a living, human face. A drawing of Johnny Depp or Scarlet Johansson is noticeably different to a photograph of the same subject. We’re long past the stage where we believe that the ‘camera never lies’, but its method of reproducing an image is generally considered to be more accurate than drawing.

Both photography and drawing are artificial, but the artifice employed in the latter means of creating an image is less technologically stable, less predictable and generally more idiosyncratic than in the former. (If you were to place a camera on a tripod, before a subject – a still life – in a studio, for example, and ask 10 different people to push the button on the camera, the 10 resultant images would be very similar to each other; but if you were to ask 10 different people to draw the same subject, the results would surely vary quite considerably.) There is a kind of ‘wonkiness’ in anime, an organicity, and an undisguised presence of artifice, which, I believe, lies at the heart of its mystery.

Anime is ‘unreal’ – even an anime that follows the conventions of a realist narrative is clearly not a film of ‘actual’ people or locations. From the first instant of any anime, it’s obvious that we are dealing with a particular form of construct – something made up2. Everything – every street, building, person, animal, every cloud, every blade of grass and every tree shimmering in the breeze – is all designed and fabricated.

I’m not sure there’s a word that precisely describes this ‘self-evidence of artifice’ in a work of art. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that we take pleasure not in the way that anime makes things look real, but precisely in how anime makes things look unreal, beautifully. For example: we can admire how an anime renders water effects, of raindrops falling in puddles, but we admire the effects precisely because we know they are (in pre-digital anime, anyway) hand-drawn. They are like rain, but not rain – whereas, in a live-action film, the images we see are records of rain (or records of simulations of rain). In one way at least, the element of construction in an anime is more obvious to us than it is when we are watching a live-action film3.

The element of fabrication, the method of creating the artwork, then, is very heightened and obvious in an anime. Fabrication saturates the images we see on the screen, and exists in a kind of emulsion, as a part of the aesthetic experience, in every molecule of the artwork.

Perhaps anime is, in some ways, more closely related to the world of puppet theatre than a contemporary, live-action film may be. In a shadow puppet production, for example, using cut-out silhouettes, artfully carved into the shapes of characters, we see the strings, and possibly glimpse the hands of the puppet handlers: the creators and performers are evident in their works. The overpowering presence of filmed media in our world makes live-action cinema particularly seductive: in certain types of film, for example, although the work may be one of fiction, using the techniques and ambience of documentary, the film-makers can blur the division between life and art, leaving us uncertain of the reproductive status, as it were, of what we are viewing. An anime could never perform the same trick on us – its artifice is announced in every instant and every frame.

In one of the episode previews to the television anime series, Genshiken, the über-otaku4, Harunobu Madarame, in a voice-over, expounds a philosophy of animation:

“Animation” comes from the Latin “anima”. In other words, its root word means “the soul”.

“Animism” is the ideal from the 19th-century anthropologist Tylor’s “Primitive Culture”, which advocates that souls reside in all things. Animation is therefore what gives movement to still pictures and breathes life into them. Namely, the power of the gods!

I find myself deeply sympathetic to this philosophy of Madarame-san’s. I’ve explored in other posts [here, for example] something of my own view of human life, and particularly my scepticism regarding any objectively stable or discreet system of value or meaning – a universe “outside” us, which we can access and upon which we can ground a definitive understanding of the world. I see all human life as a form of intervention, of creation – of animation, in fact. Both individually, culturally, and as a species, we create the world as we go along.

It is this active process of creation which, I believe, makes human life so interesting (to us, at least!). Such life is always open-ended, always on-going. Works of art, it seems to me, embody and demonstrate this process back to us – and that may be one reason we are so very drawn to things that are “made up”, which have no obvious “basis in reality”.

I find anime so appealing because, through its intense and fundamental artificiality, its inescapable playfulness, it mirrors our everyday minds in action. A human mind is less like the passive running of a video camera, objectively recording what is already there, and more like the hand-drawn animations of anime, creating everything from scratch. It is as if, as our minds work, we are producing hand-drawn images of the world each instant – millions of them, perhaps.

Madarame-san exults in the power of the animator, the otaku god who breathes life and soul into still pictures. This ‘wonkiness’, the inevitable idiosyncracy of hand-drawn, personal images, belongs to anime, and belongs to us. We animate the world with our cares and our obsessions, our laws and rituals – all the time, in every way, with thoughts and dreams, theories, values, we further animate what is already living, each producing our stories, our anime.

1 In fact, it may be a form of complication, rather than of simplification…
2 This wouldn’t be the case in, for example, a live-action documentary film. An anime documentary would offer an inescapable degree of artistic intervention, or mediation. While a documentary film is also a construct, something fabricated – involving points of view, editorial decisions, commissioning factors, financial support, and so on – it may be understood as a record of a reality. An anime depicting the same events isn’t a record, but a representation of a record, of reality. (Naturally, there are grey areas in and around these definitions – thank goodness…)
3 Again, there are grey areas in and around these definitions, but I would suggest that while a live-action film is the record of a construction (the record of actors acting out a story), an anime is a construction, or the assemblage of thousands of constructions. Anime might be described as a primary means of construction, whereas live-action film is a secondary means of construction. It is, I must admit, however, all very blurred… which keeps things interesting…
4 An otaku is usually understood to be a fan of anime, manga [‘manga’ is a Japanese term for ‘comic’ or ‘sequential art’], games and other manifestations of popular culture. The term can sometimes be used pejoratively. The anime Genshiken (based on a manga, by the manga artist Shimoku Kio) is about a university club, ostensibly devoted to the study of ‘modern visual culture’, but in which, generally, the otaku members pursue their own obsessions, and simply hang out together.