2006年12月19日 火曜日

Situating the Global Cyberpunk Aesthetic

by Mizuko Ito

Features, Movies

This is the first in a three part series on Cyberpunk by Mike Dillon


The last decade has seen a startling growth in the demand for Japanese consumer culture. A weariness of recycled material, paired with wartime anti-Americanism in general has Western audiences craving for something different, something alternative. Many have found Japanese anime. As Susan J. Napier notes, the majority of American viewers are excited by the sophistication that Japan boasts in the medium that is different from the comparable market of Disney cartoons. The anime genre that has made the biggest splash worldwide has consistently belonged to the cyberpunk genre, as shown by the immense popularity of such films as Akira (Otomo Katsuhiro, 1988) and Ghost in the Shell (Oshii Mamoru, 1995).

As many will attest, the cyberpunk narratives exported from Japan are typically animated. The conventions of Japanese animation, in trying to find a broader audience, have found its niche in cyberpunk. Why do the two work so well together? Here are some intersections between the two that continue to make Japanese entries in the genre marketable in the West.

Putting the youth in charge

Cyberpunk is a genre in which both the central protagonist and the core audience have a lot in common as would-be hackers, computer nuts, and sci-fi aficionados. Kids and quintessential geeks can become heroes, playing on an even field with their elders, using their technological prowess to combat evil in ways their parents never could. (In Serial Experiments Lain [Nakamura Ryutaro, 1998]), due to a new world order created by the population’s unanimous connection to the net, high technology has even become an integral part of a grade school education, and little kids are the toughest of information hustlers). The virtual realities in these stories are themselves a perpetuation of adolescent male fantasies, populated, for instance, by women with fantastic breasts and equally fantastic guns.


Cyberpunk, just like anime in general, is “about the empowerment of the not quite adult” (Foster, in Haber Ed. 2003). As RJ Burrows notes, this is of special significance in Japan, in which the quintessential computer geek has materialized in the nationwide subculture of the Otaku, which in turn has evolved past its negative roots into a term widely accepted and used around the world. Translated into anime, and usually with a group of youngsters at the narrative helm, the entire genre often features elements of the coming-of-age drama, which, more often than not, features children as its central characters.

Cyberspace as equalizer

The future cities of the genre are often a mishmash of ethnic and national identities. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), though set in Los Angeles, is particularly flooded with Asians in ways reminiscent of the sprawls in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. In the futuristic metropolis “Genom City,” the setting for Bubblegum Crisis (Akiyama Katsuhito and Gôda Hiroaki, 1987) and Bubblegum Crash (Hiroyuki Fukushima and Hiroshi Ishiodori, 1991), the characters’ surnames suggest Asian, American, European and Latin nationalities (their Japanese is nevertheless perfect). As author Bruce Sterling observes, cyberpunk, as a mode of storytelling, has found a place not just in American and Japanese, but various European (Nirvana [Gabriele Salvatores, 1997], Tykho Moon [Enki Bilal, 1996], Abre Los Ojos [Alejandro Amenábar, 1997]) and South American cinemas (Vana Espuma [Andrés Useche, 1998]) as well; it is a genre that, by definition, “aims for a wide-ranging, global point of view.”


A seminal way in which the new era of digital technology accomplishes this is by utilizing the globally common language of ones and zeros in the creation of neutral, virtual playing fields like those in Avalon (Oshii, 2001)or .hack//SIGN (Mashimo Koichi, 2002), in which everyone adheres to a standardized set of objectives. Here, and in other similarly-themed films, the World Wide Web functions to level the field, creating an arena in which nationality, race, class, and gender are equalized under the universal standards of the virtual game.

Cyberpunk as style

Cyberpunk conventions are transgeneric and are therefore not only a comfortable fit with anime storytelling, but has always boasted a certain versatility in providing the thematic and visual templates for a wide range of vehicles. Comedy, drama, action… in the right context, cyberpunk would even work as horror, with the unmitigated realm of cyberspace just as uncharted and unknowable as any antagonist from outer space or from the depths hell. Serial Experiments Lain is a work of digital surrealism – a sort of cyberpunk meets an acid trip – whose narrative is so persistently incomprehensible it makes Akira play like an episode of Sesame Street. Finally, the Tetsuo films are ideal for showing the true versatility of the genre. It is a cyberpunk film in spirit, but its frenetic style owes more to MTV, its gooey imagery to David Cronenberg, and its fragmented, dreamlike tone and atmosphere of sheer weirdness to David Lynch, and the perverted eroticism of the forced fusion of organic and mechanic features to H.R. Giger. The films also read as something of a send-up of the superhero/transformation narrative, a genre that Japan has doubtlessly played a mighty morphin’ part in popularizing.

The only invariable convention is the setting: ubiquitous cyber-technology implies an urban location and a not-so-distant future. Cyberpunk, theoretically, is applicable to any developed country because it originates from a universal apprehension toward modernization and the nature of mankind being redefined by the proliferation of machines that dates back to the industrial revolution. At its thematic center, the genre is by no means tied solely to Japanese cultural mythologies. It is perhaps more appropriate that cyberpunk be recognized “not as a movement in the U.S. and Japanese SF trade, but as a more encompassing aesthetic […] a legitimate international artistic style” (Csicsery-Ronay in McCaffrey Ed. 1991)

Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2006年12月19日 23:45

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