Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime

Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, and Takayuki Tatsumi (eds.),
Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime.
Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
ISBN: 978-0-8166-4974-7
US$20.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by the University of Minnesota Press)

Being a fan of anime and manga in the west inevitably involves seizing works out of their initial context of production and consumption, and repositioning them within more culturally proximate frames of reference, often finding value in them for the way they defamiliarise the forms of animation with which we have grown up.

Peter Carey’s recent book, Wrong about Japan rehearsed two ways of responding to anime and manga: Carey’s persistent interest in connecting it to deep structures of Japanese history, versus his son’s fan-boy determination to see it as a celebration of the new, divorced from historical baggage, and allowing youth to find their own imaginative connections. This anthology suggests the possibility of a middle-ground history, in which manga and anime have genre histories which might be traced over the past seventy years, stemming from avant-garde experimentation with fantastic literature in Japan, opening up an on-going dialogue between the specificity of Japanese culture and the globalising influences of modernity.

The anthology brings together eleven essays, five of which deal with prose works of science-fiction, with the remainder centring on animated works. The authors comprise a more than usually disparate group, mixing Japanese critics, academics and even a psychiatrist, along with North American academics. Most of the academics have backgrounds in Literature departments and Japanese Studies, though none come from specialisations in cinema studies. Fans should be warned that they are in for some heavy going, as the authors’ concerns (particularly in the second part of the book) are primarily with locating Japanese science-fiction texts within the interpretive frameworks of postmodern and psychoanalytic theory.

Six of the chapters initially appeared together in a 2002 issue of the journal Science Fiction Studies. Consequently most of the essays deal with anime from the 1990s, with Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-6) andAkira (1998) representing the prime objects of analysis. The analytical reference points seem similarly dated with Jamesonian conceptions of fragmented postmodern subjectivity providing a conceptual hitching post for several writers.

A starting point common to most of the essays is the observation that many works in this genre characteristically blur the distinction between that which is considered human and that which is considered technological. Where some writers plunge off into Freudian notions of the uncanny, or Donna Haraway’s observations about cyborgs, others want to pause to consider the particular relevance of this genre element in a Japanese context.

The most interesting part of the collection comes in the attempts to link Japanese science fiction to a tradition of fantastic crime stories and other metafiction. Miri Nakamura, in the clearest and most elegantly written essay of the anthology, invokes the work of Yumeno Kyusaku in the 1930s, suggesting a link between the tortured metaphysics of so much contemporary anime and modernist art movements of the Taisho and early Showa periods. She shows that the boundary confusion between human and machine in Yumeno’s work bore strongly on his racist critique of the loss of Japanese purity. In the Afterword, Takayuki Tatsumi translates this observation into a more contemporary context, writing that “cyberpunk fiction provided the Japanese with a chance to reinvestigate their own cyborgian identity (p. 251).” The quote suggests that, like most popular genres, one of science-fiction’s strength is its openness to appropriation for a variety of interpretive ends. Monsters, robots and aliens represent category confusions that the critics here are keen to translate in terms of instabilities and hybridisations of gender, subjectivity and nationality.

Some of the essays are certainly more convincing than others at this enterprise. The most valuable are those (such as Nakamura’s) which cast fresh light on the history of the genre rather than the way the genre reflects epochal Histories. Naoki Chiba and Hiroko Chiba provide a valuable descriptive service in analysing the use of loanwords in anime, while Kotani Mari lays out a useful taxonomy for the analysis of female roles and feminist themes across the genre.

On the other hand, the collection also contains several instances where writers start from an array of large scale theoretical propositions and then select examples from films as confirmation of the relevance and truth value of those theories. The exercise seems circular, with theories dictating the selection of examples of the film, but then the film example validating the theory. An anime film becomes background against which a dizzying diversity of theorists can be combined in a dense argument often premised on huge generalisations. For example, one author claims that “all modern Japanese literature and art has been (and continues to be) produced under the shadow” of the recognition by Japanese that the west sees them as monstrous (p. 175). At another point we read that the: “early, experimental period in the history of the two media [cinema and animation] was literally haunted by spiritualistic mediums (in particular female mediums), by an intense fascination with the ghosts they conjured, as well as by spiritualism’s (often uneasy) cohabitation with the art of magical acts and performances such as that of the vanishing lady.” (p. 211) I suspect that readers’ responses to this anthology will rest on how willing they are to accept the historical adequacy of propositions such as these.

Those teaching undergraduate classes in Asian cinema might find the going a bit hard for their students. I’d recommend, however, the essay by Saito Tamaki, a practising psychoanalyst, who has a chapter on ‘Otaku Sexuality’. I guess that if any fan culture is open to psychoanalysing it’s the more bizarre by-ways of dojinshifandom. The good doctor gives us a wonderfully straight-faced Freudian-Lacanian analysis of anime and its fans, replete with much penis envy and castration anxiety [“the armoured cutie is none other than objet a” (p. 234)]. When discussing the sub-genre of roboshota, manga “directed at adult men whose desire is directed at robotic boys” he sagely allows that “This is a desire so thoroughly fictionalised that one hesitates even to call it perverse” (p. 245). This is my entrant in the contest for the best psychoanalytic joke of the year.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, Australia.

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →