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Fantasy, reality and and terminal identity in Japan anime by Susan J. Napier*



In 1909 the British writer E. M. Forster published the short story “The Machine Stops,” a bleak vision of the far future in which what is left of humanity lives below the earth, connected through a worldwide communications system that allows them never to leave their rooms or engage in direct contact with anyone else. All human life is organized by an entity known simply as the “Machine.” At the story’s end the Machine malfunctions and finally stops. Abandoned and helpless, the humans begin

to die in a scene that interlaces apocalyptic imagery with an extremely tenuous note of hope—the assertion by Kuno, the narrative’s single rebel character, that the Machine will never be restarted because “humanity has learned its lesson.” As he speaks, however, The whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An airship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel.
For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.1
Forster’s dystopian vision may remind readers of other Western science fiction and dystopian works of the period, in particular Aldous Huxley’s somewhat later Brave New World (1932). Like Huxley, Forster critiques the growing reliance of his contemporaries on technology. But he differs from Huxley in two ways that make “The Machine Stops” a work particularly relevant to contemporary science fiction. The first is in his vision of a world in which technology has rendered direct interpersonal contact
unnecessary and, in fact, slightly obscene;2 the second is the explicitly apocalyptic dimension that he brings to this state of affairs. The Machine destroys not only human relationships but also, ultimately, the material world, although it does leave a tantalizing glimpse of “untainted sky.”
Forster’s work is classic science fiction, serving, as Fredric Jameson puts it, to “defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present”— in this case, that of 1909.3 It is also a remarkably prescient view of a future that we in the twenty-first century are increasingly able to imagine.
In Forster’s view, however, when the machines stop, reality—the
untainted sky—emerges. In the two Japanese anime TV series that I examine in this chapter, this is not the case. In Shinseiki evangerion (1995–96, Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Serial Experiments: Lain (1998), reality itself becomes part of the apocalyptic discourse, problematized as a condition that can no longer be counted on to continue to exist, thanks to the advances of technology and its increasing capabilities for both material and spiritual destruction.4

The two works also pose an insistent question: What happens
to human identity in the virtual world? Does it become what Scott
Bukatman calls “terminal identity,” a new state in which we find “both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer screen or television screen?” And does it then go on to become part of what Bukatman refers to as “terminal culture,” a world in which reality and fantasy fuse into techno-surrealism and nothing is ultimately “knowable”?5  The answer to these last two questions seems to be “yes,” at least in terms of the two anime I examine, although the originality and imaginativeness of their approaches might tend to obscure what, to my mind, are their deeply pessimistic visions. The narratives, the characters, and the mise-en-scène of these works evoke the disturbing postmodern fantasy that Jeffrey Sconce has described in Haunted Media. Sconce suggests that, “where there were once whole human subjects, there are now only fragmented and decentered subjectivities, metaphors of ‘simulation’ and ‘schizophrenia,’” and he finds that, “in postmodernism’s fascination with the evacuation of the referent and an ungrounded play of signification and surface, we can see another vision of beings who, like ghosts and psychotics, are no longer anchored in reality but instead wander through a hallucinatory world where the material real is forever lost.”6

Although Sconce’s point is that we may be exaggerating the uniqueness of this postmodern condition—and indeed Forster’s 1909 text suggests that the interface between self and machine has been a modernist preoccupation as well—it is certainly the case that the two anime I examine call into question the material world in ways that seem peculiarly specificto this period yet show strong traces of Japanese cultural tradition. This chapter explores how each anime evokes its particular “hallucinatory world,” but first it is necessary to situate the two texts within both anime and Japanese culture.
Undoubtedly related to the experience of atomic bombing in World
War II, but also combined with a centuries-old cultural preoccupation with the transience of life, the apocalyptic critique of technology is one that has grown increasingly frequent in recent Japanese science fiction anime.
The trend probably began to develop at least as far back as the 1970s with the immensely popular animated Yamato television and film series about the adventures of the spaceship incarnation of the World War II battleship Yamato (chapter 2, Figure 2.1). (The series was best known in America in its 1979 television incarnation Star Blazers.) This provided the template for an ever-growing mass-culture obsession with apocalyptic motifs.
In the Yamato series, however, technology, as long as it was aligned with the power of the human spirit—in this case, the Japanese spirit of yamato damashii—could still have salvific aspects. This combination reaches its apotheosis (literally) at the end of the film Saraba uchu¯ senkan Yamato: Ai no senshitachi (1978, Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato: In the Name of Love) when the stalwart young captain of the Yamato, accompanied by the fetching
corpse of his beloved girlfriend and the shades of former Yamato captains, realizes that the only way to save earth is to conduct a suicide mission into the heart of the White Comet. The film ends with a single long-held shot of a spreading white radiance, a surprisingly ambiguous finale for a film aimed largely at children and adolescents.7
This ambiguous vision of humans, technology, and the end of the
world has appeared in more complex forms in the years since Yamato. Most spectacularly, the 1988 film masterpiece Akira, directed by O¯ tomo Katsuhiro, inaugurated an infinitely darker vision of technology in relation to human identity. Structured around a series of scientific experiments on telepathic children gone horribly wrong, Akira presented an unforgettable vision of a world in which the innocent were grotesquely sacrificed to the vicious machinations of what might be called the military–industrial
complex. Far from the cozy mix of genders and generations that the
Yamato series presented, the protagonists in Akira were largely alienated male adolescents typified by Tetsuo, its psychokinetically transmogrified antihero who, in the film’s penultimate scene, lays waste to Tokyo in one of the most memorable and grotesque scenes of destruction ever filmed.
Akira’s highlighting of telekinesis also brought a note of hallucinatory unreality to some of the film’s most significant scenes, a feature that would be expanded in later anime and was perhaps already presaged in the spectral presences aboard the final voyage of the Yamato.8
In anime released in the years since Akira’s debut, its dark vision of
hapless humanity in the throes of technology has not only been echoed but intensified. At first this may seem surprising. Japan, along with the United States, is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Unlike the United States, however, Japan endured over ten years of recession starting in the nineties, and it has left a deep mark on contemporary attitudes toward both technology and the future. Although the country continues to produce important technological advances, the dominant attitude toward technology displayed in both its mass-cultural and high-cultural works seems to be ambivalent at best. This is in significant contrast to Western culture, which, as can be seen in American magazines such as Wired or in Canadian Pierre Levy’s Cyberculture,9 still contains strong elements of techno-celebration, especially in relation to the potential of virtual reality as promised by computers and other new media.


Besides the recession, another reason behind Japan’s often problematic attitude toward technology is undoubtedly the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo¯ incident in which followers of a charismatic guru named Asahara Shoko released deadly sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve people and injuring many more. Both the incident and the cult surrounding it seem to have stepped from the pages of a science fiction thriller.
Many of Asahara’s young followers were, at least potentially, part of the Japanese elite, graduates of top schools in science and engineering. Often shy and insecure, they were reported in the press to be devotees of science fiction anime. Lured into the cult by its potent mix of supernatural imagery—Asahara was said to be capable of levitation, for example—its increasingly strident rejection of the material and materialist world, and its apocalyptic teachings, believers not only manufactured sarin gas but also reportedly worked on developing nuclear weapons.

The shadow of the Aum Shinrikyo¯ incident still looms over contemporary Japanese society on a variety of fronts, contributing to a society-wide sense of malaise. The incident itself can be seen as embodying many of the characteristic elements of contemporary Japanese society’s complex vision of technology, one that recognizes the dangers of technology but remains awestruck by its potential powers. Aum’s mixture of New Age occult elements and traditional Buddhist and Hindu teachings is also relevant,
underlining the fact that technology does not exist in a vacuum but
interacts with all facets of human existence, including the spiritual.
Consequently, the Japanese ambivalence toward technology goes
beyond a simple binary split between technology and its other(s) to encompass a problematic contemporary vision of human identity vis-à-vis not only technology but also the nature of reality itself. Increasingly in Japanese culture, the real has become something to be played with, questioned, and ultimately mistrusted. In some works, such as Murakami Haruki’s best-selling novel Sekai no owari to haadoboirudo wandaarando (1985, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) and Anno Hideaki’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, characters make conscious decisions to retreat into their own fantasy worlds. In other works such as Serial Experiments:
Lain or Murakami Ryu¯ ’s novel Koin rokkaa beibiizu (1984, Coin Locker Babies), characters attempt to impose their own, perhaps insane, visions on the outer worlds of reality. Often these explorations of the real contain an explicitly spiritual, even messianic, dimension.10
Although I include literary examples, the most significant medium in
which these explorations of technology, identity, and reality versus unreality are being played out is the animated one, a medium often denigrated by Westerners as fit only for children. Unlike Western popular culture, where expressions of technological ambivalence tend to be mediated through live-action films such as Blade Runner (1982), The Matrix (1999), and Minority Report (2002), Japanese society has welcomed explorations of these complex issues in animated form. The reasons behind this positive reception are varied, but they include the fact that Japan has long had a tradition, through scroll painting and woodblock printing, in which narrative is as much pictorial as literary. This has culminated, in the view of some scholars, in the ubiquitousness of manga, or comic books, as a staple of twentieth-century Japanese mass culture. Anime and manga are
strongly linked, since many, if not most, anime are based on manga, and both media appeal to adults as well as children.
There are other, perhaps more intriguing, reasons, however, for the
synergy between animation and explorations of reality. As I have argued elsewhere, animation is a medium in itself, not simply a genre of live-actioncinema.11

Death Note Live action cinema

As such, it develops and plays by its own generic restrictions and capabilities, the latter of which are uniquely suited for dealing with
issues of the real and the simulated. The animation critic Paul Wells calls these the “deep structures” of animation that “integrate and counterpoint form and meaning, and, further, reconcile approach and application as the essence of the art. The generic outcomes of the animated film are imbued in its technical execution.”12 By this I take Wells to mean that the act of animation—a medium that he compares with the fine arts rather than the cinema—foregrounds and affects the characteristics of the text being animated in ways conducive to a form of art that is both peculiarly selfreflexive
and particularly creative. The “deep structures” that inspire animated visions link with the uncanny and the fantastic to create a unique aesthetic world.
Thus Japanese animation tends to show particular strength in the
genres of fantasy and science fiction. Unlike manga, which cover an enormously wide terrain, from action fare to self-help books and even economic treatises, the fluid instrumentalities of animation delight in highlighting the unreal or the unlikely. The free space of the animated medium—a medium not bound by a perceived obligation to represent the real—is ideal for depicting the free spaces of science fiction and fantasy, genres that have traditionally existed parallel to representations of the real. The overt technology of the animation medium itself highlights in a selfreflexive
way the technological basis of the science fiction genre and the
artificiality of fantasy.
Elements of twentieth-century Japanese culture also seem to have made its citizens particularly receptive to the idea of problematizing the real. In Topographies of Japanese Modernity, Seiji M. Lippit analyzes the twentiethcentury Japanese critic Kobayashi Hideo’s argument that a fundamental feature of Japanese prewar culture was a “pervasive spirit of homelessness and loss.” This sense of loss is especially embodied in Kobayashi’s vision of the city of Tokyo, which serves “not as a repository for memories . . . but only as an ever shifting marker of disassociation from the past.”
It makes modern Japan into a society in which both urban and natural landscapes are considered “different versions of phantasmagoria, as spectral images without substances.”13

The notion of “phantasmagoria” is one
that functions particularly well in relation to the nonrepresentational world of anime, whose fast pace and constantly transforming imagery continually construct a world that is inherently “without substances.” It should also not be surprising that Tokyo is the favored location for most apocalyptic anime. As the center of contemporary Japan’s trends and currents,
it remains in many anime, such as Akira, Lain, and Evangelion, the
“unreal city” both of T. S. Eliot’s anomic vision in The Waste Land (1922) and of the virtual reality visions of postmodernism.


As the uncanny relevance of Eliot’s work suggests, Kobayashi’s and
Lippit’s arguments, while apparently concerning early-twentieth-century modernity and its links to the modernist movement, are still strikingly appropriate to our contemporary, supposedly “postmodern,” world. Japan is still a society in which what Marilyn Ivy terms “discourses of the vanishing,” echoes of the past, are remarkably prominent. Even though the anime I am examining are set in a future that seems to have lost all traces of Japanese tradition, both works privilege memory—not only its loss
but its stubborn ability to remain important in a fluctuating world. But in both Lain and Evangelion memory itself ultimately becomes uncertain, a force to be manipulated and even, perhaps, abused.
Lippit goes on to argue that, in many prewar Japanese texts, “modernity is marked by fragmentation and dissolution,”14 elements that commentators find in abundance in our own period. In fact, the speed of fragmentation and loss may be the most distinctive aspect of the postmodern situation leading to a pervasive sense of helplessness and fear. For example, in Terminal Identity, Bukatman traces the increasing disembodiment of the subject in the electronic era and analyzes it in terms of social and psychological trauma. “In both spatial and temporal terms, then, the bodily experience of the human is absented from the new reality, precipitating a
legitimate cultural crisis.”15
In Japan this “cultural crisis” can be seen not only in terms of ambivalent attitudes toward the interface between humans and technology but also in a deeper questioning of what it is to be human in relation to the machine, a machine that increasingly seems to dominate, to construct, and ultimately to interfere with the reality of human nature. This problematization of human identity in the context of technology seems to be leading in increasingly apocalyptic directions, concretely manifested in the Aum incident and made an object of aesthetic and ideological interest in the many anime and manga dealing with world-ending scenarios. These apocalyptic visions are not limited to the destruction of the material world. Rather, viewers and readers are confronted with stories whose narrative impetus appears to be a growing sense of hopelessness in relation to overwhelming forces that are both exterior and interior. Not surprisingly, a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia pervades these works, ultimately leading to memorable visions not simply of cultural crisis but also of cultural

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments: Lain have much in
common. They can readily be described as postmodern in terms of their concern with a notion of identity as fluctuating, their rapid and sometimes incoherent narrative pace, and their refusal of conventional forms of closure. But the two stories have theoretical issues in common as well: an explicit obsession with apocalypse and the question of salvation; an ambivalent celebration of the spectacle; a notion of time in flux; and a shared vision of what Janet Staiger calls “future noir,”16 in which dimly lit, labyrinthine cityscapes dominate the mise-en-scène. Most important, they share a complex and problematic attitude toward the real. The two stories also deal with issues that are perhaps culturally specific to Japan:
the increasing distrust and alienation between the generations, the complicated role of childhood, and, most significant, a privileging of the feminine, often in the form of the young girl, or sho¯ jo. Typical of more sophisticated anime, they also offer a striking visual style, largely architectonic, in which space, shape, and color play off each other to produce in the viewer a sensation that is disorienting and exhilarating at the same time. This contributes to a pervasive sense of the uncanny that imbues both narratives, linking them with the genres of horror and fantasy. Finally, both anime appeared as television series (although Evangelion also became two feature
films). Unlike most American series where each episode usually stands by itself, Japanese television and OVA (original video animation, i.e., videos produced for direct sale, bypassing broadcasting and theatrical release) series develop over time, allowing, at their best, for far more intricate plots and an infinitely richer understanding of the psychologies of the major characters.


1. E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” in The Eternal Moment and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1956), 37.
2. Consider the following exchange between Kuno and his mother in
Forster’s text: “But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?” “I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.” “Oh hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the Machine” (4).
3. Fredric Jameson, “Progress versus Utopia or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction Studies 9, no. 2 (1982): 152.
4. Shinseiki evangerion, dir. Anno Hideaki, TV series, 26 episodes (1995–96); translated as Neon Genesis Evangelion: Perfect Collection, 8-DVD box set (ADV Films, 2002); Serial Experiments: Lain, dir. Nakamura Ryu¯ taro¯ , TV series, 13 episodes
(1998); translated on 3 DVDs (Pioneer, 1999–2001).
5. Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 9. Jean Baudrillard’s description of the contemporary condition as “no more subject, no more focal point, no
more center or periphery: pure flexion or circular inflexion” is also particularly appropriate here. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 29.
6. Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000), 18.
7. Uchu¯ senkan Yamato, TV series, 26 episodes (1977); translated as Star Blazers Series 1: The Quest for Iscandar, 6 DVDs (Voyager, 2001); this was the first of several Yamato series broadcast on American television; Saraba uchu¯ senkan Yamato: Ai no
senshitachi, dir. Masuda Toshio (1978); translated as Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato: In the Name of Love, DVD (Voyager, 1995). A strong awareness of the transience and unpredictability of life has been rooted in Japanese culture for centuries and is exemplified in its lyric tradition. See Susan J. Napier, Anime from
Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, rev. ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 249–53.
8. Akira, dir. O¯ tomo Katsuhiro (1988); translated as Akira, DVD (Pioneer, 2001).
9. Pierre Levy, Cyberculture, trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 2001).
10. Murakami Haruki, Sekai no owari to haadoboirudo wandaarando (Tokyo: Shincho¯ sha, 1985); translated by Alfred Birnbaum as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1991); Murakami Ryu¯ , Koin
rokkaa beibiizu, 2 vols. (Tokyo: Ko¯dansha, 1984); translated by Stephen Snyder as Coin Locker Babies (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1995).
11. Napier, Anime, 292.
12. Paul Wells, Animation: Genre and Authorship (London: Wallflower, 2002), 66.
13. Seiji M. Lippit, Topographies of Japanese Modernism (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2000), 4.
14. Ibid., 7.
15. Bukatman, Terminal Identity, 106.
16. Janet Staiger, “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities,” in Alien Zone II, ed. Annette Kuhn (London: Verso, 1999), 100.

*Courtesy from “Robot Ghost Wired Dreams. Japanese sciencie fiction from origins to anime.” USA, Regents of the University of MIneapolis Press, MInnesota and London,  2007. Pages. 101 to 108.