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Jasper Sharp muses on man-made humans, mecha and merchandising

Japan’s enduring love affair with robots, automata and mechanically embodied forms of intelligence, both human and artificial, is world renowned. To acknowledge the fact, in 2012 the Shinjuku district in Tokyo saw the opening of its new Robot Restaurant, furnished at a cost of ¥10 billion and featuring elaborate floorshows consisting of an array of girls in costumes – ranging from kimonos to cyborg cosplay to very little at all – piloting or cavorting around giant mechanoids in a frenetic futuristic carnival-cum-cabaret of flashing lights, video screens, and the relentless driving cacophony of taiko drumming and J-Pop.

Meanwhile the synthetic pet looks set to reach its next rung on the evolutionary ladder, after Sony’s earlier try-outs with the canine AIBO and bipedal entertainment robot QRIO, as the SoftBank company’s new robot Pepper goes onto the market, tagged at a surprisingly reasonable price of under $2000. This diminutive android is able to detect and respond to the emotions of its human owners, and even comes kitted out with a tablet-style video screen fixed to its chest to make it less frightening to children.

SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son cites Tezuka’s Astro Boy as the role model for Pepper, although to these eyes the sleek, moulded contours and limited expressive range look more akin to Buck Roger’s robotic sidekick Twiki. Nevertheless, it is all enough to make one question how we reached this point.

Japan’s technophilia was born and fostered during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), as it sought to catch up with the American and European powers that came knocking on its door and opened the country up to the wider world. Electricity, cinema and improved transportation through a rapidly developing railroad network were but a few of the innovations that inspired a new generation of writers, artists and visionaries. The shock-of-the-new worked its way into the fiction of a new breed of science fiction and fantasy writers such as Junichiro Tanizaki (1886–1965) Kyusaku Yumeno (1889–1936), Rampo Edogawa (1894-1965) and Juza Unno (1897–1949), influenced by the works of figures such as Jules Verne, HG Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that made its way into Japan in translated form.

“Artificial humans” (jinzo ningen) had begun featuring in the Japanese popular imagination before the term ‘robot’ – first coined by the Czech writer for his 1921 play R.U.R. (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”) – entered the international lexicon. In 1923, Niou Mizushima’s The Age of Artificial Humans (Jinzo ningen jidai) was published, while in 1928, the scientist Makoto Nishimura created what can be considered the country’s first robot, named Gakutensoku, whose ability to move its arms and change its facial expressions caused quite a stir when it was exhibited across the nation.

Despite the fear and trepidation accompanying the new machine age, only a small scattering of Japanese films that could be described in any way as science fiction appeared in the prewar period, and only the title Shudder of the Strange Electric Death Ray pt 2: The Invisible Man (Kai denpa no senritu dainihen: Tomei ningen, 1939) survives in any form, unseen in the archives of Tokyo’s National Film Center, a single publicity still featuring a giant lumbering killer robot giving but a tantalizing partial insight into its contents. The manga Tank Tankuro first appeared five years prior to this, featuring a spherical metal ball that, like a Swiss army knife, was capable of producing a range of deadly weapons from its shell in his battles with a whole gamut of Japanese monsters in the traditional yokai guise.

Meanwhile, the appearance of Brigitte Helm’s sleek and imposing mechanized form in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) left an indelible mark on audiences after its initial release in Japan on 1929 – no less than Osamu Tezuka who, going on a single image published in a film magazine rather than the film, which he hadn’t seen at the time, used it as the basis for his 1949 manga of the same name about a scientist who raises an artificial human he has rescued as his own son. The story was adapted as a feature length anime in 2001, directed by Rintaro from a script by Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo.

Tezuka’s sympathetic portrayal of synthetic beings cast innocently into the world only to be corrupted by the humans in whose image they are fashioned reached its apogee with the “boy robot” star of Astro Boy, the TV series of which gave American viewers some of their earliest exposures to the world of Japanese anime when it began airing stateside in 1963. There were other examples too, ranging from Gigantor, based on the manga Tetsujin 28-go by Mitsuteru Yokoyama first published in 1956 about a 12-year-old boy and his giant flying robot chum he operates by remote control, and the iconic Doraemon, first published in 1969, the robotic cat who travels back from the future to come to the aid of the preteen schoolboy Nobita.

As is pointed out in the introduction to Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime, such examples stood in stark contrast to the “phobic images of dehumanization dominating Western science fiction”, and were largely driven by the accompanying mechanised toys and other merchandise that Japan began to export in large quantities from the 1960s onwards.

British audiences gained some of their earliest exposures to the more futuristic worlds portrayed within Japanese animation when the BBC aired Battle of the Planets in the waning years of the 1970s. Substantially reedited by its American licensor from the original Japanese series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman, 1972-74), for its English-language broadcast it added the expository voice of 7-Zark-7, who played the mechanical housemaid and guardian angel to the derring-do of its superhero galactic guardians known as G-Force, to hold the narrative together.

The series also featured another example of an artificial life form among its main cast, Keyop, an organism whose trademark impeded manner of speech is attributed to a quirk in his genetic engineering, harking back to the more organic kind of manmade humans featured in the nascent Japanese science-fiction of the 1920s such as Hatsunosuke Hirabayashi’s The Man-made Baby (1928). However, the reason it struck such a chord with young audiences across the world in the late-1970s is undoubtedly attributable to the popularity of the more sympathetic robot pairing at the heart of George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), themselves modelled on the bickering human peasant duo in Akira Kurosawa’s live-action samurai drama The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin, 1958) – perhaps the uncanny likeness between the dustbin-shaped R2D2 and his anime forebear 7-Zark-7 is no coincidence…

The mutating G-Force mothership, Phoenix, which itself carried a number of smaller vehicles operated by its crewmembers itself was emblematic of the mecha anime sub-genre anticipated by the Gigantor manga of the 1950s, which began in earnest with the Fuji TV animated versions of Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z, broadcast almost simultaneously with its manga serialization from 1972-74. Featuring giant “super robots” controlled by their human pilots, it led to numerous further examples such as the long-running series of Gundam (1979), Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982) and Patlabor (1988).

Of course, some have argued that the proliferation of the mecha sub-genre in anime and manga form, and the increasingly close relationship between both media from the 1970s onward, is that the simplified geometrical abstractions of battling super robots are easier to draw and animate than more faithful humanoid forms, but here, in any measure, we are getting away from the idea of robots guided by artificial rather than human consciousness. Similarly, as in the 1960s, the success of such titles was driven by peripheral merchandising of models and toys.

The lines become even further blurred when one comes to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation of Shirow Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell manga series (1989-97) which, in a complete flip of the mecha trope, features a completely disembodied artificial intelligence that has evolved in the virtual world, leading us further and further away from our overview of robots in Japanese culture

Part-financed and co-produced by Manga Entertainment, Ghost in the Shell is a textbook example of how anime itself was increasingly becoming driven by international markets in the same as its associated merchandising had been. As the scholar Joshua La Bare is cited as stating in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, “the American consumption of toy robots may have more to do with the Japanese presence in science fiction than does their success in industrial robotics.”

Perhaps Pepper will prove him wrong.

Ghost in the Shell is available on UK Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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