Jonathan Clements on a Solid State Society
“Nowadays it is getting difficult to create cool, global science fiction,” says director Kenji Kamiyama. “It is because reality has surpassed the future we imagined. Cool SF stories turn up just before the big bang of a new social infrastructure. This time, it was the Internet. Ghost in the Shell was the forerunner and a favourite.”
The issue of an aging population first appeared in Japanese science fiction in the early 1990s. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Roujin-Z satirised the use of robots to care for the elderly, but around the same time in the original Ghost in the Shell manga, Masamune Shirow was depicting old people literally left out on trash heaps.
Solid State Society returns to one of Ghost in the Shell’s most important themes – the nature of the human spirit in a wired world. Directed and co-written by the Stand Alone Complex TV serial’s Kenji Kamiyama, it considers the possibility that human beings are temporary growths like leaves on trees, fated to fade and die while the real organism, society itself, lives on. It is a provocative and unsettling premise, reducing human beings to consumers and customers, mere cogs in a much larger system, which is only interested in them for as long as they are productive.
In Solid State Society, children are in short supply, while the burdensome population of retirees is increasing. Furthermore, the very technology that was supposed to make the future a paradise of easy living is keeping people alive for inconveniently extended periods, leading to Solid State Society’s “Kifu Aged” – pensioners on life-support machines, regarded by a brutal society as parasites.
Children played a crucial part in the rise of mass entertainment. Television and the post-war birthrate created the largest juvenile audience Japan had ever seen, numbers that boosted the ratings for children’s programming so high that anime became a viable and a welcome local product. Those same children became the industrious workers whose savings kick-started Japan’s economic miracle, and the harassed yuppies that presided over the bubble economy of the 1980s. Japan’s children were its greatest resource in the late 20th century, but with old age they risk turning into a new liability. The Western world faces a similar problem, but Japan will see it first.
Older Japanese are threatened with retirement in a land where there are simply not enough young, able-bodied adults to fund pension schemes. Nor are there large, old-fashioned extended families to support them. Japan never had an official one-child policy like China, but high housing prices and a high cost of living encouraged many families to stay small. A large group of modern Japanese children has grown up without brothers or sisters, aunts or uncles, or cousins. Modern anime reflects this friendless generation, most notably in the children’s show Bubu Chacha, in which a lonely child hangs out with local ghosts.
The Ghost in the Shell series has always mixed tantalising real-world issues with a science fictional spin, and Solid State Society is no exception. To a Japanese audience, it resonates even closer to home. One reason for Japan’s population predicament is its obstructive attitude towards immigration; “Japanese-ness” is not a matter of one’s place of birth or chosen allegiance, but a racially defined characteristic that is all but impossible for a foreigner to acquire. Even ethnic Koreans, some of whose families have resided in Japan for centuries, attended Japanese schools and speak no other language but Japanese, are still regarded as foreigners. Thus, when Solid State Society’s Motoko Kusanagi speaks off-handedly of a “Refugee Naturalisation Act”, she points to a chilling sign of a future Japan in a state of crisis – opening its doors to Chinese, Indonesians and other outland ethnicities. The suspects faced by Section 9 in Solid State Society have bafflingly monosyllabic names that sound alien to Japanese ears; they are blamed for Japan’s ills, but Japan desperately needs them to stay and support its economy. Foreigners are infecting Japan like a virus, altering it forever. They bring new hope, but also new tensions, and for Section 9, new crimes.
Solid State Society also taps into modern Japanese paranoia about potential enemies, particularly North Korea, the rogue state with a nuclear programme and a scandalous history of abducting Japanese citizens for use in espionage – not a creation of science fiction, but a documented fact. Between 1977 and 1983, as many as 80 Japanese missing persons cases are rumoured to have been North Korean espionage kidnappings, although Pyongyang has only admitted to a dozen. The youngest was just thirteen years old at the time of her abduction.
Solid State Society cunningly whips up a political standoff between the past and the future, asking if it is right for the old-timers (which, in 2034, means us) to dictate what their grandchildren do, and how they should behave. It shares some trends with modern green politics, which asks how as-yet unborn generations will regard us, and true to the spirit of earlier incarnations of the anime, it takes such things to extremes. “The message,” reveals director Kamiyama, “is one of reclaiming a society in which people are aware of and considerate towards each other.
Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society is out on UK Blu-ray next week from Manga Entertainment.