Robot Ghosts in Japanese Science Fiction

May. 25, 2008
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From Godzilla through Ghost in the Shell, from movies through television and video games, Japanese science fiction has found avid audiences beyond the home islands as its exponents explored uncharted lands of the imagination. It has also influenced Western authors and directors, including William Gibson and the Wachowski brothers and led to cyberpunk and The Matrix. But cool as their images appear, the stories have left many of us baffled and sometimes even dismissive. The version of Godzilla: King of the Monsters most Americans have seen is a laughable butchering of the Japanese original —clumsily edited, woefully dubbed and with Americanized material added. Anime such as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within might as well have come from another galaxy for Americans unfamiliar with Japanese culture.

Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, a new book from the University of Minnesota Press, brings some serious analysis to the topic. Edited by a trio of academics—Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. and Takayuki Tatsumi—Robot Ghosts is a collection of thoughtful and mostly substantial essays that shine a light on the origins of Japanese science fiction and the baroque, seemingly impenetrable narratives of recent anime features.

Godzilla’s conception in Japan’s atomic trauma at the close of World War II is easy enough to discern without the aid of specialist scholars. Robot Ghosts is more valuable for unpacking the more difficult hallucinatory anime of recent years whose characters seem unanchored in reality—virtually ghosts in a world of machines and software.

Some of the essays hint at the residual influence of Buddhism; more pointedly, the prototypes for these themes already existed in a genre of Japanese detective novels from the 1930s that registered profound anxiety over the drift of modernity from humanity’s grounding in nature and spirituality. Ambivalence about the natural and the artificial, the biological and the mechanical, may have been exacerbated by Japan’s abrupt lurch from the Middle Ages into the Industrial Revolution. Japan’s Westernization may have been seen as an alien imposition that allowed Japan’s rulers to consolidate power and project their nation onto the world stage.

Japan’s dream of ruling the Pacific Rim ended in defeat with World War II and its economic hegemony during the 1980s was set back in recent years. In the kingdom of the imagination, however, the Japanese colonies planted through the medium of science fiction continue to flourish


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