Cyborgs, Androids and the Posthuman in Japanese Science-Fiction Animation- Introduction


A keen analysis of the differences between Cyborgs, Androids and the notion of the Posthuman in Japanese Science-Fiction Anime, with focus on the ethical, moral, sociological, philosophical and psychological aspects which are associated with each group. A brief discussion of the history of the three fields, exploring their origins, followed by analysis of several key texts which exemplify the keystones in their respective sub-genres. I plan to determine the issues that are inherent to each element, how they differ from each other, and how each differing style depicts the issues surrounding their respective facet of synthetic life


Animation is a highly expressive way in which to tell a story, or present a series of ideas. With something that is literally created by nothing, the only limitations are the technical skill of the artists involved. Comparing this with traditional methods of film creation, animation can do things which just can’t be done with live action cinema. However, with this, comes the detriment of animation, namely the fact they are nothing but hand drawn cartoons, with no real heart and soul. With only a voice behind them, the characters in animation are often, figuratively and literally, two dimensional. Despite this, animation is becoming an incredibly more prevalent style in which directors are choosing to experiment with. While the Western market of animation seems almost entirely aimed at a younger audience, it is the Japanese that seem most willing to brooch increasingly dark and more experimental forms of storytelling.

Using Otomo’s revolutionary Akira (1988) as an example, there are many themes which are almost explicitly aimed at an adult audience, “Otomo’s ambitious work of cyberpunk dystopia also engages such issues of technological addiction, social isolation, political corruption, scientific hubris, evolutionary adaptation, religious fanaticism, the disintegration of family, and the power of the individual to resist the status quo” (Brown, 2010: P3)                

Not to imply that Akira was the first piece of Japanese Animation (Henceforth referred to as ‘anime’ ) to exhibit this level of maturity however, but it was still an incredibly important piece of animation which encouraged other directors to delve into increasingly more controversial and philosophical topics.

Despite this recent trend in mature topics, Japanese science fiction anime isn’t a sub genre which exclusively focuses on existential angst and issues of memory and identity. Anime as a whole has been described as “The most influential aspect of Japanese cinema(to an international audience)” (McDonald, 2006, P13). McDonald then goes on to articulate that “…It gets its power not from weighty social critiques, but from melding together 2 worlds, the real and the imaginary…urging us to look for a tension between spectacle and narrative.” (McDonald, 2006, P 178).

Sci-fi as a genre is something that anime can often times depict exceptionally well, and while there are obviously numerous real world events which evoke this, such as the political and sociological problems with Japan’s youth, the most fearfully obvious is the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whereas the only real film to attempt to accurately portray tragedy on that level is Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988), referred to as “The most profoundly human animated film I’ve ever seen” ( 11/02/11), it cannot be ignored that the attack has not affected the cultural output of Japanese anime. Heavily influencing anime such as Ergo Proxy (2006), Fist of the North Star (1984-1987) and most importantly Akira (1988), the dystopic and often times apocalyptically ravaged setting could not have been more accurately portrayed by a country other than Japan. Napier describes it as

“Of course, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the most obvious catalysts to apocalyptic thought. The bomb itself is not specifically delineated, it stalks through a notable amount of J- culture…not surprising that popular iconography is suffused with images of catastrophic explosions, world threatening monstrosities and social chaos” (Napier, 2001, P252-253)


Whereas it might be easy then, to blanket all of Japanese anime with the association of the post-nuclear events, it isn’t the only thing that influences the output of Japanese anime. In comparison with the more western style of animation narrative, it’s claimed that The difference…is cultural. Japanese society simply believes in exposing their children to all of the varying eventualities of reality, while American culture tries to hide or protect its children from some of the more difficult events in life.” ( 22/11/10), and that “American kids are taught the ‘black and white’ idea about heroes and villains. You’re either a good guy or a bad guy, and finding out why isn’t relevant…Japanese children learn that…people become bad because they need to be redeemed” ( 22/11/10). It can be argued that in Japanese culture, the onus is not necessarily on the heroic nature of an individual, but more so their development as an individual, or coming to terms with their individuality, or ideological worth. So with regards to the comment which attempts to define anime characters as “Not necessarily black and white”, it would be appropriate to attempt to define a character archetype in which this is apparent. Or not necessarily a singular being, but a collective.

Science fiction often focuses on technological advancements relative to the real world. “If man realizes technology, he will achieve it” (Ghost in the Shell, Ch5). One of the key components to this is the creation of synthetic life, creating something which is uncannily like man, yet built to serve. They come in many forms, be they ‘Robots’, ‘Artificial Intelligence’, ‘Androids’, ‘Cyborgs’, or any one of several other monikers. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus heavily on ‘Cyborgs’ and ‘Androids’, as they are the most widely portrayed, and have the most interesting arguments and concepts surrounding them.

Cyborgs are defined as :

“A cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality, aswell as a creature of fiction… The Cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world-it has no truck with bisexuality, pre- oedipal symbiosis or other seductions to organic wholeness” (Haraway, 1991, P150)

Cyborgs are often construed as being half man, half machine,having the higher consciousness of the human, but the enhanced metallic shell of an augmented robot. While they are often times used as an almost unbeatable machine, showing man’s progress and dominance over nature, their problems seem to be systemic to their deliberation over self worth and existential questioning in regards to their own existence. A simple explanation would be that they are “A half-way point between machine and man …a concept to show how humanity is slowly being tainted by technology …slowly losing our humanity as we replace our body parts with machinery” ( 24/03/11)

While they might be created as “Representing the humanist restoration of unity and order, and mastery of nature (through modification of the human body)” (Clarke, 2009, P68), it is their actions beyond the physical boundaries which are often the main focus of the text with which they are featured. With reference to Major Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (1995), her assigned task is explained as “Catching the puppet master, and bringing him to criminal justice”, whereas her more appropriate role is to question her existence as a cyborg, asking her partner “What if I died a long time ago, and someone took my real brain and put it into this body, there never even was a real me, and I could be completely synthetic?” (Ghost in the Shell, Ch7), and other equally probing philosophical questions regarding her existence.

The concept of the cyborg in science fiction is, however, not one which has been created recently. Texts such as Cyborg (1972),Robocop (1987) and Star Wars (1977) have set down the groundwork to which modern cyborg fiction draws from. In the cases of Robocop and Star Wars, both feature a central character, whose human, physical form was destroyed prior, and has been reborn as a cyborg character, which is to say their memories and personal identity have been altered, and in some cases removed, as to force them to serve their hierarchical masters. In the case of Darth Vader, he has “Become more man than machine now…” Whether or not they are made cyborg by an enhanced exoskeleton, increased brain activity and memory functions, the ability to connect to vast networks of information, or simply something so simple as a pacemaker, the definition of a cyborg seems clear. One that is dependant on unnatural technology. “By the late 20th century, we are all chimera, theorised and fascinated hybrids of machine and organism. In short, we ARE cyborgs” (Haraway, 1991, P150)

In simplistic terms, it would be easy to claim that the ‘android’ is quintessentially the same as the ‘cyborg’. Both are dependant on technology to perpetuate their existence, and they both seem to serve the same purpose; that is to say that they are to work for man. However, the difference is indeed vast between the two. Whereas the cyborg often draws its origins from the addition of machine to a biological form, the android is created explicitly as a machine, and imprinted with the presence of mind, or consciousness of a human. While the cyborg is often a grossly accentuated form of mankind’s triumph over nature, androids are definitively created in man’s own image, albeit in the uncanny sense. “They could not achieve man’s dream, only mock it. They were not man, an author to himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream” (Redmond, 2004, P160) 

The androids problem, therefore, seems not to be one of defining oneself as an individual, or asserting a sense of importance, an inherent drawback of containing human genealogy, but one of an an existence ingrained with servitude and discrimination. Take for example, ‘Evil’ Maria, from Fritz Lang’s highly influential Metropolis (1927).

The evil form of ‘Maria’ in Metropolis is definitively android in its purpose. As a robotic creature imprinted with Maria’s physical form, she is immediately sent to cause unrest amongst the workers. As Litch explains that ” This tells us what someone’s observable physical attributes-primarily their voice, or what they look like-matter a great deal in our judgement about personal identity. But physical similarity is not the property that determines personal identity” (Litch, 2002, P69)

Considering the ideological contrast then, between Maria and ‘Evil’ Maria, we can assume that physical identity plays a large role in how the workers perceive Maria, they themselves seeming almost robotic in their willingness to accept the new proclamations set out by the ‘Maria’.

Comparing Metropolis’ Maria to the replicants of Blade Runner (1982) seems somewhat appropriate in terms of the differences between the two styles of android depiction. Whereas Maria was created for the explicit reason to cause social friction, the replicants are different in their logical conclusion.

As previously stated, androids tend to be created for their unemotional, unflinching acceptance to do as they are programmed. The problem in Blade Runner (1982) is the problem that they could eventually develop a sentient awareness, creating unwanted resistance and a reluctance to follow orders, as they develop a need to self-preservate. As the protagonist, Deckard is tasked to hunt down and “retire” the aware replicants, an immediate difference between cyborgs and androids becomes apparent.

As cyborgs are already created with a humans identity, there is no philosophical issue in regards to the perversion of creation. They were born of man, even if “The cyborg does not expect its Father to save it through the restoration of the garden…(Haraway, 1991, P151). They in essence, abandon their humanity, whether through choice or the loss of humanity associated with their augmentation. Comparing this with the replicant androids in Blade Runner, they seem to be polar opposites of each other. Whereas the cyborgs struggle to retain their humanity, it seems that androids have issues of becoming more human, as they become self aware.

Posthumanity in the anime world, on the other hand, is a completely different notion. Whereas cyborgs and androids might be more clearly defined by characters, and archetypes, posthumanity seems to be an overarching theme. It would appear that posthumanity is the idea of leaving behind humanity altogether, willingly, and entering a transcendental state of awareness, or “Showing attempts to escape the body and constraints of human identity…transcending society, especially a past…Tetsuo leaving his apocalyptic notions, and Kusanagi leaving her humanity…however much it implies they’re leaving the human world” (Napier, 2001, P115).

Also described as “Transhumanism”, critical thinkers would have us believe that it brings about ideas of “Expanding the boundaries of our existence…a state of immortality” ( 14/04/11), whereas some people would describe it as an almost scathing look on modern society’s expanding into a more technological dependence: “Concerning Japan’s attitude towards technology as a dubious gain rather than an unproblematic blessing…J-Culture products have become progressively focused on narratives of technological oppression, and premonitions of disaster…” (Cavallaro, 2006, P187) 

Other problems in the posthumanist space include the ideas of post-genderism, spiritual disassociation, the hubris of playing God and the explicit desire to lose ones identity, or recreate it at will. It is safe to say that the development of the internet as a sociological tool is a driving factor behind these ideas. Consider the focus behind Serial Experiments Lain: Lain’s friend commits suicide early on, and invites Lain to “Find her in the wired”. Disregarding her physical form, Lain dives into the “Wired” (A clear allegory for the internet) in an attempt to find her dead friend. On the way, she becomes increasingly embroiled in the semantics of what living in “The wired” can represent, eventually becoming a God like figure within, transcending her human body to become a posthuman entity.

What I intend to discuss in this essay, is the issues that perplex these 3 similar notions in the sci-fi space. By looking at the themes, characters and issues of Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) and analysing the text itself, I will explore what problems are apparent, and the common associations with cyborgs that this landmark piece explores.

From here, I will then consider the same ideas in the android sub-genre, by analysing Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) and look at the different concepts that androids have to face.

Finally, I will then look at Serial Experiments Lain (1998) and briefly explore the themes it shows, as-well as its influence in the grander scale. I will also briefly discuss how the themes of posthumanity echo into the creation of cyborg and android fiction, in relation to the focus texts analysed.

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