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Manga in the Anthropocene: notes toward a cyberpunk ecology 2.


My remarks below will focus on the works of Otomo Katsuhiro, Shirow Masamune, and Nihei Tsutomu, particularly in terms of how they reveal transformations in Japan's historical consciousness. This consciousness, I'm proposing, is less apparent in its "backward-orientation" (e.g. rekishi-monogatari of whatever stripe) than in its "forward-orientation": the science-fictional, even apocalyptic imagination. From Akira (AKIRA, 1982-90) to Ghost in the Shell 9[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Kokaku kidotai, 1989-97) to Knights of Sidonia ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Shidonia no kishi, 2009-present) we can see the visual vocabulary of this imagination subtly alter as the traumas of WWII fade from living memory. Where Akira occurs in the wake of a cataclysmic psychic detonations, Ghost in the Shell and Knights of Sidonia occur in the wake of bio-technological singularities which have irrevocably redefined life. The posthumanism they imagine is quite different from the spiritual-psychic evolution embodied in Otomo's "Espers" and suggests a corresponding shift in how apocalypse functions as a cultural signifier. These transformations are signaled perhaps most stridently in terms of the ecological vision they present, wherein we see the iconography of A-bombs recede before the devastations wrought by or inherent to Nature itself. If Akira is largely elegiac, and Ghost in the Shell despairing, Knights of Sidonia presents a world without elegy or despair, because those conditions of life that may have been missed are utterly lost to oblivion. Nihei's transformations are most radical for having been embraced by posthumans, who do not spare us the slightest backward glance. To put it differently, if Akira expresses a New Age spirituality; and if Ghost in the Shell preserves spirituality only as metaphor (its invocations of spirit are only ever ironic "ghosts" (1)); then Knights is strictly materialist. Visually and thematically, then, Nihei's work is less about apocalyptic fantasy as such than a rigorous thinking-through of life under the most biologically-diminished conditions--call it a cyberpunk ecology. (2) Where traditional ecology assumes Nature as an harmonious, self-sustaining system of living and non-living matter, and where urban ecology assumes the City as an inert material environment capable of mimicking and being integrated into Nature, cyberpunk ecology assumes the Network as a rhizomatic distribution of information, nothing more. Ultimately, the goal of this essay is to bend the question of ecological vision back onto the question of the historical consciousness from which it arises.

Not with a Whimper, but a Bang ...

The mushroom cloud is a global icon of trauma, an obscene superimposition of aesthetic splendor and moral failure. Otomo Katsuhiro's repeated invocations of it seem to explore all the equivocal possibilities of that superimposition. In Fireball ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Kaenkyu, 1979), an early unfinished work that prefigures many of the themes in Akira, the eponymous detonation is not atomic, but psychic in nature--a "little sun" unleashed upon the earth, the convulsive telekinetic reaction of a character to his brother's death. Otomo's follow-up, Domu: A Child's Dream ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Domu, 1980-81), similarly features a psychic explosion, though here more tellingly resulting from intergenerational conflict between a senile pensioner with ESP (waging an invisible campaign of terror on his apartment complex) and a similarly gifted little girl (who alone sees him for what he is). The title, literally "the dream of a child," suggests at least one allegorical interpretation: the fantasy of youth to combat and erase the sins of its predecessors. But the child in question, Etsuko, leaves her own path of destruction; her attempts to thwart the perverse designs of Old Man Cho are not themselves without collateral damage.

The question for Otomo, it would seem, is the same one that plagues Walter Benjamin in his 1921 essay "Critique of Violence": "Is any non-violent resolution of conflict possible?" (2004, 243) For Benjamin the answer is yes, within the "proper sphere of 'understanding'" (ibid, 245), that is to say, "language"; but it is precisely this possibility which seems foreclosed in Otomo, because social and political conditions are perpetually shrouded in mystery, conspiracy, secrecy--language itself is silenced, whether it is the clandestine government project of Fireball that will link man and machine, the unseen crimes of a nondescript old man in Domu, or even the very name "Akira," which is not to be uttered and functions as a free-floating shibboleth. Language cannot conciliate because it is itself violenced.

If resolution cannot be achieved through language, through dialogue, through reason, then it can only be achieved through a higher violence, what Benjamin calls "divine violence" (ibid, 249), and it seems to be this level of violence, a superhuman (if secular) violence, toward which Otomo gestures through the discourse of ESP. The iconic or mythic violence of A-bombs is not negated, but rather repeated, even intensified in the series of psychic detonations culminating in Akira (wherein Tokyo is all but destroyed), as if, in doubling down on the traumas of history, Otomo might in the end achieve some partial autonomy from them, a space wherein to conceive a future not wholly determined by the past. For Otomo, as for Benjamin, "divine violence is law-destroying"--unlike "mythic violence" which "sets boundaries," divine violence "expiates ... without spilling blood" (ibid). Clearly, the psychic violence of Otomo is not bloodless, but we can see in Akira an attempt to articulate a kind of transformative, salvific destruction.

The titular fireball of his earlier work is in this sense redemptive, born not just from pain but love. (3) The flames of Fireball ultimately consume their source, amounting to an ambiguous self-erasure or cancellation. Akira likewise annihilates himself in combat with Tetsuo, but in the process achieves a synthesis, a deathless presence that ensures the mistakes of the past will not be repeated: "Akira still lives among us!" (6.422) Kaneda shouts at government forces intent on reestablishing the old order. In its place Kaneda announces a new polity, Akira's fascistic "Great Tokyo Empire" reborn now as a radical democratic commune for the dispossessed, administered by the very bosozoku gangs who were earlier nihilistic agents of its destruction. Further reinforcing this sense of futurity is an encounter with Colonel Shikishima, now by his own admission a "lame old war horse who's put himself out to pasture" (6.424). The military is defanged, the bikers civic-minded, and rebels vindicated; but the cost is an awful martydom, of Akira, Tetsuo, and the other Esper children.

All three of these manga try to imagine a future for Japan, but one very much articulated in terms of its recent history: Otomo is conscientiously working within the cultural coordinates of his era. David Desser asserts that Akira in particular is "a direct outgrowth of war and postwar experiences"--not just ideological tension between the "Imperial" generation and children of the Occupation, nor distrust of the government, etc (in short, all the humiliations that come of being on the wrong side of history), but the subsequent economic and population boom, which had its own fallout (2003, 190). Susan Napier makes a similar argument regarding Japanese pop-culture as a whole. (4) The image of the A-bomb itself, which marked the definitive end of hostilities in WWII, is nonetheless reconfigured in Akira into something with generative possibilities; and as if to signal as much, Otomo tends to depict the detonation less in its final, morbid form--the mushroom cloud--than as a sphere of consuming and transforming energy. But even this transformative potential, which could wipe clean the slate of history, is always already superimposed over the image of its dreadful predecessor.

The Angel of History

Akira in this light might be seen on a continuum with (and as perhaps the culmination of) Tezuka Osamu's post-war work, especially Ambassador Atom ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Atomu Daishi, 1951-52), whose very name suggests detente and diplomacy (Benjamin's "sphere of proper 'understanding'") and even outright disarmament: the destructive power of the atom now yoked to gentler modes of persuasion and deterrence. (5) Otomo, however, doesn't share Tezuka's faith in pacifism and political transparency; he is borne into the future much like Benjamin's "angel of history": ever facing backwards. This angel represents an especially modernist conception of history, predicated on loss and negation: "Where we see the appearance of a chain of events," Benjamin writes, "he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet" (2006, 392). From such a vantage, the mushroom cloud becomes not only the image of loss, but of a fallen ecology, of spoliation--even the articulation of hope, for Otomo, must occur, as it were, under its shadow.

While Shiro Masamune's Ghost in the Shell (hereafter GitS) has a similarly melancholic logic, it tends not to be backward-looking. New technologies have devastated parts of the world, but have also engendered new, hybrid life-forms adapted to it. There is transcendence, but it is the transcendence of the digital, not the noumenal, world--the transcendence of information: a mode of transcendence, of immateriality that, like the World Wide Web, still requires a material substrate: actual cables and transformers and so on. It is disembodied, but still physical, and in fact tends to moot the distinction between real and virtual. On the surface--and GitS profoundly questions what might exist beyond surfaces--Shiro's world is ahistorical, with few recognizable markers. Certainly, there is no icon of trauma like a mushroom cloud on the horizon. Rather, it is a world quietly ravaged by ambient, perpetual corporate war, what Giorgio Agamben would call a "state of exception." (6) Because orders of being seem so permeable--real, virtual, human, posthuman, robotic, etc--the effect is of a flattening of ontological categories. Things seem to exist on a more horizontal plane of being rather than in strict hierarchies; the existential anxieties of the characters, Major Kusanagi's notably, are therefore registered less in terms of identity politics (critics of the anime in particular have noted how gender and sexuality are muted, if not mooted, by cyborgization (7)) than basic ontology: they not only question what makes on properly human, they question the reality of subjective existence. More and more, we are approaching an ecological zero point, where life becomes something rather abstract--creatures are conceived as ad hoc organizations of matter, without inherent value, their identities decoupled from the flesh in which they (only temporarily) reside. Unlike Benjamin's angel, who glides backwards into the future, its only prospect an ever-lengthening path of ruin, the protagonist of GitS, Major Kusanagi, ultimately ascends; the merger with her antagonist, a self-aware artificial intelligence known as the Puppeteer, yields not cancellation (as in Akira) but sublation--the angel of history now looks down from above in a kind of absolute contemporaneity, a disembodied consciousness, pure information. Erstwhile partner Batou refers to her henceforth as his "guardian angel."

For Thomas Lamarre, the difference between the historical paradigm of Akira and that of GitS is the difference between the Freudian categories of melancholy and mourning: both involve affective relations to a traumatic event in the past, but in the case of melancholy this takes the form of "acting out": "we repeat the traumatic event without any sense of historical or critical distance from it, precisely because the event remains incomprehensible" (2008, 132). Lamarre calls this "constitutive repetition" and sees it as the defining formal feature of Akira, though one that prepares the ground for the possibility of "generative repetition," which he associates with mourning. Mourning, for Freud involves not so much an "acting out" as a "working through" the traumatic event. The intensity of constitutive repetition in Akira, its acting out, implies energies directed toward (but not finding) avenues of generative repetition. GitS, I'm submitting, is a kind of generative repetition without a constitutive precursor. There is a gap or blank spot between our history and the one imagined for us by Shirow, but it is this gap itself that is especially telling, that reveals something of the essence of our historical consciousness, something amnesiac or disjointed. In his own way, Shirow is working as absolutely within his cultural coordinates as Otomo; whereas for the latter, the trauma that shaped our historical consciousness was WWII, for Shirow the trauma that shapes our historical consciousness is the very absence of historical consciousness itself; he imagines a future that does not look back at us, that has no connection to our present.

Describing the transitional period of the 1980s, and the type of Japanese urban experience that would inform both Akira and GitS, Jun Tanaka tellingly draws on Benjamin's notion of natural history, itself derived from his analysis of the German Baroque and the figure of melancholia so central to it. Tanaka writes, "In the saturnine, melancholic vision of the Baroque, history is nothing but a ceaseless downfall" (2011, 275). The overlapping of affective, aesthetic, historical, and ecological categories is here rather dizzying. The melancholic is one who, in effect, sees the "city" in "atrocity"--human culture is a hulking ruin through which we shamble like derelicts; our history, then, is a record of our ongoing reclamation by Nature, Nature as exemplified by the swamp, a viscous interpenetration of plant and animal life, at once fecund and foetid. The swamp is, for Benjamin, the very image of a flat ontology, the liquefaction of hierarchies. For all its technical sophistication, the world of GitS more closely resembles this metaphorical swamp in which clear distinctions can no longer be made. For Shiro, the rift created by biotechnology is more radical and more primordial than that of atomic bombs; it does not disrupt ecology, it fundamentally redefines ecology; it does not disrupt history, it ends it. The generative potential glimpsed in Akira is realized in GitS, but becomes in the process an uncanny terminus.


A terminus, however, is not merely a dead-end, but also a waystation. Things don't simply end; they recur, first as tragedy, as Marx famously quips in The Eighteenth Brumaire, then as farce. In its own way, Nihei Tsutomu's Knights of Sidonia (hereafter KoS) is a tragico-farcical retelling of Moby-Dick, a tale of monomaniacal (or mindless) pursuit and revenge. The whale of KoS is not one creature, however, but many, an enormous "mass union ship" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] shugafu-sen) consisting of countless individual creatures called "gauna" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), an alien species that exists as a polymorphous collective, a distributed organism. They blur the distinction between animal, vegetable, and mineral, exhibiting at times what Fred Keijzer and Paco Calvo Garzon, both philosophers of biology, call "minimal cognition" (to designate a kind of intelligence native to plants (8)) and at other times sophisticated forms of mimicry if not autonomy. They possess neither culture nor technology; rather they are culture, in the literal, biological sense of tissues and cells, and are technology, capable of spontaneously creating whatever structures are needed for propulsion, defense, reconnaissance, and communication. They have direct access, it would seem, to so-called "Higgs"/"Heigs" particles ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Heigusu ryushi)--a ubiquitous, inexhaustible energy source--and seem perfectly evolved for life in any and all environments, which is a kind of indifference to environment.

The narrative increasingly pivots on the question of what such creatures could possible "want" from us humans. Having destroyed Earth, apparently without provocation, the gauna now relentlessly pursue the survivors, the last known remnants of humanity aboard the seed-ship Sidonia. The most horrifying prospect, however, is that gauna (which might literally be rendered "aberrant sub-beings") don't "want" anything from us, that they are not in fact capable of "wanting" anything in the first place, that they are simply acting out, wholly, unreflectively, some biological drive or chemical mechanism. If that were the case, whatever horrors they might visit on humanity, they would be about as culpable as yeast reacting to sugar. The moral and ethical question of violence that animates Akira--and finds its image in the mushroom cloud--is therefore uncannily blunted in KoS.

Despite the human crew's repeated efforts to demonize gauna--and most humans take their blind malevolence as a given--there remains the troubling issue of how we can assign moral intention where there seems no subjectivity. In fact, a pacifist contingent on Sidonia maintains that gauna are simply attracted to the special spear-like weapons, called "kabizashi" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (the name indicates their resemblance to rice germs), created to destroy them. These kabizashi in fact utilize the same polymorphic substance, called "ena" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (lit. "placenta"), which surrounds and protects the gauna, and are the only weapon capable of piercing the "true body" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], resulting in "foam-disintegration." (9) So if anything, the gauna's pursuit of Sidonia may be an act of selfpreservation, an attempt to reintegrate lost material.

An exception to all this moral hedging may be gauna 490, also known as "Crimson Hawk Moth" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Benisuzume). This gauna absorbed and replicated a human pilot, Hoshijiro Shizuka, and its "Garde" (or giant mecha), and seems from time to time to extract a cruel pleasure from mocking the Sidonia crew with Hoshijiro's voice and appearance. Having also absorbed the contents of Hoshijiro's mind--her knowledge, her memories--Crimson Hawk Moth becomes a cunning and feared enemy, able to anticipate and counter human tactics. While its torments seem calculated, Crimson Hawk Moth is often depicted, even in the heat of battle, without any particular expression whatever, as if its provocations had no content, but were simply the parroting of moral affect. We are left to ponder whether its actions reflect less its own character than the osmosis of humanity's darker side. Part of what makes the moral question of gauna so vexing for Sidonia's crew is the lack of historical perspective regarding it. Massive data loss is a common feature in Nihei's manga, and KoS is no exception. A century earlier, we are told, most of Sidonia's databanks were purged or otherwise compromised in a desperate act of sabotage by a rogue scientist, Ochiai, for reasons unknown. Mounting evidence, however, suggests some uncanny connection between human and gauna life which threatens to flatten the distinction upon with Sidonia's moral authority depends.

So too does the ontological gap between the two species threaten to collapse. The humans of Sidonia, among whom photosynthesis, cloning, cyborgization, and genetic modification are commonplace (not to mention manufactured consent, data control, and other modes of ideological homogenization), are pursuing their own biological directives, are in fact well on their way to reducing life to some malleable essence. The distinction, seemingly so dear to the crew of Sidonia, between human and animal, human and plant, human and machine is already so hazy that the slightest nudge might obliterate it. If the Sidonia is to survive, it may involve an acknowledgment of this flat ontology and the development of practices of rapport with creatures and things once considered well down the totem pole of Being. Where there is a flattening of ontology, then, there is an expansion of ecology, of what is included in the system of nature, of what amounts to life, but where this expansion is at its most extreme, what I've been calling cyberpunk ecology, we often see a thinning or diminution of (the notion or consciousness of) history. For Otomo, history is the nightmare from which he can't quite awaken, though he is thrashing heroically against the bedclothes; both Shirow and Nihei attempt to work through the equivocations opened up by Otomo, and if the traumas of history seem less acute with them it is only because they face the more disturbing prospect of history's obsolescence.


Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. The state of exception. Translated by Kevin Attell. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Benjamin, Walter. 2004. Selected writings, volume 1: 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

--. 2006. Selected writings, volume 4: 1938-1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Desser, David. 2003. Consuming Asia: Chinese and Japanese popular culture and the American imaginary. In Multiple modernities: cinemas and popular media in transcultural East Asia, edited by Jenny Kwok Wah Lau, 179-202. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

Garzon, Paco Calvo and Fred Keijzer. 2011. Plants: adaptive behavior, root-brains, and minimal cognition. Adaptive Behavior 19 (June 2011): 155-171.

Johnson, Keith Leslie. 2013. Nihei Tsutomu and the poetics of space: Notes Toward a Cyberpunk Ecology. Southeast Review of Asian Studies 35: 190-203.

Lamarre, Thomas. 2008. Born of trauma: Akira and capitalist modes of destruction. positions: east asian cultures critique 16.1 (Spring): 131-156.

Napier, Susan. 2005. Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. London: Palgrave.

Orbaugh, Sharalyn. 2007. Sex and the single cyborg. In Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime, edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, and Takayuki Tatsumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 172-192.

Otsuka, Eiji. 2005. Nichibei kowa to 'Tetsuwan Atomu': Tezuka Osamu wa naze 'Atomu' wo buso kaijo shita ka [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [The US-Japan peace treaty and Tetsuwan Atomu: why did Tezuka Osamu disarm 'Atomu'?]. Kan 22 (Summer): 178-89.

Silvio, Carl. 1999. Refiguring the Radical Cyborg in Mamoru Oshii's "Ghost in the Shell." Science Fiction Studies 26.1 (March 1999): 54-72.

Sloterdijk, Peter. 2004. Spharen III--Schaume. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. Tanaka, Jun. 2011. Decaying 'swamp city': the death of Showa and Tokyo. Japan Forum 23.2: 273-285.


Georgia Regents University

(1) Within the world of GitS, cyborgization (including various kinds of neural interface) is common; "ghost" [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] gosuto] in this milieu stands in for "the soul" or mental essence of a person, that which vouchsafes their authenticity as a living being. The irony, of course, is that a ghost is a remnant or afterimage of something that has died (perhaps traumatically).

(2) For further elaboration of what I mean by "cyberpunk ecology," see Johnson 2013, 198-202.

(3) The unfinished plot follows two estranged brothers, the elder of whom works as a metro-enforcer in a city-state run by a supercomputer (called ATOM), while the younger brother is a freedom fighter. The elder brother, having modest telekinetic powers, is recruited for a cybernetic experiment that will link him to ATOM, largely dismantling his human body in the process. Learning of his younger brother's death during an assault on central administration, the older brother, in a fit of remorseful rage, uses his ATOM-enhanced powers to destroy the building (including ATOM and himself).

(4) See Napier (2005), 197.

(5) Otsuka Eiji (2005) has in fact read this manga as a parable of the Japan-U.S. Peace Treaty.

(6) Agamben dilates on Carl Schmitt's notion of Ausnahmezustand--the sovereign's capacity to suspend law at will. For Agamben, this paradoxical "state," initially intended to handle crises more efficiently, more and more becomes the permanent condition for governance. In the name of preserving the law, governments semi-permanently suspend the law, often curtailing freedoms and generating zones without rights (e.g. Guantanamo). See Agamben 2005, 1-31.

(7) See Orbaugh (2007) and Silvio (1999).

(8) See Garzon & Keijzer (2011), "minimal cognition" is defined as among other things "motility" and "dedicated sensorimotor organization"; this fascinating branch of theoretical biology has its roots (no puns intended) in the work of, among others, Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela (particularly their notion of "autopoiesis" or the self-organization/self-maintenance of living systems) and, much

(9) It is worth noting that, in a weird confluence of images, "foam" (Schaum) is Peter Sloterdijk's metaphor for the structure of radically pluralistic, globalized culture, at once homogeneous, undifferentiated, and at the same time capable of transient local deformations. Human cities, for Sloterdijk, are "schaumige Agglomerationen" (2004, 47) or, we might say with only the slightest lexical shift, "mass union ships."
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Author:Johnson, Keith Leslie
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
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Date:Jan 1, 2014
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