Robots of the East

After I read the series of post on Robots and AI by Matt Williams, I just couldn’t resist coming up with my own favourites from Asian pop culture which actually means I’m going to be writing about AIs, robots, and cyborgs from Japanese science fiction. Asia does not have a very strong science fiction culture per se, so it never becomes a significant part of the market for adults. While Superman and Ultraman warred for popularity and airtime on children television back in the 70s and maybe beyond, Japanese pop culture began to launch a full invasion into our household in the 80s and 90s in the form of Japanese comics or “manga” targeted for adolescents. And, oh, how we have been hooked. We just got completely hooked.

What really got me hooked to Japanese science fictions in particular is the philosophical question they ask and the lack of reservation in portraying it. The latter is universal for manga, I found. There is no self-censorship just because some potential audience is going to be disturbed by the content. That is why we got something as wild as Akira coming the little peaceful island in the East. Most interesting is their portrayal of robots which takes a significant twist from their American counterparts.

I won’t claim to be an expert in robots and culture, or in science fiction, but I can see the wariness towards artificial intelligence, not robot exactly, from North America. Low-level robots are often portrayed as abhorred for replacing human in the work force, e.g. in Asimov’s Cave of Steel, while artificial intelligences often become a threat to human and society, e.g. in Terminator, The Matrix, I Robot, 2001 Space Odyssey – do you really need me to go on?

As far as I can recall, you don’t see obvious antagonism towards robots from Japanese science fiction. Human are always the greatest threat to themselves and robots are our aides and friends. There are some wonderful exception, of course. The most portrayed scenario are the merging of human and machine to become a more sophisticated being in order to accomplish specific tasks. This varies from cyborgs, e.g. in Ghost in the Shell, to mechas (giant robots piloted by humans), e.g. in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Macross, Gundam, Patlabor, Eleven Soul – do you really need me to go on?

If you ask why the difference, I can think of two things. First, Japanese culture are familiar to non-human intelligence. It is not openly discussed, but you can find stories that gods, demons, and spirits are portrayed more like neighbours of different species rather than supernatural beings to be feared and worshiped. Take the famous Princess Mononoke for example. The sense of respect towards these beings is different from what you will find in other culture. I think that already gives Japanese the platform to step up and embrace the intelligence we manufacture ourselves.

Second reason: they have Osamu Tezuka and Astro Boy. And no, I am not the first person to believe there is a connection.

Atom/Astro (Astro Boy) – Osamu Tezuka

Back in 1951, Osamu Tezuka created what is to be one of his greatest characters of all time. He named his doe-eye child android “Atom”, presumably a reference to the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He is later renamed in the English translation “Astro”, presumably to avoid the reference to the bombs the original author wanted to refer him to. Thus the world knows him by these two different names.

I don’t think Tezuka named him Atom out of bitterness. On the contrary, Atom is the very portrayal of hope and faith. He is built by a great scientist to replaced his deceased son but later abandoned to the fate of slavery in a robot circus. After he is rescued and restored by Dr. Ochanomizu who becomes his foster father, his creator expresses concern that his sophisticated design would make him the perfect leader of the robot upheaval threatened to arise from advancement in robotics. But in front of abandonment, doubt, and disdain from his creator, Atom continues to have faith in humanity and vouches for both robot and human rights while going on adventures and generally being the miniature version of Superman.

Urasawa's Atom

The emerging of robots as sentient species has been going steadily in Atom’s latest incarnation in Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, a reinterpretation of Tezuka’s The Greatest Robot on Earth. Urasawa- renown for his skill in writing psychological thrillers – takes Tezuka’s story and make it a heart-felt sci-fi/mystery/drama centered around a simple and powerful feeling of hatred. Seven greatest achievements in robotics and artificial intelligence are targeted in a serial “killing”. Could robot commit such a crime or such violence is reserved for human? What would a robot do if they learn to hate? Could that hatred be “erased”? You have to ask Atom that. He has been there and, to a certain extend, done that.

To many, Atom is the superhero of all superheroes. He’s polite, kind, talk-first-fight-later kind of guy (or boy). He never grows old, but he surely does grow wise. His popularity in Asia makes him the very image of the robot people wants to have: a friend you can wholeheartedly trust.

Joe Shimamura (Cyborg 009) – Shotaro Ishinomori

In 1963, Shotaro Ishinomori created the team I called the X-Men of the East in Cyborg 009.  Nine individuals are kidnapped from different parts of the world and modified into cyborgs with different powers by an evil terrorist organization called Black Ghost. The nine were rescued from the organization by Dr. Gilmore, their creator, and formed a team of superheroes vouching for peace.

While this story is about the team, the spotlight goes to Joe Shimamura, or No. 009, the rebellious eighteen-year-old who had his world turned on its head overnight after escaping the detention facility. A good-for-nothing becomes an unsung hero as he and his friends fights Black Ghost and its evil scheme until they reach an inevitable end.

Ishinomori originally killed off Joe by sending him on a suicidal mission against the last section of of Black Ghost in space, going so far to break our hearts by hinting that Joe’s wish for a world without war would not be realized. After a lot of pleading from the fans, Ishinomori finally caved and saved Joe along with the team to continue their journey. I found an interesting review of the series here in case anyone is interested.But if you are not into comic books, a reboot movie is scheduled to be released in fall 2012. Keep an eye out for the news.

Doraemon (Doraemon) – Fujiko F. Fujio

Where there are heroes, there are losers. And the greatest loser just happens to have a robot of his own. In 1969, we were introduced to this greatest loser of all time by the name Nobita Nobi whose failure in life is so great that his great grandson has to traveled into his past and give him a gadget cat named Doraemon in hope that Nobita’s life and thus the life of his descendants would improve. I’m not entirely sure if having Doraemon around actually helps Nobita since Doraemon can basically do anything. In his 4D pouch, there is every kind of gadget for the problem of the week which are usually misused by Nobita and leads to more problem that he and Doraemon have to solve. But as the Doraemon empire grows, we start to see stories where Nobita becomes a reluctant hero when situation really calls for it. So I guess there really is hope after all.

Unfortunately, Doraemon does not have an official ending since Fujiko F., one half of Fujiko F. Fujio duo, died in 1996. We never really get to know if Nobita succeed to not fail miserably or not. On the bright side, we’ll probably be watching new movies or episodes for a long time yet. Who knows, I might be trading my Doraemoncollection with latest one from my grandkids one day.

Haro (Gundam)

This is what I consider to be the longest running gag character ever given that most of the time you see it just hovers around and goes ‘haro, haro’. However, Haro can do much more than just going ‘haro’. It is an AI equipped with all kinds of instrument. As my friend put it, it’s the R2D2 of Gundam franchise and later becomes Sunrise Studio’s mascot.

First built by Amuro Ray, the protagonist of the original Gundam series aired in 1979. It has since found its way into every subsequent series and timeline, changed form, the design expanded, and basically become a mass-produced device and assistant to every kind of work in the Gundam universe. No matter which side wins the war in Gundam, the real winner seems to be Haro. You can’t really argue with that cuteness, can you?

Arale Norimaki (Dr.  Slump) – Akira Toriyama

Akira Toriyama is best known from his ultimate action series Dragon Ball. It just happens that before the indescribable success of Dragon Ball, he enjoyed the great success of Dr. Slump, a comedy/parody of a mechanist and his girl android Arale in 1980. There isn’t a story or a plot, just the two encountering bum-shape Aliens, Suppaman (yes, that’s how it’s spelled), metal eating fairy Gut-chan, and…basically just about every kind of bizarre adventure you can think of. To me, watching Dr. Slump is more or less like watching Monty Python. I don’t get a lot of the jokes, but if you don’t really think about it, it’s sort of okay. And my mother adores the hell out of it, so, really, what can I say.

Major Motoko Kusanagi  (Ghost in the Shell) – Shirow Masamune

In the universe created by Shirow Masamune where the line between man and machine has been erased, Motoko Kusanagi is probably the most memorable character. Major traded her organic body for a full cybernetic one when she joined the police special force. The only original part left in her body is her grey matters sealed in a cyber-brain constantly connected to the wireless WWW. In this kind of blurry world and in this kind of body, what life is and where it is is not an easy question to answer. But before we get to that, let’s pay a tribute to how our cyborg poster girl came to be:

There isn’t much information on who Major was before she joined and led the special force. Every version of her – movies, OVAs, manga, TV series – is slightly different with slightly different background. Major in the original manga is funny, sexy, and sometimes just crazy enough that you’d rather be her best buddy than her enemy. She has a boyfriend in another special unit which jacks their mutual probability of getting bomb overnight by a terrorist to like…tons. She has a brotherly relationship with the members of her team which consisted of humans, cyborgs of various degree, and robots.

Like in the 1995 feature film, she comes across a cybernetic body housing a very sophisticated AI who takes interest in her and proposes to produce offspring with her by combining their ‘ghosts’, the core programming that gives rise to personality and defines the essence of who we are. This does not sound outrageous anymore compared to when the story first came out. There are researches dedicated to what GITS universe would call ‘ghost mapping’. But instead of mapping the neuron pattern directly, they are mapping personality by teaching a computer how to respond like its human counterpart. That does not make the program sentient, of course. So what then? GITS does not give us the answer nor do I think Major finds any. She simply accepts the existence of this beings beyond the material world and finally becomes one of them.

And we should be glad since that allows her to help her team busting a major underground facility mapping ‘ghosts’ of young girls into sexaroids in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence.

Then just as we thought we lost her too soon, Kenji Kamiyama brings her back in the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, showing us her life as the leader of the unit before the fateful encounter. She is not as funny as in the manga, but the plot, the CGI, the drama, and the high-octane actions are more than enough to compensate. Warning though that this series is really for adolescents and adults with a lot a mature materials: violence, crude languages, and, yes, (cyborg) nudity.

Tachikoma (Ghost in the Shell) – Shirow Masamune

Major (in one of her skimpier outfits) and a Tachikoma.

Tachikoma is to Ghost in the Shell what Haro is to Gundam. It was first introduced in Masamune’s original manga, but left out of the first movie probably because of the complexity of its design. It is a spider-like mini-tank equipped with a lot of guns. Tachikoma acts as backup to the cyborg team and can be command through brain links. It can jump, run, walk, and cruise on almost any surface. Despite its terribly grievous abilities, Tachikoma’s AI is that of a child who sometimes can’t quite distinguish between work and play and can get distracted very easily if not on missions. I really enjoy listening to Tachikoma talking back at their human/cyborg colleagues or demands it rights to high-quality patrol. It is a great comic relief when all humans and cyborg are uber-serious, because Tachikoma really just doesn’t understand the point.

Gally/Alita (Gunnm/Battle Angel Alita) – Yukito Kishiro

Gunnm (pronounced gan-mu) is meant to be a portmanteau of ‘gun’ and ‘dream’ which summarized the series quite nicely. It is about dreams and the extend in which people will do for their dreams. Violence is the name of the game and Yukito Kishiro has no qualms of drawing it as it is. As a result, the remains of humans, cyborgs, and robots are scattered throughout the terrain.While characters comes and goes, Gally (or Alita in the English translation) remains. She is a robot first found in a junkyard with just a head and a part of her torso. We later learn that she might have been in a battle on Mars but how she ends up back on Earth is a total mystery. Gally has no memory of her life before her resurrection, either. She just takes life as it comes like a normal gal in the neighbourhood.

The evolution of Gally

If that is how it remains, we won’t be talking now, are we?

The city Gally wakes up to is the Scrapyard, the dystopian sister of Salem (or Tiphares) floating overhead. Scrapyard’s citizen survives on waste coming down from Salem and the dream of becoming Salem’s citizen living in perfect Utopia. That dream turns people into mean machine trying to out-do others and exploiting each other. With her fighting instinct completely intact despite the memory loss, Gally thrives among thugs and thieves. Her goal is not to reach Salem, but to discover who she really is.

Despite that, the shadow of Salem is heavy upon her. She loses her friends and her lover to the ideology that may or may not be true. Along the way she becomes even stronger, even more deadly and efficient, but it never really lead her close to her goal only putting more burden on the conscience she has developed. To escape from the abuse of these dreams, Gally finally ends it for good.

Since we have Gunnm: Last Orderas a follow-up, I suspect things doesn’t exactly go as planned.

Tima (Metropolis) – Katsuhiro Otomo, Osamu Tezuka

The Metropolis I am referring to is the 2001 film by Katsuhiro Otomo based loosely on the 1949 Metropolis by Osamu Tezuka who based it on the images from the classic 1927 German film of the same name. As far as I can tell, the only similarity between the three is they are all about dystopian society ruled by elites. While the German Metropolis is about the upheaval of the working class, Tezuka’s is mainly of robots as weapons for human’s fight against human.

In the 2001 film, things are a lot more complicated. Robots are workers. People who loses their jobs hates robots. Robots with enough intelligence starts to go wayward. The Ruler of Metropolis decides to create the Ultimate Ruler in the like of his deceased daughter, Tima, who can rule Metropolis and the world from her throne on the Ziggurat. Her human brother, Rock, tries to destroy her out of hatred towards her robotic nature and jealousy that she is loved. The unrest under the Ruler starts to take shape, not only from robots but also from humans. The Rulers searches for Tima who is rescued and cared for by detective Shunsaku Ban and his nephew Kenichi. Tima is told she is a ‘superhuman’ and given the throne of Ziggurat only to be told and proven by Kenichi that she is a machine. Confused as to what and who she really is, Tima goes berserk and launches numerous weapons. Kenichi tries to calm her down and eventually is able to take her away form the throne. The Ziggurat then starts to crumble and Tima falls off the ledge, but not before asking Kenichi the last question:

You won’t get a more devious result of an identity crisis anywhere else.

I will admit that I have to watch the movie in two parts because of how dense, confusing, and suffocating the plot is for a two-hour film, and I’m not even entirely sure what the point of the whole story is. But the last image of Tima will always haunts me as she looks into my eyes and falls away.

Chi (Chobits) – CLAMP

Talking about robots with identity crises, this is another robot with identity problem. Chi is a persocom (personal computer designed to look, walk, and talk like humans; i.e. an android) found in an urban dump site by the very broke and very single Hideki Motosuwa, a farm boy who moves into Tokyo to attend preparation school for his university education. Getting a free persocom is just too tempting to pass.

And while the plot allows for kinkiness, nothing kinky really happens aside from within Hideki’s overtly imaginative brain. He manages to provide for and teach the persocom Chi to comply with human social standard and not following examples of women found in Hideki’s stack of pornography. But what really is Chi? All kind of probing into her operating system comes to a dead end with other persocoms being damaged in the process. Hideki’s friend suggests that Chi might be Chobits, the highly advanced persocom currently the hot subject of geeks’ rumor mills.

As Hideki tries to manage his school work, his part-time jobs, his personal life, and solving the mystery around Chi, Chi starts to develop and encounter ‘the other me’, or known to fans as Black Chi, who seems to be a program in her subconscious that would come to give guidance to her in times of need. But what kind of experiment is she in? Who is Black Chi? Who is her creator? What is Hideki’s place in the grand scheme of things? More importantly, if all persocom can be so unique, sentient and look just like us, will we even think of them as machines anymore?

One warning for people who are interested: this is a girl sci-fi. Be aware of all the warm, fluffy, and romantic-border-on-erotic overtone before you get in and give yourself a shock of what CLAMP turns sci-fi into. From that alone, I think CLAMP deserves an applause. This series is definite worthy of the status it has become.

Actually, I can think of a few more that I’m not entirely sure if I should put in the list, mostly because sometimes they are from a series that is not sci-fi at all. Cromartie High School, for example, has a well-loved character named Mechazawa who is a robot, but that is just as far as it goes. There are also other series like Saber-Marionette and Flat-Earth Exchange whose casts comprised of AIs and robots, but not strictly science fictions or gains the level of reputation the series above have.

I hope that gives you an idea on how perception towards robots and artificial intelligence in the East differs from the West. Japanese writers give their robots a lot of emotions even when they argue that it is just a program to allow for proper response to their human friends. But in the end of it, does it really matter that they don’t feel if we do? CLAMP put that argument to the test in Chobits, asking if you come to love such a sophisticated machine, if you come to think of its unique responses as signs of individuality, does it really matter that those responses are just programs? And aren’t we all, in a way, a program encoded in a living organism that we might be able to transfer as information like in Ghost in the Shell? If so, are we so different from what might come to be our descendents, the robots and AIs?

And to use the word  of one of Gally’s many mentors: humans are just protein machines anyway.

  1. June 6th, 2012

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