Pacific Rim as a celebration of nerds

Let's take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of those robot and Mako Mori.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of those robots and our darling Mako Mori.

Movie Info
Title: Pacific Rim
Author/Creator: Guillermo del Toro (director, screenplay co-writer)
Media Type: Movie
Genre: Sci-fi, action

Warning: Potential spoiler. Proceed at own risk.

I got a chance to watch Pacific Rim in cinema recently, mostly to celebrate part of my childhood but partly out of curiosity of what del Toro might have done to one of my once favorite past time — by which I mean the genre not that I owned any robot, fought any monster, or owned their figurine… Okay, I might have had a Godzilla toy, satisfied?

In general, Pacific Rim did okay. The storyline isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Our protagonist, Raleigh Becket, is psychologically wounded by the lost of his brother on one of their missions to stop the monsters, the Kaijus (nice nod right there, Mr. del Toro). He lives many years as a construction worker in Alaska until he is recruited back to be a part of the last stand against the Kaijus. There he pairs up with a young recruit, Mako Mori, to pilot a giant robot, or Jaeger, and tries one last time to ‘cancel the apocalypse’.

The story of Pacific Rim is dense, too dense for a two-hours film in fact, but very rich and vibrant. I would love to see this story as a series rather than a movie so to make justice to all the characters and intricate detail del Toro has created for this universe. Unfortunately, the complexity is the movie’s biggest problem. If its purpose is to intrigue, then it has done its job superbly. I am properly intrigued by every being in the film be it the Kaijus, the Jaegers — okay, especially the Jaegers — the pilots, and just how this world comes to be what it is in the movie. But Pacific Rim doesn’t quite satisfy that intrigue. The script for Raleigh is pretty sloppy. I get that he is an uncomplicated character, which is good for this already complicated world, but the script just doesn’t convey his internal life as well as it did other characters like Stacker Pentecost or Herc Hansen, his commanding officers. But because of the attention given to complexity of the story, I don’t feel offended by the sloppy parts of the scripts as much as I usually do with blockbuster movies. The writers just bit off more than they can chew not that they are particularly sloppy. I just feel… sad, mostly, because it has so much potential that isn’t fully explored.

That is not to say I don’t like Raleigh. He is a good guy. He might be insubordinate, nosy, and a bit annoying at times, but he isn’t a jerk like Herc’s son Chuck. A part of him is almost like a regency gentleman, upholding other people’s honor and such, which is not something we celebrate in the media quite enough in my opinion. I also like Mako who isn’t either femme fatale or damsel-in-distress. She is just a young Asian woman on a mission. I stress the word Asian not to emphasize her ethnic background but for the fact that she behaves according to the Asian values which she was raised in. This is a commendable attempt at true multiculturalism that I don’t think a lot of films that try to be multicultural do very often or very well. I like how del Toro intentionally clashes her value with Raleigh’s in one scene, although, unfortunately, it isn’t as satisfying as I would have liked.

But is Pacific Rim all unsatisfying executions of very awesome concepts? Not really. There is a very good part in the film that stands out even with the grand spectacles of the Jaegers and Kaijus going at each other.

It is the nerds: Kaiju biologist Newton “Newt” Geiszler, and theoretical physicist (at least I think he is) Hermann Gottlieb.

Newton Geiszler, the hipster nerd. Let's spend a moment to appreciate that tattoo.

Newton Geiszler, the hipster nerd. Let’s spend a moment to appreciate that tattoo.

Hermann Gottlieb, stereotypical nerd who talks a mile a second.

Hermann Gottlieb, stereotypical nerd who talks a mile a second.

… Okay, it’s mostly Newt and to a lesser extend Hermann. Sorry, Hermann.

Some people say they are too cartoony, too over the top for being scientists. But as a scientist, I think I can safely say those opinions comes from people’s expectation of what being a scientist is like: dry and uninteresting. And let’s be honest, most people don’t get science. They are intrigue by it and its products, A.K.A. technologies, but they are equally intimidated by it which I think is the doing of science education in the system rather than anything else. There is glass wall between the scientific community and the general public which, as usual, leads to stereotyping based on people’s perception of the subject. Scientists are perceived as dry because they deal mostly with dry stuffs like facts, theories, calculation, and experiments which require a lot of time to study and are not generally consider as fun. It is unavoidable that people would picture scientists as nerds with huge glasses who are socially awkward (in other words, not in their social group), talk funny (not behaving according to their social group), and just no fun (because science isn’t for them).

I will say now that while there are people like that doing science, that stereotype is just not true no matter what The Big Bang Theory makes you believe.

A scientist is just someone who absolutely geeks out about science so much that they want to spend their lives just geek out about it. If they don’t party as much, let’s just say that they have something more interesting to attend to.

And I think nerds in general are like that. There is just something they love so much they are okay spending time doing it than watching reality TV, or partying with so much people they don’t even know, or keeping up with the Kardashians, or whatever people who think they are not nerds or geeks do. It is called prioritizing and not necessary anti-social behaviour. Although, if they start to not make sense when they talk, you might want to make them sleep or watch international news for a while just to get their perspective straight.

I like Newt and Hermann in Pacific Rim because of their unhinged, unconcealed enthusiasm. They are both eccentric because they just don’t care what other people think about them personally. They are both extremely passionate about their work not because it might prevent world’s end but because they simply enjoy doing it. And only about their work would they care about criticism especially from each other. That is why they collide spectacularly on screen but at the same time they are destined to be best friends. Hermann is all hard math, simulations, fast talk, and cutting remarks. He likes things neat and safe and is a bit aloof like what people think stereotypical nerds are. Newt is all specimens, experiments, hand-on data, and witty comments. Newt can deal with risky and complicated stuffs like mind-melding with Kaiju’s brain and dealing with Hong Kong mafia. He is a hipster nerd, but he is still socially awkward at times because he tends to forget that his love, the Kaijus, that he couldn’t quite stop babbling about have killed people, lots of them.

Those would probably be just character’s quirk in other movies because, at the end of it, the action hero is the one who runs the show and nerds are generally in a supporting role away from limelight. But that is not exactly true in Pacific Rim. While Raleigh and Mako struggles to get their Jaeger going, Newt has been sent to secure more Kaiju brain for his experiment. That part of the movie turns into an arc of its own. Newt is tested all around. First, he is shaken by the mind-meld experiment that nearly kills him. Then, he is intimidated by the mafia, frightened into shock by an encounter with a Kaiju, frightened again by another short but terrifying encounter with another Kaiju, but Newt is relentless. He is terribly afraid, sure, but he is there for something, and he will get it no matter what.

His crazy dedication to his work earns him the respect and friendship from Hermann who, up to that point, never openly admit the sentiment. Together they manage to obtain necessary information for the mission and effectively help save the world without having to get on a Jaeger themselves. Oh, beautiful, nerdy friendship.

To me, they have stolen the show from Raleigh before Stacker and Mako steal it again in the later part which is sort of unfair to Raleigh since he is supposed to be the hero of the film. And Raleigh is a secret nerd, too. He basically drools over his Jeager inside and out and is totally a Mako fanboy (yes, the fans’ Raleigh the golden-retriever meme is 100% accurate where Mako is concerned). I find it pretty cool that del Toro creates a leading man who is super enthusiastic about the thing he does and not just consistently being cool for the girl he has his eyes on, but he falls flat in front of Newton’s much better story arc. There are times when I wonder why don’t they just make Newt the leading man when he is so obviously better written than Raleigh, funnier as a character, and his story arc much more inspiring, intense, and personal. Pacific Rim could have been about two nerdy scientists having to find a way to work together despite their differences and defeat the unbeatable, and I don’t think it is going to be too different from the Pacific Rim we’ve seen, just a bit more focused and a lot nerdier.

Considering that del Toro is pretty nerdy himself, I don’t think he would mind going in that direction so much.

But ultimately Pacific Rim is about giant robots, so the climax has to be about the pilots of the giant robots going on one last mission to defeat the Kaijuu for good. I think this is where the many vaguely connected pieces come together. The success of this mission is not solely because of Newt’s experiment, or Hermann’s calculations, or the Jaegers’ pilots awesome fighting skills, or Raleigh and Mako being great partners, it’s all of that put together. It is about coming together, respecting each other, doing their respective parts, and making something spectacular happen. I think that is the beauty of this movie. I don’t think we have seen an emphasize on collaboration quite enough on screen, and I am going to blame it mostly on the format. Movies have very limited time, three hours the longest, so only one story can ever be effectively told. Pacific Rim with its amazing vision and complex storyline could have done so much better using another format that allows us to explore, expand, and connect to those pieces. It can be a franchise that rivals other sci-fi franchises if someone gives it a try.

Now to the last big question, did del Toro do justice to the Kaiju movies of old? Well, classic Kaijus are allegories for something that is too big for human, an impending doom that is too much for any single one of us to counter alone. The original Godzilla (not the American one) is the metaphor for nuclear power, mostly for its misuse after the Second World War, but Godzilla is not the villain. On occasions, Godzilla has fought alongside human in order to protect Earth from doom-bearing space Kaijus. The stories in Kaiju movies are about fighting that impending doom by working together with our fellow human and sometimes with something that we are afraid of. I think Pacific Rim has the spirit of collaboration in it, so I’ll have to say that del Toro did fine with this movie. I may not like the execution and I won’t label it as a good movie, but I love its heart. I have no reservation in revisiting this universe again if a sequel happens.

And better yet, make the next one about the nerds.

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Why Not To Be a Physicist

This is more accurate than you might think.

Every time I tell somebody I’m in physics, they would widen their eyes, tell me how smart I must be, and proceed to tell me how difficult they found physics to be when they were in school.

At this point, I would interject that I, too, find physics hard and that, no, I’m not smart or I would have chosen a career that actually makes money and not requires people to live inside their heads almost 24/7.

Physics is difficult because it requires us to look at the world in a certain way. Physicists create models of systems and try to see if we can get a correct prediction. If we don’t, start again. We also learn to do it inside our heads by visualizing the model. In a way, we are pros of making abstract simulations inside our heads (and computers) which get harder and harder to convey in human-speak the deeper the problems get.

This leads to is a reduced pleasure in watching movies, especially action and science-fiction films.

Wait a minute! How is that related? Well, actually it is the very reason. See, if you are trained hard to see the world in a certain way, that will be how you see it. Being a physicist, or scientist in fact, does not stop the moment we put down our work. It’s ingrained into how we rationalize things. Same goes for all kinds of trainings: engineering, architecture, art, history, humanity, theology, sports, writing, etc. The name of the discipline is pretty much synonymous with the kind of thinking each field uses. If you want to be really good in any one of that, you seriously need to think like them.

So back to the training of physics. There is definitely a lot of logic, mathematics, conceptualization, and visualization involved. Conceptualization and visualization, I found, takes a lot of effort to accomplish. The best people in physics can see through a problem by using the combination of logic, conceptualization, and visualization without much need to resort to mathematics to do the basic conceptual prediction. The beautiful thing about it is you get to understand things that are a lot of time beyond everyday experience. Greg Chaitin, who is in fact a mathematician, described it best. In a BBC-four documentary Dangerous Knowledge, he compared the experience with climbing a mountain and get to see the most breath-taking view very few get to see. I think that is a very apt picture of what working in science is like sometimes. In a way, it’s a transcendence of the mind, of being somewhere else in the mental landscape.

With greater understanding of how the physical world works comes the great price of noticing when it doesn’t work the way we think it should. We have to be able to do that for three reasons: to be able to see when we’re wrong, to be able to see when other people are wrong, and to potentially get a Noble Prize someday because we  happen to spot evidence that points to our current model being fundamentally flawed (or, so we hope). Suspending disbelief is incredibly hard to do after a time. There is a little voice in the back of our heads that go “wait, what?” every time something seems slightly off.

Like, sound in space (Star Wars)? There’s nothing for it to propagate effectively. Flying humanoid mobile suits the size of a building to shoot ray guns (Gundam)? That is so inefficient.  A giant spaceship for deep-space travel built on Earth’s surface (Star Trek XI)? How much energy do you need to lift that off the ground and into orbit anyway? And did I mention to mysterious source of gravity or gravitational distortion in tons of movies (Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Space Battleship Yamato, Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon, etc.)? Not to mention logical distortion of various scale (Dr. Who, Star Trek, lots)?

You do not want a physicist in your test screening. Period.

It’s not that I want to rally for a physically accurate movies. Honestly, an absolutely accurate movie has the tendency to be really boring. Movies (sans documentaries) are for fantasies no matter what “based on true story” suggests. Sometimes the law has to be broken for that dramatic twist. A good compilation of why breaking the law of physics makes a story better can be found in an article on io9 on 10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better. The author of the article is absolutely right that, at the end of the day, it is the stories of people that matters. The rest is setting the stage. We just need a stage that is good enough to support the story, and that’s it.

Knowing that doesn’t, in any way, shut the physics brain up no matter how hard we try to make it please take a vacation while we chill out. Some people might be able to do that better than others. I can do that sometimes with an action movie that’s realistic enough and has a good story that can get me emotionally invested, but I still keep seeing those little illogical things that would have been better to just dismiss. It sucks because I want to enjoy a movie as a movie. I don’t want to spend a good portion of the time telling the little voice in my head to please cease to narrate how wrong the things I’m seeing are, or what the character just said is contradictory, or to go into red-alert because something is wrong but it doesn’t know what.

Yes, that sounds annoying. Most of the time that happens, it is. Other times, well, I’ll confess of being a douche and say I get a kick out of spotting those moments if I really, really hate the movie. To my defense, that might be the only kind of entertainment I have in those occasions.

So, please, take my advice: don’t be a physicist.

P.S. I really encourage you all to watch Dangerous Knowledge (link to some sample). It gives you a pretty good view into how the concept of uncertainty arrives in math, physics, and history and how we have dealt with it, which is to say not that good. It’s just a bit too dramatic for my liking, but well, what can I say.

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.