Technology and Science – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

            Many of the themes in anime are lessons or messages the older generation feels needs to be passed down to the youth of Japan. One of these lessons focuses on science and the resulting technology: the benefits, the uses, but especially the dangers of it when misused. Animes frequently warn that science and technology should never be used without thought to the consequences, or to gain power. Thus, using science to create advanced technological weapons and wage war is always presented as a very bad thing. These story lines are often, in part, criticisms aimed at America for wielding a largely untested weapon against Japan in order to force a surrender. Even today, many scholars and especially the Japanese feel that the use of the nuclear bombs was unnecessary and done more in the name of scientific experimentation rather than military necessity.

Yet science and technology were not to play only the villain in the history of Japan.  Following the war, Japan experienced a technological boom that transformed her into an economically relevant country and enabled her people to achieve one of the highest standards of living in the world.  “In World War II, Japan experienced the devastating power of technology in the… atomic bomb.  In post-war Japan, technology would become Japan’s savior,” thus facilitating Japan’s own cycle of death and rebirth.[1] Today, Japan’s top four exports are technology related – vehicles, machinery, electronics, and medical instruments.[2]  Japan also leads the world in industrial robotics.[3] This scientific/technological dichotomy is frequently played out on screen.  Anime is perhaps best known for its science fiction settings and its sleek, sexy technology, yet the gadgets for which the genre is famous often carry with them an underlying warning that these things must not be misused.

Few animes hammer this warning home as thoroughly as Akira, a film about the quest to reach the title super-weapon which destroys Old Tokyo at the beginning of the film. The super-weapon, it turns out, was a child who was given psionic abilities in a military experiment that soon spun out of control. The film takes place many years later. Tetsuo, a gentle teenager,  becomes mixed up with the military and is forcibly given the power of Akira.  At first Tetsuo hates his new abilities, then becomes so obsessed with them that he is literally consumed in a violent scene in which the city is again destroyed by a white light.[4] The film is more than just a warning against irresponsibly used science; it is a scathing commentary on the behavior of the war time government of both countries and especially on the international development and use of weapons of mass destruction. In the film, caricatures meant to represent science and the military carelessly proceed in their quest to develop Akira’s power, in spite of the fact that both know it cannot be controlled.  In the end it kills them both, and Tokyo is again destroyed.  One of the military’s experiments, a young girl named Kiyoko, says it well: “Don’t use your power in this way.  It’s wrong… because in the end you won’t be able to control it, and it will control you…(it is) way too big for us as we are now.”[5]

Akira’s writer, Otomo Katsuhiro, was the child of a “Hibakusha” or A-Bomb survivor.  He shared his parent’s trauma with the world through the medium of Akira, reconstructing the experience for the younger generation and using the film to preserve the pain and lessons from the bomb. From the irresponsible physicist who bears a striking resemblance to Albert Einstein to the volatile political/military situation, it is “Otomo’s way of calling on Japan and the international community to learn from World War Two and to be wary of pursuing power through science or technology…”[6] One of the most striking images of the film is the maddened Tetsuo, wearing a tattered red cape and sitting on a throne of his own construction, the very parody of power. His arm was torn off in an earlier battle and has been replaced with a prosthetic he fashioned using his abilities; now out of his control, it morphs and mutates, growing until it swallows him and the city.

Akira

Tetsuo the Tyrant. Note how his arm is beginning to grow out of his control. Behind him is all that is left of Akira – a collection of jarred specimens.

Another anime which warns of pursuing power through technology is Aldnoah Zero, a new series currently on the air. The discovery of an incredible alien weapon said to have god-like powers enables the colonists of Mars to build the powerful Vers Empire and to wage an aggressive war against Earth for the conquest of her resources. The use of the weapon in the first war- which, like the first nuclear bombs, is little understood – destroys the moon and nearly the Earth; the resulting armistice is shattered as the series begins. As Vers invades the Earth in the first episode, we see powerful weapons derived from the mysterious alien technology known as Aldnoah lay waste to our greatest cities in blasts that produce mushroom clouds. If the invaders continue to hammer Earth which such destructive technology, they will destroy it for everyone and their attempt at conquest will have been in vain.[7]

Unlike the grim warnings given through Akira and Aldnoah Zero, the western-style sci-fi series Trigun reminds us that technology – specifically nuclear power – can be used for good or bad. On the desert planet known as Gunsmoke, towns are able to survive thanks to the development of a special type of sentient power plant which, we learn, is powered by scientifically engineered humans who serve as the core, much as plutonium is the heart of nuclear power plants. Trigun’s message is delivered through the tale of a pair of brothers by the names of Vash the Stampede and Millions Knives. Vash and Knives were scientifically engineered to be the hearts of two of these power plants, but when their ship crashed on Gunsmoke they got loose and lived their lives as humans instead. Each carry the power intended for use within the plants in their “Angel Arms,” a power which, like nuclear energy, can wipe out a city entirely or help it to thrive. The brothers represent this duality. Vash, painfully aware of the terrible power of his Angel Arm, refuses to use it as a weapon. He does, however, use his abilities to save an entire city by repairing a plant on the verge of explosion. Knives, however, is a mass murderer who wishes to eradicate all life on the planet Gunsmoke. He uses his power to kill indiscriminately, just as Fat Man and Little Boy did in the summer of 1945.[8]

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The two faces of technology: Vash the Stampede, and Millions Knives

[1] Mark Gilson, “A Brief History of Japanese Robophilia,” Leonardo 31, no. 5 (1998): 367, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1576597 (accessed May 5, 2014).

[2] Daniel Workman, “Japan’s Top Ten Exports,” World’s Top Exports, http://www.worldstopexports.com/japans-top-10-exports/2097 (accessed August 2, 2014).

[3] Mike Hanlon, “Foxconn Gears Up to Build Industrial Robots – World Industrial Robot Populaton to Double,” Gizmag, http://www.gizmag.com/foxconn-gears-up-to-build-industrial-robots/20389/ (accessed August 2, 2014).

[4] Akira.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Angie Koo, “Japan’s Vision of the Future: An Essay on Akira,” Disasters and Rebuilding in Japan, http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/exhibitions/japan/essays/vision1.php (accessed May 5, 2014).

[7] Aldnoah Zero.

[8] Trigun.