In our Culture Crossover series we pick up examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture. We'll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting the best techy art.

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Image: still from Paprika
Image: still from Paprika

As part of the Barbican's More Than Human season, an upcoming film season places the blurred lines between man and machine in Japanese animation at its heart. Techworld spoke to Britain's foremost anime expert Helen McCarthy, who put together the programme about the fluidity between beings in anime. 

The programme spans decades, from the live-action low-budget guerilla body horror Tetsuo, The Iron Man, through to Satoshi Kon's modern masterpiece Paprika, stopping by Macross Plus, Patlabor, Ghost in the Shell, Roujin-Z, and Summer Wars en route, as well as Metropolis, an adaptation of famed illustrator Osamu Tezuka's manga.

There are certain complications with programming Japanese animation for the cinema, McCarthy tells Techworld. For instance, acquiring screening rights for made-to-video pieces can become a labyrinthine endeavour, as many of these series and films were made by various different groups in collaboration.

"What most people of my generation think of - and probably the generation following mine - when they think about anime, is those wonderful giant robot series of the 70s and early 80s, where you had this ultimate dream machine that a guy or sometimes a girl - because they were quite progressive in that - could pilot and make their own," explains McCarthy, referring to the likes of Mazinger Z, Mobile Suit Gundam, Macross, and of course, Giant Robo.

But the way these were first aired doesn't tend to lend itself to a western cinematic setup, because many were originally adapted for school holiday programmes, where children would be dropped off at a cinema to enjoy a series of shorter films around 60 minutes long before being picked up later on.

"A lot of the big, giant robot series I didn't even suggest to the Barbican, because I thought this is not going to work in programming terms," says McCarthy. "But they are represented by one of the apotheoses of the giant robot series: Macross Plus The Movie."

Despite these limitations, the programme is a varied, representative selection that spans decades, and surfaces various elements of Japanese cultural viewpoints on the merging of man and machine.

Overcoming your programming

One apposite selection is Metropolis, a work that seems torn between the future and the past, while also managing to raise questions relevant to our present - about what sentience truly means, something that is increasingly pertinent as we teeter on the cusp of the artificial intelligence age.

The original work by "father of manga" Osamu Tezuka had Fritz Lang's powerful 1927 science fiction film as its source in the loosest of terms. Tezuka was inspired by a still from Lang's influential expressionist drama that he had seen in a magazine belonging to his mother, setting his imagination alight and spurring the creation of his own one-volume arc independent of the original.

In 2001, the feature-length adaptation of Tezuka's manga was released, directed by the prolific animator and director Rintaro, and written by Katushiro Otomo, the artist and director who is a legend in his own right, not least for Akira - both its paper and on-screen iterations.

In a future world where humans and machines co-exist on unequal terms - with vigilante groups of the former pursuing the latter - the stunning adaptation places totalitarian aesthetics in a steampunk universe that seems to be animated in the style of a by-gone age.

At present, there is ongoing debate about modern day Japanese animators' willingness to utilise fascist-style aesthetics - and whether studios are glorifying ultranationalism, militarism, and the far right, with works such as Attack on Titan.

McCarthy notes that there are disturbing phenomena emerging from the national psyche here in Britain, following the Brexit vote, that are echoed by the fascist tendencies that have become more visible across the Atlantic in the post-Trump era. At the same time, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has made militaristic remarks, and angered China and South Korea by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are commemorated.

So Metropolis, although depicting a future in the animated style of the past, feels very close, politically, to the present.

"Metropolis is an interesting one because Tezuka made it not based on Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis, which he had never seen at that point, but based on a couple of stills in one of his mum's movie magazines - his mum was a huge film fan," explains McCarthy. "He was looking through this magazine and saw this shot of this robot on her throne, and a couple of other shots, and thought: that's really interesting. He read the article and thought: now what can I do with that? And incorporated it into his aesthetic.

"But it's not a movie that's fascist in the same way that Lang's Metropolis is fascist, because it's coming from a totally different cultural setup, and from a totally different movie-maker with a different aesthetic.

"In a sense it's playing with the trappings of fascism, which anime does a lot."

One of McCarthy's favourite anime franchises is Legend of the Galactic Heroes, a long-running space opera that features what she describes as 'Germanic aryan types' fighting Americans, and it features dense, political material alongside the epic starfleet battles.

She cites this as an early example of a work that deliberately takes on the fascist aesthetic for one of its warring factions. "And it deliberately takes the American, western aesthetic for the other side - and shows that they're both as corrupt and as compromised and as self-serving as each other.

Metropolis

"But I think in Metropolis, Tezuka goes much more to the human side in the conflict and says, with fascism - with any form of elitist control - what does that mean for an individual's choice? Who do you betray to serve a fascist, an elitist aesthetic? Who do you stand with to fight it? And at what point do you start discarding people and individuals and relationships to support your ideology?

"In a sense what Tezuka does is he writes fascism in very everyday language: how do you support your dad when he's gone completely bonkers? How far do you give yourself to someone who shows that they discard everybody and everything that no longer serves their purpose?"

The Metropolis adaptation scratches far beneath the surface aesthetic choices.

"He's being quite challenging in that movie about what is love, what is loyalty, what is service to a cause, what is service to an aesthetic, and in the end, his dividing lines are not drawn between what's an intelligence housed in flesh, and what's an intelligence housed in a machine - he never asks, 'what about manufactured intelligence?', because he's saying all intelligences are manufactured: we're all the product of our processing, whether we're made and put into a machine or whether we're made and nurtured in a body.

"What comes out is what's been processed into us. It's not 'how were you created', it's 'what do you choose'? To Tezuka, what defines an individual, whether machine or human, is how far they overcome their programming. That, I think, is a really interesting look at the fascist morality that he brings in ... the trappings of the aesthetic are just so overwhelming and so beautiful - Metropolis is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful movies I've ever seen, and the score still blows me away every time I hear it - so he's wrapped all this in the grandeur and the bombast and the grime and the horror - that are pretty much a good take on Lang's Metropolis actually - but the aesthetic is secondary to the huge moral choice that he asks you to make, which is: how far are you going to go to break your programming?"

Machines of Loving Grace

A recurring motif in anime seems to be a sense of techno-optimism, even when things go horribly wrong. Take Roujin-Z, the film that (at a time of intense anxiety about an ageing population) depicted a new invention to take the duties of care away from young workers: an all-in-one mechanised hospital bed-cum-entertainment unit, pioneered by the military, which ends up wreaking havoc. It seemed to pre-empt the booming telehealth industry by decades - a movement enthusiastically backed by the health secretary, who seems hell bent on augmenting national healthcare with apps.

"And our general life as well," McCarthy adds, "how many people have welcomed Siri and Alexa into their open arms? They couldn't wait to be liberated from the tyranny of having to adjust their own central heating.

"One of the things that I love about Roujin-Z is that the ethos of the AI, and the programming of the AI, turns out to be so humane and sympathetic (when it's not overwritten by the military, obviously).

"When you actually look at the relationship there between human and artificial intelligence, it's a positive relationship, it's a nurturing relationship, it's a relationship that is very much driven by human ethics and love. And that is something that I think has always astonished me about Japanese animation and pop culture in general: the only people in the world to have an atomic bomb dropped on them are also among the most positive people in the world about what you can do with AI if you engage with it positively."

A lot of the great fables of engagement with artificial intelligence from AstroBoy onwards, she adds, are all about the difference that the human makes to the AI - that "it's our engagement, it's our positivity or our negativity that drives the outcome".

"That I think in Roujin-Z is one of the most beautiful things about it."

Similarly, in Ghost in the Shell, the Mamoru Oshii cyberpunk classic, a rogue AI is originally an existential threat, only for it, in the end, to be another force of nature to adapt to.

"Essentially it [Ghost in the Shell] is saying what we all ought to understand about politics is that generally speaking the state tends to grab more and more power," says McCarthy. "But we have a choice in that: we can choose individually to engage with technology in a way that gives us back control. It's a really difficult line to walk. One of the interesting things about Ghost in the Shell is that it shows that there are costs to walking that line between, how much do I give to the state of myself, and how much do I take back from them of the autonomy that all this stuff brings me?

"It's a really hopeful thing in the end because it says it is possible to walk a line that gives you liberation within this increasingly monitored increasingly mechanised increasingly unaffordable society, you as a human being can still choose to chart your own course."

Neo-Animism

In a fantastic recent feature for Wired called Why Westerners Fear Robots and the Japanese Do Not, entrepreneur and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito recalls how in the late 1980s he met with a professor at an event put on by the Honda Foundation, who "made the case that the Japanese had more success integrating robots into society because of their country's indigenous Shinto religion" - still the official religion of the country today.

The West, said the professor, objected to the idea - as Shinto promotes - that everything is imbued with spirit, technology being no exception.

"Most modern Japanese people are exactly like most modern people all over the world," agrees McCarthy. "They grow up with an increasingly disposable, increasingly consumer-oriented society, but the difference is that in Japan, there's a philosophy that says that everything created from human beings to toothbrushes has a spirit.

"The rock has a spirit, they were created by the collision of vast forces over time.

"The stars have a spirit, the water has a spirit, every created thing has a spirit - and by created they don't mean created by god, they mean everything made in this world. One of the wonderful elements of [Satoshi Kon's] Paprika, is the 'parade of discarded materials', but the Japanese do very firmly believe that when household goods are used, they are in a sense living the life that they're meant to do."

She relates this to the "great guru of de-cluttering" and the "great guru of mindfulness" Marie Kondo, who says that when things are used, the user should be mindful and thankful for the thing, and what that thing enabled you to do.

"She thanks her shoes for carrying her to so many gorgeous places ... and thanks her household implements for letting her keep her house clean or cook a beautiful meal," adds McCarthy. "She has a mind that engages with how these things facilitate her, because in Japanese society that's what you do.

"There are special ceremonies in temples for discarded dolls, and discarded needles, and discarded household objects, because everything that has been created has been imbued with spirit. In Metropolis, [our robotic protagonist] Tima has been created with a purpose - she is not a soulless machine, she is a machine with a soul. She is a machine who has intent, who has purpose, and of course when that intent is frustrated, as with many of the objects in Paprika, that spirit has to find a way of resolving itself."