Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime

Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. Edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Takayuki Tatsumi.Minneapolis:University ofMinnesota Press, 2007. Pp. xxii+269. $20.

Although no single work can ever completely and thoroughly inform a reader of the both the depth and breadth of a genre, Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime, edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi attempts to cover the field of Japanese science fiction in literature, manga, film and television from the twentieth century.  This collection of eleven essays is an excellent way to become acquainted with the voices of prominent scholars in the field for those who are new the study of contemporary Japanese science fiction.  Published at the same time the first two issues of the journal Mechademia, Robot Ghosts joins other popular culture theoretical works such as Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters, Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Susan Napier’s Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, and Takayuki Tatsumi’s Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America, while at the same time offering a glimpse at multiple perspectives none of these single-author works can provide.  Additionally, while many of the writings in the field are are concerned with a single medium, like anime or manga, and the others are often more theoretically or philosophically inclined, Robot Ghosts straddles this divide.

With Robot Ghosts one finds both the historical and the theoretical represented.  The editors, who have written an exceedingly helpful introduction that places the genre of science fiction inJapan into both its historical, cultural and intellectual contexts, chose to split the volume into two sections.  While the first concentrates on prose, and the second on animation, it is the conscientious focus on the interplay between the two that is the strength of the compilation. As the editors suggest in their introduction, Japanese science fiction “develops in complex communication with other cultures, other media, and other genres.” (p. xi)

Inside one becomes acquainted with Susan Napier’s work on anime, Takayuki’s more theoretical musings, Kotani Mari’s thoughts on feminism and the female cyborg.  The book begins with Miri Nakamura examination of the unique trajectory of science fiction prose prior to the introduction of American science fiction styles in the 1950s, while in the second chapter Thomas Schnellbacher traces the transformation from speculative fantasy to the beginnings of modern science fiction in the second half of the nineteenth-century.  Nakamura locates the roots of the genre not in the importation fromAmerica, but in the “irregular detective” novel genre of the 1920s.  Mari Kotani’s “Alien Spaces and Alien Bodies” surveys writing by Japanese women from the 1970s through the 1990s, in particular raising the notion of the feminine as grotesque, a provocative notion that is raised later in the essays on anime.  In a move away from the array of authors Kotani introduces in her chapter, Azuma Hiroki’s short piece introduces an interesting theoretical contention that science fiction depicts grand visions of the world, large narratives that are fascinating because they are introduced at a time in which “such visions are impossible to attain.” (79)  From this broad vision of the philosophical function of science fiction to the narrow scholarship on a single author, William O. Gardner’s chapter on Tsutsui Yasutaka provides insight not only on the author’s life but on the intellectual movements he was involved in.  While this might suggest a singular view of the field of Japanese science fiction, because it is juxtaposed so neatly with the other works in the prose section, it simply feels as if one has a clearer view of the whole.

The book transitions into anime with Susan Napier’s “When the Machines Stop”, where the apocalypse becomes a feature specific to Japanese sci fi anime, opening up areas of inquiry into the disconnection between technology, identity, and embodied reality.  Christopher Bolton’s and Livia Monnet both consider the parallels between mechanization and digitization of the body and the grammar of digital media.

Sharilyn Orbaugh’s “Sex and the Single Cyborg” suggests that, while many have declared the cyborg to be “postgender,” Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Eveangelion’s human-mechanical hybrids disrupt not only conventional notions of individuality, but of gender as well.  Orbaugh suggests that Japanese cyborg narratives often include a process she labels intercorporation, the mutual incorporation of the other. As a refinement to the concept of incorporation, when material is put or introduced into a body, often represented by the “sexual incorporation of the penis by the body of the other” (180), intercorporation is a penetration of the body being penetrated.  Although a bit convoluted, this concept challenges the “heterosexual matrix” and proposes that within these narratives is a reconfiguration of bodily roles.  This escape from the traditional binaries of masculine / feminine allows one to see the possibility not of postgender, but deeply entrenched in assuming multiple genders.

Finally the textual and visual analysis of earlier chapters is again rounded out by Saito Tamaki’s “Otaku Sexuality” and Takayuki Tatsumi’s afterward, both of which reconsider some of the social and theoretical concerns of those who consume science fiction.  Tamaki’s work is a provocative take on fan (otaku) history, including a discussion Murakami Takashi’s superflat movement that has enchanted and frustrated fans, while Takayuki offers an interesting history of the creation of science fiction texts, from publishing to translation.

While not every work in this collection offers a dramatic updating of the field, it should be clear from the examples above that these essays are widely varied in both their approach and content: on the one hand reflecting the expanding nature of the field and on the other proving a fairly comprehensive look at Japanese science fiction in an increasingly nuanced way.  Each article is well researched, thoughtful, and provocative in its own way.  The editors manage to not only bring together some of the most stimulating scholarship in the field, they also organize it in such a way that the links between anime and the less well known Japanese literary science fiction are unmistakable.  Finally, like any good work, it raises further questions to be asked.  It is, without a doubt, a useful collection for anyone working in the field of contemporary studies today.


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
This entry was posted in japanese literary studies, mass and popular culture, sci fi and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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