Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture

picture: Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture
3 September 2012


These past years have seen a revival of sorts of cyberpunk, that early-80s buzzword once excitingly epitomised by such concrete-and-neon spectacles as Blade Runner and The Terminator and the literary musings of William Gibson.

The Matrix notwithstanding, the West generally regards cyberpunk as a strictly 1980s phenomenon. With Shinya Tsukamoto’s return to his epoch-making saga with Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, Mamoru Oshii’s ongoing exploration of humanity’s outer reaches in both live and animated form, the biomechanical goriness unleashed by some of the talents currently united under the Sushi Typhoon banner, and a neverending deluge of sci-fi anime, it is safe to say that in Japan the genre never went away.

This is the immediate realisation at which one arrives when flicking through Steven T. Brown’s Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture, a long-overdue study of a genre that, as human interaction becomes progressively virtual and the virtual becomes progressively mundane, also seems to become increasingly relevant.

Brown cites a passage from David Cronenberg’s DVD audio commentary to one of cyberpunk’s Ur-texts, Videodrome, to not only illustrate how effortlessly cybernetic our lives have become but also to define the concept of “the limits of the human“ that underscores the author’s approach to the subject in this book: “Technology isn’t really effective, it doesn’t really expose its true meaning, I feel, until it has been incorporated into the human body. And most of it does, in some way or another. Electronics. People wear glasses. They wear hearing aides that are really little computers. They wear pacemakers. They have their intestines modified. It’s really quite incredible what we’ve been able to do to the human body and really take it some place that evolution on its own could not take it. Technology has really taken over evolution. We’ve seized control of evolution ourselves without really quite being conscious of it. It’s no longer the environment that affects change in the human body, it’s our minds, it’s our concepts, our technology that are doing that.“

Cronenberg and his concept of “the new flesh“ of course formed a well-known and readily acknowledged influence on Shinya Tsukamoto’s work, particularly on Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the first in what would become this director’s signature series – and one of the main focuses of Brown’s study. Brown’s chapter on Tsukamoto’s breakthrough film immediately sets the benchmark, and it is a high one indeed. “Desiring Machines: Biomechanoid Eros and Other Techno-Fetishes in Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Its Precursors“, as the chapter is evocatively titled, proves to be not only profound in its analysis of the film in question, but also enlightening on those very precursors. Brown contextualises even such usual suspects as H.R. Giger and Cronenberg (plus a number of unusual ones) in a way that shines new lights on them: by bringing the Italian Futurists into the discussion, for example, he creates a niche that sees Cronenberg’s “odd one out“ drag racing movie Fast Company – a film that very few commentators have ever known precisely how to place in the oeuvre of ‘Dave Deprave’ – comfortably, even logically, slotted into Cronenberg’s overall body of work (although the real die-hards will be aware of the short film The Italian Machine that serves a similar key function in tying Cronenberg’s fascination for racing machines with that for physical mutations).

Brown’s rhizomatic assemblage of sources and subjects is akin to all those pipes, cords, and cables that twist and wind their way through the works of Giger, Tsukamoto and that other incontestable figurehead, Katsuhiro Otomo. Early on in his book, in an introductory chapter titled “Posthumanism after Akira“, Brown includes an allusive panel from Otomo’s original manga, in which a character’s disintegrated physical form is reconstituted out of exactly such a writhing mass of cables, cords and assorted viscera. The image serves to quite effectively illustrate the author’s rhizomatic approach to his subject (not to mention remind us of the close bonds between cyberpunk and body horror).

Those now tempted to tune out at this mention of the term “rhizomatic“ would be unwise to do so. In layman’s terms, what Brown does is to present a non-hierarchical way of reading the map of sources, inspirations and consequences (call them mutations), instead of a rigid and misleading vertical timeline model. And what model is better suited to analysing cyberpunk than an instable one that takes into account “constant metamorphosis, circulation, and flows“?

It’s fascinating to read the back and forth between Mamoru Oshii’s Innocence and the uncannily deformed dolls of German surrealist Hans Bellmer (a link previously noted in Jasper Sharp's review of Oshii's film), while Brown’s search for “Electronic Presence“ in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse and Oshii’s Avalon leads him into surprisingly real-world issues that include the hikikomori problem and the national trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Most thoroughly “cyber“ (as well as rhizomatic) is Brown’s investigation of the TV series Serial Experiments Lain, which gets to grips with the idea of posthumanism in our lives and in our fictions, and which reiterates, expands and applies many of the ideas he posited in the previous chapters.

What is truly impressive about Brown’s approach is how the author doesn’t actually need to make the connections explicit in many cases. As we read, we start forming our own rhizomes, freely associating and connecting, adding and deviating; in fact, Cronenberg’s Fast Company is never actually mentioned in this book, but it provided a context that allowed this reader to make the association AND give that film a comfortable place in its director’s body of work.

As such, Tokyo Cyberpunk is hugely inspiring (it was a major influence on the Cyberpunk Cinema feature available elsewhere on Midnight Eye, as well as shaping the interpretations in my own review of Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Bullet Man), precisely for the liberating effects of Brown’s stance – which runs counter to the totalitarian, monolithic approach of most (or virtually all) film studies, be they historical or monographic.

To anyone who has ever felt the slightest sense of amazement at Akira’s epic post-apocalyptic visions, the merest excitement at Tetsuo’s metallic mutations, or seen a glint of wonder reflected off a gynoid’s glistening frame, this is a book that will make the synapses work overtime, providing total recall of that original moment and amplifying it thousandfold. To anyone with the slightest interest in the power and potential of science fiction, Tokyo Cyberpunk is essential reading.