Future pioneers – Macross Plus as both nexus and new paradigm for genre tropes in 90s anime

Traditionally, studies of the cyberpunk genre within anime have centered around landmark films such as Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995); their techno-orientalist aesthetic contributing toward a ‘boom’ in anime’s popularity in the West. In contrast, I take Shōji Kawamori & Shinichirō Watanabe’s Macross Plus (1994) as my focal point, examining how the film blends and remixes diverse audio and visual influences to present a more globalistic, culturally-blended vision of the future. I argue that this distinctly postmodern, stateless quality allows the film to act as both nexus between old modes and new, as well as a lens through which me might better understand how key genre tropes have evolved as part of anime’s wider media mix.


The 1990s represented a crucial turning point for Japanese animation – marking a watershed for the medium’s burgeoning fandom in the West, whilst also encapsulating rapidly evolving visual and stylistic trends; driven forward by a new generation of creative figures – born in the 60s, voraciously consuming a broad range of media of both Eastern and Western origin as they grew up, and now coming of age. These individuals would draw on these influences to craft works that openly displayed a new, broader cultural awareness and deployed this efficiently to challenge previous ideas of what, exactly, anime represented as a medium.

This study will take as its focus Shōji Kawamori & Shinichirō Watanabe’s Macross Plus (1994), and examine how it acts as a kind of nexus for a number of key genre tropes and modes of expression that dominated anime in the 80s and early 90s, as well as how it laid down a new standard for how these tropes could be portrayed going forward. Utilising the lens of genre theory, postmodernism and the discourse of ‘statelessness’, I will examine the film’s blending of cultural and thematic influence and seek to answer the core question of what ways, and to what effect, the film ‘remixes’ a combination of established genre tropes – working in tandem – into a new, cohesive whole.

Drawing on the theories of melded man/machine entities outlined by Sharalyn Orbaugh (2006), Toshiya Ueno’s ideas on ‘techno-orientalism’ (1999), as well as Susan Napier (2005) and Rayna Denison’s (2015) discussions of newly globalised, hybridised kinds of anime, my lines of analysis will broadly break down into three key areas. Firstly, the way the film draws on the cyberpunk genre specifically to examine the interstice between humanity and technology. Secondly, the ‘stateless’ quality of the film and how it draws on both audio and visual elements to transcend traditional ideas surrounding ‘cultural odour’. And thirdly, the film’s postmodernist nature, and how this is created through a ‘carnivalesque’ mixing of disparate genre tropes and modes of expression.

In this manner, we seek to put forward a re-evaluation of Macross Plus as a crucial node within the wider landscape of 90s anime, moving the conversation beyond the monolithic, techno-orientalist status of ‘entry point’ titles like Akira (Katsuhiro Ōtomo, 1988) and Ghost in the Shell (Kōkaku Kidōtai, Mamoru Oshii, 1995) to consider how the film engages with many of the same themes, but – crucially – presents them within a far more universal, post-national vision of the future. It is this cross-cultural playfulness that we would argue uniquely places this film at a juncture in which it could then serve as a template for a new breed of ‘global’ anime, such as Watanabe’s subsequent TV series Cowboy Bebop (1998) and Space Dandy (2014).

From its early incorporation of CGI alongside traditional 2D animation to its handling of forward-thinking technological concepts such as AI hologram pop idols and unmanned military drones, Macross Plus stands as a pioneering work both thematically and as a cinematic ‘package’. As such, by placing it within the wider existing discourse around anime-as-medium, we seek to trace fresh lineages between ‘old’ modes and new. As both a ‘genre movie’ and a movie that mixes together a variety of genres, the film serves as an analytical bridging point in which we might explore how it is not only the individual nature of these disparate tropes themselves that creates meaning for audiences, but the very act of ‘mixing’ itself.

Part 1: ‘Post-Human’ entities – The machine in imitation of life

To begin, it is useful to first present a brief plot summary of Macross Plus – in doing so, we would invite attention toward three core narrative strands – rivalry, music and romance; with a wider theme of humanity vs. technology acting as a kind of glue tying these disparate strands together. It is this theme in particular which we will argue stands as the cornerstone for an understanding of the work’s interaction with genre tropes.

The film centres around the conflict between military test pilots Isamu Dyson and Guld Bowman who are competing in a showcase of two differing flight technologies. Isamu’s YF-19 aircraft relies purely on raw, physical human skill for operation, whilst Guld’s YF-21 incorporates a new mind-control interface that allows the pilot to operate it purely via thought. These themes of human vs. artificial control are given a parallel in the introduction of Sharon Apple – an artificially-intelligent holographic pop idol, who during the course of the film develops a malevolent consciousness and rebels against her human creators. It is left to Isamu and Guld to put aside their former rivalry and unite in their efforts to stop Sharon Apple, saving childhood friend and love interest Myung Fang Lone in the process – who serves as Sharon’s ‘producer’.

When Macross Plus was released in the 1990s, it arrived as part of a landscape in which understandings of science-fiction as a genre of anime had become inextricably linked with the aesthetic sense and thematic tropes of cyberpunk. Landmark films such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell came to define Western understandings and subsequent scholarly discourse of the anime ‘boom’ within the decade, with Akira in particular acting as a kind of ‘ground-zero’ – from which everything else stemmed. Statements such as Hideko Haguchi’s claim that “When talking about Japanese anime’s introduction to the rest of the world, it is impossible to avoid referencing Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira” (Haguchi 2014, 174) and Antonia Levi’s reference to Akira as “typical of a whole school of science fiction anime which warns of the dangers of combining human and artificial intelligence” (Levi 1996, 92) offer a taste of the emblematic nature of Otomo’s film as a kind of ‘full house’ of cyberpunk tropes – and it is against these that we might reasonably examine how Macross Plus interacts with these in subtly different, subversive ways.

Susan Napier’s seminal study Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle summarises the cyberpunk genre as “focusing on dystopian futures in which humans struggle in an overpoweringly technological world where the difference between human and machine is increasingly amorphous” (Napier 2005, 11). She goes on to explain the genre’s appeal as fundamentally linked to turn-of-the-millennium sensibilities, allowing creators to play out contemporary fears and anxieties about an increasingly technologized world in an artistic medium. In Akira and Ghost in the Shell – as well as Japanese live-action works from the same era, such as Shinya Tsukamoto’s acclaimed Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) – we see these fears taken to a horrific extreme, where flesh and metal are physically melded together; patchwork, hybrid bodies that feel as fractured as the dystopian worlds they are set in. These works present a very ‘physical’ take on cyberpunk tropes – in which human and machine are corporeally ‘jacked in’ and meshed together.

Moving into the 90s, we begin to see the opposite; an evolution into a more cerebral, ‘networked’ imagining of this same symbiosis; a reading of the cyberpunk genre that is not only human vs. machine, but also human vs. information (or more specifically, data) – the kind of “deterritorialized zone of the imagination” (Napier 2005, 171) Napier sees in subsequent anime cyberpunk works like TV series Serial Experiments Lain (1998). Charting its course through the 80s and into the 90s, we might imagine the cyberpunk genre as a series of disruptive revolutions; progressing through an initially analogue, mechanised aesthetic, before leading into a more wholesale, digitized blending. Science fiction author Bruce Sterling describes this as an “overlapping of worlds that were formally separate: the realm of high tech and the modern pop underground” (Sterling 2017, 37) – liminal zones where the newly informationized incarnation of cyberpunk could portray worlds in which this digitized revolution could seep into an (inter)net-worked society’s most populist sensibilities. Now, cyberpunk wasn’t just something that happened to your body – it was there, in your mind, too.

It is to these ‘zones of the imagination’ that we must look in finding contrast between the dirty, riotous dystopias of Akira and Ghost in the Shell, and the more optimistic, glossy future-topias of Macross Plus. In the squalor, dark streets and urban decay of Ghost in the Shell and Akira’s cities, we see the epitome of cyberpunk as ‘high tech low life’ (Ketterer 1992, 141) – disenfranchised individuals kicking back against a system rife with governmental politicking and urban malaise. But in Macross Plus – with its cocktail of adult characters, romance, pop music and impossibly fast fighter jets – what we are presented instead is more ‘high tech high life’. While all three films highlight the potential dangers of technology, Macross Plus seems insistent on accounting for its possible pleasures too – the irresistible speed, thrill and ‘newness’ that only the latest technology can bring.

This theme of pleasure and populism is also born out in the way the film intersects and collides the cyberpunk style with that of the mecha subgenre. While studies such as those by Schaub (2001, 79-100) and Denison (2015, 34) highlight a certain degree of overlap and syncretism between the two, we would arguably identify the mecha subgenre as belonging far more to the lineage of ‘pilotable robot’ shows such as the long-running Gundam (1979 -) series, with the planes piloted by the male leads of Macross Plus acting as ‘variable fighters’ that can morph, Transformers-style, into a humanoid combat robot. These inherently toyetic titles typically see human pilots insert themselves into the cockpits of said robots before engaging in “bizarre combinations of mechanical/organic violence in which huge machines combat each other in fantastic displays of mechanical agility while at the same time hinting at the organic bodies inside them” (Napier 2014, 207). Referencing both the mecha and cyberpunk subgenres, Carl Silvio sees these tropes as “metaphors for our collective anxieties, hopes, and expectations concerning the posthuman condition” (Silvio 2006, 117). Crucial here is the idea that a symbiotic relationship with machines is not an inherently negative experience, but one with the potential to offer expansion or enlightenment above and beyond current human ability. We see a memorable visual representation of this blending between human and machine in the opening minutes of Macross Plus – as one of the movie’s two male leads, Guld, sits in his plane, preparing to take off. The film shows us his inner thought processes as he envisions flexing his hands and feet, the plane’s wings and rear-flaps flexing respectively, as he does so. Here, man and machine have in-essence ‘melded’ together as one. With Guld sitting in a lotus-position in the cockpit, the process is portrayed as an almost meditation-like experience in which the biological mind (the brain) and the machine mind (computer circuitry) are synchronised in a kind of out-of-body experience.

In Frankenstein and the Cyborg Metropolis, Sharalyn Orbaugh envisions this kind of liminal blend – existing somewhere between the man/machine threshold – as what she terms the “existential uncanny” (Orbaugh 2006, 96). For her, this permeability between body and mind (both biological and technological) ties human consciousness into a wider ‘network’; one that comes with the added complication of how a human mind might conceivably visualise the “nondimensionality and instantaneity” of this networked world. The example presented above of Guld mentally ‘melding’ with his plane highlights one potential answer – another comes via the medium of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery). In a method also employed by Ghost in the Shell, Macross Plus utilised the then-new incorporation of CGI elements within a traditionally 2D animated film as a means of presenting viewers with a way of ‘imagining’ the world as its ‘networked’ characters might see it. During one of the many fighter-jet test flight sequences in the movie, we see Guld confronted with a swarm of oncoming missiles – these are first presented via 2D animation; a swirl of twisting vapour trails. The image then blurs into a corresponding visual display conveyed via CGI, in which the vapour trails are matched and then extended by a computerized, 3D extrapolation of their attack vectors.

This conflation between the real and ‘imagined’ virtual world is echoed later in the film during one of synthetic pop idol Sharon Apple’s concert sequences. Here, her holographic avatar appears to float through the city as she sings, tracing trails of light through the busy streets. Meanwhile, the windows of skyscrapers appear to shatter as white birds fly out from the falling shards of glass, scattering feathers as they fly. Throughout this all, pedestrians look up and are transfixed by the combination of music and visuals – sucked into the ‘inescapable permeability’ of the real and unreal. Here, more than any other point in the film, we see the city itself (and its population) incorporated as part of this networked world – an involuntary evolution that Orbaugh sees as an “intrinsic, inextricable” evolution of “city, technology and body” into one existence (Orbaugh 2006, 96). Here, it is not simply man and machine that have melded, but also the urban environment itself – a third factor in this triumvirate of systems – suggesting that in an inherently networked world, existing in an isolated, un-mixed state is no longer possible.

In these theories, we see echoes of Orbaugh’s ideas of cyberpunk as a kind of modern-day reimagining of the Frankenstein parable and the inherent dangers of science that – while initially well-intentioned and generative in nature – contains the potential to run wild and rebel against its creators. As she writes: “Like the monster in Shelley’s Frankenstein, rejected first by his creator and eventually by all the other humans with whom he tried to establish contact, the people of modernizing Japan were forced time and again to recognize that even the complete acquisition of the “godlike science” of language—in the form of the discourses of industrial, post-enlightenment modernism—was not enough to save them from the curse of monstrosity in the eyes of the West” (Orbaugh 2007, 175). Here, the theoretical potential of science is hamstrung when ‘actualised’ – promising ideas faltering when transferred from the state of simple ‘information’ to physical, real-world application.

In referencing these themes in a specifically Japanese context, Orbaugh’s discourse invites us to consider the notion of cyberpunk within the scope of techno-orientalism. Building on the ideas put forward by Edward Said in his landmark work Orientalism (1978), techno-orientalism is described by Toshiya Ueno as a system of stereotypes and tropes that combine to create an ‘invented’ version of Japan: “If the Orient was invented by the West, then the Techno-Orient also was invented by the world of information capitalism. In “Techno-Orientalism”, Japan not only is located geographically, but also is projected chronologically” (Ueno 2003). Ueno goes on to explain about how the view of Japan through a techno-orientalist lens – particularly via mediums such as anime – is one that is seductively attractive to the West, creating and compartmentalising received ideas of what Japan ‘is’. So much so, he argues, that “The Orient exists in so far as the West needs it”. In essence, a Japanese cultural product like anime – precisely because of its populist seductivity – is inherently positioned to become part of a tapestry of re-mixing and re-fashioning of creative tropes; building a vision of Japan that is – itself – a mere trope.

Masunori Oda relates Ueno’s ideas regarding this matter to the work of American author William Gibson, and his repurposing of a techno-orientalist Japan as the backdrop to his cyberpunk novels such as Neuromancer (1984), and more specifically to our argument, Idoru (1996) (Oda 2001, 250). Like Macross Plus, Idoru features an artificially intelligent ‘synthetic personality’ pop idol – the titular ‘Idoru’ – with much of the plot focusing on how a rock-star has become infatuated with this pop idol; Rei Toei. Again, like Macross Plus, we see more traditional ‘serious’ cyberpunk themes plugged into an excitingly exotic future-city informed by the information-overload of popular media culture. Gibson himself is explicit in his orientation of Japan as a place inextricably linked to these composite tropes of cyberpunk:

Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. The Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it. I remember my first glimpse of Shibuya, when one of the young Tokyo journalists who had taken me there, his face drenched with the light of a thousand media-suns—all that towering, animated crawl of commercial information—said, “You see? You see? It is Blade Runner town.” And it was. It so evidently was. (Gibson 2001)

Here, Gibson’s views tie urban Japan – as geographic locale – into a landscape of media culture. Animated. Commercial. Drenched in information. It is in this context that we can understand opinions such as those by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in which she targets Gibson’s techno-orientalist stylings as seeking to “orient the reader to a technology-­overloaded present/ future (which is portrayed as belonging to Japan or other Far East Countries) through the promise of readable difference, and through the conflation of information networks with an exotic urban landscape” (Chun 2008, 177). This idea of “readable difference” – namely, linguistic or visual connotations of otherness, is echoed in Gibson’s use of the word ‘Idoru’ as the title of one of his novels. By importing a Japanese loanword, which in turn has been imported from the English word ‘Idol’ – much like Gibson’s reference to Japan as “Blade Runner town” – our attention is again drawn to the re-purposed, self-circular nature of this techno-orientalist discourse, East and West colliding in a melange of influence that serves to perpetuate its own invention. Oda references this as “a kind of ‘contact zone’ for the West to meet the latest Japan/ese” (Oda 2001, 250), but suggests that the reciprocity of this system is at such an extent that it distances itself from older ideas of orientalism, positioning itself instead as a more mutual osmosis of ideas and concepts.

Returning to the idea of loanwords, we see a strong example of this osmosis within Macross Plus and the heavy use of English loanwords within the Japanese dialogue of its script. As Naoki & Hiroko Chiba point out, these loanwords are particularly orientated around the disciplines of music and technology. For example “BDI shisutemu (BDI system), BL yunitto (BL unit)… beeta endorufin (beta-endorphin)… saburiminaru efekuto (subliminal effects) and koketisshu parusu modo (coquettish pulse mode)” (Chiba 2007, 156-158) are all used to describe elements of Sharon Apple’s concerts, a hefty stream of ‘tech jargon’ to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of the technology. In this sense, the self-referential circle is closed – and just as Gibson employs visions of a high-tech Japan for exotic thrill, so too do the Japanese creators of Macross Plus in their use of English loanwords to convey the very same thing.

Along these lines, if we are to consider Macross Plus as a work that exists in a place where the contraflows of East-West influence have become inextricably blended, is it possible to envision a discourse that exists ‘beyond’ the established narrative of techno-orientalism? For this, we might look back to Edward Said’s Orientalism and his foreword to the 2003 edition of the text, where he posits the term ‘humanism’ as this potential ‘beyond-orientalism’, suggesting that this “Humanism is sustained by a sense of community with other interpreters and other societies and periods… This is to say that every domain is linked to every other one, and that nothing that goes on in our world has ever been isolated and pure of any outside influence” (Said 2003, xvii). Said, it must be noted, does not comment specifically on Japan or anime within his book, but in highlighting his ideas of humanism, we seek to draw parallels with his community of cultural ‘interpreters’ and the kinds of creative blends between East and West we have highlighted above. Here again, we see a distinct awareness of mixing – that if we are to remove the notion of walled ‘insides’ and ‘outsides’, what remains is an interlinked domain (ie. nexus) where all influences (both Eastern and Western) are wholly combined. In addition, Said’s use of the word ‘domain’ brings with it connotations of a technological, networked system, and indeed – it is to the notion of cyberspace he turns as a kind of aide and key driver toward this ‘humanist’ domain: “We are today abetted by the enormously encouraging democratic field of cyberspace, open to all users in ways undreamed of by earlier generations” (Said 2003, xxii). In this sense, Said returns us to the question at the heart of cyberpunk as a genre, and whether we envision it as overtly pessimistic and dystopian, or optimistic and hopeful. The difference between potential and actuality – between man’s capacity to perfect technology, and the responsibility to use it wisely. In a networked, open system where all influences are linked, what new, combinatory modes of expression start to emerge?

Part 2: ‘Stateless’ states – Crafting a culturally diverse future-topia

If we are to understand ‘anime’ as ‘animation of Japanese origin’ (Clements & McCarthy 2015, 245), we present a situation where an anime film comes pre-loaded and pre-stamped with connotations of the country it was made in – ie. its ‘cultural odour’ (Iwabuchi 1998, 165-180). As we have observed above however, the existence of a cultural ‘contact zone’ between East and West where influences from both can intermingle as part of a globalised distribution network, these distinct notions of a work ‘belonging’ wholly to a single nation begin to be eclipsed by something more universal and combinatorial in nature. In essence, the ‘cultural odour’ has become ‘odourless’; the end-product ‘Made In Japan’, yet aesthetically ‘stateless’ – a product of so many ‘mixed’ influences that its true ‘origin point’ becomes a far more elusive matter. This theory runs in tangent with ideas discussed by Naylor/Helford (2014, 309-314) and Denison (2011, 221-235) regarding the mukokuseki or ‘stateless’ quality of many anime (particularly science fiction anime) and how this potentially arises from ‘transcultural creative processes’ leading to the creation of hybridized content. In this regard, the manner in which Macross Plus crafts a culturally mixed, ‘stateless’ world as its primary setting serves as a useful case study to illustrate these points.

The bulk of the film’s narrative takes place on the colony planet Eden, and it is in the visual depiction of this world that we are provided the most overt example of the movie’s ‘stateless’ quality via a number of backdrops which are heavily inspired by real-world, American locales. These include the hilly streets of San Francisco, a wind farm in California’s Central Valley, highways in Orlando, Florida and, most notably, the film’s ‘New Edwards Air Force Base’, which is modeled on California’s real Edwards Air Force Base. Likewise, the test pilot conflict which serves as the film’s core narrative was inspired by the real-world Advanced Tactical Fighter program the United States Airforce undertook in the 1980s, with the Northrop YF-23 fighter jet serving as a direct design influence for the YF-21 plane within the film (This is Animation – The Select: Macross Plus Movie Edition 1995).

Susan Napier draws on the writings of film scholars Susan Pointon and Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto to draw allusions to exactly this kind of “constant cross-pollination” and “cultural borrowing” in relation to anime. Here, the focus is placed squarely on the Japanese creators and their exposure “since birth” to Western influence. In essence, if we are to consider anime as a product of said “Japanese creators”, it is to understand the idea of a “Japanese creative identity” that is informed just as much by Western influences as it is by Japanese ones. Strictly regional, national boundaries are redefined into a newly transnational “globalistic” vision (Napier 2005, 22-23). We can observe these qualities in the descriptions of the transnational creative mode as being one of inherent “plurality” (Hjort 2010, 12-33), or “as shorthand for an international or supranational mode of film production whose impact and reach lies beyond the bounds of the national” (Higbee & Lim 2010, 10). In essence, by drawing so heavily on non-Asian influence as part of its aesthetic, while Macross Plus still exists within the formalised categorical framework of ‘anime’ and ‘Japanese’, its actual creative DNA is arguably more part of a cultural ‘interstate’ – the mukokuseki quality referenced above. This aesthetic is furthered in the fact that almost all signage in Macross Plus is in English. This presents a strong contrast to the world of Ghost In The Shell, which notably based its cityscape and signage on the neon-lit streets of Hong Kong – a model that fits into a lineage of the ‘future city’ as inherently Asian, recalling our discussion of William Gibson’s novels and Blade Runner, in which a feel of exoticism was created via a “postmodern pastiche” of “Asian design elements” (Yuen 2000, 1-21).

Thus, by rejecting, or presenting an opposite to the ‘pastiche’ of the ‘Asian’ future-city, Macross Plus achieves an aesthetic quality more open-ended in nature, and more reflective of the stateless mixing of influences that serves as its origin point. Akira and Ghost in the Shell – through the visual language of their aesthetic settings – arguably still feel as if they are telling ‘Asian’ stories, ie. stories in which a pan-Asian or Japanese urban environment feels distinctly plugged into their narrative sense. In contrast, the post-national, post-modern “Pacific era” (Morley & Robins 2002, 168) feel of Macross Plus suggests a cinematic product in which the creative toolset of science fiction has been fully ‘freed’ into a more universal model that exists beyond any current notion of ‘nation’; the kinds of “transculturation” and “transnationalism” described by Iwabuchi as essential to “over-coming a nation-centric view of global cultural power” (Iwabuchi 2002, 41). It is a film that both presents as, and is a product of, a more globally-aligned aestheticism – one that is objectively ‘of Japan’, but in which an understanding of ‘Japan’ represents a nexus of transnationally informed creators for which the creative impulse will inherently be informed by non-Japanese influences.

In achieving this transnational aesthetic, the film not only employs its setting, but also its characters. On more than one occasion we are shown characters that are depicted as black, as well as a ‘mixed’ family of two children belonging to a black mother and caucasian father. Meanwhile, in the name of main character Isamu Dyson, we are given a distinct example of both Japanese and Western heritage combined into one, ‘mixed’ whole. As Antonia Levi comments: “[science fiction anime] will often deliberately combine a Japanese name with a non-Japanese identity (or vice versa) to indicate a future in which intercultural marriage is the norm. This is certainly the case in Macross Plus which features a multiracial, multi-special cast of characters…” (Levi 1996, 13-14). In referencing this multiracial quality within the specific context of science-fiction as a genre, it is worth also noting how the film’s other lead male, Guld, is of half-human/half-alien heritage – further conflating the notion of ‘multiracial’ into that of ‘multispecies’.

Napier analyses the “new kind of hybridity” represented by characters and settings like these as part of a “global younger generation that is increasingly electronically conversant with the vast variety of worldwide popular culture.” For her, the “postethnic” identities of these characters help create a fantastical “anywhere” free from the constraints and conformity of the real world “in which the audience can revel in a safe form of Otherness unmatched by any other contemporary medium” (Napier 2005, 26-27). This last point in particular is crucial, as it highlights the importance of both science-fiction and anime as mediums especially conducive to free expression, where the trope of statelessness itself begins to take on an appeal all of its own.

These ideas of statelessness achieving a special significance amongst fans of anime are further outlined in Sandra Annett’s exploration of Shinichirō Watanabe’s TV series Cowboy Bebop, a show which Macross Plus in many ways served as a dry-run for, sharing much of the same aesthetic and thematic DNA in common, in addition to a number of key staff members (Newman 2016, 1). Cowboy Bebop, Annett argues, “marks the point of crossing in the late 1990s between North American and Japanese fan communities, between cultures of television and the Internet, and between the postnational and transnational modes of animated globalization” (Annett 2014, 110). For her, Watanabe (b. 1965) – as a director – was central to crafting “globally oriented anime that mix Japanese historical themes with the audio-visual stylings of contemporary pop cultures” (Annett 2014, 122). This pick-and-mix approach suggests a memetic quality to pop culture ‘stylings’ – a creative amalgamation in which these stylistic (and thus, recognisable) tropes continue to copy across genre works, precisely because they exist as part of the pop cultural sphere. Namely, to operate within the ‘popular’ style is to naturally gravitate around and consolidate tropes that have previously proven popular in their own right.

To this extent, having discussed the visual, aesthetic manifestation of this globally orientated mix, we will now turn our attention to how Macross Plus also employs audio as a central element to achieve the same effect. Hideko Haguchi’s The Interaction between Music and Visuals in Animated Movies – A Case Study of Akira lays down an excellent framework for discussing soundtracks in relation to the medium of anime, combining both a study of the composer themselves and their production process with a textual analysis of the music in relation to the film itself. Haguchi makes an important distinction that “Music has never been a primary focus in anime research” (Haguchi 2014, 174), but cites “the sophisticated interaction between [Akira’s] visuals and music” as a core part of the film’s lasting legacy and appeal. As such, we would argue that to understand Macross Plus as a complete cinematic work (comprising both audio and visual elements), it is crucial to look to the film’s soundtrack and its composer Yōko Kanno (b. 1963).

Prior to her work on Macross Plus, Kanno had spent the late 80s composing soundtracks for a number of video games and serving as arranger on the ending theme Once in a While, Talk of the Old Days for Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso (1992). It was 1994, however, that marked her debut work as a composer for anime, with soundtracks for both shōjo science-fiction series Please Save My Earth, and more significantly, Macross Plus. Her contribution to the film must, in many ways, be understood in a two-fold manner. Firstly, as a composer in a ‘traditional’ sense of the word – providing a classical, orchestral score, recorded largely in Tel Aviv by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Secondly, she was to create a suite of ‘pop’ songs to serve as the in-film material performed and sung by the AI idol character Sharon Apple. For these songs, Kanno would blend a number of musical genres (pop, industrial, electronica, slow jazz, up-beat techno, slavic-style choral chants) and languages (English, French and the invented alien ‘Zentran’ language) to add to the film’s depiction of a ‘stateless’, culturally diverse world – one in which music plays a central role. Kanno herself is clearly aware of this dimension of genre-mixing, commenting in an interview:

I hear everyone talk about how many genres [I work in] like classical, jazz and others, but personally, I don’t divide music by genre when creating. I don’t create by saying, ‘I must create a classical piece here,’ or ‘I must create a jazz piece here.’

(“An interview between Egan Loo and Yōko Kanno”)

The majority of Kanno’s eclectic music for Sharon Apple is delivered as part of two extended concert sequences which appear at roughly 20 and 70 minutes into the film’s duration. These concerts combine a heady mix of strobing, colourful visuals (both traditionally animated and CGI) with Kanno’s propulsive soundtrack to create a surreal, trance-like effect distinct from the rest of the film; designed to evoke the ‘rave’ atmosphere of a live concert. This interlinking of the animated medium and ‘rave’ music can be considered in relation to Toshiya Ueno’s Techno‐Orientalism and media‐tribalism: On Japanese animation and rave culture, where he likens the “design and color sense” of certain anime as reminiscent of both “psychedelics” and the “tribal atmosphere of open air rave parties” (Ueno 1999, 102). Ueno goes on to explain how this distinct audio-visual environment echoes many of the ideas explored earlier regarding networked systems and the liminality between biological and artificial bodies:

Through various technologies — sound system, rhythm machines, decoration, videos and computer graphics, drugs and dance — ravers can invent an extended artificial body or collective identity. Crucially, ravers are quite aware that the ‘nature’ with which they feel unified is thoroughly artificial and technological. (Ueno 1999, 104)

This attitude of a technologized, drug-like experience is echoed in Macross Plus during a press conference sequence in which Sharon Apple’s forthcoming concert is introduced, with a reporter stating: “Some experts say that the singing of an emotionless computer is nothing more than a type of narcotic”. This attitude reaches its logical conclusion later in the film when Sharon’s AI system runs wild and we are told that for the people at the concert: “All they see now is Sharon. All they hear now is Sharon”. Sharon then affirms this herself, stating: “You needn’t worry anymore. You needn’t do anything anymore.” In these lines, we can read a kind of commentary on the role of pop idol culture (and by extension, the media as a whole) within the same lineage of potential dangers expressed regarding technology earlier. Indeed, many of the track titles from Kanno’s soundtrack – Information High / Idol Talk / Let’s News / Pulse – allude to this concept of a media culture of frantic information overload, albeit one in which said media plays a vital role in establishing channels of unification and communication between individuals.

In seeking to tell a story in which music plays a central component, Macross Plus moves within a narrative space in which it is inherently informed by the trans-cultural ‘potential’ of music as a popular medium of mass-entertainment, much like anime itself is. In this respect, we can look to studies by Ian Condry (2006) and Ken McLeod (2013, 259-275) which seek to trace a link between music (in this instance, hip-hop) and anime as part of what Condry calls “the polycentrism of globalization” (2006, 215). Examining the instance of African American hip-hop’s use of Japanese motifs as an example of a globally hybridised experience of identity and racial formation in the 21st century, we can see this as a kind of bilateral flow in which: “Hip-hop went from the United States to the world, while anime traveled from Japan to the world.” (Condry 2006, 215). Here, populist mediums like anime and hip-hop take on an almost ambassadorial role – cultural product to be traded not simply on a financial level, but as part of an intellectual melange of creative sharing.

On a basic level, we can envision these kinds of bilateral flows of pop-culture product (ie. anime or music) as examples of the “postmodern eclecticism” outlined by Douglas McGray in Japan’s Gross National Cool (2002, 44-55); symptomatic of an environment where “Japan was postmodern before postmodernism was trendy, fusing elements of other national cultures into one almost-coherent cool”. For McGray, like other globally-popular Japanese properties like Hello Kitty or Pokemon, the medium of anime is simply part of a far larger, all-encompassing phenomenon of ‘product’, which might also include comic books, CDs, videogames, clothes, toys and other assorted merchandise. This environment of interconnected consumption has been termed variously as a “broader transmedia nexus” (Condry 2006, 204) or “media mix” (Steinberg 2012), and an understanding of it is crucial to seeing an animated work like Macross Plus not just as a film that combines a multitude of genre tropes, but as a specifically delineated ‘genre movie’ (Hess 1977, 65-95) for which the existence of this wider media mix is integral to its existence as part of the wider commercial ‘machinery’ of the anime industry as a whole.

As simply one installment within the larger ‘Macross’ franchise, the roots of the film’s relationship with ideas of the animated medium as ‘product’ date back to the original 1982 Macross TV series which serves as a prequel to the events of Macross Plus. This original series was exported to the US, retitled as Robotech (1985), a series that combined Macross with two other unrelated anime series – retooling them into a patched-together, Frankenstein-like new entity that changed character names and plotlines in an effort to adapt the material to American tastes. Fred Patten’s in-depth account of the franchise’s release in the US provides further detail on how this hybridisation very much stemmed from a desire to match the show to the strict formats of American television syndication, which dictated a minimum number of episodes (Patten 2004, 307). Likewise, the name Robotech itself came about as part of an orchestrated effort to match the animation’s identity to the trade name of a number of Macross ‘robot’ toys that had been imported from Japan for sale in the States.

This process of combining and altering a piece of animated content to maximise revenue returns and match different audience requirements would resurface a decade later in Macross Plus itself. The film’s scriptwriter Keiko Nobumoto (b. 1964) originally wrote the work as a feature-length piece, before the script shifted into a model that would see the animation split over four individually released home-video volumes – known as OVAs (original video animation). This release model had gained precedent within the anime industry in the 80s, and by the early 90s had developed serious traction, as these works typically tackled more adult material, and with a higher production standard, than TV animation (Patten 2004, 105-107). From these four individual releases – each roughly 30 minutes in length – the two-hour theatrical version was then edited, returning Macross Plus to its originally planned length. The finalised version contains roughly 20 minutes of new and alternative footage, re-mixing this into, and re-using existing footage, to allow a theatrical version of the same material to be released for comparatively little extra work. Here, we see Condry’s transmedia nexus in evidence again, this time feeding back into itself in an effort to maximise financial returns, breathing new life into existing visual content to allow it a ‘second chance’ at recouping production costs.

This concept of repackaging was echoed in the release strategy for the music of Macross Plus – of particular note because, at the time, it was one of very few anime soundtracks also released in America. The ‘original’ soundtrack was released across two separate CDs in both Japan and America, followed by a four track mini-album of just Sharon Apple’s songs, and lastly, a further version of the soundtrack subtitled ‘for fans only’ that included instrumentals and alternate versions of songs not featured in the first two soundtrack discs. Thus, for those wishing to own the ‘entire’ musical experience, they would have to purchase four separate CDs – and for American fans, this would involve importing two of the discs from Japan. This ‘completionist’ aspect of the film’s media mix is important to consider as it is representative of a wider trend in the way anime and its associated paraphernalia are marketed; a “mode of desire” Hiroki Azuma identifies as similar to “the passion of trading-card collectors to “the complete” (i.e., to collect all cards in a set)” (Azuma 2009, 104). For Azuma, the otaku culture of hardcore anime fandom is characterised by this culture of engendered consumption, one in which anime exists as simply one element in a database of intersecting elements.

Understanding the wider ‘transmedia nexus’ and culture of consumption that Macross Plus was released as part of is important because, in many ways, it is directly tied to the trajectory of its co-director Shinichirō Watanabe’s career. In The Soul of Anime, Ian Condry argues how the mecha and sci-fi genres in particular helped solidify ideas of the ‘anime fan’, with works like Gundam (1979) and Space Battleship Yamato (1974) emerging into the Star Wars (1977)-infused climate of the late 70s and a shift toward more ‘adult’ fan audiences for the medium. Condry goes on to explain how toy manufacturers would stipulate the kind of mecha robots they would like to see in their accompanying anime series, but that otherwise, creators were largely left to their own devices. He cites Watanabe as typical of this environment, with the director claiming “he began working in anime because he was told it would be easier, and quicker, for him to become a director there than in live-action films” (Condry 2013, 122-123). In Watanabe’s attitude, we see the medium of anime itself outlined as a kind of facilitator for freedom – creative and commercial drives dovetailing neatly, with checklists of ‘required’ genre elements serving as a backbone and easy ‘in’ for creators to then create works as they pleased.

Denison’s reading of the mecha subgenre adds further detail on its continuing popularity, and like Condry, she sees characteristic works like Gundam as emblematic of a sea-change that occurred within the anime medium; the impact of the franchise’s media mix instrumental in the move “beyond anime texts into the realms of fully fledged cultural phenomenon”. Denison is keen to stress however that the mecha subgenre is simply part of a wider oeuvre of science-fiction anime that can trace its lineage back to Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy (1963) and science fiction’s status as an ‘imported concept’. To this respect, she states: “Science fiction has become so bound up within Japanese media production that now it is normal for the romanized phrase ‘SF’ to stand in for the term” (Denison 2015, 27). Here, science-fiction as concept is specifically couched in non-Japanese script, drawing allusions to it as a ‘coded’ concept and carefully delineated category.

In contrast though, she also presents the case of Watanabe’s Space Dandy (2014) and how while this animated TV show is clearly a work of science fiction, and is set in space, its official website “never names the show as science fiction” (Denison 2015, 28). As such, we might envision Watanabe’s vision of the show – which acts as a kind of ‘genre kaleidoscope’, bringing together different directors, animation styles and genres for each individual episode – as post-genre, building on the ‘mixed’ nature of Watanabe’s Macross Plus and Cowboy Bebop to transcend formal, traditionalist notions of being purely ‘science fiction’. As Denison goes on to explain later in her book: “Rather than anime universally being “what we collectively believe it to be”, anime’s genres remain contingent on context; what is an anime genre in one place may not be a genre elsewhere” (Denison 2015, 102). As such, in a transnational context, we might envision the mixed genres of Macross Plus as an inherent advantage; in which one genre might be played up for certain global markets, while for other audiences, it might be presented in an entirely different context.

These ideas of genre as contingent on context and spatial orientation are important because they hint toward Watanabe’s distinct awareness of international markets, with longtime Watanabe collaborator Dai Satō (b. 1969) claiming that when it came to Watanabe’s TV series Samurai Champloo (2004), he “had planned to rely on foreign capital from the start, and his plan was to market it abroad” (Annett 2014, 124). We see this too in Space Dandy, which notably aired in the US – dubbed into English on the Adult Swim channel’s Toonami block – before its Japanese debut a day later on the channel Tokyo MX. In this context, we can see Watanabe’s directorial output as no longer solely a Japanese product for Japanese audiences, but a truly global product in which an envisioned and acknowledged Western audience is no longer an afterthought, but a prioritised component of an international rollout.

Part 3: A carnival of genres – Robots, romance and revelry

In The Moe Manifesto, Patrick Galbraith describes the quality of the Macross franchise as a ‘mash-up work’ as integral to its appeal to anime fans – combining robots and battle sequences with beautiful character designs, melodramatic romance and idol performances. He goes on to cite Sasakibara Go’s Bishojo no gendaishi (Contemporary History of Bishojo) and its argument that the core narrative drive in the franchise is not the action and battles, but the love triangle between its protagonists (Galbraith 2014, 14). Antonia Levi echoes this view, seeing romantic elements as crucial to the appeal of anime to a teenage otaku audience, stating “It’s not surprising that romance is part of almost all anime regardless of what else is going on” (Levi 1996, 111). In this light, it is useful to also examine the comments of Macross Plus’ co-director Shōji Kawamori (b. 1960), presented on the back cover text blurb of the UK DVD release of the film:

It’s easy for me to say this now, but originally there were three plans that eventually created the one story. One was a story of good friends suddenly feeling immense hatred for each other and fighting to kill each other. The second was a slightly comical story of two pilots racing to get to see their heroine’s concert. And the third story encapsulated a world of high-tech gadgetry with a love story. And hence… As there is so much going on in so little time, I had difficulties including all three ideas into one story… To me, the original plan combining to make one episode was the key point to the ‘Macross’ atmosphere…

(Macross Plus – The Ultimate Edition [DVD sleeve], 2002)

It is this notion of ‘atmosphere’ that is of particular relevance to our argument here, and its relation to the three central ‘expressive modes’ of anime suggested by Napier; that of apocalypse, festival and elegy. While Macross Plus arguably contains elements of all three of these, it is the ‘festival’ mode which is most suggestive of the combinatory free-play of genres we see suggested in the comments from Kawamori above. Indeed, Napier suggests that the animated medium is especially conducive to this kind of atmosphere: “As with the festival space itself, the space of animation is one that allows for experimentation, fluidity, transformation, and ultimately an entry into a world more radically Other than anything in conventional live-action cinema” (Napier 2005, 31). In this evocation of ‘radically Other’ worlds, we see recollections of the ideas of statelessness explored earlier, with the world of Macross Plus positioned as an experimental space in which the festival mode can be envisioned both literally – in the atmosphere of rave-like pop concerts – and thematically, via a collision of disparate genre tropes. Denison elaborates on Napier’s suggested modes of expression, citing Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop as a prime example of how the mixing of genres within a work inherently lends itself to “moments of the festival” in a show “which deliberately mixes elements of space opera with gangster, Western and film noir stylistics, even making occasional comedic forays into horror” (Denison 2015, 17). For Denison and Napier, the festival is not only combinatory, but transformational – the animated medium itself giving rise to a free-play of experimentation where deliberate mixing, and the resulting ‘Otherness’ becomes the raison-d’etre in and of itself.

Denison’s categorisation and labelling of these categories ties into Steve Neale’s theories of identifying works as “multiply generic” (Neale 2000, 2) – namely, how reworking and subversion of received notions of what genre ‘is’ relies on an implicit audience knowledge of conditions and aesthetic styles that then become conventions through this process of categorisation and grouping. Citing Altman, Neale goes on to explain how these interactions with genre become an integral part of the production and consumption of films:

By definition, all films belong to some genre(s)… but only certain films are self-consciously produced and consumed according to (or against) a specific generic model. When the notion of genre is limited to descriptive uses, as it commonly is when serving… classification purposes, we speak of ‘film genre’. However, when the notion of genre takes on a more active role in the production and consumption process, we appropriately speak instead of ‘genre film’, thus recognizing the extent to which generic identification becomes a formative component of film viewing. (Altman, quoted in Neale 2000, 27)

Here, we see a specific delineation between the kinds of categorisation Denison employs in describing the many genres present in Cowboy Bebop, and the more ‘active’ relationship with genre employed by Kawamori, Watanabe and Kanno in the production of Macross Plus as a ‘genre film’ to be consumed as part of an existing anime media mix designed to sell product such as robot toys and CDs. To this extent, an analysis of Neale’s closer readings of two genres in particular – science fiction, and the musical – provide a useful tool in allowing us to see exactly how this active engagement with tropes manifests itself within the film itself.

Citing Sobchak, Neale’s discussion of science fiction roots itself in how the “visual surface” of science fiction “presents us with a confrontation between a mixture of those images to which we respond as ‘alien’ and those we know to be familiar” (Sobchack 1987, 87). In this, we see strong ties to the ideas of mixing and statelessness discussed earlier, whilst in Neale’s comments on trends in the 1990s toward more postmodernist science fiction styles as “rendering the artificial as ever more human”, (Telotte 1995, 22) we see this mixing born out in the stylistic climate of 90s cyberpunk. Within this environment, science fiction films become “a surface for play and dispersal” amidst a “new and erotic leisureliness” (Sobchack 1987, 227-228; Neale 2000, 100-104).

We see similar ideas of playfulness and mixture in Neale’s subsequent discussion of the musical genre, where he comments “The musical has always been a mongrel genre” – with the prerequisite of music, song and dance being its only essential ingredients, enabling the musical as especially open to being combined with other genres. To this extent, the musical offers many of the same blendings of the ‘alien’ and ‘familiar’ presented in science fiction, with Neale noting the ‘escapist’ nature of the musical, and how this offers “aesthetically ‘utopian’ solutions to real social needs and contradictions” (Neale 2000, 104-112). Just as Denison and Napier point to the thrill of ‘Otherness’, Neale’s ideas around the alien, escapist nature of certain genres suggests a contrast drive toward a cinematic playground in which the tools of said genres – their tropes – become the key instigators by which creators might experiment with fictional explorations of real-world issues.

In this context, we can clearly see how Macross Plus – as an overtly science-fiction work that integrates and incorporates music as a core narrative element – lends itself to an atmosphere of fluid play in which it can also bring in components of the romance, action and military genres to become the epitome of the ‘festival’ mode discussed by Napier and Denison. In looking to further express the manner in which the film intersects with this mode, it is worth relating Napier’s ‘festival’ with the theory of the ‘carnivalesque’ put forward by Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. In Bakhtin’s theory, the carnivalesque functions as a narrative mode that liberates the norms of the dominant style or atmosphere through humour and/or chaos. Within this atmosphere of freedom and play, opposites are mingled and fools become wise. In an ambiguous “world upside down” (Bakhtin 1968, 370) where high and low culture meet, a new “polyphonic” feel emerges in which there is “familiar and free interaction between people” (Bakhtin 1993, 122). It is this same ‘polyphonic’ mixing of styles we see within Macross Plus – where serious, philosophical science-fiction concepts meet mid-way with the ecstatic thrill of action, romance and pop music. This ‘drawing together’ of people, tropes and styles is all conducive to the kind of liberation of the dominant atmosphere Bakhtin references.

Many of the most overtly carnivalesque tropes are best presented in the film’s central character – Isamu – who epitomises Bakhtin’s theory of the fool-turned-wiseman. From the off, he is characterised as brash and jocular, from both his use of Western phraseology like “Okay, no problem” and “suriringu daro?” (Isn’t it thrilling?) (Chiba 2007, 157) to other characters repeatedly lambasting him as a “baka” (idiot). Kanno’s soundtrack assists here too – while the rest of the film’s incidental music is largely orchestral or electronic in nature, Isamu’s introductory theme Welcome To Sparefish (potentially alluding to him as a fish-out-of-water) is comprised of low-slung, rugged, acoustic guitar work reminiscent of classic Hollywood westerns, placing him in a lineage of cyberpunk ‘console cowboys’ (Fernbach 2000, 234-255). And yet, by the film’s conclusion, he has ‘come good’, saving both the movie’s heroine and the city at large from Sharon Apple’s rogue AI program; his ‘human skill’ and daring trumping technology and cold machine logic. His ‘wisdom-of-fools’ is best encapsulated in a quote from earlier in the film where he proclaims “A hundred travel books aren’t worth a real trip” – namely, that the real ‘experience’ will always trump information.

For Isamu, the world of Macross Plus remains one of constant carnivalesque play – a cocktail of thrills intimately linked to an inversion or transcendence from the ordinary day-to-day world – a quality Napier envisions as a kind of “speed induced pleasure flow” (Napier 2005, 262). She takes the freewheeling spirit of Akira’s motorbike hooligans as her example, and we see a similar attitude present in Isamu (who like Akira’s protagonist, also rides a bright red, futuristic motorbike) when he describes why exactly he enjoys flying planes so much: “When the throttle is open for all it’s worth, and the G’s are slamming me back, and it seems like I’m flying on into forever, I feel like I can just barely see something. Another world”. In Isamu’s quasi-sexual, almost orgasmic description of his pleasure-seeking, thrill-ride modus operandi, we can see the kind of drive that Orbaugh links to Foucault’s postmodernist concept that sex “harbours what is most true in ourselves” (Orbaugh 2007, 177). In Orbaugh’s opinion, these explorations of sexuality are a fundamental focus of cyberized narratives surrounding subjectivity and what it means to be an ‘individual’. This outlook is best typified in Macross Plus where notions of ‘technomasculinity’ (Fernbach 2000) – in which both women and machines are fetishised and conflated into a singular thrill-ride – is contrasted directly with a hybridised machine-femininity in a scene where Isamu’s friend Yang is ‘hacking’ Sharon Apple’s systems in an attempt to bring her under his control. We see disembodied ‘parts’ of Sharon’s incorporeal body floating in the air, and he comments: “I’m trying to kidnap Sharon. However, I can’t find the most important part.” Isamu jokingly quips back: “Well, I suppose her virginity would be kinda hard to get”. This idea of Sharon Apple as a kind of feminine yet supra-sexual being bears closer examination in relation to Ueno’s ideas discussed earlier linking animation and rave culture. For him, these cyberized, feminine identities take on an almost totemic, shamanistic quality:

The mimetic antagonism of ravers can only be resolved around DJ as mediator and technoshaman… in both Japanimation and trance, the position of women is very significant and one frequently encounters the merging of women into the machine and technology. Many Japanimations feature female protagonists… endowed with special relationships with technology. …the naked woman as cyborg, and hybrid images of women and machines are clichés of Japanimation. These commonly embody themes of the loss of individuality to the wider body of technology. (Ueno 1999, 104)

These ideas of merging and loss of individuality are important as they tie Macross Plus and its technologized world into a wide scope of themes which Jean-François Lyotard identifies in The Postmodern Condition as symptomatic of the “computerized”, “telematic” era. Lyotard envisions this as a process in which information is “exteriorised” and “materialised”, an  “informatisation” and “commercialisation” of the world in which data becomes omnipresent, material and unending (Lyotard 1984). This outlook is emblematic of a landscape of popular media product that exists both within the film – in the form of AI pop idol Sharon Apple – and ‘without’, via its position as part of a globalised transmedia mix of consumer habits. Indeed, in many ways, the ideas of ‘digital artifice’ and ‘reproduction’ inherent in the very idea of a holographic idol like Sharon Apple encapsulate the concept of a postmodernist pop-cultural phenomenon, as born out in studies by Yuji Sone (2017, 139-166) and Ka Yan Lam (2016, 1107-1124) of real-world holographic pop idol Hatsune Miku.

In this light, we can envision Macross Plus as engaging with the idea of postmodernity on a number of levels – namely, through its self-referential existence as a piece of popular media telling a story specifically about the consumption of popular media, but also in its evocation of an irreverent, carnivalesque ‘atmosphere’. By wrapping these concepts into its wider themes about the role of the individual in a world where the boundary between human and machine bodies is increasingly blurred, the film’s continued process of melding and mixing begins to emulate the “speed induced pleasure flow” described by Napier earlier – a wholesale cinematic experience that brings a distinctly tangible flavour to the atmosphere and expressiveness of the ‘festival’ mode.


In writing this study, I have sought to highlight specific stylistic lineages within the history of anime, moving the conversation beyond monolithic, ‘ground-zero’ works like Akira and Ghost in the Shell by taking Macross Plus as a representative work through which we might examine and re-evaluate how key genre tropes in the spheres of cyberpunk, mecha and science-fiction at large have evolved over the years. From the jockeying of creative and commercial priorities in a merchandise-driven medium to the evolving position of anime as ‘made in Japan’ yet consumed globally, we are presented a window into a cultural product uniquely suited to act as a ‘nexus’ for a wide swathe of both inputs and outputs.

By envisioning Macross Plus as a ‘mash-up’ film in which various genre tropes and creative influences are amalgamated into a singular whole, we see it not only as a product of what came before it, but also a springboard for what followed. As highlighted in the continuing output of its co-director Shinichirō Watanabe, the distinct pop-cultural blending – comprising both audio and visuals – he developed in this film would become a kind of directorial calling card; a style that was distinct in itself, precisely because it blended so many other styles of both Eastern and Western origin. Taken together with Shōji Kawamori and Yōko Kanno, we are presented with a picture of transnationally literate creators working to piece together a cinematic product that not only works within the framework and tropes of genres like cyberpunk and mecha, but invests them with a new, globally infused aesthetic that is both familiar and exotic in nature.

What we are left with is – much like cyberpunk’s evolution from analogue to digitized visions of melded, man/machine entities – an unfurling network of interlinked elements (such as music, setting, characters, themes and technical production aspects) which function both individually, but also as part of what we might term a blueprint or paradigm for future innovation. Macross Plus presents one such model – existing not only as a calculated ‘genre film’ effort – but a stepping stone on a path of gradual shift toward an understanding of anime as a truly globalized, postmodern ‘media mix’ in which audio and visual, East and West, creators and consumers, all flow into a single, culturally amalgamated ‘collective identity’.


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The Rambling Guitarist – Gender, genre and archetypes in Nikkatsu Action’s mukokuseki eiga


Nikkatsu Action – a new, exciting genre to cater to a new, exciting generation of Japanese youth. For Japan’s oldest film studio Nikkatsu, the late 50s and early 60s represented a rapidly evolving, cosmopolitan playground in which Eastern and Western influences could be collided together in an explosive mix that ultimately resulted in movies that felt quite apart from either. These were the mukokuseki eiga (literally, ‘borderless’ or of ‘no nationality’) and as Mark Schilling details in his book No Borders No Limits, “To young audiences growing to adulthood in post-war Japan, that mix was not just fantasy: it reflected the Western influences all around them”.

Released in 1959, The Rambling Guitarist (Gitaa o motta wataridori) is the first in the nine film wataridori (wanderer) series produced by Nikkatsu from 1959 – 1962. Directed by Buichi Saito and starring Akira Kobayashi in the leading role of the titular ‘wanderer’ Shinji Taki, the film plays out in the northern port town of Hakodate as Taki finds himself embroiled with the local yakuza. Mob boss Akitsu (Nobuo Kaneko) tasks Taki with evicting a family-run fishery, and it is within this context that Taki must also contend with a romantic entanglement with Akitsu’s daughter (Ruriko Asaoka), as well as a recurring foe from the past in the form of pistol-wielding hitman George (Joe Shishido).

January 2016 saw The Rambling Guitarist released on home video for the first time in the UK via a new High-Definition Blu-Ray transfer on Arrow Video’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys compilation set; directly referencing the film’s position within the wider context of Nikkatsu’s powerful ‘star system’ of the time, in which their line-up of ‘Diamond Guys’ would slot interchangeably into their latest action movies. With this powerful stable of big-name male talent at their disposable, Nikkatsu was able to efficiently crank out an immense volume of highly populist material. While often referred to as belonging to ‘pulp movie culture’, it is precisely for this reason that the Nikkatsu Action films make for such an intriguing case-study. Working within the medium of bold character ‘types’ and off-the-hanger genre tropes, there is a marked ‘standard’ by which to measure the way these films present themselves to their audience.

With the wataridori series as arguably the ‘purest’ example of Nikkatsu’s borderless action, it stands as a prime candidate through which to better understand the precise appeal of these films as well as the way their settings and characters captured a new, worldly aesthetic. Through a close analysis of The Rambling Guitarist – and more specifically, the way it presents and challenges various gender archetypes – this essay will look to present a snapshot of what Nikkatsu Action represented, straddling the borderline between two camps; East and West, old and new, tradition and modernity. As Tom Mes writes in the booklet that accompanies the Arrow Video release of the film: “The Rambling Guitarist is as archetypal a genre film as can be. But it is also jauntily playful with those archetypes, making it an exuberant reminder of the timeless, and borderless, appeal of popular cinema.”

A man’s world – masculine power and honour

As part of Nikkatsu Action’s production-line output of ‘Diamond Guys’ films, The Rambling Guitarist is by definition a ‘star vehicle’ movie, precision designed to present male lead Akira Kobayashi in the most attractive way possible. From his dress sense (T-shirt and leather jacket) to his ability to handle himself in a fight, his every move within the film is a calculated effort to evoke a clear sense of ‘cool’. While his persona as a kind of ‘Japanese Elvis’ who sings and charms his way through Hakodate is arguably riddled with cliche and excess (the theme song that Kobayashi sings in the movie is repeated no fewer than six times), it is these same elements that shape the character of Taki into something embodying just as much of the mukokuseki aesthetic as the film’s East-meets-West setting. His titular guitar might ooze Western style and stand as the most overt signifier of an old school ‘cowboy’ feel – but crucially, the song he’s singing is in Japanese.

Taki’s initial guise as a lonely wanderer morphs once he enters Hakodate and signs up as hired muscle for gang boss Akitsu. His initial reservations make him out as a man of morals: “I hate bullying the weak,” he tells Akitsu, setting the stage for a classic exploration of the themes of giri and ninjo. Hiroshi Kitamura lays the groundwork for the theme’s significance in his essay Shoot-Out In Hokkaido – The “Wanderer” (wataridori) series and the politics of transnationalism: “In his autobiography, [Akira] Kobayashi wrote that the protagonist’s motivation to help society in the Wanderer series stems from his sense of ‘duty’ (giri) and ‘compassion’ (ninjo).”

By agreeing to work for Akitsu, Taki ties himself into the giri system – one of complete obedience to his superior. But this obedience clearly stands at odds with his inner moral compass – while Taki might enjoy knocking back drinks, chatting up pretty girls and taking on odd jobs for the yakuza, the film makes it clear he is a fundamentally good man at heart. This is best symbolised in an early scene where Taki meets a young boy who has lost his balloon; Taki immediately steps in and offers to buy him a new one, with some candy thrown in to boot. The message is plain: what kind of hardened criminal would buy a balloon for a kid?

All this ties into a deep-rooted system of signs and symbolism, fundamental to the successful workings of a ‘genre’ film. Steve Neale defines this aspect as ‘iconography’, and details how, by applying this concept to cinema, we are able to glean far more from an individual movie by placing it in context with our knowledge of other movies of that type. In essence, a system of ‘visual conventions’ or patterns of imagery, which he explains – via a quotation from McArthur – as:

“those surrounding the physical presence, attitudes and dress of the actors and the characters they play; those emanating from the milieu within which the characters operate; and those connected with the technology at the characters’ disposal”

An understanding of this system of visual conventions is important because it allows us to place the fundamentally ‘good’ character of Taki in stark contrast to his key rival in the film; the hired hitman George – memorably played by the puffy-cheeked Joe Shishido. Arriving thirty-three minutes into the film’s run-time, George (whose Western name only furthers the mukokuseki feel of the movie) is immediately marked out as a ‘bad’ character by the prominent scar on his cheek (physical presence), his disparaging comments about women and the fact he cheats at a dice game with Taki (attitudes), as well as the fact he is most frequently shown cradling a pistol (technology at his disposal) and shoots seagulls with it for target practice.

With ‘good’ and ‘bad’ set in clear opposition to each-other, the film’s fundamental nature as a ‘genre’ work is allowed to fully click into motion. The conventions of populist action cinema tell us that a showdown between Taki and George is inevitable, and so our anticipation for this is formulaically increased through a series of ‘almost’ encounters such as the aforementioned dice game. This is further emphasised by the fact that Joe Shishido had form for playing these ‘types’ of character, as Mark Schilling comments: “Joe Shishido became a Nikkatsu star by portraying characters who often begin as hitmen, conmen and other disreputable types, but end up on the side of the hero, if not always the angels.”

Here, we return to the notion of giri and ninjo – which like the opposition of good and bad, achieve so much of their dynamic narrative drive from the fact (as a convention) the audience knows the film must move inexorably toward a point where the characters must make a fundamental choice between the two. Both Taki and George are forced to decide between continuing to blindly obey Akitsu (giri) or to do what they feel is morally right (ninjo). While to a certain degree it is obvious that Taki – as the hero of the film – will make the ‘right’ decision, things are left more open-ended with George; which all helps to arguably make him the most morally complex (and interesting) character in the film. As many reviews attest, it is Shishido, invariably, who steals every scene.

As the film progresses, we begin to see that George – while outwardly cruel – has hidden depths. Via a flashback, we are shown how he and Taki (during his previous role as a policeman) previously met in Kobe; with Taki gunning down George’s friend. George longs for retribution, telling Taki: “He was my only partner. I’ll take revenge for his death. I won’t be a coward like you.” And yet, in the very next scene – when the stand-off between George and Taki is interrupted by the arrival of a marine patrol, George quips: ‘We’ll put our duel on hold. I play fair.”

Here, we see the purest distillation of the codes of gentlemanly honour and chivalry George holds himself account to. At numerous points in the film he could have ostensibly finished Taki off, and yet he feels compelled to constantly frame their showdowns in the context of a ‘game’. This reaches its natural conclusion in a surreal sequence near the film’s finale where Taki and George both stand – Western shoot-out style – with two pool tables between them. In their hands they each hold a pool ball, which at the count of three they will drop and then quickly pick up their guns from the pool tables and fire one shot at each-other. Taki – inevitably – wins this contest; and George – once again seemingly compelled by his own personal honour – chooses to give himself up to the police and is arrested.

Isolde Standish frames this kind of honour code as specifically masculine, and belonging to another traditional Japanese concept – jingi, which she describes as governing “male-male relations and is in fact synonymous with the more commonly accepted moral code of giri ninjo… both of which can be rendered in English as ‘justice and humanity’”.

The specificity to ‘male-male relations’ in regard to the idea of jingi is important because it places both George and Taki’s actions in a sphere of reference which is inherently competitive. As a man, who is strongest? Who can drink the most? Who can romance the prettiest girls? Who is the most honourable? Who is the most ‘manly’? If we consider The Rambling Guitarist as a kind of male power fantasy – with Taki as an aspirational self-insert character for the audience, these notions of masculinity must inherently be measured against other men to be fully realised (either within the film itself, with other films of its type, or within society at large). Standish elaborates, quoting from Ikegami who places these masculine ideas of honour within the long-standing tradition of the samurai:

“When a samurai regulates his own behaviour based upon considerations of what is deemed ‘honourable’, he has an imagined community, or a symbolic reference group, in his mind that carries his reputation and social dignity.”

It is this same self-regulation that we see time and time again in the character of George, whose notion of honour is evidently formed from his measuring of his own masculinity against others – such as Taki. For George, when he says ‘I’m not a coward’ or ‘I play fair’, he reinforces a wider societal (or at the very least, a cinematic ideal) of what masculinity stands for, and to do otherwise would be to utterly destroy the self-conceived social dignity he sees himself operating within, despite his role in the lawless criminal underworld. As Standish further notes: “The principle difference between practitioners of the code of jingi and those of giri ninjo, is that they exist in a community which operates on the margins of ‘legitimate’ social institutions” – ie. just as George and Taki do, within Akitsu’s murky yakuza world.

This notion of marginal communities returns us once again to the ‘borderless’, elusive quality of the Nikkatsu Action films. By definition, the titular wanderer of the wataridori series is a man that never wholly exists within a community – his existence there is purely transitory. In a world where the rules of ‘legitimate’ society never really quite apply to Taki, it is instead against the film’s other key players (and the character archetypes they represent) that we must measure him. And just as the film’s Eastern qualities must inherently contrast with its Western overtones, so too must its depiction of femininity contrast with its masculinity.

The girl next door – evolving with the times

For every ‘Diamond Guy’ outing, it was typical for Nikkatsu Action to pair the male lead with an equally attractive female – again, from a stable of regular talent who would appear time and time again. In the wataridori series, this came in the form of actress Ruriko Asaoka. The original trailer for film even pairs her and Kobayashi together as “The pride of Nikkatsu, the charming duo” – referencing to their previous appearance together earlier that year in Farewell to Southern Tosa (Nangoku Tosa o ato ni shite), also directed by Buichi Saito. The duo had form, and Nikkatsu was ready to milk their on-screen dynamic for all it was worth.

Mark Schilling begins his mini-biography of Asaoka in No Borders No Limits in largely aesthetic terms: ‘[her] on-screen image was slightly exotic, excitingly modern. With her slim, petite figure, she may not have been a Hollywood glamour queen, but her big eyes, small face, full lips and slender, perfectly proportioned legs made her an Audrey Hepburn-like stand-out’. Evidently, Asaoka’s core role within The Rambling Guitarist is to act as visual allure – and this is important to consider, because for all that her character Yuki plays the epitome of the ‘modern girl’; dressing in fancy Western clothes, playing Chopin on the piano and driving a flashy car, the foundations of her character – like Taki – are built on far more traditionally Japanese roots.

The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema defines an ‘ideal Japanese femininity’ as one rooted in obedience and domesticity, ultimately in service to an established patriarchy. The character of Yuki embodies this perfectly – the majority of her actions within The Rambling Guitarist are with either Taki (the love interest) or her father Akitsu (patriarchy). When Akitsu says to Taki: “When did I give you permission to take out my daughter?” we see Yuki’s status as an individual succinctly negated – within the context of the film she is allowed to exist only as an adjunct to a man; so much so that she is in effect blinded to everything else going on around her.

As the film draws toward its climax, Yuki finally confronts her father about his shady line of work, and the naive, black-and-white way she has envisioned the world up until now is made clear:

YUKI: “You were a perfect father to me, but a demon to the rest of the world.”

AKITSU: “Everything I do is for your happiness.”

YUKI: “I don’t need that kind of happiness, as long as I can be proud of you.”

The implication being, of course, that even now, her happiness is still symbiotically linked to the pride she desires to feel for her father, rather than any kind of individually defined happiness for herself.

In contrast to the patriarchally-dominated Yuki, we are given a powerful symbol of ‘new femininity’ and the changing societal roles of women in Sumiko (played by Sanae Nakahara) – the wife of the fishery-owner, and more significantly, Akitsu’s sister. When Taki and his lackeys first visit the fishery, we are immediately shown that the owner is reserved and cowardly while Sumiko herself is far more outspoken and bold than her husband. This is reaffirmed later as Akitsu explains: “She refused the marriage I arranged for her and married that coward instead. She ignored my wishes. I’ll never forget that.” His possessiveness is inflamed by his sister’s blatant flouting of his authority, and in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, we see Sumiko confront Akitsu while Yuki – the perfect ‘kept’ daughter – sings a song downstairs, all dolled up in a fancy Western dress. Sumiko, notably, is wearing a sharp business suit in this scene – her clothing delineating a woman of purpose and societal drive, whereas in contrast Yuki is reduced to a pretty ornament.

This juxtaposition is crucial, as in the following dialogue, Akitsu directly contrasts the situations of Sumiko – his sister, and Yuki – his daughter. “If you hadn’t gone there you could have lived the good life, like Yuki,” he tells Sumiko, damning her marriage to the cowardly fishery-owner again. “Don’t you feel envious? Is hardship fun? Don’t you understand how I feel? How much I care for you? You’re going to defy me?” Akitsu’s interrogatory questions highlight just how ingrained his ideas of masculine dominance are – he simply cannot comprehend Sumiko’s reasoning for pursuing her own life choices instead of meekly following what he had envisioned for her. As Jennifer Coates discusses in Making Icons: Repetition and the Female Image in Japanese Cinema, 1945–1964: “Young working women… presented a potential threat to the patriarchal social order in their adoption of new roles in the public rather than domestic sphere, challenging pre-war and wartime ideals.”

The changing roles of women is not the only theme we see The Rambling Guitarist handling a mix of old and new archetypes. In 1956 Nikkatsu had seen massive success with its zeitgeist-capturing taiyozoku (sun tribe) films such as Season of the Sun (Taiyō no kisetsu) and Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu). Sexually charged and depicting a powerful cocktail of youthful excess, the subsequent public outcry surrounding these films and the example they might be setting for impressionistic young audiences of the time ‘forced Nikkatsu to soften its edges’, laying the framework for the more muted manner in which The Rambling Guitarist handles the topic of sex.

The taiyozoku films engaged powerful symbolism to portray their deep-rooted sexuality, from the gentle lapping of seaweed in the ocean waves (Crazed Fruit) to the stark implication of a man thrusting his erect penis through a traditional Japanese shoji paper screen (Season of the Sun). The closest The Rambling Guitarist gets to this kind of sensuality between its young couple comes in a scene where Yuki comes to wake Taki up, asking him out on a date. Taki unabashedly begins to pull off his nightwear, and Yuki quickly turns round, visibly embarrassed. Here we see the perfect echo of the ‘virginal ambience’ of the Japanese girl-next-door archetype, paired with Taki’s status as the ‘chaste warrior’ – as Barrett puts it: “All ideal Japanese warriors then become chaste in their single-minded devotion to battle”. Taki might entertain an interest in pretty girls – there was even a former lover in the past – but crucially his romance within the film itself is never consummated. To do so would be to weaken his more primary role as a masculine brawler.

Reaching the film’s finale, we see Taki board a ferry and depart Hakodate for new horizons while Yuki sees him off. While on one hand there is poignancy to this wistful, melodramatic final farewell, it also brings with it a bitter irony as Yuki scathingly admonishes herself for turning a blind eye to her father’s criminal activities: “I was a bad daughter,” she says. “The next time we meet, I promise I’ll be a better daughter.”

Returning to Barrett’s Archetypes In Japanese Film, we are given a neat summary of the kind of girl Yuki ultimately represents: “The inactive existence of suffering beauties in films is often predicated on the fact that they are wrenched from a sheltered life with their parents and cannot live in the cruel world without the protection or at least support of a man”.

In this damning indictment of Yuki as the perpetual ‘suffering beauty’, the film’s ending takes on an almost mean-spirited nature. While Taki – in all his powerful, unfettered masculinity – is free to move on as he wills to begin another adventure, Yuki – the ‘bad daughter’ – is now left completely disenfranchised and powerless; still chained to the town itself. Her father is dead, and her apparent saviour – Taki – has left. With the two most significant men in her life now absent, there is a pitiful desperation in her final lines: “He’s never coming back. I know.”

In this, we see a stark contrast with the kind of tough, ‘earthy’ woman that would emerge in subsequent years – typified by the heroine of Shohei Imamura’s 1961 film Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan). There, in an inversion of the ending to The Rambling Guitarist, it is the heroine who finally achieves ‘freedom’ at the end of the film – with her male love interest dead, she neatly swerves the ‘expected’ route of continuing to ‘service’ the American GIs, and instead leaves town for good. Donald Richie neatly sums the dilemma up: “the Japanese woman is a fitting symbol of a problem which many face: how to learn to be yourself in a society that doesn’t want you.”

In the blended East-meets-West world of Nikkatsu’s mukokuseki films, a girl like Yuki is only as real as the cinematic archetypes she stands for – the visual appeal of the flashy, modern West paired with the staid traditionalism of the East. Torn between the two, she ultimately becomes as plastic and intangible as the film itself, in plain opposition to the kind of gritty, realistic femininity Shohei Imamura would populate his films with. Yuki, in essence, is merely a fantasy – a dream woman that tries to combine East and West in service of populist entertainment. And it is to this concept of ‘pure’ entertainment that we must turn next.

Neither here nor there – Borderless spaces and the freedom of populist joy

In describing the unique hybrid settings of the Nikkatsu Action films, Mark Schilling employs the phrase ‘internationalised spaces’ – epitomised in the aesthetic of the ‘Eastern Westerns’ of which The Rambling Guitarist is an obvious example. The notion of ‘internationalised space’ is symbolised in a striking visual reference within the opening minutes of the film – a brief preamble shows Taki travelling on the back of a horse-drawn cart through the dusty wilds of Hokkaido. Pure Western – evoking classic John Ford vistas. But in the very next scene, we are shown a city street at night-time, full of neon-lit signs in Japanese script. Taki has suddenly ‘arrived’ at one of the town’s many drinking dens – we are never shown how he entered the town, and the transition point between the ‘wild’ and the ‘urban’ remains elusive. What remains is the continual notion of a fantastical playground – one in which further opportunities for freedom are enabled.

It is this notion of ‘freedom’ that forms the core of Gregory Barrett’s discussion of mukokuseki eiga, as he outlines how Akira Kobayashi’s hero in the wataridori series is just as elusive as the abstract ‘No Nation Land’ the films are set in: “Entering the new No Nation Land like a phantom from out of nowhere and in the end vanishing, he becomes an invincible, abstract figure, since he had neither past memories to weaken him nor future concerns to restrict his conduct.” The Rambling Guitarist outlines this notion precisely in the way it handles the elusive question of Taki’s past. When Yuki enquires about Taki’s former lover, who we are told has passed away, Taki replies mysteriously: “You shouldn’t hang around someone like me. I come from a different world than you”. Here, we get a sense of how the artificial, borderless world in which Taki operates has started to seep into his very persona.

The Taki of the present, freed from the chains of his past, achieves a kind of invincibility (both emotionally and physically) that allows him to navigate this borderless world unfettered by either social or practical constraints. Indeed, it is telling that despite how frequently Taki gets into fights in the film, it is only as we reach the final showdown – an hour into proceedings – that we see him bleed. This superhuman quality is even referenced in an earlier scene where Taki is embroiled in a punch up with one of the fishery workers. The worker, believing Taki is responsible for the fishery-owner’s death, proclaims angrily: “Are you even human?”. When Yuki runs over and intervenes, she asks Taki: “Why were you letting him hit you?” – implying that here, any physical weakness displayed by Taki was purely self-imposed, and that he could have easily fought off the fishery worker if he’d wanted to.

Here again, we return to the idea of male power fantasies and ideas around the self-regulatory masculinity of jingi. With Standish and Ikegami drawing a link between contemporary jingi and that of the samurai, it is rather apt that the film that Buichi Saito is perhaps best remembered for in the West is 1972’s Lone Wolf And Cub: Baby Cart In Peril – the fourth in a six part chanbara (swordplay) series featuring a disgraced samurai as the central character, wandering the country as a for-hire ronin. With this in mind, we can interpret The Rambling Guitarist’s Taki in much the same light – a ‘modern day’ samurai treading a morally grey area between good and bad, using fists and pistols instead of a sword, a theme that would be continued to its logical extent in Kinji Fukasaku’s immensely popular yakuza series of the early 70s – Battles Without Honour and Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai).

This continuing trend of the same traditional character archetypes within multi-installment populist cinema is worth examining in detail. In Genre And Hollywood, Steven Neale talks of two parallels of film discourse – on one hand actively hostile to populist cinema and its “values of entertainment and fantasy rather than realism, art or serious aesthetic stylisation”. On the other hand – a new strain of discourse looking to popular culture to “debate and re-asses its value”. It is this dichotomy that we see in The Rambling Guitarist – a film that wears its populist, genre status openly on its sleeve. As a piece of mass-market entertainment operating within the fantastical world of the mukokuseki genre, to what extent does it craft its own individual merit as a piece of cinematic art beyond the formulaic archetypes in which it exists?

Mark Schilling’s No Borders No Limits references how landmark critical studies of Japanese Cinema such as Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson’s The Japanese Film: Art and Industry makes little or no reference to Nikkatsu Action or the wataridori series – in many ways confirming Neale’s ideas about film discourse – that as a purely populist piece, it was somehow less worthy of analysis or depth. Even within Schilling’s book, while other Nikkatsu directors like Toshio Masuda and Seijun Suzuki are given their own chapters, Buichi Saito is not – seemingly validating the sense of his directorial input as un-auteur-like; instead relegating him to a kind of workmanlike figure – merely a product and part of the system itself.

In his essay included in the booklet accompanying Arrow Video’s release of The Rambling Guitarist, Tom Mes discusses this exact issue: “The very breadth and diversity of Buichi Saito’s output make him an unlikely candidate for auteurist rediscovery, but his rich filmography and the number of titles still fondly remembered by Japanese audiences demonstrate how skewed and limited our officially sanctioned version of Japanese film history is – and how much pure joy is left to discover.” Here – the essence of a ‘genre’ director like Saito is equated with the breadth of his output (ie. quantity vs. quality) – but also the notion of whether that same work, by definition, might offer a ‘pure joy’ that goes beyond the more refined viewing experience of ‘officially sanctioned’ Japanese cinema classics. Is a mechanised, formulaic means of evoking cinematic joy any less valid than an artistic means?


Much like the plastic, fast-food accessibility of its characters, much of the depth that can be found in The Rambling Guitarist can only be seen in context with the component genre codes and gendered archetypes that the film dresses itself in. In regards to masculinity, the film eclipses its muscular face-value Nikkatsu Action trappings to offer a deeper statement on the traditional values of both giri-ninjo and jingi. Likewise, the film holds up two parallel ideals of femininity – one modern and business-minded, the other outwardly Westernised but held back by a deep-rooted Japanese traditionalism.

In both its male and female characters, The Rambling Guitarist examines a kind of slippery middle ground – not quite one thing but, equally, not quite the other. Just like its borderless mukokuseki setting, the film’s men and women are caught between two divides – elusive, transitory, evolving. And at its heart, Akira Kobayashi’s Shinji Taki – the most elusive of all, the character that stands as the very personification of the film’s borderless nature – bodily Japanese, but aesthetically Western. A system of filmmaking that succeeds precisely because it bases every part of itself on a series of contrasts. As one review of the film puts it: “The Diamond Guys, with their more modern attitudes and disrespect for authority, probably resonated well with a youth that had grown up in a culture that had been nearly brought to utter ruin by the previous generation.”

What the wataridori series, Nikkatsu Action and its star-system of ‘Diamond Guys’ all signify is the very point of the populist ‘genre’ model of filmmaking – a distinct awareness of tropes and archetypes; and by extension, how to play both with and against them to maximum effect to keep audiences coming back for nine installments in a single series. While the framework of these films may have been formulaic, this in many ways only served to heighten their core appeal – the ‘attitude’ they gave off. A reinvented cinema, for a reinvented nation.


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Watson, Grant (2016) The Rambling Guitarist, The Angriest (16 September) http://angriest.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/the-rambling-guitarist-1959.html [Accessed 28 March 2017]

(2013) The Rambling Guitarist, Letterboxd (27 February) https://letterboxd.com/film/the-rambling-guitarist/ [Accessed 28 March 2017]

(2016) Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1. Shenley: Arrow Video

(2016) The Rambling Guitarist Original Trailer, Arrow Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve8wNBGl4cE&t=123s [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Transactional Relationships – Supply and demand in Japanese urban shamanism and popular fortune-telling


The UK-based Asian popular culture magazine NEO runs a regular a column by writer Jonathan Clements which, each month, analyses a Japanese manga magazine from a perspective of both narrative content, demographic and market conditions. Over a period from 2014 through to late 2015, the column regularly drew attention to a specific trend in publications aimed towards women: ‘advertorial’ content combining actual manga stories about characters whose lives were changed for the better after purchasing ‘magic’ bracelets, charms or crystals, alongside a subsequent ‘promotion’ highlighting how the magazine’s readers could contact a series of spiritual ‘specialists’ to buy real-life versions of these same charms.

The services of these ‘specialists’ – Madame Sara, Madame Akashi, Madame Horai – would appear time and time again in publications like Truly Awesome Woman’s Dramatic Life, Family Suspense and Sakura Mystery Deluxe; the advertorial ‘PR Comic’ stories touting effusive testimonials such as “Thanks to the Heart Bracelet I am getting remarried to a man ten years my junior” and “Thanks to the Gold Bracelet we have achieved our dreams of becoming millionaires”. Each time, the ‘magic’ charms would be offered at a heavily discounted price.

These examples illustrate the tip of the iceberg in regards to a phenomenon referred to by Shimazono Susumu as ‘new spirituality culture’ (shinreisei bunka). Within this bracket, we might reasonably reference a number of terms of varying degrees of interrelatedness including: urban-shamanism, neo-shamanism, spiritual therapists, spirit mediums, New Age Practitioners, divination and fortune-telling. Previous studies on this topic by both Ioannis Gaitanidis & Aki Murakami as well as Suzuki Kentaro begin by addressing the inherent difficulties surrounding such diverse terminology. Indeed, Gaitanidis & Murakami posit a theory regarding the scholarly intermingling of these terms:

“…certain analytic frameworks that were developed several decades ago to study a category of magico-religious practitioners called “shamans,” become relevant again today when we study practitioners that, at first glance, resemble these magico-religious practitioners but originate from and are active in distinct sociocultural and historical backgrounds.”

Essentially, while these definitions may not be mutually inclusive – the analytical framework by which we might look at them through potentially is. Following this line of thinking, in employing terms such as ‘neo’ or ‘urban’ shaman, we do not necessarily seek to align the disparate grouping of practitioners highlighted above within formal definitions of ‘shamanism’ such as those set forth by Eliade regarding the requirement of an ecstatic, trance-like state. But rather, in focusing this essay primarily on the practices of divination and spiritual therapy in contemporary Japan and employing the term ‘urban shamanism’, we seek to locate these newer practises within the same framework of transaction and performance seen in ‘traditional’ forms of Shamanism – the ‘urban’ element simultaneously conveying the inherently money-media-and-modernity-driven quality of these newer incarnations.

I will look to unpack this specifically transactional quality by analysing how these practices manifest via a network of producers and consumers – two sides of an equation that are mutually dependent on each-other. In this sense, while Gaitanidis & Murakami’s study provides a solid theoretical framework from which we can define what an ‘urban shaman’, spiritual therapist or fortune-teller actually is, this essay will look to a more ‘real world’ understanding of the phenomenon via a number of key questions:

1) What drives individuals to become practitioners (a question of supply) and consumers (a question of demand) of divination and spiritual therapy.

2) To what extent can we identify a kind of self-generating system that keeps this supply and demand perpetuating

3) Lastly, why are the consumers in this system so overwhelmingly female

In looking to answer these questions, I will also seek to illustrate the role of both the media – as we saw in the manga advertorials highlighted above – and the notion of a wider capitalist system as key drivers in the perpetuation of these practices. The ‘real-world’ factor is crucial here, because for all that this phenomena could potentially be dismissed as an individualistic New Age ‘religion of the self’, it is ultimately made up of interactions between real people, looking to achieve real change in their lives.

Creation & Consumption – Belief, legitimacy and ‘hardship’ narratives

“If we visit today the summer festival at Mount Osore,” Gaitanidis & Murakami comment, referring to the tradition of blind itako spirit mediums commonly associated with the mountain, “We will see long lines of Japanese waiting for a private session… it is evident that both old and new types of magico-religious practitioners seem to respond to some of the needs of contemporary Japanese. ‘Magic’ is still sought in today’s Japan, although those who seek it hold different expectations in regards to its ‘reality.’”

This specific phraseology of ‘magic’ and ‘magico-religious’ is important – in essence, the notion of something which expresses the same kind of non-rationalist belief systems as religion, but without the presence of a ‘divine’ element. This is crucial to our understanding of a ‘belief’ orientated transaction, and why these consumers are able to exchange the very tangible asset of money for something that is arguably, highly intangible.

By way of illustration, as with the case of the itako at Mt. Osore, we might offer the example of divination having a long history at both Shinto and Buddhist institutions in the form of consumers paying for small omikuji fortune-slips. While this practice might be occurring at a religious premises, is the ‘act’ itself specifically religious? Namely, does the consumer interpret the outcome of the fortune-slip as the result of divine will, or merely blind chance? Do they completely and unquestioningly believe what they are being told by the fortune-slip, or are they merely ‘performing’ a facade of belief via their real-world interaction with the process?

It is this kind of ambiguity that is central here – the question of whether these practices are whole-heartedly ‘believed’ or rather – as Michael Saler puts it – “enjoyed as constructs in which one can become immersed but not submerged. Rationalist skepticism is held at in abeyance, yet complete belief is undercut by an ironic awareness that one is holding skepticism at bay”. Is it in this notion of ‘complete belief’ that we can find the distinction between a kind of ‘religious’ belief and one that is merely ‘superstitious’? Suzuki Kentaro presents a similar dichotomy in seeking to explain a wide mix of divination techniques such as astrology, tarot cards, palmistry, physiognomy, and Chinese augury, stating that: “All of these can be performed without assuming either the presence of a divine or spiritual being or the use of spiritual powers.”

The idea of ‘performance’ presents one of the most important resemblances between the older and newer forms of shamanism and divinatory practice – that of the ‘performed’ ritual and how it achieves special significance for both the performer and the consumer. As Catherine Bell summarises: “performance is understood to be something other than routine reality; it is a specific type of demonstration. It can also confer on the performance the ability to signify or denote larger truths under the guise of make-believe situations.”

This recalls the ideas of a kind of non-rationalist reality, in which concepts of whether the participant is achieving ‘complete belief’ become arguably academic because – in the precise moment of the enactment and performance – the belief is already operating in its own special kind of reality. In essence, it is the performative ‘actions’ themselves that matter most, or as Barbara Myerhoff puts it: “not only is seeing believing, doing is believing”.

In Practically Religious… Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan, Ian Reader & George Tanabe address these themes in a similar manner, laying out a kind of logical methodology that can be applied to the thought process of purchasing and ‘performing’ these types of spiritual ‘service’:

“…people feel that chance can be modified, that it can be made to work for them, and that it can be explained in a moral context that is fathomable to human beings. If luck is a matter of chance, rather than the result of calculated deliberation, then a good luck charm is not about luck at all, since it symbolizes two kinds of causes that work cooperatively together: human effort and divine help. Whenever charms or amulets are described as things that “bring” good luck, a confidence is being expressed in the ability of those objects to act in some fashion as a causal agent.”

We can take this notion of a ‘causal agent’ as synonymous with the idea of a ‘signified’ belief; a performative belief system encapsulated within an object or service which – crucially – can then be commodified. When Gaitanidis & Murakami discuss the ‘response’ of various forms of spiritual practitioner (both old and new) to the “needs of contemporary Japanese”, they highlight the centrality of the supply/demand equation in this regard. Indeed, we would suggest that the sheer diversity in ‘kinds’ of shamanism, spiritual therapy and divination offered as part of a modern society are naturally symptomatic of a ‘marketplace’ environment in which different kinds of producer are matched to the respective needs of different kinds of consumer. Where the need exists, the practitioners rise to meet it.

Where these practitioners ‘rise’ from exactly offers a crucial insight into the nature of the system – after all, for a system like this to perpetuate, logic suggests that it requires a constant stream of ‘new’ practitioners entering the cycle to replace those that leave. Equally, to what degree can we chart the course of consistent trends that shape these practitioners into the semblance of an identifiable system, as opposed to a scattering of ‘stand-alone’ instances arising from unrelated scenarios. In this regard, it is worth turning our attention to the bulk of Gaitanidis & Murakami’s study – which focuses on the narratives of 68 surveyed ‘spiritual therapists’ and crucially – how they ended up operating in that profession.

From their analysis of those surveyed, we can identify two significant stages on the path to what they call ‘spiritual transformation’ and the subsequent legitimation of these practitioners’ powers. Firstly – a consistent narrative of hardships (usually mental/physical health issues, social isolation and poor living/working conditions); socio-societal malaises which they address as fundamental to neo-shamanistic discourses.Secondly, they observe another consistent trend of what we might term a ‘fandom’ for the occult – ie. an express interest to consume vast volumes of mass media (books and magazines), seminars and workshops on various kinds of alternative therapies; with the individuals ultimately obtaining ‘official’ certifications for these.

What both of these observations can tell us about the ‘origins’ or creation of new practitioners is that it is invariably prompted by an above-average interest in occult/alternative topics, and that this is – in turn – typically prompted by the kinds of life conditions that might instigate one to pursue these routes instead of traditional ‘mainstream’ solutions. This theme is one that has been discussed prominently in relation to wider themes of New Age spiritualism – Paul Heelas presents the theory that participants are typically disillusioned with mainstream society and, placed in a situation where they are powerless to change that society, subsequently turn their attentions inward and instead try and affect change in themselves. This theory is further born out in the case of Ms. Saeda – one of Gaitanidis & Murakami’s surveyed practitioners: “If she had not stopped her job… and divorced, hence being in need of an income, she would have never become a spiritual therapist.” As they observe: “Professional neo-shamans who make a living from their craft… are compelled by their environment to take very rational decisions.”

Here, we see a classic instance of how traditional mainstream narratives (a job, reliable income and marriage) have failed Ms. Saeda, and thus – as Heelas describes – causal necessity compels her toward the ‘alternative’ narrative of becoming a spiritual therapist. Here, once the individual is removed from the gravitational orbit of a ‘mainstream’ life, the allure of spiritual therapy starts to exert its own strong gravitational hold – pulling them into a new, ‘alternative’ orbit. This phenomenon has also been observed as part of a wider kind of Japanese urban spirituality – such as that seen in Japanese New Religious Movements – where a relationship can often be drawn “between their members’ economic vulnerability or uncertain future and their attraction to a religion with a world view which reflects their own sense of uncertainty.”

This concept of ‘uncertainty’ is interesting because we see it expressed not only in the motivations of those that become practitioners of ‘spiritual therapy’, but also in those that consume those very same services. In Suzuki Kentaro’s study – in which he surveys the users of the ‘Libra’ divination hall in Tokyo as to what they are specifically seeking by using divination, a marked majority attested to it being:

“…something I can count on”

“…something that helps me get my worries and fears out in the open”

…something to consult in planning my life”

“…something that provides the impetus to carry out things I’d wanted to do“

In these responses, we see echoes of the themes Reader & Tanabe expressed regarding belief systems being used as a kind of ‘confidence’ supplement. These consumers – lacking certainty in their lives – turn to divination as their specified ‘causal agent’ to engineer the narrative change in their lives they are unable to manifest by themselves. Just like the practitioners themselves – invariably driven to the role through rationalist circumstances such as financial necessity – the consumers are enacting the same kind of blend; achieving rationalist goals (more certainty or impetus in life) via non-rationalist means.

Another fortune-teller – Takahashi Kiriya, who specialises in tarot cards and astrology – testifies to this almost counselling-like role of divination, whilst also positioning it as specifically relevant to a Japanese audience: “Japan today seems to have become a society where it’s difficult for people to speak with one another, even if they are in trouble. In the olden days, people were able to turn to their family and neighbors. Unlike in America, counseling is not common here. But people still want someone willing to listen to them, and to give them advice. I think fortune tellers are meeting those needs.”

In essence, for these consumers, divination has become a kind of surrogate means of social communication – a kind of paid-for shoulder to lean on. It is this specifically transactional nature that is of relevance to our argument – essentially, to what extent does the involvement of money change this interaction from a purely social or spiritual one into something else? Just as we have identified the factors that ‘drive’ people toward a life in which practices such as divination play a significant role, what factors – in turn – can we identify that push these processes beyond simple one-to-one performative actions and into something operating on a far wider scale?

Driving transactional relationships – Media frameworks and fandoms

As we have seen above, the supply and demand of those interested in divination and spiritual therapy is fed very much from the same pool – indicating a certain synchronicity in the mindsets of those who go on to become both producers and consumers of these practices. With this foundation in mind, it is important to also understand the framework that keeps this system perpetuating – in essence, if the practitioners are the muscle of this transactional system and the consumers are the flesh, we must identify the skeleton that holds them both in place. Equally, in defining this system as transactional, we do so not only in a monetary sense, but also within a definition of exchange or interaction between people – namely, via the medium of information. As many of Gaitanidis & Murakami’s practitioners attest – their narratives are often defined by an express desire to obtain more ‘information’ about these practices via training courses, books and magazines.

In seeking to illustrate how these factors play a vital role in the proliferation of these kinds of narratives in contemporary society, we turn to Benjamin Dorman’s Representing Ancestor Worship as “Non-Religious”, which presents the case of Hosoki Kazuko; a popular Japanese fortune-teller whose best-selling divination books and TV appearances have made her an incredibly famous media figure. Of relevance to our argument here is how Dorman’s description of the Hosoki ‘craze’ is couched very much in the language of fandom and media fervour – as he puts it:

“Her fans and her programs’ participants refer to her with the honorific title “Sensei” (teacher). On the other hand, she has been labeled in a derogatory sense as a mere “shaman” or “simply a fortuneteller”… But the criticism and negative publicity she receives merely serves to keep her image firmly in the public eye and in a sense stirs up the media’s appetite for more.”

The cyclical aspect to this ‘appetite’ is noteworthy as it implies a ravenous need for both a supply and demand of information (ie. media content) regarding Hosoki – which is then ingested by both her fans and detractors. And just as the media engender a kind of habitual appetite for more ‘information’, so too does Hosoki, who has produced at least one new book per year since 1985. What Hosoki’s fans are seeking to gain by purchasing one of her books and consuming the information contained within is perhaps best explained by referring to Dorman’s introduction to a number of ‘laws of causality’ from one of Hosoki’s books on ancestor worship:

“The second law is “self-cultivation”, which encompasses (1) showing gratitude, (2) having a sense of what would constitute “shameful behavior,” and (3) being able to carry out completely a role/task/job.”

Here, Hosoki attempts to outline a link between these ‘laws of causality’ (which echo Reader & Tanabe’s ‘causal agent’) and the individual taking control of their destiny by way of ‘self-cultivation’. In these terms too, we see the same consistent rhetoric of seeking to engender positive change or impetus in one’s life. In doing so, the consumer enacts three stages of performative ‘belief’ action, that we might reasonably apply to any ‘transactional’ action of divination or spiritual therapy:

1) The monetary aspect of the transaction itself (in this case, buying the book)

2) The transfer of information from producer to consumer (reading the book)

3) The belief in / real-world performative enactment of said information (following the principles in the book)

But whereas in other instances these principles might be enacted on a one-to-one, face-to-face basis between producer and consumer (such as in the case of the itako), in this instance the transactional relationship between Hosoki and her consumers is simultaneous and one-to-many, because – by definition – a piece of media can be replicated identically many times over.

One might draw similarities between the rise of the Hosoki ‘craze’ in the 1980s with the current craze surrounding Japanese ‘decluttering specialist’ Marie Kondo and her multi-million-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever. Like Hosoki, Kondo has become the centre of a media frenzy – with countless articles discussing her books, the efficacy of their methods and how her background as a Shinto shrine maiden influenced her approach to tidying.

A number of quotes from Kondo’s book show a striking similarity to the ‘self-cultivation’ we saw outlined by Hosoki, namely:

“Giving sincere thanks to an item will significantly reduce or even eliminate any guilt you may feel when you decide that you will no longer have it in your home,”

“Unless you are truly committed, you will most likely become discouraged or distracted before finishing your tidying journey,”

Seen here are the same concepts of showing gratitude, being able to completely carry out an action, and by extension, a cultivation of a sense of shame if one is not able to successfully do so (thus reinforcing and locking-in the user’s belief in sticking with the system).

Like Hosoki, Kondo is not without criticism – one account discusses her methods in specifically gendered terms, something which will be of particular relevance later in this essay:

“All of her examples of clients are women. When men appear (and they only do 2-3 times) it is as part of a couple. Kondo never says tidying is women’s work, but the implication is clear. She is far from the only person who believes this, and I’m sure she has this feeling from experience: women are the ones who seek her out.”

Kondo – of course – is not a shaman or fortune-teller, but what she represents is a similar kind of transactional relationship between provider and consumer in which ‘peace of mind’ and a sense of self-improvement is obtained in exchange for money. The kind of self-cultivational habitual drive which Nikolas Rose defines as: “continuous training, lifelong learning, perpetual assessment, continual incitement to buy, to improve oneself…” I make this comparison to highlight that these systems need not necessarily be spiritual or religious in nature, but rather converge around a distinctly contemporary notion of emotional well-being and how to achieve it. Central to both cases is a clear set of psychological ‘reinforcing’ frameworks designed to continually remind us that what we are doing is having real efficacy, if only we follow the rules correctly and pay for the services that will clarify how to do this.

In this, we see the apotheosis of the capitalist system; one in which a solution for every problem in life – from practical, materialist ones to purely psychological ones – can be bought and sold. Indeed, it is the act of spending money that is the ultimate symbol of efficacy – that something ‘really works’. Just as the systems themselves are self-sustaining, by spending money on our beliefs, we inherently strengthen them. In purchasing a book by Hosoki or Kondo, we are instinctively placing belief in its contents and the notion that the (intangible) information contained within will help us manifest (tangible) real world improvements in our lives. Here, we return to the ideas expressed by Reader & Tanabe regarding the individual expression of ‘confidence’ in the purchased good or service to act as a ‘causal agent’ – as they describe: “In making a purchase, the buyer pays a material and a moral price to try to ensure that the good things in life can be guaranteed, and the bad kept at a distance, rather than being left to chance.”

In referencing terminology such as ‘purchased good’ and ‘buyer’, it is worth emphasising here the sheer scale of the market in question, with Dorman’s study citing the equivalent of over $600,000,000 spent on divination in Japan every year. With ‘divination’ as a firmly established sector within the Japanese publishing industry – encompassing both books and magazines – it should come as no surprise that many of the practitioners that Gaitanidis & Murakami surveyed also expressed a specific interest or ‘fandom’ in these ‘seishin sekai’ (New Age) publications prior to finding their ‘calling’.

This immense monetary value furthers our understanding of the perpetuation of fortune-tellers and spiritual therapists as not only a habitual need for consumption of related media or a ceaseless drive for self-cultivation, but as an inherently capitalist principle. Studies such as Tadashi Nishihira’s Seishin-Sekai: A Superficial Pop Cultural Phenomenon or an Important Culture in the Post-Modern Society? suggest an interesting dimension in which to discuss this question – namely; does a degree of ‘pop culture’ cut-through (including but not limited to monetary success) muddy the waters when discussing the ‘serious’ relevance of these spiritual phenomenons? For example, as we have seen above regarding practitioners entering the ‘profession’ through financial necessity; where do we draw the line between the proliferation of these practices for purely ‘spiritual’ purposes, and the economic role of making money and providing a convenient livelihood for the practitioner? To this extent, what happens when the system achieves such a degree of monetary impetus that the very motivations behind it start to become morally questionable?

Peer networks and the influence of belief

This very notion of a morally grey area lying at the heart of these practices is one that reoccurs in relation to the unavoidable fact that the majority of consumers in this equation are female. As Suzuki Kentaro points out as a preface to the results of his survey data from the ‘Libra’ divination hall, “The clientele of the Libra is overwhelmingly female, with women comprising a full 95% of the respondents to this survey.” Suzuki’s study mentions ‘women’ twenty-six times, usually prefaced by either ‘young’, ‘unmarried’ or ‘single’ – drawing allusions to a highly developed sphere of targeted media publications that cater to this market in much the same way as Hosoki’s books, including market-leading fortune-telling magazine My Birthday (with a circulation of 440,000).

Alongside this media network, we must also take into account the influence of face-to-face personal networks; what Suzuki terms a ‘loose community of the like-minded’ – born out in his survey results of those frequenting the ‘Libra’ divination hall, with “72% [reporting that they] had talked with someone about the result of a reading, and 90% knew of someone close to them who believes in divination.” In these results, we can see a kind of ‘If it worked for her, maybe it’ll work for me too’ mentality at work – one in which divination becomes a kind of self-reinforcing peer network where people’s thoughts and processes become increasingly aligned.

Suzuki’s survey results observe this kind of ‘aligned anxiety’ in specifically gendered terms, namely: “An overwhelming majority of the respondents (74%) said that their consultation concerned love and the opposite sex.” As he observes,  “Love, with its risks and uncertainties, can be a time of head-spinning change. What the young women are seeking is an outlook on an unclear situation and a clearing up of confused feelings.” We see this emphasis on love and sex also expressed in the outlook of Zappallas Inc., the company that runs Japan’s largest network of fortune-telling websites and mobile content – with users subscribing to any of their 220 different sites for a subscription fee of ¥300 a month. Zappallas Inc. claim their primary target is ‘women in their 20s and 30s’ and that on their sites, a ‘majority of the content was romance-related’.

These trends can be considered in the light of how – whether through peer networks or media networks – these individuals are subconsciously already ‘culturally priming’ themselves to participate in these activities themselves. We see this idea of societal surroundings engendering a kind of ‘inevitability’ in Gaitanidis & Murakami’s work too, where they envision it as the “constant accumulation of information rendered necessary by the information society that we live in”. Essentially, if the magazines you read and the conversations you have – your social reference framework – all contain narratives about divination and spiritual therapy, it must surely follow that you will also at some point entertain the thought of these narratives too. Suzuki summarises this as ‘a rhetorical and behavioral atmosphere conducive to belief in divination’ and goes on to illustrate the almost addictive habituality of the practice, with 61% of those he surveyed indicating that when they faced problems of difficulties in life “they “almost always” or “occasionally” turned to divination at such times.”

While on one hand we can see behaviour like this as a kind of social support network, there is also an inherently darker nature to it; the very fact that the community is so ‘like-minded’ beginning to breed an inherent homogeneity of thought and action, which – in turn – starts to generate a kind of ‘sensory deprivation’. In essence, once the like-mindedness becomes so uniform, we begin to follow it unquestioningly, and it is allowed to continue perpetuating, unchanged. This docility is understandably attractive in a financial sense too – a captive market ready to lap up what they are told they ‘need’. As we have seen, with the divination market representing a sizeable financial interest, it only follows that there is an express desire to see those vested interests maintained.

In analysing the question of gender as part of this transactional equation, it is useful to turn to Meredith Underwood’s work on mizuko kuyo – a memorial rite carried out “for miscarried and stillborn babies, those who die shortly after birth, and most recently for aborted fetuses”. Underwood’s essay, by definition, focuses specifically on the role of the female in understanding this ritual, and lays forth an interesting narrative regarding the link between emotional experiences and their position within a gendered society – in her words: “The experience of guilt, like any experience, is gendered, as is the need for repentance and healing. To restore one’s humanity means something different for a woman in patriarchal society because she is by definition a different sort of human being.”

Here, we see the notion of ‘gendered guilt’ inextricably linked with that of the role of a woman in a gendered society – something also present in Dorman’s study of Hosoki, where he categorises her brand of self-cultivation as ‘traditional and conservative’; indicative of the ideals present in Japan’s traditionally patriarchal system. While mizuko kuyo obviously stands on the more dramatic end of the spectrum to the vast sweep of arguably more ‘benign’ activities employed in the sphere of spiritual therapy, it is useful to our argument in illustrating how vested financial and media interests can play a role in amplifying specifically ‘gendered’ needs that must then be addressed (via payment for services-rendered) to remove the vacuum of anxiety and guilt.

Underwood’s study presents a crucial quote from Helen Hardacre, which aims to crystallize the role of the media in essentially manufacturing (or at the very least, emphasising) needs which did not really exist in the first place: “[the tabloid press] have taken a major role in highlighting ambivalent emotions about abortion and in creating the sense of spiritual anxiety motivating these women to patronize mizuko kuyo“. By placing the role of the modern media as specifically ‘active’ in its playing up of emotions that then need to be ‘salved’ by engaging with these practices, we see the case of the mizuko kuyo placed within a wider trend of “[pushing] women into modes of consumption required to sustain New Age capitalism”. The moral indictment here goes back to the idea that once established, the capitalist, financial interest of these practices ultimately eclipses the spiritual interest. This then predicates a situation where, arguably, the supply/demand equation is almost flipped on its head. Now, the ‘demand’ is for a fresh stream of willing customers, and thus, a supply must be engendered – even if via the means of artificially created anxiety.

It is this argument that suggests an uneasy tension between the moneyed commodification of these practices and where exactly to locate the woman’s ‘choice’ when she engages with them. Underwood attempts to distill this down into a simple formula: “Rather we are left with a one-to-one equation: religious entrepreneurs “create” spiritual anxiety; women flock to temples seeking ritual relief.” The significance of this is that it implies a removal of women’s agency from the equation – in essence, because the system is so strongly enforced, it begins to create a kind of conveyor-belt effect in which women move, autopilot style, in a continual system of supply and demand. An osmosis of producers and consumers which will, by definition, bypass individual choice and always move to fill a vacuum / achieve equilibrium.

Perhaps then, in answer to our original question of why the consumers in this system are so overwhelmingly female, we might suggest that just as the system itself replicates perpetually, the female demographic is simply a result of that same perpetuation principle too. Essentially, if the vast majority of inputs to the system are female, it only follows that the output will be largely female too. Media networks and peer networks dovetail into a consistent informational and societal framework in which a cyclical process of ‘spiritual anxiety’ is built up and then relieved via these transactional interactions. Equally, precisely because the system is cyclical and self-generating, its demographic make-up (both in terms of gender and personal disposition) will only change if the factors comprising the equation break, or a significant new element is introduced.


Through the course of this essay we have sought to apply to the topics of divination and spiritual therapy many of the same analytical frameworks previously used to present the case of ‘traditional’ shamanistic practices in Japan. In doing so, we have attempted to draw parallels in many of the same kinds of transactional and performative behaviours which come to define the relationship between practitioner and consumer. Via a reinforcing network of media and peer influences, we have shown how these systems are both thoroughly rooted in the nature of modern society, as well as how vested financial interests may play a key role in the desire for their continued perpetuation.

In their study, Gaitanidis & Murakami discuss a previous trend of “historical essentialism that conceives of Japanese shamanistic practices in degenerative terms, namely the more recent the practice is, the less ‘authentic’ it must be”. In light of this, and drawing on the framework we have set out above, we would suggest that instead, this notion of ‘authenticity’ is instead as ‘authentic’ as its producers and consumers allow it to be. The question of recency is crucial because it is fundamentally linked to the contemporary culture of media and money that this framework of practitioners is built on in Japan.

Likewise, when Gaitanidis & Murakami state that “Japanese spiritual therapists… are not just contemporary versions of some ‘traditional’ Japanese shamanic practice, but should be considered as mostly a Western import”, we would argue that an understanding of the term ‘Western’ should be taken synonymously with the term ‘modern’. In other words, that the concept of urban spiritual therapists and fortune-tellers should not be taken so much as an issue of Western processes exported to the East, but rather one embodying a natural osmosis or self-generation by way of societal conditions and human need, where an understanding of what it means for a society to be ‘modern’ or ‘urban’ inherently incorporates aspects of Westernisation.

What we are left with is a picture of a conveyer belt process where producers and consumers are essentially cut from the same cloth; each side of the equation validating the other’s existence. Both are essentially interested in the same thing – an alternative narrative to the one that has up to this point, not supplied them with the satisfactory impetus or confidence in their self. Thus, at some point in the individual’s life – when their degree of interest in these occult/alternative practices reaches a certain level and ‘triggers’, they will then deviate into one of two routes: either as a creator or consumer, who then go on to reinforce the framework and proliferate its narratives via both the media and their peers. The ultimate in truly cyclical systems. In context, it is not without a certain degree of irony that one reads the Japanese kanji character for ‘shop’ 店 (mise) as containing the radical for ‘fortune-telling’ 占 (uranai).

In defining the nature of these transactional relationships, we have come to understand a means by which information, performative practices and money change hands in a ceaseless chain of causal agency designed to reinforce belief that what we are paying for and consuming will bring about real change. Through this all, we have seen a consistent basis of very human, real-world concerns around self-confidence, self-belief and self-cultivation – seeking through means that may or may not be religious in nature – a little bit of certainty in a fundamentally uncertain world. The simple, and entirely understandable, desire to have ‘something we can count on’.


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The threat of the Buddhist terrorist – media manifestations of Aum Shinrikyo



On 20 March 1995, Japanese New Religious Movement Aum Shinrikyo carried out an orchestrated attack on the Tokyo subway system – puncturing newspaper-wrapped plastic bags full of deadly sarin gas, leaving a dozen people dead and hundreds more injured. At the time, it was the deadliest incident to occur in Japan since the second World War. Following the attack, the country entered a deep period of introspection, not only amplifying the already building sense of social stagnation in the ‘lost decade’ of Japan in the 90s, but also fundamentally changing the way the Japanese thought about religion.

In this essay, I will attempt to dissect a particular niche of media ‘fascination’ with Aum – both in coverage of the movement following the 1995 Sarin Gas attacks, as well as in a range of popular media that has begun to incorporate Aum as a kind of go-to proxy to symbolise the concept of a ‘non-traditional’ terrorist threat.

In a world where the mass public consciousness of terrorism-as-concept has arguably become inherently associated with either a ‘Muslim threat’ or ‘far-right threat’, despite the reality of the 1995 Sarin Gas event, the idea of a ‘Buddhist terrorist’ seems to maintain a notion of the ‘alternative’ – taking on lurid, almost fantastical qualities. I will analyse both Western and Japanese narratives, touching on a persistent notion of the ‘outsider’ portrayed in both and why this generates an increasing relevance to wider modern society.

Aftermath – The construction of a ‘public consciousness’ of Aum

A fundamental aspect to understanding the sheer volume of media coverage devoted to Aum comes in the concept of the creation of a wider ‘public consciousness’ of the cult. In Did Aum Change Everything? Levi McLaughlin discusses a kind of ‘scapegoat mechanism’ in which a social outsider serves as a target for public fear when society feels it is at risk – developing into a constant cycle of catharsis and anxiety. Aum – as the outsider – is something to be feared, but if ‘normal’ life is to continue, it is also a fear that must be conquered and moved beyond. By extension, the more that Aum is developed and shaped within the public consciousness into an apotheosis of the ‘other’, the more it can be targeted and combatted.

McLaughlin raises the point that 1995 may have “triggered a paradigm shift in Japan, turning a general sense that religions are mostly ‘good’ entities deserving legal defense into a widespread suspicion that religions are potentially ‘dangerous’ organisations against which the public should be protected”.

There are a number of key concepts at work here, specifically in the distinction between a ‘good entity’ and a ‘dangerous organisation’. On one hand, the somewhat nebulous term ‘entity’ – on the other hand, a clearly defined ‘organisation’ – complete with the corporate, contemporary connotations such a word comes with. In this sense of ‘danger’, the public anxiety that McLaughlin discusses elsewhere now achieves tangibility. Suddenly, the fear is real – transcending into something dangerously physical.

It is in this light that we can analyse discussion of Aum’s parallels between Buddhist doctrine and violence – for example, as detailed in Aum Shinrikyo – Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons;

“Some forms of Buddhism, such as Zen Buddhism as practiced in Japan, adopt the view that draining bad karma from novice practitioners sometimes requires using physical force to purify, exorcise or drive spiritual pollutions and spirits away from the body. In mid-1988, [Aum founder] Asahara ordered [his wife] to become a committed member of Aum, but she refused. He had her beaten 50 times with a cane and then thrown into isolation to “meditate” in darkness for seven weeks.”

Here, we see a through-line drawn between Buddhism and bodily violence. Complications arise however, when incidents like these are analysed in the context of whether that violence can be specifically classified as ‘religious violence’, or rather – as Brian K. Smith describes: “external to some self-proclaimed ideal form of the true nature of religion.” As such, was Aum’s violence an inseparable manifestation of their religious beliefs, or was it instead violent actions by individuals of a criminal mindset, of which religion was simply one aspect of their character makeup?

In casting Aum as something inherently new, or differentiated from a perceived ‘norm’ of what a religion should be, discussion of the cult often centres around a trifecta of aspects: charisma, technical sophistication, and vast monetary wealth. In this light, Aum is thus also cast within the context of something fundamentally tied into three of the largest driving forces of a modern, capitalist society.

As much as Aum are portrayed as outsiders, they are at once also smoothly integrated into contemporary social norms – the notion that while they might have been inwardly ‘alternative’ or abnormal in their ideals, outwardly they presented as respectable, well-educated members of society such as doctors, lawyers and university students. In this, then, there was a fear in its own right – that suddenly, anyone could be a terrorist; even those that society traditionally held in the highest regard. As Ian Reader details: “The involvement of the highly educated indicated that education need not be a barrier to the development of extremist thoughts; indeed it suggested that those with high levels of education might even be more able to develop critical attitudes to the societies they lived in.”

We see this typified in Hayashi Ikuo, the cardiovascular surgeon who served as Aum’s ‘Minister of Health’ – forming part of what has been termed a ‘government in waiting’; deliberately warping and mirroring the Japanese government in the construction of various levels of bureaucratic hierarchy, including ministries of health, defence, welfare and science. In essence, a dressing of ‘legitimacy’ – ie. the formal machinations of a modern society.

As one of the individuals who personally carried out the sarin attacks, descriptions of Ikuo in the media invariably introduce him first and foremost as a doctor / trained physician; continuing to detail his background as a graduate from the ‘elite’ Keio University. He was not only called on to administer drugs to hesitant Aum members considering renunciation, but also travelled with his wife to the USA to collect documentation on the use of sarin gas prior to the attacks.

This notion of Ikuo as an ‘informed’, intelligent individual even continues into his fate post-1995. During what the media termed ‘the trial of the century’ as the Aum members were brought before the court to face justice for their actions, due to Ikuo’s reports to the Japanese police about who the perpetrators of the attack were (in addition to detailing post-attack Aum actions) as well as his acceptance of responsibility in court, he was ultimately exempted from the death penalty and instead given life imprisonment. In essence, not only was information and knowledge a fundamental part of Ikuo’s persona, it had now effectively ‘saved’ him from death.

In reports of the trial itself, we see a continual process of exaggeration and sensationalism from the media. A contemporary CNN report opens with a description that feels like it could have come straight from the script of a Hollywood movie: “Riot police ringed the courthouse and helicopters whirred overhead as opening statements began.” Japan is said to have ‘come to a halt’ as the trials began, while the scale of the attacks’ fallout is emphasised in the ‘extraordinary gesture’ of a reading during the trial of the names 3,789 victims. We are told that: “15,000 people lined up before dawn for a lottery awarding the 48 seats available to the public.”

Already, we see the horror and viscerality of the attacks themselves as a real-world event being absorbed into an amorphous media generation comprised of aggrandising language and hefty numerical figures. In this manner, we see a return to the cycle of catharsis and anxiety discussed in McLaughlin’s Did Aum Change Everything? – the fear of Aum as a dangerous religious entity now displaced onto a larger-than-life version of Aum as circus freakshow, complete with lotteried tickets.

In a Japan Times report of the trials, the background details of founder Asahara’s life reach almost-ludicrous proportions as they recount his appearance on a popular TV variety show: “In one televised question-and-answer session, the affable guru fielded queries from teens, including about how he washed his long hair in the shower. ‘I use shampoo products made for babies,’ he said to the audience’s delight.” Elsewhere, a BBC article details how Asahara would sell both his blood and bath water to followers – for a price.

Bound up in these periphery profile details of Asahara’s life, we see a continuing creation of Asahara’s ego as a driving force behind Aum – both pre-1995 in terms of building the movement itself, and post-1995 in serving as the centre of a massive swell of media commentary that would cement the concept of Aum within the public consciousness. Rei Kimura’s Aum Shinrikyo – Japan’s Unholy Sect discusses how Asahara would focus on making key Aum figures ‘feel important’, which would in turn feed his own sense of self-importance, whilst a CNN article notes Asahara’s admiration of Hitler, casting him within a wider context of persona-driven incitements to violence.

Thus, Aum and Asahara – as entities – can be shown to exist as a kind of psychological perception that invariably eclipses their real-world existence. Within Aum, this functioned on an individual level – driven by Asahara’s charisma and a constant sense for members to need to feel ‘important’. Outside Aum – within the public consciousness – it was driven by extreme degrees of media coverage: “From 22 March until June 1995, Aum Shinrikyo was the lead story on every news network in all time slots; broadcasters’ statistics indicate that television networks dedicated more than five hundred hours to Aum coverage between mid-March and early June.”

This profuse level of media attention is important to note because just as perception can eclipse reality, that very same perception can lead to inaccuracy or misplaced fear. Returning again to McLaughlin’s Did Aum Change Everything?, it is worth noting that the post-1995 media coverage is specifically referred to as ‘the Aum media narrative’ – implying a degree of construction or manipulation in the story being conveyed by the media to the public. Indeed, employing terms like ‘swayed’ and ‘influenced’, McLaughlin goes on to discuss the potential of media conflation between Aum and another Japanese New Religious Movement; Soka Gakkai – something born out by sample reader responses that begun to associate Soka Gakkai with the same sense of danger as Aum.

The discussion elaborates on how in the post-1995 environment, whilst Aum’s ‘real world’ threat has been essentially removed – with its leaders in jail and finances/weapons seized – a fear of a perceived ‘threat’ persisted, equating to calls for legal measures to disband Aum and safeguards to protect against future violence from religious organisations. Here we have a prime example of how the degree of media coverage – and resultant manipulation of public consciousness – has in essence constructed a ‘proxy’ Aum; one that in reality does not exist, but in the potentially misguided belief that it does, has real-world ramifications, not only to other unrelated religious movements, but to wider society as a whole.

The ‘threat’ – and most significantly – a religious threat, remains enigmatic, intangible. While terrorist sects or ‘outsider’ cults can be eliminated through the death or imprisonment of its leaders, the root ideas behind these groups and – more widely – religion as an ‘existence’ in modern society can not be so conveniently locked up or swept away.

In April 2016, the BBC reported on the re-emergence of elements of Aum in Russia, with raids on dozens of properties linked to the cult. With a ‘new’ Aum renamed as Aleph, alongside a smaller group called Hikari no Wa (headed up by former Aum spokesman  Fumihiro Joyu), suddenly the ‘threat’ was manifesting itself in the real world again. Following a decade of post-1995 media narrative, had the cycle of catharsis flipped to anxiety again?

Once again, as with so many articles on Aum, the BBC piece highlighted the ‘elite’ nature of Aum’s former membership: “Much has been made of the group’s promise of a more meaningful life to young people from academically pressured backgrounds who had to look forward to similarly pressured careers.” Here, more than ever, there seems to be the application of a kind of universality to the conditions that spawned Aum – reduced down to a demographic that could reasonably be said to apply to a significant proportion of young people in the world today.

In narratives like this there is a sense, perhaps, that part of what drives the media fascination with Aum – beyond the sensationalism of the group and personas such as Asahara, as well as the raw historical facts of the 1995 attacks themselves – is this very notion that to live in a modern society is to live in a state where the component elements that make up Aum or Aum-like groups will always be inherently present.

The 1995 attacks were solid proof that given the right situational ‘ingredients’, a developed society could produce a group like Aum. A decade on – with monetary wealth, scientific acumen, religious ideals, the allure of charismatic personas, academic and workplace pressure remaining constants in a wider melange of contemporary lifestyles, the odds can only suggest that given the right impetus, said ‘ingredients’ could once again be assembled in a similar manner.

From Japan to the West – Translating the ‘alternative thrill’ of Aum via popular media

In his essay Perspective Chronologies, Commonalities and Alternative Status in Japanese New Religious Movements, Ian Reader focuses on how definitional frameworks and discussion of Japanese New Religious Movements invariably centres around “their public perception as “alternative” and “outsider” movements, and through their contradistinction to established mainstream traditions”.

Two elements are of note here – both the notion of ‘public perception’, and the continuing narrative strand of New Religious Movements (including Aum) as alternative / outsider. In combining the two, there is the inherent notion of conveying something non-mainstream to a ‘public’, ie. mainstream audience. And it is in this respect that we would argue that popular media and in particular, fiction, has a key role to play in generating and expanding upon what Aum means to a wider public.

A recent fictional work to place the concept of Aum – and by extension, the concept of a ‘Buddhist terrorist’ – at the centre of its narrative was BBC Radio 4’s audio drama Red And Blue. First broadcast in 2012, the radio play tells the story of military consultant Bradley Shoreham, who has been invited to discuss possible war game scenarios involving new terror attacks on London. In a key scene, Shoreham directly mentions Aum:

“Forget Muslim terrorism for the moment, what about Christian terrorism? But it’s not just Christians, it’s far more worrying than that. It’s all faiths. Many faiths. You have Hindu terrorism, Sikh terrorism, or come to that, Buddhist terrorism. Ah yes, that was the one. The one to fear. The harbinger. Aum Shinrikyo. A Buddhist cult with American new age leanings that sold drugs and murdered its own disciples… An army of monks, hard to swallow I agree, but look at what they did. What they achieved. They manufactured anthrax. They killed people with the botulinum toxin. Only one person in the history of chemical warfare has been killed by VX gas and that person was killed by Aum Shinrikyo cultists.”

Here, not only do we see Aum presented as a direct ‘alternative’ to Muslim or Christian terrorism, but with specific (and lurid) detail afforded to their methods of chemical and bio-terrorism. Couched in the language of chemicals, a contrast is drawn between the notion of ‘an army of monks’ and the frightening newness of science-as-weapon. The speech continues, this time focusing in on the unrealised potential of Aum having access to an atomic device.

“They say that Aum even detonated an atom bomb…. A bunch of yoga Buddhists setting off the first civilian atom bomb. There’s no doubt that Aum could have done it. They could have built a bomb. They had the money, they had the scientists. And that could have been a nuclear bomb exploding on the Tokyo subway, not sarin. They believed in ‘poa’… it means righteous murder. Killing someone so they can be more successfully reborn. Karmic murder.”

In mentioning ‘poa’, we see echoes again of the specific parallels between defined religious concepts and bodily violence. As Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence detail: “The most audaciously destructive theological invocation of the Aum scheme was a notion that the righteous killing of everyone in the world could confer immortality on sinful people who might perish for eternity if allowed to live out the normal course of their lives.”

In both senses, we see a neat juxtaposition of two parts – ‘karmic murder’. On one side – religion, on the other – violence. In the two descriptions of poa, we see a tendency toward bombast – it is ‘audacious’, ‘righteous’, ‘destructive’. Not merely violence, but full scale murder. In this – the fundamental ‘shock value’ of Aum to a Western audience, a subversion of received perception of Buddhism as something peaceful; now offered up in a work of fiction precisely because it allows scope for this dramatic ‘unveiling’ of hard violence. In Aum, the ‘otherness’ remains constant; and as such, the ‘overall strangeness’ is allowed to maintain its distinct narrative thrill – in both fiction and the news – when offered up as one of many ills born from modern society.

Many of these themes also emerge – albeit masked in layers of symbolism – in the 2011 anime series Mawaru Penguindrum, directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. The show depicts the lives of siblings Himari, Kanba and Shouma Takakura – whose missing parents have been accused of a terrorist attack that took place on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, drawing a clear allusion to Aum. At numerous points in the series there are references to an allegorical Child Broiler, a place for those who will ‘never amount to anything’, in a grim echoing of the real-world incident in which an Aum member burned the body of another cultist in a ‘man-sized oven’.

Whilst also touching on the shocking violence of Aum, Mawaru Penguindrum also alludes to the impact on the lives of the Tokyo populace post-Aum; a ‘traumatised zeitgeist’, as anime critic Andrew Osmond puts it. Tellingly, by casting its three central characters as the children of the initiators of the terrorist attacks, the show also alludes to Aum founder Asahara’s reported fathering of at least 15 children; the lasting impact best summed up in a Japan Times interview with Rika Matsumoto – one of Asahara’s children – who “realizes her father’s notoriety has made it impossible for her to live a normal life.”

The striking nature of using such shocking (and comparatively recent) real-world events as a basis for a popular anime seems to have provoked particular discussion within the West – where it becomes part of a broader theme of something ‘other’ than the norm depicted in Japanese mass-media. Indeed, a Google search for ‘aum shinrikyo penguindrum’ turns up no fewer than four full pages of results purely dedicated to English language fan-written essays and blog posts analysing the anime’s inclusion of Aum as a plot element. The apparent ‘mystique’ of Aum now viewed through the lens of a swathe of Tumblr thinkpieces and social-media-savvy online writers pushing these to a captive audience.

The dark irony, of course, is that in featuring Aum within an anime – direct parallels are being drawn with Aum’s own public relations activities, which utilised both manga and anime to project its ideals through a populist mouthpiece. Founder Asahara is even known to have discussed his fandom of classic anime series from the 70s and 80s with other Aum members. Via these processes of influence by and self-generation of media content – Aum was essentially already moving in the very same spaces that media about Aum would move in during the following decades. Aum wasn’t merely being consumed by a popular-media fandom, they were the fandom themselves.

Aum’s depiction in media – and crucially, popular media – as well as the continuing sense of it as something ‘alternative’ or counter-culture/counter-society bears particular attention precisely because this very notion of the ‘alternative’ serves as a kind of self-generating publicity outlet. As Tomohiro Osaki writes for the Japan Times: “Swayed by a mixture of dark fascination with the outlaw life and dissatisfaction with their own lot, a small but passionate group of young people are bound by their professed admiration for the criminal members… Calling themselves “Aumers,” some adore the cultists as if they were pop idols. Others say they feel excited by their insanity and even identify with them.”

As shown above, the language used to describe Aum – both in fiction and in reality – continually resorts to notions of excitement or even identification with their activities. When we are removed from the actual horror of Aum’s atrocities – when we aren’t the actual recipients of those atrocities – the ‘otherness’ begins to translate from fear to excitement. The ‘dark fascination’ becomes a kind of irresistible pull, primed to shake up a stagnant system of normality. The ‘scapegoating’ and fear-mongering discussed in the first half of this essay has now comes full circle – there is now also an attempt to explain and identify why people might have been led to join Aum. But is this a kind of catharsis, or simply another manifestation of our anxieties around contemporary society?

In an interview, Kunihiko Ikuhara – the director of the aforementioned Mawaru Penguindrum – spoke of the gas attacks and the climate of Japan at the time: “I suppose this world had become bipolar before we noticed. The feelings of those who were not able to get along with this world were ignored or how should I put it… That was left boiling in a place deep under the skin, I guess.” This sentiment hones in on a notion of displacement from society – that same sense of the ‘alternative’ or ‘other’ pushing individuals out of the mainstream.

Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche – which contains a number of interviews with people affected by the 1995 attacks – uncovers similar sentiments of alienation and ‘not fitting in’, with one of the interviewees stating: “You have to distinguish Shoko Asahara from the ordinary rank-and-file believers. They aren’t all criminals, and some of them have truly pure hearts. I know many people like that and feel sorry for them. They don’t fit into the system because they’re not comfortable with it or because they’ve been excluded from it. That’s the kind of people who join Aum.”


By analysing persistent themes in media coverage of Aum Shinrikyo, its activities and key personas within the movement, we can see the emergence of a specific narrative that acts as a crucial component in the shaping of a wider ‘public consciousness’ of both the group itself and religion in general. In the manifestation of fear and ‘threat’ – both real and perceived – we can understand an evolving cycle of anxiety and catharsis; which not only coalesces around certain salient points (eg. origins, key individuals) but also seeks to understand exactly why Aum resonated in the public psyche in the way it did.

Beyond this, Aum’s religious origins form an inherent part in its sense of ‘overall strangeness’ – the allure of the ‘other’ or ‘alternative’ which we have seen manifest itself in fictional works based around Aum. Here, many of the same notions of exaggeration and sensationalism employed by the news media help transform the ‘threat’ of Aum into a narrative ‘thrill’. Specifically, in conveying a notion of Aum to a populist audience potentially unfamiliar with its religious roots, we begin to see the development of a kind of fascination with its sense of the ‘outsider’, incorporating elements of excitement and potentially even identification.

The concept of a tragic real-world event becoming part of sensationalist narratives – both fictional and within news media – is nothing new. Rather, by analysing the lasting media footprint such an event creates, we can begin to gain a better understanding of the kind of societal forces at work both within the public consciousness, and the individuals that help make up that consciousness. Why did this happen? What was different about it? Why might people be interested in it? Could it happen again? The cycle of anxiety and catharsis continues.


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Selling the spectacle of destruction – The urban apocalypse in Rintaro’s Doomed Megalopolis (1991), X/1999 (1996) and Metropolis (2001)



As one of the most acclaimed figures working in Japanese animation, Rintaro (aka. Shigeyuki Hayashi) has come to be known – particularly amongst Western anime fandom – as one of the most stylistically distinct directors working in the medium; fronting a body of cinematic work that stretches from the late 70s through to the 00s. From his early days as a disciple of ‘the God of Manga’ Osamu Tezuka at studio Mushi Productions to his co-founding of Studio Madhouse – now one of the most popular and prolific anime studios in the industry – his work is often characterised as being cinematically epic, profiling life and death struggles against darkly fantastical backdrops.

As three of his most recognisable works, Doomed Megalopolis (1991), X/1999 (1996) and Metropolis (2001) chart a distinct through-line across the course of a decade, capturing a crucial era in which the West was opening its doors to Japanese animation following the landmark screening of Akira (1988) at the London ICA in 1991. Simultaneously, the boom in the home video market – seeing both the maturation of the VHS format as well as the beginnings of the DVD as its successor – played a vital role, facilitating the development of an exciting new ‘cult’ environment where a niche medium like anime could bypass the cinema and be marketed directly to fans.

It is within the context of this era and this specific ‘fan-boy’ mentality that Rintaro’s position as a director is key – his works both pandering to the preconceived ‘tits and tentacle’ notoriety anime had (and arguably still has) as a medium, as well as adapting and evolving with the times to push toward new levels of critical recognition and mass-market reception.

With animation’s inherent advantage of being able to depict levels of destruction and violence not possible in live-action cinema, these three films stand uniquely placed in an era before CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) had become truly ubiquitous, capturing a snapshot of a decade in which anime’s allure as pure spectacle stood as a core selling point to Western audiences. It is here that the notion between cinematic spectacle and marketable medium meets – and which this essay will attempt to analyse; charting the course of these three films as both aesthetic and transnational objects, created in Japan, yet consumed in the West.

Japanese environments vs. Western environments

For a cinematic landscape to be destroyed, first it has to exist. For each of these three films, their setting remains crucial to the wider themes they are trying to convey – but also impacts on the kind of relationship the audience has with the film itself.

Doomed Megalopolis was released in 1991 as a four-part direct-to-video release, serving as an adaptation of Hiroshi Aramata’s best-selling 10-part Teito Monogatari novel series released over the course of 1985-1987 (a live action adaptation released in 1988 had become the third highest grossing Japanese movie of that year).

The film depicts early 20th century Tokyo, where historical events such as the great Kanto Earthquake are the backdrop to a supernatural battle taking place between between the powers of good and evil as they work to influence veins of spiritual energy that make up Tokyo itself. The plot is deeply involved with the Japanese esoteric cosmological concepts of the onmyoji, with evil mystic Yasunori Kato attempting various machinations over the course of the early 1900s in an attempt to destroy Tokyo and appease his ancestors, who battled against the Imperial Court in ancient times.

X/1999 deals with largely similar themes – released in 1996 and based on a long-running manga series by female collective CLAMP, the film once again sees an apocalyptic battle between good and evil play out over the control of ‘spiritual barriers’ in the heart of Tokyo in an effort to determine the fate of humanity. On one side, the ‘good’ characters wish to see the status quo of Tokyo maintained, whilst the ‘evil’ side wishes to see Tokyo (and by extension, the Earth) purged of the plague of humanity and returned to a state of natural, ecological order. It falls to central hero Kamui to choose which side he will pledge allegiance to, in a narrative that increasingly displays moral shades of grey to both sides of the conflict.

Lastly, in Metropolis – released in 2001 – we see the action transposed to the titular fictional futuristic city of Metropolis; where the tension is rising between the underclass of robot citizens relegated to the city’s lower reaches, and humans; who blame the robots for taking many of their jobs. Duke Red – the city’s proclaimed leader has overseen the creation of two significant constructions. One, a massive tower – the Ziggurat – that houses a powerful super weapon, and secondly, a robot girl – Tima – modelled after his dead daughter. As the plot proceeds, we see both of these constructions emerge as potential threats to the safety of the city, amidst weighty themes of the dangers of science and what it means to really be human.

Loosely based on Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga (which in turn was indirectly inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film of the same name), the film is said to have taken five years and $15 million to create – marking it out as a clear ‘prestige’ piece; and while it only grossed $4 million on its initial US release, the film is frequently critically praised for its detailed visuals.

Looking across the three films, we see a clear distinction. With both Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 – although highly fantastical – still based in real world settings, whilst Metropolis is placed within an imagined future; removed from the connotations of state and history that are inherently present in the former two movies.

Both Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 are suffused with a melancholy fin-de-siecle feel – further cementing their position within a real-world (and crucially, Japanese) landscape by positioning themselves at transitory moments in history. Doomed Megalopolis features the death of the Meiji emperor, reinforcing the constant march of time as the city increasingly moves to modernise – this element would have had special resonance for Japanese audiences of the time, as on the film’s initial 1991 release, the death of the Showa Emperor in 1989 would still have been fresh in their minds. Meanwhile, X/1999 deals with similar ‘end of an era’ overtones, both explicit in the imminent new Millennium referenced in the ‘1999’ of its title, but also in the generational change present in 90s Japan at the time – perhaps best summed up in the blurb of Tokyo Babylon – CLAMP’s manga which serves as a prequel to the events of X/1999:

“The last days of Japan’s bubble economy, and money and elegance run through the streets like rivers of neon. So do the currents of darkness beneath them – obsession, greed, and exploitation, nourishing evil spirits that only the arts of the onmyoji – Japan’s legendary occultists – can combat.”

In these two films, we see a Japan at the beginnings of the 20th century, and at the end of the 20th century – in both instances undergoing vast change; real world, historical narratives intermingling with fantastical, fictional narratives. And in so doing, breathing into life a cinematic world that becomes inherently darker, grittier and more believable to a Japanese audience precisely because it is the world they exist in themselves.

In X/1999, we see the specifically Japanese environment of the film outlined in language that attaches plot-significant meaning to real-world Tokyo locales. Against a backdrop of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building standing amidst a ruined, flooded Tokyo, one of the film’s villains – Kanoe – explains:

“The city has grown stagnant and foul. The slime will gradually cover everything unless a thorough cleansing can lead to a revival… The power shields that protect Tokyo have become central to the stability of the whole world – many shields make up the city’s umbrella. The skyscrapers of Shinjuku are the blinding beacon of the night. The tracks of the Yamanote rail line are the Buddha’s hand enclosing the Imperial Palace in its grasp. The Sunshine 60 Building is a focus of security on Tokyo’s shifting ground. And then there’s the Tokyo Tower. If all these shields are destroyed, Tokyo will fall. These obscenities that man has created – the corruption, the pollution – all these will be annihilated. Nature will reclaim its dominion. The Earth will breath again.”

Coming roughly halfway through the film, this speech is crucial as it draws together some of the most recognisable landmarks of Tokyo – both old and new. Just as in typical Western disaster movies we see iconic landmarks such as the White House, Eiffel Tower or Big Ben destroyed, here we see the physical destruction of Tokyo couched in the cinematic language of pin-point destruction of key buildings.

To the primary Japanese audience of the film’s original release, there is an inherent presence and meaning in these locales that lives beyond the film’s own narrative. This is typified in Susan Sontag’s The Imagination of Destruction where she outlines: “Science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technological view. Things, objects, machinery play a major role in these films. A greater range of ethical values is embodied in the décor of these films than in the people. Things, rather than the helpless humans, are the locus of values because we experience them, rather than people, as the sources of power.”

To a Western audience however, unless the viewer is already deeply versed on the urban environment of Tokyo, they are unlikely to come into the film with the same sense of meaning imbued into these specific buildings. As such, it is important to consider the more worldly outlook Rintaro would take with Metropolis – de-centering the film from a Japanese locale and placing it within an anonymised, transnational future-setting. In a note of dark irony, however, Metropolis and its future-city would stand as an all-too relevant reminder of the very real horror of large scale urban destruction – the film’s original 2001 US release postponed until several months later, following the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

It is important to note that Metropolis actually deals with many of the same themes as both Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 – namely, that of the irrepressible march of progress, as well as notions of man’s place in an increasingly urbanised, mechanised landscape. However, whereas the former two films present these within the specific context of Tokyo, Metropolis is – both through its own visuals and setting, as well as by virtue of its connotations to the Fritz Lang Metropolis – placed within a far wider oeuvre of mechanisation within science fiction as a whole.

Metropolis stands as a cinematic construction that consistently works to present itself as un-Japanese. The architecture of the city is distinctly Western, and so is the music – employing a Japanese jazz band to create a soundtrack that is firmly inspired by classic Dixieland jazz of the 1920s. In this, we are presented a fascinating intermingling of internationalities – a Japanese composer creating Western music, attached to a Japanese medium (anime) fashioned after another Western product of the 1920s – Lang’s original Metropolis (1927).

In a neat piece of meta-cinema, Rintaro’s Metropolis also flags up its awareness of its own transnationality in a reference back to James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967), which is set predominantly in Japan. In that film, Bond orders a drink of sake as follows:

Tiger Tanaka: “Do you like Japanese sake, Mr. Bond? Or would you prefer a vodka martini?”

James Bond: “No, no. I like sake. Especially when it’s served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, like this is.”

Tiger Tanaka: “For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.”

In the corresponding scene in Metropolis, detective Shunsaku Ban walks into a bar and asks for a hot sake, only to be told they have none and that he will have to settle for a hot whiskey instead, the bartender stating: “The best I can do for a Japanese detective”.

Scenes like this are important as they continually reinforce Metropolis’ cinematic existence as something outside the typical ‘anime norm’. Indeed, much of the commentary on the film makes note of this, with The DVD Stack proclaiming: ‘This-twenty-first century Japanese anime isn’t merely a cartoon version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic’ while Groucho Reviews compares the use of music during the closing scenes of the film to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964).

What stands before us then are three cinematically distinct cities – primed for destruction. Two are Tokyo – one of the past (Doomed Megalopolis), one of the then-present (X/1999). The third is a more unknown quantity – the imagined future of Metropolis. In each instance, the eventual destruction of the city takes on different properties – informed by the audience and the socio-cultural connotations they bring with them. On one hand, the experiences of their own life and the city/cities they live in – on the other hand, a more filmic notion of ‘experience’ informed by the cinema they have consumed in the past and all the expectations that brings with it.

Destruction of the female body as a prelude to destruction of the city

One consistent theme across all three films is that of bodily violence toward female characters as a kind of preface to destruction of the cities these characters reside in. In all three films, these female characters are characterised as either chastely innocent and/or possessed of an otherness and mystique that sets them apart. Through their destruction or degradation, we see a symbolic marring of ‘purity’; setting the scene for the larger-scale destruction of the urban environments that will play out around them.

As Lawrence Bird comments in Serial Cities: The Politics of “Metropolis” from Lang to Rintarô: “The city is central to the imagery of the animated film – or anime, and cities in this branch of popular culture generally come to a sticky end: they are blown sky high. This is often paralleled with the destruction or transformation of an iconic work of architecture or a human (or quasi human) body at the centre of the apocalypse.”

In Doomed Megalopolis, lead villain Yasunori Kato is depicted as forcefully pushing a pulsating purple orb of magical energy into the opened legs of young woman Yukari Tatsumiya, followed by a squirt of blood as the orb enters – effectively impregnating her. As he states: “You shall allow the curse of 2000 years by the unyielding people to come to fruition in your body” – essentially tying together the fate of her physical body and the city itself.

Commentary has focussed on how this rape-like scene – and the violent, sexually charged tone of the film as a whole – was likely inspired by the recent success of other direct-to-video anime products such as the notoriously graphic Legend of the Overfiend (1987), which was so explicit, over two minutes had to be cut out by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) before it could be released in the UK.

In the opening scenes of X/1999, we see the mother of lead protagonist Kamui pull a massive, ornate sword from inside her naked body; hands covered in blood and a white, semen-like substance. Upon handing the sword to Kamui, her body then explodes violently into clearly depicted individual pieces.

Later in the film, one of Kamui’s allies – 14 year old schoolgirl Yuzuriha Nekoi – is mortally injured, and as she lies dying in Kamui’s arms states: “I’m sorry, I wasn’t much good to you, was I? I’ve never been in love as a woman can be in love. I’d have liked to have known someone would cry when they buried me.”

As shocking or distressing as these scenes appear, they take on an important significance when discussed in relation to the ideas raised by Isolde Standish in Akira, Postmodernism And Resistance regarding the notion of the ‘tragic hero’ that dominates Japanese fiction – as directly opposed to more traditional Western concept of how a hero is represented on screen.

In Rintaro’s films, these heroines are tragically and dramatically violated as part of each movie’s depiction of battle against the forces of evil. But it is within this self-same violation that the films are afforded additional shock-factor as we see paragons of order and respectability disrupted and dismantled by pure chaos. Quoting Hebdige, Standish outlines: “Violations of the authorized codes through which the social world is organised and experienced have considerable power to provoke and disturb”.

In the closing scenes of Metropolis – as Ray Charles’ I Just Can’t Stop Loving You plays out – we see female character Tima with half of her flesh torn away to expose the reality of her robotic inner workings underneath. Crucially, Rintaro chooses to frame some shots so we only see the human side of Tima – her hair blowing animatedly in the wind –  whilst other shots deliberately display her ‘half and half’ nature. As the city collapses around them and the scene moves to a climax, we see Tima’s robot hand clasped by hero Kenichi’s human hand. She then slips and falls to her death, uttering one final line: ‘Who am I? I am who?’ – All concept of her as a person has now been erased – both physically and mentally – replaced by a lifeless robotic husk.

With particular reference to Metropolis it is important to note the film’s position within the transnational cinematic landscape at the time of its release. Crucially, it was released in the same year as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), which dealt with many similar themes of what it means to be human – amidst a backdrop of ruined cities.

By interacting with these themes, Metropolis elevates itself above the specifically ‘Japanese’ environments of Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 to handle a more universal question. As many reviews of the movie bear out, it is no longer merely operating within the tight anime ‘bubble’ but in the sphere of a wider (non-animated) science-fiction canon of output.

Across these three films, we see a gradual scaling-back of the intensity of the violence – from the 15-rated rape and dismemberment in Rintaro’s 90s work to the comparatively tame PG-rated destruction of a robot in Metropolis – inherently more palatable to a ‘mainstream’ Western audience – the focus of the violence arguably shifting from that of luridly visual shock factor to that of more thematic significance.

Whether female or machine (or both) however, there is a sense of potential fear or otherness present in the physical manifestation of said ‘body’ on screen. As Susan Sontag discusses in her essay The Imagination of Disaster, there is a long history of the notion of ‘dehumanisation’ in science-fiction. On one hand, this can manifest as a kind of animal bloodlust – standing in as a ‘metaphoric exaggeration of sexual desire’. In this respect, the symbolically sexual destruction of female bodies in Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 can be seen as a kind of erasure of the temptations of man implicitly present in the modern urban city.

On the other hand, Metropolis presents the flip side of the equation – the danger is no longer man’s potential to revert to base animal instincts, but now that he might dehumanise himself so thoroughly through robotics and science that he no longer resembles man himself. As such, the city remains the constant throughout – the signifier for all humanity is and can achieve – both soft flesh and hard artifice, base instinct and rational science, woman and man. One cannot exist without the other.

Marketing mass destruction – from the fanboys to the arthouse

One gauge of the three films’ varying endurance and success as transnational products is their availability on home video in the West. Doomed Megalopolis was originally released in the UK on VHS in 1995 by Manga Entertainment (the same company responsible for the UK releases of Akira and Ghost In The Shell [1995]), but never saw a subsequent DVD release (in contrast to the US, which saw the film released on DVD by ADV Pictures in 2001) – the original VHS tapes are now long out of print.

X/1999 saw UK release on both VHS and DVD in 2000 (again from Manga Entertainment) – making it one of the first anime to see release on the then-new DVD format. As with Doomed Megalopolis however – both editions are now out of print.

In both these titles, we see a snapshot of the UK anime market in the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s – a collective effort by Manga Entertainment to build on the audience lured in by showpiece anime features such as Akira and Ghost In The Shell by offering them more of the same – in an interview with site The Raygun, anime writer and academic Jonathan Clements recounts the ‘fan-boy’ culture of the time:

“[Manga Entertainment] pandered to a significantly larger audience, the tens of thousands of consumers who bought Akira and might be persuaded to come back for more. There was a demonstrable demographic of 4000 or so young British males who could be counted on to habitually buy 18-rated cartoons, dubbed into English. Mike Preece spoke of the ‘beer-and-curry’ crowd who would enjoy anime in a raucous environment. We started calling such notional viewers ‘Mangatykes’, and as the decade wore on they began to crowd out the original fans, even at conventions.”

It is this ‘beer and curry’ crowd that films like X/1999 are specifically geared to target – with the DVD cover art plastered in a number of bright-red quotes from specialist fan-boy publications such as Animerica and Gamers Republic. A key quote from Fantasia adds a quasi-sexual tone to the effusive praise: “One of the greatest orgies of battle and destruction ever seen in a live action film or an animated one… A feast for the eyes”.

Here we see the clearest example of the transnational pull of a film like X/1999 when given distinct marketing impetus by a distributor like Manga Entertainment – the original animated feature dressed up in eye-catching pull-quotes and the allure of a large ‘15’ BBFC label promising violence and perhaps even sexual content. In essence, a checklist of ‘shock’ elements almost taking precedence over any notion of the film’s plot or characters.

These tactics are similar to those employed by Tartan Entertainment with their Asia Extreme label, focusing specifically on the allure of the exotic and dangerous to shift high volumes of home-video content on the assumption that it will provide thrills more extreme than those offered by standard cinema fare. As highlighted by Chi-Yun Shin in The Art of Branding: Tartan “Asia Extreme” Films: “the output of the label, and indeed the name of the label itself, invoke and in part rely on the western audiences’ perception of the East as weird and wonderful, sublime and grotesque”.

In contrast, Metropolis was released on DVD in 2002 by Sony Pictures (a major, mainstream distributor) with this edition remaining in print for over 10 years – with a new Blu-Ray edition set to replace it in early 2017 from Asian/arthouse movie specialist distributor Eureka Entertainment. This new edition is being marketed as a distinct ‘prestige’ edition (complete with premium collector’s ‘Steelbook’ packaging). Despite having released a number of live action Japanese films (as well as other world cinema classics such as Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari [1920]) Metropolis is the only anime title on their release schedule, marking it out as a product deemed by Eureka worthy of special attention and capable of sitting comfortably alongside the rest of their catalogue.

The case of Metropolis serves as an important exception to the norm in the UK anime market – here we see a feature-length anime product distributed not by an established anime purveyor (Manga Entertainment), but by first a mainstream distributor (Sony) and subsequently by a prestige arthouse label (Eureka).

In comparison to the lurid, fan-boy centric quotes on the DVD cover of X/1999, the DVD cover of Metropolis instead opts for a lengthy quotation from famed Hollywood director James Cameron: “Metropolis is the new milestone in Anime, a spectacular fusion of CG backgrounds with traditional character animation. It has beauty, power, mystery and above all… heart. Images from this film will stay with you forever. My congratulations to Rintaro-san for his masterpiece”.

Here, not only do we have an enthused seal of approval from an internationally acclaimed director from outside the enclosed sphere of anime-fandom, but a specific mention of ‘Rintaro-san’ as director – placing Metropolis as a ‘masterpiece’ that bears a specific authorial stamp and visual flair of its own.

Metropolis’ distribution in the UK on mainstream label Sony Pictures (specifically, sub-imprint Columbia Tristar) is a vital part of this picture – one in which the significance of the film becomes more than just the film itself – but the accoutrements that accompany its physical release. Suddenly, the film is empowered not only by the ‘press release’ allure of quotes from the likes of James Cameron, but is enfolded into a wider Sony Pictures structure that affords the movie equal opportunity within its wider catalogue.

This not only includes presence on the official Sony Pictures website, but also the inclusion of an entire extra DVD of special features within the product itself, as well as a booklet advertising ‘If you enjoyed this title, we recommend you try these’ – followed by a number of live action, Western films such as Bad Boys (1995), Apollo 13 (1995) and Jurassic Park (1993). Here we see evidence of the building of a consumer ‘habit’ that Oliver Dew discusses in ‘Asia Extreme’: Japanese Cinema and British Hype – Sony Pictures aiming toward a ‘key audience aggregate’ where foreign language films (in this instance, Metropolis) intersects with ‘cult’ genre film.

Dew goes on to explain that we see a specific awareness of a desire for more artistically-leaning productions to escape the derogatory ‘creepfest’ connotations associated with particular strands of Japanese cinema: “This combination, of the cult ‘fan-boy’ audience and art-house/world cinema audience, is by far the most common aggregation for a successful Asian genre film, as many other examples can attest: of Audition, Variety declares that its ‘[lyrical pacing] may allow it to break out of creepfest ghetto [sic].”

It is in this distinction – between the cult ‘fan-boy’ audience and the ‘art-house’, between the implication of low-brow and high-brow as distinct audience demographics in their own right, that we begin to see the role of Metropolis as a kind of bridging point between the two – and as such, reaping the benefits for existing in this transitory intersection between the two.

By looking at online movie database IMDB we can get a gauge for the corresponding popularity (number of users who rated the film) and reception (average rating out of 10) for these three films:

Doomed Megalopolis – Average rating of 6.5 (from 168 users)

X/1999 – Average rating of 6.2 (from 2,163 users)

Metropolis – Average rating of 7.3 (from 17,169 users)

Here we see Metropolis emerging with a clear lead, both in terms of rating – and more significantly – number of users who voted for the film, highlighting its broader appeal and elevation above the arguable ‘anime fans only’ space that Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 exist in – reflected by their far lower user count. Instead, Metropolis is now existing in a similar sphere of popularity to other auteur led animated motion-pictures – for example, Satoshi Kon’s acclaimed Millennium Actress (2001), released in the same year as Metropolis – which scores an average rating of 7.9 (from 15,403 users).

In Metropolis then, we see the creation of something different – a kind of emblematic transformation that sees the film existing as both ‘anime movie’, but also somehow ‘beyond’ other anime movies by the same director. It is telling to note that anime and Asian cinema critic Jasper Sharp on two occasions comments on Metropolis being an ‘accessible’ and perhaps more significantly, ‘safe’ entry point into the medium of anime for newcomers. Gone are the violent and sexual excesses of Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 – in their place, a new, ‘safe’ sheen; and with it, Metropolis’ sleek entry into a perceived higher echelon of cinematic taste.


With these three films, Rintaro showed a deft ability to adapt to the rapidly changing consumer market of the 90s and early 2000s – from the direct-to-video thrills of Doomed Megalopolis, through the ‘beer and curry’ audience of ‘cult’ anime product like X/1999, to the big-budget international marketing of Metropolis as a more cultured art-house piece.

From their Japanese origins amidst disparate source material (manga and lengthy novel series), Rintaro has taken consistent themes and depictions centered around mass destruction of urban environments and applied a cohesive, yet evolving style to these cinematic works. It begins with the inherently niche – stories rooted in the very fabric of Japanese historical events and locales; yet playing with universal visual spectacle – offered through a transnational filter of the violent and sexual extremes that became in themselves key marketing components in the West at the time.

Moving beyond these cult, fan-boy orientated roots, we see Rintaro greet the 21st century with something new – in Metropolis, a film that speaks not only to an established, habitually-consuming audience, but that serves as an active entry point to the medium of anime. Dressed in the clothes of Jazz music, timelessly appealing science-fiction themes, flashy CGI and a link (albeit a convoluted one) back to one of the landmarks of Western cinema, we are left with a film that stands at a precise intersection between cult and art-house, low-brow and high-brow – and reaps the benefits of both.

The explosive, eye-catching statement of on-screen destruction remains, but now it takes on new meaning; part of a wider cinematic language – smoothed off and polished into a product that is arguably just as much influenced by the West as it is by the East. In a world of viewing tastes that were becoming increasingly transnational – swelled by the rise of the DVD medium and film distributors beginning to position anime (or at the very least, the ‘right’ kind of anime films) as something that could sit comfortably alongside Western live action films, it is only natural that it would fall to the most transnational of the three films to offer itself up to the widest audience.


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(2002) Metropolis DVD cover, London: Sony Pictures

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(2000) X DVD cover, London: Manga Entertainment


Doomed Megalopolis (Teito Monogatari). Dir. Rintaro. Madhouse. Toei Video, Oz. 1991.

Metropolis (Metoroporisu). Dir. Rintaro. Madhouse. Kadokawa Shoten. 2001.

X/1999 (Ekkusu). Dir. Rintaro. Madhouse. Kadokawa Shoten, Victor Entertainment, Marubeni, Movic, Sega, Shelty. 1996.

‘They know a million tricks, those novelists…’ – Analysing the theme of alternate realities in works of science fiction – Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin

The human mind, by its very nature, is a constantly curious, questioning thing – and as such, what is it that leads us to continuously ask ‘what if?’ Why has the concept of alternate realities remained so enduringly popular within the broader oeuvre of science fiction – that tantalising capability to delve into both past and future scenarios in an attempt to analyse the possibilities for something different, something profoundly ‘other’? In his essay on Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Ted Gioia argues that ‘the excitement of sci-fi is not derived from its science—which rarely stands up to scrutiny—but rather from its imaginative reconstructions of our perceived reality.’ This essay focuses on this notion of ‘reconstruction’ and the fabrication of the unfamiliar, fantastical and unsettling from the world we know. It is a tradition with roots stretching back through literature of the past two-hundred years to early Greek philosophical debate and classical poetry. As two of the most prolific authors of science-fiction, Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick provide an ideal crux to an examination of alternate realities and how this narrative premise can be employed as a tool to investigate a multitude of themes prevalent to contemporary society.

Published in 1962, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle explores the concept of an alternate reality where Germany and Japan won the Second World War. With Europe completely dominated by Germany, America was forced to surrender to the Axis powers and was promptly colonised by Germany on the East Coast and by Japan on the Western Coast – the two powers separated by a neutral Rocky Mountain buffer zone. In an unstable Cold War environment unfolding between Japan and Germany, many of the remaining Americans eke out an existence selling antiques – both fake and real – to the Japanese, who have an obsession with objects of America’s past. Against this backdrop, a young woman called Julianna Frink seeks out the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy; a book that portrays a hopeful alternate world where Germany lost the war. Through this novel-within-a-novel technique, Dick explores the notions of alternate realities, the subjective nature of history and ideas of race within a conflicted society. As Eric Brown explains in his introduction to the novel, ‘[Dick] was obsessed with the idea that the universe was only apparently real, an illusion behind which the truth might dwell. Again and again in his work, we find that reality as perceived by both reader and protagonist is a hoax’.

Ursula Le Guin engages with many similar themes within her novel The Lathe Of Heaven (1971). Dealing with protagonist George Orr, who suffers from dreams with the capability to change reality, the novel examines this mechanism and the problems created when it is abused by Orr’s doctor, William Haber. Utilising a brainwave machine that enhances Orr’s dreams, Haber attempts to change the world, with disastrous consequences – directing Orr to dream of an end to racism, everyone’s skin is turned grey. Ordered to dream of world peace, Orr creates an alien invasion, uniting the world’s nations to fight against them. With the world becoming increasingly unstable through repeat usage of the ‘dream-machine’, Orr is forced to fight for control against Haber and ultimately shut his operations down.


The makings of a genre – views of history as subject to change

In pre-Christian religions, dreams were often seen as a portal to alternate realities, running parallel to normal life. These dreams were seen as direct messages from God, offering a new, alternative level of consciousness. Greek philosophers speculated on these hazy, speculative realms, typified by Plato’s discourse Timaeus (360 BC). Here, Plato put forward the theory of a distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds, the former subject to constant change: ‘As being is to becoming, so is truth to belief’. His theories posited the idea of reality being something contingent, as open to flux as opinions and beliefs were, and this point was illustrated by Plato’s inclusion of references to the mythical world of Atlantis.

Despite these early concepts, the sub-genre of alternate reality (existing as a narrative premise within the wider genre of science-fiction as a whole) has its true beginnings as a component of modern literature in nineteenth-century France, where it became focused less on speculative other-worlds, but on the notion of other versions of history. The aftermath of Napoleon’s death provided the perfect conditions for authors looking to explore how history might have unfolded differently. As the man that had led the French Empire to an almost Europe-wide extent, Napoleon’s influence on what constituted contemporary history could be seen first-hand. This was someone whose choices and actions could genuinely be said to have history-altering consequences, on the largest of scales.

  1. F. Clarke’s introduction to Tales of the Next Great War addresses the idea of alternate realities and their link to imperial notions of culture – precisely the kind of collective continent-spanning identity Napoleon’s Empire sought to achieve: ‘The future war story is at all times a specific response, both in form and in content, to the perceived potential in contemporary society.’ The central phrase here is ‘perceived potential’, with alternate realities in many sense being an enlarged sense of themes relevant around any society, but presented as part of a fantastical, altered world where these themes can be portrayed on a more grandiose scale. The ‘perceived potential’ in an ambitious ruler such as Napoleon provided a focal point for writers – the identity of a culture magnified in the domineering military power of one man.

Theories of central, iconic figures dictating history swiftly became a popular part of historical discourse in the nineteenth-century. Originally proposed by Thomas Carlyle, who stated ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men’, his discourse twinned the language of history and literature in his imagination of the history of the world as a biography, a story. This theory stood directly opposed to the older, established theories that history was instead composed of a series of smaller events combining to bring about gradual change.

Subscribers to the great man theory looked to texts such as early editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica where details of post-Roman European history were merely compiled into the biography of Attila the Hun. Powerful leaders such as Attila, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon and Hitler stand as classic central focuses of the great man theory – through their individual influence and power, decisive shifts to world history were brought about. These theories of central figures dictating world history helped give rise to what is commonly considered the first ‘alternate-history’ novel, the extravagantly titled Napoleon et la conquete du monde (Napoleon and the conquest of the world) by Louis Geoffroy (1836). In America Jack London painted a dramatic picture of world conquest in his 1910 short story The Unparalled Invasion which looked ahead to an imagined 1970s landscape where China’s population eclipsed that of the ‘white’ Western nations.

In these disparate but representative works there is a running theme of climactic, changeful times such as these providing the catalyst for alternate reality fiction – it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the genre really began to blossom, prompted by the horrors of World War II. The concept of a Nazi victory over the Allies – the premise that Dick’s The Man in the High Castle centres around – originally dated from much earlier; wartime propaganda used to promote America’s involvement in the war. Examples include Marion White’s If We Should Fail (1942) – the grim title speaks for itself; this was literature designed to provoke a response in its readers, to scare them with worst-case-scenario visions of alternate realities. The capacity for this kind of literature to be co-opted for political ends highlights two central aspects to why alternate reality fictions have endured, their populist mass appeal and their engagement with contemporary issues pervading to society.

Post-war, the purpose of these hypothetical Nazi-victory scenarios shifted, now re-envisioned as a kind of propaganda to eternalise the memory of Germany’s war crimes while simultaneously salving the American conscience of any doubts that their involvement in the war was the incorrect course of action. This new spate of alternate reality fiction included Cyril M. Kornbluth’s Two Dooms (1958) and Dick’s The Man in the High Castle itself – the popularity of this subject matter and engagement with the nature of history was clearly evident when it formed the basis of a Star Trek episode, first televised in 1967, ‘The City On The Edge of Forever’. In this episode, the heroes must stand by and allow a pacifist to die after discovering that if she lives, her actions lead to the US delaying their entry into World War II; thus allowing Germany the time to develop atomic weapons and conquer the world. Within these scenarios, key moral and ethical questions were being posited, allowing the narratives to act as a kind of scientific exposition of human values.

This new wave of alternate reality fiction was now also attaching itself to the fears of Cold War America. In 1962, the prospect of nuclear war seemed almost inevitable when for ten days in October, the world waited with apprehension for the Cuban missile crisis to resolve. In the eyes of American patriots, the country’s stoicism had ultimately once again forced a foreign power to back down, but at what cost? Though a nuclear incident had been avoided this time, it was not hard to imagine an alternate version of events which had ended in disaster. These fears are realised in one of the most iconic scenes of Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), in which lead character George Orr dreams of an alien invasion of Earth, the imagery of his experiences clearly tied into that of a nuclear attack: ‘the big star brightened hugendly BURST blinding. He fell to the ground, covering his head with his arms as the sky burst into streaks of bright death.’

Just as history was emerging in the public consciousness as a thing of multiple possible outcomes, new branches of historical philosophy were being proposed, building on Carlyle’s ‘great man’ theory. Indeed, in the context of Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, central character George Orr is the literal embodiment of the ‘great man’; able to directly influence the course of world events through his dreams. With these branches of historical theory seeping through into popular literature, the world was primed for further developments in the field. In 1975, Michel Foucault proposed a new kind of historico-political discourse in his series of lectures, Society Must Be Defended, where he presented the idea that the notion of ‘truth’ was a delicate product of historical struggle. This struggle, he argued, manifested itself on a global level between nations and by clever manipulation of the supposed truth, history could become not just a means of recording past events, but a powerful political weapon.

In Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953), protagonist Ben Reich is the owner of one of the most powerful companies on Earth in an imagined future where it is the immense wealth of businesses rather than the democratic decision-making of governments that holds power over the world and its people. Having killed the head of his largest rival organisation, Reich is left fleeing the police – led by high ranking Police Prefect Powell – who identifies the terrifying power an unchecked Reich would wield.

Look at Reich’s position in time and space. Will not his beliefs become the world’s belief? Will not his reality become the world’s reality? Is he not, in his critical position of power, energy, and intellect, a sure road to utter destruction? Reich is one of the rare Universe-shakers… all reality hangs precariously on his awakening. He cannot be permitted to awake to the wrong reality.

Here, Bester extrapolates Carlyle’s ‘great man’ theory to encompass not just the world, but the entire universe. As with Napoleon or Hitler, future history, and by association reality itself hinges upon the fulcrum that is Reich – the great man. From the dangerous cocktail that results from his business power and intellect, he is in the unique position to bring about genuine history-changing events of the kind ‘regular’ citizens can only imagine.

More interesting though is the way Reich’s possible future is inherently perceived as ‘wrong’ by Powell, acting in a position of custodian of the world. Reich’s future is portrayed as something of ‘utter destruction’ that would ‘shake’ and sully the universe. Reich, like Le Guin’s George Orr, is an inherently chaotic catalyst within the complex fabric of potential realities. In both instances, these characters have the power to bring about large-scale change – but as the authors illustrate, uncontrolled, this power leans dangerously towards destruction and violence. In The Lathe of Heaven, Orr literally wakes ‘to the wrong reality’ from his change-bringing dreams – starting and ending wars, eliminating the entire concept of race – and it is this kind of scenario Powell seeks to avoid in The Demolished Man.

The concept of police-like intervention on a global level remains a relevant issue to this day, most commonly targeted at America. In early 2003, with the Iraq war presenting itself as a very real possibility, many questioned whether it was right for America to intervene in the affairs of the middle-east and play the role of international policeman or ‘Globocop’, as Max Boot puts it in his Financial Times piece ‘America’s Destiny Is to Police the World’:

Why should America take on the thankless task of policing the globe… does the world need a constable? As long as evil exists, someone will have to protect peaceful people from predators. It is the country with the most vibrant economy, the most fervent devotion to liberty and the most powerful military. In the 19th century Britain battled the ‘enemies of all mankind’, such as slave traders and pirates, and kept the world’s seas open to free trade. Today the only nation capable of playing an equivalent role is the US. Allies will be needed but America is, as Madeleine Albright said, ‘the indispensable nation’

The tone of Boot’s piece echoes Powell’s speech in The Demolished Man – here, liberty and peace are presented as the objective opposites to ‘evil’, ‘predators’ and ‘enemies of all mankind’. Just as Powell deems Reich ‘a sure road to utter destruction’, Boot deems American intervention as essential – ‘indispensable’ even – to ensure the world remains on the ‘correct’ course of history. In the 1970s, Foucault lectured on the defence of ‘society’ as part of an interplay between history and politics – the same holds true in the contemporary nature of Boot’s analysis of America as world policeman, with the politics now taking place on a scale in which ‘society’ becomes representative of the core values of liberty and peace on a global scale.

As with Bester’s idea of both ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ versions of history opposed against each-other, The Man in the High Castle is also a book of juxtapositions and multiple elements. The basic premise of the novel is a juxtaposition in itself – the notion of a false reality, and by association a false version of history, as opposed to our ‘real’ world. We are presented with the theme of history as something indeterminate, elusive – and left to decide which is correct, our interpretation of history or the version of events given in the novel. In his critical review of the book, Adam Roberts raises the question of what history exactly stands for:

Postmodern and deconstructive historians have been involved with more traditional historians in precisely this debate for several decades now: whether history is ‘out there’, a realm of solid fact… or whether it is ‘in the mind’, radically indeterminable, textual rather than factual. Dick takes the argument further along than a Foucault or a Hayden White could dare.

It is precisely this argument that Dick explores in his creation of The Man in the High Castle – it is his very own, self-contained textual history – a version of world events that he has created to fit his designs, his plot machinations. Even more interesting is the fictional novel contained within the book, entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which presents yet another imagined version of history (one where Germany loses the war, but in ways subtly different from our ‘real’ history).  With so many different versions colliding and interweaving, history fast becomes, as Roberts puts it, ‘radically indeterminable’. Reliability is called into question, the notion of absolute authority. Can any one man, or indeed, a culture, define a ‘master’ version of history that all should subscribe to above others? Or is the world instead comprised of a countless number of contingent histories, every person and object containing their own personal timeline?

It is important to place Le Guin and Dick’s novels not just within the discourse of science-fiction and historical theory but also postmodernism. Often defined as a movement which decentred the concept of texts – turning them from individual creations into intertextual ones – postmodernism strived to build on the more explorative literature of the early twentieth-century and not just examine the world around us, but also the language and means by which the world is described with. Other key themes in postmodernism such as paranoia, techno-culture and hyperreality (where reality becomes indeterminable from a simulation of reality) bear particular relevance to Le Guin and Dick whose novels are charged with contemporary fears of war, politics, technology and drug usage – indeed, the novels could in many ways be seen as a paranoid reaction to these fears. In The Lathe Of Heaven, it is through Dr. Haber’s ‘dream machine’ that Orr’s dreams are controlled, a seamless integration of man and technology utilised to world-altering effect. In The Man In The Castle, Dick supplies a more respectful view of technology, one intertwined with the nature of Nazi culture itself and their achievement of space travel:

What the Nazis have which we lack is – nobility. Admire them for their love of work or their efficiency… but it’s the dream that stirs one. Space flights to the moon, then to Mars; if that isn’t the oldest yearning of mankind, our finest hope for glory.

Here, the tone is one of appreciative awe. Though they are portrayed as an oppressive people, there is a notion of respect for the ambition and ingenuity of Nazi technology, a sense that they have achieved the fullest extent of human potential by actually turning such long-held dreams as visiting Mars into reality. Postmodernist discourse also raised notions that there was a hidden scheme of ordering behind the day to day existence of the world, an invisible drive behind apparently chaotic events. This bears relevance The Man in the High Castle where characters, lost in the bewilderment of ever-changing modern life, look to the advice of the I Ching for solace. Within the I Ching system, apparently random combinations of yarrow stalks combine to create a form of divination; fortune telling. While sceptics would target the system as completely random, for the user, the belief in the outcomes of this kind of divination is absolute – for them, the order imposed by the I Ching to the events of their life is to be completely believed.

Within the naming of Le Guin’s character George Orr lies the obvious referencing of George Orwell, and by extension, the themes of duality present both in Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Orwell’s 1984. Within this passage from 1984, Orwell sets out many of the themes of a malleable, controlled notion of history and reality that Dick and Le Guin also deal with:

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed -if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’.

George Orr’s ability to alter reality with his dreams recalls Orwell’s ‘doublethink’; a capability to imagine an alternate state of reality, and for this to then be imposed over current reality. As with Orr, reality is positioned as something that begins explicitly in the mind, moving outwards to encompass the world itself – the ‘reality control’ that Orr possesses as inherent ability. Orwell’s phrasing specifically focuses on the almost simplicity of the act, ‘all that was needed’, how with the correct series of thought processes, this reality control becomes second nature – a theme that becomes evident in Dr Haber’s increased manipulation of George Orr’s dreams in The Lathe of Heaven. With Haber in control, George Orr achieves more and more victories over his memory of established events – erasing world wars, conjuring aliens into existence – instantaneously.

While Orwell states ‘if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth,’ Dick takes this premise and explores it to its natural extension with the Nazi-ruled world of The Man in the High Castle where, through consultation with the I Ching, the reality the characters are living in is finally exposed as false in the novel’s closing pages. Presented with this realisation, Julianna targets Hawthorne, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, with the criticism: ‘Even you don’t face it’, echoing Orwell’s ideas of the acceptance of a lie, an avoidance of the real truth to accept reality at face value – Germany continuing to exert a ‘victory’ over America and their collective cultural memory. By engaging with theories of the malleability of history, both Orwell and Dick seek to examine the cross-over between history and reality itself – with history as the process that creates truths from the past, these then coalesce to form the make-up of the reality that surrounds us in the present.

In one of the extracts from The Grasshopper Lies Heavy presented in the novel, a German named Karl is confronted with the Hitler’s dead body and the absolute finality it presents for the Nazi Party:

‘Here he lay, and now he was gone, really gone… The man – or was it after all Uebermensch? – whom Karl had blindly followed, worshipped… We see your bluff, Adolf Hitler. And we know you for what you are, at last. And the Nazi Party, the dreadful era of murder and megalomaniacal fantasy, for what it is. What it was.’

Emphasised within this extract is the duality of Hitler and the Party; once existent and powerful, now dead and gone. Here, the ‘bluff’ is finally faced head on, the lie of superiority thrown down as a ‘megalomaniacal fantasy’, Dick specifically employing the term fantasy to highlight it as a kind of fiction. Here, German rule is exposed as a false reality, just as it is in the closing pages of The Man In The High Castle itself. As ‘author’ of the destiny of Nazi race, Hitler’s story comes to a close, the eyes of his ‘blind’ followers finally opened to the ‘true’ reality.

Dick’s usage of the Nietzschean term ‘Uebermensch’ is also important – mostly commonly translated as ‘super man’, it also recalls Carlyle’s ‘great man’; positioning Hitler as the abstraction of his race and country that Dick uses earlier in the novel to identify the Nazi ideology. However, in the original English translation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra – from which the term originates – the word appeared as ‘Beyond-Man’, establishing themes of an alternative, separate being – an ultimate goal for humanity to strive towards. Thus, in this definition, Hitler is not just the ‘great man’, but something above and beyond normal comprehensions of mankind and reality. Drawing on Nietzsche’s themes of the struggle to find purpose in a world with no meaning, and no God, Dick then exposes Hitler- for all his ‘Uebermensch’ pretentions – as merely another God figure, ‘blindly followed, worshipped’.

In terms of extracting meaning from character names, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man employs a similar technique with its protagonist – Ben Reich, a bringing together of the overtly Jewish ‘Benjamin’ and Reich; more specifically the Nazi regime of the Third Reich. By combining both oppressor and oppressed within one name, Bester furthers the concept of Carlyle’s great man theory by creating an all encompassing man comprised of archetypal traits of both races. As a businessman, Reich plays into concepts of Jews as inherently engaged with money, while as a powerful man driven on controlling all the major corporations in the solar system, he engages with the conquering force of Nazi Germany. By investing his lead character with these connotations, Bester explores the capacity of a homogenised force on the world. Reich’s personal mantra in the novel is ‘Make your enemies by choice, not by accident’, following on from Orwell’s ideas of control, this positions him as a man who succeeds through the ability to choose – a theme also present in the creation of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in Dick’s novel; a book written through a series of random ‘choices’.

Exploring the way the novel has been created through a continuous series of consultations with the I Ching, the author’s wife explains: ‘One by one [Hawthorne] made the choices. Thousands of them. By means of the lines. Historic period. Subject. Characters. Plot. It took years. [Hawthorne] even asked the oracle what sort of success it would be. It told him that it would be a very great success, the first real one of his career.’ Perhaps most pertinent is the fact that Hawthorne’s creation of the The Grasshopper Lies Heavy mirrors the way Dick actually composed the narrative of The Man in the High Castle by way of the I Ching, furthering the post-modernist elements of Hawthorne as a representation of Dick-as-author within the book itself. This also poses the question; who exactly is in control of The Man in the High Castle – Dick, or the I Ching?

Notions of control in respect to narrative is a core post-modernist theme, and presenting history as a story open to change, Dick and Le Guin are arguably not only in control of the narrative of their novels, but the history contained within them. In one scene of The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr and Dr. Haber are discussing the conflicted state of fictional Middle Eastern country ‘Isragypt’, which has now been ‘imagined out of existence’ by Orr dreaming of world peace: ‘The made-up word from the old reality had a curiously shocking effect, spoken in this reality: like surrealism, it seemed to make sense and didn’t, or seemed not to make sense and did.’ Le Guin’s specifying of Isragypt as a ‘made-up’ word engages with the author’s power to create words to fulfil their purposes, with the irony here being that it is now as ‘made-up’ for Orr as it is for the reader. As a portmanteau of Israel and Egypt, we can comprehend the meaning of the word, but it holds no ‘real’ value for us – it is an entirely fictional nation. Thus, we are placed in Orr’s mindset, encountering a word that ‘seemed to make sense and didn’t’. Here, the history of the world and the political states of its nations is placed in constant flux, with Le Guin as controller, not only playing with a dual sense of reality – in a manner akin to Orwell’s ‘doublethink’ – but extending that notion of duality into the very words on the page.

Returning to the idea of intertextuality, to a degree, the world of Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is a postmodern creation in itself. Just as postmodern novels are things of metafiction – writing referring to the process of writing – The Lathe of Heaven is a fictional world concerned with the further creation of fictional worlds. George Orr creates a patchwork of varied worlds in his dreams, the multiple elements stitching themselves together, overlaying themselves on top of each-other until any notion of an original world is lost. And it is in this context of overlaying and eventual loss that historical theorists have analysed the shifting events of our own world and presented the theory that history – as it is understood on a global level – is inherently written by the victors.

Race and reality – history in the eyes of the victors

Returning to Dick’s novel, the concept of ‘history written by the victors’ plays directly into the theory of a linear Nazi history – indeed, this is why the Nazis have banned the alternate-history novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, as it dares to offer an alternative to their ‘master’ history. If only the victors ever write the history, the loser’s story is lost, never to be recovered – and without knowledge of these events, they effectively cease to exist.

America’s history in particular has proved to be a focal point of this sense of varied history. What was once traditionally described as the initial ‘colonisation’ of America by European settlers is now sometimes described as a period of invasion and dominance of the native Indian tribes – the same events, but from different viewpoints. These theories are grouped together under the term ‘historical revisionism’, literally a revising of what constitutes ‘history’ – as the American example proves, ‘today’s winners are tomorrow’s losers’. Through these methods, present trains of thought influence the way the past is seen. Dick handles this theme deftly in his novel, presenting a scenario where America is once again ‘invaded’ by European powers, making a keen political point about the way events can come to be viewed.

In his essay on Richard Hakluyt (sixteenth-century writer key in the initial colonisation of America by England), David Harris Sacks explores the specific terminology of early European conquest of Native Americans:

England would quickly “worke many great and unlooked for effects, increase her dominions, enrich her cofers, and reduce many Pagans to the faith of Christ”. To ‘reduce’ means literally ‘to lead back’. Its use implies that for the natives of North America the forward course of history represents a return to lost truth.

Here, history is presented as something of dual aspects – on one level it moves continuously forward, an unalterable march of progress upon world events. But equally, history for the Native Americans becomes malleable, specifically and intentionally altered by the English settlers as they sought to return the natives to the universal truth of Christianity. In their eyes, the individual history of the formerly isolated natives is wiped away to be replaced by a larger, greater world history. Sacks continues, highlighting this view of the universal truth of man as a collective whole: ‘This usage reflects the view that the natives of the Americas, along with the rest of humankind, have suffered the consequences of the Fall, but can be freed from the burdens of sin and returned… to a state of righteousness and reason, the potential for which is in their God-given nature’.

For Dick, the dictatorial aspects of Nazism present a similar view – the strict linearity of one central version of history – they are the master race, inherently opposed to difference and otherness. ‘Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land.’ Here, the localised version of reality and history disappears altogether, replaced by a universal, uniform master narrative. This concept of the individual versus the concept of a race in its entirety is a frequent element in historical theory – In his essay on French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, Hayden White explains:

The democratic historian seeks to discover some large meaning in the mass of petty details which he discerns on the historical stage. He is driven to refer to everything, not to individuals at all, but to great, abstract, and general forces.

Just as Dick talks of the ‘cosmic’ view of the German race, White explores how the notion of the individual is homogenised and in essence lost amidst a mass of ‘everything’. This echoes Dick’s use of the antiques industry as a metaphor for history – several of the characters enter into a discourse on the value of a cigarette-lighter claimed to have been held by President Roosevelt when he was assassinated. We are told that the object only has worth because it is accompanied by an authenticity certificate:

…it’s all a fake, a mass delusion. The paper proves its worth, not the object itself! …the paper and lighter had cost him a fortune, but they were worth it – because they enabled him to prove that he was right, that the word ‘fake’ meant nothing really, since the word ‘authentic’ meant nothing really

The actual significance of the lighter is lost amidst proving if it is genuine or fake, and the reader is left doubting whether, despite the authenticity certificate, it is real at all. Just as with George Orr’s multiple created worlds, Dick’s landscape of antiques within the desolated, ‘antique’ America is permeable, contingent, a thing of change. This theme of a lack of control is continued in White’s Metahistory, who states: ‘[the historian] therefore tends to view history as a depressing story of man’s inability to control his future’. What Dick also achieves in his novel is the creation of a distinct parallel between American, Nazi and Japanese society – by carving up the world of the novel, and by association the world in its entirety, into three carefully characterised societies, Dick’s narrative bears relevance to another aspect mentioned in the White essay:

[Mediating] not only between alternative concepts of society and between the past and the present, but between the present and the future as well… The task of the historian was to show how these possibilities had crystallised as distinct alternatives for the future

This sense of indeterminacy regarding nation and race is highlighted in The Lathe of Heaven where George Orr’s lawyer Lelache discusses her confused sense of racial identity.

I can’t decide which colour I am. I mean, my father was a black, a real black – oh, he had some white blood, but he was a black – and my mother was a white, and I’m neither one… Well, where does that leave me?

Lelache stands as a living example of Foucault’s theories about society – her own personal ‘truth’ is incomplete as she herself does not know how to think of herself. Her sense of race extends outwards to the world at large; if she is unsure of her own race, then the notion of racial conflict is always a potential. It is George Orr that offers the unifying solution, describing her brown skin as ‘The colour of the Earth’. In George’s eyes, Lelache’s mixed heritage is the perfect example of the variety of racial heritage present on Earth – while Lelache searches for a sense of singularity, George – as with his dreams of multiple realities – is open to the notion of an individual comprised of many identities.

The sense of an individual being composed of their race is also dealt with in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, a psychoanalytical study on the feelings of inadequacy that black people experienced in the white-dominated Western culture of the 1950s:

The white world, the only honourable one, barred me from all participation. A man was expected to behave like a man. I was expected to behave like a black man – or at least like a nigger.

Here, Fanon describes how white culture of the time views him only as ‘black’, a singular concept built on historical perceptions of ‘the black man’. He is arguably viewed not even as a ‘regular’ man, but specifically prefaced as ‘black’ – or worse, as less than a man, a ‘nigger’. Here, Fanon exists only as his race – or rather, his skin colour. He continues:

I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics’.

The quotation bears relevance to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle where Americans have been turned into a colonised people within their own country; those that remain become the sole continuation of their ‘race’. In their trade of American antiques, they play on the very stuff of their ancestors; the characteristic make-up of the American ‘race’ reduced to Mickey Mouse watches and old Civil War posters. Through the antiques trade, these remaining Americans become curators of their own past, and through selling these ‘expensive treasures’ to the Japanese ruling class, they – as Fanon puts it – subject themselves to an ‘objective examination’.

Just as Fanon describes a world where he is ‘barred from all participation’, the America of Dick’s novel is literally divided into three zones: the German-controlled east coast, the western Japanese-controlled Pacific States and a neutral Rocky Mountain central buffer zone. Here, borders between race dissolve the former ‘United’ states into a country of divided parts, a segregated world reflective of the tensions of the Civil Rights movement in 1960s America. Dick further develops the segregated portrayal of races in his novel through the stylistic technique of the Japanese characters employing a ‘telegraphese’ style of speech. Used both in these characters’ dialogue and internal thoughts, Dick’s concepts of race become almost caricature-like in nature:

Mr Tagomi thought, Cancel all business for today. Let me see. Dispatch at once formal note to Reichs Consul. Minor item; subordinate can accomplish. Deep sorrow, etc.

By clearly delineating the three races into distinct, separate entities, the reality of The Man In The High Castle splits into three further alternate realities, specific to each race. By crystallising these races into bulk entities, the concept of the individual is again lost, the plot of the novel peeling away to a greater scale of global narrative. The character of Mr Tagomi becomes something impersonal and overtly formal; a ‘Mr’, unable to express emotion beyond the vagueness of ‘Deep sorrow, etc.’ Ideas regarding the identity of race are further explored early on in Dick’s novel where Mr Tagomi meets with a supposedly Swedish trade official, Mr Baynes. Tagomi soon suspects that Baynes is not what he says he is:

The insight was, simply, that Mr Baynes was not what he seemed; that his actual purpose in coming to San Francisco was not to sign a deal for injection moulds. That, in fact, Mr Baynes was a spy. But for the life of him, Mr Tagomi could not figure out what sort of spy, for whom or for what.

In Mr Baynes’ indistinct nature, he bears relevance to another argument from Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks where race becomes removed from the distinct visual aspects of ‘black and white’ and shifts to something far more transitory and indeterminate: ‘the Jew can be unknown in his Jewishness. He is not wholly what he is. His actions, his behaviour are the final determinant.’ In Fanon’s view, the Jew can be a man of alternate selves and can choose to present himself as either ‘the white man’ or ‘the Jew’, an option not open to the black man, who Fanon argues is forever determined solely by his skin colour.

It later emerges that Baynes is in fact a German envoy, and here Tagomi’s initial doubts – raised by a consultation with I Ching – become apparent: ‘Here a strong man is presupposed. It is true he does not fit in with his environment, inasmuch as he is too brusque and pays too little attention to form.’ Here, the difficulty with placing Baynes is that – whether Swedish or German – he is ‘the white man’, and it is only through the minutiae of his body language that Tagomi senses something is wrong. In Fanon’s words: ‘His actions, his behaviour are the final determinant.’ Fanon goes on to explain how the question of race goes beyond mere physical and behavioural characteristics, and into notions of an inbuilt ‘destiny’ that the race, as a collective entity, must fulfil: ‘The white man wants the world; he wants it for himself alone. He finds himself predestined master of this world. He enslaves it. An acquisitive relationship is established between the world and him.’

Explored here are the kinds of workings that drive the Nazi regime in Dick’s novel – an indisputable need to conquer the world, to rebuild in their singular image. In the brutal carving up of America into segregated parts, the reader is presented with echoes of the nation’s slave-owning past, but with the position now reversed, with Americans as the enslaved. When Alfred Bester described Ben Reich’s capacity for global change as ‘will not his beliefs become the world’s belief? Will not his reality become the world’s reality?’ in The Demolished Man, he encapsulated the concept of a singular force – in this instance an individual man – achieving a kind of ownership over the world. In The Man in the High Castle, this singular force becomes the entire Nazi regime, the beliefs of an entire planet enforced from the dominant position of the Third Reich. By fulfilling this ‘race destiny’, the Nazis achieve one possible manifestation of reality and by working through the (fictional) historical events which lead up to this world-state, Dick presents this reality as a genuine alternative – it could have happened in our ‘real’ world, if events had unfolded in the correct way.

This theory is explored by Helga Nowotny as she discusses the notion of ‘proper time’ and an ‘extended present’ in the novel, with the Nazi conquest of the United States presented as ‘a mutation in the history of the future’ where any sense of forward progress for the American people has been seemingly eliminated. In essence, proper time is time as the individual subjectively experiences it – as opposed to the ‘public time’ as measured on a watch or clock; dictated by stationary, agreed standards of timekeeping. To the reader’s eyes, in the technologically advanced world of Nazis – where manned space travel to Mars and rocket flights between Europe and America have been achieved by the 1960s – time has in essence been ‘accelerated’ far beyond the pace of real life events. By association, this alternate reality of events is not a potential future for the world, but merely an ‘extended present’ as imagined by Dick, an artificial version balancing on the brink of existence. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the Japanese are so focused on collecting mass-produced American antiques, to create a sense of a ‘past’ so that the extended present will morph into a genuine future.

Alfred Bester explores similar themes of proper time and artificially extended realities in the closing scenes of The Demolished Man. Ben Reich has been captured by the police and is subjected to a kind of full-scale lobotomy – the ‘Demolition’ of the book’s title – completely emptying his mind. His final thoughts are presented to the reader in the form of a speech from a malevolent, dark side of his personality dubbed The Man With No Face:

We were the only reality. All the rest was make-believe… dolls, puppets, stage-settings… pretended passions. It was a make-believe reality for us to solve. Does it matter who or what we are? We have failed. Out test is ended. We are ended…. perhaps if we had solved it, Ben, it might have remained real. But it is ended. Reality has turned into might-have-been, and you have awakened at last… to nothing.

Here, Ben Reich’s life and power to change the world is positioned as another kind of extended present – a flickering reality of possibilities, but now curtailed to nothing by Reich’s demolition. The extended present crumbles away, replaced only by the grim finality of Reich’s demolition: ‘we are ended.’ In choosing to employ the word ‘we’, Bester engages again with a kind of duality, the prospect of multiple, mutable futures. It is here that the divide between reality and imagination, substance and nothingness, is made clearest. With Reich’s demolition, he becomes nothing, erased from history as the loser of the novel’s events. Just as the Man With No Face presents the question ‘does it matter who or what we are?’, the same question must be asked of those events and people not recorded in history books as they are deemed insignificant. Here, Reich is catapulted from ‘great man’ to a nameless, demolished entity.

Drugs and dreams – means of inducing the ‘alternate’

One of the greatest powers of these novels is that in many ways they are not just works of fiction, but more specifically, pieces of philosophical thought in fictional form. Just as Plato used the concept of Atlantis to explore his own theories on reality, Dick and Le Guin present frightening, dystopian versions of America to analyse the socio-political situations of their own time, a theme raised by Gavriel Rosenfeld’s essay ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’: ‘[science fiction] explores the past less for its own sake than to utilize it instrumentally to comment on the present’ In the 1960s and 70s when both Dick and Le Guin’s novels were first published, the world was in the midst of a rapid rise in recreational drug use, particularly psychedelic drugs like LSD – highlighting the ease at which the state of a person’s mind could be altered. Just as the novels explore themes of altered realities, drugs like LSD allowed people to directly alter their own perception of reality; to induce a new, alternative way of seeing and experiencing the world around them. Speaking on the drug’s history, David Nichols recounts:

Many a frustrated and angry parent believed that using LSD had caused their son or daughter to reject their time-honoured values, or become a war protestor. Thus, for many in the mainstream, LSD even took on an ‘anti-American’ character.

Here, the link between altered states of consciousness and drug use are made clear, with the notion of the drug creating an anti-American persona tying neatly in to the Nazi-ruled America in Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Indeed, many of these were relevant to Dick’s own life, as Eric Brown addresses in his introduction to the novel: ‘he became dependent on amphetamines and prescription drugs. He was paranoid (convinced at times he was being watched by the FBI and the CIA)’. Thus, The Man In The High Castle becomes in many ways the culmination of the fears addressed in the Nichols quotation, a book explicitly dealing with the invasion of America by a foreign power, written by an author who was actively ‘invading’ his own body with ‘foreign’ substances. Dick’s situation is neatly mirrored in Le Guin’s novel, where George Orr begins The Lathe of Heaven suffering from an overdose on prescription drugs and is promptly apprehended by the authorities for using his friends’ pharmacy cards to obtain more than his allocated allowance.

The influence of psychedelic drugs more prominently manifests itself in the novel where a race of aliens (in both a literal and symbolic sense of the word) appear in George Orr’s dreams and speak to him. The analogy of subversive foreign, ‘alien’ powers in contemporary America is clear as Orr outlines what the alien race have revealed to him about the process of dreaming:

They’re a lot more experienced than we are at all this… At dreaming – at what dreaming is an aspect of. They’ve done it for a long time. For always, I guess. They are of the dream time… The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance… You must learn the way. You must learn the skills, the art, the limits. A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully.

Particularly, in Le Guin’s usage of the phrase ‘the skills, the art, the limits’, she echoes the paraphernalia and processes of drug-culture and leads into discourse on how these methods play into the nature of the mind itself. The idea of exploring the seditious, reality-altering influence of drugs also emerges in Alduous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception – released in 1954, it pre-dates Dick and Le Guin’s novels but actively engages in the effects of drug usage, describing in detail the experiences of the author during and after a mescaline trip. Seeking a means of escape from personal crisis, and having already attempted meditation, Huxley was lured in by the potential of psychedelic drugs, which he described as ‘toxic short cuts to self-transcendence’. Already, Huxley was identifying the means by which drug use could elevate him into an altered perception of existence.

Writing of the trip experience itself, Huxley describes how he feels like he is being overwhelmed with sensation, coming close to the feeling of madness. He relates this specifically to schizophrenia, a literal state of ‘alternate realities’ within a single mind – here, the affected mind is unable to escape from the ‘mad’ state into the accepted realm of normal reality. Le Guin elaborates on these ideas specifically in The Lathe of Heaven – George Orr is exactly this kind of individual; affected by his reality altering dreams, he is unable to escape to a regular existence. Orr’s doctor describes the oppressive feelings of the mental state:

Your therapy lies in this direction, to use your dreams, not to evade and avoid them. To face your fear and, with my help, see it through. You’re afraid of your own mind, George. That’s a fear no man can live with… All you need to do is not to hide from your own mental powers, not to suppress them, but to release them.

Identified in Le Guin’s writing is a clear selectiveness between different mental states – one where Orr is terrified of his dreams and actively attempts to avoid them, the other where they become a creative force that offers release. Here, as with the world of the novel itself, the mind becomes a place prone to constant flux. This ties into one of the theories presented by Huxley in The Doors of Perception; a way by which the human mind functions on a highly selective series of processes, filtering out unessential information to create the world that we see. Huxley calls this theory the Mind at Large, explaining that it is only in an altered state of consciousness that we can be said to be experiencing true reality, without the interference from the filters of our brain.

Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.

Just as Dick’s novel-within-a-novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy provides a glimmer of hope that the Nazi-ruled world may only be one possible reality amongst many, Huxley explains that the mind shields us from useless, irrelevant information; in effect, protecting us by offering a reality that is best suited for us to exist in. Furthermore, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is written through a process of continued consultancy with the I Ching; every thread of its narrative based on an outcome of the oracle-like nature of the fortune telling method. Late in Dick’s novel, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is questioned regarding the process:

I wonder why the oracle would write a novel. And why one about the Germans and the Japanese losing the war? Why that particular story and no other one? What is there it can’t tell us directly, like it always has before?

Here, the I Ching functions like Huxley’s ‘Mind at Large’, providing the characters of Dick’s novel with a piecemeal ‘special selection’ of information that, coming together in its entirety to form The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, ultimately positions the truth that in an alternate universe the events of the book might be a reality. To offer this truth directly would be overpowering and confusing, but by presenting it stage by stage, over the course of a fictional narrative, it becomes real. Indeed, once the book’s origins in the I Ching (itself a foreign influence on Western culture) are revealed, that reality becomes all the more believable.

But whereas Huxley actively seeks these wondrous experiences, Le Guin’s character George Orr shies away from them: ‘you used the phenobarb to suppress dreaming but found with habituation the drug has less and less dream-suppressive effect, until it has none at all’. Indeed, the irony in Le Guin’s writing is that here, drug usage is intended to reduce – not induce – fantastical dream-experiences. Le Guin’s awareness of contemporary themes such as drug addiction lend her words added weight, emphasised further by the use of scientific language; her reality is all the more effective for its pseudo-believability and the inclusion of ‘mad scientist’ archetypes like Dr. Haber that serve as a warning against excessive scientific meddling with the world.

Both Dick and Le Guin’s novels centre around a premise of change mediated by technology and the dangers this may present.  In The Lathe of Heaven, it is through the direction of Haber’s ‘dream machine’ that reality is directly altered, highlighting the many issues that arise from the attempted building of a Utopian reality – solve one problem and others will likely arise. Both novels tend towards moral narratives on the dangers of too much freedom – with America as the self-proclaimed land of the free, the irony is evident in Dick’s presentation of a Nazi controlled USA; completely and utterly restrictive. By focusing on everyman characters, both Dick and Le Guin place ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, allowing the reader to better sympathise with the adversities and moral problems these characters encounter in their authors’ respective alternate realities.

But beyond these similarities, there are also profound differences between the ways Dick and Le Guin employ their alternate realities and the capacity this presents for a ‘happy’ ending to the narrative. As Ian Watson highlights:

‘there is an essential difference between Dick’s false realities and Le Guin’s, in that Dick’s warping of reality is quite Machiavellian in its tricksterism and involves the reader himself ultimately in a dissolution of the sense of reality; whereas Le Guin proceeds from change to change far more definitively, ending up with a solid, unambiguous conclusion’

With Dick’s closing revelation that the world of The Man in the High Castle may indeed be an entirely ‘false’ reality, the reader – who has spent the entire narrative within this world and alongside its characters – feels almost cheated, trapped within something entirely artificial. In essence, their predicament mirrors that of the characters, who realise they have spent their entire lives experiencing a reality that is only illusion. In contrast, The Lathe of Heaven ends on a far more positive note – George Orr grows from his drug-dependent beginnings to a true ‘hero’ figure, shutting down Dr. Haber’s dream machine and his meddling influence in the state of the world. Here, the novel reaches a closed conclusion, neatly slotting together the jigsaw pieces of the various realities into a sustainable status-quo where the hero has ‘solved’ the problem and defeated the antagonist, whereas in Dick’s novel, these disparate pieces are ultimately thrown into disorderly chaos.

‘[The Lathe of Heaven] teaches us that if we would truly make the world a better place, we must abandon all pretence towards rational control’or as George Orr explains to Haber within The Lathe of Heaven itself: ‘I do know it’s wrong to force the pattern of things. It won’t do. It’s been our mistake for a hundred years’ Here, the power of authoritarian, rational, state-representing roles is attacked – the doctors and politicians of the world. It is transferred to the more creatively inclined; the dreamer, the writer. The reader is not forced down a singular route, rather presented a series of options, a theme echoed by the creation of both The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and The Man in the High Castle by means of consultation the I Ching – a random process removed from logic. By abandoning rational control, moving toward the fantastical and the capacities of science-fiction for analysing ‘what if?’ scenarios, the authors are freed of logical restraints and can pursue a number of alternate possibilities for the world limited only by the extent of what their minds can imagine into being.

These novels highlight the effectiveness of the alternate reality premise as a means to engage with contemporary issues – whether it be race, drugs of the nature of history itself, the fictional medium gives the authors the space and faculty needed to dissect these themes in detail, in the guise of populist narrative. The sense of what constitutes a nation, and by association, the world as a whole – the novels expose the delicate balance between the fixed and unfixed elements within these concepts; dominant master narratives like the Nazi regime of Dick, or the hazy, unfixed grey area of Le Guin’s interchanging realities. It is left to the reader to piece together the disparate aspects of the ‘alternative’ and draw their own conclusions on what these glimpses of otherness say about their own contemporaneous reality. The reader becomes more than passive participant, instead opting into providing a critique of Dick and Le Guin’s world-building attempts – for by its very nature, the concept of an ‘alternate’ can only exist alongside an original – our own ‘real’ world.



Primary sources

Bester, Alfred, The Demolished Man (London: Gollancz, 1999)

Dick, Philip K., The Man in the High Castle (London: Penguin Classics, 2001)

Le Guin, Ursula, The Lathe of Heaven (London: Gollancz, 2001)

Orwell, George, 1984 (London: Penguin, 2008)

Secondary sources

Allen, Graham, Intertextuality (London: Routledge, 2000)

Barth, John, Postmodernism Revisited: Further Fridays (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995)

Boonstra, John, ‘Philip K Dick’s Final Interview’, The Twilight Zone Magazine, 2, (1982)

Call, Lewis, ‘Postmodern Anarchism in the Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin’, SubStance, 36, (2007)

Clarke, I. F., The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871-1914 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995)

Eco, Umberto, Faith In Fakes – Travels In Hyperreality (London: Vintage, 1995)

Foucault, Michel, Society Must Be Defended (London: Penguin, 2005)

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967)

Freedman, Carl, ‘The Man in the High Castle: Philip K. Dick and the Construction of Realities’, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2000)

Geoffroy, Louis, Napoleon et la conquete du monde, 1812-1832: Histoire de la monarchie universelle (Paris: Tallandier, 1983)

Houston, Chloe, New Worlds Reflected (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010)

Huxley, Aldous, The Devils of Loudon (London: Chatto & Windus, 1952)

Huxley, Aldous, The Doors of Perception (London: Chatto & Windus, 1954)

Jones, Maldwyn A., The Limits of Liberty: American History 1607-1992 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Philips, John Edward, Writing African History (New York: University of Rochester Press, 2006)

Pick, Daniel, Dreams and History (London: Routledge, 2003)

Plato, Timaeus and Critias (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Rosenfeld, Gavriel, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, 41 (2002)

Simons, John L., ‘The Power of Small Things in Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’’, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 39 (1985)

Sohn, Stephen Hong, ‘Alien/Asian: Imagining the Racialized Future’, MELUS , 33, (2008)

Watson, Ian, ‘Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven and the Role of Dick: The False Reality as Mediator’, Science Fiction Studies, 2 (1975)

Web resources

Boot, Max, ‘America’s Destiny Is to Police the World’, Financial Times, Feb 19th (2003) [http://www.cfr.org/us-strategy-and-politics/americas-destiny-police-world/p5559]

Gioia, Ted, ‘The Lathe of Heaven’, Conceptual Fiction [www.conceptualfiction.com/thelatheofheaven.html]

Nichols, David, ‘LSD: cultural revolution and medical advances’, Chemistry World [www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2006/January/LSD.asp]

Reilly, John J., ‘The Man in the High Castle’, The Long View [www.johnreilly.info/mhc.htm]

Roberts, Adam, ‘The Man in the High Castle’, Infinity Plus [www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/highcastle.htm]


How do Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Thackeray’s The Due of the Dead discuss the cost of war?

The Crimean war represented a mid-point of sorts, a crux of change between the battle of Waterloo and World War I. Old tactics collided with improved weaponry in a bloody conflict that ultimately saw over 20,000 British soldiers losing their lives. As the first ‘media war’, news travelled quickly, hastened by the advent of telegraph technology, presenting the prospect for first-hand accounts of the front line to swiftly find themselves in newspaper headlines and discussed over the homely dinner table. It is amidst these changing times that the actual cost of war presented itself up for scrutiny – cost of life, literal monetary cost; all aspects caught up within the chaotic, encompassing nature of mass warfare. As a matter lying not just at the heart of the immediacy of battle itself, but the lingering after-effects and the memories of dead soldiers in the minds of those back home, the cost of warfare proved to a potent premise for poets of the era.

It was, indeed, a Times article by reporter Howard Russell that first prompted Tennyson to write The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem that in many ways has almost eclipsed the Crimean war itself. And it is in the way the poem specifically engages with numerical values that it deals most obviously with the costs of war. The insistent opening repetition of ‘half a league, half a league’ highlights a desperately fought push for a parcel of land, human life traded to win the very soil beneath their feet as the brigade charge forward. This is added to the further use of numerical quantity in the repetition of the ‘rode the six hundred’ refrain itself – by closing each stanza with this line, Tennyson places the reader’s focus specifically on the number of soldiers fighting. The effect of this is that the concept of individual men is dissolved, replaced by block movements of massed forces – war becomes something seen at a distance, Tennyson’s poem in effect mirroring the broad newspaper overtones the combat would have been dealt with in the Times article.

This kind of war at a remove terminology is also employed by Thackeray in his poem The Due of the Dead where he contrasts the language of combat with the comparative triviality of life back home: ‘I sip my tea, and criticise / The war, from flying rumours caught; / Trace on the map, to curious eyes, / How here they marched, and there they fought’. Just as Tennyson emphasises the link between the men and the physical measurement of land they are fighting across, Thackeray’s narrator points from on high to troop locations, albeit this time through the filter of a map. Here, any essence of the war as visceral and bloody are removed, reported loss of life reduced to ‘flying rumours’. Thackeray’s view of war is shocking in the distance it creates between the events and their digestion by the general public, but it is also fully aware of the poet’s own position, as one of those encompassed by the ‘I’. In a self-deprecating sense, Thackeray draws all the more attention to the way – through the process of observation and criticism – the actual cost of human life is diluted into a line of text or dialogue.

The skill of Thackeray’s poem is that it then goes on to contrast this distanced view of war with an intensely visual picture of it in all its brutal actuality: ‘Meanwhile o’er Alma’s bloody plain / The scathe of battle has rolled by- / The wounded writhe and groan – the slain / Lie naked staring to the sky.’ Beginning with the use of ‘Meanwhile o’er’, Thackeray places this scene as specifically different in tone from the previous depiction of war, while simultaneously delineating it as happening in the ‘now’. War is presented to the reader up-close, as something in the immediate, making the following depictions of ruined life all the more haunting. By punctuating the lines with dashes, Thackeray elongates the passage of time and by association, prolongs the suffering and opens up the scene of war as something happening on a large scale where a great sweeping ‘scathe’ of battle cuts down soldiers like corn in a field. The alliteration in ‘wounded writhe’ also serves to highlight the severity of the injuries, sheer pain forcing the men into inhuman movements – in this instance the reader is made to feel the cost of suffering a wound by the unnatural nature of the alliteration. Those soldiers that have lost their life are depicted as ‘naked’, stripped of everything that characterised them when alive – the cost has been absolute, not only have they lost their lives but their individuality and dignity too.

Perhaps the most explicit way in which Thackeray engages with the cost of war though is when he specifically employs monetary language to create a kind of bond between the soldiers and those back home who they are giving their lives for: ‘Owe we a debt to these brave men, / Unpaid by aught that’s said or sung.’ As before, Thackeray decries the efforts of poems like his own to offer any kind of real recompense to the soldiers, placing the debt at the feet of the reader. The poem draws on specific ideals of honour and obligation, in both a patriotic and fiscal sense – the hefty cost that the soldiers fighting in Crimea have shouldered is expected to be repaid in kind by England as a whole: ‘And of her fullness give them part’. By giving of this fullness, England seeks to plug the gap left by ‘Parents made childless, babes bereft / Desolate widows, sisters dear.’ The Due of the Dead depicts a depleted England where the cost of war has been exacted where it will cut most – in the homes of families across the country. Here, the cost is not only crude numerical loss of life, but also the cost on the emotions of the living; by focusing on the ‘bereft’ and ‘desolate’ Thackeray turns death into a far more lingering agony that strikes not only in Crimea, but within England itself.

There is an air of transaction to the poem – the irony of course being that it is the bereft families that must receive this payment as it cannot be given to those soldiers who are dead. Thackeray stresses the provision of aid to the families as essential, criticising those that would say ‘it is enough’ merely to carve a name and plant a laurel at a tomb. Again, ‘enough’ brings in to play the language of quantity, and raises the question of exactly how much would be ‘enough’ to balance out the cost of a man’s life, a theme further explored in Tennyson’s poem as he too seeks to offer some kind of balance of repayment to the soldiers; ordering the reader to ‘Honour the charge they made!’ Here, Tennyson speaks directly to the reader, commanding them through the emphasis afforded by the exclamation mark – in this respect he seeks to link the focus of the rest of the poem – which has been on the soldiers and the battle – with a focus on what those back home can now do.

One of the most moving elements of The Charge of the Light Brigade is the way it presents war’s power to deplete life in sheer numerical terms – with the continued repetition of ‘rode the six hundred’, it comes as a genuine shock when the refrain shifts to ‘Then they rode back, but not / Not the six hundred’. The full might of the six hundred in all their glory has now been cut down and reduced – a truth so shocking that even Tennyson falters in his relaying of this detail to the reader. The ‘but not / Not…’, separated by the line break depicts the poet’s words as faltering, an almost choking back of tears as the true cost of the charge sinks in. Here, although the sense of individual soldiers is amalgamated into the bulk of ‘the six hundred’, the reader is made to feel the weight of the numerical loss, the bleakness of the ‘not’ and later the ‘All that was left of them’ stating explicitly that the war has ended life en-masse with crushing finality, that the remainder of the brigade is now profoundly ‘not’ the fighting force it began the charge with.

One of the more haunting elements of the cost of war is the way death is presented as almost inevitable, a near ‘accepted’ part of the soldiers’ duties. As Tennyson comments: ‘their’s not to reason why / their’s but to do and die’ – Here, Tennyson removes logic and rationality from the role of the soldier, reducing them into thoughtless fighting automatons. With 21,097 killed on the British side during the course of the Crimean War, the question presents itself: was the war actually ‘worth it’? With over 16,000 of those losses from disease and cholera, the predominant cost of the war did not even stem from direct military action. Within this context, Tennyson’s words are afforded additional gravity – there is a sense that if the soldiers do not die by bullet or blade, they will fall prey to disease. In the line ‘O the wild charge they made!’ there is the sense that the battle was fought with reason replaced by sheer abandon, that the men were throwing their lives away without care.

Thackeray’s The Due of the Dead continues the idea of death as an all pervading concept, something not limited by the confines of one man ending another’s life. Using imagery within the poem to encompass even the landscape surrounding the men – Thackeray explicitly engages with the threat of disease in the lines: ‘He tracks his prey through steppe and dell; / Hangs fruit to tempt the throats that parch, / And poisons every stream and well’. Death becomes personified, a kind of debt-collector more able to precisely exact the cost of war. Soldiers are dehumanised into vulnerable ‘prey’, again highlighting the futility of their attempts to cling on to life. The theatre of battle becomes a stalking ground for death and even essential bodily requirements such as drinking become dangerous. Life is slowly stifled out from all angles and ‘steppe and dell’ transform into Tennyson’s vision of ‘the valley of Death’ – here the cost is not only to the men, but to the very earth they are fighting on too.

Furthermore, the biblical overtones in language like ‘hangs fruit to tempt’ and ‘valley of Death’ seem to place these costs of war within a grander scale. While it could be argued that Tennyson’s ‘mouth of hell’ to a degree euphemises the actual instance of death, it dresses the warfare in distinctly classical ideals and places it within a larger scheme of mankind’s history as a whole, with death as something man has been fighting against since creation. There is a sense that the cost of the Crimean War is only one cost within a series of costs man has had to pay since the instance of original sin brought on by Adam and Eve after being tempted in the Garden of Eden. As God says to Adam in The Bible, punishing him after he has eaten the fruit: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you… / It will produce thorns and thistles for you… / until you return to the ground, / since from it you were taken;  / for dust you are / and to dust you will return.’ Linked with Tennyson’s imagery of war as a journey into the ‘valley of Death’, there are overtones that war is the enacting of God’s punishment of Adam, that the soil of the battlefield itself is cursed, and that the bodies of the soldiers will fall into it and decompose to dust. In this respect then, war is portrayed as the ultimate cost to be paid by man, again and again across history, as sufferance for Adam’s temptation.

Also of note is the way both poets engage with notions of courage and twin it with the terminology of coinage. Thackeray describes the provision of war veterans with honours: ‘The living, England’s hand may crown / With recognition frank and free’. Here, the image is on the most literal level, of soldiers receiving honours for their deeds; a levelling of the ‘due’ that the poem’s title focuses on. But through the use of ‘crown’, Thackeray alludes to the British ‘crown’ coin, minted between 1707 and 1965. In a similar example, Tennyson ends The Charge of the Light Brigade with ‘Honour the Light Brigade, / Noble six hundred!’ – this time the coin in question is the British ‘noble’, the first English gold coin produced in quantity. While on a base level, the poets’ use of ‘crown’ and ‘noble’ is in a response to the soldiers’ courage and honour, the fact both terms can also apply to coinage helps to place the scenes within a financial context where the soldiers are ‘paid’ for the cost and hardship they have suffered in Crimea.

Ultimately, despite their grave subject matter, it is also important to examine the poems as forms of popular entertainment, and by association, warfare as something to be monetised. Tennyson’s poem, first published in 1854 in intellectual journal The Examiner, later went on to be adapted into a music hall song – and within this context the poem can be seen not just as a memorial of the brave soldiers who gave their lives in Crimea, but as an item utilised within paid-for entertainment.  Here, the meaning of the cost of warfare becomes more than just the cost of loss of life, but a monetary cost to revel in an intensely dramatic account of the events. Indeed, many parts of The Charge of the Light Brigade play directly into this action narrative as Tennyson relates ‘Flashed all their sabres bare, / Flashed as they turned in air’, almost glamorising the violence of the charge through spectacular sequences that portray a largely clean kind of violence divorced from the more brutal scenes depicted in Thackeray’s poem. Tennyson, it seems, even has an audience in mind for the poem: ‘Charge an army, while / All the world wondered:’ – here, there is a sense of warfare as something intensely theatrical, a massed audience of ‘all the world’ held in suspense as the poem unfolds. In this respect then, perhaps both Tennyson and Thackeray add another cost to all those described within their poems – that the soldiers they aim to honour must now suffer a kind of double-death, once in real life, and then again within the poems themselves.



Brighton, Terry, Hell Riders: The Truth about the Charge of the Light Brigade (London: Penguin, 2005)

Coughlan, Sean, ‘Why the Charge of the Light Brigade still matters’, BBC News Online Magazine [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3944699.stm] (accessed 11/03/12)

Pointing, Clive, The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth (London: Chatto & Windus, 2004), p.344

Royle, Trevor, Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854–1856 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)

Skingley, Philip, Coins of England and the United Kingdom (London: Spink & Son Ltd, 2010)


Stallworthy, Jon, The Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 115


Genesis 3:17-19, The Bible (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2008)


‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, BBC Learning Zone [http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/the-charge-of-the-light-brigade-pt-1-3/1278.html] (accessed 11/03/12)

‘Original Sin’, BBC – Religions [http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/beliefs/originalsin_1.shtml] (accessed 11/03/12)

Assessing the ways in which Janice Galloway experiments with typography and the physical layout of text in The Trick is to Keep Breathing

For all that Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing might present itself as a standard novel on a surface level, within its first few pages it has already laid out a plethora of typographical experimentations that begin to subvert the traditional ‘novel’ form. In a book that on so many levels deals with the nature of facades and playing up to roles within society, Galloway’s typographical meandering between established conventions and more outré divergences presents a narrative that is often unsettling in both form and content. Not content merely to describe protagonist Joy Stone’s state of mind to us, Galloway places the reader directly within that mindset, and through a variety of techniques, attempts to enable us to see the world through her eyes.

In a book where drowning plays such a prominent role, there is the notion of drowning within the physical text of the novel on more than one occasion. Going against established formulae for numeric chapter headings, Galloway instead inserts an enigmatic ‘ooo’ as a placeholder throughout the novel. Without a steadily increasing chapter number to guide the reader through the novel, the reader is effectively lost within the chronology of events, with no pointers to guide their way – instead they are submerged straight into Joy’s life, without any introduction as to who she is or her situation. It is only through sustained exposure to Joy’s way of seeing things that we begin to unravel her state of affairs; as she begins the novel: ‘I watch myself from the corner of the room’ – the reader also finds themselves watching Joy, from the depths of her own perspective.

This essence of drowning within the words (or more specifically in this instance, the lack of them) reaches its pinnacle on page 188 which is bare apart from a single bereft ‘oops’. In the novel format, where the reader thrives on the continued digestion of text, the shocking absence present on this page comes as a jolt, a physical shock akin to the processes of breaking down and falling apart present in Joy’s own existence. In addition, the ‘oops’ acts as a kind of continuation, or rather full realisation of the ‘ooo’ of the chapter titles, a kind of startled admission of Joy’s inability to function properly in the ‘normal’ world. By subverting regular textual norms in this manner, Galloway achieves a similar effect, alienating the book from literary standards in much the same way Joy feels alienated from societal standards.

The theme of the capacity of the ‘o’ to convey meaning is also employed by Galloway to effectively book-end the novel. Early on, Joy – in one of the many italicised ‘flashback’ scenarios – describes the discovery of Michael’s dead body: ‘A group of men stand in a rough O, staring with their eyes down. Water drips from their arms.’ Here, Joy’s extraction of meaning and shock from the scene stems from the visual input of the ‘O’, which here equates to the shape of the men gathered around Michael’s lifeless body. Joy’s mind is repeatedly shown to operate in a highly image-based manner, from both the transformation of a group of people into a singular textual mark on the page to the image of water, which reoccurs throughout the novel. A counterpoint scene is presented in the closing passages of the novel: ‘His mouth is a wide 0, eyes open to the sky… I am entirely alone on this ship, churning on through foreign water’. Here the ‘O’ of the encircling group of men has morphed into the ‘0’ of Michael’s mouth, a grim death-mask of a facial expression that seems not only to emphasise his own loss of life, but Joy’s loss of the man she has loved; the numeric value of ‘zero’ is harsh in its brutal finality. The resurfacing of the water symbolism serves to back this up, Michael’s death ‘churning’ Joy’s life up into turmoil and leaving her alone in ‘foreign waters’.

The incidence of Michael’s death is employed by Galloway as a kind of separation between the past and present of Joy’s life, neatly separated in textual terms by relegating the ‘flashback’ scenes – Joy’s memories of the death – into italics as opposed to the regular text the rest of the novel is composed in. This has the effect of holding up the past memories as different, as important, scenes of almost lyrical, chorus-like reoccurrence within the novel. It is telling that Joy returns to these memories so often, and it is established that in many ways they represent the crux of her ‘problems’, as her doctor asks her: ‘Tell me from the beginning what you think is making you feel bad… tell it in your own words.’ Galloway’s novel is the result of these words, and when she aligns ‘My mother walked into the sea’ and ‘He drowned’ in the centre of the page,she signifies – through the application of layout – the central role both Michael’s death and the death of Joy’s mother plays in Joy’s own life. Indeed, as Joy points out after relating these two incidents: ‘Something was happening to my stomach.’ – everything is centralised, right down to the heart of her own body. If the text is taken as the aspect of Joy’s life presented to the reader, it corresponds that the placing and presentation of that text within the novel bears relevance to how these relative concepts hold meaning to her as a person.

Another instance where Joy’s world, both before and after Michael’s death, is thrown into contrast is early on in the novel where she describes the numbers on the door of their house:

13 13

The first of the numbers is presented as larger and in italics, a potential allusion to the italicised memories of Michael’s death; that these memories present the enlarged aspect of Joy’s as lived alongside Michael. The second number is much smaller and presented in straight font, representative not only of Joy herself and the bulk of her narrative, but reinforcing the fact that she is ‘smaller’ without Michael, her life less fulfilled. Returning to the house after Michael’s death, Joy removes both sets of numbers so that all that remains are ‘four little holes’. The emphasis here is on removal and loss, not just in the trivial sense of the door numbers themselves, but in what they represent; Joy and Michael’s life and home together. Just as there are now only holes in the door, there are also holes in Joy’s life where Michael’s death is felt most keenly, as well as literal ‘holes’ in the text such as the almost blank page discussed above. For Joy, whose ongoing life has become defined by Michael’s death, the door number ‘13’ is an unlucky reminder of everything she now no longer has. Once it signified the place she and her lover called home – now, just like her relationship with Michael, the numbers have diminished to nothing.

The door numbers are not the only unusually presented typographic intrusion of a sign into the text; one of the most obvious examples is the ‘VISITORS MUST REPORT TO THE OFFICE’ presented within a border and at a jaunty angle on page 11. Printed in uniform capitals, the sign interrupts the regular flow of the text and issues a firm command to both Joy and the reader; leaping from the page it reaffirms the inescapable accoutrements of the ‘official’ and strict order of modern daily life. Used to similar effect is the ‘SOME OF US HAVE WORK TOMORROW’ employed on page 90, a harsh outburst from angry neighbours directed at Joy. Again, it reeks of the regimented processes of nine-to-five working life, a world bound by normality, the language of the work environment. In both instances, these all-capitals inserts are an intrusion – both literally and visually – into Joy’s life, and in the latter case highlights how even within the walls of her own home, she is not entirely secure.

Equally though, there is a kind of comfort in these signifiers of ordinary life – they provide Joy with a means to grasp onto a world she so often seems to be fading from. For example, when she goes shopping she specifically states that she is going to ‘TESCOs’, again employing capital letters to mark out the shop’s neon sign in the way it appears to her. This notion of brands entering into the substance of life and helping to provide it with consistency is furthered in the kind of catharsis she experiences idling through the assorted elements of the supermarket: ‘I can spend hours among the buckle-wheeled trolleys, fruit and fresh vegetables, tins of blueberry pie filling, papaya and mango’. There is a sense of comfort in the familiar, highlighted also in the scene where Joy is presented a betting slip with ‘St Elmo’s Joy : Chepstow’ written on it in gothic script:

St Elmo’s Joy : Chepstow


Galloway seems keen to emphasise the rituals that are individually important to people, that we all have aspects of Joy’s ‘quirks’ to ourselves. There is a pleasure in the process of setting out one’s own font on a betting slip, a sense of imbued luck that juxtaposes with the unluckiness of Joy’s door number ‘13’. As Joy points out: ‘most of the men like to write their own [betting slips]… They are regulars.’The essence of the regularity and the small enjoyment that can be garnered from instances like this appears to hint at exerting a kind of control over life, in much the same way we might choose which supermarket or brand to purchase. In the disparate elements of the ‘routine’, in whatever form it might manifest itself – betting, shopping, working – Galloway’s characters are shown to find comfort in regularity; and by association, we – the readers – find discomfort in the irregularity of the various typographical techniques employed.

The concept of the routine also forms the focus of one of the early interplays between Joy and a health visitor. Galloway initially sets out the components of the ‘tea routine’ in a specifically determined page layout with every item: ‘Tray / Jug / Sweeteners / Plates…’ on its own line. To this degree, Joy protects herself behind the various individual parts of the tea routine and gives herself ‘time to think’. Confronted with an ‘intrusion’ into her house from a person in an official capacity, the routine acts as a kind of armour or facade of normality to protect the real Joy, who is clearly ill at ease. Just as Joy previously seeks solace in the items found in a supermarket, she now associates herself with the objects of – and in the role of – a housewife. The theme of the facade is continued as the health visitor offers the opening remark of ‘Well!’, delineated within a comic-book style speech bubble:




Here, the processes of trivial speech are set within boundaries, in essence a character playing at being a character. Laid out here within the speech bubble, the health visitor’s words are cheap and disposable, dialogue cut off and isolated both from the rest of the text and Joy herself. The theme of acting up to prescribed roles and the presentation of speech reaches a head in the subsequent page where the dialogue between Joy and the health visitor now takes on the layout of a play script. Here, Joy is safe behind her facade, reduced to a nameless, ambiguous ‘PATIENT’. The conversation may seem impersonal and forced, but by playing up to a role – significant when her job as a drama teacher is considered – Joy is able to assert her own control and values over her life. With her dialogue clearly allocated and set apart from the health visitor in the play script format, Joy may be acting up to a part society has given her, but this affords her the capacity to shelter the far more vulnerable ‘real’ version of herself.

One of the most unusual layout techniques used in the novel in fact emerges when Joy is at her most vulnerable, underscoring the fragility of the person behind the carefully maintained public facade. As readers, only we and Joy are privy to the snippets of incomplete text that appears in the margins of many of the book’s pages – it is here that we see Joy’s mind at its most frustratingly chaotic and fractured. These intrusions, like the numerous in-capitals signs that intersperse the text, serve to disrupt the flow of narrative-proper; is the reader supposed to read these snippets as relevant to the main body of text they appear next to, or are they a kind of largely irrelevant supplementary side-text?

If these intrusions are to be seen as directly relevant, the most obvious example comes on pages 174 and 175 where Joy is ‘raped’ by Tony. Here, the margin intrusions reach newly prolific levels; six across the space of the two pages, almost as if Tony’s physical intrusion into Joy is being manifested textually on the paper of the novel itself. In the case of the even-numbered pages, the reader is enticed to peer right into the central crack of the book, to seek out the words that are seeping – drowning even – in the centre. We want to apply order and logic to these intrusions, to fit them into the wider narrative, even as they serve to further the image of Joy’s mind as increasingly chaotic. Piecing together the fragments, the following message can be made out: ‘…ignore the warnings… when the worst happens we can only blame ourselves’; indicative of something Joy has likely read in one of her women’s magazines pertaining to rape. Also of note is the fact the margin intrusions are presented in a smaller font size, the same that is employed for articles Joy reads in magazines: for example the agony aunt piece on page 45 or the diet tips on page 39. And so, even in the worst, most horrible of scenarios, Joy’s life becomes defined by the limits of what she has read in magazines.

Whether it be the name of a supermarket, an office sign, angry neighbours or magazine articles, The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a novel littered with the by-products of everyday life. By rendering all these disparate objects in a variety of typographical and layout-based means, Galloway increases both the novel’s sense of reality and viscerality. In a world that is more often than not highly fragmented and unreal, these elements of the ordinary let us empathise with Joy and break through the barrier she so clearly seeks to erect between her past and present. As a textual and uniquely textured creation, Galloway’s novel becomes more than just a novel about an individual’s fractured mentality, it assumes that mentality itself.



Galloway, Janice, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (London: Minerva, 1991),

Jackson, Linda, Exchanges: Reading Janice Galloway’s fictions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Review, 2004)

Jones, Carole, Disappearing Men: Gender Disorientation in Scottish Fiction 1979-1999 (London: Rodopi, 2009)

Schoene, Berthold, The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007)

Thomas, Ruth, ‘Janice Galloway Interview’, Textualities [http://textualities.net/ruth-thomas/janice-galloway-interview/] (accessed 11/03/12)

Wallace, Gavin, The Scottish Novel Since The Seventies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993)

The List (2005) [http://www.list.co.uk/article/2819-janice-galloway-the-trick-is-to-keep-breathing-1989/] (accessed 11/03/12)

Discussing the representation of death in Siegfried Sassoon – I Stood with the Dead, Thomas Hardy – Drummer Hodge, Isaac Rosenberg – Dead Man’s Dump


In war, death represents a uniform presence, something which soldiers face first hand with frightening reoccurrence. Eager early conscripts envisioned battle as something glorious and patriotic, but within the themes that emerge between the poems of Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy and Isaac Rosenberg, death becomes anything but glorious. When Sassoon describes the ‘crumpled disgrace’ of slain bodies in I Stood With The Dead, any hint of dignity is removed from the process of dying. As a ‘dis-grace’, the state is shown as un-Godly and low – the men crumpled into a kind of half-existence far removed from neat formations of soldiers standing fast for their country. By opposing the ‘crumpled’ imagery of the dead men with the poem’s narrator, who is standing, the gulf between death and life is emphasised to its fullest extent – men cut from the prime of their lives to tumble down into death.

In this respect, the ‘Fall in!’ command of the narrator bears dual meaning – in the most literal sense it can be taken as an order, but in more figuratively, it draws on imagery of men falling down into the mud; collapsing, broken, into shell holes. The image of bodies crudely arrayed in this way is also present in Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump, the title itself affording the men scant respect, their bodies now mere waste to be disposed of. Here, wagon wheels crunch over the ‘sprawled dead’, reminiscent of Sassoon’s usage of ‘crumpled’ – these men are also ‘crunched’ and compacted, reduced from a high stature to a mess of nothingness pressed into the mud.

Rosenberg then elaborates on the fate that awaits the men after death. Personifying the ground itself, he informs us ‘Earth has waited for them… Now she has them at last!’ – there is an eagerness to the words, a barely contained excitement of a predator claiming its prey. The concept of nature taking hold of dead bodies is continued in I Stood With The Dead where the soldier’s face is ‘sick like the plain’, bodily features merging into the surrounding landscape. Hardy is even more explicit about this process in Drummer Hodge where the soldier’s dead body is recycled into foreign vegetation: ‘His homely Northern breast and brain / Grow to some Southern tree’. Here, the body undergoes a process of transformation, losing its Englishness and melding into an alien landscape. Specifically, it is his breast and brain that are mentioned – the heart and mind – the aspects that bring life to a man; these have now been broken down into the soil. ‘Northern’ is directly opposed against ‘Southern’, all essence of the soldier’s homeland re-grown into something profoundly different. The foreign nature of the process is furthered by the abundance of South African words in the poem; ‘veldt’, ‘karoo’, the soldier’s Wessex home supplanted and outnumbered by the unknown qualities of the land in which he died.

Perhaps most haunting in the representation of death in the poems is the sense of loneliness and isolation that accompanies it. In death, Hardy describes Drummer Hodge’s only companions as the ‘strange stars amid the gloam’, foreign constellations completely unrecognisable to a British soldier. In Hodge’s impromptu grave, there is no human touch or emotion, only the hazy in-between state of the ‘gloam’; the hours between sunset and full dark. Thus, Hodge is consigned to a limbo-like twilight existence under the ground that mirrors Sassoon’s description of a dead man stuck in the mud: ‘the drowning soul was sunk too deep for human tenderness’. In both instances the lifeless bodies are buried, loose souls consigned to a hopeless in-between state without proper burial.

The grim nature of this loneliness is furthered by the sense of elapsing time conveyed by the stanza numbers which serve to break up the flow of the poem and emphasise the gaps in between each stanza. With the perspective of the poem focussed on the body of Hodge in the ground, these numbers become more than the respective stanzas they indicate; they are also respective of the days, weeks, months and years his body lies there. The form of the stanza numbers as Roman numerals gives them the air of something carved into a tombstone, an epitaph for a long dead man. Indeed, beyond the ‘kopje-crest’, this poem is all that marks his passing. As Hardy illustrates, that small part of the soil ‘Will Hodge for ever be’, the body consigned to the ground for eternity. There is an air of stasis, mirrored in Dead Man’s Dump when Hardy describes the dead bodies as ‘suspended – stopped and held.’ Here, even the dash separating the words seems to draw out the sense of time passing.

Death also provides a chance for reflection on the past – Sassoon poses dialogue to an imagined representation of his past self: ‘O lad that I loved’. There is a sense of immense longing, profuse love even, for the young, naive ‘lad’ that the soldier once was. Now sapped of life there is only the melancholia of the tear-like rain on his face. Combining the language of love poetry with death, Sassoon mourns not just the loss of life, but the loss of innocence. The idea of the ‘lad’ corrupted by war is continued by Hardy’s ‘young Hodge’, his age employed as a defining aspect of his character – death is shown to be all the more cruel, cutting short the life of someone so young. In the generic, one-syllable nature of the name ‘Hodge’ too, there is the notion of an everyman soldier, one that is in essence still a boy, and that death is not selective about who it claims.

There is a sense of inevitability about death, particularly in I Stood With The Dead as Sassoon described the soldiers as ‘forsaken’ – the poem can be taken to refer not only to those men who are actually dead but those that are doomed to die in the near future. In the command-like nature of the final line, these soldiers become dead men walking, marching to assured deaths. The march becomes an almost mocking reminder of the danger that accosts the soldiers on a daily basis, seeping into the very life-force of the body: ‘My heart and my head beat a march of dismay’ (this also echoes Hardy’s use of ‘breast and brain’). The word ‘pay’ takes on a curious quality, almost as if the soldiers must pay their due to death; that it is part of the job they cannot avoid. Equally, it crudely monetises the war; trivialising war into just another form of work – albeit one with deadly stakes.

Lack of respect for dead bodies is another enduring theme, Hardy’s poem opens with: ‘They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest / Uncoffined’, an image mirrored in Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump when bodies are described as ‘flung on the shrieking pyre’. What is presented is a war where respect for the dead is almost non-existent; bodies are chucked around and either burnt or placed in the ground bare – in both cases there is a sense of the dead being consumed, of suffering a second death that condemns their remains to a kind of damnation. Most gruesome is the closing line of Rosenberg’s poem: ‘we heard his very last sound, and our wheels grazed his dead face’, the image of a face – and by association identity – being eliminated, crushed beneath the machinations of war. Indeed, within the poems, violence seems to suffuse every part of war, bodies suffering further blows even when they are already dead. Here, death and war present no dignity for the defenceless bodies of the soldiers, only ongoing desecration.

Repetition plays an important part in both the Sassoon and Rosenberg poems – the image of ‘they left this dead with the older dead’ presented in Dead Man’s Dump replicates the piling of bodies upon each-other with a repetition that seems to almost trip up on itself. The crudeness of ‘this dead’ acts to increase the horror of the scene, eliminating any idea of individuality and replacing it with a faceless, nameless placeholder of a body. Likewise, Sassoon’s ‘I stood with the Dead… They were dead; they were dead’ works to similar effect, with the capitalisation of ‘Dead’ becoming a kind of new ‘name’ for the dead men. With the life torn out of them, ‘they were dead’ becomes the only salient attribute to them – any other traits that made them the men they were when alive is now superfluous, they have become ‘blurred’, ‘plain’, anonymous. Through these assorted stylistic techniques, the poets highlight the dominating power of death and its ability to erase and consume – not just life – but to directly alter the way those still alive view their bodies. Death stands presented as grey, dull, utterly still – the complete antithesis of life. Whether portrayed as an unending form of stasis or a brutal desecration of the body, all three poets strive to highlight how death is not just a grimly final end to life, but a profound, uncaring waste of it too.



Roberts, David, Minds At War (Sussex: Saxon Books, 1996)

Stallworthy, Jon, The Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Mr Alfred is a victim but he is far from being an innocent one. Discussing Mr Alfred MA in light of this judgement.

When first introduced to Mr Alfred within George Friel’s novel, we are told that ‘he wanted to love his fellowmen’, someone with emotions and sympathies towards others. But as a central character, Mr Alfred is arguably a far from sympathetic individual himself  – victim, he undoubtedly is, but throughout Friel’s narrative of a bruised, broken Glasgow, he emerges more and more as a man of frequent shortcomings. Is Mr Alfred merely a good man placed in bad circumstances, powerless to resist greater forces at work in the city he has come to hate, or is there a far darker side to him?

Right from the start, Mr Alfred is set apart from his surroundings: ‘frequenting a common pub with common customers and a common barmaid when he had nothing in common with them’. He is positioned as the outsider, someone unable to successfully integrate into the social aspects of the word. He may indeed want to love his fellowmen, but he does not possess either the means or impetus to turn these vague ambitions into a palpable reality. Just like his failed poetry, Alfred’s love remains a half-formed, closeted thing that stays resolutely trapped within him. The implications of this are two-fold; Alfred becomes a victim not only of his own shyness ‘he had been a wallflower since puberty’, but of his inability to escape it. The former seems deserving of sympathy, but as the extent of Alfred’s drinking binges is unveiled, we realise that he does little to try and escape from the self-destructive rut he has placed himself within.

Mr Alfred’s predisposition to pursue dangerous courses of action is further explored when he smacks Gerald in class. Disobeying school rules on the proper methods of corporal punishment, we are exposed to his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the incident: ‘He smacked Gerry across the nape. He knew at once he shouldn’t have done it’. The troubling nature of the situation is that though Alfred is shown to express remorse, he swiftly ends up hitting Gerald again as well as branding him ‘you cheeky little rat’. The image portrayed is once again of Alfred stuck on a repetitive course of action, falling prey to the same mistakes again and again – while we might feel sympathetic for him on one occasion, his repeat offences do little to excuse him. This is echoes later in the novel where Alfred tells himself that he will not kiss Rose, but ultimately ends up doing so.

Of course, it can be argued that these continued transgressions are due to temptations. Gerald is by no means a model student and Rose never reports Alfred’s behaviour to another member of staff, admitting her reluctance to do anything to her friend Senga: ‘but what can I do? I’d hate to hurt him’ The irony is that in Rose’s sympathy for Alfred and unwillingness to ‘hurt’ him, she causes more harm than good, allowing his behaviour to escalate by continuing to play into his weekly meetings with her.

These themes of outside influences tempting Alfred into committing questionable deeds are extrapolated outward to Glasgow as a flawed society which turns its inhabitants ‘bad’. Violence is built into the fabric of the city, just as Alfred’s beating of Gerald occurs near the start of the novel, Gerald exacts a kind of revenge towards the end when he and his friends mug Alfred. With violence portrayed as an almost every-day aspect of modern urban living, can Alfred be excused for punishing Gerald? Alfred’s ‘smack’ pales in comparison to the brutal chisel stabbing committed as part of the endemic gang warfare. Friel describes the aftermath of the fight in the language of cheap, light entertainment: ‘They knew when it was the end of a programme. No point waiting for the commercials’. Here, violence becomes almost trivial, a mere after-school distraction; and it is this context that Alfred’s smacking of Gerald becomes a lesser of many evils. With so many other aspects of Alfred’s generation eroded away before his eyes, hitting Gerald in class is the last vestige of the old values he can envisage to attempt to instil respect for elders. In this sense, there is a desperation to Alfred’s actions that while not wholly painting him in an innocent light, allows the reader to place themselves within his mindset.

One of the most damning portrayal’s of Alfred is towards the end of the novel when his doctor reels off a list of supposed conditions he is suffering from: ‘The man’s got pedophobia, homichlophobia, dromophobia, xenophobia…’ Here, Alfed is reduced to part of an overly medicated society, dissected into a series of labels. A victim of every condition listed here, his character is drowned beneath an unbearable weight of modern diagnosis from an outside observer. As the doctor sums up: ‘He’s in a very bad way’ – and in this, there is an almost all encompassing judgement from the novel on how we should view Alfred.

Analysing the specifics of Mr Alfred’s relationship with Rose, it is important to consider if there is an inherently sexual aspect to his dealings with her. Could it be that his love for Rose is far more a longing for human interaction (beyond the scant contact he garners from Stella and Granny Lyons), a way of saving him from his intense loneliness? However, Friel tells us ‘A boy could never have interested him. His love was a heterosexual love. Therefore a normal love.’ – here the implications seem to be explicitly damning. Alfred’s desire stems from the fact Rose is female – any sense of a similar relationship with a boy are incomprehensible. Whereas a more patriarchal relationship with Rose might have been forgivable, the fact the evidence Friel presents us of Alfred’s logic is so suffused with sexual tension, we find it hard to express sympathy for him in these circumstances.

From the beginning of the novel to the end there is an inexorable sense that Alfred’s life is building towards a catastrophe. The initial positioning as Gerald and his mother as meddling antagonists remains constant throughout Alfred’s growing relationship with Rose, with Senga as the bridging connection between the two plot threads. In hindsight, Alfred seems almost damned from the start, Friel’s writing carefully manoeuvring him into a position where his downfall can begin. The novel even deals with organised catalysts of change within itself: the ‘Parents Association for the Improvement of Scottish Education’ (POISE). It is through systems such as this that power is shifted from traditional figures like Alfred into the hands of Gerald’s mother – as Alfred’s colleague points out ‘It’s old models like you POISE is out to improve on’, placing Alfred as something outdated, actively being sought out for termination. Now, it is not just unruly youths Alfred is battling against, but wider machinations that encompass society as a whole – and it is against these processes that he has no hope to achieve any kind of victory against.

This theme reaches its climax in the book’s closing chapters as Tod explains to Alfred ‘But you can’t fight me. I’m not invading you. I’m already inside’ In this statement, Alfred becomes utterly powerless; with –Tod – the Devil – meddling with human affairs, it can be argued that any sin present in Alfred’s behaviour is merely a manifestation of the devil’s will, not Alfred’s own thoughts or actions, and thus he is absolved of responsibility. Equally though, Tod could also merely be a personified representative of the ‘evil’ already present in Alfred’s personality, and as such, is more a kind of temptation, a leading out of what has always existed within him; casting him as a far more unsavoury character.

In Tod’s explicit command to ‘go thou and do likewise’, Alfred is ordered to sink into the same levels of depravity which he previously scorned, marring the walls of the city with graffiti. And while Alfred’s mental state here is clearly out of the ordinary, his situation can be taken as a metaphor for the fractured, disintegrated Glasgow surrounding him. Here, it is not just Alfred who is the victim, but Glasgow itself. And like Alfred, it is far from being an innocent victim. As both culprit and casualty, Alfred and Glasgow enter into a cycle of depravity which, like his pub binges, can only lead to further pain. And if, indeed, there is any sympathy for these central characters – man and city – it is more for the horror of their condition than any positive traits they might exhibit.



Friel, George, Mr Alfred M.A. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 1987

Kelly, Stuart, The List (2005) [http://www.list.co.uk/article/2790-george-friel-mr-alfred-ma-1972/]

Wallace, Gavin, The Scottish Novel Since The Seventies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993)