A few thoughts on Momoko Ando’s 0.5 mm [Review]

Having attended the UK premiere of Japanese director Momoko Ando’s 0.5 mm – I felt compelled to write at least a few words on it, as the experience quite frankly blew me away. As the film ended, I felt at once both a great sigh of ‘ahhhh’, and an almost tangible sense of a weight lifting off me; as the intensity of the film’s emotions that had been building throughout its running time were finally set free. That feeling, perhaps, of finishing something that you will stay with you for a long, long time.

There are already a number of great reviews over on Variety, Screen Anarchy and Movie Fiends that offer a pretty comprehensive overview of the film’s plot and key themes – so what I’d like to attempt here is more a short summary of what the film is like to experience – as so much of what it meant to me was rooted in raw feelings. Suffice to say, 0.5 mm deserves to be seen – the kind of thing you find yourself bursting at the seams to share with people; to give them a copy of it and say ‘Please, watch this, feel this, too…’

Those ‘feelings’ are something I find myself returning to again and again in my love of Japanese film – both animated and live action. Whether it be nostalgia, or a sheer degree of pathos for life itself – I have to confess I’ve seen very little in Western cinema that offers those feelings with quite the same heart-wrenching intensity. Maybe my experience of life and emotion has just always felt itself more aligned with the way these things are expressed in Japanese cinema – if one can indeed reduce it to an amorphous whole like that. But this ‘heaviness of feelings’ – the phrase I’ve always thought of when I think of the feelings those truly great films evoke, is what 0.5 mm is all about.

One could compare 0.5 mm to Akira Kurosawa’s ionic Ikiru – it does, after all, deal with similar themes of mortality, abandonment and salvation; with the relationship between a young, enthusiastic woman and a world-weary old man at its heart. Or perhaps the servile relationship between Noriko and the elderly couple in Ozu’s Tokyo Story. I feel these are the easy, superficial comparisons to make – yet make them I will, to try and offer an inkling of what 0.5mm feels like to experience as a piece of visual medium.

The running time is immense – over three hours. In many ways serving us three mini-films of an hour or so each. Each one bringing us a story of protagonist Sawa (played so compelling by the director’s sister Sakura Ando – at once boyishly roguish, yet also utterly feminine) and an old man. Wrapped up in this we see broader, more overt themes emerge: the place of old people in Japan’s ageing society, the role of women, the psychology of the individual and the mass populace in relation to Japan in WW2 and beyond, and many more… Then beyond this, the themes and feelings that seem to spring more from the cracks in between – the kind of indefinable, elusive essence that comes from watching one character’s life play out in such close proximity on screen for over three hours.

When you watch a film like 0.5 mm – you sense, whether naively or not, that someone with Momoko Ando’s clear skill as both a writer and director is destined for future greatness. Hearing her speak before the screening in fluent, articulate English in a breezy, casual manner – I was reminded in many ways of highly acclaimed anime director Naoko Yamada – whose A Silent Voice in many ways left me with a same sense of almost overwhelming depth of feeling and a deep, expressive catharsis of life at both its best and worst.

Both Ando and Yamada stand as two exceptionally talented female Japanese directors, trailblazing a path for the kind of works that in my eyes – straddle a delicate line between the outright arthouse and what one could perhaps call the ‘waiting for mass awareness’ market; not quite mainstream, but with a robustness and strength of narrative drive that places them beyond ‘mere’ art pieces.

Sometimes I feel it’s too easy to be swept up in the wealth of feelings seeing a great film in the cinema can leave you with. Especially these days, when most films are streamed at the touch of a button, and invariably watched with a second-screen in hand serving as a constant distraction. In the cinema at least, we return to a pre-smart-phone era of isolation and quiet, contemplative focus on a singular experience.

0.5 mm – if it can ever really be summed up; is film as ‘experience’ – and for the time being at least, I feel I can give it a place up there amongst some of my favourite films ever.


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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Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis, Sony Pictures http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/osamutezukasmetropolis/ [Accessed 20 December 2016]

(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.

Anime & Manga picks – 7th June 2016

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Tokyo Ghoul Root A

I’d read so much malign about the second Tokyo Ghoul season my expectations for this were relatively low. So when I picked this up at MCM ahead of its street date, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised – powering through the episodes in a single day, much as I did the first season. Yes, the pacing feels highly condensed and some of the character work a little limp compared to season one – but beyond that I found far more to love here than hate. Except the animation quality – which felt shockingly cheap at times, verging into scrappy shonen-level stuff at times that suddenly seemed to verify all the anti Studio Pierrot vitriol. But no, for the most part, I was immensely satisfied with my second Tokyo Ghoul outing, lapping up the one thing that remains at its core in both manga and anime formats – the story itself.


Ping Pong – The Animation

My second pick-up from MCM – wonderfully early on its forthcoming proper ‘release’ date’. I haven’t sampled much of Masaaki Yuasa’s work before, but this had me rushing through the episodes like nobody’s business, spurred on by frenetic pacing and one of the finest Funimation dubs I’ve heard in a long time. It goes without saying the aesthetic is mindblowing – but the more you watch of it, the more it worms its way into your brain, dazzlingly you in ways you didn’t even think were possible. Much like my perennial go-to reference Space Dandy – this is one to really restore your faith in current anime output. Oh, and the soundtrack is ace too.

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Komomo Confiserie

My manga pick for this week. I previously read the first volume back in January but decided to finally plough on with volumes 2 + 3 this week, and am heartily glad I did, as the title character herself is a real gem at the heart of this. A neat twist on the classic Tsundere, the art style paints her with a wonderfully puffy gloss – all ample chest and Chaika-esque dark eyebrows that set off her blonde curls. Expect simmering shojo hijinks, sugary treats and borderline creepy antics from one of the male love interests, who likes to get a little ‘bitey’ at times…



I’d followed this up to episode four while it was airing last season, but finally got round to finishing it this week, and found my impressions of it improving considerably the more I watched. If I could sum up the appeal – it’d be that of pure, pop corn spectacle. Michael Bay style widerscreen bombast, via the medium of weirdly charming CG character models, hot mechs and some outright bizarre comedy skits. I’m serious – the episode where the American team is introduced has some of the weirdest comedy ‘animation’ I’ve seen outside of RWBY. It must be the CG… If you dropped this the first time round though, like I did, I’d urge you to give it another shot, if only to chuckle at those more humorous touches that come to the fore in the series’ mid-section.

Gintama + Hunter x Hunter – the untapped Shonen masterpieces

One thing has always struck me, looking at the top-rated anime on MAL. Sitting pretty alongside fan favourites Steins Gate and Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood lie two long-running shonen standouts – Gintama and Hunter x Hunter.

In an age where streaming is already the consumption method of choice for the average anime fan, you might argue proper physical releases of shows like these (particularly ones with so many episodes) no longer matter. But personally, I’ve always longed for the added push something like this or Hunter x Hunter’s current run on Toonami would lend these shows – to help catapult them up into the wider consciousness occupied by shows like Death Note or Attack on Titan.


Let’s start with Gintama. For a long while, much like my relationship with One Piece, I was put off Gintama. Too long, too many references I didn’t get, too ‘high brow’ in comparison to other shonen shows. All excuses I conjured up before finally taking the plunge. But in the end, the show hooked me – and all because I didn’t start at the beginning.

Googling ‘best episodes of Gintama’, I drew up a list of recommended viewing and over the course of a lazy Christmas / New Year period, I worked my way through what I’d noted down. The infamous ‘toilet’ episode. The hot pot episode. The episode where Kagura can’t sleep. All had me in stitches – laughing to a degree in which I hadn’t laughed at an anime in a long time.

For me at least, this is the way to consume Gintama. A bite-size chunk at a time. While I can see merit in its longer, more ‘serious’ arcs, for me the show lives and dies by is episodic content – which for the most part is stellar; right up there with the likes of Space Dandy and Cowboy Bebop. There’s something about having to fit an entire story into the space of a 23 minute episode that does wonders for tight, witty writing.

I’ll always remember reading somewhere that described Gintama as ‘a Japanese Simpson’s – and it’s so very true. With a similar brand of zany, parody and referential-fuelled humour – the show feels thrillingly unique among its peers, operating with an intelligence that few others can match.


And so, to Hunter x Hunter (2011) – the show which I’d wager is a definite contender for my favourite anime series of all time.

What’s so special about the show? I think, as many others would testify – it’s the change the show undergoes across its duration. Like an elongated spin on the same dramatic tone shift Madoka Magica pulls, what begins as by-the-numbers, light-hearted boys-own shonen fare soon morphs into something infinitely darker.

My favourite arc has always been a toss up between the noir-ish mafia-centric Yorknew City segment and the epic Chimera Ant tale – and for good reason; in both these arcs the show reaches new heights of tension and awe-inspiring fear, scratching that ‘one more episode’ itch in a way I probably haven’t experienced since Code Geass (the show that first got me into anime in the first place)

I’ve pondered the philosophy and appeal behind these two arcs a great deal in the year since I finished the show – boiling it down to the singular essence of the human condition: survival, at any cost. The Chimera Ant arc in particular poses so many wonderful character moments that put forward the utter fragility of life against incredible odds, pitting the main characters against enemies so very many times more powerful than themselves, only to then empathise with those ‘enemies’ to such a remarkable degree that you find yourself rooting for them instead of the ‘heroes’. If ever there was a shonen series that was a true rollercoaster of emotions, Hunter X Hunter is it.

Every time I see someone discuss these two shows, I get excited, thinking about the first time I truly ‘got’ their appeal – coming at a time when I had started to become quite jaded toward longform shonen series. They revitalised my hope in the genre, and in Hunter x Hunter’s case, the medium of anime as a whole. Sometimes, from the smallest and most unassuming of beginnings, true surprises still await – much like the show’s philosophy, life’s true joy coming from the journey, as opposed to the end goal…

Noir: Institutionalized confidence and the aesthetic of power

I sat down to watch a little more of Noir earlier and it got me thinking again about a show that I feel has become rather criminally underrated these days.

You see, the thing this show does so well – beyond being gorgeous to look at, and gorgeous to listen to (courtesy of a stunning Yuki Kajiura soundtrack) – is a question of confidence in the two lead characters.

This most plainly manifests itself in Mireille. Blonde, achingly attractive, and always dressed to the nines, Mireille is in essence a female James Bond. There’s a kind of irony to the fact that throughout all the various antics of the series, she remains impeccably dressed in that miniskirt – why? It can hardly be the most practical of outfits.

But then – perhaps smartness, and the confidence linked with smartness, is part of the persona she portrays outwardly to the world (as well as inwardly to herself). Both her and Kirika are arguably monsters – they plow through hundreds of faceless thugs across the series without batting an eyelid. They are machines, ending lives with a single shot. Yet for Mireille, her confidence in her own abilities continues. Every time she makes a dash for it – the thought that she might die seems almost secondary – she has, in essence become institutionalized in the belief of her own survival strategy. For her, confidence is a means to continue onward, to continue avoiding the reality of her actions.

It reminded me at times of the novel Cocaine Nights by JG Ballard, which deals with some similar themes of an undercurrent of organised crime in a post-modern society. One where the police are non-existent, and policing thus falls to those able and willing to dispense it – in essence, those with that self-same institutionalized confidence and power (ie. the rich).

In the world of Noir – the activities of Mireille and Kirika continue in a space that is at once our everyday world, but also at a remove from our world. The physical space is the same, but it plays by a different set of rules. Here, disagreements are settled with a bullet, and life is cheap.

You’re left to ask yourself, who would want to live in a world like this? Or perhaps even, actively enjoy living in a world like this? Again, it comes back to that sense of institutionalization – of an activity and way of life becoming so ingrained in the persona that it becomes as natural to theme as breathing. Here, Mireille’s manner – that easy, classy confidence, that runs simultaneously to her glamorous disposition becomes part of that act. The persona she chooses to put on for both the world and herself.

Thoughts on: Negima!?

On my watch list this week was Negima!? AKA the absolutely mental Shaft version, and not the rather sweet original. I’m not too hot on which the anime community generally considers the best out of the two, but for me, it’s got to be the original, hands down.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m a massive fan of Shaft – and can totally see what they tried to do with the show, but so much of what made the original so charming is lost in the process. So I wanted to put pen to paper as it were, and jot down some pros and cons between the two.


Animation quality – Holy God does this show look incredible. OK, the DVD version I have (Manga’s Entertainment’s discs) is dog ugly in places – it looks like the original picture has been badly upscaled to fit widescreen tellies or something, because the picture is all blurry in places. But regardless, this is Shaft through and through, and it’s pretty enjoyable ticking off all the bits and bobs that clearly went on to be executed even more effectively in Madoka and Monogatari. The only bit where it falls down for me really is the ‘moving boxes’ / windows where it tries to show several elements at once on screen – this just feels cheaply done, and at odds with some of the other, more elegant visuals (AKA Evangeline’s fight with Negi in the early episodes)

Magic and cards – Did they ever try and turn the card element into an actually, physical real-world game? It seems like it was trying to set this up anyway, and while it’s executed quite poorly at times (and rushed, too) – it’s a clever concept and builds something new into the show in a fun way. The magic sequences look great too and see the show using its music to its best, too.

Chupacabra – You’ll probably either find this incredible annoying, or – like me – eventually warm to it and find it hilarious. There’s actually something quite sweet and inspiring about how dogged Asuna is about selling her ‘chupa-tees’. God bless.

Evangeline – Seriously, best girl, hands down. It needs to be said, but whoever decided to dub Evangeline, Chachamaru and Negi with proper English accents was a genius, and deserves a medal, or something. It’s hilarious, and inspired, all at the same time. She steals every scene she’s in, especially the tea scenes with the teacher, as well as the face pulling face-offs with Asuna. Basically, she’s the best pint-sized vampire you’ll ever see, aside from Shinobu from Monogatari.


OP and ED themes – I haven’t seen many anime where the OP and ED themes are dubbed over into English. I’m not a big fan of it, as I think Jpop tracks re-sung in English usually come out really badly as the rhythmic differences between Japanese and English can rarely reconcile. Plus also, difference in singing ability.

Characterisation – I was tempted to put this in PROS, as some of what Shaft’s version does with the characters is rather nicely done. I know a lot of people didn’t like how they made Asuna seem more ‘stupid’ / bratty, but in a way, I quite like how they make her even more bonkers in this – she just has SO MUCH ENERGY, you sort of can’t help but be swept up in her hairbrained schemes (and seriously, is there anyone that has longer twintails than her?!)

But on a more serious note – all the romantic poignancy of the original is left by the wayside. And for someone like me – who’s totally a sucker for a harem, it doesn’t feel great. For example, the stuff that happens with Nodaka, Konoka and Yue is heartbreakingly realised in the original as the girls come to terms with their feelings, but here they’re mainly all just foils for Asuna’s schemes.

They even largely gloss over the great moral dilemma that lies at the heart of Negima!? AKA – guess what, Asuna is in love with this absolute minor of a teacher (and let’s not forget she’s in love with a bloke old enough to be her dad, too). In the original, everyone’s favourite blonde Ayaka totally blasts her down to size for this and says, hey Asuna, you realise you might be pretty messed up liking these dudes? (despite being even more obsessed with Negi than Asuna herself) – But here, it’s just played for laughs.

Plot – What plot? Ok, joking aside – the plot in Shaft’s version is pretty damn hard to follow. But then, perhaps  that’s besides the point. You’re supposed to just sit back, let Asuna and her lackeys take the ropes, and enjoy. But really, while Negima!? Is first and foremost a comedy through and through, it kind of sucks that so much of the original (which could be both incredibly poignant and deep in terms of lore) is cast aside.

Every time I sit down to watch this show, I keep thinking there’s supposed to be some deep, other level of meaning beyond the wacked out visuals. Taken to its logical conclusion, Negima!? is anime on crack – almost to Excel Saga degrees (Asuna and Excel are totally cousins right?) – it’s the drugged-up Pink Floyd album of anime, he Monty Python of anime. Heck, even the Red Dwarf of anime (wait, no, that’s Space Dandy). It’s never not entertaining, never not a visual treat. And while it drags like heck, you know that another insane chupacabra reference or visual gag is around the corner. Hence, you’re held in a constant suspense of semi mediocrity that remains at worst a firm seven out of ten.

And after all, why have one best girl when you can have thirty-one?

Now, bring on the remake where the English dub actually gives Negi a Welsh accent. Get the bloke who did Mr Drippy in Ni No Kuni to do it, and away you go.

Man would that be amazing.

“I’ll Pay You Back For That, Ten Times Over” – Gurren Lagann

I remember the first time I watched Gurren Lagann, this scene just absolutely blew me away. Up until this point, I hadn’t really got into the show. I couldn’t understand why people raved about it so much.

Then this scene happened. And then I got it.

It’s funny, because in many ways, this scene is just so shamelessly hackneyed – but maybe that’s why it works so well. The romance of it (and God, isn’t it nice to see two anime characters actually, properly ‘seal the deal’ for once instead of beating about the bush) – added to the awful tension of the audience knowing Simon’s watching, and it’s destroying him inside. It’s all just so perfect.

And then, the ‘thing’ that happens afterword happen. And it just epitomises every single ‘flag’ in every show ever. It tears your heart away, stamps on it and then throws it back in a cheap paper bag. So simple, yet so gut-wrenching – and that’s what makes Gurren Lagann so brilliant.

For my money, one of the greatest quotes in anime, ever.

Thoughts on: Clannad

It’s been over a year since I first watched Clannad, but finally I’ve picked up Afterstory, and within just a couple of hours of immersing myself in the show’s world again, all the memories of why Clannad is so special came flooding back.

I suppose the best way of summing up Clannad to someone who has had no prior knowledge of it (without going into the story or anything) is to focus on the emotion of it all – because really, if anything, emotion lies at the heart of this show.

Let’s say for a second you cast your mind back to a time you feel real nostalgia for. That golden-tinged, but ever slightly so melancholic nostalgia. That’s Clannad. Distant memories of school days and endless grey skies. The smell of the pavement just after a rain shower. That’s Clannad. The bittersweet tug of your first memories of romance. A world that will always exist just beyond your finger tips. That’s also Clannad.

Don’t let the cutsey, moe look put you off – Clannad is a deep, deep show. It deals with loss and heartache and romance in a way few other anime I’ve seen manage. Yes, the characters are achingly cute, but there’s real sadness behind those supersized eyes. Yes, this might be another ‘oh, best girl didn’t win’ show – but then, if you think about it, isn’t that just the case in real life. The best girl/guy never wins, do they?

It’s a mature show too – just to give you an example, within the first few episodes of After Story, the main character lies to his best friend and says that he’s slept with his best friend’s kid sister, just to try and shock him out of a rut he’s got himself stuck in. They then proceed to beat seven shades of shit out of each-other. And all that while best friend is pretending to go out with main character’s girlfriend’s mother (who best friend thinks is actually her sister). Pretty fucked up, right?

But it’s the tension in moments like this which will keep you coming back for more. Don’t be fooled into thinking Clannad is slow paced – it’s approach to slice of life is one that comes with all the messy, intricacies and screw-ups of everyday life. It’s a world where we see high school kids blossom into adults, and work their way through all the angst that burns inside us when we’re teens.

Back to that nostalgia for a moment – Clannad might have been broadcast in 2007, but for some reason it always reminds me so much of the 90s – maybe because that’s when I grew up. It just captures that precise sense of loss and unnatainability so very well. This is a world you thought you knew, that you thought you could remember so well – but that with each passing day is slipping further and further out of your reach as it fades into the past.

The soundtrack helps a great deal in that regard too. I could go into so much detail about the plethora of incredible songs on the soundtrack (the Dango theme of course, and also the amazingly euphoric OP theme from the first season) – but for me, it all comes back to Snow Field, and the melodic synth hook that forms the heart of it. This theme returns for the most part almost every episode, always accompanied by some of the most poignant scenes in the show. And every time it absolutely breaks my heart because again, it is so enfused by sheer loss and nostalgia. As a music fan, it contains – for me – some of my favourite records of the early to mid 90s. Stuff like the Pet Shop Boys’ Being Boring or Duran Duran’s Ordinary World. Hopefully you can get the link between them – the link I feel, anyway. I always found it quaint too that for a show called Clannad (aka, ‘that’ famous Irish group) – Snow Field does actually sound like some of the mystical stuff you could probably pick up on a new age CD.

Is there anything else that immediately springs to mind when I think of Clannad – in terms of other anime, that is? Haruhi Suzumiya, obviously – being also directed by Kyoto Animation, it’s a no brainer in terms of sheer visual style. But a lot of the emotional tugs and feelings hit home in the same way. And perhaps, more recently – Your Lie In April, again for the real emotional punches and wistful sense of longing.

I could go on about why this show triggers such strong emotions for me – but suffice to say, if you haven’t seen Clannad, go see it. Don’t be put off by the art style. Heck, After Story is rated 8.8 on IMDB, and ranked the 3rd greatest anime of all time on Anime News Network. And if that doesn’t convince you – nothing will.

I’ll leave you with Snow Field – hopefully it makes you feel even a fraction of why this show is so special.

‘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.



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