“I am who?” Tima, the child robot of Rintaro’s Metropolis (2001), asks just before she plunges from the edge of a high-rise tower and Metropolis collapses around her. She is parroting the first words ever spoken to her as she awakens from a Terminator-style rampage. During her final moments we’re not sure if she’s questioning her identity as a sentient being or just running some sort of system reboot. This is a philosophical question at the heart of the AI conversation and one that’s captivated cinema for decades, though no genre has tackled it quite like anime has.
Recent years have seen a slew of live-action anime remakes, often setting off groans of critical disapproval in their wake. From the 2017 Ghost in the Shell to the long-rumoured Akira remake, or the new Alita: Battle Angel, towering technological cities and action-scene-ready cyborgs have enticed a host of western directors to take on the genre, and the AI conversation that comes in tow.
Much of the visual language surrounding AI in popular western culture is already borrowed from anime. Shinichiro Watanabe was hardly reaching when stating that he “watched The Matrix as if it was Japanese animation”. For their 1999 action thriller, the Wachowskis borrowed (sometimes shot for shot) from Ghost in the Shell, and even pitched The Matrix using a copy of the film. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), initially a Kubrick project, is rumoured to have been inspired by the anime Astro Boy; Kubrick in fact had asked Osamu Tezuka (the proclaimed “God of Manga” and Astro Boy’s creator) to work as his art director on 2001, way back in the 1960s. Directors turn to the medium for good reason; these inspirations barely scratch the surface of anime’s rich history of AI-related sci-fi.
The first film to launch anime into international renown, Akira (1988), was a cyberpunk story. Set in Neo-Tokyo, a teenager named Tetsuo is subject to scientific experiments. He gains telekinetic abilities and the nuclear power to detonate the city, just like another experiment before him: Akira. Responding heavily to an internalised fear of nuclear bombing following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film explored military ownership of unthinkable technology, and post-human bodies – cursed figures mutating between technological and organic matter. Though not a traditional computer-gone-rogue AI narrative, a technological power with its own destructive agency does take control of Tetsuo’s body. The film was part of the first wave of anime stories about our consciousness being ripped from our bodies. It also posed a question found frequently in cyberpunk anime: how technology interacts with the ‘spiritual’. Akira’s power, born from technology, allows him to live on past death in another dimension as a revered entity. Akira wouldn’t be the last time in anime that technologically enhanced figures are granted access to a “higher plane”, leaving behind their fleshy counterparts.
In the ’90s there was a growth in the already established mecha anime in Japan, a genre which champions hybridity between metal and human bodies. It brought with it hugely diverse and imaginative AI characters. One of the most inventive was Sharon Apple from Macross Plus: an AI pop sensation. Sharon Apple’s pop concerts in Macross are animated with dreamlike, almost experimental visuals; an AI that’s half hologram and half hallucination.
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell offered us an existential quandary in the form of the Puppet Master, “a life form born in the sea of information”. The result is an action film which is radically soaked in melancholy and introspection. It asked difficult questions: what differentiates a brain and a computer program? Can we rely on memories as marks of humanity if they are merely forgeable data? The denouement of Ghost in the Shell is not a fight, but a conversation of this ilk. What makes this anime so distinctive is that it fuses this sense of existential heaviness into its slick futuristic visuals. Oshii’s robot repair scenes are not your traditional sparks and metal affair; a body emerges hovering from a heavenly pool of glowing ‘skin’ matter. When our cyborg protagonist takes a scuba dive, we leave the clear lines and boundaries of the city to be submerged in colour and light. The westernised remake mines these aesthetics but pays little mind to its original effect; the existential AI element is omitted, substituted for a revenge narrative.
Films like Metropolis and The Animatrix conjured cinematic worlds that embraced the rich complexities of the robot thematic, particularly the issues sentient worker androids would have on our society. Although Rintaro’s Metropolis adhered to a fairly well-worn AI story (a young robot finds her place in a chaotic world), it also tore up the cyberpunk animation format to sew in new eye-popping styles. Rintaro pastes characters that could come straight out of Popeye onto some of the most detailed backgrounds in animation history. The film boldly casts aside traditional cohesion between character and background or music and tone (Ray Charles’ ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ scores the apocalyptic explosion at the film’s climax). There is even a beautiful disjunction between action and visual emphasis – it’s hard to pay attention to plot exposition when there’s a monstrous fish gliding past the office window.
It’s 2019 now, the “futuristic” year Akira was set in, and in some ways, we have arrived at the landscape of the future. Cinema no longer needs to look to cities like Metropolis and Neo-Tokyo; the present has birthed a new, and limitless, cyber “space”: the internet. It’s fertile ground for an AI narrative. In Summer Wars (2009), an online AI takes over ‘OZ’, an almighty social media network. It begins to absorb the avatars of military officials, gaining codes to reroute a satellite onto a collision course set for earth. A new fear permeates our screens: that our lovingly curated online doppelgängers might strike out our original self, a concept explored as early as 1997 with Perfect Blue. The definition of an enemy AI has expanded.
Cyberpunk seems set to become an ever more topical genre as our society hurtles closer to some kind of AI realisation. And what about the live-action remakes of the stories so far? There is plenty of room for a diamond in the reboot rough. To avoid the trappings of copycat mediocrity perhaps further remakes should look to anime once again for direction. Not for aesthetic cues this time, but for their process. Rintaro’s Metropolis was based on Fritz Lang’s endlessly influential original, and yet is so much more than an animated version of the 1927 masterpiece. Just like The Animatrix after it, these films boast an expansion of the same themes, alongside genuinely fresh artistic direction. After all, the best sci-fi, both in and out of Hollywood, has always been both obsessively versed in what has come before, and radically bold in the strange new images it has to offer.