(Spoiler Warning: The below contains mild spoilers for the films Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed, as well as my first two novels Veteran and War in Heaven.)
So I’ve noticed that cultural appropriation has reared its ugly head again recently. This is thanks mainly to Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival but it has also been a topic of conversation within my social media bubble. At the same time as this ‘conversation’ (I use conversation here to mean increasingly shrill slanging match) was going on my first two novels Veteran and War in Heaven were in the process of being released in Japan by the wonderful publisher Tokyo Sogensha. You can see the beautiful covers here and here. This got me thinking about the debt I owe to Anime in the creation of those two novels and in general in my writing. With this in mind I thought I would talk a little about the three Animes that most influenced Veteran and War in Heaven.
So my introduction to Anime was the same as many of my generation. It came in the form of Battle of the Planets, an American adaption of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman that was aired on the BBC in the late 70s, would you believe? Now Science Ninja Team Gatchaman is obviously the best name for anything ever. I do wonder if Gatchaman had other scholastic Ninja teams. The lesser-known Math Ninja Team Gatchaman? Or Geography Ninja Team Gatchaman for those tricky existential threats involving landscape? Why does the Science Ninja Team get to have all the fun? A little later in the early 80’s on early Saturday morning TV I was also exposed to the brilliantly insane Star Fleet a marionette tokusatu (basically puppet Anime) series originally titled X-Bomber in Japan. It was a bit like a collision between Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and Lexx (not-at-all a headfuck for nine year old me). Then Anime sadly seemed to disappear from my life for a decade or so until the early 90s, where it exploded back into my life spectacularly with Katsuhiro Otomo’s adaption of his own Manga, Akira. For me, watching Akira early one Christmas morning, was like the first time I read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen: rightly, or wrongly I felt things had changed.
Akira is a psychic street opera set after World War III in the nightmarish Neo-Tokyo of 2019 (so something to look forward to then). Against a backdrop of gang violence and anti-government terrorism, Tetsuo, a young bike punk keen to prove himself, encounters an esper with psychic powers fleeing from a secret government laboratory. This encounter results in Tetsuo searching for the secret that is Akira, triggering a series of events that threatens to destroy all of Neo-Tokyo.
Cyberpunk as fuck! If you haven’t seen Akira do seek it out. For a film that was made more than twenty-five years ago it still stands up pretty well. The general dystopian tone and atmosphere of the film, as well as the classic C-punk cityscape were in influence in the writing of Veteran. The bike chase scenes were instrumental in developing the scheme racing scene in Trenton in Veteran and later the tunnel racing in War in Heaven. I imagined the Argo Triumph, the bike that Jakob (the protagonist of both the novels) owned in the books looking a lot like the one that the gang leader Kaneda rode in the film (see above). (I do always wonder how much of one’s ‘process’ you should admit to at times like this. I would hope that Akira influenced me rather than I ripped it off.)
Next up: Ghost in the Shell is an animated movie adaption of Masamune Shirow’s Manga of the same name. And speaking of cultural appropriation there has been something of a furore over the casting of Scarlet Johansen in the role of Major Kusanagi the live action remake of GitS (an unfortunate acronym). You can see the eerie nano-teaser for the live action film here.
So where do I start with this film. It is nearly the perfect cyberpunk film in the way it handles the collision between technology and society. The animation, the sound design and music are all beautiful. The film is visually breath taking, punctuated with captivating moments of stillness that allow us to tour the incredible environment of the monstrous, alienating future city. Where GitS influenced me most writing Veteran and War in Heaven was the themes of self-identity in the face of a particularly invasive tech (this is handled much, much better by the film maker, my handling was pretty clumsy) and the possibility of new life born of technology.
(I have this as a poster on my office wall.)
The third and final film is the 2004 computer animated anime Appleseed. This is a re-interpretation of the all-ready adapted manga also by Masamune Shirow. Less dystopian than Akira and Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed tells of the trials and tribulations besetting an attempt to build a utopian society out of the ashes of World War III. More than anything Appleseed was a significant influence on the tech in Veteran and War in Heaven, particularly the power armour/combat exoskeletons and mecha. I was very much taken by the pseudo-realistic projection of military technology, it may be unrealistic and impractical but it was convincing. Also I always imagined the Mastodon pistol that Jakob carries in the two books to look very similar to the huge revolver that Colonel Hades carries.
You may have noticed a couple of things from my three selections above. The most recent film in the list was released twelve years ago. (I’ve just done the maths, it came as a shock to me as well. I must be getting old.) This is not to say I have stopped watching Anime. Quite the contrary I tend to watch a couple of episodes of a series every day as I exercise, thus proving that Anime is good for you. Recently I have watched, enjoyed and would recommend: Black Lagoon, Aldnoah.Zero, Kuromukuro, The Irregular at Magic High School (took me a bit to get into this one but it was worth it), Psycho Pass, Knights of Sidonia and most recently the superb Sword Art Online. You may also have noticed that I’ve not talked much about Manga. Well my guilty secret is that I don’t read Manga, for no other reason than as a total fiction junkie I don’t have the time. I know this is wrong, I will read it all when I retire or figure out how to do it as I sleep.
So am I thief? Well probably, most authors are whether we admit it or not, we just tend to call the things we steal from ‘our influences’ (look you can see me doing it above). Am I cultural thief? Well that’s more difficult because I have absolutely no idea where the line is between cultural appropriation and cross-cultural pollination. The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo became the Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars, and to my mind the world would be a sadder place if they hadn’t. The existence of the westerns in no way invalidates the genius of Akira Kurosawa, and one would hope it went some way towards introducing Kurosawa to wider audiences. Speaking of Kurosawa doesn’t Ran have more than a passing resemblance to King Lear? And the Unforgiven becomes the, er… other Unforgiven. Do we want to discuss the influence of the Western on Chinese cinema? Or even of the Godfather and Miami Vice on the John Woo’s blood spattered gun-ballets? On the other hand I don’t feel that one of the most significant events in Japanese history should become a story about a white guy. And maybe that’s the thing, everybody has a line for this sort of thing. A point where they decide it’s gone from influence or homage to taking the piss. That line is, however, going to be subjective, which will of course lead to SCREAMING! EVERYBODY’S SCREAMING ON THE INTERNET!
The three examples I’ve cited above are a good case in point. I suspect Akira would be the poorer without the influence of Ridley Scott’s take on Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner. (Yes I know the book’s called Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep.) I suspect that Ghost in the Shell might not have existed without William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, not to mention the works of cyberpunk authors like Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Walter Jon Williams and others. And Appleseed, along with all mecha fiction in general, owes a great deal to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and War of the Worlds. (We always seem to forget that Wells pretty much invented the modern mech. They landed not far away from where I’m sitting right now). I’m not saying that Anime/Japanese speculative fiction exist because of Western speculative fiction, just that this is/should be a two way street.
I don’t agree with much of Shriver’s speech. Obviously if one group of students is belittling the ethnicity of another group of students by reducing it to a stereotypical caricature it’s racism, regardless of the original intent. On the other hand a discussion with the people in question might be more useful than ‘though shalt not’ pronouncements accompanied by a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, because I suspect it was a lapse in judgement rather than a cross burning. (I personally also believe the suggestion that western access to Sushi is cultural appropriation is somewhat spurious, but then I fear being forced to return to boiled meat and cabbage if we were to somehow forced back to culturally appropriate food.) Two things I do agree with Shriver about:
1). We have to be able to write about cultures beyond on our own. Leaving aside how much I don’t just want to write about the white middle classes, fiction has to be representational of the culture and society we live in. That’s just not going to happen if we imprison ourselves in cultural ghettoes. We do, however, have to show respect for the cultures beyond our own that we write about. This is why research is your friend (and entitlement your enemy). In some ways I think Shriver’s suggestion that we are being told we can’t write about other cultures by some PC thought-police is a straw man argument. That’s not what the discussion (and it should be a discussion, not an argument, not a series of dictates) around cultural appropriation is about.
2). We have to be able to talk about it. In fact we have to be able to talk about anything, nothing should be off limits, and we have to be able to talk without it descending into accusations of bigotry (at least initially). So much of the rancour surrounding cultural issues at the moment seems to come down to a lack of understanding. I’m not saying that there are not some poisonous sexist, racist, trans and homophobic fuckers out there but a lot of the time it seems, to me anyway, that we’re dealing with a knowledge gap, a lack of experience of the issues at hand. Few of us have sprung fully clothed from Zeus’s forehead with all the knowledge required to navigate the complicated tides of our beautiful, sprawling, vibrant metaculture. Mistakes are going to be made (particular by those of us who’re a little older). We may require a little patience from (our often self appointed) moral guardians, as we tend to have more in common than not.