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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.3 (2002) 729-771

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From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls:
Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater

Christopher A. Bolton


In contrast to something that retains its form, information periodically changes, and new kinds are constantly being produced. To organize these different kinds of data and use them efficiently, even more information is needed. In this way information increases in a geometric progression, until humans are buried within it.

—Shiro Masamune

Bunraku (this is its definition) separates action from gesture: it shows the gesture, lets the action be seen, exhibits simultaneously the art and the labor, reserving for each its own writing…. Concerned with a basic antinomy, that of animate/inanimate, Bunraku jeopardizes it, eliminates it without advantage for either of its terms.

—Roland Barthes

The human-machine hybrid known as the cyborg has been invoked by many authors and critics to test the boundaries that define human subjects, but it remains an ambivalent figure. Donna Haraway's seminal essay “A Cyborg [End Page 729] Manifesto” hopes that the cyborg's transgressive combination of the organic and the mechanical will challenge the dichotomy between natural and artificial, promising to free the subject from imposed categories of biology, gender, and race.1 But at the same time, Haraway admits that the challenges to bodily integrity that the cyborg poses—from the body's penetration by technology to the specter of its conversion into a data stream—carry with them the threat of objectification and coercion. There is a fear that this redefinition of the human subject will end up dehumanizing us all.

Given the cyborg's split personality, it seems only natural that this theory should be applied to the mechanized bodies prevalent in Japanese animation, or anime, a genre that embodies the same dizzying mix of possibilities as Haraway's cyborg, often undermining gender stereotypes spectacularly one moment only to fall back into sexist exploitation the next. Anime is rife with mechanized female bodies that can be read as both euphorically powerful and objectified, commodified, and victimized. One of the most striking of these figures is the cyborg heroine of Oshii Mamoru's Ghost in the Shell [The Ghost in the Shell: Kokaku kidotai] (1995), a visually evocative film that explores the boundary between information, human, and machine. Several critics have already compared the heroine of the film to Haraway's cyborg, sometimes relating this split between the liberating and the dehumanizing power of technology to the way the film wavers between transcending and endorsing fixed gender roles.


Though not all of these critics succumb to it, there is a temptation in this approach to characterize Oshii's cyborg simply as a divided figure trapped between a progressive and a reactionary politics of technology or gender. But this misses an important dimension of this medium, which is the performed quality of the action in anime. The virtual or artificial nature of animated “actors,” who are always already technological bodies, complicates any effort by the film or the critic to draw or blur the line between natural and artificial or human and machine. This article investigates the role of these performative aspects in anime's portrayal of the artificial body by comparing Ghost in the Shell with a much earlier incarnation of the mechanical body and an earlier form of popular drama, the Japanese puppet theater.

“The puppet is like a ghost,” writes Paul Claudel, and for decades Western critics viewing the Japanese puppet theater have been fascinated by the same [End Page 730] questions of duality and dichotomy that Haraway raises.

3 Commentators from Claudel to Susan Sontag note an oscillation in the puppet theater between the real and the unreal, the unified and the dispersed subject, the violent de(con)struction of the body and a tender regard for it. Seen in the light of these readings, the ambivalent status of the heroine's mechanical body in Oshii's film can be traced to the fact that anime bodies, like the bodies...


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