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  • In the Forest of VirtualsThe Modes of Existence in Tokyo Godfathers
  • Casper Bruun Jensen (bio), Euan Auld (bio), and Steven D. Brown (bio)

Satoshi Kon's work is renowned for juxtaposing different orders of meaning. In Perfect Blue (1997)1 and Millenium Actress (2001)2 images and texts gleefully collide, sliding between fantasy and reality, history, and memory. "Strange and unnerving"3 effects emerge as the viewer scans laterally across a flat surface4 and struggles to catch up with a continuously unraveling visual field.

In a narrow sense, superflat refers to a form of image composition without depth. As the eyes search for connections between elements scattered across a "distributive field,"5 it becomes difficult or impossible to stabilize and center vision. More broadly, superflat theory links perceptual regimes to questions about subject formations, technological advances, and societal developments. By contrasting geometric perspective with the fragmented and dispersed viewing position of superflat, Takashi Murakami, in particular, constructs a version of history where the West, stuck in the past, is left behind by Japan, which has leapt into the future.6 As suggested by Thomas Lamarre, one can also detect an oblique reference to the atomic flattening of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the origin of a flat, superficial Japanese consumer culture.7

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)8 appears to be the least experimental of all Satoshi Kon's movies. Far from the superflat pyrotechnics of Paprika (2006),9 where dreams and reality inflect one another in nightmarish fashion, the movie simply follows the adventures of three homeless people in search of the parents of a baby abandoned during Christmas.

In the opening scenes, Gin, a middle-aged man, and Hana, a trans woman, bicker while waiting for a meal at an outdoor kitchen after having watched the biblical nativity play. Hana loudly speculates that if such a virgin birth could happen, even she might have a child. She turns to the server and asks for a little more soup since "I'm eating for two."10 When the same server descends a subway escalator a few scenes later, she catches sight of Hana who is indeed holding a baby. Stunned, she exclaims, "He was eating for two!"

The many playful references to the nativity play—beginning with the transformation of three wise men into a not very wise trio—fits well with the [End Page 15] received view of Tokyo Godfathers as an exploration of interpersonal relations with some light commentary on the dark sides of Japanese society.11 Kon himself has spoken of it as straightforward although slightly magical.12 In this speculative essay, however, our opening gambit is that this is a false lead, a decoy. With inspiration from the "modes of existence" discussed by Étienne Souriau, Gilbert Simondon, and Bruno Latour,13 the thematic center of this issue, we explore the proposition that Tokyo Godfathers is too vertiginous to be contained by limited versions of superflat theory.

What is a mode of existence? Schematically, it can be understood as a way of going-on, expressive of any being or collective. This idea is exponentially generalized in an ontology that encompasses all conceivable entities, human or more-than-human, of this or any other world, speculative or concrete. Everything now happens as the distributive field is crisscrossed by heterogeneous series of elements that modulate diverse modes of existence.

From this point of view, superflat theory seems like a good idea. The only problem is that in execution superflat is not nearly flat enough. Beyond image composition, superflat theory presupposes quite rigid ontological boundaries between fiction and reality, image and narrative, form and content. In contrast, modes of existence involve a form of "ontological flatness"14 that disrupts the entire economy of surfaces and depths. It becomes possible to conceive of the worlds of anime and their fans as part of an expansive technoanimism,15 where the agency of people, animals, spirits, technologies, and everything else is continuously redistributed in variable ontological constellations. We are all animated sketches and figurations.

In the following, we trace the modes of existence of Tokyo Godfathers, and their many transformations, as elicited in series and constellations at the surface. To do so, we...