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Futurology on screen: how anime anticipates tomorrow

At the intersection of science fiction and reality is futurology – or future studies – the tenets of which imagine our future economy, politics and technology and reverse-engineer our means of getting there. An illuminating New Statesman piece likens futurologists to “doomsday preachers” in their forecasts of tragedy and technology growing at a rate that would make Arthur C. Clarke blush. And yet there’s an undeniable artistry to their imaginings which, no matter how ludicrous, have at least some basis in fact, and chart humanity’s course into an uncertain future.

Of the most celebrated futurologists is Alvin Toffler, who brought the concept into the mainstream consciousness with his acclaimed 1970 book Future Shock. Along with his largely uncredited co-writer, his wife Heidi, he posited that society was enduring an immense structural change, evolving from an industrial society to a “super-industrial” one. The title of the book refers to the accelerated technological and social change leaving people disconnected and disorientated – ergo, future shocked. It was in these pages he popularised the term “information overload”, something that has increasingly encroached on our society since the seventies into the data malaise of the new millennium.

American sci-fi has long been hailed a progenitor of technology and a constant nucleus of design. The list of engineers, scientists, astronauts and inventors, for example, that cite Star Trek as an influence is staggering. Although anime isn’t often thought of as being an art form famed for inspiring innovation (beyond the advances in animation techniques and equipment, of course), the medium does have plenty to say about where we’re heading. At its most speculative, anime offers us a means to glean our future as utopia or as a police state, either aided by technology or shunned by it. Despite often bearing a distinctively Japanese bent, these themes are universal in their portrayal of futurology.

Although a lot of anime is often highly politicised, and political in nature, it more often stems from a technological standpoint, in which the medium mediates on the future. In the wake of Scarlett Johansson’s contentious casting as Major Motoko Kusanagi in Warner Bros. upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie, one of the most compelling arguments came from comic book writer Jon Tsuei, who tweeted at length on the erasure of Asian actors in Hollywood. His discourse also offered an insight on Japan’s relationship with technology:

“The [Ghost in the Shell] manga came out in 1989, the first film 1995. An era when Japan was considered the world leader in technology. Everything hot in that era came out of Japan. Cars, video games, walkmans, all of that. Japan was setting a standard, this is a country that went from poised to conquer to the Pacific to forcibly disarmed. They poured their resources into economy. And as a country that was unable to defend themselves, but was a world leader in tech, it created a relationship to tech that is unique. Ghost in the Shell plays off all of these themes. It is inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.”

As a nation, Japan was tapped into a collective ideal of futurology, one which inevitably informed its art and media. Ghost in the Shell was perhaps the apotheosis, presenting a future where the integration of flesh and robotics was not only normal, but encouraged; a metropolis where bio-hacks were commonplace and where terrorists could infiltrate consciousness. Paranoia informed its politics, and its outlook on economics was fatalistic, themes which would feed into its spiritual successor, fellow Production I.G property Psycho-Pass.

Each is of its time, reflecting the politics of both a domestic and global stage. Where GITS portrayed a near omnipotent enemy, one that lived as much in New Port City’s digital infrastructure as the cybernetic bodies of its inhabitants, Psycho-Pass borrowed from Phillip K. Dick and exposed a justice system which can pre-empt crimes. It was a dystopian vision, informed by anxiety, “youth trauma” and the human condition, and yet its predictions of crime and punishment were futurologist in theme if not in execution.

If the architects of our future consider each aspect of society, the judicial system needs to take as much importance as that placed on economy and politics. One of the foremost futurologists might have left this mortal coil, but anime remains an avenue in which the future is thought of with gravitas, insight, and bucket loads of plain old imagination to boot.


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