by Justin Hall
Mike Dillon examines .hack//SIGN, an anime miniseries that aired in Japan between 2002-03, directed by Mashimo Koichi and written by Ito Kazunori and Omoda Akemi. What follows is an analysis of the cyberpunk themes explored within its story, and a look at the importance of those themes within a larger picture of Japanese cyberpunk animation.
The series takes place in The World, an online virtual reality game popular around the globe. No explicit description of the game is ever provided, but the series assumes its audience is familiar with the RPG genre - the role playing game. Seemingly based in mythology on whole series of nationally familiar video games, such as the “Final Fantasy” series, the game consists of players who travel vast landscapes, forming teams and gathering “points” in the form of rare items, advanced weaponry, and treasures. As such, the game features other RPG iconography: monsters, dungeons, treasure chests, and talking animals. Players select the specific features to accessorize a certain role, which include sorcerers, warriors, and the like. The World is even populated by the Crimson Knights, volunteers who log into the game as a clan of peacekeepers to ensure that everything runs smoothly online (like the agents of The Matrix, sans the evil intentions). Trouble arises when one character, a child, becomes unable to “log out,” and is trapped inside the game. No longer bound by the laws of the game system, he learns that he is able to freely bend and break certain security measures inherent in the software.
THE WEB AS EQUALIZER
Here, and in other similarly-themed films, we have a world wide web that levels the playing field, creating an arena in which nationality, race, class, and gender are equalized under the universal standards of the game. Although all characters speak Japanese, there is never any indication that the game - regularly referred to as the largest online game of it’s kind - doesn’t have a popular base internationally (actually, anime characters seem to speak perfect Japanese no matter where the story is set, but whatever). Even the main character’s gender is left deliberately ambiguous for most of the film (we later learn she is a girl who appropriates the role of a boy online), implying that - just as online chat rooms nowadays offer a degree of anonymity - it appears the “rules” of The World do not require honesty in a player’s chosen identity. The nature of the web thus offers the ability to willfully jump across these lines that would impair such freedoms in real life.
Such characteristics are befitting a genre that places so much focus on themes including “globalization, commercialism, [and the] mixing of different cultures and ideologies in one huge media flow,” as listed by Janne Järvinen. According to Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk, as a mode of storytelling that has found a place not just in American and Japanese, but various international cinemas as well, is a genre that “aims for a wide-ranging, global point of view”. A seminal way in which the new era of digital technology accomplishes this through the common language of ones and zeros. Or in the creation of neutral, virtual playing fields like The World, in which everyone adheres to a standardized set of objectives.
Järvinen also notes that often unnamed but nonetheless omnipresent entities like “the system” or “the company” are frequently looming over the cyberpunk narrative (such as the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner; the Kronos Corporation in the Guyver series; Section 9 in Ghost in the Shell; the Matrix program). In .hack//SIGN, the “system” is the setting of the story in its entirety, all the more oppressive toward the hero because he is unable to log out (I.e. escape) it. It is a tell-tell giveaway that the series is operating cyberpunk themes when it alludes to - but never properly introduce - the exact nature of the system/ corporation/software that is acting as an umbrella in its wide-reaching effect on the spectrum of characters, an umbrella that does not discriminate by age, race, gender, or nationality, just as the game doesn’t require it.
LEAPS OF FAITH
This online free-for-all is disrupted permanently when one player makes it individual by becoming an anomaly to the system. Funny how these things always proceed normally until someone has a brush with the divine. In their own way, the conflicts of .hack//SIGN prompt all of the characters to ask larger questions pertaining to the nature of reality. All of these storylines depict the virtual experience as a sort of transcendence, cuing into the latent spirituality in defeating or overcoming the confines of reality. In The Matrix, the hero achieves a Christ-like status after he learns to break away from the physical limitations placed on the human body and mind. Online, these stories often end in some sort of divine confrontation, in which the protagonist(s) come face to face with “God,” the individual or entity that created the virtual universe and is responsible for its being. Perhaps the shadowy, often corporate figures who are pulling the strings (Mr. Tyrell; Agent Smith; the chairman of OCP) are largely kept out of sight - their motives and intensions concealed - precisely for this reason. They are the proverbial puppet masters, and they can be as elusive as God, making their eventual revelation to the characters all the more poignant.
With the exception of brief and occasional flashbacks, the entirety of the story takes place in The World, populated by characters who, unlike in, say, The Matrix, already know they are in a simulated environment and live real lives elsewhere. The flashbacks themselves are minimalist in their presentation: all dialog in the real world is not heard, but shown through title cards. All that is on the soundtrack is consistent and foreboding static noise, as if real world memories were some kind of less authentic, alternate channel. These real world memories are also seen in extreme angles and the faces of the real are frequently obscured by shadows. The series therefore takes place in a virtual environment that has “begun subtly to actually displace the ‘real’” for those who devote their time, build their relationships, and search for greater meaning to their lives within the walls of cyberspace (see McCaffery).
The flashbacks show, some more explicitly than others, that everyone is leaving a painful world behind whenever they log into The World. Each is a recluse in their own way, and plays the game to escape their lives (not to mention that the sheer amount of time they appear to be devoting to game play must logically remove them from a social life). In one touching scene, we learn that a major character maintains his only contact with his estranged son by meeting with his persona in The World. More interestingly, each assumes identities online that compensates for their shortcomings in the real world. Online, the timid become headstrong and loners become leaders.
It is important to mention this because in this series, virtual reality is given preference over the real world. In Stray Dog of Anime, Brian Ruh notes the irony in that people in the real world become more withdrawn as they engage in the wide potential of cyberspace. It all brings up the familiar, repeated question: if the virtual world is “real” to you, what does it matter whether it is a fabrication? This question is very essence of the genre, and it keeps popping up in all of the seminal works: The Matrix, Avalon, Ghost in the Shell, Serial Experiments Lain, etc. Further, why should you be expected to choose a life in the real world when, as depicted in these narratives, living the virtual life is far superior to the real one? Consider that in The Matrix series, including the Animatrix shorts, there are even characters portrayed as traitors for desiring a *return* to the illusion. Indeed, other films, such as Avalon, depict real life as a wasteland, a “combination of high tech and old grime” (172) devoid of the colors and spirit of the artificial world.
.hack/SIGN demonstrates wider implications of the genre. Cyberpunk has always boasted a certain versatility, providing the thematic and visual templates for vehicles like hard-boiled noir thrillers (Blade Runner; Strange Days), melodramas (A.I.; Abre Los Ojos), dark comedy (Brazil), gothic horror (Alien; Dark City) martial arts extravaganzas (The Matrix Trilogy), even social satire (Robocop; Max Headroom). Cyberpunk conventions are transgeneric and are thus a comfortable fit with anime storytelling. It’s no wonder that cyberpunk literature and cinema has such a core audience of what we might as well refer to as computer geeks; cyberpunk is all “about the empowerment of the not quite adult” (Foster 204.) As RJ Burrows notes, this is of special significance in Japan, in which the quintessential computer geek has materialized in the nationwide subculture of the Otaku, which in turn has evolved passed its negative roots into a term widely accepted and used around the world. Translated into anime, and usually with a cast of youngsters at the narrative helm, the entire genre often features elements of the coming-of-age drama, which more often than not features children as their central characters.
As is also common in most anime, characters are decidedly Western-looking (the physical setting of The World also draws heavily on medieval imagery), with androgynous features. .hack/SIGN bypasses this issue entirely by introducing an environment in which characters choose their appearances freely. All is fair online, making this genre possibly the only one in which it actually *makes sense* that a girl would have pink hair, as is so common in the world of anime. It is in these ways that certain cyberpunk mythologies legitimizes (or in the very least, makes more palpable) the various outstanding “quirks” of Japanese animation.
Burrows, RJ. “Cyberpunk as Social and Political Theory.” March, 1995.
Foster, Alan Dean. “Revenge of the Nerds, Part X.” Karen Haber, ed. Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
Järvinen, Janne. “Cyberpunk: Aspects and Expectations.”
McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1991.
Ruh, Brian. "Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii.” New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.
Sterling, Bruce, ed. Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. New York: Arbor house, 1986.
Posted by Justin Hall at 2004年12月29日 20:01