Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Reflection of Nothing

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.

Alienation. Uncertainty. Postmodern. Disconnected. 

These are common words in undergraduate English courses, and I should know. Descriptions of the current phase of English literature--characterized in this case by technology-assisted depersonalization, a search for a deeper meaning that may or may not exist (it usually doesn't), the replaceableness and therefore relative meaninglessness of the human body and human interactions--usually reference one or more of the above. Characters in these sorts of works don't know what they're doing, where they're going or even who they are; they share only a common yearning for some deeper purpose to distract them from the cruel, ugly chaos of technological modernity.

This is the Japanese anime/manga franchise Ghost in the Shell. These are its characters. 

Left to right: Boma, Ishikawa, Batou, Kusanagi, Togusa, Saito, Paz

GOTS deals with many different postmodern, cyberpunk-style issues: the replacement of the body and subsequent alienation of the person involved, the (cynical take on any) search for truth or meaning, the development of artificial intelligence and so forth, but none is more pervasive than the so-called Stand Alone Complex. In this complex, which Wikipedia likens to the idea of second-order simulacra, people commit "copycat" criminal acts in an attempt to emulate "original" criminal acts that have been publicized and glamorized by media attention. One would think that the word "copycat" necessitates an original crime to copy, but no such original behaviors exist; by means of clever fraud, technological manipulation or simply the belief of the masses, a fictional event has been created and then emulated without its original--an image in a hundred mirrors with nothing to reflect. This is the Stand Alone Complex, and it is absolutely fascinating.

I guess I always knew that there was a lot I didn't know about GOTS, and a lot of it began with the Complex. Why did the creators pick copycat crime, a relatively obscure phenomenon, to base their entire show around? They obviously wanted to explore the nature of reality and the validity of copies, but it always felt like there was some deeper story being told, something that an American viewer might not understand. Translation can only capture so many things, and I guess I knew that the issues GOTS was tackling had great relevance to contemporary and historical Japan. Issues like nuclear power, violence in the media, a militaristic culture, the politics of gender and a corrupt government all make appearances in the show's two-season run. Where, and how, did copycat crime fit in?

Now I understand at least a little bit better. Copycat crime is a thing in Japan—a huge, pervasive, horrifying thing. In 1932, according to Curious Events in History*, a pair of Japanese lovers committed suicide by jumping into a volcano. Their story was publicized by the Japanese media as a tragedy of forbidden love. Songs were written about the doomed pair, newspaper articles painted them in glowingly romantic terms, radio dramas resurrected the story**, theater troupes performed plays about them, and one of Japan's first movies--“The Love that Reached Heaven”--featured the suicides. Hundreds of young lovers killed themselves, many taking poison while watching the movie; it “got so bad that usherettes had to patrol the aisles to stop the suicides”, Powell reports. Then people started jumping into volcanoes themselves, and once again the press pumped it up. “Soon tourists were gathering to watch the daily suicides,” says the book’s most horrifying sentence. Film historian Peter B. High tells us that 944 people eventually jumped into the Mount Mihara crater before the craze subsided.

The crater in question, located on a small island 100 km from Tokyo.

 How do you understand something like that? How do you make sense out of it?

The Stand Alone Complex-style crimes described in GOTS cover both suicides and other forms of crime, including a mass suicide that is orchestrated by factions within the Japanese government and several terrorist attacks. Ritual suicide itself has its own long history within Japan--Wikipedia says that the first recorded act of seppuku took place in 1180, and the kamikaze attacks of World War II certainly qualify. Yet based on a cursory reading, these are also copycat crimes. A samurai's killing himself came to be highly ritualized and even desirable to wash away the shame of a defeat, while kamikaze attacks were glorified by the WWII Japanese government as acts of heroism. In both cases, Japanese warriors were supposed to want to end their own lives, and in the case of kamikazes, the lives of others.

Clearly there’s at least some precedent for the kind of copycat behavior that GOTS explores in such depth, and clearly it has some deep cultural resonances that an American viewer, like myself, has to work to understand. It also seems as though the creators were tying this history of copycat suicide, and by extension copycat crime, into the broader postmodern search for meaning and reality. Was that what the creators of Ghost were thinking of when they made their show? I don’t know, but it raises huge questions about the persistence and appearances over time of the copycat theme in Japanese culture. It feels to me like GOTS is saying that all you need is a Complex to inspire copycat behavior (particularly in Japan), that the reality of its existence or not isn't important--although the heroes of GOTS unmask the Complexes for what they are eventually, the general public continues to believe in what the Complexes tell them--and that has deep resonances both in Japanese history and in contemporary postmodern thought and culture.

*Powell, Michael. Curious Events in History. New York: Fall River Press, 2011. Print.  
**High, Peter B. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years' War, 1931-1945. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. Online. 

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