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Podcast script 28

 

mySF Project podcast, number 28

 

Download the podcast at  mysf_028_2009_12_29.mp3. Podcast length = 10Mb = 10459703 type=audio/mpeg

 

Podcast 28: Computer Mediation and the Mecha - PatLabor 2

Welcome to Podcast 28 of the mySF Project, a project focused on the teaching of Science Fiction in secondary schools.

Podcast 28 centres on a complex essay by Bolton in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. This essay discusses, amongst other matters, the film released as PatLabor 2, directed by Mamoru Oshii. This podcast relates to the mySF Project theme area of the 'Ghost in the Shell', looking at humans and machines. The film and the discussion are aimed at teachers of older secondary students, in the Australian system in Years 10 to 12, around sixteen or seventeen years old.

I always liked the two PatLabor films by director Oshii and have used PatLabor 2 in classrooms. PatLabor 2 in particular  falls felicitously along that arc of texts that begin with mainframe computers, move through robots and ending with human consciousness within computer networks, as seen in the wonderful and later Ghost in the Shell film, also by Oshii - a staple of every study of Science Fiction study  and the namesake for the 'Ghost in the Shell' theme area.

Like many fans, I enjoyed the Mechas of the PatLabor films, those great clunking, metal frames piloted by humans. These Mecha shells may derive from earlier SciFi exoskeletons.

Chris Bolton in his essay on PatLabor 2 charts some progenitors for the PatLabor Mechas. Other authors in this collection delve into these at great depth. I will not summarise the Japanese anime tradition of the piloted Mecha but instead will  turn away, reluctantly, to some recent manifestations in mainstream Western cinema as well as  my own introduction to the Mecha in readings as a young man of comparable age to the students I teach.

For many, the Mecha started as a powered and armoured suit in the series Starship Trooper by Robert Heinlein at the end of the 1950s. The popularity of the series as well as the apparently rabid and Quixotic politics of the author distinguished Starship Troopers. The text narratives were matched much later by the absurd Starship Troopers film but the exoskeleton powered suit was nowhere to be seen.

To the relief of Heinlein die-hards world-wide, the powered suits were found in Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, directed by Neumeier. Here the battle exoskeletons were  grandiose , owing much to the Anime tradition .  The Accelerator suits of Marauder are not powered exoskeletons but instead Mecha devices with many different weapons and heads-up displays for the drivers.

Even though Marauder revives  the armour from the Heinlein series, it is not important in the film and is instead used ironically. The vacuous hero Rico dons a Marauder suit and bounces down from a covert flight to save Captain Lola Beck, one of two survivors of the great 'thinking bug' and its minions. When the Mechas come to save Captain Beck she is in the throes of an ecstatic religious conversion and they arrive like angels.  Johnny Rico's Marauder has a halo and he stands shrouded by a preternatural light.  Rico leaves his Mecha to reach the beautiful and buxom  woman, Jolene Blalock, from Star Trek: Enterprise.

Some who chart the rise of the powered exokeleton in SciFi jump back further than Heinlein's 1959 serial Starship Trooper to remind us that HG Well's invaders in War of the Worlds (Wells,  1898) use tripod walkers in exactly the same way as the later Mechas.

And there are countless other examples, with perhaps the most memorable the powered tool Ripley wears when she fights the Queen in Alien (Scott, 1979).  This is a Caterpillar Power mechatronic system, a Loader J-5000, as fans will tell with delight, and it borrows heavily from Japanese Mecha. 

The Mechas used in the 2009 Avatar film by James Cameron reprises the earlier utility vehicles but now their great fists can clutch machine guns or even a two metre hunting knife. The Mechas of Avatar have enclosed transparent cockpits where the human driver can move freely, quite different from many others where the human is fully enclosed and the Mecha's arms extend the human movement. The Avatar Mechas avoided the full augmented reality display - the human occupants' experiences are as direct as possible through a transparent and air-tight barrier. This distinction of mediated distance from reality becomes very important for PatLabor 2 .

Hopefully, the least memorable Mechas will be the suits worn in GI Joe: the Rise of Cobra (Sommers, 2009). Here the powered suits are more man-sized and they are worn rather than piloted. They give extraordinary powers to the wearer,  creating far too many opportunities for cheesy CGI animation in the Transformers mould, but otherwise they were not at all important.

More memorable by far were the piloted suits worn by the 'Prawns' in District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009) and later by a part-prawn, part-human. These are metal combat suits that can run on remote control but also spring open like the best Mechas to allow their pilots to enter and take control of their powered limbs.

Clearly, quite apart from the long and sumptuous fare of Mechas in the anime tradition, many mainstream and cult SciFi films show a taste for the mechanical exoskeleton.  One of the finest and perhaps the subtlest use for the Mecha is found in PatLabor 2.

The  elegant and intriguing PatLabor 2 is discussed in more depth here because it offers much to the secondary teacher and the class of older English students.  Most useful to a study of the political dimensions found in Science Fiction, PatLabor 2 comments unfavourably on the growing distance that technology constructs between immediate human apprehension  and the environment. It is this technological mediation between the human and the world that is the topic of this podcast.

PatLabor 2 is set just three years after the first movie, called PatLabor in Australia. Both PatLabor movies are based on a series of animations produced for cable and television. The same characters as in the original PatLabor appear again in different jobs. PatLabor 2  has pronounced political themes, looking at terrorism and the state of the Japanese government. It is not important to have viewed the first PatLabor movie although some students might either already know it, or like to follow up with a comparison of the two movies and their themes.

The terrorist attacks that are the central problem of PatLabor 2 have direct links to both the 9/11 attack on New York and the deadly gas attack in Japan.  Many critics note references in PatLabor 2 to political questions current at the time and some have noted commentary in the film related to the surrender of the Japanese Government at the end of World War II and the status of the subsequent self-defence forces. As with several other anime movies including Ghost in the Shell there are discussions on the different security agencies established after the American occupation and their roles, especially in the face of more recent global terrorism. While these points are of interest to students of Japanese studies, it is to another analysis that this podcast turns.

For all its political dimensions, PatLabor 2 is a story of revenge by an individual against the state. Tsuge watched his fellow Peacekeepers die in Cambodia because his superiors would not allow the UN Peacekeeping force to fight back. Tsuge wants revenge and he uses machines to take it for him, destroying the Yokohama Bay Bridge with a missile, breaking surveillance communications and then using Mechas to cause widespread panic amongst the population.  His technical expertise is such that there is a real fear that waves of pre-programmed Mechas could kill and destroy the population of Greater Tokyo.

Section 2 reforms itself to capture Tsuge and along the way they battle other security divisions, the government and anti-terrorist crackdowns that are worse that the actual assaults by Tsuge's devices.  To anime followers this complex narrative with its wealth of incident, multi-faceted characters, factional duplicity and city-wide panic are familiar,  but not so familiar is the equivocal nature of the technologies used to both cause terror and to combat it. Director Oshii and his writing teams do not treat the Mechas as either Frankenstein's monster creatures to be feared, or saviours for a humanity battling forces impossible to defeat without the technology. Instead, PatLabor 2 is very useful for schools to tread a cautious middle path, discerning possibilities but also understanding how the technologies themselves change the user and the experienced world, perhaps for the worse.  In this way PatLabor 2 can be read as a cautionary tale.

In hundreds of anime and dozens of Western SciFi texts it must be admitted that there is a sensuous thrill when the hero leaps into the giant, glistening Mecha and prepares for battle. The child-like pilot or driver of the Mecha has extended his body, creating vast steel limbs from frail flesh ones. They stride the city as Colossus, glistening in the sun and battling whatever Super-Sized creature threatens. The Mecha exoskeleton can fulfil the same damning wish-fulfilment dreams as the lawman unwillingly strapping on the bright and polished set of pistols he vowed to never touch again. The viewer wants to change places, wants to be inside the Mecha, wants to be the RoboJox (Gordon, 1990), or the Mecha trooper striding across Pandora in Avatar (Cameron, 2009). And the best part is that the viewer can climb out of the Mecha when the combative beast is dead, returning to the warm and human arms of a lover. A Mecha is a temporary empowerment, not the mutilating commitment of RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987), the early Borg, or worst of all the mechanical transmogrification of Tetsuo (Tsukamoto, 1989). It seems you can keep your humanity intact within a Mecha, but Oshii's PatLabor 2 questions this premise.

Bolton (2008a), in 'The Mecha's Blind Spot: Patlabor 2 and the Phenomenology of Anime' draws carefully on arguments from Vivian Sobchak to stress the notion of technological mediation.  Bolton notes that Sobchak  sees the defining quality of electronically mediated experience to be a fear of insulation and absorption. This fear is associated with "the inevitable disappointment of our impossible desire for a powerful but fully transparent technological body, one that projects us into new dimensions without changing the nature of bodily experience " (Sobchak, 1995). In Sobchak's Screening Space (1987) this is refined further into the sense of human sight. Bolton notes that this sense of sight is "uniquely implicated in constituting the sense of self; the sense of sight is also subject to the most thorough and complicated mediation in electronic culture" (Sobchak, 1987: 129). The prevalence of computer readouts, computer graphics, screens and displays express the threat of dehumanization. Clearly, Sobchak can be brought to bear on PatLabor 2 and Bolton maps this computer mediation carefully arguing that the electronic sensation and communication (even of the animated film itself twice removed from direct experience) distances us from reality. This is Bolton's political critique found in PatLabor 2: computer-generated information is an obstacle that insulates us from an outside reality. The Mecha driver, like the film's veiwer, is forced to look through the technology and however transparent it might be, however subtle the mediation, it nevertheless alters us and our view.

Bolton says that Oshii's film uses computer screens and visual displays not simply as a background but in a way that obliges us to look into them and through them. In PatLabor 2 the electronic  vision is essentially human, Bolton points out, but also transformed. This is analogous to the Mechas themselves, suspended between the mechanical and computer ages.

Bolton distinguishes between 'embodied technologies' and 'hermeneutic technologies'. The embodied technology is a 'transparent' extension of the human body. He cites a microscope as an embodied technology, while a thermometer or a guage is a hermeneutic technology.

Perhaps a more useful description for students might be in considering the binoculars. These are embodied technologies that merely increase vision through magnification, but when the binoculars include data readouts on the observed (such as William Gibson's smart sunglasses in Virtual Light (Gibson, 1994) and the contact lenses in Vinge's Rainbow's End (Vinge, 2006)) they are a hermeneutic technology interpreting or explaining the distanced world.

Bolton points out in PatLabor 2 the visors, the heads-up displays, the computer and television monitors through a shopfront window, the rewinding of video files and the reflections on the glasses of the characters themselves looking at reflections of reflections. Technological mediation is everywhere, not just within the space of the Mecha cockpit. Also apparent is the creepy notion that, "you are the screen, and the TV watches you" (Baudrillard, 1994: 51).

This interest by Oshii in mediation is apparent and Bolton points out a scene where he blurs a wall of monitors in the background in order to duplicate a television news camera's lack of depth. At other times Oshii uses a fish-eye lens effect in the animation so that the viewer becomes a camera, imagining the mechanical body that perceives in this fashion.

Diametrically opposed to these walls of flickering images, reflections and hermeneutic technologies are the direct experiences of animals. At the end of the film when one of the protagonist's  Mechas rises from the ocean to expose the driver the machine's abdomen blows apart and the Section 2 officer jumps out from between its legs, as if the Mecha is giving birth, Bolton says. Most importantly, the explosion startles a flock of seagulls and they take flight. This is one amongst several key instances where animals are shown to possess the true and unmediated senses that human lack.

Oshii's PatLabor 2 (1989) is useful for students who may not have picked up on a more subtle argument about the relationships between humankind and the machine. Texts routinely warn against technology out of control and others excite us with the offer of a powerful and indestructible extended body. According to Bolton, Oshii's PatLabor 2, draws focus to the nature of computer mediation and its effects. Clearly the Mechas are needed to defeat the terrorist devices but it is their use that, finally, disempowers the users, making them less than human, less able to make true judgements about the real world. This is a political discussion of some worth with upper secondary students and it can be extended easily into their own media devices, their iPod headphones through which the outside world is mediated.

It is not suggested that the study of PatLabor 2 would constitute a major assignment, but instead a discussion of the Mecha in SciFi (and the students will know of many) could lead naturally into a discussion of the pilot within the Mecha, asking questions like:

From these pre-film discussions the PatLabor 2 film might then be watched with a good deal of halting the DVD on particular scenes where the computer mediation is highlighted, as well as the unmediated animal view of the world. The students can then comment on what it is that is perceived in these cases - which perception is true?

After the movie, students might be asked to complete a video log exercise speaking of the theme of empowerment and disempowerment seen through the use of Mechas in PatLabor 2. What are Oshii's recommendations for the use of Mechas and, more widely, of computer mediated, hermeneutic technologies?

Mike Walsh (2008) of Flinders University of South Australia reviewed Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams  (2008b) and this writer agrees with that review when he states that the essays can be heavy going. Bolton's essay does seem to locate PatLabor 2 within "an interpretive framework" of postmodern theory (Walsh, 2008) and there is even a suspicion that examples from films are used to support the theory, with some circularity in the argument resulting. Bolton's essay and others in the collection reward the reader, establishing Japanese Science Fiction as a "vital and exciting genre" (Walsh, 2008) but for teachers of secondary students this is wonderful background reading for students studying anime in particular, without being directly relevant or able to be copied out to any but the most academic student.

Rockwood (2008) in 'Looking within: Science Fiction Explores the Future of 'Being Human''  says that "Science fiction stories are written for people who choose to read and understand complexity, and who may see in science fiction narratives that will enable us to assemble an acceptable future" (Rockwood, 2008: 32). Oshii's PatLabor 2, a popular anime text with students may prove a useful tool to discern technological mediation and perhaps to avoid its disempowering and disembodying effects as they assemble their future.

Resource List

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bolton, C. (2008a). 'The Mecha's Blind Spot: Patlabor 2 and the Phenomenology of Anime', in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime, edited by Bolton, C., Csicsery-Ronay I, and Tatsumi, T., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bolton, C. (2008b). Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.  

Blomkamp, N. (Director). (2009). District 9. Written by Blomkamp, N. & Tatchell, T. Tristar Pictures.

Cameron, J. (Director). (2009). Avatar.  Written by James Cameron.

Gibson, W. (1994). Virtual Light. New York: Viking Press.

Gordon, S. (Director). (1990). RobotJox. Written by Stuart Gordon and Joe Haldeman. MGM DVD.

Oshii, M. (Director). (1989). Pat Labor 2. Original story by Headgear. Concept by Yuki Masami. Script by Kazunori Itoh. Madman DVD, English version, 1995. Tohokushinsha Film Corporation.

Neumeier, E., (Director). (2008). Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. Written by Neumeier, E. Sony DVD.

Rockwood, Bruce L (2008). 'Looking within: Science Fiction Explores the Future of 'Being Human'', in New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction. Edited by Hassler, DM, & Wilcox, C. Columbia: University of South Carolina.

Scott, R. (Director). (1979). Alien. Screenplay by O'Bannon, D., Giler, D., and Hill, W. Twentieth Century Fox.

Sobchak, V. (1987). Screening Space: the American Science Fiction Film. New York: Ungar.

Sobchak, V. (1995). 'Democratic franchise and the electronic frontier', in Futures 27: 731-2.

Sommers, S. (Director). (2009). GI Joe: the Rise of Cobra. Screen play by Beattie, S., Elliot, D., and Lovett, P. Paramount Pictures.

Tsukamoto, S. (Director). (1989). Tetsuo. Written by Shinya Tsukamoto.

Verhoeven, P. (Director). (1987). RoboCop. Written by Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier. 

Vinge, V. (2006). Rainbow's End. New York: Tor Books.

Walsh, M. (2008). 'Walsh on Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams' in Screening the Past. Retrieved 3 September, 2009 from www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/23/robot-ghosts-wired-dreams.html

Wells, HG (1898). The War of the Worlds. London: Heinemann.

ends

Michael Sisley

 

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