Film

Anime’s Hostile Visions of the Future

Anime’s Human Machines at the Barbican Centre offers a variety of perspectives on humanity, technology, and whether the soul can exist between machines and humans.

Still from Macross Plus (1995; dirs. Shōji Kawamori and Shinichirō Watanabe) (all images courtesy of the Barbican Centre)

LONDON — A genre that has long relied on a core of dedicated fans for its archiving, distribution, and exhibition, anime’s increasing cultural currency is an overdue and truly welcome change. In the past, less-than-legal means were often necessary to catch up on most film and TV releases, as their respective industries in the US and UK virtually ignored anime.

For this reason, the Barbican’s attention to and appreciation of the genre and its history in its series, Anime’s Human Machines, is gratifying. The film program follows other exhibitions and events bringing anime to “high art” venues, such as the British Museum’s Manga exhibition earlier this year. It’s part of the Barbican’s Life Rewired project, a year-round series exploring the impact of scientific progress and the cultural response to it across different visual mediums.

The Barbican presents an impressive selection of films, covering a variety of perspectives on humanity, technology, post-humanity, and whether the soul can exist between machines and humans. More obvious choices, namely Mamoru Oshii’s seminal film Ghost in the Shell (which went on to inspire The Matrix), are mixed with eclectic features, such as Oshii’s lesser known Patlabor: The Movie, Rintaro’s haunting Metropolis, Satoshi Kon’s surreal final feature, Paprika, Mamoru Hosoda’s madcap virtual reality adventure, Summer Wars, and the mecha and pop music hybrid Macross Plus. The screenings are paired with Life Rewired Shorts, art films commissioned by the Barbican and the short film festival The Smalls. These reflect the current season’s themes (though not necessarily those of the films they precede). 

This disjuncture contextualizes the individual films less as special presentations and more as parts of a larger whole. While one can appreciate the showcasing of emerging UK art filmmakers, the Japanese animation directors featured in this part of the season have plenty of shorts covering similar topics. It’s something of a loss to not engage with short films such as Memories (to which Mamoru Oshii contributed), Short Peace, or even something from The Animatrix anthology, to display the cultural exchange among American, English and Japanese filmmakers addressing depictions of the future and our relationships with technology.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (1995; dir. Mamoru Oshii)

What does feel specialized is the heavy presence of director, writer, and mecha designer Shōji Kawamori. His work featured in multiple films of the season — mainly as a designer for Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor: The Movie and a director on Macross Plus. Following a longer discussion about his own career the previous night, Kawamori provided a smart, matter-of-fact introduction to Ghost in the Shell, where he contrasted Oshii’s philosophical approach to sci-fi to his own more practical standpoint in realizing the physical reality of Oshii’s more abstract pondering on post-human society. Between wry discussion of his feelings about his work on the film and on our increasing dependence on technology, Kawamori was a smart guest choice for a season about the different kinds of symbiosis between machine and man.

As for the film itself, there’s almost no need to speak for the quality of films like Ghost in the Shell; the latter is particularly appropriate for the Barbican’s imposing brutalist aesthetic. The severe, jagged geometry of the theater seemed to parallel Oshii’s ordered but hostile vision of the future. Some subtitling issues aside, it was perfect. Where this exhibition of anime film disappointed was its relative isolation from any gallery space, with the exception of a cordoned-off area in the center’s main entrance, filled with books related to the themes of Life Rewired, such as Nigel Shadbolt and Roger Hampson’s discussion of smart machines, The Digital Ape, and Anna Tsing’s work on industry’s effect on the environment, The Mushroom at the End of the World.

The hub is primarily focused on nonfiction works from the UK and US that share vague topics with the films of Anime’s Human Machines, with no literature to connect the season with the wider remit of Life Rewired, which creates something of a remove between the two. But nonetheless, the chosen readings help turn the Life Rewired Hub into an interesting and relevant space. Outside of this, the incorporation of Beyond The Frame, a video essay by Luis Acevedo on humans and the cityscape in anime, is a welcome supplement to the season — though, like the other elements outside of the cinema, it can leave one wanting more of a deep dive on what exactly sets anime apart from other depictions of technologically dependent futures.

Still, it’s a step forward from the standard one-off anime screenings at cult cinemas. The Barbican has presented a strong, diverse selection of films that would do well as an initial foray into the genre. The films foreground anime’s significant contribution to science fiction. Hopefully, such series and exhibitions will extend further beyond the screen in the future.

Anime’s Human Machines continues at the Barbican Centre (Silk Street, Barbican, London, UK) through September 30.

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