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Cyborgs in Crisis: Why Animated Cyborgs Reimagine the Post-Human

Dec 01, 2022

This paper argues that the western live-action film culture's visualization of the post-human cyborg is not the only valid imagination, and explores the unique affordances of animation in constructing alternative visualizations, exemplified in Akira.

This piece was originally written in December of 2021 for “Science Fiction Cinema” at New York University.

Akira (1988)

The image of a “cyborg” associated with the term is commonly imagined as a hybrid half-man, half-machine being. From the classic RoboCop (1987) to the present-day Ex Machina (2014), it seems as if the visualization of this post-human being has remained relatively homogenous among western live-action films. Specifically, these characters are often depicted as hyper-technological and intelligent creations, with an outer appearance that mimics the human body. I argue that this humanoid visualization of the post-human is one that is shaped by western live action film history and film culture, however, is by no means the only valid imagination. In fact, it may be quite the contrary, as other mediums and production regions have provided strong counterexamples. Case-in-point is the cult-classic Akira (1988), a Japanese animated film from the “golden age” of anime that subverts many of the sci-fi genre conventions perhaps more familiar to a western audience. The unique affordances of animation as a medium have enabled more original ideas to construct other productive visualization of the post-human cyborg through distancing itself from traditional film or screen culture. In context of the greater post-humanism conversation, this is imperative to explore because the silver screen has traditionally been a “visual revelation… of complexity” (Shostak 34). Perhaps a theoretical bridge between live action and animated film cultures may combine the advantages of both mediums to fully explore the epistemological boundaries of cyborgs as a representation of post-humanism.

Rosi Braidotti begins her definition of the post-human by defining humanism. Using the image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, she argues that humanism is “a doctrine that combines the biological, discursive, and moral expansion of human capabilities into an idea of teleologically ordained, rational progress” (Braidotti 13). By this definition, it is also significant to understand that many depictions of the post-human are not actually representative of true post-human values, as the term suggests a rejection of humanism rather than an amplification. As Bolter puts it, “science fiction is often the realm of the transhuman” which is “an extension and intensification of traditional humanism rather than its rejection,” such as doing things “stronger, faster, smarter” with the aid of technology and prosthetics (Bolter 2). Bolter further notes, however, that the two are not mutually exclusive and it is possible to be both transhuman and post-human, citing Donna Harraway’s idea of cyborg as an example. Specifically, her cyborg is a “contemporary cultural metaphor” that captures the “ambivalent condition of the contemporary human being” and reconfigures core values of humanism (Bolter 2).

However, what is not apparent through these definitions offered by Braidotti, Bolter, and Harraway, is how the reader should imagine the cyborg visually, beyond perhaps a body that incorporates technology and prosthetics. And in fact, these definitions are entirely open to interpretation and offer a wide range of possibilities in imagining the post-human cyborg. Beyond the philosophical properties of their condition, there is little guidance to their psychographic as well, as to what their purpose of existence and relationship with humanism and humanity should be. Science fiction filmmakers have perhaps been tasked with the most daunting task of bridging this gap between the abstract and tangible and imagining what these cyborgs should look and act for the popular viewership.

While appearances of cyborgs date back to early cinema, depending on how one chooses to classify certain characters, the 1970s-80s perhaps saw the most iconic cyborg characters emerge in Hollywood. This includes cultural icons Darth Vadar (Star Wars), Gigan and Mechagodzilla (Godzilla), The Gunslinger (West World), T-800 (The Terminator), and RoboCop (film of same title). Moving into the 2000s and 2010s, the most apparent change is the surge in superhero films, perhaps inspired by the success of Blade (1998), X-Men (2000), and Spider-Man (2002). And then, the rest is history as Marvel enters Phase 1 with “The Infinity Saga: in 2008, with numerous recognizable cyborg superheroes and supervillains (Hall).

Among all the different characters and franchises that span the four decades from 1970s-2010s, there are plenty of commonalities worth exploring. The first is technology and the depiction of characters’ physical appearances on-screen. John. J Jordan observes in his critique of Blade that we have entered an era of “technoculture” where society and life is inseparable from technology (4). To Jordan, this manifests as the eventual scientification of everything we produce as cultural artifacts, including films about the non-scientific. The cyborgification of the mystic gothic vampire character in Blade is but a product of the technoculture we live in, according to Jordan. A similar cyborgification process happens to RoboCop, who is a police officer but cyborg, as well as Gigan and Mechagodzilla, who are kaijus (a type of Japanese monsters) but cyborg. However, as previously established, “cyborg” is a term that more accurately describes a philosophical condition rather than physical appearance. The correct term to describe their visual aesthetic is perhaps “mecha” - some prosthetic and visible mechanical or robotic feature that helps enhance their biological abilities.

While the aforementioned characters are without a doubt cyborg, their status as post-human or transhuman is uncertain. A cyborg that certainly champions post-human qualities is Ava from Ex Machina (2014), a more contemporary production. Her case for being post-human is compelling to the point where whether she is actually a cyborg becomes debatable. Despite so, she is a great example of the second most distinguishable physical characteristic of cyborgs, which is their humanoid figure (with the exception of the Godzilla franchise). In the case of Ava, there are instances where her robotic components are visually indistinguishable, and she appears organically human to the audience, by intentional design of the production team to blur the line between the natural and artificial. This is similarly the case with The Gunslinger too, in both versions of Westworld, where the ambiguity of his identity becomes a narrative device for the filmmakers to exploit for plot twist.

It is worth questioning why these artistic choices have been made, and how faithful this depiction of cyborgs is to the ideal theoretical concept proposed by influential post-human thinkers. From a media perspective, film as a medium is inherently visual, which perhaps lends itself best to expressing the hybrid identity by literally fusing the organic and inorganic. Furthermore, films are consumed under the context of film culture, especially American productions that associate closely with the Hollywood star system. So, from a cultural perspective, perhaps attaching characters to recognizable actors and actresses, such as Ava (Alicia Vikander), or Blade (Wesley Snipes) are great for the business aspect of filmmaking. And finally, from a production perspective, undeniably the logistics and convenience of storytelling factors into decision-making. It could be the fact that to achieve the intended results, it was far more reasonable to imagine the cyborg with the figure of a person rather than employing special or visual effects.

It soon becomes clear that the process of imagining the cyborg, bringing important abstract concepts of post-humanism to life, has been influenced by the practical aspects of filmmaking and the affordances of film as a medium, far more than how the ideal post-human subject should appear in a perfect world. This is not a moral or value judgement on live-action films, in fact, arguably the canon of cult-classic cyborg films and fictional characters have had a greater impact on furthering post-humanism than any other artistic medium available. However, on a conceptual level, it is perhaps deceiving to ignore the limitations that exist with exploring the post-human subject through film, if film cannot faithfully capture the post-human values and ideals.

Before moving on, there is a second, less obvious theme that ties together live-action cyborgs. Through the lens of genre theory, Thomas Schatz broadly categorizes genre films into two differing “ritual functions,” namely “genres of indeterminate, civil spaces” that “tend to celebrate the values of social integration,” whereas the second is “genres of determinate, contested spaces” that “uphold the values of social order” (Schatz 459). All the aforementioned films, especially those that follow a hero versus villain plot structure, fall under the category of “social order” films. The cyborgs are either the threat to social order and inherit the role of the villain, such is the case with Godzilla, The Terminator, and some Spider-Man francise films, or the cyborg’s mission is to protect social order from another villain, such is the case with RoboCop, Blade, and later Terminator films.

Because of the narrative design of action genre films, the cyborgs have been designated a purpose of existence, often tied to a human-interest-aligned utility. This has an influence on both the character’s psyche, as well as their physical capabilities or appearance, and typically involves the weaponization of a cyborged body, where prosthetic modifications serve to optimize the character for excelling in combat. T-800 from The Terminator serves as a great demonstration of genre’s influence on the visualization of cyborgs, as his entirely human outer appearance, employing living skin technology, is used for infiltration, and blending into society. The T-800’s ability to conserve energy almost indefinitely is also an example of transcending the human biological limitations, however the power conservation is again designed for more efficient infiltration and combat rather than exploring ideas of the post-human.

A potential counter-example is Ex Machina, where Ava is not specifically engineered for combat, rather optimized to defeat a modified version of the Turing Test. Upfront, it appears that Ex Machina is neither a film about social order or integration. However, the underlying tension between characters is perhaps one that more closely resembles social order. While Ava’s capabilities are not explicitly stated, it can be inferred that her A.I. learns human cues and expressions and attempts to mimic human desire. Under Caleb’s authoritarian rule over the compound, she has evolved to evade surveillance practices to further her own quasi-human desires. Specifically, her capability to trigger the back-up generator and manipulate Nathan’s sexual desires can be seen as her most favorable “weapons” that can lead to her escape. While our personal position on the bioethics of cyborged bodies complicates our judgement of who the true villain or hero is in this narrative, a case can be made for the fact that the tension between Ava and Caleb needed to be resolved to restore some form of unexplainable order.

Similar to the conclusion on the physical appearance of cyborgs, genre conventions consequently play a role in imagining the perfect cyborg too. In context of action genre films, most cyborgs have a clearly defined purpose and features designed specifically to optimize for succeeding in their mission. In Schatz’s words, the underlying tension in many cyborg films is to “restore social order,” which often means a weaponized cyborg body rather than one that faithfully and perfectly visualize the post-human or transhuman condition. In the ideal, the post-human cyborg should be ambivalent in nature, or at the very least their existence should not be tied to accomplishing anthropocentric interests and desires or resolving human conflict.

Luckily, animation is an adjacent medium to live-action films, and while feature animations are consumed in a similar manner to live-action films (theatrical releases, film festivals, critic reviews, etc.), the affordances of the medium and the production process is entirely different. For that reason, incorporating animation into the framework for exploring the post-human through cinema can illuminate “blind spots” that live-action films fall short on. And there is no better example than Akira (1988) to illustrate why this is the case. To preface the conversation on Akira, it’s important to understand that the animated feature (also previously a manga) is not just a success among the cyberpunk genre, it is commonly cited as the original cyberpunk work that inspired a generation of contemporaries (Rattray). For that reason, Akira can almost be seen as an unofficial manifesto of the cyberpunk genre, hence holds immense cultural value in the world of animation. With that said, Akira is set in Neo-Tokyo, and has been rebuilt into a thriving metropolitan city after its destruction during World War 3. After an accident, Tetsuo is admitted into a top-secret government program, where he develops telekinetic abilities, likened to that of Akira, the force that initially destroyed Tokyo in 1988. For the bulk of the film, Tetsuo puts his powers to use for evil rather than good and causes apocalyptic destruction throughout Neo-Tokyo.

The opening scene immediately came to mind as a relevant moment for the post-human cyborg conversation. Cinematically, Akira employs similar narrative techniques as live-action science fiction films in the first 8 opening minutes. This includes extreme-wide shots of cityscapes for world-building and close-ups on main characters for character introductions, among other textbook-standard items. However, as a medium, animation has different affordances to live-action films, despite having similar means of consumption and screen language. This imperfect parity between animated films and live-action films provides room for viewers to become self-aware of tropes often taken for granted and draws attention to the post-human.

The first animation exclusive feature is the ambiguity of the characters’ ages. From a viewer’s perspective, while watching a live-action film, the fictional character and their actor or actress are typically expected to be from a similar age bracket or life stage. Roles that an actor or actress may be casted for may even change throughout their career even if they do not visibly age. However, just by looking at Kaneda and Tetsuo from Akira, or even hearing their voices, it is not immediately clear how old the characters are, therefore being an imperfect proxy for their identity. While seemingly a minor difference between animated and live action films, this plays a more significant role in Akira as characters like The Espers are “old children,” who do not follow the natural logic of aging as observed in real life. Even psychologically, different parts of their emotional identity are at different ages, as they are hyper aware of morality and purpose, however, have instinctively child-like tendencies, for example being afraid of blood. While the cyborg elements of Akira have not yet been introduced, this feature brings to attention the idea of human mortality that underpins Tetsuo’s eventual transformation and Akira’s rebirth.

The second feature is character and concept development, in which animated films are less bound by production conventions associated with live-action films, such as introducing villains early on and maximizing screen time with potential high-profile actors or designing visibly recognizable villain characters for marketing or merchandising purposes. Akira is unique because for the first 1h50m, the character Akira was virtually unknown or unseen, only spoken of as “energy” by other characters, and finally introduced as vials of bodily remains like the “optic nerve.” For that reason, the role he serves in an albeit highly scientific Neo-Tokyo more closely resembles a religious or mystic figure rather than a product of “technoculture” as is the case with Blade. In live-action films, perhaps this would have needed to be a highly conscious artistic decision, as the film misses out on an opportunity to create a recognizable antagonist figure, perhaps also losing the opportunity to attach a recognizable actor or actress who can help market the film to a lead role. And furthermore, with Akira’s rebirth, his body is ambiguously depicted without any visible sexual reproductive organs. Creating a character like Akira in live-action film sets would easily situate the post-human in a Western gender theory debate, especially the relationship between the actor or actress who plays the character and the fictional character itself. The benefit of animation as a medium is not necessarily to remove these associations, as perhaps a conversation around the post-gender would ultimately be productive in understanding the post-human. Rather, the blank canvas nature of animation enables filmmakers to prioritize artistic vision over practical and feasibility concerns when depicting their ideal post-human character.

Finally, directing the conversation to a genre theory lens once again, despite Akira still clearly being a film about “social order” rather than “social integration,” the ambivalent identity of Akira’s character calls for a deeper dive into Akira’s relationship with genre conventions. Thinking back to the title sequence, the beginning of the film clearly features a mass-scale explosion that resembles the A-Bombs of World War II. The post-war aesthetics of Akira would make sense given the rise of anime soon after the war, with the art techniques and mass adoption peaking in the 1970-80s coinciding with Japan’s economic boom, marking the “golden era” of Japanese animated films. Should Akira’s values have been influenced by the war, it is also perhaps important to understand that Japan has a distinctly different relationship with WWII than America. Japan suffered the atomic bomb attack from the US, and much of the post-war anxiety consequently stemmed from accepting and dealing with the aftermath of war rather than preventing destruction. The former is evident throughout Akira, especially the body horror elements that closely resemble imaginations of radiation-poisoning mutations. The latter of which is more in-line with American action genre films, especially superhero films, which similarly take inspiration from comics that were produced around the war era. Perhaps through this lens, there is an element of “social integration” in the spirit of Akira, more so than the restoration of an order that can never be achieved realistically. Birthed out of this environment, Akira’s character did not have clear purpose or motivation the way that American action genre film cyborgs do – Akira’s purpose is neither to kill nor prevent killing, still in the realm of omnipresent “energy,” despite now having a physical form. Despite being coded as the antagonist of the film, Akira never made a value statement on right or wrong, or what he desires or does not desire. This portrayal of the post-human contrasts against the superhero or supervillain archetypes observed in American action genre films. Again, this is not a value judgement on which approach to genre or plot is superior. Instead, it speaks to ways in which epistemological differences between different cultures can be bridged to achieve new heights.

Through contrasting the cyberpunk classic Akira with American cult-classic cyborg icons, it becomes clear that the affordances of animation have created an interoperable but fundamentally different film culture. This new culture combines different epistemological roots to inspire other productive visualization of the post-human cyborg that pushes the boundaries of what can be possible with the post-human subject and their post-human condition, in relation to our world today.

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Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

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Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto : Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. na.

Rattray, Tim. “30 Years of Akira: The Triumph and Legacy of a Legendary Film.” Crunchyroll, Accessed 19 Dec. 2021.

Shostak, Arthur B. Visualizing the Future through Film - ProQuest. Accessed 14 Dec. 2021.

Wikipedia Contributors. “List of Fictional Cyborgs.” Wikipedia, 23 Nov. 2021. Wikipedia,