We’ve talked noir. Now let’s talk cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is a term that gets thrown around a lot because it’s cool and sexy to call things cyberpunk. As such, I think people often misuse the label. Having said this, however, I think this episode of Un-Go is very cyberpunk. I’ve tried to define the genre in the past and it’s worth doing a quick recap. Cyberpunk isn’t just any story featuring a dystopian future and gritty technology; the literary movement to which the genre belongs encapsulates certain kinds of existential concerns:
Cyberpunk texts ask questions about what makes us “human” in a heavily corporatized, media-saturated world. How do we differ from higher forms of artificial intelligence? How do we distinguish objects, places, and experiences from their mediated copies? Where do we draw the boundaries between nature and technology? …
…the ontological anxiety underlying these metaphysical questions is intertwined with and expressed through social anxieties that arise from destabilization of identity markers such as race, gender and class in an increasingly multicultural, multiracial, and multisexual society. — Park
First, let’s examine the first question in the quoted passage: “How do we differ from higher forms of artificial intelligence?” The philosophical tug-of-war underpinning this episode’s climax deals with this very question. Komamori, previously thought deceased, is the creator of the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence; his program can apparently replicate human thought. If this is true, what is really the difference between a RAI and a human being? Just the sordid matter of flesh and bones, right? Even so, Komamori doesn’t treat his creations as sentient beings. To him, they’re nothing but objects for which others can derive human pleasure.
There is, however, another level of irony and this is what makes this episode particularly clever. Through his abuse of his own creations, Komamori has rendered himself less human; he is less capable of understanding right and wrong than the artificial intelligence he created himself. At the heart of this conflict is thus the blurred notion of humanity. The RAI are essentially lifelike in every way but the flesh. In fact, you might even say that the real “robots” are those who exploit the RAI. Here’s a question to help illuminate my point: who’s more “programmed?” The RAI who can make decisions about right and wrong or a person who constantly feels the need to satiate his or her base desires?
This episode doesn’t just touch on what makes us human. Kazamori’s very existence is a contradiction of some important binaries. Kazamori is both man and woman: the masculine heir to Komamori’s fortunes — a direct contrast to the wimpish Fumihiko — but, at any given moment, a seductive feminine presence (see: the awkward encounter between Shinjuro and the doll in the car). Kazamori is also a brother to Mitsuko, but — when we see the RAI shell by Komamori’s side* — a sister to her at the same time. As human beings, it’s a given that we each have a biological sex. Gender, however, is an entirely different matter.
*By the way, isn’t it rather disturbing that Komamori’s companion looks suspiciously like his own daughter but younger? I’m glad the anime didn’t spell this part out and scream at the top of its lungs, “Komamori is an incestuous pedophile!” It’s a nice subtle touch that captures just exactly how far off into the deep end this guy has gone.
Gender is indoctrinated in us by society from the day we are born. Usually this is a slow process that we undergo from childbirth to adulthood. RAIs, however, presumably don’t get the luxury of a childhood. From the very start of their existence, a wealth of information is at their fingertips: how to be manly, how to be girly, etc. How confusing it must be, then, for a RAI to grapple with concepts such as its own gender identity? You might think that a robot wouldn’t and shouldn’t have such concerns, but why not?
Society has certain expectations for how its members should act. A RAI, supposedly capable of replicating human thought, must naturally have the desire to blend in — to become a part of the community around it. After all, this is how most (though certainly not all) of us feel; humans naturally seek out companionship. Even if a RAI is robotic and inorganic on the outside, if it’s truly human-like, it must also want to be accepted by others. Thus, a RAI must obey society’s norms and behavior. But what gender should it emulate? Should it be a boy or a girl? This ontological anxiety is pure cyberpunk.
I thought this was a strong episode that kept my interest from start to finish. I still wish the previous episode could’ve been stronger, but it’s done and over with. There’s still plenty of things to discuss. For instance, you could draw parallels between the exploitation of the robots with the current real dolls subculture that’s kind of a “thing” in Japan at the moment. I also kind of laughed when we finally saw what Komamori looked like.