Un-Go Ep. 4: Gender ambiguity

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.

26 thoughts on “Un-Go Ep. 4: Gender ambiguity

  1. Mira

    *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.

    I also noticed how he said ‘I’ve always watched you through Taku’s eyes.’ or something like that. Creepy. It was also very clever of them to cut out the kiss scene as well.

    The whole issue with Kazamori’s gender ambiguity really stood out here, and it seems to do (or say) to what it assumes the person before it desires. After Shinjuro starts to strangle Kazamori, it asks him to crush his eyeballs and tear off its arms. I thought that was a disturbing implication.

    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’m pretty sure Doll porn exists…somewhere out there in our bizarre planet.

    1. E Minor Post author

      I was amazed how much skin they showed in this week’s episode. Maybe ’cause it’s just robots or something…

      I’m pretty sure Doll porn exists…somewhere out there in our bizarre planet.

      Rule 34. Right now, some dude is furiously penning a Shinjuro/Inga/Kazamori (doll) doujinshi.

  2. Ando

    Great post as always. I definitely enjoyed this case – it was one surpise after another (in a good way) for me, although I was kinda expecting sexaroids to make an appearance once they mentioned RAIs last week (they’re such a staple in Japanese SF).
    >The RAI are essentially lifelike in every way but the flesh.
    But isn’t the crucial difference between them and humans that they are “programmed” to not be able to lie or hurt humans? No matter how much they think and feel, it seems like they can’t put themselves on equal footing to humans. They can’t rebel.

    I loved the hilariously awkward scene in the car. I thought it would stop at finger sucking, then Kazamori jumped into his shirt! But the scene did beg the question as to why the two were sleeping in a car. They do have a home, don’t they? Also, was Kaisho eating peanut butter meant to make him seem more American, or just quirky?

    1. Ando

      Forgot to add: the argument with Komamori about RAI treatment really seemed to echo the main arguments of recent debates concerning the censorship of child porn and violence in anime/manga. It’s pretty cool that they chose to cover that in an anime.

      1. E Minor Post author

        They didn’t really address it substantively though they broached the topic. At the end of the day, Shinjuro’s argument is that Kazamori is more human than Komamori thinks, which isn’t something you could say about child porn in anime/manga.

      2. Naota

        The parallels were certainly there, but I think they sort of sunk most of the relevance through their choices of examples. RAI (at least the ones shown) aren’t children or facsimiles of children themselves, so them being exploited as entertainment through violence or sex doesn’t carry the same weight. There’s no existing population of sentient dolls for which people would be concerned.

        I could certainly ask this of the real-world Japanese government as well, but what does banning something that’s almost certainly rated and intended for mature adults have to do with a concept as nebulous as the development of children? Are children regularly viewing these things? If so, that is the crux of the problem, not the existence of smut. In this case it was a universal ban on all self-aware androids. All of them. Medical aid models, public service models, androids that could probably do extremely dangerous tasks at minimal risk to anyone. All machines are barred self-awareness forever… because somebody made some porn of two androids engaged in relatively tame faux-intercourse?

        Yes, it was a coverup… but it’s such a phenomenally bad one that it’s depressing. Why is it depressing? Because Un-Go presents a very realistic situation. Legislation this stupid has been passed before in the real world, and has done just as much damage. Worse, it probably didn’t even have a sinister underlying agenda – it was honestly done “for the children”.

        1. E Minor Post author

          aren’t children or facsimiles of children

          I’d disagree with this. Like I’ve said above, androids probably don’t get to have the luxury of a childhood. Essentially, most androids are children. It’s one thing to give androids the ability to think like an adult, but it’s another thing altogether for them to use their mental faculties with the maturity and judgment of an adult. I dunno if I’m getting my point across succinctly, however, as I’m kinda in a hurry. I might expand on this later.

        2. Naota

          Well, you could argue that there’s a fundamental difference between children and AI: The AI’s hierarchy of needs could be topped by a desire to please its owner, and contain no regard for its own wellbeing. AI can lack the concept of sadness entirely, in which case what is and isn’t exploitation becomes a murky distinction. If they’re merely doing what they were created to do, and they want to do it, preventing them from pleasing people would actually be more painful and disruptive even if it meant they no longer had to tear one another in half for sport.

          Androids probably do begin life in a state of infancy without maturity or life experiences to develop upon, but the basic drives which motivate them to do anything can be quite different from those of a human child while still being considered intelligent. What’s cruel or kind to an AI depends entirely on what it wants.

          1. E Minor Post author

            You’re assuming though that there aren’t any emergent characteristics in the AI. Sure, it might at first be dominated by its desire to please its owner, but let’s not forget that these RAI are programmed to mimic human thought. At some point, I think its own self-regard — its realization of the self as distinct from other selves — would arise. I don’t think the differences between a young AI and a human child is all that different. A child comes into this world pre-programmed with years of human evolution. How does an infant know to suckle on its mother’s breast? Just because. At some point, however, the emergent self begins. A child looks into a mirror and recognizes itself. I don’t see why the same couldn’t be true of a proper AI that isn’t simply based on rigid algorithms. Of course, part of the problem here is that we — no one in particular but programmers in general — misuse the term “artificial intelligence.” What we see in video games is not legitimate artificial intelligence as those bot programs can never deviate from what they are told by their creators to do. Real AI would presumably learn, grow, and adapt. How do we know that the RAIs in Un-Go lack the ability to feel sadness? Kazamori sure seems to display subtle emotions. This could be sloppiness on the writers’ part or clues that Kazamori is really more human than we think.

    2. Naota

      In retrospect, however, from an engineering perspective the inability to rebel makes a great deal of sense that isn’t always well-represented in science fiction. AI are apparently created from the ground up by humans, meaning that humans have control over every aspect of their being and are able to engineer how they behave before they’ve even come into being.

      If this is the case, it makes no sense to create androids intended to serve humans as their primary function that also have misgivings about serving them. That’s like designing an AI to open doors as customers approach and giving it the ability to be bored.

      If you have the ability to create intelligent artificial life, fully recreating human instincts and behaviour is actually far more niche a demand than you might think. If you’re building sentient androids purely to entertain and serve humans, why give them the ability to feel sadness or inadequacy at all? This needn’t mean that the AI has to lack a “soul” either; it’s quite possible for an intelligent, rational being to exist that is not concerned about its own safety, or lacks specific emotional responses like anger.

      When you think about it, unlike humans whose behaviour is dictated by biology, upbringing, and thousands of years of evolutionary instinct, an AI’s behaviour is presumably under the complete control of its creator. As an artificial being, it does what its creator tells it to do, and wants what its creator tells it to want. A rebellious AI is an exceptionally poorly engineered one unless the goal was purely to create an artificial human and nothing more.

    3. wanderer

      I assumed they were sleeping in the car essentially because they knew they were being followed and didn’t want to lead their pursuers to their base of operations. It’s just a guess though, I don’t think we’ve actually seen them at home yet.

    4. E Minor Post author

      You could argue, however, that not being able to lie and hurt humans make the RAIs “ideal” humans. You could say that everything has a function. And for something to be good, it fulfills its function well. Lying and hurting others might be a corruption of mankind’s function. Anyway, just throwing it out there.

      And yeah, the car scene was really, uh, something. How could a puppet really pleasure a person? It doesn’t even have saliva so you’d just have some felt tongue tickling you…. >_>

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  4. wanderer

    Now this kind of episode is why I bother with anime.

    I’d like to have something to say in regards to the stuff you raised about cyberpunk and gender identity but they’re both a bit out of my bailiwick. On the gender front the only thing I’d throw in is that as of this episode Inga’s gender morphing has already gone from something “odd” to something too boring to make a big deal out of, like in the scene in the car. And, also, for now gender ambiguity is exclusively reserved for the non-human cast members (Inga, Kazamori). Cyberpunk I know even less about, closest thing I’ve read is Blindsight, and I don’t even know if that’s really cyberpunk.

    Perhaps Komamori’s real failing is lacking empathy. He’s quick to dismiss his critics as being insincere — they say they’re concerned about the kids, he thinks they really just want a monopoly on his work — and yet when he expects to be taken seriously when describes himself as essentially a prisoner of conscience (and not, say, just an incestuous pedophile going to extreme lengths to satisfy those desires).

    Things like this are almost always going to be murky: his critics mostly likely really did want that monopoly for military use, but their concern for the kids wasn’t necessarily insincere, either; Komamori probably wasn’t insincere about not wanting his creations used for military purposes, but most definitely the ability to continue indulging his hobbies played a major role in the decisions he made.

    I also have to love the way the show wove in a nice answer to Komamori’s “where’s the harm? who’s being hurt?” rhetoric: even ignoring the murders he’s committed, he’s completely oblivious to the suffering his actions have induced in his family, even when his daughter’s literally right in front of him (and he’s been observing their lives through the physician’s body for those many years).

    So, in the end, he lost his humanity not merely b/c he lost his ability to distinguish right from wrong; he lost it when he lost his ability to recognize the humanness in others, including his own creation.

    Then we get to Inga and Kazamori: they make an interesting duo, both not human, both not really constrained by human notions of gender, Kazamori ostensibly knowing some answers to the kinds of questions it seems Inga’s interested in; Inga seems more attached-to/interested-in Kazamori than has been the case for any of the other non-Shinjuro characters thus far. That could keep things interesting.

    Then we get to the ending, and we see Shinjuro willing to do a little information control of his own: Shinjuro’s willing to look like he lost, again — Komamori might get in trouble for his RAI work, but it looks like he got away with 3 murders (counting Kazamori’s) — just to protect Kazamori. It’s a nice touch.

    And there’s the refrigerator-handcuffing at the beginning, which is pretty funny.

    1. E Minor Post author

      Does he lack true empathy though? You pointed it out yourself that he doesn’t want his creations to be used to kill others. Of course, this is where I think the ambiguity fails a bit. By showing Komamori as remorseless in the death of the public safety infiltrator, it undermines the grey area in the show and suddenly makes it very obvious that Komamori is a bad man. Still, although he certainly doesn’t care about his RAI, he might think there’s a fundamental difference between him and his creations. After all, Inga’s truthseeking ability didn’t work whatsoever on Kazamori. After all that talk about how the RAIs are so similar to people, they’re still missing that je ne sais quoi. So the question is that should we care about something just because it’s similar to us?

      I disagree a bit on Komamori’s obliviousness to his family’s suffering. Again, I think it makes it too obvious that Komamori is a bad guy.

      1. wanderer

        I’d say he does lack empathy. I’d distinguish between a generalized concern for human welfare and the specific ability to understand what specific other human beings are feeling, and would assert he pretty much lacked the latter even if he cared about the former.

        Agreed his lack of remorse vis-a-vis his murders does undo a lot of the ambiguity it put so much work into setting up.

        You make a good point about the lack subtlety in the where’s the harm thing: looking at it that way it’s actually not subtle at all, and helps unravel the ambiguity even further.

  5. myst1138

    Great post! One thing I found really interesting was how the handcuffing scene humanized Kazamori even though he/she was not in a form that resembled a human. Inadvertently, the police guy treated the fridge like a human by handcuffing it as though it were really human. Something I found odd considering there was really no need to handcuff a fridge in the first place.

    1. Naota

      You never know, dude. That fridge might just up and waddle out of there.

      I think the real irony would’ve been if he handcuffed himself to Kazamori under the usual police logic, only to realize that, you know… fridge. Now he’s the one that can’t get away.

      1. myst1138

        Oh, I don’t disagree that the handcuffing was for humor, I was just commenting on how their treatment of Kazamori humanized it even when it was a fridge. Which, compared to Komamori who has the appearance of a human, but is in reality less than one.

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  9. alsozara

    Finally getting round to watching this show. This was a great episode that went heaps of places I was not at all expecting. It’s actually quite interesting going into the show with the mindset of that post you did about critiquing existentialism in the 21st century. That theme came through especially strongly in this episode.

    Really great post, sorry I couldn’t enjoy it when it was recent and topical.


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