Before Yuuko ended her own life, she explained, “People have many sides to their heart. They’re all truths. You will not decide mine!” Yuuko did not want Inga to peer into her soul — the implication here being that Yuuko wants to affirm her own truth. Throughout UN-GO, characters express this very existentialist notion that the truth can exist in many different forms, but it is up to the individual to decide their own reality. Recall Rie’s words at the end of the first episode: “But I’m sure his wife really believed that Kanou-san was a hero. A hero who fought hard to protect his family and company amidst this chaotic world. Such a beautiful lie must exist….”
This existentialist notion that many truths exist — that we can simply choose our own reality — contradicts the very narrative of UN-GO. Throughout the series, Shinjuro battles through countless facades to find the real truth. He often dispels the myriad fantasies that others have constructed. Plus, we always see Rinroku Kaisho distort the flow of information with his own brand of “truth.” It would seem as though he has the power to decide the truth for others. Finally, unless we assume that her characterization is unreliable, does it ever seem as though Inga influences her victims’ answers? I’m inclined to say no.
In UN-GO, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction. We know that the Chairman definitely lies, but even a self-proclaimed seeker of truth like Shinjuro will obfuscate the facts from time to time. When he finally decided to reveal his history to Rie, he confessed, “A woman saved my life once. We’d only just met, and there was no benefit to her saving me… She died… And Inga’s body… is hers.” But when did Yuuko ever save Shinjuro’s life? Even if Yuuko was solely responsible for ending Inga’s possession of Shinjuro, she only did so inadvertently; she was primarily motivated by her desire to lock her soul away from Inga’s prying eyes. If I am right, did Shinjuro opt for a beautiful reality over the ugly truth?
In my mind, there seems to be only two honest characters in the show: Inga and Rie. We are told that Rie simply cannot tell a lie, but Inga’s entire purpose is to unearth the truth buried deep within a person’s heart. When she has you in her seemingly unbreakable grip, you are unable to lie. The show’s premise would thus fall apart if Inga was suddenly unreliable. In a world where Rinroku has the near limitless ability to distort the facts, Inga serves as the equalizer for the disadvantaged Shinjuro. But before we get into that, let’s do a brief introductory on just exactly what existentialism entails.
The challenge of existentialism implies that an individual’s values and meaning rise from his or her own autonomous will to embody those values; values have no grounding beyond that will. The norm of authenticity suggests that we can confront those values in two ways: inauthentically, as values “one ought to have,” or authentically, as “the values that I choose.” Although one might be perfectly happy and successful in living an inauthentic life, doing so seems to devalue the nature of the autonomous will, at the sake of integrity and (ultimately) of autonomy itself.
There seems to be tension in these two notions. A superficial way of raising the point might be to ask: “Can one authentically choose the values of the crowd?” For instance, can the Christian authentically endorse Christian values (understood in Nietzsche’s terms as self-devaluing) without sacrificing integrity and autonomy?
However, the above questions are something of a special case of a more general problem with the two notions. That is: how is one ever able to authentically choose values if they are based on nothing other than the abstract will? What basis does the individual have to make such a choice? I may make choices that seem transparent and authentic from my perspective, but what guarantee do I have that these choices aren’t just a result of my existing delusions and biases?
Authenticity is cast as a kind of introspective transparency of one’s motivations, but people hardly (if ever) have such immediate access to their motivations. But if that’s the case, then people have no basis for judging an action as “mine” as opposed to “theirs,” and thus no grounding for determining a choice as authentic. And, since existentialism denies grounding values in anything other than autonomous choice with authentic choice as the ideal, it seems I lack any basis for evaluating my values. This seems to leave the existentialist in a very strange place.
To recap, UN-GO is based on a series of short stories set during the Meiji period of Japan. As a result, I was initially cynical of Bones’ decision to shift the setting to the present day for the adaptation. I was afraid that the studio might have been fueled by a need to “sex” up the story, so to speak. In hindsight, my apprehensions were unfounded. By planting the characters right dab in the middle of the Information Age, the story critiques the limits of existentialism in the 21st century.
As I’ve previously argued, people hardly (if ever) have such immediate access to their motivations. This is truer than ever in our day and age. We are constantly being bombarded with information. For instance, the advent of social media platforms like Twitter provides us with near instantaneous access to any corner of the world. Before we can even make a proper assessment of any situation, another ten to fifteen items may have just popped up on the news feed. Information thus plays a powerful role in how we perceive the world. More importantly, information is rarely ever neutral. Sometimes, the supposedly reliable information we get is just plain wrong (see: CNN’s reporting or lack thereof).
We must remember that nearly every single word we utter is colored by our perceptions. Also, these words have the power to shape our lives. In the film, Shinjuro initially believed that he could help people across the world by traveling around with some old movie reels, but what even motivated him to embark on such an undertaking? Is this an authentic value born from his abstract will? How could he ever know: “They all said that so long as I grow up and help others, it would be payment enough.” His entire life may have already been determined from the very start.
If words can have such an immense effect on people’s lives, it is no wonder then that Kaisho Rinroku basically operates as an information broker. The most egregious example of this is Koyama’s testimony of Rinroku’s powerful data-editing software. Allegedly, the program allows the government to tamper with evidence. Information is power, and in the world of UN-GO, Rinroku controls the flow of information. He decides who’s guilty and who’s not guilty. He manipulates wartime spirits when they begin to flag. Political dissenters find themselves locked away in a high security prison. It is even implied that he may have orchestrated a war to serve his own ends (I suspect that Serada was being manipulated from start to finish). With his power to influence reality, the Chairman is nearly a God in Japan, but why? What does he hope to achieve?
If all humans were saints and sages, all truths would be laid bare, and every great cause, justification, means, ideal, and lie… would likely become unnecessary. But I wonder if that day will ever come. All we can do is improve ourselves, little by little.
Is that a hint of humanism at the end there? Knowing Rinroku’s propensity to manipulate information, it is difficult to take any of his words at face value. Let’s step back for a moment and take a closer look at the UN-GO universe. The Chairman opposes the nationalization of solar power generation. Instead, he dreams of a world where political boundaries cease to exist. Even so, almost nothing happens in Japan without his expressed approval. What accounts for this seeming contradiction? It’s simple: corporations are not subject to political boundaries. If he can break into the solar thermal market, and spread the technology overseas — under his corporation’s supervision, most likely –, Rinroku’s influence will become global.
People tend to believe that the truth is something hidden. There are subsequently those who believe they themselves will someday learn it. But there are an innumerable amount of truths. If someone becomes satisfied with a single truth, it simply means that they’ve stopped thinking any further.
When the Chairman uttered these words, he likely knew that Shinjuro would be listening. Rinroku might not necessarily see himself as an existentialist, but he knows he can profit from it. The logical endpoint of authenticity in a media-driven world is the obfuscation of the inner soul. Billions of dollars are being spent on ad campaigns every year to influence our buying habits, and that is just one example of the information miasma that we call the 21st century. We are not 1920s French existentialists with the luxury to daydream our lives away in dim, smokey cafes. Even then, it’s hard to argue that those thinkers had such a clear window to their souls. Throughout our lives, we try to make decisions based on the evidence before us, but what if the evidence is hardly reliable? What can authenticity do for us then?
Is Shinjuro mistaken then, when he said at the end of the series that “[he] will expose souls?” If we can’t even gaze into our own souls, how will Shinjuro manage this seemingly Herculean task? Easily. I believe that even without Inga by his side, his aims are far from impossible. Note what else Shinjuro had to say: “[People] lay bare the true essence within themselves, their souls. They want for beauty; they seek luxury and pleasure. But at the same time, they love what’s right just as much. With all the evils that exist, there are just as many justices.” In these lines, Shinjuro juxtaposes the subjective with the objective, i.e. beauty, luxury and pleasure vs. the right. In doubting everything, we approach the limits of existentialism. We thus return to square one: regardless of whichever reality we wish to affirm, there is always justice.
Those like Rinroku can hide the truth, but can never truly hope to change it. Thus, he is no God.