Animated thinkers

Why philosophers should watch more anime

US philosopher Frederic Jameson’s essays on Utopias question standard notions of what constitutes an emancipated society. The anime Time of Eve explores these ideas through fiction.

Japanese cartoons are full of philosophical problems, says Mari Nakamura. “Academics should take them seriously.”

Japanese cartoons might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you study political-philosophical matters, but Dr Mari Nakamura claims that philosophers should make more use of them. She says that anime offer interesting perspectives. She studied political theories using Japanese anime and was awarded her doctorate on Tuesday.

She is the last of three doctoral candidates who examined political philosophy in Japanese popular culture. Her colleagues analysed video games and manga, i.e. Japanese comic books.

According to Nakamura, those sources are often ignored in philosophical debates, which usually focus on textual sources. “It’s a pity, because they have a big impact on daily life: many people play games and watch anime. Academics should take these media seriously.”

She argues that screenplays present interesting thought experiments. “Anime are sources you can use to reflect on existing ideas, but they also offer new perspectives. That means they innovate.”

For instance, she discovered that Time of Eve, a series about a not-all-too-distant future in which androids live alongside humans, echoes American philosopher Fredric Jameson’s Utopian enclave.

Then there’s the television series Psycho Pass, set in Japan of the future where advanced brain scanning devices control the population, that illustrates French philosopher Michel Foucault’s ideas.

She found new philosophical ideas in the series Neon Genesis Evangelion and the film Appleseed. That last film presents an alternative for existing ideas about emancipation, she explains, namely those of Australian philosopher Nicholas Agar, who argues against “improving” people.

“He thinks that people will become another race if they are made more intelligent or stronger with the aid of technology. He doesn’t agree with it, because it means that humans would be alienated from their actual selves.”

According to Nakamura, the film offers an interesting thought experiment on that subject, as it is set in a world in which exactly that happens. Half the Utopian city of Olympus is populated by humans and the other half by human clones. The “bioroids” are made from the best genetic material but they do not live as long and they cannot reproduce.

“There is an interesting contrast between post-humans and humans. Some people want the clones gone. Some clones don’t trust the humans. Both sides are essentialist: they either want to eliminate the humans or the clones.”

Nakamura continues: “But in the end, the protagonist, who does not belong to either side, offers an alternative. She says, ‘what if we can build something new – a kind of hybrid, as an alternative to essentialism.’ That’s yet another view.”

Nakamura believes she has contributed something new with her research. “I tried to show different aspects of emancipation using anime. Theorists hardly ever discuss that.”

Anoushka Kloosterman

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