From 2001 until 2010, Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist was serialized in Monthly Shonen Gangen magazine, introducing Japan to a parallel Earth (and hinting at some aspects of the hollow earth theory), where “alchemy,” a pseudo-science-magick seemingly rooted in Semitic Kaballah and Hermetic practices, knowingly used and recorded by history in our own real world, has more or less beat the steam engine to the industrial revolution and progressed to the era of the 1920’s. The characters are a pair of brother alchemists, who attempted to bring their mother back from the dead through alchemy, and have since suffered the consequences. The elder brother, Ed, has lost his right arm and left leg, and replaced them with mechanical prostheses, his younger brother Al, however, has lost his entire body, and his soul has been attached to a hollow suit of armor, much like Motoko from Ghost in the Shell. These two brothers are on a quest to achieve enlightenment in order to re-attain their own bodies; Ed feels guilty about the whole situation, and wishes to find a way to restore his younger brother’s human form, while Al forgives Ed, and wishes to find a way to end his brother’s suffering and restore his lost limbs. These selfless protagonists are extremely easy for an audience to empathize with, and therefore the creator can draw the audience’s attention toward the inner struggle of the heroes, and the philosophical questions, once again; what is it to be human?
The two brothers have seen beyond the veil of reality, so to speak, and therefore they understand the true nature of reality, and thus their journey through consciousness progresses as they seek true enlightenment. One of the earliest lessons the two learn, and therefore the audience learns, is “One is all, and all is One.” That’s some serious philosophy to work into the minds of the average audience member, and is certainly a thought that will spark internal debate among any who are brought to its awareness. The main point I’m trying to make is that these philosophical themes are coming at us in big way through modern 2D animation. With the post-modern age already fully set in place, and the post-human age peeking over the horizon, these heavy themes are going to be brought to the forefront of popular media in the coming months and years. In the space above I’ll share with you some of Fullmetal Alchemist’s attempts to ask the question, “what is it to be human?”
Another factor we are beginning to see in popular media is the theme of human consciousness. The “Golden Age” of animation saw a few animators dipping their toe into the depths of this subject in the 60’s and 70’s, but now it’s making its way to the forefront of animation, as well as in music and film. The psychedelic movement is back, and in full force. Artists such as Alex Grey (I’ve provided an example of his work below) have been plumbing the depths of the human mind with the aide of chemicals such as DMT, psilocybin, and LSD, and animators such as J.G. Quintell include themes of expanded reality in their work. In Quintell’s Regular Show, the main characters are frequently thrown into alternate realities, or higher levels of awareness. The emergence of these types of themes is just the beginning. As we push further into the post-modern era, even more themes will find themselves brought to the spotlight through animation.
One other such theme is “what does it mean to be human?” We’ve seen a few books, films, and anime address this in the past, but it has been brought up more frequently in popular animation with increasing frequency over the past ten years. Two perfect examples, having come through the science fiction and historical fantasy genres respectively, are Masamune Shirrow’s Ghost in the Shell franchise, and Hiromu Arakawa’s Full Metal Alchemist. Both started out as manga (the Japanese equivalent to comics or graphic novels), and went on to inspire multiple series and films.
Masamune, in Ghost in the Shell, shows us a shocking look at a very likely post-modern (post-human?) near future where people can replace any faulty body part with a technological prosthetic (including the brain), can “dive” the internet and communicate through wireless telepresence, and potentially live forever by upgrading their bodies to the point that all that remains is the “ghost” or mind of the individual, connected to an artificial body or “shell.” These main themes are coupled with another strong element; the emergence of artificial intelligence. Within this setting, Masamune asks the audience the question, “what is it to be human?” The show floods the audience’s minds with Cartesian, Kafkan, and Kantian philosophies, then sets these patterns in motion through superior crafted webs of engaging plot and intensely animated action sequences. The audience is left impacted, and almost certainly asking themselves how they would deal with living in such a world themselves; a resonant feeling like they had just glimpsed the future. Technologies today are all leading towards the developments of nearly every element described in Ghost in the Shell, opening one’s mind to a very persistent flow of philosophical debate, which is also provided in the stories and dialogue. The whole story was meant to expand the audience’s mind, and thus Masamune can stand above his audience, and like a puppet master, control the outcome of the world’s conscious evolution*… oh no, Descartes is taking control of my inner monologue again!
*I’d like to share some of Ghost in the Shell with you, it will play above. I’ll continue the topic in the next post.
I’m sure my readers are expecting to hear about more animators, and you will, but not just yet. I’d like to take time to discuss exactly what I’m trying to get across in this blog, and fair warning; it’s some pretty heady stuff.
First of all, the word “neo” means “new,” making it clear that the main focus of this blog is the future, and that’s exactly what I’d like to talk about. Specifically, I’d like to tell you a bit about quantum theory and nano-technology. You might be wondering what, if anything, these topics have to do with animation; I’ll get to that. Quantum theory is a branch of modern physics, routed in Einstein’s theories of the unified field and special relativity. It’s basically the study of very small things, like atoms and their components. As technology and our understanding has progressed, we’ve made major breakthroughs in this field, allowing us to measure the movements and behaviors of sub-atomic particles, resulting in the opening of many doors for physicists and scientists to explore. One such door leads to nano-technology, which is the term given to any machines built on the nano scale (one nanometer is approximately ten atoms across).
One particular nano-tech being developed today originated in the field of computers, but has since lead to far grander projects. This technology is called nano-dots. These dots are basically nano-scale circuits, capable of regulating the amount of electrons they contain at any given moment. If you are familiar with particle physics, you know what this means; it means they can create synthetic atoms from silicon and monotonic gold. The practical applications for this are limitless. These synthetic atoms can be used in the same ways as natural atoms, though they behave slightly differently, thus the scientists working on these nano-dots at MIT are currently devoting a lot of effort to figuring out just how to utilize them. The inevitable result (which we will see in our lifetimes, probably as soon as the next 10-20 years), is something straight out of Star Trek, item synthesis. The eventual product of this technology would be a small unit, likely the size of a microwave or a vending machine, controlled by a personal computer, which can be programmed to produce any material, from food and clothing, to computer parts and weapons. If coupled with free energy from fusion, solar, wind, mercury, or geothermal, this device would effectively make every individual sovereign.
You might still be wondering what this has to do with the field of animation. The main reason traditional animation has fallen in favor of computer-based is because of the cost of materials, and with this item synthesis device, all costs are negated. This would obviously effect more than just the animators, it would change the entire economy and way of life worldwide. Without the need to buy products, the main drive of the economy will soon be entertainment. With access to unlimited tools and supplies, any animator would most likely choose to use the traditional means over the new, because nothing digital compares to the quality of hand-drawn and painted cell animation.
The renaissance that would follow the release of this technology would be palpable, and global. This is the neo renaissance for which my blog is titled. Above I’ll provide a short video clip regarding this new technology.
The video below is a short test film by J.G. Quintel, which went on to be the inspiration for his hit cartoon, Regular Show. This was done on paper, by hand, one frame at a time. Though the animation is somewhat choppy and crude, the film is nonetheless entertaining through the use of strange visual themes, shock gags, and clever, realistic dialogue. What sets it apart from “the norm” is the overall theme; drug use at the workplace. This is clearly not intended for children, though with a few changes to the characters, Quintel was able to transpose his gas station clerks into lovable animal characters for, what would ultimately become, his hugely popular children’s cartoon, Regular Show, which airs Monday evenings on the Cartoon Network.
Though Regular Show is intended for an adolescent audience, it still retains an air of slacker/stoner adult humor, similar to what is seen in 2 in the AM PM. This broadens the audience, and makes for a very successful 2D animated show, which is currently running its third season. Clearly this medium is not as dead as popular opinion (and the NEIA curriculum) would have us believe.