The Atomic Heart of Japanese Robotics

Japanese culture has been one of the major “alternative” imports into the west for the past several years. Their view of A.I. and humanoid robots is refreshingly different from that of the western traditions of Frankenstein, the Christian Golem (unlike the Jewish Golem), and the Matrix.

One of my earliest introductions to the east and robotics was in the form of Astro Boy, the boy with the atomic heart. I was too young to see it at the time, but the show must have clearly resonated with its Japanese audience, the only people who have actually had atomic weapons used against them. It’s hard to overstate the effects that this historical event seems to have had on the Japanese relationship to technology, and their desire to give it a human face in literature, art, and reality.

It is even more interesting juxtaposed, as it often is, to the Japanese dystopia in which the machines often take on a more human character than the humans themselves. Take for instance the manga Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro, for which the question of humanity is an overarching theme. The main character is a human brain in a mechanical body, while several of the characters are human brains stored in computer chips and placed within human bodies. Questions of essential personality, indeed, essential humanity, get even more tangled in the light of amnesia, intentional and not, dream worlds, multiple personalities and the concept of storing human memory.

Despite the manga’s occasional turn to what I call “splorching” (excessively pressurized human gore often seen in Japanese media) and often taboo subject matter, the series still has a lot of heart to offer curious readers.

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