A closer look into the history of anime, manga, pop culture, and Japanese societies’ fascination with the merging of human and machine.
From Astro Boy, Gigantor, Cyborg 009, to Mobile Suit Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, and FullMetal Alchemist, robots and cyborgs have been a monumental theme within the world of anime. It seems as though robots and cyborgs have been roaming and wreaking havoc ever since anime and manga were first invented.
But where does this obsession with robots and cyborgs come from? Why are so many writers and creators fascinated with the merging between human and machine?
Other than the fact that cyborgs and robots are just plain cool, their presence in anime is crucial to understanding how technology and humanity were viewed at the time, how they are perceived today, and can largely be traced back to Japan’s pivotal post-war era, specifically the 1960’s.
Origins Date Back to World War II
The 1960’s period was a critical point in time for Japan as it had, for the most part, just finished recovering from the devastation of World War II. Japan was shifting into a period of monumental economic growth via technological and industrial manufacturing industries, and as a result- also taking into consideration the growing middle-class- average Japanese households began to adopt new technologies including the television.
Legendary Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy was first aired on television in 1963 and is generally considered to be the first “real” anime to be televised. The story that followed an android built by a mad scientist who is eventually sold into a circus to fight other robots, and is then rescued by a “good” scientist to fight crime (I know, very cool) was an instant success and many, many more anime series involving robots and cyborgs followed.
Further, with Japan’s post-war era centered around rebuilding the country, large economic growth and increased industrial manufacturing became the primary focus. Machinery was part of everyday life. This had a great impact on how robots and cyborgs were perceived by the Japanese people.
Moreover, the devastation that Japan endured during the war was crucial to this understanding of technology and machines, and thus robots. The realization of the destruction that could be caused by man-made technology like the atomic bomb prompted many to view the relationship between technology and humanity in a negative manner in the early post-war era.
In fact, Godzilla is a direct response to or metaphor of nuclear weapons, and the original film had to be heavily edited before it premiered in the States to rid the film of its anti-American dialogue. Similarly, Gigantor was designed after the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.
However, with the onset of rapid economic growth, this negative perception of machines and technology flipped. An important part of early anime like Astro Boy and Cyborg 009 was the fact that the cyborgs were now the “good guys” fighting crime. The characters were nice to other robots and humans alike, had feelings, and sought to protect humanity.
Entering the Golden Age of Robot and Cyborg Anime
This trend of friendly and helpful robot or cyborg characters, for the most part, continues today. The late ’80s-’90s are considered to be the golden age of cyborg and robot anime due to the rapid technological advances during Japan’s bubble era of economic boom.
New innovations in technology opened the minds of anime writers, as it shed light on even more possibilities and paths for the mind to wander down when thinking of the potential things that technology could allow humans, and even better yet, cyborgs to do.
Around this time, classic cyborg anime like the earlier Mobile Suit Gundam, later Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Ghost in the Shell were created and the boundaries between humans, machines, and sometimes aliens were becoming more and more blurred.
These robots, controlled by humans and cyborgs, were used as extensions of the human body, or exploration into what humanity could achieve through merging with machines. They were used to help us humans rather than fight against us.
Meanwhile, American robots and cyborgs at the time were hyper-violent and aggressive as depicted in films like “The Terminator” and “Robocop”.
Into the 21st Century
While we have left the golden age of robot and cyborg anime behind, robots and cyborgs have not left anime. Many new anime feature robot and cyborg characters to this day. In fact, some argue we are becoming like cyborgs as most of us carry smartphones everywhere, allowing us to essentially think with the powers of the Internet. Nowadays, the answer to any question is just a Google search away. With continued innovations and advancements in technology in the modern world, robot and cyborg anime will likely progress on a similar thread and get even better.
Kevin Murasaki grew up moving back and forth between Chicago and Yokohama, Japan. Known as a "hafu", Kevin is half Japanese, and half American. Now a videographer and drone operator based in Fukuoka, Japan, Kevin enjoys playing basketball, driving on mountain or "touge" roads, and fishing in his free time. Kevin is a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia.