Japanese stuff in Japan

part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

In Tokyo, people spend a lot of time riding around on electric trains. Two hours a day, on average.

And I noticed something being back in Japan this time. Twenty years ago, when I lived there, you'd ride the trains and you'd look around and a lot of the people on the train were reading. Now everybody's got a cell phone, and you're not supposed to make calls on the train, so I noticed people sitting there holding the cell phones and punching at the buttons sending text messages or playing a game or something. You see a lot fewer paperbacks on the trains now.

That gets to one of the questions of our era. There are all these gadgets connecting us. They connect us around the world, and we love them. But are they making our lives richer or poorer? Some people worry that we're getting less connected to one another, to nature, or to any kind of spiritual life.

U.S. cover of Ghosts in the Shell by Production IG.

A lot of Japanese pop culture deals with these apocalyptic sci-fi themes. The Wachowski brothers, they did the Matrix, and that was inspired by "Ghost in the Shell," which is a very popular Japanese animated film from the mid-1990s.

"Ghost in the Shell" is set in 2029 in Tokyo. And in the world of the film, you can't tell if the person that you're talking to is human, a robot, or some combination. And you can't tell if your experiences are real or virtual.

"All your memories about your wife and daughter are false, they're like a dream. Someone's taken advantage of you," says one character in the film.

"The truth is, you've never had a wife or kid. Like he said, they're not real, a simulated experience, a fantasy," says another.

The vision of the future in this movie is dark and it's violent.

"My codename is Project 2501. I am a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information."

Talk about a dark future. In the sequel called "Innocence," female sex androids start cutting off the heads of their human masters. These films were created by Production IG. We went to see the CEO, at the company's headquarters in Tokyo. This is Mitsuhisa Ishikawa.

"The movie theater is a place where people can forget about their stress. The pressure of society and human relationships," says Ishikawa through an interpreter.

He says films like "Ghost in the Shell" offer their audience two things at once: escape and food for thought.

"By showing this violence and this view of the future," says Ishikawa, "you're showing people a world that's on the edge of what's real and what's not. Even as they're thinking, 'This isn't reality,' they will understand that it could be."

So there's an interesting tension here. We've been talking about how Japan is at the leading edge of global pop culture, and how wired this new culture is and how comfortable it is with shifts between reality and virtual reality. And yet there are these warnings. The dangers of technology is a theme throughout Japanese anime and manga.

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