Championing anime, especially something as wondrously bizarre as Serial Experiments Lain, is a worthy cause, but I still can’t make heads or tails of The Daily Beast’s accusation that Hollywood sci-fi films are ripping off anime. Vague and accusatory headline in tow, author David Levesley points out cosmetic similarities between recent science fiction studio fare and well-regarded anime gems with the added (hand-drawn) cherry on top of claiming filmmakers won’t own up to the work they’re stealing from.
It’s a bombastic statement (that probably feels gut-level correct for anyone who thinks “Hollywood is out of ideas” is both true and a response for everything), but the gruel here is so clear that it’s see-through. It’s an impotent, misplaced rant with an uncomfortable cultural angle.
The quick and dirty comparisons from the piece include:
- Transcendence = Serial Experiments Lain (and unnamed multitudes) because they both include a person being uploaded to a computer upon death.
- The Hunger Games = Battle Royale (an old favorite)
- Inception = Paprika because they both involve a dream machine
- Pacific Rim = Neon Genesis Evangelion because of the mechs
- Her = Chobits because they both have a love story between man and compu-lady
These similarities would be damning evidence of rip offs…if anime were the only storytelling well of the past two thousand years.
As it stands, stories of artificial intelligence, fighting to the death and toying in dream worlds are nothing new. We’ve been, for at least a century, exploring and re-exploring our relationship with technology as we know it in computerized terms. It’s been millennia contemplating out symbiotic relationship with tech.
More than just taking trips to the moon, even young cinema (without the benefit of adaptation) took on The Singularity and the merging of human consciousness with metal as early as 1927. That’s not to mention a crushingly long list of sci-fi literature from Clarke to Scalzi that uploads brains into computers.
And all of that’s not to mention the philosophers from Zhuangzi to Descartes to Bishop Berkeley who created thought experiments that would ripple outward toward science fiction stories centuries later.
The point being that studio sci-fi films didn’t rip off anime. They borrowed ideas from the same centuries-old collective conscious that anime did. What’s most irritating about Levesley’s piece is that it creates a false binary between two enjoyable things that aren’t actually at war with each other. Inception and Paprika are both great, but they look nothing alike even though they have a core plot concept in common. The Hunger Games movies are great, and so is Battle Royale and The Running Man. The 10th Victim is sort of okay. Sorry, Mr. Mastroianni.
True idea theft and genuine plagiarism are serious problems, and nothing that Levesley brings up comes even close to being serious. It’s a view that looks through a very small window of media, ignoring a rich and robust history in order to give its identity to a singular source. Like saying Elvis invented rock ‘n’ roll or Genghis Khan invented war. It gets even more absurd for an article to name-check 2001: A Space Odyssey and then claim Neon Genesis Evangelion is the victim of a rip off.
On that note, Guillermo del Toro has been greatly forthcoming about all the geeky childhood wonderments he ingested and then regurgitated for Pacific Rim – Astro Boy, Gigantor, Ultraman, and more and still more. Yet Levesley wants to pretend del Toro doesn’t own up to cribbing from a property that Levesley only assumes del Toro has seen. Ditto that for Nolan and Paprika; Spike Jonze and Chobits; and Jack Paglen and Serial Experiments Lain.
Then, there’s the kernel that pushes beyond artistic integrity into socio-political hampering:
“Of course, you wouldn’t have Transcendence without Serial Experiments Lain. Yet it will never really be possible to prove it. We can only sit and stew in our conviction that anime is becoming an important port of inspiration. But regardless of the morality behind the art’s genesis, its existence raises an interesting question: What does it mean if we in the West, who have spent so long eroticizing the weird behaviors of Japan, are trying to answer the same questions in our art?”
Maybe it’s never really possible to prove it because it isn’t true.
Why couldn’t you have Transcendence without Serial Experiments Lain? The same way you couldn’t have Serial Experiments Lain without The Lawnmower Man? Or that you couldn’t have The Lawnmower Man without “The Last Question”? Or that you couldn’t have Transcendence without Ray Kurzweil? Is it really all that difficult to imagine a world where Lain doesn’t exist but Transcendence does?
What Levesley gets right is that The West and Japan are trying to answer the same questions in our art. What he misses completely is that we’ve both been doing it for a very, very long time, and all of those efforts have both borrowed from and added their own voices to the conversation through ingenuity and creative empathy. There’s a beautiful sentiment here about people living 5,300 miles apart wrestling with similar humanistic problems (and crafting stylistically, structurally dynamic stories from them) but it’s lost in the fog of complaining that an anime series most casual fans haven’t heard of is getting dissed by robo-Johnny Depp.
All of the titles in this and Levesley’s piece have their own merit (except apparently Transcendence), so it’s simplistic (and also incorrect) to reduce them down to the shared ideas which grew into vastly different experiences. It’s also wrong to assume that anime has some sort of little sister status to Hollywood. Science fiction tales wrapped in all kinds of media clothing — be it live-action, words on a page or big-eyed cartoons — will continue to tackle massive, intimate questions about who we are and how that definition is changing thanks to machines we build. They will also do so by employing any number of popular or well-worn tropes because allegory can be a powerful tire iron to the ankle of status quo thinking.
In other words, when the next movie featuring a brain uploaded to the internet comes out, beware of people claiming Transcendence got ripped off.