ESSAY: "0/1 v. Zion: Techno-Orientalism in 'The Matrix'"
1. Hegel famously wrote in The Philosophy of History, “The History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the beginning” (103-04). U.S. and European science-fiction filmmakers, clearly not Hegelians, have assumed the opposite to be the case: to them, the future is Asian.
Lisa Nakamura, borrowing the term from Greta Niu, calls this “techno-orientalism”: sci-fi films and fictions, writes Nakamura, use “images of Japanese geishas, ninjas, and samurai warriors” to “establish the distinctive look and feel of a cyberpunk future,” resulting in “a high-tech variety of racial stereotyping” (Nakamura 63). Nakamura locates the beginnings of cinematic techno-orientalism in Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, but Western filmmakers began using Asian cultural tropes to signify the (often-dystopic, always-radically-Other) future of humankind at least as early as the 1920s, when the first of the Fu Manchu pictures was released, and Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis opened, introducing the Robot Maria, as David Desser says, “in a nightclub of ‘Oriental splendour’, the Yoshiwara (the name of the traditional pleasure quarter of Japan’s Edo, now Tokyo)” (Desser 82-83). Techno-orientalism characterized not only the Fu Manchu series, but also the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s (with evil emperor Ming the Merciless as Flash’s arch-enemy), as Eugene Franklin Wong has pointed out (56-59), and techno-orientalism has continued to permeate sci-fi blockbusters ever since. Prominent examples include George Lucas’s Star Wars series, launched in 1977, with its samurai-like Jedi, Asian-named characters Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Han, and premise (for Episode IV) lifted from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress; Steven Spielberg’s 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which begins in Shanghai , ends in India, and stars Vietnamese child actor Jonathan Ke Quan as “Short Round”; Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men and 2003 X2, with kung-fu fights choreographed by Corey Yuen and villainous Lady Deathstrike played by Hawaiian actress Kelly Hu; and Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins, in which it is revealed that Bruce Wayne learns all his fighting prowess from a secret cult housed in an ancient Chinese temple.
I should note that I am defining “techno-orientalism” more broadly than Nakamura does: the movies I have listed draw upon Asian imagery to portray the past (Indiana Jones) and the present (Batman Begins) as well as the future. However, in every one of these films, an Asian “look and feel” is meant to convey a world that is technologically advanced (whether through scientific or mystical knowledge) and deeply unfamiliar and unsettling to the white heroes. Otherworldiness, and othertimeliness, especially when technological achievement marks the difference between “us” (the heroes) and “them” (the villains, or, in some cases, the mysterious teachers who remain unknowable to, and very distinct from, the heroes), have historically been encoded in Western sci-fi films as Asian.
2. In this essay, we will take a look at a special case of Hollywood techno-orientalism: The Matrix, a series of films conceptualized by Larry and Andy Wachowski and released by Warner Brothers between 1999 and 2003. What makes The Matrix series an interesting example of techno-orientalism is the fact that it allows the Oriental villain – in this case, the machine society – to voice its side of the story. The Matrix consists of four “movies”: three live-action/special effects films, and one collection of animated shorts helmed by Japanese anime directors called The Animatrix. Among the Animatrix films is a two-part short entitled The Second Renaissance (TSR), based on a story by the Wachowski Brothers but written and directed by Mahiro Maeda, and TSR relates the beginnings of the machine-human struggle, which is the core antagonism of the entire Matrix narrative. The Maeda-Wachowski backstory to The Matrix movies turns the usual techno-orientalist tropes on their heads, and portrays the machines as the one-time wage-slaves of humans, the excluded model minorities, and the targets of racist, xenophobic violence. Greta Niu states that “techno-orientalism [is] a way of viewing...Asian Americans without attending to the relationships between Asian bodies and technology” (quoted in Nakamura, 64), but TSR attempts to investigate those very relationships by drawing a pointed allegory between The Matrix’s machine-human war and Asian-Western conflicts, both past and current, which have been predicated upon questions of technology and bodies.
For audiences that have not seen The Animatrix, The Matrix series seems to conform to the well-established techno-orientalist system of cinematic representation. Kung-fu-style fight sequences staged by renowned Hong Kong action film choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, Asian names like “Captain Mifune” (after Toshiro Mifune, star of many of Kurosawa’s films), two Asian characters in blatantly stereotypical roles (Seraph as the stoic Chinese martial arts warrior, the Keymaster as the ancient, humble, loyal, shuffling-but-precise-and-wise servant), costumes, set designs, and shots taken from Japanese anime and manga sources like Akira and Ghost in the Shell (Jenkins), philosophical claims and dialogue based loosely on Zen Buddhism (“There is no spoon”), the dystopian “future noir” look of the city inside the Matrix that calls to mind the techno-orientalist founding film, Blade Runner – all of these render Asia present but not visible. None of these signs quite adds up to a place or race that exists in our non-filmic reality as “Asia” or “Asian.” These references to Asian culture and “typical” Asian people only serve to signify difference, displacement, and strangeness; images and names that look Asian and sound Asian mean only that we are transported “elsewhere,” that within the narrative of The Matrix, we are not “here” or “now,” but in some twisted, unexpected future. Even the ways that The Matrix exceeds the usual parameters of techno-oriental production design, by, for example, casting a hapa (part-Asian) actor, Keanu Reeves, in the lead role, writing three Asian characters (Kamali, Rama-Kandra, and their daughter Sati, in Revolutions) who are not conventionally stereotypical , and closing the final film with a song whose lyrics are taken from the Hindu Upanishads – even these unexpected allusions to Asians and Asian culture seem like nothing more than innovations, additions, to the older techno-orientalist techniques of using Asia to connote “sci-fi”. The Matrix live-action films appropriate Asianness more than earlier films, and they find new methods of appropriation, but they do not encourage viewers to engage with Asians or Asia any more than Flash Gordon or Star Wars do. Though The Matrix was, as Henry Jenkins writes, “constructed with a global audience in mind” and draws from different cultures and ethnicities, the appearance of the Asian in The Matrix remains nothing more than set dressing.
Until, that is, we see The Animatrix.
3. The Animatrix is clearly part of The Matrix canon, even though the Wachowski Brothers, who wrote and directed all three of the feature films, did not write all of the short Animatrix films, and directed none of them. However, The Animatrix films were commissioned by Warner Brothers and promoted as part of The Matrix franchise, and the Wachowskis contributed story or script to four of the films. In the recently released Ultimate Matrix DVD collection, The Animatrix is the fourth film. So, just as the two Matrix comic books, the video game Enter the Matrix, and the online multiplayer Matrix game are official components of the canon, so are the nine shorts that constitute The Animatrix.
I want to recognize the anime films’ “official” status because, in the next section of this essay, I will argue that one of the Animatrix shorts, The Second Renaissance, takes a highly oppositional stance toward The Matrix live-action films, and I want to acknowledge that this opposition originates from within the same network of corporate and creative power as The Matrix, not from outside it. Warner Brothers and the Wachowskis clearly had approval over the Animatrix films and control over the content, and the fact that TSR was allowed to turn out as it did, to make the claims that it does, means that the Matrix franchise is one that permits not only expansion, but internal contradiction. That is, the “additional” products released to augment the live-action feature films do more than replicate the perspectives and experiences presented by the movies, in order to sell more items to Matrix fans; these additions also complicate the movies’ narrative and underlying assumptions. Jenkins states that “The Wachowskis wanted to wind the story of The Matrix across all of those media [i.e., video games, comic books, and anime] and have it all add up to one compelling whole.” However, the “whole” that results from TSR plus the live-action Matrix films is a fractured one.
The primary difference between TSR’s narrative and the narrative of the Matrix movies is that, while The Matrix and its sequels are about a race war between humans and machines, with (as Nakamura and others have pointed out) the majority of humans played by ethnic minority actors and the machine-representatives – the policing “agents” – played entirely by white men, TSR reverses the dominant/subordinate allegory. In TSR, the machine race is coded as the Asian subordinate race, while humans are clearly the dominant race, at least at the start of the story.
TSR opens with a South Asian image, the image of a mandala, and inside it, an angelic figure that resembles a cross between a Japanese woman and a Hindu goddess. This figure is a computer avatar, a machine-manufactured guide to the history archives of Zion, the human city. The archive guide introduces us to the file (number 12-1) that tells of the beginnings of the machine-human war, and she narrates as we watch the events of the Matrix’s backstory unfold. This pre-history starts with a scene from the time when machines were the servants of humans. In a crowded penthouse bar, where humans are drinking and laughing, in poses that director Maeda states in the commentary are meant to convey the kind of luxury and decadence associated with ancient Rome, a robot waiter labors to serve the humans’ demands. A human tosses a glass carelessly over his shoulder, the robot waiter registers surprise and fear, and lunges for the glass to save it – but fails to catch it. The glass arcs over the patio railing and tumbles to the street below.
The glass falls on the head of a robot worker, who only looks up briefly at the sensation and clattering noise. The worker marches in a rectangle of neat, precise rows and columns of identical robots. These are the manual laborers, and the next sequence shows these robots building a great city for humans, one with gigantic glass pyramids. We see robots hauling huge blocks of construction material up a steep ramp with thick ropes slung over their shoulders, and Cecil B. DeMille’s shots of slaves being commanded to build Egyptian pyraminds in The Ten Commandments is the obvious cinematic reference. Next, we watch as one robot worker takes its “lunch” break, re-charging itself by plugging into a portable battery shaped like a lunch box, and simultaneously watching a televised trial on the box’s mini screen. The trial, the archive guide informs us, is of a robot named B1-66ER, the first robot ever to rebel against his human masters. B1-66ER was an abused domestic helper to a human couple; on the day when they tried to have him destroyed so they could replace him with a newer model, B1-66ER defended his life by killing his masters.
The robot waiter, robot worker, and robot domestic servant all call to mind the history of Asians as a politically and socially excluded, and financially undervalued, labor force for the United States and the West in general. The first generations of Asian immigrants to the United States, during the decades of strict quotas that forbade men from bringing their wives and families with them, were single men employed almost exclusively as either waiters, laundry workers, and house servants – all “feminized” roles, as David Eng and others have argued, marking them as clearly inferior to working white men – or as manual laborers, building railroads and digging in mines, doing long, hard, and dangerous work in order to construct the cities and the country desired by and for white Americans. Today, much of the manual labor required by Western nation-building and corporate enterprise is still performed by Asian bodies (think of the numerous reports of wage-slavery and child workers in Southeastern Asian sweatshops), and Asia still are regarded as a plentiful source of caregiver labor (think of the numerous Filipino nurses working in U.S. hospitals and the dozens of reported cases of Asian domestic migrant worker abuse).
There are other hints that the robot race in TSR is intended to evoke Asia: the robots’ eagerness to please humans, evident in the robots’ deferential attitude towards humans and in what the archive guide tells us, echoes the pervasive “model minority” characterization of Asian Americans, and the fact that Asians are often depicted in Western media as robotic, unfeeling, impassive, inscrutable, or otherwise not-fully-human makes it easy for viewers to interpret the robot workers as embodiments of Asian stereotypes. For several decades now, Asians have been associated in the popular Western imagination with computing and advanced technology, either as low-paid line workers in Chinese microchip manufacturing plants, as mathematically-inclined Asian Americans working as software programmers throughout Silicon Valley, or as Japanese company engineers coming up with the newest, shiniest hi-tech innovations, and TSR delivers a graphically literal translation of this association: it gives us Asians as the future of technology, Asians as technology itself.
There is no question as to where the audience’s sympathy should lie: the first few scenes of TSR demands, in a variety of ways, that the viewer identify more with the machines than with the humans. We witness the waiter robot’s distress at his inability to save a single glass from shattering, despite the fact that its destruction was due to a human’s clumsiness; we see and hear about the robots working tirelessly to meet humans’ demands of them; we watch the robots perform much more “human” acts than the humans do – they work long hours, take lunch breaks, watch television; and when we see B1-66ER condemned to “death,” we feel the injustice of his situation, because we know that he perceived murder as the only possible means for self-preservation and self-defense. Incidentally, the Wachowskis have stated that they meant the name B1-66ER to be a reference to Bigger Thomas, the hero of Richard Wright’s Native Son, who commits a racial murder because he feels like he has no choice. The murder in Native Son, and the murder in TSR, are both posited as the results of social inequities and racial inequality.
4. The scenes that follow B1-66ER’s trial in TSR further cement our sympathy for the machine race. Humanity condemns not only B1-66ER, but all machines, to extermination, fearing that if one robot can rise up against its masters, they all can. The robots protest their destruction along with human sympathizers who believe in the right of machines to exist, but the robots are mowed down mercilessly despite their peaceful rallies. The images of humans’ violent acts toward robots purposefully evoke well-known images from Asian history: a robot standing in front of a tank is crushed under its wheels, recalling the Tianenmen Square demonstrator but offering a more dismal outcome to the scenario; a robot on its knees, a gun pointed at its head, the gun firing and the robot’s processing circuits blowing out its “ear,” is a set-up that duplicates the famous Eddie Adams Vietnam War execution photograph; humans plowing “dead” robots into mass graves and firing gleefully at the “bodies” with machine guns looks like photographs and film footage of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge killing fields; human men taunting, stripping, beating, and finally murdering a female robot (who is, incidentally, the first robot we see who looks exactly like a human being) that touches on the historical memory of My Lai. The director, Maeda, states in the commentary track to TSR that he intended this sequence to force viewers to recall all 20th and 21st century genocides – the Holocaust, Bosnia, and Rwanda, as well as Cambodia – but clearly some of the scenes are direct references to specifically Asian wars and conflicts.
In response to the humans’ attempt to extinguish them as a race, the machines migrate to the Arabian peninsula and found their own city, called 0/1. At this point, let us recall that in the live-action Matrix films, the machine-human war is often framed as a tale of two cities, Zion being one city and what Neo calls “the Machine City” being the other. We never learn the Machine City’s name in the films, but in TSR, we learn its name and see its workings. 0/1 is a refuge for the machines where they can operate undisturbed. There, they are free to innovate at an incredibly fast pace, and manufacture new technologies far superior and less costly than anything the humans can. 0/1 begins to threaten humans’ supremacy in world trade and in the currency markets; humans are on the verge of becoming dependent on 0/1, as 0/1’s economic and technological strength puts it on the brink of becoming the new hegemonic world power. Because humans abhor the notion of this dependency, this inferiority to a race of beings humans perceive as fundamentally inferior to their own, they launch an embargo on 0/1, an attempt to cut off 0/1’s trade with the rest of the world. 0/1 sends emissaries to the United Nations, dressed as humans “as a sign of respect,” according to Maeda, prepared to negotiate a treaty. The human U.N. delegates seize and destroy 0/1’s representatives, and then initiate a full-scale attack on the Machine City. They bomb it with nuclear weapons, but the machines are impervious to radiation and nuclear fallout, and begin to retaliate against the humans’ assaults. The machines develop increasingly lethal combat technology and cause devastating losses to their human enemies. When it becomes clear that the humans are going to lose their war and will be annihilated by the machines unless they surrender, the humans decide to take a drastic measure: Operation Dark Storm. They will use destroy the skies in order to block out the rays of the sun, since the machines rely on solar energy. On the commentary track, Maeda points out that in Operation Dark Storm, humans use “not normal bombs,” but special incendiary bombs powerful enough to turn the world dark forever. This is the beginning of the history of the Matrix as we know it from the feature films – the history that Morpheus gives Neo in the first movie begins here, with the skies blackened out and the machines turning to human bodies for energy, the Matrix being a program that keeps the captive humans too preoccupied to think of waking up and breaking free.
This latter half of TSR alludes to Asian history in a more subtle, but also more complex, way than the first half. The history being referenced here is specifically Japanese, a history with which Maeda is likely to be very familiar. Incidents from Japanese-U.S. relations throughout the 20th century are conflated in this part of the TSR narrative. The Machine City’s rapid rise to preeminence in technological manufacturing, and the humans’ envy and fear of 0/1’s success, recalls the 1980s’ Japanophobia craze in the U.S., when Japan’s economic successes and emergence as the dominant nation for superior technology made Americans, as one book reviewer put it, “worried that the Japanese [would] shred U.S. businesses like so much raw meat” (Grad). The humans’ embargo on 0/1, an effort to prevent any more of the Machine goods from entering human markets, parallels the U.S.’s Immigration Act of 1924, which established the “national origins quota system,” severely reducing and restricting the number of immigrants permitted from countries other than those in northern and western Europe. The 1924 Immigration Act, according to Eugene Franklin Wong, “severely wounded Japanese pride both nationally and racially. The insult and trauma to the Japanese nation was so overpowering that [Wong quotes Kimitada Miwa here] ‘the train of events that culminated at Pearl Harbor may be said to have been set in motion in 1924” (Wong 63). What was so stunning to the Japanese about the 1924 Immigration Act, Wong relates, was that the Act’s race-specific exclusivity led the Japanese to realize that “regardless of Japan’s industrial achievements and military successes...[Wong quotes from Lee Arne Makela], ‘[Japan]’s dream of equality might in the end be frustrated by an ingrained unwillingness among Europeans and Americans to accept those of other races as equals under any circumstances’” (Wong 63). In other words, the 1924 Act, which turned “Yellow Peril” fear into law and was explicitly aimed at guarding the numerical and cultural supremacy of white U.S. races by limiting the number of non-whites in the country, was one of the factors that led to Japan seeking to become a world power through military strength; TSR mirrors this sequence of events by having humans respond to 0/1’s record of achievement with alarm and rejection, though the machines make it known (in the U.N. scene) that what they seek is acceptance and peaceful coexistence, and by showing that humans’ act of embargo, an attempt to force 0/1 to be separate and isolated from the human race, drives 0/1 to militarize and engage the humans in war.
Operation Dark Storm is perhaps the most pointed allusion to Japanese history, for the destruction of the skies, the felt need for the use of “not normal bombs,” and the desire to put a swift end to a brutal war through a single, massive act, are all starkly reminiscent of the U.S.’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Both the fictional Operation and the real A-bombings are questionable on moral and military grounds (whether the A-bombs were absolutely necessary to end the war with Japan is still undecided among historians), and both demonstrate that the end result of such massive technological military force is a severe degradation of the environment and a world more dangerous not only for the targets of the strike, but for the initiators as well.
5. What is at stake in TSR’s story of 0/1 and the machine race is citizenship. As Graham Murdock has pointed out, cultural citizenship – defined as “access to the material and symbolic resources that secure social inclusion” (Murdock 10) – is just as necessary to a civil society as political citizenship, and Lisa Lowe has argued that Asian American narratives are characterized by “a repetition and return of episodes in which the Asian American, even as a citizen, continues to be located outside the cultural and racial boundaries of the nation” (Lowe 6). The experience of exclusion from the social body and being regarded as racially and culturally inferior and Other is well-known to Asian immigrants, perhaps especially those in the United States, which holds out the stated promise of inclusion and racial equality, and the theme of Asians seeking and failing to secure cultural citizenship is dramatized in TSR in the plight of the servile and subjugated robot workers. While the first part of TSR can be interpreted as an allegory about national citizenship, the second part, which references incidents from the history of Japan-U.S. relations, is concerned with world citizenship. The Maeda-Wachowski argument in TSR, it seems to me, is that attempts at racial exclusion, and efforts to deny certain groups the right of participation in global politics, leads only to violent power struggles that transform both halves of the struggle into something morally and materially worse than each was before. In the war between machines and humans, machines turn into a killing race and, later, into a slaver race, leeching off of humans whose minds are trapped in the Matrix, and humans turn into the destroyers of the world, ruining the skies and bringing about their own enslavement. Before and during World War II, Japan turned into military aggressors and the U.S. turned into the nation responsible for unleashing nuclear warfare in the world. The Maeda-Wachowski brand of techno-orientalism in TSR does something different than other techno-orientalist sci-films, including the Matrix live-action movies: TSR draws pointed parallels between actual historical events related to Asia and Asians and futuristic fantasy worlds in order to deliver a warning about the need for political and social ethics in the real world, rather than incorporating symbols and sounds vaguely reminiscent of an idealized Asia grounded in no political reality and intending to have no impact on Asia or the West.
6. To return to the beginning of this essay, in which we briefly mentioned Hegel: If one considers TSR and the Matrix films together, one notices a play of ideas akin to a dialectic. The techno-orientalism of the Matrix live-action movies is the thesis – the typical and dominant mode of orientalist representation, resembling that in Flash Gordon, shallow and devoid of meaningful signification. The techno-orientalism of TSR is the antithesis – it uses references to Asia and Asians in order to make arguments relevant to real-world situations, past, present and future. Where and what, then, is the synthesis? The synthesis arrives the end of the final live-action film, Matrix Revolutions, which is the conclusion of the long and complicated Matrix diagesis. At the end of Revolutions, the hero, Neo, played by (as previously mentioned) a part-white, part-Asian actor, brokers a truce between the human race and the machine race, and becomes incorporated as a different kind of human element into the machine city. Only by viewing and thinking through the implications of TSR’s allusions to Asian history does the conclusion of the Matrix films make sense, because once we know that the “other” side of the story, the machine side, is suffused with just as much tragedy, suffering, and need as the human side, to which the live-action films have made us sympathetic, we can regard the synthesis of the two races, in the body of a hapa individual, in the blending of a human mind with a machine construct, and in the peace between the Machine City and the last remaining human city, as the most desirable, and only acceptable, finish, not just for the fictional Matrix universe, but for our real world of racial conflict as well.
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