The Shadow of the Matrix

Technology - The Shadow of the Matrix

High-Tech Japan: The Shadow of the Matrix

by Richard Donovan, June 2003

Japan is like the shadow of The Matrix, stretching out elusively behind it as a kind of history, more than as a directly illuminating reference such as the obvious nods (should that be bows?) to Hong Kong action movies in the many fight scenes, and the genuflections to Christian themes such as sacrifice and redemption. Nevertheless, like a shadow, things Japanese are responsible for lending a certain depth to the proceedings.

The Matrix.

The Matrix series' directors the Wachowski brothers have a pedigree that would perhaps find more widespread respect in Japan than the west. They began their narrative work as comic-book artists, working on Marvel Comics' Ectokid. In Japan, manga are seen as an alternate form of storytelling rather than the poor cousin of the novel, something with which the Wachowskis clearly concur. They are on record as big fans of anime, the animated version of manga, citing in particular their love of SF cult classics Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1996/98), which both began life as manga. In fact, the online Wikipedia contends that The Matrix contains direct allusions to both films:

Both a scene almost at the end of the movie, where Neo's breathing seems to buckle the fabric of reality in a corridor he is standing in, as well as the "psychic children" scene in the Oracle's waiting room, are evocative of similar scenes from the 1980s anime classic Akira. The title sequence, the rooftop chase scene where an agent breaks a concrete tile on the roof when landing after a jump, the scene late in the movie where a character hides behind a column while pieces of it are blown away by bullets, and a chase scene in a fruit market where shots hit watermelons, are practically identical to shots in another anime science fiction classic, Ghost in the Shell.

(http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Matrix)

The Wachowskis originally envisaged The Matrix as a graphic novel, and prepared a 600-page version to make their movie pitch to Warner Brothers. Like the painter(ly) Kurosawa - the iconic Japanese director who has greatly influenced such notable western artists as Scorsese - they had precise ideas both about what concepts informed their world, and how it should be depicted, and these came together in the meticulous storyboards that have prescribed filming from the first to the last shot in their Matrix movies. The actors were given little if any room for improvisation in their tightly encoded and blocked-out universe - - even in the video game that accompanies the second film!

Indeed, what sets the creme de la creme of manga apart from the graphic equivalent of pulp novels is not only the complexity and nuance of their plots, but also the sophistication of their presentation. Ironically, manga revels in borrowed cinematic techniques like close-ups, superimpositions, voice-overs and forced angles, introducing a dynamism of form and sequencing reminiscent of storyboarding. The frame is ultimately not so much a form of constraint, as an expressive device in its own right.

Style and substance are inseparable, the one informing the other in a mutual embrace that is sometimes antagonistic, sometimes amorous - much like the subject matter itself.

Reflecting on the Matrix.

Film posters around the world may unconsciously echo the artistry of manga. They have long borrowed the trick of juxtaposition of impossible elements, such as the head of the protagonist (or antagonist) looming gigantically over a wide shot of a landscape dotted with tiny silhouetted human figures. This has three potential effects: first, it almost literally foregrounds the human dimension of the story, telegraphing the message that character dominates setting, and some characters dominate others. Second, it puts emotion and exterior reality in an unapologetically in-your-face hierarchy: that is, it suggests that what we feel is more significant than the physical context in which we feel it - the latter is simply a reflection of these human characteristics (in the literary world, this is sometimes referred to as "pathetic fallacy"). Third, it confounds time and space, compressing the essence of the story into one composite vista, and breaking down the linearity of both the physical X-Y Cartesian world and the invisible but equally inescapable "Z" axis of the march of time.

We can view The Matrix and its sequels as one big film poster in the sense that they foreground the essence of humanity (in Japanese, kokoro, meaning both "heart" and "mind") and place in the background the constructs that humanity has produced (metropolises, machines, artificial intelligence and virtual reality (VR) itself). The battle played out with anime stylization is a perhaps a cipher for the ongoing, timeless human struggle to understand basic and ultimately personal concepts like identity, purpose and reality. (Then again, judging by the film posters that came out for Matrix: Reloaded, it may just amount to a reductionist obsession with the essence of "cool" - most of the characters' heads is deliberately cropped out of the frame, focusing our attention on the elaborate costumes and weaponry. Suddenly exterior reality seems to be getting the upper hand on emotion again.)

Returning to manga, the Japanese language is an ideal complement to pictorial representation, because unlike English, it can be written both vertically and horizontally in the frame. Further, Japanese is rich in onomatopoeia, enabling the depiction of subtle auditory, visual and psychological phenomena with a degree of inflection unavailable in English. This is a language that even has a "sound" for silence (shin)! The famous "bullet time" sequences in the original Matrix film, where the camera rotates around the scene frozen in time, could be regarded as a specific tribute to manga - what the Wachowski brothers refer to as a "frozen graphic moment". This gets an upgrade in the "burly brawl" scene in Matrix: Reloaded, where Neo battles multiple Agent Smiths.

The image of the shadowy Japanese influences on The Matrix takes on a greenish tinge when we deal with the VR world itself. The code behind The Matrix is represented as green cathode-ray lettering that is primarily composed of numbers and Japanese katakana (squarish characters used mainly to represent foreign loan words in Japanese), moving from top to bottom on the screen (like Japanese and Chinese can), and apparently random in content. How are we to interpret this? If you do a search on the web, the most common interpretation among those who have realized that the characters are mainly katakana is that they were used because they "look cool". Fine, but I think we can probe a little more deeply.

The Matrix.

First, the foreign, unintelligible nature of the characters (to non-Japanese eyes) is punctuated by their occasional uncanny resemblance to English characters. Perhaps this is supposed to impart the sense that the Machines originally derived their code bytes from English, the dominant language at the time they became sentient, but that they moved beyond the limitations of that representation, and instead chose katakana. It would be unfortunate if the implication were that the film-makers chose an existing but slightly "alien-looking" typography as a contrast to "human-looking" English letters. It could even be interpreted as an indirect accusation - the Japanese high-tech revolution may be ultimately responsible for the proliferation of sentient machines that take over the world!

One anonymous Matrix fan has incorporated a theory about the role of katakana in the Machines' code into his or her "tribute" screenplay for Matrix II (which, I hasten to add, differs entirely from the actual movie: check it out at http://keanuweb.com/credits/movie.matrix2.stories.2.html, and then search within the page for "katakana" - no longer a valid link). The writer suggests that katakana represents a radical innovation in computing that allowed the VR world of The Matrix to come into being: the simple binary system of off (0) and on (1) that had been the mainstay of computer memory and calculation has been superseded by quantum computing, replacing 0/1 with every possible number between zero and one, i.e., an infinite number of infinitesimally small numbers. Supposedly these are represented by katakana combinations rather than numbers. Note that there is no evidence that the Wachowski brothers conceived such a role for katakana.

However, a further twist is that the characters we see pouring down the screen are printed backwards (i.e., they are mirror images), which has two effects. First, it distances the characters further from their normal state, again suggesting an estrangement from their original human use in communication. Second, and more intriguingly, it could imply that it is in fact we, the viewers, who are inside The Matrix ("through the looking-glass"), unaware that we are looking out. This would support the interpretation of the films as a "wake-up" call to a society increasingly enslaved to corporate commercialism and what Umberto Eco refers to as "hyperreality", a reductionistic version of the real world (epitomized in large theme parks) that leaves us mentally and spiritually impoverished.

Whatever our interpretations of the katakana characters, it's clear that in using them the Wachowski brothers are delivering a backhanded compliment to the Japanese culture that has so influenced them. The Japanese directors of the Animatrix DVD collection of Matrix-themed animations, released just prior to Reloaded, were apparently happy to retain this conceit (see for example its use in the freely available online anime short "Program" (director Yoshiaki Kawajiri) at (http://www.intothematrix.com/). This collection is a fascinating complement to the films, and the number of top-notch Japanese anime directors employed by the Wachowskis in this project is a testament both to anime's grip on their consciousness, and to the esteem in which the Japanese anime community holds them.

2003 is the fictitious year of birth of Astro-Boy, a beloved, and artificially intelligent, hero of Japanese TV anime (http://www.astroboy-online.com/). It is also the "Year of The Matrix". Coincidence? Of course. But in the world of The Matrix, and the minds of many obsessed anime fans, there is no such thing as a coincidence. The endless revolutions of cross-pollination between western and Japanese pop culture are set to continue - without a shadow of a doubt.


Books on Japan