Allen: Anime-Noir

Anime-Noir, or how three key anime participate in the lasting legacy of noir

Harriet Allen, Lancaster University

Summer 2011

Harri AllenWhen considered, the noir tradition evokes distinct responses. For me, it is an attitude, a style, the gritty moral wasteland that is being human. As K.D’Alessandro agrees, noir and its offspring ‘explore the tantalising dark side of the human psyche, maintaining that decay and desire are the natural states of human beings.’[1] Noir is more than just film noirs and iconic figures, like Sam Spade, or Orson Welles. Lee Horsley points out that conventions reach out further than the limited confines of the cinematic frame; as such, though my primary texts belong to a predominantly visual medium, I shall first isolate the features that particularly interest me.

As Horsley has proven, the noir tradition is far more complex than a sentence can sustain; nonetheless there are several features that critics agree are conventional noir. The femme fatale is an instantly familiar archetype, and just as complex as noir itself;[2] ‘she’ slips through a range of identities, embracing Out of the Past’s treacherous Kathie, to Brighton’s Rock’s Rose, who’s steadfast loyalty is ignored as Pinkie forces the role upon her. The femme fatale is a powerful and multifaceted role, knowingly meddled with and unashamedly exploited.[3] It is an archetype I cannot and will not disregard in my study.

Sam Spade is resourceful, clever and never idle. He ‘cedes his desire’ rather than fall to the femme fatale, regaining ‘his imaginary, narcissistic identity.’[4] His role as protagonist is characterised by a part-criminal/part-detective duality. This hard-boiled investigator belongs in part to the ‘substantial overlap’[5] between hard-boiled and noir, and in many ways is just as recognisable as the femme fatale. ‘His’ ambivalent archetype will also become part of my study.

The detective is an instantly recognisable figure, but ‘he’ does not exhaust noir’s list of protagonists. Noir is preoccupied with ‘male and female characters who [are] morally flawed, neurotic, or psychologically damaged’[6], whose actions are controlled ‘not by an impersonal conglomerate but by a complex interweaving of character and fate.’[7] Noir protagonists can just as easily take the form of the serial killer, like The Talented Mr Ripley, or the alienated, ineffectual male, reminiscent of Ralph from Goodis’s The Blonde on the Street Corner. I shall touch on such a tarnished character, the transient outcast, briefly in my study, as part of a depiction of film noir techniques. My key sources are primarily visual and, as the ‘noir myth’ invokes the notion that noir is essentially 1940s black and white films, any study of noir must engage with its cinematic aspect. Primarily, I will focus upon lighting, as its ‘opposed patterns of light and dark’ were emphasised ‘as the quintessential noir ‘look’’.[8] Additionally, anti-traditional ‘camera’ angles that helped create noir’s morally distorted universe will be considered.

Noir’s preoccupation with city life accentuates the morally distorted universe. ‘Film noir’s sense of the city was[…]influenced by the ‘Blood on the Pavement’ artists whose canvasses emphasized the underside of modern urban life and the lonely desperation of the night-time city.’[9] Utilising the setting to invoke Dostoyevskian nightmares of the soul is considered fundamental to the noir tradition; thus, I shall read a key source’s exploitation of the city.

Noir is an extremely fluid entity.[10] ‘Generic appropriation is something that noir is very receptive to’,[11] and such elements as the list I have noted above can be infused with other genres with ease, as Liam Richardson explored. ‘Žižek argues that this is an attempt to ‘resuscitate the noir universe’ leading the genre to become a ‘vampire-like entity’ which is in need of ‘fresh blood’ to survive and prevent exhaustion.’[12]  shall focus upon the appropriation of noir within science-fiction, specifically the Japanese anime phenomenon. Anime’s unique styles and aesthetics of ‘statelessness’ have recently seized literary and academic attention. Noir-sf fusions Neuromancer and Bladerunner (1982) are ‘major influences on Japanese science fiction in general’[13]; both are associated with the sub-genre cyberpunk. To many critics, cyberpunk is simply a term to indicate noir-influenced sf; Neuromancer is often called the noir prophet of cyberpunk. However, cyberpunk is a complex genre, and noir inspired sf is not limited to it. ‘The detective story is involved with the status of knowing, while science fiction’s domain is the realm of being. That there should be a significant conflation of these two genres, then, is unsurprising but provocative’.[14] Certainly, noir and dystopian themes fuse with ease.[15] Many anime, then, emerging out of sf and cyberpunk, echo prevailing noir ‘intricacies, superbly creating vastly different worlds, often with more ambiguities than conclusions’[16]. They have developed a solidly independent identity within the noir tradition; I categorize them ‘anime-noir’[17].Accordingly, the remainder of this paper will focus upon three key anime-noir’s appropriation of noir. I previously isolated several vital aspects of the noir tradition: the femme fatale and the detective, film noir cinematography, and the city, which are infused with science fiction makeup to offset noir pretensions[18]. Let us begin with the metafictional Cowboy Bebop, which is self-consciously noir, or perhaps self-consciously in the style of noir narrative is a better phrase. (Fig.1.)


Build my Gallows High, baby – Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop[19] is set within the known solar system, which was conquered by humans, and has since been devastated by an accident that decimated the human population. Within this milieu, CB is a cynical, morally ambiguous story of four people struggling against fate; it’s also the story of one man who is doomed to die because of his past. The basic plot arc is classic Out of the Past, and CB parallels it with style to build the episodic narrative towards character-driven, noir-style peaks. Consequently, the striking, offbeat schemes of light and dark that have been emphasised as the ‘quintessential noir look’[20] transcend the actual colour and lighting of the anime to form the narrative sphere. CB draws heavily on western influences, creating bright, comic episodes resplendent with martial art and spaghetti-western styles, contrasted with abrasively dark episodes drawing on alienation and fatal pasts. The first episode stylishly sets this tone; no one wins. Our two introductory characters, Spike and Jet, end as they began: cooking ‘special beef with bell peppers’ without the beef, and practicing martial arts in the dark. Underneath the surface of car-chases in space, there’s a sense of futility that borders on nihilism. As such, the episodes become the hard-lit bodies of the protagonists, the heavy shadows upon ‘cold blackness’[21].

It is the past’s death-grip on the present that dominates this anime, threatening the lives of all involved underneath the glaze of comedic bounty-hunting. Spike parallels Out of the Past’s Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum); both are repentant criminals who are tired of running, characters who belonged to Chandler’s evocative scene ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’[22] And yet they are tarnished. Jeff and Spike defy categorization; they belong nowhere. Whereas Jeff is regarded as an outcast by his suspicious neighbours, yet cannot survive within Whit’s ‘sphere of urban crime’[23], Spike inhabits a nihilistic state instigated by the conflicting forces of the past and present. A recurring device is an extreme close up of Spike’s unnatural eye, which dissolves into flashback: ‘I’ve been seeing the past in one eye and the present in the other.’ This ‘inescapably determines the present and future’[24]; like Jeff, Spike cannot live without facing his past once and for all, for which he is doomed to die; and, like Jeff, his past is entangled within a love-triangle, in which Whit and Vicious are content to win back Kathie and Julia, respectively, at the point of a gun.[25]

However, CB’s treatment of Julia, in the role of the duplicitous Kathie, steers away from the notion that femme fatales are fated to ‘end up lousy’. ‘She can’t be all bad. No one is,’ Ann comments after learning of Kathie. Jeff mutters, ‘Well, she comes the closest.’ Visually, Julia is the classic femme fatale. Her long blonde hair, ‘long, sensuous legs’[26], and tight sweaters are stark contrasts to the lackluster environments she inhabits. (Fig.2.) ‘There was a woman, first time I’d found someone who was truly alive,’ Spike muses. ‘At least, that’s what I thought. She was the part of me I’d lost somewhere along the way, that I’d been longing for.’ Her existence is alluring, ambiguous, and it cannot be denied that the memory of her, as well as her presence in the final episodes, enacts the traditional femme fatale role of placing the hero in jeopardy.


Jet: What’s Julia like?

Faye: The kind of beautiful, dangerous ordinary that you just can’t leave alone.[…]Like an angel from the underworld. Or a devil from Paradise.


Yet through flashback and darkly electric meetings with Whit’s counterpart Vicious, Spike’s belief that she betrayed him is revealed as false. Unlike Kathie, who ‘can never help anything, can you?’, Julia took herself out of the equation to protect both herself and Spike, the man she loves. In a fascinating doubling of roles, Spike and Julia lure each other to their inevitable deaths.

The femme fatale is a consistently employed archetype in CB, ‘deployed in an obvious and straightforward way’[27], yet challenged in the run of the narrative. Julia is deployed to give a semblance of hope that order will be restored. The dismal tragedy in Out of the Past, then, is equally paralleled by the sight of that suggestion of restored harmony being ripped out from underneath our protagonist. Horsley notes, ‘The elements of the [femme fatale] image constitute a kind of visual shorthand for dangerous attraction and steamy corruption’[28]; Faye, CB’s co-protagonist, epitomizes this statement. Independent, manipulative, and doomed by a mysterious past, she slips in and out of her sexualised skin with potent skill. No other moment in the season encapsulates her power to violate male fantasy than when Faye is caught stealing. She cocks her elbows back, adopts submission, and oozes sexuality while she tries to bargain with Spike. (Fig.3.) Faye knows exactly what she’s doing when she arouses men’s attention, and it’s always for her own purposes. Her ability is reminiscent of Kathie, who ‘embodies postwar fears that women[…]might abandon the domestic sphere entirely, causing all manner of social mayhem.’[29]

However, paralleling Jeff’s ability to ignore other femme fatales after Kathie, Spike pays her no attention. As easily as she slipped into dangerous submission, Faye resorts to ‘masculine’ language to achieve her goal. She is a disconcerting mix of sexualized woman and aggressive ‘male’ habits, such as drinking, smoking cigarettes and occasionally cigars, unnecessary violence, and turning on partners to gain profit. Self-consumed, anti-domestic, anti-social: an incomprehensible force to men. She distorts the fundamental belief in female submissiveness that is proving difficult to change at the heart of Japanese culture.[30]

Perhaps one of the problems of noir archetypes evoked in the medium of anime, especially an anime created to be as entertaining as it is tragic, is the inevitable transcendence from paralleling the classic to parodying it. Faye’s introduction in the third episode cuts her body into three erotic sections; long naked legs, short hot pants, stomach-bearing vest stretched across a grotesquely full bosom. She tilts precariously into caricature, far from the fur coat wearing Kathie. Her image subscribes to anime’s consistent treatment of women as objects of the gaze; ‘from a male point of view, they can perhaps be seen as an over-the-top and therefore fear-free indulgence in the ‘forbidden’ fantasy of the powerful and indestructible female with all her erotic allure intact.’[31] Her costume pairs the fantasy of the leather-clad dominatrix with the lolita complex, reminiscent of Mathilda from neo-noir Leon.

Despite Faye’s image being constituted as ‘fan service’[32], CB opens opportunity to complicate her archetype. Noir themes of memory and alienation abound within Faye’s construction; asleep for fifty-four years in a cryogenic coma, Faye awakened to a debt she could not pay, no past, and a world treacherously strange to her, in which the people she relied on utterly betrayed her trust. Recalling Ellson’s Tomboy, Faye’s indomitable exterior had to be learnt and assembled from the pieces of her self left from her circumstances. ‘Survival of the fittest is the law of nature,’ she says. ‘We deceive or we are deceived, thus we flourish or perish. Nothing good ever happened to me when I trusted others.’ As with most noir plots, the nuances of her construction are revealed only through specific narrative devices, such as flashback and objects from the past. Faye is a fragmented character. She is involved in the performance of ‘tough tart’ to the point that it has become an integral part of her identity, vying with her need to know where she belongs. She sits in front of the TV, scouring the tape from her past over and over for something–anything–that will lead her back to her lost memories. (Fig.4.) Obsession, nostalgia, futility; the noir frame looks down upon her hunched shoulders, her short unkempt hair, and the tough tart becomes child-like in appearance. Remembering does nothing but fracture her subjectivity, to the point of which she is caught in a past that no longer exists. (Fig.5.) Faye draws an outline in the dirt where her childhood bed would have sat. Quietly, she lies down, and the frame cuts away to an extreme-long-shot. She is dwarfed into visual insignificance by the damage surrounding her; Faye is adrift, just as fractured as she had been before she retrieved her memories. The journey has been futile, signifying that at the end of the series, she will not be left intact. Harmony will not be restored.

In the concluding episode, Faye steps into Ann’s shoes, as the ‘good girl’ from who the anti-hero is walking away to confront his past. ‘I’m going to find out if I’m really alive,’ Spike tells her. Unlike the traditional angel, Faye challenges him rather than accepting it. However, she cannot stand against the memory of Julia, and his past with Vicious. She loses her grip on the femme fatale part of herself, unable to shoot him in the back to keep him with her. Faye thus emerges as a blend of noir female archetypes: the femme fatale ‘who seems able to survive in a male world better than most men’[33], and the angel who is capable of redeeming the anti-hero. Like Build My Gallows High’s Mumsie, Faye survives; but she survives as a failure, unable to keep the hero as she desires, consequently unable to redeem him and thus redeem herself.

Exploring the role of the female is a particular trope in anime. Napier notes that between 1980 and the millennium, anime ‘anticipate[s] genuine, although small, changes in women’s empowerment[…]suggest[ing] alternatives to the notion of Japanese women as passive and domesticated.’[34] Ergo Proxy[35] aired in 2006, continuing the rapid growth of independent female leads.


Keeping It Re-L – Ergo Proxy

Re-L is a self-centred, dominating force, a product of her privileged environment, whereas the male protagonist Vincent is suppressed and ineffective, ‘living at the margins, outside of respectable society[…]unable to return[…]home.’[36] Interestingly, their post-apocalyptic world has vanished the need for sexual reproduction; as such, Vincent quickly spirals into lust-less love for Re-L[37], whereas Re-l is completely unaware that she can be perceived as a sexual being, simultaneously retaining a femininity that contrasts startlingly with her assertive ability to wield a male’s tool. (Fig.6.) This is no more apparent than the first episode; a specific series of frames are used to make the gun almost larger than Re-l herself, highlighting her deadly proficiency with a gun. The radical blur of the double-barrel, however, forces our eyes to concentrate upon Re-L, especially her make-up; she is dangerous and feminine, but she is not dangerously feminine in the way of the femme fatale. It is Vincent who holds the allure; Re-L oscillates between a detective’s need to investigate and punish him and her equally important need to follow where he will lead and be destroyed.[38] The name of the monster she’s investigating, Proxy, is a metaphor for the futility of Re-l’s function. She will never find Proxy because proxy is not real; it does not exist. Yet, she finds something ultimately more tangible and existential, while Vincent looks for something without knowing what it is, so that he may understand why he is alienated. Ultimately, he is looking for something that he once tried desperately to hide. Discovering their answers results in the destruction of ‘utopia’, and order as they know it.

While a study of noir should go beyond the look of it, film noir’s arresting visual style should be discussed, as it is an important arena for the noir tradition. ‘The characteristic[…]noir moods of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair and nihilism constitute a world view that is expressed[…]ultimately through their remarkable style.’[39] For example, EP utilises voice-over to the extreme. This is a typical film noir narrative strategy; unlike such classics as Double Indemnity, however, the voice-over does not act as a confessional as the protagonist narrates the past. It is exploited in the present, allowing its characters to reveal the traumas haunting them as the narrative progresses, such as Vincent’s compulsive need to understand his past and his helplessness in the face of his true identity.

Before I go further, I will provide a brief summary of EP. Napier comments, ‘Perhaps one of the most striking features of anime is its fascination with the theme of apocalypse.’[40]  EP exists in a hauntingly beautiful noir frame, embellished with gothic sensibility. The world has been ravaged by disaster, and safety exists in the form of ‘Domes’, such as Romdo, the cradle in which our key characters live. It is a dark, ravaged world outside the sleek ‘boring utopia’, a post-apocalyptic space where biotechnology has shattered the current definition of human rights, problemetising human identity, and where truth and misery walk hand-in-hand: ‘my curiosity would not allow me to be happy.’ Deliberately restricted, low-key lighting dominates. Virtually all colour is drained from the images; only a few flickers escape. This is a world that is struggling, poisonous, uninhabitable. The sf elements that could become utopian spectacle are viciously undermined; similar to Blade Runner, the radically muted world asks to be seen as hyper-realistic, a place not for ‘children or other gentle creatures.’[41] Certainly, the only child that seems able to survive in such a wasteland is Pino, an autoreiv (cyborg) infected with the Cogito virus[42]. Even Romdo – crisp, sleek, and existing under a perpetual simulated blue sky – cannot disrupt the bleak vision. The security promised by the Dome to protect humanity becomes interlaced with the images of moral and emotional bleakness presented by outside. The simulated blue sky becomes a double-edged sword, not only a way to protect the citizens within, but also a weapon wielded to control, reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World. Resembling the classic film noirs it calls to, ‘the entire environment becomes hostile, chaotic, deterministic.’[43] EP pushes such a noir ideal to the extreme; unlike Out of the Past, director Murase deliberately maintained a code that faded his characters and background into each other. (Fig.7.) In episode 4, Vincent wakes to find that there is life outside of the Dome. Yet, it is a frayed net of alienated and forgotten figures, living on lies and futile hope. ‘Noir thrives on confusion and a breakdown of values’[44]; in EP, the people are becoming their landscape, the landscape the people. There are no clear motivations, no strict balance of good and evil; corruption and decay leaches colour from the world, until all there is left is grey, and those with the ability to survive.

This noir style creates an unrelentingly dark atmosphere. It is riddled with silhouettes and eerie framing, extracting as much as possible from the malleability of animation to draw us deep into the playing space. (Fig.8.) In episode one, Re-L begins her search for the murderer; we spy on her from behind the shadow that dominates the right-hand side of the frame. The ‘camera’ circles her shadowed shape from above as she stands in the abandoned building. The eerie silence is suppressed by increasing music. Dramatic low angles bend the ceiling, as if the walls are going to swallow Re-L whole; a monstrously spread-eagled shadow falls from too bright light. The angle plays with our knowledge and our protagonist’s apparent lack, increasing the claustrophobic tension.

The playing space is dissected with similarly disorientating shots, juxtaposed against an unpredictable unity of time. EP’s animators are unrepentantly noir in their ability to let no affirmation of order come to the fore. Hypnotic moments of light in darkness heighten the atmosphere. Spicer notes that cinematographers ‘place the key light below the actors, creat[ing] gigantic shadows and garish facial expressions, while ‘strange highlights’ were frequently deployed on faces to show dementia.’[45] One of the most potent treatments of this is Vincent’s eye-colour. In episode three, Vincent has been falsely accused of murder[46] and forced into the fatal outside. He has been the typical noir outcast, running blindly and rootless, his eyes closed as he suppresses himself in an attempt to conform. His failure results in society casting him out. At this moment, as shadows writhe upon his body and he is threatened both inside and out, we see his eyes for the first time. (Fig.9.) The dramatic lighting and colour techniques echo the best film noirs, communicating a wealth of information to the viewer. Vincent dominates the frame. Re-L’s shock is mirrored by our own reactions; the green of his eyes amid the shadows is arresting, and highlights his suffering and debilitated psyche. Through him, the anime deals innately with dementia of its characters, and ultimately with anamnesis. He is a perfect noir subject, ‘Obsessed, alienated, vulnerable, pursued or paranoid, they struggle with fatality, suffering existential despair as they act out narratives that raise the question of whether they are making their own choices or following a course dictated by fate.’[47] He emerges as both victim and aggressor, the potential for violence within the most ordinary of people embodied in Vincent’s alter ego, Ergo Proxy. Simultaneously, EP inverts the familiar noir convention. ‘I think, therefore you are,’ Ergo Proxy, the creature built for Death, tells his avatar, suggesting that even in the most violent of people there is the need to be normal, to be a ‘citizen’.

EP takes from classic film noirs the ability to uncover the darkness beneath seeming security, and the darker aspects of the human condition. Romdo is a cradle rife with secrets; but the Proxies are not just Romdo’s dark secret, they are a symbol of the decay of society, and of the human as we see it today, an inescapable part of an unstable future we are shaping; the complexities presented to us on a platter of film noir techniques.

The struggles of EP’s protagonists, which cannot ‘ultimately be put to rights’, are realised in the motifs of entrapment that they inhabit: tunnels, buildings ravaged by time, vast open spaces. This landscape is a symbol of Vincent’s fractured state of mind. Utilising the setting to suggest Dostoyevskian nightmares of the soul is a particularly noted noir style, and as Napier points out, infused cyberpunk with ‘dimly lit labyrinthine cityscapes [that] dominate the mise-en-scéne.’[48] No anime-noir exploits it with more elegance than Ghost in the Shell.


She is the hero; she is everything – Ghost in the Shell

As E.Dimendberg identified a shift in noir’s representation of the city in the 1950s[49], anime-noir of the 1990s and the millennium represent another modification; they echo the claustrophobic, trapped, labyrinth existential places that coiled threateningly around protagonists in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Se7en. This intricate urbanism present in Ghost in the Shell [50] is the point at which the iconographies of sf and noir thoroughly overlap.

Ghost is dark, complex, and unashamedly cinematic; it was one of the first animes to gain international theatrical release. Set in 2029, in Tokyo[51], the technolised world is rooted in a ‘controlled and systemized’[52] dystopia. Like Blade Runner, Ghost’s Tokyo owes much to the alienated spatialities of Chandler. Half way through the film, there is a long segment in which director Oshii simply focuses on the city, pulling images of rivers filled with waste, reflections on the shiny, wet surfaces of the street, accompanied by a haunting, almost alien melody. (Fig.10.) Whenever we see the sky, it is either heavy slate grey or a night without stars, stifled by the monopoly of buildings and sea of data. Ghost’s Tokyo is a place of excess; ‘Hong Kong seems to be the only city in the world with such a degree of confusion — with gigantic signs and neon lights protruding into the space on and above the street and fighting for limited and precious visual space.’[53] (Fig.11.) Noir’s existentialism places great emphasis on the city as a trap,[54] and Ghost’s Tokyo is as repellent as it is seductive. It is a labyrinth, dark, confusing, filled with dead ends, and above all threatening; pulled directly into the whirlpool of information through the stimulation of visual and auditory senses, the people who live in this claustrophobic city are numbed of feeling.[55] The city in which Ghost’s protagonists operate is thus as infested a landscape ‘as any in the darkest noir of the forties’[56]. Naremore suggests that noir directors ‘use images of the[…]city to suggest a Dostoyevskian nightmare of the soul’[57]; Ghost is no different. Ghost’s protagonists descend more deeply into the ‘necropolis that exists below the surface’[58] of the sea of data, and thus into the fractal chaos of identity. Bruce Sterling posits that one of the most powerful and recurring themes of cyberpunk is ‘mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligences, neurochemistry–techniques radically redefining the nature of humanity, the nature of the self’.[59] Anime-noir like Ghost, which have emerged out of the cyberpunk era, thus capitalize on the noir tradition by depicting characters alienated not just from society but from their own minds and bodies. As Nazare indicates, then, ‘for the hard-boiled[…]detective and the cyberpunk protagonist[…]the quest is not merely to identify a mysterious killer but to come to terms with (or preserve the terms of) personal identity.’[60]

By the 1980s, Naremore illustrates, the iconic noir figures were ‘becoming an antique, but he could be brought up to date’.[61] He lists post-feminist angles, among a few, ‘as in Robert B. Parker’s Spencer novels and TV show (1985-1988)’.[62] In the cyberpunk era, as indicated in the above paragraph, the private-eye becomes a detective struggling with alienation from mind and body; this is achieved through the ambivalent position of the cyborg. Ghost’s cyborg detective, Major Mokoto Kusanagi, exists within her city of excess with particular adherence to noir themes. She is a destabled identity, both in her position as human-machine hybrid, and her changing roles between detective and criminal, predator and prey, to the point that, by the ‘conclusion’ of the narrative, balance has not been restored but eternally broken, as her ‘human’ ghost merges with a self-conscious entity birthed in data, the criminal the Puppet Master.

Before we first meet Kusanagi, the frame takes our gaze on a flight through levels of acid green data, shaped to an aspect of the city. The multi-cultural radio of voices is drowned out by the sounds of helicopters; we are flipped out of the chaos of data into thick, brooding clouds of reality. The camera trails down the night-lit cityscape, to rest on a black-clothed, still figure, crouching on the edge of a building, just off centre. The shape is androgynous, wearing sunglasses, and a dark, high-collared coat, which echoes the trench coat favoured by hard-bitten detectives Sam Spade and Jeff Bailey. (Fig.12.)

Chandler wrote that the noir detective ‘is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man[…]He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.’[63] Kusanagi is an echo of the noir detectives of the early period, both implicated in the underworld (when we first see her, she unrepentantly and bloodily shoots a politician) while also grasping some form of moral control within the transgressive world of data. However, as our first images of her place her firmly within a corrupting capacity for violence, we are also made flagrantly aware that she is female. (Fig.13.) Kusanagi throws off the coat that links her to the detectives of the hard-boiled era, revealing her naked female body. The female in noir narratives has traditionally been limited to the figure of the femme fatale, or the antithesis of the deadly female, the angel. Horsley notes, ‘One of the defining characteristics of the noir cycle has been seen as the increased centrality of the female figure, with the woman becoming crucial to the hero’s struggles and perhaps constituting his central problem, contributing to his sense of an unstable world and of the failure of masculine desire.’[64] Kusanagi, however, is afforded narrative agency; it is her sense of an unstable world and fractured identity that leads us. She epitomizes the lone detective, independent, strong, shrewd. The frequent visuals of nudity act towards the notion that ‘cyberspace’ could dismantle gender (and racial) margins[65]; the last moment we see Kusanagi in her perfect female body, for example, she is destroying it. (Fig.14.) The erotically grotesque scene suggests corporeality is linked first to the sea of data and then to the human-machine interface; it is data that is important, as ‘bodies are a dime a dozen’.

Kusanagi, then, is the ideal noir heroine, according to Borde and Chaumeton’s description: ‘Beautiful, adept with firearms, and “probably frigid”, this new woman contributes to a distinctive noir eroticism, “which is usually no more than the eroticization of violence.”’[66] However, as with all noir narratives, Kusanagi’s place as female cyborg detective is not limited to this view. The complex undercurrents of her character are just as murky and complex as the noir city.  Suggestions of a utopian cyberspace uncorrupted by gender are destabilized by the profound humanist crisis Kusanagi undergoes throughout the narrative. Her corporeal body, coded on one level of the film as superfluous, becomes a site of entrapment and longing. In the classic Double Indemnity, a central concern is industrial dehumanization; in Ghost, Kusanagi is alienated from her mind and body, as ‘her sense of self and consciousness are inseparable from the organization to which she belongs.’[67] As Silvio demonstrates, Ghost calls to Haraway’s argument that, though there are liberatory possibilities coded within the cyborg, there is equally the potential for increased social domination. Kusanagi is very aware that if she leaves Section 9, the augmented parts of her self will be forfeit: ‘There wouldn’t be much left after that,’ she muses bitterly.

The murderous Puppet Master whom she is investigating only increases Major Kusanagi’s noir-accented alienation. The criminal becomes the victim as the Puppet Master reveals it is a data program that has gained self-awareness, only attempting to escape the ‘death’ of being denied asylum. Kusanagi’s identity as detective is destabilised as she oscillates between its predator and prey; finally, balance is eternally broken, as detective and criminal merge to create a new identity. Kusanagi’s rebirth attends to the hope that human identity can endure the inexorable force of progress, but it is a bleak vision, as survival of the human belongs to the posthuman and, consequently, interminable alienation.


Where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite. – Conclusion

This paper looks at anime-noir: as a term, and as a point of study in the ongoing tradition of noir. It is resplendent with protagonists including and stepping away from the iconic investigator and ‘touches an audience most intimately because it assures that their suppressed impulses and fears are shared human experiences.’[68] Anime-noirs like Ergo Proxy, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop are an evolution, a subgenre strong enough to bond its identity within that complex tradition called noir. Their worlds are an outwards expression of the Existentialist hell we all carry within ourselves, rife with the inability to reconcile absolutes of good and evil, where the good guys are simply the people who are the best at surviving within the morally grey world in which they operate, all set in an increasingly complex future world, shaped by our own advancing knowledge and uncertainty, aided and abetted by technology. ‘Science and technology have come under scrutiny due to their inability to provide stable solutions to the issues facing humanity’[69]; noir’s malleable borders fuse with sf within the phenomenon of anime, characterized by the dark belief that technology is less able to provide the satisfying future that utopian sf used to promise. Anime-noir dynamically participates in the legacy of noir, ultimately maintaining the gritty moral wasteland that is being human.


[1] Kathryn D’Allessandro, in Kat Richardson, ‘What is Tech Noir?’, Kat, <>, [accessed 29/03/11], para. 9 of 16.

[2] Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller, (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 125-152

[3] Horsley, p. 132.

[4] Slavoj Zizek, ‘Two Ways to Avoid the Real Desire’, Looking Awry, (Massachusets: MIT Press, 1992), p. 66

[5] Horsley, p. 23.

[6] James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, (London: University of California Press, 1998), p. 222.

[7] Foster Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, (London: The Tantivy Press, 1981), p. 200.

[8] Andrew Spicer, Film Noir, (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2002), p. 45.

[9] Spicer, p. 66.

[10] Liam Richardson, ‘Postmodern Noir: An Exploration of the Intersections and Hybridity between Genres’, Crime Culture, Winter 2009, <>, [accessed 28/04/2011]

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Susan Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, (New York: Palgrave, 2001), P. 11.

[14] Scott Bukatman, ‘Cyberpunk’, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, in University of Exeter CMIT, 27/09/2000, <>, [accessed 23/03/11]

[15] Baccolini and Moylian, eds., Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 77.

[16] Ohlson, ‘Anime: Fear and Anxiety in Technolyzed Worlds’, (unpublished master’s thesis, University of Waikato 2010), p. 12.

[17] I conflate this term with film noir as ‘anime’ is a separate phenomenon that raises interesting socio-cultural and critical questions about narrative and image culture, simultaneously intertwined with the entity of ‘film’. For an eloquent examination of anime as a unique phenomenon, please see Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke.

[18] Liam Richardson, ‘Postmodern Noir: An Exploration of the Intersections and Hybridity between Genres’, <>, [accessed 28/04/2011]

[19] Any subsequent mention of Cowboy Bepbop shall be written as CB.

[20] Spicer, p. 45.

[21] Naremore, p. 175.

[22] Raymond Chandler, quoted in Horsley, p. 1.

[23] Robert Weston, ‘Out of the Past (1947)‘, Film Monthly, 31/05/2001, <>, [accessed 10/04/11]

[24] Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds., An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style: Film Noir, (New York: The Overlook Press, 1992), p. 216.

[25], L. B. Jeffries, ‘The Film Noir Roots of Cowboy Bebop’, Pop Matters, 19/01/2010, <>, [accessed 20/03/11]

[26] Spicer, p. 90.

[27] Horsley, p. 130.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Gary Morris, ‘High Gallows’, Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 29, July 2000, <>, [accessed 15/04/2011], para. 6. of 6.

[30] See Eri Izawa, ‘Gender and Gender Relations in Manga and Anime’, 1997,, <>, [accessed 28/04/2011].

[31] Horsley, p. 135.

[32] “Fanservice” is a term that refers to the objectification of the female (or male) form, literally for the edification of the male (or female) fans. It involves completely gratuitous shots, which while typically remaining covered (a requisite for fanservice, differentiating it from hentai or ecchi anime) are still sexually suggestive. See Steven Den Beste, ‘Fanservice’, USS Clueless, 14/07/2003, <>, [accessed 11/04/11].

[33] Horsley, p. 135.

[34] Napier, p. 33.

[35] Any subsequent mention of Ergo Proxy shall be written as EP.

[36] Horsley, p. 153.

[37] Interestingly, it is his alter-ego Ergo Proxy that instigates less than innocent interaction with Re-L. As a proxy of Death, his actions symbolise that re-establishing of the sexual order can only emerge out of destruction.

[38] Naremore, p. 264.

[39] Janey Place and Lowell Peterson, ‘Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir’, Film Noir Reader, eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini, (New York: Seventh Limelight Edition, 2003), p. 65.

[40] Naremore, p. 249.

[41] Louis Giannetti, Understanding Movies, 10th Edition, (New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005), p. 30.

[42] AutoReivs infected by the Cogito Virus are said to develop human emotions and a soul. They can no longer be controlled by humans and have been known to turn violently on their masters. Effects of self-awareness differ between individual AutoReivs for reasons unknown: Pino, for example, was self-aware for the majority of her screen-time, but she never attempted to harm anyone.

[43] Silver, ‘Introduction’, Film Noir Reader, eds. Silver and Ursini, p. 8.

[44] Hirsch, p. 200.

[45] Spicer, p. 47.

[46] Of course, as the anime progresses, we come to realise that perhaps he was responsible; or, more specifically, his alter ego.

[47] Horsley, p. 11.

[48] Napier, p. 108.

[49] Spicer, p. 68.

[50] Any subsequent mention of Ghost in the Shell shall be written as Ghost.

[51] Through Oshii’s art designers, actual spots in the city of Hong Kong were transformed into the mise-en-scène of Ghost in the Shell.

[52] Joseph Christopher Schaub, ‘Kusanagi’s Body: Gender and Technology in Mecha-anime’, Asian Journal of Communication, Volume Eleven, Number Two, 2001, <>, p. 89.

[53] Struggling historically between traditional Chinese culture and British imperialism, and adjusting its full-fledged capitalism in order to be embraced by socialism, Hong Kong’s postmodern identity has been singled out as a unique case in the world.

[54] Spicer, p. 67.

[55] Wong Kin Yuen, ‘On the Edge of Spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell , and Hong Kong’s Cityscape’, <>, [accessed 29/03/11]

[56] Hirsch, p. 207.

[57] Naremore, p. 35.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Bruce Sterling, ed., Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, (New York: Arbor House, 1986), p. xiii.

[60] Joe Nazare, ‘Marlowe in Mirror-shades: The Cyberpunk (Re-)Vision of Chandler,’ Studies in the Novel, vol. 35, no. 3 (Fall 2003), pp. 383-404.

[61] Naremore, p. 260.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, <>

[64] Horsley, p. 130.

[65] Carl Silvio, ‘Refiguring the Radical Cyborg in Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell”’, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), in JSTOR, <>, [accessed 20/03/11], pp. 54-72.

[66] Naremore p. 20.

[67] Silvio, p. 59.

[68] Robert G. Profirio, ‘No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir’, Film Noir Reader, eds. Silver and Ursini, p. 80.

[69] Ohlson, p.12.









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