Inuyashiki and the Critique of Transhumanism

Inuyashiki CoverThe best science fiction is always that which lays bare and critiques our contemporary desires. It should expose to the critical light of fictive realization the unexamined, uncontested aspirations of the present moment. This is precisely what Inuyashiki does with regard to transhumanism and the desire for technology to press humans beyond their mortal limits. The work of renowned mangaka Oku Hiroya, Inuyashiki began as a manga and found even broader reception in the fall of 2017 as an anime adaptation and the spring of 2018 as a live action film. The story follows the divergent path of two individuals–a high school student and an older salaryman–who are accidentally killed by aliens but resurrected in hyper-advanced mechanical bodies. The narrative tackles many important themes, one of the most overt of which is the common cultural anxiety in Japan about the fitness of Japanese youth to carry on the legacy and values of predecessors from the boom years. (It is no coincidence that the protagonist is an adult who looks aged far beyond his years, the antagonist a disaffected youth.) Equally important, however, is the way that Inuyashiki explores the implications of transhumanism, a philosophy that advocates the augmentation of human intellectual and physical abilities through advanced technology with the ultimate aim of transcending finitude and, with it, death. To understand the critique of this philosophy, a brief overview of Inuyashiki is necessary. (Fair warning: what follows makes no effort to avoid spoilers.)

The story centers on two main characters already alluded to: the titular Inuyashiki Ichirō and the ironically named Shishigami Hiro. (“Hiro,” pronounced like “hero,” is a play on words in both English and Japanese since “hero” comes into Japanese as a loanword from English.) Inuyashiki is an unassuming salaryman in his early 50s (though he looks much older), unappreciated by his family and disenchanted with society. Shishigami is a seventeen-year-old high school student who cares only for his immediate friends and family, with little interest or affection for the rest of the world. By coincidence the two happen into the same park at the same moment when an alien spaceship appears, obliterating both men. The aliens, having violated their own version of the prime directive, resurrect them both using the only raw materials available–advanced weapons from their ship. What Inuyashiki and Shishigami do with their new augmented bodies constitutes the main arc of the story.

With some initial reluctance and an enduring clumsiness (think your grandfather on Facebook), Inuyashiki turns his power to the social good. He saves a homeless man from a murderous group of children and, significantly, chooses to shame them publicly rather than punish them physically. He pulls people from burning buildings, politely asking the people he saves for secrecy and anonymity. When he encounters more violent enemies, like the yakuza, Inuyashiki (subconsciously) permits himself to take more extreme measures, though he still cripples rather than kills the gangsters. He wants them to spend their lives reflecting on their misdeeds.

Shishigami takes a diametrically opposite course. He immediately begins wandering into the homes of random strangers and killing everyone present. In a particularly graphic early scene, he shoots a father who is bathing with his toddling son and then allows the weight of the father’s slumped corpse to drown the child in a tub of bloody water. At times, Shishigami kills with more purpose, but that purpose is narcissistic rather than noble. When his childhood friend is picked on, Shishigami kills the bullies. When Internet trolls harass his mother to the point that she takes her own life, Shishigami kills the trolls. When police shoot his girlfriend, Shisigami kills the police. The pattern escalates into a final, total confrontation with Japanese society.

The two directions that technological augmentation take in the story represent the greatest hopes and darkest fears of transhumanism, and Inuyashiki presents them as equally plausible outcomes. Both characters flirt with the hyperbolic violence made possible by their extraterrestrial weaponry; both occasionally use alien healing technologies to practice extraordinary virtue. Both cherish their home life; both are frustrated with the world beyond their homes. The central dilemma that drives one to heroism and one to villainy is how to interpret their humanity in the absence of conventional limitations like mortality. As Inuyashiki himself observes, “Death is what makes life precious and dear to us.” Without death, nothing anchors transhumans like Shisigami and Inuyashiki to their humanity. This problem, and it alone, determines the course that each character takes: do I choose to be human even though my circumstance no longer requires me to be or do I jettison my humanity in spite of how it has already defined me?

It is probably significant that it is the older Inuyashiki with more experience in life, more familiarity with his own humanity, who choses to continue to operate by human moral codes rather than adopting the amorality of a superior life form. Even so, he vocally doubts his own humanity, suggesting to a friend that he has become a monster every bit as much as Shishigami has. Taking on the voice of optimistic transhumanists, the young man he’s talking to marvels in response that Inuyashiki is the “most human” person he’s ever known. It is clear from this inner turmoil, however that the continuation of that humanity is a conscious act of will, something that Inuyashiki chooses–whether out of conviction or habit–rather than the logical outcome of his augmentation.

If anything, it is Shishigami who behaves more logically. His is an egoistic and ruthless rationality, one that sees clearly his own nature, his own desires, and the predictable responses of the world to his existence. When he wants money, he takes it. When he wants amusement, he manufactures it at the expense of others. When obstacles get in his way, human or otherwise, he destroys them. And why shouldn’t he? The people around him constantly try to reason with him about the gross immorality of his actions, but Shishigami only expresses confusion. He reasons that, in his new transhuman state, no one is smart enough to catch him in his so-called crimes and, even if someone were (as they prove at times to be) no one is powerful enough to stop him. When his romantic interest gapes at the revelation that he is a mass murderer, he dismisses her shock matter-of-factly: “I’m not human anymore.” To him, that seems to explain it perfectly.

Inuyashiki No Longer Human

And he’s quite right. Philosopher John Gray has made the same criticism of those who advocate transhumanism as a positive good (rather than merely as an unavoidable future).

As the post-human species that humans have created mutate and evolve, human history may indeed come to an end. The question remains why transhumanists find this prospect so appealing. Is it because they think humankind is only a channel for values that transcend the human animal, such as knowledge or information? But unless you posit a Platonic heaven beyond the material universe, it is hard to know where these values are to be found. They are not features of the natural world. If such values are to have any claim on humans, they must have value for humans.

Gray warns that humans that have transcended the finitude that defines them as human may shed human values along with their mortality. Like the Formics of O. S. Card’s Ender’s Game who have evolved in such a way that the concept of murder is non-translatable, transhuman super beings are as likely as not to have any interest in human morals or priorities. Gray imagines that, at best, they will be “a parody of human beings that once existed,” of which there is great variety. Just as likely though, they “could evolve to be like the Demiurge of the Gnostics, malignant or careless in [their] treatment of human kind.”

A more apt analogy for Inuyashiki is not the Gnostic Demiurge but the fickle gods of ancient Mesopotamia. In ancient Sumerian myth, humans existed for the convenience of the gods–to do their labor and cultivate their garden, the earth. When the noise of those labors became a nuisance and interrupted the gods’ slumber, the deities of Mesopotamia decided to kill all of humanity. Shishigami faces a similar problem when jackbooted thugs disturb the quiet life of virtuous retirement he had chosen following a repudiation of all his past crimes. Rather than letting him rest in peace and quietly atone for his sins, the government shoots him, his girlfriend, and his girlfriends’ grandmother. It is then that Shishigami draws his most audaciously rational decision: to kill everyone in Japan. He explains the decision to his girlfriend with consistent bluntness and rationality. The Japanese will never stop hunting him, so all he has to do to live with her in happiness forever is to kill all the Japanese. No longer killing for revenge or amusement, Shishigami now decides to kill methodically and rationally to achieve a clear and concrete goal. His own peace and happiness. Thus, the distinction between humans and gods (or transhumans) is clear in their attitude toward mortality and murder. While most humans would lose sleep over perpetrating a genocide, gods kill precisely so they can rest easy.

Inuyashiki Like a Deity.jpeg

Inuyashiki ends on a superficially redemptive note for Shishigami, the kind of neat conclusion that satisfies the readers’ need for narrative completeness but softens the blow of the stories moral arc. In the end, both Inuyashiki and Shishigami must sacrifice themselves in order to rescue the world from oblivion at the hands of a massive asteroid. Yet even in this, Inuyashiki remains consistent to its themes, as the two men sacrifice themselves for very different reasons. Inuyashiki considers the sacrifice to be the culmination of his humanity, but Shishigami kills himself and saves the world only because he cannot tolerate the idea of letting his friend and girlfriend die. His narcissism is pure and allows the story to continue to contrast the nobility of humanity with the unreliability of transhumanity.

In the final estimation, neither man is truly human any longer, and both wear humanity like a mask. The hyperbolic altruism of Inuyashiki finds him revered like a god; the hyperbolic violence of Shishigami evokes a similarly godlike terror. People are everywhere at the mercy of their will, and it is precisely the fickleness of this will that makes transhumanism so frightening. Transhumanism promises the end of humanity, a fact on which advocates and critics agree. The transhumanist vision of the benign breaking of the shackles or our mortality, but Inuyashiki wryly observes that this is only one of two polarities. Both are equally possible, and the difference between them is a functional coin toss.

History teaches us consistently that new technologies are turned to evil purposes long before they are applied to noble ones. If we really are approaching a technological singularity, former humans may move so thoroughly beyond a nobility rooted in mortality that there is neither time nor cause for course correction. In other words, fear the transhuman because chances are they won’t fear you.

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One thought on “Inuyashiki and the Critique of Transhumanism

  1. […] evidently intended, is as a critique of transhumanism, not unlike others I have profiled here in the past. The film was marketed as a subversion of the Superman origin story, a grimly realistic assessment […]

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