Another Casualty of Subway Gassing: Japan"s Falling Out of Love with Sci-Fi

American fascination with Japanese high-tech fads keeps pushing up the trade deficit -- last year's top selling gadget in the U.S. was Nintendo's 64-bit game machine, and the sci-fi animation "Ghost In a Shell" was the best-selling video. But the Japanese themselves appear to have begun questioning their own faith in the wonders of technology and the 21st century techno-dreamland their industrial planners have been promising.The doubts began with the gassing in Tokyo's subway just two years ago. It has gathered momentum with accidents at two nuclear plants, a bungled attempt to contain a major oil slick, and a bacterial outbreak that could not be stopped by modern medicine and sanitation.Signs of this disenchantment are everywhere. Three dam-building projects were canceled, the first time this has ever happened. Toyota opted for a less advanced engine for next year's model. Enrollment is declining in university science and engineering departments. Young people are leaving the cities in record numbers to start family farms.But the most visible retreat is from the core vision of the future itself as rendered in science fiction."Throughout Japanese society, we're seeing a backlash against science fiction," says Takayuki Tatsumi, a teacher of American literature at Keio University and a specialist in cyberpunk.For example, "Ghost in a Shell" was released in Japan in an English language version, evidently in the hope of avoiding anti-futurist sentiment. Even so, it closed after four weeks, an extremely short run in Japan.A more telling sign of public distrust is the fate of "Memories," the new work by Katsuhiro Otomo's, whose 1984 "Akira" had phenomenal worldwide success. "Memories" opened a year late with no publicity, and closed quickly.It could be that these hit too close to the nerve in a country that has not yet fully recovered from the subway gassing and the Aum Shunrikyo affair. "Memories" is in part about a secret American-Japanese research project into nerve gas anti-toxins which winds up felling residents of Tokyo. It was scripted well before the March 1995, subway gassing and now seems like a premonition of horrors to come."Ghost in the Shell," features memory implanted into bionic secret agents. The narrative line evokes images of the electrode-studded headgear, psychotropic drugs and extreme yoga techniques -- all practices of members of the Aum sect.But there is a deeper concern underlying all this, a worry that science is out of control -- and the scientists along with it.More than one-third of the Aum Shinrikyo priesthood were from among the "brightest and best" -- graduates from elite universities and research centers. Most were involved in researching biochemical, laser, and microwave weapons. Once the media disclosed this, Japanese parents started to ask whether top schools were producing a cloned generation of narrowly focused scientists, out of touch with social needs and incapable of making ethical decisions. For the first time in postwar Japan, the system of education with its cram schools and grueling examinations began to come under fire. After all, why make such an investment if the child is only to end up like a Rhesus monkey with a head full of electrodes?Public fears only deepened when Aum's science chief Hideo Murai claimed his work was inspired most of all by Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series. In this epic, a community of scientists prepares to rebuild galactic civilization amid catastrophic wars and anarchy. Only a corps of elite scientists can save a helpless, confused humanity from annihilation -- or else prepare a select few for post-apocalyptic survival. Murai was killed not long after making this statement, by a mob assassin."Every Utopia contains the seed of terrorism," says cyberpunk expert Tatsumi. An unattainable vision ultimately sabotages the best efforts to realize that vision.The issue raised by the Aum affair is not so much one of science or technology as it is of their myths. It suggests that scientists, like overbearing angels, have fallen from their status as deliverers of salvation to become icons of the occult. In Japan, the Gothic gloom and terror of Frankenstein and Dr. Faust is no longer on the movie screens. It is everywhere in real life.

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