Japanese Anime, Expo 2005 and the Future of the World

I have seen the future: it is soft, green, and fuzzy. The future is named Morizo and Kiccoro, the mascots of Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, the first World’s Fair of this century. Morizo and Kiccoro, typical yruchara anime characters, cleverly designed public relations devices, are distinctive postwar “cute” (kawaii) creations. Possessing tiny limbs and unable to speak or be mobile, with vacant features and no emotion, yuruchara are introverts even the shyest Japanese can relate to. “Hello Kitty,” an yruchara most Americans are familiar with, was one of many originally created during the l970s to lasso young girls into Japan’s rapidly expanding postwar consumer culture.

So what do comfort toys for Japanese teens have to do with the future of the world? They are leading the way in aesthetics, functionality, and design, especially for robotics, and will ultimately shape how we do what we do for the rest of this century.

Japanese Anime, Expo 2005 and the Future of the World by Ellen Pearlman

I have seen the future: it is soft, green, and fuzzy. The future is named Morizo and Kiccoro, the mascots of Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, the first World’s Fair of this century. Morizo and Kiccoro, typical yruchara anime characters, cleverly designed public relations devices, are distinctive postwar “cute”





(kawaii) creations. Possessing tiny limbs and unable to speak or be mobile, with vacant features and no emotion, yuruchara are introverts even the shyest Japanese can relate to. “Hello Kitty,” an yruchara most Americans are familiar with, was one of many originally created during the l970s to lasso young girls into Japan’s rapidly expanding postwar consumer culture.

The train that snakes through Expo 2005 is an IMTS (Intelligent MultiMode Transit System) driven by (I-kid-you-not) Morizo and Kiccoro buckled up in a seat belt behind the engine. Do you know how bizarre it is to be driven by stuffed toys and see their little paws on the driver’s wheel? The Japanese are so respectful of these kawaii creatures! In New York someone would have set Morizo (Forest Grandfather) and Kiccoro (Forest Child) on fire in a nanosecond and those IMTS’s would be driven around by charred green furballs. As Donald Ritchie the famed American commentator of all things Japanese told the Kyoto Journal, “Anime gives the impression of control… give[s] the power-deprived young the impression that they are in the driver’s seat.” But if someone holds so much as a match up to these mascots, the Japanese can now call in UMRS-NBCT, a terrorist security robot to wipe out the attacker.

Expo’s mandate “To create a new culture and a new civilization, proposing solutions to global problems and ways of living that touch the lives of people of the 21st Century” means the technological ascendancy of these robots in order to address global pollution, recycling, and fuel dependent energy consumption. The Japanese Government certainly puts its money where its mouth is, sinking (in 2004 alone) an impressive 1.5 billion dollars into NEDO (New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization) in collaboration with a consortium of universities and private companies for robotic research and design. Startlingly, the end product is all based on anime (animation) and manga (cartoons)

Robot obsession kicked off in the mid-1960s when cartoon shows focused on the autonomous humanoid “AstroBoy, the android Gigantor” and a robot controlled by a human, “Eight Man.” Those toddlers bottle-fed on Kazam! Pow! and Wow-Wee! have now grown up to become the engineers (invariably it’s a him) of highly sophisticated robotic devices that Mom, Dr. Dad, and Gramps can all enjoy. Kazuya Abe, the Chief Designer of the Robots for NEDO told me “Japanese children are familiar with Anime. As you know, we have many cartoon or animations. Many robot engineers are mostly affected by cartoon or animation so that they have a dream that someday they would like to make robots that they have seen in the comics in childhood.”

Well, they certainly have. Expo was full of wacky prototypes that looked like they had sprung right out of the Saturday morning shows. There were security droids Alsok and Mujiro who “combine strength and enjoyment by night, by day are a source of entertainment.” There was the lifelike, invariably female receptionist Wakamaru, an “actiod” (short for actress/android) speaking four languages (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and English) call forwarding phones, giving floor guidance, and doing data processing. Wakamaru’s silicone exterior was so lifelike and her gestures so eerily coy and demure that all she needed was a silicone vagina and, presto-change-o, a new robotics industry would be born– the porn bot that never punks out and never demands satisfaction. Wakamaru is actually part of the Bishôjo (beautiful girl) culture, but, because she is in her early twenties, she is ineligible for the Lolicon (Lolita complex) culture so many Japanese men drool over. Imagine: she could be part of any household array that also includes the autonomous snowplow Yuki-Taro and the cleaning robot SuiPPi.

There are other robot helpers, like the childcare robot PaPeRo, a cute little droid monkey that plays with children while broadcasting a constant stream of information back to their parents. PaPeRo has its origins in the 1970 TV series Doraemon, a cat-shaped robot that protected a nerdy boy named Norbita Norbi. Norbita possessed a secret tool he kept in his “four-dimensional pocket,” a tool that helped him solve problems through—you guessed it—
high technology.

For all you artists reading this, beware. “Cooper,” the caricaturist who wears a beret, can not only draw faces, but “can even draw portraits on shrimp crackers.” There were medicine (Microsurgery Robot MM-1) mobility, weapons and surveillance (Person Following Robot) robots all resembling cartoon characters. The samurai warrior battling robot HRP-2 (Impact motion humanoid robot) emerged right out of okatu culture (robot anime) which sprang from the 1979 TV series Mobile Suit Gundam, long part of obsessive Japanese science fiction. HRP-2 both drums a large Kodo drum and performs kendo or Japanese stick fencing.

The Toyota Group’s Pavilion used anime aesthetics to address the serious problem of creating alternative modes of transportation. They kicked off with an eight robot jazz brass and drum band merrily tooting “When the Saints Go Marching In.” At first I thought it was eight guys dressed in cheesy Star Wars costumes, but no, their moveable digits were too regimented and their autonomic mouths puffed out the tune a little too perfectly. It honestly was musician robots, and the Japanese audience couldn’t get enough of it. They clapped along with the toe tapping rhythm like they were at a revival meeting.

Toyota has decided humans waste too much space driving alone in cars that are really built to hold more than one person, so they showcased the i-unit. It’s a zippy solo contraption that resembles a rocking chair on wheels, sculpted in white plastic and multi-colored neon tubes which light up at night like the Las Vegas strip. Getting even more gung-ho about mobility Toyota proudly presented the i-foot, a contraption that looked like a sleekly curved dentist’s chair (you sit in the chair) and walked with giant, clunky feet. Toyota certainly gets an A for effort, and they told me they intend to actively start selling the rechargeable i-units and i-foots in the next five years. I’m sure if the price of gas keeps going up, they might just have a hit on their hands.

There is a tremendous amount of optimism in this exhibit and none of the scientists seemed alarmed about the very real potential for these robots to become control-droids of a repressive State. Maybe they haven’t considered it since so many young Japanese still live at home with their parents, are childless and believe the State, like mom and dad, will always protect them. The showcased “partner robots” are built to embody the qualities of “kindness and intelligence” which is reassuring. At least they won’t turn on their creators like Hal the Robot did in 2001 – A Space Odyssey.
Or so we hope.

Contributor

Ellen Pearlman

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