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Sunday August 2, 2009

Strange-arm tactics

Many characters in anime and manga have something up their sleeves ... literally.

WHEN you hold a manga in your hands to read it, your thumbs hover at the edges of your vision while your eyes are focused on the page. But there are so many manga stories about people whose arms turn into monsters or machines that you might want to stop and check what your fingers are up to.

In the popular manga Parasyte, teenage protagonist Shinichi must come to grips with the fact that a shape-shifting space alien has taken over his right arm. A major character in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service believes his arm to be inhabited by a space alien who speaks through an ever-present hand puppet. The title character of Vampire Hunter D has a mysterious entity living in his hand, with its face appearing in his palm. Relations between a person and a possessed limb are often antagonistic, and there is an episode in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure in which a demonically possessed arm actually tries to kill the man it is attached to.

Young wizard Edward Elric has a mechanical arm (and leg) in Fullmetal Alchemist. – (c) Hiromu Arakawa/FA Projects, MBS

But manga characters are just as likely to find their arms replaced by machinery, especially weapons. The main characters in the space opera Cobra and the medieval fantasy Berserk have metallic weapons where their left forearms should be. Young wizard Edward Elric has a mechanical arm (and leg) in Fullmetal Alchemist. The main characters in both Dororo and Madara have bodies made almost entirely of prosthetics, including weaponised arms. Further afield, the Final Fantasy VII video game and last year’s live-action movie Machine Girl prominently feature characters whose missing arms have been replaced by giant guns.

Japanese pop culture has no shortage of bizarre arm stories. The Daily Yomiuri recently asked some experts why.

Jason Thompson, author of Manga: The Complete Guide:

“I think on the simplest character design level, it’s a way to give the main character a weapon or feature which is part of themselves – part of their own body,” Thompson replied in an e-mail. “A martial artist’s strength, or (to use an American superhero example) Wolverine’s claws, is something which can never be taken away from them, unlike, say, a sword or a gun or a suit of armour. A ‘trademark weapon’ is an important part of the character, so why not make it part of the character?”

Andrew Cunningham, the English-language translator of Parasyte:

Unlike a sword, a gun or a suit of armour, Wolverine’s claws can never be taken away from the superhero.

He wrote: “From a writer’s point of view, I think artificial arms represent both an attention-grabbing hook and a concept that helps drive the plot. You can use the arms to make heroes extraordinary, but also handicap them for dramatic tension.”

Duane Johnson, the English-language translator of the latter volumes of Berserk and Vampire Hunter D:

“In Berserk, the main character Guts undergoes a highly traumatic experience in which he chooses in desperation to sever his own arm in an attempt to save the woman he loves from being raped by a demon,” he wrote. Later, “one of his old friends fashions a mechanical arm for him. This metal arm conceals a small cannon in the wrist, has magnets in the fingers which allow it to assist in gripping a sword, and can support attachments such as a repeating crossbow”.

“In Berserk, from time to time Guts will reflect on the loss of his arm. His prosthesis has helped him win many a battle against demons, against whom a human would normally have very little chance of victory. But at times the arm has been a hindrance, such as weighing him down when submerged in water.”

Tak Watanabe, a professor of anthropology at Sophia University in Tokyo:

“If you subscribe to Freudian notions of castration (and put aside the sexual connotations), then those arms can represent the fear of castration, of impotence, of lacking identity. The replacement arms indicate that the character has lost something dear, and this loss of power is central to the character development in these manga.”

Thompson, who suggested dividing the stories into the categories of “hand as Other” and “hand as Part of Self”, also invoked Freud. He said that the “Self” stories are “about coming to terms with your own power ... the standard ‘growing up’ scenario. Of course, to go to a Freudian level which most children’s manga don’t go near, there is a time in their lives for many people when their own body is both ‘the Self’ and ‘the Other’, and that is puberty and the awareness of one’s own sexuality ... the ‘evil, wicked hand which does things by itself’ leads easily to jokes about masturbation, and in some (adult) manga, like Hanappe Bazooka (in which it’s played for laughs) and Arm of Kannon (in which it’s played for gross-out), this connection becomes pretty explicit.

“Or the horrible scene in Akira when Tetsuo loses his arm, and his cybernetic arm later goes out of control and explodes into a mass of flesh which engulfs his whole body. Scenes like these are truly what’s known as ‘body horror’, and with their repulsion of the body, they have an undeniable sexual component, either explicit or implicit.”

“What the lost arm is replaced with is what I find interesting,” Watanabe remarked. “Capt Hook’s arm is a hook. Why? Because he is crooked. Why is Shinichi’s arm a parasite? Maybe he is a parasite, like all the human beings on the planet – a claim that is made at the very beginning of the manga series.”

Capt Hook is one of the relatively few Western examples of the phenomenon, but his hook hand is an inert object. Wolverine of the X-Men series and the title characters of Dr Strangelove and Edward Scissorhands, all of whom have livelier appendages, nearly complete the short Western list.

But Johnson mentioned one more: “Kentaro Miura, the Berserk artist, has stated in interviews that he’s a fan of the Evil Dead movie franchise. In these movies, the main character (Ash) loses one of his hands, later replacing it with first a chainsaw and then a metal prosthetic hand. This suggests that while the artificial arm phenomenon may be decidedly Japanese in nature, there is also at times a foreign influence.”

Still, why are there so many Japanese examples?

Tomoyuki Omote, a researcher at the Kyoto International Manga Museum:

“My answer ... may be different from what you’re expecting, but, for Japanese children, changing the form of one’s arm was always part of their desire to become, or transform into, a hero. For example, many Japanese men pretended to be a hero when they were small. They wore an empty container, such as a Pringles potato chip canister, on their arm (and got scolded by their parents).”

Prof Yasue Kuwahara, director of the Popular Culture Studies Communication Department at Northern Kentucky University (US):

“The relationship of the character and the arm as weapon seems to reflect that of the samurai and his sword. Not only was the sword the extension of the samurai’s hand, but it was considered his soul.”

Kuwahara also speculated that mechanical arms could represent a love-hate relationship with technology.

Certainly these stories are open to a range of interpretations, with Cunningham pointing to “loss of control” as a theme, while Johnson sees “empowerment” – albeit a dangerous and corrupting empowerment – as in Akira.

What do the strange-arm stories really signify? The answer rests in your hands. – The Daily Yomiuri / Asia News Network