When a piece of science fiction is overtaken or echoed by reality, it tends to be either magnificent or horrifying, with very little room in between. The parts of Project Itoh's Genocidal Organ that seem to be coming most true are not the bio-gizmos used in its high-tech warfare sequences, but how one of humanity's oldest technologies, language, can become its own weapon of mass murder. And now, here we are in 2018, where cries of "fake news" can pre-emptively character-assassinate any claim of fact, and where the political vocabulary has been slashed down to the language of othering and vituperation. So, yes, Genocidal Organ is horrifying, although somewhat more in its original novel form than in its sleekly animated version. Both are something of an endurance test, but then again, genocide isn't supposed to be anyone's idea of a good time. We hope.
Organ was one of three works by the late novelist Project Itoh to be both translated into English and adapted as anime, the other two being Harmony and Empire Of Corpses. It is also the last, as Itoh died of cancer shortly after completing Harmony, ending a career that just then seemed to be hitting its stride. Organ, as both book and movie, sits shoulder-to-shoulder with those other works — not just in the sense that it's as good as they are, but in that all three of them together provide a consistent worldview, and a pitiless one at that.
He wanted a genocidalist, and for his sins they gave him one
What's the ugliest
Part of your body?
What's the ugliest
Part of your body?
Some say your nose
Some say your toes
But I think it's YOUR MIND
-- Frank Zappa, "What's The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?", We're Only In It For The Money
In its broadest outlines, Genocidal Organ works a little like Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness--or, more specifically, its modern interpretation Apocalypse Now. A dutiful soldier, wracked by remorse and doubt, is sent into enemy territory to find one of their own, now gone rogue and dangerous beyond description, and terminate him with extreme prejudice. When the hunter catches up with his quarry, he finds the man he was pursuing is the embodiment of that one last push he needed to go completely over the edge.
The soldier, and intelligence agent, in question here is Clavis Shepherd, but his Kurtz is not a renegade American military man. Rather, it's an otherwise anonymous fellow with the deliberately anonymous name of John Paul. Ostensibly he does PR for the economies of developing nations, but wherever he goes to work, that country inevitably plunges into civil war and genocidal infighting. Shepherd's mission is to find the man, learn his secrets, and if possible bring him to trial.
All this is set against a backdrop that is not terribly dissimilar from the world that came into existence in the years after Itoh wrote the book (2007). In the story, 9/11 caused governments across the globe to opt for security over personal liberty, to press every single collectible piece of data available into the service of that mission. The real push over the edge was when a homemade atomic bomb went off in Sarajevo. In truth, life in the surveillance-state countries is comfortable enough, as long as you don't ask too many questions about what you're giving up.
Shepherd is conscious of what has been given up, but keeps those doubts between himself and the reader. What he keeps clutched even more tightly to his breast is the ambivalence he feels about deciding to take his mother off life support after she suffered a car accident that left her comatose. His job requires him to kill as well, and he's conditioned aggressively to not feel anything about it, but the emotions always have a way of leaking through all the roadblocks thrown up in front of them. Maybe what he's looking for is not fulfillment or even peace, but atonement.
The trail to John Paul leads through his former girlfriend at MIT, Lucia Škroupova, now a language tutor in Prague. Clavis meets her, talks shop with her, establishes a rapport with her. She expounds theories of how language is innate, and how the brain secretes grammars and syntax the way a pancreas secretes insulin. She also talks, in time, of how Paul lost his wife and kids in the Sarajevo bombing — she and Paul were having an extramarital affair at the time — and the whole experience has been cumulatively devastating for Lucia as well.
Then Paul steps back into the picture, and describes (at gunpoint, more or less) the outlines of his work in full. Language, he discovered, can be weaponized to make a population turn on itself, to unlock deep-seated instincts — perversely, not for short-term destruction, but for long-term herd-culling survival. Paul has used this "grammar of genocide" to cause nations that sponsor terrorism to destroy themselves, the better to get revenge against the kinds of men who turned his family to ashes. And what Clavis ultimately sees in him is not a monster, but the key to finding the kind of atonement he's been seeking all along.
Military SF is not normally my thing; I can only take so much gun porn 'til I puke. That said, Organ is only provisionally that sort of a story. The military and SF trappings are there mostly to give familiar points of entry to a more personal, wounded story. It's an echo of what Itoh also did with Harmony, where a purportedly ideal denizen of the setting in the story harbors great cynicism and doubt about both the brave new world and his/her role in it. I liked that both Organ and Harmony aimed to be that intimate and emotionally uninhibited. But both books succumbed to a temptation common to a lot of brainier SF, where too much of the exploration of the ideas in question consists of people standing around and talking about them at grueling length, instead of acting it out or embodying it. That isn't to say such embodiments don't eventually happen — and when they do, it's worth it — but that getting there can be a struggle.
Words and images
The anime feature film adaptation of Genocidal Organ preserves both the best and worst things about its source material, more or less intact. Seeing it on a screen brought back to mind the one-liner I used to describe the original story to friends: "It's like cyberpunk Zero Dark Thirty plus Noam Chomsky — both the politics and the linguistics." It does many things right: it follows the original story with great fidelity, and brings it to life with professional-grade animation work.
It also reminded me of how one of the problems of localization is sounding natural. This goes doubly so for any production that's being dubbed in English, trebly so for any production where an English-dub version is standard-issue for the milieu (read: anime), and quadruply so for when that production ostensibly involves characters who speak English by default. What they end up speaking tends instead to be something that looks and sounds like English, but doesn't flow like it. Writing teacher Ken Macrorie coined the term "Engfish" to describe the clunky, thoughtless writing students use to please uncritical teachers ("My summer was very interesting"), and there's something terribly Engfishy about the way Organ sounds in translation. It sounds less like English than someone's idea of what English sounds like, and given that these are supposed to be native speakers, that hurts.
Some of that, I suspect, is just the original story's writing revealing its inherent limitations. Edwin Hawkes's translation of Organ into English was largely impeccable; it felt colloquial and natural — except for the parts where people are talking to each other. That told me the problem stemmed from two things. One is the way much SF is tin-eared and lead-footed by default; literary quality isn't the main thing. The other is — how ironic for a story about the power of language! — an inherent incompatibility between speech that sounds natural to English-speaking and Japanese-speaking audiences.
The net result is how things that are supposed to be electric and terrifying sometimes just fall flat. One scene near the beginning involves a Georgian military man, confessing to Clavis about his role in the genocide taking place in his country. At first he's proud, but then confused, and finally horrified: it's as if all this was done by someone else. The scene is meant to have power, but the murk of translation and the stiltedness of the line readings get in the way. Paradoxically, the whole thing doesn't seem as awkward when watching in Japanese with English subs. Maybe the lesson here is how such dialogue always works better when read in any form than when heard.
What the anime does get right, though, is a sense of locale and personalization. The streets of Prague look convincingly like their counterparts (well, save for the street signs, but that's anime for you), and the forest and African veldt scenes near the end of the film are lush and gorgeous. Likewise, the character designs complement the story's adult flavor — these are grown men and women, not weedy adolescents. I was disappointed that the material about Clavis's mother was left out entirely, but not terminally so; his motivations still hold water even without that as a motive. And the movie also omits showing us the horrors detailed in the last couple of pages of the book; it's all implied. But maybe this was one of the few times it was better to tell than show.
Organ had a troubled production. Originally it was produced by Manglobe, the studio behind Samurai Champloo, Ergo Proxy, Michiko & Hatchin, and many other excellent projects. They completed only around 30% of the work before filing for bankruptcy in 2015. Eventually another studio, Geno, took over, and hired back in director and screenwriter Shuko Murase (Proxy, Witch Hunter Robin, GANGSTA.) along with some of the original staff. That said, any problems with the finished work don't seem to have stemmed from any production issues per se.
Anything he says can and will be used against us
Language is a virus from outer space.
-- William S. Burroughs
The first time I learned about the term "motif of harmful sensation" was back when I watched that horror chestnut Ringu. Something about the idea of merely seeing an image, or hearing a word, and suffering irreversible harm, has great potency as a narrative device. (Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film Cure also plays magnificently on the same fears.) What's becoming clear now is how this seems less fantasy or mysticism, and more the distillation into a narrative of a mechanism that exists in real life.
"When a person hears too many sentences containing the grammar of genocide," Paul says at one point in Organ, "a change occurs in part of their brain ... Their moral compass switches off." How, I thought, is this any different from the pollution of the spirit and the morals that takes place inside the "epistemic bubbles" created by siloed media monocultures, from Facebook to Fox News and everything in between? Provide one segment of the population with news that's more about implicit value judgments and thinly disguised xenophobic propaganda, or a social media feed designed to keep them scrolling at any emotional cost — or both of those things, why not? — and eventually reality falls by the wayside for them.
Our vulnerability to such messages is not new. What is new, and what Organ touches on, if only peripherally, is how a world of always-on 24/7 streamed real-time media enables it all the more, makes it something that doesn't seem like propaganda but simply "sharing" between friends. The commonplace innocuousness of it makes it all the more deadly when the message is hate and distrust thy neighbor. Itoh may not have connected all the dots to create the picture we see now, but he connected enough of them to make the story feel uncomfortably prescient a decade later.
One other thing that came to mind most strongly, via both of Genocidal Organ's incarnations, was George Lucas's original vision for Apocalypse Now. He'd wanted to film it as a scrappy indie production on a bare-bones budget, but it mutated into something far larger once Francis Ford Coppola took over. The one thing that most seemed to have gotten lost was Lucas's sense of how the movie was about, as he put it, a guy with a sledgehammer trying to kill an ant, only to find the ant is winning. The same goes here. Spoiler, in both cases: the ant wins.