Manga and the Matrix

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2003

Japan's cultural and linguistic influences on the Matrix series.

by Richard Donovan

JAPANESE FANS OF THE first Matrix film became -- how shall I put it? -- animated by the much-anticipated general release of the sequel Matrix: Reloaded on June 7, three weeks after it debuted in the West. On June 15, more than a hundred dark-suited Agent Smiths converged on Shibuya Station in Tokyo in a fan-organized, salaryman-gone-wild reenactment of one of the signature scenes of the new movie. Similar suits have staked out mass-transit locations in Osaka and Kyoto in recent weeks. In its first weekend in Japan, Reloaded earned a record $18.8 million (including preview screenings) -- jump-kicking Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone into second place. Its first-week earnings even bested the beloved homegrown classic Spirited Away. In addition, a staggering 25.1 percent of the potential audience tuned in to terrestrial TV to watch the original Matrix film the day before Reloaded's general release, a 20-year high for a Western movie. The tie-in Animatrix (showcased in J@pan Inc's May 2003 issue) also rapidly ascended to the top spot for DVD sales. The Japanese love for all things Matrix is reciprocated in its American directors' fascination with Japan, and this, the self-proclaimed "Year of the Matrix," is the ideal time to examine the phenomenon of the intercultural feedback loop that the Matrix series epitomizes.

The code behind the Matrix is represented
as green cathode-ray lettering that is primarily
composed of numbers and Japanese katakana

Unlike movies inspired by prior pop-cultural incarnations (such as US box-office champ Spider-Man and X-Men, both originally comics), The Matrix was a worldwide phenomenon that came out of nowhere--or so it seems. As the films like to continually remind us, appearances can be deceptive. Despite the more obvious nods (should that be bows?) to Hong Kong action movies and genuflections to the Christian trinity of sacrifice, resurrection and redemption in the Matrix series, the American directors, the Wachowski brothers, actually owe much of the look and execution of their work to the Japanese pop-culture narrative forms of manga and anime. They are on record as big fans of SF anime classics Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1996/98), which both began life as manga and are both alluded to in scenes of The Matrix.

The Wachowskis originally envisaged The Matrix as a graphic novel and prepared a 600-page movie pitch for Warner Brothers. Like the painterly Japanese director Kurosawa, they approached filmmaking as hands-on artists, preparing themselves the meticulous storyboards that have prescribed filming from the first to the last shot in their Matrix movies. The actors were given little if any room for improvisation in their tightly encoded and blocked-out universe --even when shooting scenes for the video game Enter the Matrix that accompanies the second film. (This may in fact have contributed to the frustration some gamers report: that they're not so much participating in the game as watching it unfold as a tableau of scenes.)

The more "discerning" cultural consumer disdains to mention cartoons (The Flintstones, anyone?) in the same breath as manga, even though at their worst they too can be horrendous. Larry and Andy Wachowski, who began their narrative work as comic-book artists on Marvel Comics' Ectokid, are keenly aware of the distinctions. What sets the best of manga apart from the graphic equivalent of pulp novels is not only the complexity and nuance of their plots, but also the sophistication of their presentation. Ironically, manga revels in borrowed cinematic techniques like close-ups, superimpositions, voice-overs and forced angles, introducing a dynamism of form and sequencing reminiscent of storyboarding. The frame is ultimately not so much a constraint as an expressive device in its own right. Style and substance become inseparable, the one informing the other in a mutual embrace that is sometimes antagonistic, sometimes amorous -- much like the subject matter itself.

The Japanese language is an ideal complement to such dense pictorial representation, because, unlike English, it can be written at almost any angle vertically and horizontally in the frame. Further, Japanese is rich in onomatopoeia, enabling the depiction of subtle auditory, visual and psychological phenomena with a degree of inflection unavailable in English. This is a language that even has a "sound" for silence (shin).

The famous "bullet time" sequences in the original Matrix film, where the camera rotates around the scene frozen in time, could be regarded as a specific tribute to manga -- what the Wachowski brothers refer to as a "frozen graphic moment." This gets an upgrade in the "burly brawl" scene in Reloaded, where Neo battles multiple Agent Smiths.

The shadowy Japanese influences on The Matrix take on a greenish tinge when we deal with the virtual-reality (VR) world itself. The code behind the Matrix is represented as green cathode-ray lettering that is primarily composed of numbers and Japanese katakana (squarish characters used mainly to represent foreign loan words in Japanese), scrolling from top to bottom on the screen (like Japanese and Chinese can), and apparently random in content. Our first reaction is probably that they look cool -- but let's go a little deeper down the Wachowskis' rabbit hole, shall we?

First, katakana are a savvy choice for the basis of the Machines' code, for while they appear foreign and unintelligible to non-Japanese eyes, at the same time they are not as far removed from English characters as, say Chinese or Arabic. There are occasional unsettling familiar echoes of English letters. Perhaps the use of katakana is supposed to suggest the machines originally derived their code bytes from English, the dominant language at the time they became sentient, but that they moved beyond the limitations of that representation, and instead chose katakana. Then again, it could be interpreted as an indirect accusation -- that the Japanese high-tech revolution of convenience may be ultimately responsible for the proliferation of sentient machines that take over the world!

One anonymous Matrix fan has incorporated a theory about the role of katakana in the machines' code into his or her "tribute" screenplay for Reloaded (which, I hasten to add, differs entirely from the actual movie: check it out at, and then search within the page for "katakana"). The writer suggests that katakana represents a radical innovation in computing that allowed the VR world of the Matrix to come into being: the simple binary system of off (0) and on (1) that had been the mainstay of computer memory and calculation has been superceded by quantum computing, replacing 0/1 with every possible number between zero and one, i.e., an infinite number of infinitesimally small numbers. Supposedly these are represented by katakana combinations rather than numbers. There's no evidence that the Wachowski brothers conceived such a role for katakana -- but it's an intriguing attempt at an explanation for its presence.

The American directors, the Wachowski brothers,
owe much of the look and execution of their
work to manga and anime

A further twist is that the characters we see pouring down the screen are printed backwards (i.e., they are mirror images), which has two effects. First, it distances the characters further from their normal state, again suggesting an estrangement from their original human use in communication. Second, and more intriguingly, it could imply that it is in fact we, the viewers, who are inside the Matrix ("through the looking-glass"), unaware that we are looking out. This would support the interpretation of the films as a "wake-up" call to a society increasingly enslaved to corporate commercialism and what Umberto Eco refers to as "hyperreality," a reductionistic version of the real world (epitomized by gargantuan theme parks) that leaves us mentally and spiritually impoverished.

Whatever our interpretations of the katakana characters, it's clear that in using them the Wachowski brothers are delivering a backhanded compliment to the Japanese culture that has so influenced them. As reported in May's J@pan Inc is the fictitious birth year of Astro Boy, a beloved, and artificially intelligent, hero of Japanese TV anime ( who embodies technology as savior. It is also the "Year of the Matrix," a veritable blow-by-blow of technology run amok. Coincidence? Of course. But in the world of the Matrix, and the minds of many obsessed anime fans, there is no such thing as a coincidence.

The endless cross-pollination between Western and Japanese pop culture is destined to continue: next stop, Matrix Revolutions, due out in November. Free your mind, and animate your wallet. @

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