Brain Diving Howling Mad Mardock
by Brian Ruh, Jan 25th 2011
In the last few years there's been increasing attention on light novels, those illustrated, easy-to-read tomes rooted in anime and manga culture. I personally find light novels fascinating, although I have yet to read one that has reached out and given me a strong shake the way a good story should. Although I'd like to see more attention paid to light novels (and see more of them come out in English), at the same time it's easy to forget the roles that other types of books have had in influencing anime and manga. As Mike Toole pointed out a few months ago, there have been plenty of anime series that were adapted from non-Japanese source material. But plenty of Japanese writers have gotten their due as well. As just one case, take experimental science fiction author Yasutaka Tsutsui, who's The Girl who Leapt Through Time (1967) and Paprika (1993) have both been made into anime films. And then there's the whole Animated Classics of Japanese Literature series, which has turned a slew of acclaimed Japanese novels and short stories into anime fare.
Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata (Le Chevalier D'Eon, Fafner in the Azure, Pilgrim Jäger) is another example of a contemporary Japanese novel that's been made into anime. Although it had cover art by Katsuya Terada (Blood the Last Vampire), it's a straight up science fiction story rather than a light novel. The book was originally published in three volumes in 2003 and adapted into a manga running in Bessatsu Shounen Magazine in 2009. However, the title really made a splash in the anime community back in 2005 when it was announced that an OVA adaptation would be coming Gonzo, with character designs by Range Murata. At the time it had been announced that the Mardock Scramble anime would be Gonzo's fifteenth anniversary project, so expectations were high. At the end of 2006, though, they announced the cancellation of the project for various unspecified reasons. Thankfully, the adaptation of Mardock Scramble for anime was picked up by GoHands and was announced in early 2010, this time as a series of three theatrical films (presumably paralleling the three volumes of the novel). The first Mardock Scramble film received a world premiere at the 2010 New York Anime Festival and is currently running in various theaters over in Japan.
The general story of Mardock Scramble focuses on a young teenage girl named Rune-Balot who comes from a broken, abusive home and has resigned herself to working as a prostitute ever since she managed to escape from government-run social services. At the beginning of the novel, she has become the mistress of a powerful gambler and businessman named Shell-Septinos, who has set her up with a new identity within the computers of Mardock City. However, ever curious, Balot begins digging into this new identity of hers, which does not go unnoticed by Shell. Seemingly angered by her breach of trust, he locks her in a car and blows it up in an attempt to kill her. However, a pair of private investigators has been tailing Balot and rescues her before she is killed, although she is still severely injured due to burns and smoke inhalation. Luckily, one of the investigators is also a scientist who traffics in experimental technologies and he rebuilds her damaged body, which gives her superhuman skills.
The beginning of Mardock Scramble, with its initial comparison of Balot to a doll and her later cyborgization, strongly reminded me of the other works of Richard Calder, a UK-based writer of surreally strange science fiction. Of course I mean “strange” in a good way, as Calder is a craftsman who builds fantastic worlds out that are wonderfully twisted and intricate. His most well-known work is probably his Dead Girls trilogy, in which a virus that changes young women into vampiric machines has spread globally. Calder has described the story as being “heavily influenced” by anime and for a time it was under consideration to become an anime itself by Studio 4°C and Koji Morimoto. It is currently being adapted as a graphic novel from Calder's own screenplay by manga-influenced Philippines-based artist Leonardo M. Giron.
These links between Calder and Mardock Scramble prompted me to make his short story “Toxine” this week's Read This! selection. This might initially seem an odd choice, since this is my first fiction suggestion for Read This! and on its surface it doesn't seem to have anything to do with anime or manga. It is a story of a man who falls in love with a broken female automaton in his youth, and spends the rest of his life trying to recreate her. He doesn't love real women; he sees the mechanical approximations of them as being more perfect than any flawed human could possibly hope to be. Certainly, the story is dark and disturbing, with a misogynist narrator. (At one point he even declares, “O women are most beautiful when like machines.”) What makes the story relevant in our case is that the story is easily a metaphor for otaku desire. Rather than desiring real flesh-and-blood people, the pinnacle of perfection for the hardcore otaku is the two-dimensional woman, an abstracted and impossible creature as bereft of life as any mechanical seductress. In many ways Calder's story both celebrates the attractiveness of such disturbing desires and critiques them. (Or at least those who would take their desires too far.)
In many ways, Mardock Scramble is all about desire as well. Since the book is populated with characters from broken homes who have been cast aside in one form or another, the core desire is that most basic of all human desires – to be loved. At the same time, there are swirls of desires that sometimes conflict and oppose this key drive, including the desire to be useful to society, the desire for knowledge, and the desire for money and power.
Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata
After Balot is rescued by Dr. Easter and Oeufcoque, the two investigators who had been tailing her, she is no longer able to speak, but has been granted many other powers beyond the limits of a normal human thanks to the electronic implants and synthetic skin she has received following her accident. Easter was able to modify her thanks to “Mardock Scramble 09,” a regulation in the city of Mardock that allows the use of illegal technologies under certain life-threatening circumstances. Balot begins using her powers when she discovers that she can control the lights and the radio in the room in which she awakes following her accident. The ability she has been granted is that of snarc. I must admit I kind of laughed the first time I read that term, but it gets used through the book so often that by the end you don't notice it so much anymore. Snarc is first described as “a kind of electrical stimulation,” but it's really more than that. By using her snarc powers, Balot can control all manner of electronic devices. It also allows her to project her senses beyond her physical body in order to be able to “feel” objects around her, heightening her spatial awareness.
Balot's new skills are made even more formidable when she is helped out by Oeufcoque. Although he began life as a mouse in a laboratory experiment, Oeufcoque is able to walk, talk, and change shape due to the fact that he is able to bend space. Oeufcoque can change into nearly any tool that could be necessary, including powerful weaponry. Early in the book, Dr. Easter and Oeufcoque convince Balot that she is still in trouble since Shell had tried to kill her once and will probably try again. In order to protect herself, Balot begins training to get used to her new abilities and to be able to properly use and communicate with Oeufcoque in emergency situations.
Balot's training to be the action hero of the story is reminiscent of countless stories that have come before. The rebuilding of the human body and the discovery of superhuman powers seems straight out of something like The Bionic Woman, while the teenage-delinquent-turned-armed-vigilante has echoes of The Professional, La Femme Nikita, Gunslinger Girls, and Kite, just to name a few. However, it's to the book's credit that it doesn't take the easy way out and make her into a killing machine. Yes, her powers allow her to pull off some amazing feats (particularly with Oeufcoque there to protect her), but Ubukata tries to explore the reasons why Balot is going along with Easter and Oeufcoque as well as what she wants out of life now that she has been reborn.
Although she is a tough fighter and there are a few extended action scenes, the major emphasis in the book is not on fighting. Nor is it, as the blurb on the back cover mentioning “neon-noir streets” might have you think, just a hardboiled cyberpunk detective piece. I'm not sure what exactly I would call it, though, as the emphasis constantly shifts throughout the book's 775 pages. At times it seems like a futuristic police procedural. Toward the end of the book, it seemed like a primer on how to most effectively gamble at casinos. Yes, I'm not joking about this – over a quarter of the book is spent in a casino going through the minutiae of how to best approach slot machines, roulette, poker, and blackjack. It was an odd shift in tone that puzzled me for a while, as if Ubukata had had it with science fiction in the middle of the book and suddenly wanted to cultivate an Ocean's Eleven vibe.
The reason why Balot, Oeufcoque, and Easter were in the casino in the first place highlights one of the key reasons I didn't find Mardock Scramble as satisfying as it could have been. In the story, Balot pursues a legal case against Shell for trying to kill her in the car explosion. However, Shell does not remember anything about her because he regularly purges his memories from his brain into an external storage device. Since these memories are crucial to their case against Shell, Balot and crew need to try to get them back at almost any cost. And the most secure place Shell could think of to store his memories so nobody would ever be able to get to them? He puts them on special media contained within four custom million-dollar chips at the casino he runs. Therefore, in order to get access the media on these chips, Balot, Oeufcoque, and Easter have to start from their relatively meager reserves and successfully gamble until they've managed to acquire four million dollars and the four special chips.
The complete ridiculousness of this plot point kept bugging me throughout the second half of Mardock Scramble. It just doesn't make sense. If you had something so secret it could incriminate you in a court of law, wouldn't you want to choose a more secure hiding place? It seemed like Ubukata made it so specifically to get his protagonists into the casino and talking about gambling. And although it seemed rather odd, I think the plot point's ineffectiveness was compounded by the fact that it actually could have worked if Ubukata had tried to push the envelope of style and been a little more fantastic with the world he was building. As it was, it seemed like he wanted to be both crazily innovative and grounded in reality. These conflicting impulses resulted in a book where most of the characters have really odd names but all of the action occurs in a straightforward manner. Take all of the egg allusions for instance – there is Balot (which refers to a duck egg with a partially formed embryo inside, which is cooked and eaten), Oeufcoque (French for soft-boiled egg), the antagonist Shell and his henchman Boiled, a floating condo called a Humpty-Dumpty, and the “scramble” of the book's title. These allusions are frequently used as metaphor (Balot needs to make her own life decisions and come out of her shell), but unfortunately Ubukata doesn't quite push the weirdness enough to really make some of these names more than odd jokes. Ubukata does succeed in places, such as is in the first book with the Bandersnatch gang – a group of four freakish killers, each of whom lives for grotesque body modification. The four were so over the top, yet disturbing, that I was hoping they would set the tone for the rest of the book. Unfortunately I think Mardock Scramble plays it too safe for the most part. This isn't to say that the book is for general audiences, though. There's plenty of disturbing content, and is seems like nearly every character is a killer, has been sexually abused, or is a sexual predator. Often a combination of the three.
I am very glad that Haikasoru published Mardock Scramble and I certainly found it to be a worthwhile read. It wasn't quite the technological neo-noir that I had been expecting, but I found it to be enjoyable nonetheless. I think key to this is the fact that Ubukata was skilled at creating characters I actually cared about. (If I hadn't cared, I don't know if I would have persisted through those gambling scenes.) I'm definitely more interested in trying to see the anime now that I've read the novel, and I may even pick up the manga when it comes out in English later this year from Kodansha Comics.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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