Dystopias need to be more insightful than creative. It’s not about how cleverly constructed the anti-future is; it’s about how incisively the story’s metaphors comment on the state of the world around us right now. Novelist Project Itoh‘s Harmony made mankind’s obsession with perfect health and total safety into its metaphor. The anime adaptation, one of a series planned from Itoh’s works, preserves everything significant about the book — including the poignancy of its message in light of the author’s death of of cancer in 2009 at the age of 34 — and delivers it with the gloss and technical polish I’ve come to associate from Studio 4°C. And like the book, for better or worse, it steps clear of suggesting solutions. It’s focused on showing how things fall apart and the center cannot hold.
Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt
Itoh’s novel, completed in 2008, appeared in English two years later courtesy of VIZ’s Haikasoru imprint. It was timely then, and remains so, in big part because a lot of what it contemplated with unease is starting to look more and more like a really good idea to some people. Decades after a nuclear war (the backstory of which is explored in Itoh’s Genocidal Organ*), much of the human race has fallen under “admedistrative” rule, where everyone is kept healthy, in touch, and safe by way of the “WatchMe” implants that are activated upon adulthood. The only thing people really die of is extreme old age, and they’re working on that too. But all this has come at the cost of losing the freedom to take risks, and the future has become the “vast, conforming suburb of the soul” that J.G. Ballard dreaded.
A few pockets of unregulated ways of life still exist. Some are warzones; others are just lands where the old ways have proven too hard to part with. The only people who go back and forth freely between both worlds are the “Helix Inspectors” of the World Health Organization. One of them, Tuan Kirie, is the daughter of one of the co-creators of this smotheringly benevolent system. In theory she works to keep the world healthy, but she uses her privileges to do things like cop illegal smokes and booze from those in the unregulated zones.
How Tuan ended up so divided against herself is relayed in flashbacks scattered throughout the book. As a teenaged girl, she came under the spell of a classmate, Miach Mihie, a rebel who reads actual printed books and talks passionately about the wild, untamed life that came before WatchMe and all of its prohibitions and proscriptions (and prescriptions). After Miach sweeps up a third girl into their circle, the reticient Cian Reikado, the resulting folie à troix ends with a suicide pact, where the girls all gulp down pills designed by Miach to stop their metabolisms and cause them to spontaneously starve to death. Better to die on your feet than live on your knees, and all that.
Tuan and Cian survive, but Miach dies. But despite Tuan’s embrace of an outwardly respectable life and a job designed to reinforce the existing social structure, Miach has planted the seeds of unrest in Tuan’s mind. When Tuan’s boss catches her swapping supplies for booze, she’s busted back to deskwork in her despised homeland of Japan, where all is pink and cuddly, and where Cian — now as tame on the inside as she is on the outside — is only too happy to link back up with her old friend. Then Cian tears open her throat with a table knife as they’re eating dinner together, one of thousands of such spontaneous suicide attempts around the world.
This is only the first warning. It isn’t long before a message arrives, from someone purporting to be Miach. If everyone under the protection of admedistrative rule doesn’t kill one other person in the next couple of days, things will get even worse. This propels Tuan back out of Japan and across the world, tracing one lead after another back to her old friend, and uncovering a contingency plan to keep the human race from sinking back into barbarism at all costs.
As told from Tuan’s acerbic point of view, Harmony manifests as two parallel stories. The first is the science-fiction thriller side, where Tuan races against time and struggles against both the strictures of her society and her job to stave off more than one kind of disaster. The second is Tuan’s recollections of Miach, tinged with survivor’s guilt and the furtive nostalgia of someone who regrets not that she did bad things, but that she got caught. Her job provides her with liberty to do the very things she only dreamed about as a kid, and each encounter with a cigarette or a glass of wine allows her to reflect on the ironies of the history that has brought them to that point — e.g., the way another pre-catastrophic society prized health and wellness as a prime virtue: Nazi Germany. The book’s tricky vocabulary and experiments with format (the “emotional markup language” used on various pages) are all brought capably into English by Alexander O. Smith; whatever language barriers might have existed with this book simply aren’t palpable.
The tricks on the page aren’t what make the book intriguing, though. A good part of its power comes from knowing its author was struggling with death as he wrote it. In the world he describes, Itoh might well have not had to die from cancer — but there’s a good chance he might well have never written such a book in the first place. Such bittersweet tensions inform all aspects of the story. It’s not just that the reader comes into the story with added emotional weight from knowing what happened to the author, but that the author made deliberate story decisions (more on that later) that were informed by his experiences and point of view. From where he was coming from, he knew better than to take the easy ways out.
Here’s to your health
The anime adaptation, which came to the screen as of last year, had a caliber of talent attached to it that complemented where the story had come from and where it chooses to go. Not one but two directors spearheaded the adaptation. The first was the American-born but Japanese-based Michael Arias, who gave us a magnificent anime version of Taiyō Matsumoto‘s kids-vs.-the-world manga Tekkonkinkreet. The other was veteran anime hand Takashi Nakamura, previously seen in these pages as one of the contributors to the Robot Carnival anthology, and creator of the underappreciated series Fantastic Children. The animation studio was another name associated with ambitious work, Studio 4°C (Harmony is shaping up to be one of their easier-to-find productions). Screenwriter Koji Yamamoto also drafted the anime adaptation of Itoh’s Empire of Corpses.
Corpses was a picaresque adventure story, and had a production design and a directorial style that matched. Harmony has a fair amount of globe-hopping and a couple of action set-pieces, but it’s not an action-adventure, and the creators respected this. It’s more in the vein of SF films like Gattacca, where the surfaces are sleek and cerebral but emotional emotional (and sometimes blatant physical) violence bubble away just underneath — although here, they do more than bubble away; they boil over.
The film transposes the original story to the screen with a great deal of fidelity, both in terms of the plot and in terms of how we go about learning about it. Tuan’s present-day life as a Helix Inspector is presented with the precision and loving detail of most every lavishly budgeted animation production with a science-fiction setting. All the technological gimcrackery of the setting has been brought to lush, splashy life, from the augmented-reality contact lenses worn by those under admedistrative rule to the pink cities that look grown rather than built.
Tuan’s dalliance with Miach, though, is filmed with the gauzy, ethereal look of a story about romances between high school girls. It does feel more like a conscious attempt to key off previous anime in that vein, and that’s a little disappointing. Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures gave us a similarly intense relationship of the damned between two precocious young girls, and did so by way of highly stylized fantasy sequences that put us into their heads. Here, the schoogirl-romance stuff feels like too easy a stylistic choice, even if it is in line with the way the source material itself pitches the relationship. The weakest visual element, though, is the way the movie tries to reproduce the book’s textual visual stunts as interstitial title cards. What works on the page works because it’s on the page, and not necessarily when you transplant it directly to the screen, but that experiment is mercifully minimal here.
That problem of fidelity shows up in another way. A lot of what happens in the book is talk — either Tuan to the reader, or other people to Tuan. Books can get away with this, because all that’s said, whether it be by the narrator or the supporting characters, creates imagery in our heads. Movies are less flexible; unless they’re some audacious experiment in dramatic form like My Dinner With Andre, they need to show us something all the time. Harmony tries to work around this problem by providing us with cityscapes or vistas of nature or just by having the camera rove slowly around the room we’re in.
Sometimes the directors find ways to make this work. I particularly liked when Tuan replayed her catastrophic lunch with Cian through Cian’s eyes, only to find herself sitting across the table from Miach. And the final scenes are all the more cold-blooded and unnerving for implying what happens by way of abstraction and indirection, rather than coming out and showing it. (The absence of human beings in those last shots is by itself a powerful device.) But as lovely and intermittently inspired as the movie can be to look at, it’s static and talky — two adjectives I don’t want to use to describe something that should be gripping and angry.
We had to save the world in order to destroy it
Angry, come to think of it, is one of the adjectives that appeared most in my notes as I read Harmony. Like most every dystopia, it is a cry of rage against the hubris of human perfectability. It brings most to mind not 1984 orBrave New World, but the ur-dystopia that predated them both, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written in 1921 and banned from its native Russia for decades afterwards. That book also imagined a future where human perfectability was considered to be within reach, albeit at the cost of humans becoming … well, nothing we would deign to call human anymore. We took its cues from the way the Russian Revolution was fast betraying its original ideals and becoming a despotic bloodbath; Harmony seems partly informed by something a good deal less dangerous on the surface, the we-must-all-get-along mentality that Japanese society tends to reinforce as a matter of habit. It’s not that such a life is inherently deadly, Itoh seems to be saying, but that such an atmosphere, where dissent is considered uncouth, makes it all the harder to say no to terrible things when they become a way of life.
This brings me to the other major theme of the book, which I think is easy to misinterpret — the notion of medicalization of life, of health above all other virtues, as a form of tyranny. It’s a theme that’s all too easy to use as an excuse for taking positions that are uncharitable and illogical. If it is possible to make health into a tyrannical virtue, then all attempts at public hygiene are examples of the tyranny of virtue: antismoking campaigns, fluoridation of water, childhood vaccinations. I once remember reading an essay (written with what appeared to be a completely straight face) that asserted how a life that included pleasurable vices like smoking was qualitatively better than one without them. The argument did not discuss whether that raised quality of life included such pleasures as living with an oxygen tank or having wardrobes full of clothes that smelled like ashtrays.
If we wring our hands at the idea that tomorrow seems to be full of prohibitions, we ignore how those changes also opens up possibilities that didn’t exist before, like the freedom for children to eat in a restaurant without breathing secondhand smoke and touching nicotine-stained surfaces. The proper response to any extreme of suffering or overcompensation is constant reappraisal of the divide between them, not attempting to bring history to an end either way. You don’t counter the irrational exuberance of the rapture of the immortal nerds by becoming a death cult. You do it by encouraging constructive — okay, I’ll say it: healthy — public debate around the longevity of the individual versus the needs of the society as a whole, about how much you can swing your fist before you break someone else’s nose.
There is yet another theme in Harmony that seems peripherally related to the above dilemma, one which requires that I venture into spoiler territory. One of the crucial concepts of the book is the idea that human consciousness and human suffering are intimately related, that one is in fact a product of the other. It isn’t a new idea — last I checked, Dostoevsky had been onto it when he wroteNotes from Underground in 1864 — but it is used here to pose a dilemma. Would a lack of suffering be better than a lack of sentience? (Again, see: We.) What bugs me is that it’s brought to us here by way of a revelation about Miach’s past, involving her treatment as a war orphan at the hands of soldiers. I’m no fan of rape as backstory, if only because it’s almost never handled well, and while the justification here is that it produced what we could call a pathological personality, it also ends up serving a story function, that of shorthand for tragedy. But tragedy is something you build, not simply evoke, and so it comes off as the cheap way out.
If Harmony doesn’t make a case for balance, most dystopias don’t anyway. If they did, I suspect they wouldn’t be called dystopias. They make their arguments by way of aesthetics, not logic; they may advance their positions by whispering in our ears, but they close and cinch their cases by slugging us in the gut. Would 1984 have left such a wide and deep cultural furrow if it had closed with Winston Smith and Julia traipsing off into the countryside and roughing it outside of Big Brother’s prying eyes and all-devouring war machines? The 1956 movie version gave us an ending that was almost that misguided, with Winston and Julia shouting defiance at a firing squad, rather than being left to live after being broken by the state. Ending Harmony on an upbeat note of reconciliation would have felt like a dodge, a peek into the abyss only to blink and look away. If Harmony stacks the deck all the way through in both its incarnations, perhaps that’s only because it’s being true to form. It’s produced a story I respect, even if not one I am also moved to admire.
This article was originally published on Ganriki.
Ganriki is a partner in Crossroads Alpha along with Psycho Drive-In.