The Tangled Web of Robotic Takeover (ロボット, Part 1)

In 1921, Czech brothers Karel and Josef Capek introduced the word ‘Robot’ to the world with the premiere of Karel’s new play R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots. The play is set on an island factory where Domin, the General Manager of R.U.R., oversees operations in a thriving robotic service industry, creating and selling Robot laborers to clients around the world. In a plot that will probably sound all too familiar today, the use of these Robots quickly expands from general services to military operations and soon every country is using robots to fight in their wars. Eventually, the Robots decide that they’d rather not destroy one another in the name of their human masters and instead unite against their former owners, culminating in a violent take-over of the island from which they first originated. (And that’s just Acts 1 and 2.)

I wish I could show you photos from the earliest productions, but the Gods of the Internet seem to have banished what few exist far beyond the realm of free domain. Were you to perform a google search for images related to R.U.R. today, the majority of black-and-white photos that you will find come from a production dating almost twenty years after its premiere, the 1938 BBC Television version. The Robots in these photos are in fact men dressed in costumes that could easily serve as forefathers to the Tin Man from the The Wizard of Oz; with boxy shoulders, geometric head pieces, and metallic fabric abound, the production’s machine-man aesthetic easily fits into the typical image of early modern Western robotic representations. Indeed, when England produced one of its first nationally trumpeted robots in the late 1920’s— a figure surprisingly similar in appearance but, this time, actually machine— they slapped the letters RUR on it’s chest.

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Yet these metallic, mechanistic visions are all far cries from Capek’s original play. As Capek outlines in the play’s Dramatis Person ae, the Robots in R.U.R. are supposed to appear far more human than machine, a design concept he intentionally plays up for uncanny comedy in the show’s prologue. Set 10 years before the play’s first act, the prologue to R.U.R. introduces the play’s pseudo-heroine, the concerned citizen and necessarily beautiful Helena Glory, who has come to Rossum’s island to argue on behalf of Robot equality. Despite her impassioned belief in the rights of robots, however, Miss Glory fails to realize that the majority of the island’s residents and employees are, in fact, robots, themselves. Recognizing this, Domin calls in his robot Secretary, Sulla, to introduce herself to Miss Glory. Capek writes:

DOMIN: Sulla, let Miss Glory have a look at you.

HELENA: [stands and offers SULLA her hand] How do you do? You must be dreadfully sad out here so far away from the rest of the world, no?

SULLA: That I cannot say, Miss Glory. Please have a seat.

HELENA: [sits down] Where are you from, Miss?

SULLA: From here, from the factory.

HELENA: Oh, you were born here?

SULLA: I was made here, yes.

HELENA: [jumping up] What?

DOMIN: [laughing] Sulla is not human, Miss Glory. Sulla is a Robot.

HELENA: I beg your pardon…

DOMIN: [placing his hand on SULLA’s shoulder] Sulla’s not offended. Take a look at the complexion we make, Miss Glory. Touch her face.

HELENA: Oh, no, no!

DOMIN: You’d never guess she was made from a different substance than we are. She even has the characteristic soft hair of a blonde, if you please. only the eyes are a bit… But on the other hand, what hair!

As the prologue continues, we learn that Old Mr. Rossum, the inventor and scientific progenitor of said Robots, originally set out to manufacture actual human beings. But Rossum’s young nephew, more a man of business than science, found his uncle’s assembly process too long and complicated. Eventually locking his Uncle in the lab, Rossum the Younger takes it upon himself to streamline the process. In a speech recounting this history to Miss Glory, Domin says:

"Young Rossum said to himself: A human being. That’s something that feels joy, plays the violin, wants to go for a walk, in general requires a lot of things that— that are, in effect, superfluos… [So] he chucked everything not directly related to work, and in doing so he pretty much discarded the human being and created the Robot. My dear Miss Glory, Robots are not people. They are mechanically more perfect than we are, they have an astounding intellectual capacity, but they have no soul."

It was Josef, Karel’s brother, who first suggested the name ‘Roboti’ for Karel’s newly invented, soulless workforce. A play on the Czech word ‘Robota,’ which means “Serf Labor" or more figuratively, “hard work," ‘Roboti’ was fun to say and captured the essence of the idea without hitting you over the head with it (prior to ‘Roboti,’ Karel was considering ‘Labori’). Ultimately, Karel liked the idea enough that the name stuck— though sometime before the play’s premiere, “Roboti’  got shortened to just “Robot."

Of course, all of this etymological history would not have mattered had the show flopped, but R.U.R. was a big hit, launching Karel Capek’s career into the international spotlight. New productions of the show soon spread to other countries, but with each new translation, the word “Robot" remained the same, too irresistibly catchy to localize. Quite quickly, the word ‘Robot’ began to mirror its namesakes in the plot from which it sprung, eagerly received as newly imported vocabulary around the word. ‘Robot’— that broad signifier of all artificial humanoid inventions designed to be loyal servants to their human masters— had become a world-wide linguistic phenomena.

Except for in Japan… kind of.

To be clear, R.U.R. was quickly translated into Japanese. It enjoyed its first localized run in 1924 at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Shogekijo, and it did manage to kick off a new debate among Japanese intellectuals about the role of robots in daily life. Along the way, however, it received a unique verbal facelift. In Japan, the title to Capek’s play— along with the word ‘robot’— was translated to Jinzo Ningen (人造人間), a Japanese phrase better translated back into English as “Man-made Man". Disconnected from its etymologically Slavic (and slave) roots, Jinzo Ningen emphasized the invented origins of these artificial humanoids over their intended purpose. To me, it’s a phrase that feels somehow less sinister— or at the very least, less value-laden— than its Czech original, a celebration of man’s inventive drive in lieu of a dark reminder of his desire to dominate all that surrounds him. And indeed, although the dramatic content of the play remained unchanged, Japanese audiences were described as responding to Capek’s play, and these new Jinzo Ningen, with far more curiosity and excitement than fear.

Today, the term Jinzo Ningen has fallen from colloquial use in Japan, replaced by Robotto (ロボット), the Japanese phonetic approximation of Robot, which first entered into the Japanese dictionary in 1928. Although the ascension of Robotto may have placed Japan back instep with the rest of the world’s robotic lexicon, their unique detour feels significant to me, signaling something palpably real yet difficult to decipher, something that rests within those murky confines wherein fact and fiction collide in real-time.

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Is there a Japanese equivalent to Baudelaire’s “The Philosophy of Toys," I wonder, in which Baudelaire tells the story of smashing a child’s doll, fervently driven by the question “Where is the soul?". The most typical American descriptions of Japanese culture suggest that there isn’t— nor that there should be, thanks to Japan’s thoroughly non-Western religious traditions. Answers like this one, found in a Time Magazine article, invariably point to Japan’s Shintoist religion, “which," as the article writes, “blurs the line between the inanimate and animate, and in which followers believe that all things, including objects can possess living spirits."  Factual validity of this answer notwithstanding, the certitude with which it is so frequently cited doesn’t sit well with me. It is, at the very least, lazy. More troublingly, to me it has faint whiffs of those unfortunate, still-lingering Orientalist airs that often hover around Occidental befuddlement over Asiatic culture. I don’t mean to suggest that a culture fostered in part through uniquely Japanese religious practices hasn’t impacted Japanese perspectives in ways significant and different from mine, but saying that Japanese people love Robots because their history of animism makes them believe that Robot have spirits would be like saying that Anglo-European people hate Robots because their history of Judeo-Christian monotheism makes them believe that Robots mock the powers of God, the sole Creator. There is a lot of good stuff to work with in there, but such a neatly rendered presentation belies a much more tangle, fragmented, and overlapping reality.

And then of course, there is my perspective on this multi-cultural phenomenon, too— a perspective that is a no less complicated mess. Before beginning my Watson, I had never read anything by Karel Capek, nor did I know the etymological history of the word “Robot," or that R.U.R. was received so differently in Japan than in Europe and America. None of these facts, however, have since come as great surprises to me. That the first Western use of the word “Robot" should fit so snuggly within what Isaac Asimov has dubbed the West’s “Frankenstein Complex"— that is: Man builds Robot, Robot kills Man— made perfect sense to me; it is but one example plucked from the longstanding history of Anglo-European technological paranoia complexes, a historical narrative sometimes easier for me to accept because I was raised within it. That this same Robotic story should be met with far less terror in Japan somehow also felt right to me— though again here, it is difficult to chart where actualities end and self-fulfilling stereotypes begin.

The 1950’s, for example, mark an important moment in the cementing of Japan as a world-wide ‘Robotopia.’ This was the decade within which Japanese robot toys first proliferated throughout the United States. But the United States deserves just as much credit as Japan for this stateside influx of little tin men. The aftermath of World War Two had left Japan in shambles. Formally occupied by the United States, early post-war Japan subsisted on hundreds of millions of American dollars delivered in the form of loans and emergency food supplies. But America wasn’t about to give so much without asking for something in return and— whether from an interest to help jumpstart the Japanese economy or out of pure quid pro quo— they soon summoned representatives from former Japanese cottage industries to the Occupation headquarters in Tokyo to discuss new exports. By the end of 1945, mere months since the war’s conclusion, the Japanese toy industry was already showing new signs of life, reassembling itself in preparation for its new client: American children. And these Americans— the boys in particular— wanted Robots.

At this time, America was finally coming out of a period of smoldering robophobia that, by no coincidence, had been chronologically linked to the Great Depression. Fueled by a fear that advances in technology would soon leave the already largely unemployed population permanently out of work, the 1930’s American public had come to see Robots as symbols of displacement and of the unknown. Despite the fact that the world was still decades away from the first real, practical mechanical worker, stories in newspapers, magazines, and on the radio poured out, eagerly topping one another with newer, more fancifully terrifying creations. And because the people’s collective imagination far outmatched the technology of the times, their inability to actually produce these mechanical villains left them all the more menacing. Imaginary or not, however, good, decent, hardworking Americans were not about to go down without a fight, propelling the United States into a fanciful and purely fictional war with robots years before our impending war with the Axis. Check out one of my favorite ‘wartime’ examples, this feature from a 1934 issue of Modern Mechanix: 

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Following World War Two, fears of a robotic economic take-over fell alongside the American unemployment rate, but kids who grew up during the Robot threat were not about to forget their parents’ old enemy— and really, when you’re a kid, what is ever cooler than the stuff that makes your parents’ blood boil? And so, in the age-old ritual of inheriting your fore-father’s corrupting culture, the menacing imagery of these cold, steel beings grew even more widespread than before, transferring from one generation’s paranoiac prophesies to the next’s science fiction odysseys. And it was at this point that Japanese toy makers entered the picture, repurposing their popular tin toy industry to make Robots just as the Americans wanted them: geometric, mechanic, and menacing. 

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But Japan already had a few fictional robots of its own. In 1934, the same year that Jack Dempsey wanted to go robo-boxing, a Japanese artist named Masaki Sakamoto introduced Tanku Tankuro, a magical robot hero. In stark contrast to the predominately rectangular visions of Europe and America, Tanku Tankuro is all round surfaces, featuring a plump human head resting atop an improbably rotund, black spherical body. His head and short, chubby limbs protrude from five of the eight holes littering his body like swiss cheese. In a manner similar to Felix the Cat’s magic bag, these holes could produce almost anything at a moments notice, suddenly transforming Tanku into, say, an airplane with wings for arms and a large propellor jutting out from his front. Readers never learned the proper mechanics behind Tanku’s construction— nor how he produced or stored so many items inside his small body— but that was part of the fun behind the guy; although described as a robot, Tanku was more fantastical than mechanical, more parts imagination than cold science.

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In the comparison between Japan’s Tanku Tankuro and early Western robots, I see these countries’ contrasting relationships with pre-WWII technology, as well. It reminds me of a quotation from Osamu Tezuka, the so-called ‘Grandfather’ of Japanese Animation: “While the US. was dropping atomic bombs, the Japanese military were trying to light forest fires in America by sending incendiary balloons made of bamboo and paper over on the jet stream." Tezuka’s own Tetsuwan Atomu (Mighty Atom)— or as we know him in the West, Astro Boy— feels to me like an response to this observation, both by Tezuka and his readership. Although he was originally envisioned as a mere side character to serve as a humorous foil for human protagonists, there was something about Atom that strongly resonated with Tezuka’s audience. The boy robot quickly grew so popular that Tezuka’s editors asked him to serialize a new adventure just for Atom. In April of 1952, the same month in which the American occupation of Japan officially ended, the solo adventures of Tetsuwan Atomu debuted, eagerly devoured by fans all over the country. Atom quickly became a post-war hero for a post-war Japan, propelling Tezuka to national fame in the process.

Atom’s design combines the more magical elements of earlier Japanese robots like Tanku with the greater concern for science and technology found in the west— concerns Japan is described as internalizing following their devastating defeat. Sure, Atom has rocket propelled jets hidden in his hands and feet that allow him to fly through the air; yes, he can increase his sense of hearing 1000-fold and turn his eyes into searchlights; and okay, he can even sense the innate good and bad qualities in the people around him. But Tezuka, a doctor by training, took great care to feature Atom’s intricately designed technological innards, as well— and in doing so, he caught up his hero with his contemporaries across the Pacific. And although the technological explanations given for the boy robot’s powers never really held up (despite repeated updates to account for new developments in actual technology), they were no less fanciful than the robotic creations that had waged war with American imaginations a decade earlier. Fictional though he may be, Atom was received as a true child of science.

Tezuka took seriously the responsibilities and influence that came from his boy robot assuming this unofficial role of spokesperson for the scientific future. Atom fights for justice but, even more importantly, strives for world-peace. Deeply impacted by the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tezuka envisioned Atom and his not-so-distant-future as emblems of the possible harmony between man and machine, a time in which nuclear power was used only for good and creative forces. And so, when he’s not defending the world, Atom the Robot goes to school, keeping boyhood friends like all other humans. He is the “robot next door," not just a protector or servant, but also a friend to all humans. 

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And yet, the world of Tetsuwan Atomu is not all utopic. One of the most consistent tropes in the Atom series (and to my mind, one of its most endearing qualities, as well) is Atom’s ongoing attempts to be more human— inevitably followed by the somewhat awkward, sometimes sad reminders that he will never be like his friends. His origins story tells the tale of a grief-stricken inventor who sought to fill the void left by the death of his 12-year-old son by rebuilding him in robotic form. As such, Atom does look and sound quite like his human model. But the gaps between he and his breathing counterparts are felt as all the more unbridgeable because of his almost fully human construction. Eventually, Atom’s inventor could not bear the differences between his lost son and his flawed creation, and abandons Atom on the streets. But even the kinder and more loving scientist/father-figure who later takes in Atom cannot really help the boy’s inhuman flaws, and the modifications he offers only reinforce Atom’s differences. For example, when Atom discovers that he cannot cry, his new scientist father is able to augment Atom’s design to allow for tears, but he still cannot teach the boy about real sadness. While Atom can solve complex math equations at unparalleled speeds, he struggles to understand art. And whenever he eats food, he must later open up his chest cavity and remove all he swallowed. He is, in a sense, too perfect; the only flaws in his construction are his lack of the flaws that figure so centrally into being human— flaws made all the more glaringly visible by how close he comes to us.

Tezuka claimed that a translated copy of R.U.R. served as one of the earliest and greatest influences on his robot-driven narratives, and although the more technologically advanced future of Testuwan Atomu proved quite popular, championed by Japanese children, adults and industries alike, within even the earliest Atom stories lie darker themes of discrimination and otherness. Notably, one of the few Atom episodes to feature the death of the boy-robot, the 1966 story “Blue Knight," tells the story of a failed fight for robotic freedom. The robot leader of this emancipatory movement, the Blue Knight of the story’s title, kills humans who stand in the way of robot liberation and even succeeds in founding a short-lived new robot nation called Robotania. As the story progresses, we find Atom slowly beginning to empathize with the Blue Knight’s crusade. For possibly the first time, he is depicted as questioning the logic behind the Tezuka’s Laws of Robotics, which— like Asimov’s own in the West— envision a world in which robots must put the good of their human counterparts above themselves.  When humans ultimately wage war against this Robotania, crushing the Blue Knight and his rebellious robot cohorts, Atom is destroyed, as well, reduced to nothing more than one of the many mechanical causalities of the failed revolution.

Of course, Atom would return, his popularity too great to ever allow him a true death— and especially not one in so grim a manner. By 1966, Atom had become the first hero ever to be animated for Japanese Television, with translated episodes already filling American airways, as well. Today, the impacts of Atom/Astro Boy are legion, far too great to easily measure here. Perhaps all too fittingly, they also contribute to the tangled web of influences with which I wrestled earlier in this post. In no small part thanks to Atom, Osamu Tezuka is credited with first introducing and popularizing “anime eyes," those impossibly large, glimmering ovals that are now synonymous with Japanese animation. But to trace the genesis of said peepers requires yet another trip back across the Pacific; before they were drawn onto the boy robot and his friends, strikingly similar eyes were busy helping characters like Donald Duck and Betty Boop look out into the world. Tezuka is quoted as being a large admirer of Walt Disney. Early in his career, he even redrew early Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for Japanese audiences. Disney would return this artistic appropriation back to Tezuka over a half-century later, adding one more layer to the overlapping cultural exchange.

Although Disney denies the connection, see here, Tezuka’s Kimba the Lion, alongside Disney’s The Lion King.

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And as for us, today? Astro Boy’s future is now our present— or perhaps, in some ways, already our past, for the boy robot’s official birthday, April 7, 2003, has already come and gone. While the world of robot-human harmony has not materialized as Tezuka’s story envisioned, it does feel to me like the cultural grip of robotics has already become a much more casually accepted phenomenon. In some form or another, the things are everywhere. Case in point, I found this guy at a home appliance store in Denpasar shortly after I arrived in Bali. It was nestled between plates and spoons, on sale for less than two dollars.

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I have no idea why it was there— and I have this impression that no one else would, either. But that’s sort of the point: unlike our fictions and fears, the real world’s robotic take-over won’t be signaled by metallic, soulless overlords but by the inexplicable, plastic decorations found in Aisle 7. It creeps up on you. First kitchenware, then the world… and whether or not that’s a good thing, well, I think it depends on who you ask.

Coming in Part 2— Freud and Friends: Charting the Uncanny Valley.

[Bibliographical Note— in addition to my travels, this post feature some facts and quotes taken from multiple books I picked up along the way. The quoted lines from R.U.R. come from Claudia Novack’s translation. The quotation from Tezuka about World War Two was taken from Frederik L. Schodt’s “The Astro Boy Essays." Another of Schodt’s books, “Inside the Robot Kingdom," proved equally interesting and useful in charting the history of robots in Japan. I suggest you check them out if you’re interested.]