You’ve probably seen this video. It’s six years old, which is downright geriatric in internet years. If not, do yourself a favor and watch it. It’s pretty rad, and is important if you want the rest of this article to make even the slightest bit of sense. Lucky for you, I even found a version with English subtitles:
You’re back? Good.
The use of mechanistic imagery in culture has always carried the potential to speak about the human condition. From Italian Futurists (like Marinetti, Depero, Boccioni,) using cyborgian imagery to extol the speed and potency of industrialization and the war machine, to Russian Constructivists using angular, robotic imagery as an affirmation of the communist collective and the desire for mass-production of art, the machine can speak about how humans interact and the nature of the human collective. The Japanese dance and music group, WORLD ORDER, invokes similar imagery that reflects their own view on the man-machine relationship, as well as the evolution of the human collective at large.
The sense of collective is very strong in Japan, where I was born. It is a country which thrives on its cultural socialism; we Americans are quite the opposite, and proudly emphasize the value of the individual and self-efficacy. The de-emphasis on the individual in Japanese culture can seem dehumanizing to Americans, but many Japanese see it as a transcendent collective, an organism that is constituted of many selves and is more potent for it. The following discussion does not aspire to determine which philosophy is more meritable. Rather, it aims to evaluate the power of art and its effectiveness in demonstrating any particular perspective.
The lyrics in the song, entitled Machine Civilization, consider such collectives. The song asks, “Are my thoughts illusion?” and “Are we all one?”, expressing anxieties of self, collective, and the interaction between the two. It mentions an ‘imprisoned morning of Machine Civilization’ and asks if there is ‘something lost in the Twilight of Machinery.’ It speaks of ‘never ending assembly lines’ and wonders if ‘our thoughts can change’ in a ‘revolution in the Twilight of Machinery.’ The lyrics suggest that we are on the cusp of a techno-social revolution, a re-centering of the role humans play in the world, and a necessary re-examination of the man-machine paradigm.
Their dance is set in machine environments, industrial complexes, airports full of people and technology. The point of these settings is to paint a spectrum of both the destructiveness and beauty of the man-machine relationship. On one hand, you have smoke-billowing industrial complexes, pipes, gears, metal, and scrap that illustrate the cold, pollutive nature of technology in the hands of humans. Japan is a very ecologically-minded country, so such strong visuals immediately instill a somber view of industrialization. On the other hand, we have locations such as Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, roads full of commuters, skyscrapers, and construction equipment that illustrate the opposite – the potential for technology to act as an intermediary, to connect people in business, culture, to see loved ones across the globe, to connect with others who may not be like us, and to build society up to unprecedented heights. The ambivalent push-pull contrast between beauty and inhumanity is discussed by juxtaposing the two visual tonalities.
The brilliance of their dance lies in the extent to which it is inextricably linked to the lyrics of the song and its themes. Their angular dance movements, sudden start-stop speed changes, and synchronized movements are precise and robotic. Their affected time-shift style marching indicates an optimistic march forward for a humanity that moves forward together in concert. Much of their dance relies on manipulation of each other’s bodies, the picking-up and relocating of one another, further supporting the Japanese understanding that individuals need to trust and rely on each other within the collective.
Most notably, from 3:20 to the end of their dance, the metaphor hits its peak as their fast, angular movements, interlocking hands, and bodies shifting in unison imply gears, presses, and robotic arms like you would see in a modern production line. One can easily imagine the very same movements taking place within the industrial factories, distant in the backdrop.
For some reason, this particular section of their dance reminded me of the Japanimation-style cartoons that infiltrated American TV screens in the 80’s and 90’s of which you are probably familiar with from childhood. Shows like Transformers, Voltron, and even Power Rangers have roots in 60’s and 70’s Japanese animation, the kind filled with giant mechs fighting other giant mechs, (or even worse, giant creatures!) A very common trope in mecha-anime programs is the concept of ‘Gattai,’ which translates to ‘combine’ or ‘merge.’ ‘Gattai’ is a super-ability, usually employed when a team of mech pilots are being defeated by a force larger than themselves. There is usually a climactic moment in which the team of individual mech pilots band together, literally, by physically morphing their mechs into a single, more powerful mech, (usually while dramatically yelling, ‘Gattai!’) in order to defeat the big bad.
For me, this moment in WORLD ORDER’s dance represents their ‘Gattai!’ moment. The individuals combine into one and the discreteness of their bodies blur, culminating in a singular entity who is capable of more intricate and spectacular dance than any individual could ever display. They forfeit their individuality voluntarily for, in their view, a more potent modality of being.
Ultimately, WORLD ORDER’s dance is an affirmation of our relationship and unity with technology, how technology, in a cyborgian way, acts as a prosthetic extension of humanity, and how we hold a deep responsibility to steward and cultivate technology as if it were one of us. It also serves as an affirmation of the Japanese sense of collectivism, the intertwined roles we play in each other’s lives, and our responsibility to support and cultivate one another to the best of our abilities.