[May contain Star Wars spoilers. Should contain references to Ishiguro’s novel An Artist of the Floating World, but doesn’t.]
Last Monday night I finally made use of my work perks to get cheap tickets for The Last Jedi. Sitting in the dark, waiting for the film to start, a trailer opened with the kind of shot and background music which immediately marked it as not interesting to me – until an image made me freeze with recognition. This trailer was showing me something which I knew I knew. Something from a long time ago, 20 years ago, to be precise: a comic I had bought while visiting friends and family in Seattle, from the first comic shop I ever visited. Battle Angel Alita.
The story of Alita takes place in a cyberpunk future where the social elite live in a floating city of Tiphares/Zalem, and the poor, the lawless, and the down-on-their-luck live in the shadow it casts on a place known as Scrapyard. Honestly, looking back, I can see that the manga was objectifying, and the story was perhaps not the best of its kind, but it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. And still, somehow, the world of this comic made perfect sense to me: like the protagonists – like, I imagine, most of the intended readership – I knew where I would belong, and it wasn’t in Tiphares.
The year after I got my copy of Battle Angel Alita, our group of friends got hold of Final Fantasy VII and spent all summer playing it (kids, eh? That summer there were three days – three – on which it didn’t rain in our part of Wales. I marked them on my calendar). Those of us who weren’t playing sat and watched the ones who were. The whole game was a story.
For the first disc, that story takes place around Midgar, a city built on a saucer, which floats above an underworld of slums. At one haunting moment in the game, a whole section of the upper city saucer is sacrificed to crush a rebel group based in these slums. The rebel group are the game’s main characters, and most of them escape to fight another day, but the story doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the inhuman scale and human cost of that calculated tragedy.
Something about these tales of floating cities struck a deep chord with my teenage imagination. It felt all too easy to imagine a dystopian future under the shadow of a floating world of privilege, eking out a living from its prolific waste. I was a child of the Thatcher years, after all. Rusting industry, derelict factories and disused power stations were part of the landscape of my childhood. Outside Llanelli, I remember being told, there was a fire which had burned for decades underground; for all I know, it might still be burning, a detail of magical realism worthy of inclusion in a cyberpunk dystopia. Like the world around me, these futures were decaying.
The stories of Tiphares and Midgar both originated in Japan, land of ukiyo or ‘the floating world’. Ukiyo was a decadent urban lifestyle centred around the Kabuki theatres, tea rooms and pleasure houses enjoyed by the newly wealthy merchants of the Edo period. It gave rise to the famous ukiyo-e artworks, bringing the style of the new icons – actors, courtesans and geisha – to the masses, through the medium of inexpensive woodblock prints
‘The floating world’ (ukiyo 浮世) is a homophone, in Japanese, for ‘the sorrowful world’ (ukiyo 憂き世) – this plane of death, rebirth and suffering from which Buddhists seek release. Even for those indulging in the fleeting pleasures of this world, the pun of ukiyo acknowledges that pleasure is all the sweeter for being fleeting, and our experience of life is heightened by our knowledge of inevitable death. The floating world is an illusion sustained by our participation, and we participate as willingly as we suspend our disbelief to watch a film. It is a rarified world of privilege, seeming to float effortlessly above and entirely unconnected to the world of soil and struggle underneath it all – while feeding off its labour and resources like a glowing parasite. Many of the glittering icons of the Edo period were indentured, from childhood poverty, to a life of service to this floating world.
As we sat in the dark on Monday and watched Rose and Finn compare their experiences of the city of Canto Bight, I thought again of these floating dystopias. How do you think these people got so rich? Rose shows Finn the exploitation and corruption which underlie the superficial glamour of the city. The problem is not the existence of the glamour, but its denial of the squalor, and the wilful ignorance sustaining such a wild imbalance.
A thought I will leave half-finished, for now…