Sci-Fi Reality

By Bay Posted Sunday Oct 2, 2022

Filed under: Anime, Epilogue 34 comments

The year was 2005, I was seven years old. Netflix was still sending out discs in little paper sleeves, tucked into envelopes for people to rent on a subscription. There was no limit to how many discs you could rent, for a monthly fee, provided you could get the thing into the mail fast enough for them to return a new one. Our family was on the ‘two discs at a time’ plan, Dad got one, and the kids got one Mom would get something occasionally but it was usually something to sit down and watch as a family. As a mom of three homeschooled kids, she just didn’t have the time..

The day we got to sit down and pick out our next run of discs was sacred. The library was huge, with more things than I’d ever seen as options in my tiny little life. I’d been in a Blockbuster before, and my library’s poorly-run disc rental section (which made one feel like a fugitive for checking out a movie), but Netflix’s selection…it was everything I could dream up.

Every niche option, every weird film no one had ever heard of, and every old classic in the books. In the days before streaming and licensing, when Netflix ran as a rental service, it was so rare to see something not available. They didn’t have to compete with Blockbuster for who got which release, they both got everything, and Netflix didn’t rely on brick-and-mortar stores to hold everything. 

Out of all the options, all the amazing things we could order…I would not stop asking for Zathura, a knock-off Jumanji film directed by John Favreau, which took place in space. I do not know why I was obsessed. That movie scared me so bad I think I learned to hold my breath for extended periods of time just because I kept forgetting to breathe from fear. I had nightmares about that movie, I learned fear from Zathura.

 All hail ZATHURA.
All hail ZATHURA.

As I remember it, (and this may be contested by some members of my family) my mother finally put her foot down after I ordered and sent back the same movie four times in a row. She threw into the queue two ‘animes’, something which I had never heard of before, and I lost it.   

Somehow, I got into my head she was ordering old-style ninja/samurai flicks which I would not be able to understand due to a language barrier, and were also Not Zathura. Being Not Zathura was a crime of the highest magnitude to my young neurodivergent brain, and so I refused to watch these, ‘animes’ when they arrived. I am ashamed to say, I continued to refuse to watch Not Zathura for months. This isn’t 100% true. We had a rule at the time that the kids had to watch two educational movies for every ‘fun’ movie, and if memory serves, that rule was enforced. So, I must have been watching a lot of documentaries then, too? I only remember Zathura. 

I delayed my access to those two animes far longer than need be, and when I finally did watch them, I realized my horrible mistake. These were not Not Zathura, no they were a gift from the heavens, and subsequently the only thing I would be watching for the next six months.     

The first one was A Little Snow Fairy Sugar, an arguably kid-geared anime with very few real stakes. There were a few heavier themes I think the protagonist’s mom had died a few years before the show took place, but it wasn’t truly the focal point of the anime.. But, for the most part, it was the anime equivalent of eating a tub of marshmallow fluff. I don’t go back and watch it much, except maybe the first episode for nostalgia’s sake. It wasn’t my Sailor Moon, it was more like Blue’s Clues; I loved it, and grew out of it. 

The other, though, was Angelic Layer. 

Angelic Layer was light and fluffy like A Little Snow Fairy Sugar was, but it had a lot of complexity under the surface, including some pretty compelling sci-fi themes and technology we’re actually starting to see today. It had an opening theme This is the only copy I can find of the ‘anime’ version online. It says creditless, it is not. It’s ‘Be My Angel’ sung by Mikuni Shimokawa, I don’t know who did the anime remix, though. that still appears in some of my playlists, and some great character personalities, although extreme and if I recall, often odd. 

The protagonist, Misaki Suzuhara, is twelve and moves to Tokyo to live with her aunt and go to school.  She accidentally stumbles her way into buying an ‘Angelic Layer’ doll on her first day out in Tokyo and…subsequently stumbles all the way into the championship fights that these dolls can compete in. 

The dolls are basically articulated Barbies, that with the help of a special table and headset attached to the competitor, can move like people, controlled by the headset wearer. In the competitions, two competitors put on headsets and make their dolls fight. The fighting isn’t real ripping-each-other-apart stuff, for the most part, there’s no blood or gore. They presumably have sensors, leading to health bars on a screen to track who’s winning.

The show lets its characters get attached to these dolls, giving them names, personalities, and fighting styles. But, aside from a few pivotal moments of dramatic eye contact from player to doll mid-combat, and the player projecting emotions onto them, it’s pretty clear these are meant to be tech. These dolls aren’t androids with personalities and lives, it’s never even really suggested that they are, they are toys, tools even.

 The art was actually very impressive for the era as well. Compared to other shows from the same time (2001). There's nothing radically disproportionate anatomy-wise, at least not egregiously so. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised, it was animated by Clamp, after all.
The art was actually very impressive for the era as well. Compared to other shows from the same time (2001). There's nothing radically disproportionate anatomy-wise, at least not egregiously so. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised, it was animated by Clamp, after all.

There are some spoilers ahead, as a warning. I’ll try to keep them minor but the anime is also from 2001 and has very few major spoilers to give, so I think we’ll be okay. 

You come to find out as you watch the show that the company producing these dolls actually has a different motive for the tech they’ve developed. The dolls are great, they make the money needed to keep researching, but their main goal is prosthetics. Those dolls that can be controlled by a headset? The idea is to scale them up massively. You start by moving a doll with your mind and eventually work your way up to moving a human-sized arm effectively. 

The writing was simple, and I took it for granted as a kid, but in hindsight, it was handled brilliantly. It was not only actually sci-fi and interesting, but also how things work in the real world. 

This is an issue that comes up with disability all the time. 

You have a group of people who need new legs, a rare kind of mobility aid, or treatment for Type Six Very Very Rare Syndrome. These people aren’t the ones with money, necessarily, they’re just sick people. Maybe you’ll get ‘lucky’ and some billionaire will end up with the same condition and fund your research, but he could also just throw money into getting a custom fix, leaving the rest of the condition sufferers on their own.    

And even if you beat all the odds and get your product to market for the people who need it…supply VS demand breaks your heart, and you watch your product have to cost $1,000 just to be manufactured. Your mobility aid, your medication, your invention, now sits behind a paywall, or worse, insurance, and you can’t get it to the people who need it most.  

I was bitching and moaning months ago that shower chairs come in three colors; gray, beige, and medical equipment blue. I wanted something funky that didn’t make me feel old and decrepit. It was a silly, vain complaint that had more to do with being upset I needed one at all, but it was somewhat justifiable. People need shower chairs, it’s a shame they have to be both expensive and ugly, in a world that makes it feel like they could easily be neither. Maybe sitting in the shower will get marketed as the new self-care and the abled-bodied people will buy enough to get interesting colors on the market…not the point. 

Angelic Layer gives me strange hope. It’s realistic enough to not feel like it’s living in an insulting fantasy world, but optimistic enough to not feel like dystopian social commentary. In a world where most media feels the need to either scream a moral of the story from the high heavens or be total escapism, it’s just kind of nice.

Anyway, is this a good time to mention this was supposed to be a post about the Oculus Rift with only a short battle-doll tangent? Oops. Next week, I guess.



[1] Mom would get something occasionally but it was usually something to sit down and watch as a family. As a mom of three homeschooled kids, she just didn’t have the time.

[2] I do not know why I was obsessed. That movie scared me so bad I think I learned to hold my breath for extended periods of time just because I kept forgetting to breathe from fear. I had nightmares about that movie, I learned fear from Zathura.

[3] This isn’t 100% true. We had a rule at the time that the kids had to watch two educational movies for every ‘fun’ movie, and if memory serves, that rule was enforced. So, I must have been watching a lot of documentaries then, too? I only remember Zathura.

[4] I think the protagonist’s mom had died a few years before the show took place, but it wasn’t truly the focal point of the anime.

[5] This is the only copy I can find of the ‘anime’ version online. It says creditless, it is not. It’s ‘Be My Angel’ sung by Mikuni Shimokawa, I don’t know who did the anime remix, though.

From The Archives:

34 thoughts on “Sci-Fi Reality

  1. Alan says:

    “…the company producing these dolls actually has a different motive for the tech they’ve developed.”

    Ah, here we go, the dark twist! They’re going to mind control the kids! Or they’re going to make mind controlled murderbots for the military! Maybe the dolls are the murderbots, and they’ll take over the world!

    “…their main goal is prosthetics.”

    *head explodes*

    1. Mattias42 says:

      I actually gained a lot of respect for home-shopping channels on learning what’s basically the RL version of that un-twist.

      Quite a lot of what those type of shows/stations sell… is actually for disabled people originally.

      If you call it a ‘back open blanket for warming wheelchair users,’ you sell like… fifty a month, and they’ll cost hundreds. Call it a SNUGGY, the hip and cool new blanket with arms that allow you to read on the bed, and suddenly you’ll sell thousands and actually hit the INTENDED demographic’s price point too.

      It’s actually why a lot of their advertisements have people do stuff like… act like they’re aliens that’s never held a jar or knife before. It’s camouflaged with humor and shock value how your being actually but subtly told: ‘hey, this one’s great for you with arthritis or other mobility issues’ and such.

      Was a mind-blowing revelation to young me.

      1. Amstrad says:

        This is fine when if it’s were all actually stuff that can be applied to those who need accessibility options in their housewares. But there’s also a lot of cheap junk that just plain doesn’t work and overpriced costume jewelry and fashion being hawked on payment plans to people who ultimately can’t afford it. Too much of the home shopping channel content is predatory, and if they’re doing some good for those in need of specialty options it’s by accident.

        1. Mattias42 says:

          Oh yeah, no doubt. They’re profit first.

          Still, they’re an interesting case of ‘any port in a storm.’ And seems to be one of the few out there willing to even try spin those sort of products so the public at large wants them.

    2. Sleeping Dragon says:

      Haha, I had the exact same “they’re designing murderbots for the army” thought.

  2. Syal says:

    I only ever saw about thirty seconds of Zathura, walking by a television while it was on. The scene consisted of a man eating, I think cereal, while his kid companions complained that he was eating too much cereal. So, I can definitely see the appeal.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      That scene scarred me. I flash back to it every time I’m out of corn flakes.

  3. Amstrad says:

    It’s probably not quite right to call Zathura a knockoff.. considering the movie was also based on a book by the author Chris Van Allsburg who wrote Jumanji (and notably also wrote The Polar Express). The book is even written as an outright sequel to Jumanji in that the boys find a copy of the titular Jumanji game and discover the Zathura game underneath the Jumanji game.

    1. Bay says:

      Wow, I probably should have researched that before I put it in there, thank you. I think that idea came from the dozens of times adults pleaded with me to like Jumanji instead, calling it the ‘better version of the same story’ and likely referring to Zathura as a ‘knockoff’ as well.

      Of course, what they really likely meant was: ‘this movie is bad and also all we’ve seen for months and we will say anything to get you to please god stop watching it.’ so, I can’t really blame them for it.

      1. Chad Miller says:

        I mean, it’s not entirely outlandish to call something a knockoff even if the author’s knocking off their own story. (I remember this accusation being leveled at the Zathura movie before it even released…a lot of “write another book!” energy)

        1. Mattias42 says:

          Honestly, seems a bit ahead of its time in this age of franchises and shared universes?

          Like, I kinda like the idea of a series of books, where the central mystery is why and how somebody or something keeps making magic board-games. And different groups of characters keep finding ’em and inadvertently start playing.

          It’s simple but compelling, and could be spun into all sorts of genres. Cyberpunk. Deep sea adventure. Spy thriller. Ghost story slash haunted house. Alien invasion. Maybe some sort of really twisted parody of Candy Land slash Willy Wonka where it seems sweet and innocent, but you’re constantly at risk of being eaten by or turned into living candy…

          Think it could have actually worked with something less tired than ‘Jumanji IN SPACE~!!!’

  4. Fizban says:

    Not to be a downer, but this kinda stuff tends to annoy me- because while I haven’t been actively keeping up with it, what few mentions I’ve seen get through to the normal news or newspaper. . . aren’t anything new. When I was a kid there was an episode of Scientific American Frontiers where they had a brain-controlled arm/hand, might have even been attached-prosthetic style already. More than 20 years later the best I’ve heard any mention of is. . . . brain controlled arm/hand, a bit nicer looking and with more detail, but still nothing more than prototypes in labs with bulky control schemes getting people’s hopes up. Which when you’re potentially say, sending people off into combat full of ideas about the cool robotic prosthetics the military’s been working on, and then they’re caught by an explosion and find out that no, they’re not getting anything anywhere near like like, kinda feels like a dick move to rub salt in the wound (no idea how informed they actually are about this, but it feels very possible). Or in short: I too would like to feel optimistic about the future of human/machine tech, but as time marches on I get the feeling that even by the time I need any of it yet more decades from now, the advancements I heard about as a kid still won’t actually be real. Feels like this stuff should have been drowning in funds and be way further than it is by now.

    A friend at work likes to say about current VR headsets he’ll “wait for real full-dive,” (Sword Art Online reference), and says he’s serious but like dude. . . . it’s not happening. I would be astounded if 50 years from now the research in that direction could make you see a single image, let alone actively render a 3d world directly into any arbitrary person’s visual cortex, while also magically paralzying most of their body, and perfectly reading their entire body’s worth of inputs. Why reject currently available technology because it doesn’t match literal fiction?

    It’s nice to dream about the future, but we also need to accept and enjoy what it is actually do-able within our lifetimes. Even with modern computer miniaturization and robotics advancement, humanoid martial arts robots are still nowhere near here- but they might actually be in a couple more decades. I doubt mental link controllers will be there to match and the bots will be hella expensive, but yeah, I can see Angelic Layer happening, eventually, maybe.

    On the other hand, I don’t think it could drive prosthetic advancement, since it’s all backwards: in order to make a mind controlled battle bot child’s toy you need the controller to be so easily adaptable and portable that you must have already solved all of its problems, and training to control an entire extra body’s worth of servos is obviously orders of magnitude more difficult than a single limb. Particularly when compared to a missing limb that you already have old muscle memory for- the toy might not have as many servos as muscles in a hand, but it’s still a whole new phantom appendage. You can’t use a business to drive advancement when the business requires you to already be at the finish line.

    Ironically, the new Gundam show (The Witch From Mercury) might have a better portrayal: great big huge machine, funded for military use, which a child is more easily able to control, and from which the researchers were working on with a goal of civilian use. Except actually they already have people with replacement limbs, so. . . really the fictional representations just come off as so obviously fictional. Since I’ve been hearing about the tech since I was a kid, and having a basic idea of how it works, and how the stories just gloss over basically everything but the most superficial in ways that obviously ignore the real problems to focus on the narrative tone. . . well it’s like that full-dive example. There’s been a boom in anime (and even that live-action movie) about “VRMMOs” based on the entirely science-fiction idea of full-dive “VR,” which seem to me like they’re going to seriously hamper the progress of actual real VR uses and advancements. Particularly when you start adding ridiculous commercials about so-called “Meta,” which aren’t even advertising a product, just baselessly suggesting more sci-fi fantasy crap to get you to. . . what?

    As for bath chairs- my immediate thought is that if they sell colorful bath mats you could maybe drape one of those over, but it doesn’t really fix the core problem of bad availability. I wasn’t even aware those were Expensive Medical Equipment, but I suppose I haven’t seen them in stores either, yeah that’s stupid. Only reason I don’t have a sit down is that the leftover one here barely fits in the tub and leaves rust spots.

    1. Bay says:

      By Sci-Fi Reality I was talking about the economy of scale and how accurately the show spoke about getting products to disabled people. I didn’t mean that robot dolls and arms were on the horizon, unfortunately…although ten-year-old me wants that very, very badly.

      1. Fizban says:

        Indeed, I didn’t mean to suggest you were suggesting quite that. It’s just my standard rant whenever the subject comes up, ’cause news/articles/movies/people often do.

        1. danny says:

          Moravec’s Paradox!

          Essentially, stuff that we (“we” = “animals”) have been doing for a billion years, lizard things like moving around, looking at rocks and recognizing a bug sitting on it; compared to mathematical-logical thinking that we have been doing for maybe a few hundred thousand years: there’s literally on the scale of a million times as much evolution for the Lizard Stuff than the Hominid Stuff.

          So our intuitions about what is “easy” or “hard” in AI systems is very deeply off. For a computer, winning the World Chess Championship is easy, whereas asking a child to fetch a spoon from the kitchen is colossally hard to beat.

    2. Pink says:

      I feel like you are understating the differences between a tiny robot and a human with prosthetics, in terms of the problems needing solving.

      Fixing balance issues with a prosthetic leg would be much easier if the human only weighed a couple pounds and had space in their torso for a gyroscope.

  5. Scerro says:

    Something I really wish Shamus would have stuck with even just a little bit more was Anime. I’d have liked to have seen more from his perspective post-2012. There were some other anime sites that I had run into around the same time, but I find it really hard to get text version reviews of anime that discuss aspects of the shows. Mainstream sites like My Anime List are super cringey, mostly overrun by fans and/or haters, and are also a terrible place to kick of discussion. Anilist is way better because it requires a 2k word count, but doesn’t have comments on the reviews themselves, only a down/upvote.

    Two things I’d love to see more content on with thoughtful discussion are Anime and Final Fantasy 14. This is a good start.

    1. Retsam says:

      Yup, I felt the same way. I was really excited when I found that Shamus had anime reviews in his archive, but our eras of anime barely overlapped. Other than FMA (2003) and some Ghibli films, most of what he talked about was “before my time”.

      I’m not too surprised he dropped off the hobby, I do think he’d have hated a lot of it. There’s definitely some real gems, but there’s also a lot of stuff that runs in “turn your brain off” territory, on top of some heavy cliches. I think he said part of why he stopped watching was he used to have a friend that gave him recommendations, and that makes sense, it’s a kind of complicated medium to navigate at times.

      And, yeah, I think “Shamus-style anime reviews” is something the community kind of lacks. The best text-based anime reviews I’ve found so far are Wrong Every Time, but I find their takes are often a bit too “artsy” for my tastes. A lot of discussion on the deep symbolism of X, Y, Z – less discussion about whether the plot made a lick of sense.

      1. Scerro says:

        Oh, I agree. If he was dedicated to anime for even 50% of content he would have gone insane. Way too much turn off your brain content. Still I’d have liked to see his take on many of the more interesting shows that have come out in the past few years. Even if it’s just a couple a year.

        After thinking a bit more, his review style really doesn’t fit anime though. Shows mostly fall under “make sense/don’t make sense”. His Mass Effect series displays what he did best – picking apart things when a player has agency. TV/Anime/Movies don’t have any of that. Still, he did good setting analysis, which is why I would have liked the occasional piece of anime content.

    2. Fizban says:

      People mention My Anime List all the time, but I’ve never even been. Anime News Network on the other hand, has been doing episode reviews of current anime for the last couple years, and several of the reviewers have some serious critique mode. They only cover so many shows a season, some are just fluff, some are funny or just sad as the viewers vote for obviously bad shows that the writer now has to actually watch and form words about- and some know how to take something apart and articulate what’s good/bad/etc. Good enough that some shows may get un-dropped, and others I just keep reading the reviews even without watching the show.

    3. Heather says:

      I would say that the kids and I are with you on wishing he had stuck with anime a lot longer. We all love anime (though a wide range of types) and always wanted to discuss and he got bored with it and wandered off to do other things. :D

  6. smosh says:

    The problem that disability aid devices cost money has been solved by the civilized world, via public / mandatory healthcare. (Western) societies are rich enough to be able to pay for wheel chairs, and the rest of the world will soon follow.

  7. Ramsus says:

    I can’t believe I’m the first to point out a particular nitpick here, but Netflix still has that very same DVD service. I know this because I use it. As it’s still a cheaper and better (and sometimes only?) option to get a lot of movies and not brand new TV shows. It also has a lot of stuff that gets removed from Netflix’s streaming service…. because nobody is all that interested in competing with them for mail order DVDs.

    I still fondly remember Zathura (despite acknowledging at the time that it was “not good”) and Angelic Layer (which just absolutely is good… because y’know…. Clamp).

    1. Fizban says:

      I feel like I want to dispute “because. . . Clamp,” because the more of their stuff I watched, the more cheesed off I got. Angelic Layer is one of the shows that didn’t annoy me, but the bigger their stuff gets, the more it seems to swirl down the drain into “no good endings.” But then, as time goes on, I only grow to resent say Gurren Lagann (different studio, similar problem) more and more.

      1. beleester says:

        Sorry, how is Gurren Lagann, the show that ends with a fistfight between robots the size of galaxies, your go-to example of “no good endings”?

      2. Heather says:

        I’m with you on Clamp. I loved their early stuff then got more and more annoyed with the direction they went until I saw “Clamp” and went, “Meh, nevermind.”

  8. Retsam says:

    There’s nothing radically disproportionate anatomy-wise, at least not egregiously so. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, it was animated by Clamp, after all.

    I’m assuming, from context, this isn’t sarcastic, but my main exposure to Clamp is that they did the character design for Code Geass, which is a little bit infamous for disproportionate anatomy. (But granted, that’s a stylistic choice more than an artistic mistake, which is probably the point being made, c.f. “Yaoi Hands”)

  9. Ander says:

    I remember this period of media evolution. It’s when I watched Haibane Renmei. Netflix had the DVDs, but I watched it online because we didn’t have a subscription. Was horrified when I realized it had to have been a pirate site. Watched it on Crunchyroll or something later to make up for it. Maybe I missed the point of the anime; I was pretty young.

  10. MelTorefas says:

    Wow, I totally missed the new content here. Really enjoyed catching up on it all though! I like your writing style and humor and am looking forward to more.

    Also, I am non-binary, bisexual, poly, autistic, and disabled; it’s really cool to read content from someone I have those things in common with, as that isn’t a, well, common experience for me!

    And finally, continuing to wish you and your family all the best in these difficult times! I may have missed this mentioned elsewhere, sorry if so, but is Shamus’ Patreon still a good way to be sending money to the site? I am happy to move somewhere else if it is need/easier.

    1. Bay says:

      Patreon is still the way to go. They’ve been really great about moving things over for us.

  11. William H says:

    My favorite anime when I was young was Rurouni Kenshin

    I still consider the Trust & Betrayal movie to be one of the best anime’s ever

    I read the unanimated manga of the Jinchu arc and the ongoing Hokaido arc

    I’ve even watched & enjoyed the live action adaptations

    It’s a shame about the mangaka, but I decided that would be something I had to compartmentalize

    Also, you should add the Epilogue tag to this post

  12. M. Solas says:

    Every few years somebody reminds me that Zathura exists and I remember that it wasn’t just a fever dream.

  13. Steve C says:

    There are some spoilers ahead, as a warning. I’ll try to keep them minor but the anime is also from 2001 and has very few major spoilers to give, so I think we’ll be okay.

    The blog has had the example spoiler of “Darth Vader is Luke’s father!” since forever. Which is a pretty major spoiler. Maybe even the biggest spoiler of all time. The blog started in 1999. Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, 19 years later.

    Even major spoilers that are 21 years old should be fine. They are in good company.

  14. Mersadeon says:

    I’m… honestly really impressed that *that* is the “spoiler” for Angel Layer. My reflex was to expect it to just be “they are secretly evil”, and even once you explained what they are actually up to, I was waiting for you to go “but for some reason they want to do it evil-y”. That’s a really positive surprise.

    I used to think and write quite a bit about the topic of “cyberware” in cyberpunk media in my university coursework, and while there is some literary productivity to be found in portraying these things in a complex, not always positive way, it’s a real downer that the genre’s shallower examples have just decided that “prosthesis = less human”, often ignoring any *actually* interesting themes in the process and becoming very ableist.

    I definitely feel you on the shower chair thing. As a teenager, I had a diagnosis for some knee stuff that was just… dour, foretelling a long process of surgeries with low chances of success. Thankfully, that didn’t come to pass (though at least some sort of surgery will be in my future), but for a few years I was pretty sure I would lose mobility from the knee down somewhere down the line, and all I could think is “yeah but if they chop’em off or whatever, all the prosthesis are UGLY, why?!” I didn’t want uncanny-valley prosthesis that badly mimics skin. If it’s going to be there, I’d rather not be ashamed of it and make it look as rad as possible.

    (EDIT: Also your love for Zathura feels pretty relatable, because even though I haven’t seen that one, my poison of choice was Jumanji as a kid. Strangely, what fascinated me most was the physical boardgame prop they used in the movie, I couldn’t get it out of my head – and somehow, modern app-assisted board games never quite felt mysterious enough to scratch that itch!)

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