What do androids dream of? Parasite Dolls

So here’s an interesting little cyberpunk anime title, available for streaming on Crunchyroll if you are so inclined. I found Parasite Dolls to be actually one of the better ones in the Bubblegum universe, in part because it explores and builds on a lot of the themes touched on by Armitage III, about what qualifies morally as life, and if the dividing line between artificial and biological is indeed as hard-and-fast as we want to think. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at this, since the scriptwriter of Parasite Dolls was none other than Naomi Armitage’s own creator, Chiaki Konaka himself!

Parasite Dolls follows the story of the Branch, which is kind of like AD Police’s Section 31. They aren’t technically supposed to exist, and they’re given a leeway in their operations that the other divisions of the AD Police don’t get. The Branch has five members: ‘Buzz’ Nyqvist, a widower, veteran cop and anti-terrorism expert who hates guns; Rod Kimball, a boomer who uses his perspective as an artificial life-form to investigate criminal psychology; Reiko Michaelson, the heavy weapons and helicopter expert who is eager to prove herself in her work for the Branch; ‘Angel’ Lynch, a tanned platinum blonde who does undercover work and IA; and Bill Myers, the resident white-hat hacker. The Branch was created and is commanded by Takahashi Kôji, who seems to have a dual duty in the AD Police, and is occasionally subject to pressure from outside. The structure, thematics and tone of Parasite Dolls are similar to, and probably deliberately modelled after, AD Police Files. As with Files, Dolls consists of three standard TV-length episodes. Warning: possible minor spoilers follow.

In the first episode, ‘A Faint Voice’, the Branch is called in to deal with a rash of mad boomer crime, usually involving moving violations and weapons; Reiko and Bill discover that the mad boomers who are taken have chips in them that are transmitting all their sensory data. Buzz and Rod are tasked with tracking down drug dealers who may be involved in making the boomers go insane. And at the same time, there’s a ‘The Deb of Night’-style late-night talk radio host named Chieko, who seems to be having problems with a stalker. These three cases all overlap with each other; in addition, Genom Corporation seems to be putting pressure on the AD Police to take Branch off of these cases.

In the second episode, ‘Dreamer’, the Branch investigates a series of grotesque killings (or property destruction, depending on who’s talking) targeting boomer sexaroids. The killer, dubbed the ‘Hooker Boomer Crusher’, leaves few traces of his presence at the scenes of his crimes, and so the Branch has to shake down digital pimps and even set up a sting operation. In the middle of this case is a boomer named Eve, who suffers nightly from disturbing dreams of a young girl in a red dress… and boomers are not supposed to have dreams. Rod Kimball is forced to confront his own responses to being considered merely a ‘tool’ by the people in the boomer-sex business; and Reiko, when she goes undercover as a prostitute, has to deal with her own insecurities and growing feelings for Buzz.

The third episode, ‘Knights of a Roundtable’, takes place five years later. A new hardline right-wing Minister of Justice named Sorime Kenji has taken to preaching a demagogical anti-boomer message in hopes of becoming the next President of Japan. Behind the scenes, Sorime is conducting a rash of terrorism and vigilante crimes aimed against boomers (‘Project Excalibur’) using a puppet organisation which he calls the ‘New Knights’… a precursor to Celia’s Knight Sabres. Soon after this, Chief Takahashi disappears – presumed dead by the government, Buzz is framed for a series of simultaneous explosions that occur around Megatôkyô, and the members of Branch are targeted for assassination by Sorime’s ‘New Knights’. It’s up to Buzz alone, now a renegade cop and a wanted terrorist, to investigate the ‘Knights’, expose Sorime and avenge Takahashi… if he can confront and live down the darkest secret in his past.

Dolls takes a similar ‘hard-boiled’ approach to boomer crime as Files. It takes ‘tech-noir’ to its logical extremes, going into abandoned warehouses, red-light districts, dingy back alleys and grungy bathroom stalls in neon-lit strip clubs – and of course nothing good ever happens there. It deliberately draws a parallel between human beings’ quest for technological mastery on the one hand, and their pursuit of sexual gratification, money and political power on the other. But there is a marked contrast to Files, which is concerned with the overarching question of whether human beings are giving up too much of their humanity in order to gain the power of machines. Dolls instead asks the question of whether machines are in fact becoming more human… and what that means for human beings who are spiritually stunted by greed, lust and desire for domination.

If the problem of what happens when humans become too much like machines is the fixation of Files, Dolls is fixated on the problem of what happens when machines become too much like humans. Rod Kimball really does seem to have a soul, despite his own repeated insistence that he does not; so do Caine and Eve. (It’s actually an intriguing and theologically-rich authorial choice, and certainly not a blind one given Konaka Chiaki’s Anglican Christian upbringing, that the other boomers who truly do grapple with their humanity in this series are named after the Biblical first generations of human beings.) And the human characters themselves grapple in various healthy and unhealthy ways with the fact that boomers are becoming more and more like them. The ‘joyriders’ literally get off on the thrills that borrowing boomer sense data gives them; Buzz withdraws into guilt over fatally mistaking a human girl for a boomer; Reiko finds herself pondering her own femininity as compared to Eve’s; Sorime is seduced by the political power that human hatred of boomers can mobilise for him.

Speaking of Sorime: I was kind of charmed by the trenchant political criticism of the Japanese nativist right on display in Parasite Dolls. If Armitage III kind of underwhelmed me with its desire to ‘play it safe’ by transmuting uyoku dantai bugbears into space-fantasy politics and thereby giving itself a layer of plausible deniability, Parasite Dolls actually serves as a decent corrective to that. Sorime Kenji is a caricature – though not at all an unrealistic one – of Japanese revolutionary far-rightism. He is a social Darwinist who fervently believes in the survival of the fittest. He is disgusted by the coddling of human weaknesses which he imagines that the boomers encourage and embody. He believes that it is the right and destiny of the strong to accrue money and political power, and of the weak to resign themselves to submission. (Of course, he considers himself to be the foremost among the ‘strong’… even as he indulges himself in drugs, booze, bribery, corruption and gratuitously-sadistic sex with boomers.) He has a casual misogynist’s view of women – though as we hear in his ranting monologues, his contempt readily extends to the sexually-frustrated ‘old men and brats’ who make up his base. We later learn that even his anti-boomer stance is just for show: Sorime has no personal hostility toward boomers; he only views the ‘wedge issue’ as a personal stepping-stone to power. Of course he thinks nothing of falsifying history, of finding scapegoats like Buzz, and of taking advantage of crimes and crises to facilitate his rise to the peak of power atop the Japanese state. Suffice it to say, his Untergang is a particularly satisfying moment.

In general, all the characters are well-depicted – not just Rod. We care what happens with these characters. Buzz is haunted, and we get to see that and how it plays out in his relationships long before we learn what happened. Reiko’s insecurity and tsundere-style sweetness on Buzz countervails quite nicely against her implied kinks. Myers is delightfully cocky and the source of a lot of the series’s humour. Speaking of which, the Dr Strangelove-style deadpan humour in Parasite Dolls, riffing as it does on the greats of the cyberpunk animated genre, is brilliant: ‘Don’t fire inside the city! We’ve already exceeded our monthly insurance budget!’; ‘Great. Now the highway is full of holes.’; ‘You’re a genius!’—‘So, Angel, how about a night with the genius?’—‘No.’.

The series makes a number of references to Bubblegum, and a number of other movies and anime besides. The character of Rod Kimball himself is an homage to Data from Star Trek: an observant and humane boomer who is trying to edge ever closer to full humanity. He name-drops Virus Buster Serge in the first episode, a little wink-nod to Ôbari Masami’s first directorial joust into cyberpunk. The insurance budget line is a clear reference to Shirow Masamune’s Dominion. And the scene where Sorime wakes up in a broad window overlooking Megatôkyô is an homage to Ghost in the Shell.

The artwork is not particularly consistent; at its best the artwork of Parasite Dolls is really good, with some spectacular chiaroscuro lighting effects in particular, and at its worst it’s really dull, flat and lifeless. I think I also enjoy the technical / character design of the boomers best in this iteration of the Bubblegum universe as well: the fragile, ‘thin human skin’ of these boomers really drives home the subtle interplay of human and synthetic that is Dolls’s thematic hallmark. It’s also pretty easy to date just by the artwork: much of it reminds me of the bolded and doubled early-oughties inkwork and vibrant two-toned shading that one might see in, say, the early seasons of The Boondocks. The soundtrack of Parasite Dolls features mostly trance, rave and club numbers rather than the hard rock that characterised the other iterations of Bubblegum… and it actually works pretty well, alongside the easy-listening numbers that accompany Chieko on the radio, at creating effects of either distance or disorientation as the storytelling demands.

In short: I highly recommend Parasite Dolls, as much as a companion piece to Armitage III as a Bubblegum Crisis sequel. It’s a profound and adroit, if perhaps a bit self-awarely derivative, exploration of cyberpunk SFnal themes around social, sexual, economic and political misuses or street uses of cybernetic technologies. And, like all good SFnal works, it has some remarkably clever commentaries to make on the present day.


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