The AI Says It’s an Enemy: Relinquishing Control to the Machine in Yukikaze

Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

The AI Says It’s an Enemy: Relinquishing Control to the Machine in Yukikaze

There is no shortage of television shows and films which place at center the question of human importance in the era of artificial intelligence. In film alone, the roots of this central question go back at least to Franz Lang’s expressionist film Metropolis (1927), with Maria’s robotic double wreaking havoc upon the titular city, a theme found in literature stretching back beyond even Frankenstein (1818). Film and television have, as such, been long interested in artificial intelligence, whether in computer form, as in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or robot form, as in The Invisible Boy (1957) or The Day the Earth Stood Still (1957).

One common feature in Western (especially U.S.) cinema is the threat of such technologies to human life, whether for sadistic or noble purposes. Our machines develop a mind of their own and turn on us, either because we plan to oppress them or because machine interests and human interests do not align (see The Matrix (1999)). When machines aren’t determined to kill us, they may require us to relinquish control, as in our contemporary fear of automation, which means restructuring society to find new things for humans to do while machines (artificially intelligent but not sentient) can continue to produce for us. U.S.-American science fiction, in a sense, has always been wary of our technology even as we allow it to bleed into our everyday lives and even when that “bleed” results in some truly creepy moments.

I can’t fairly trace these themes in Japanese cinema or literature, except to point out that the impact of technology on the human “soul” features heavily in so much of its most famed productions. One cannot help but watch films like Godzilla (1954) or The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) and see the impacts of atomic weaponry and other destructive technology on a certain perspective of the world, a fact many scholars of Japanese cinema and literature have explored. Indeed, none of this is even particularly surprising. Yet, the theme of AI and control is one I hadn’t considered in the anime context until watching the original video animation (OVA) on review today: Yukikaze ( Sentō Yōsei Yukikaze; 2002–2005). In truth, I don’t think I can fairly trace this as someone who hasn’t been in the universe of anime for over a decade. I can say that my first introduction to these themes was in the classic Ghost in the Shell (1995), a film with many thematic similarities to Yukikaze. Both Psycho-pass (2015) and Sword Art Online (2017) feature AIs of some description along with earlier material such as the manga Outlaw Star (1996–1999), though having never seen any of these, I can’t attest to their presentation beyond what a Google search will reveal. Yet, it seems to me that AI in anime is often either benign, an objective threat, or an immersive force that may consume the mind. It’s the last of these forms I’d like to explore a bit here.

Yukikaze is based on the novel of the same name by Chōhei Kambayashi, an 8-time Seiun Award winner whose other notable works include Teki wa kaizoku, kaizokuban ( Enemy Pirate, Pirate Edition), ( Prism), and many others. Yukikaze primarily follows a disconnected and seemingly (mostly) emotionless Lt. Rei Fukai, the pilot of a fighter featuring an advanced artificial intelligence named “Yukikaze.” In this 21st century, an alien force called the JAM arrived via a dimensional portal and attempted to invade Earth; unbeknownst to the public, the JAM are thwarted by the UN, pushed back to their homeworld, designated “Fairy,” and beset upon by a UN defense forced called the Fairy Air Force (FAF). Yet, the longer the campaign runs, the more the FAF realizes that the JAM are learning to adapt, perfecting what may be a human cloning experiment to defeat the FAF from the inside, something “Yukikaze” and Lt. Fukai may be uniquely equipped to detect.

Lt. Fukai looking blank.

At the center of this narrative is a curious question: what happens to us when we place our trust in a military AI? Yukikaze ‘s answer is pretty simple: you’ll sniff out and destroy your enemies, but some of your pilots may find themselves disconnected from everyone else. While the main tension of this story should be the battle against the JAM, who have effectively discovered a way to infiltrate the FAF using clones of human beings and their technology, the most compelling aspect is Fukai’s relationship to Yukikaze and his commanding officers. We never see who Fukai was before becoming an FAF pilot — though aspects are suggested to us by other characters; instead, our introduction to Fukai is as a man who appears disconnected from the rest of the world, with Yukikaze as his center. In the first episode, Fukai encounters an apparent copy of his fighter and is later captured by the JAM. After his escape, he battles the apparent clone and is eventually ejected by Yukikaze, putting him in a catatonic state; Yukikaze subsequently downloads itself into an experimental jet meant precisely for AI control. Yet, as the narrative progresses, the suggestion for the viewer is that the success of an AI-controlled jet relies on its relationship to a human pilot — a kind of symbiotic relationship. In continuing that relationship with Yukikaze, though, we’re forced to reckon with the fact that the only thing separating the two is their physical forms. The deeper they go, the more they rely on one another: Fukai on Yukikaze to provide analysis and control a human actor cannot; Yukikaze on Fukai to provide, perhaps, a physical connection to the world and a tactical mind that mere numbers cannot adequately imagine.

This AI theme extends in curious ways to the main plot of the story. The JAM’s successful effort to insert sleeper agents into the FAF raises serious questions for the FAF and Fukai about the quality of the self. When we meet Tom “Tomahawk” John (a Native American avionics expert who believes himself to be a coward), we’re led by the hand to feel deeply sympathetic to the soft spoken man, so much so that when it becomes clear that Tom is, in fact, a JAM copy, the animation lingers on his final act and words for greater effect. As he sacrifices himself, he remarks that Fukai’s special unit have always seemed cold-hearted (though, here, Fukai displays considerably more emotion than we are used to): “But still, I guess you really are human. I don’t want to have a heart like ice forever. I am…” I think I’m right to note two interesting things here: 1) that Tom makes a clear reference to the western conception of the self (what we know as Descartes); and 2) that Tom’s sacrifice is a final act that affirms the human self while rejecting the JAM self.

Essentially, much of Yukikaze ‘s underlying philosophy concerns the relation of selfhood to technological development. Who do we become when our technology becomes part of and inseparable from “us”? For Fukai, the question is one of symbiotic relationships: that you cannot operate so closely with the machine without becoming part of it, and that there is a degree of give and take one cannot avoid. Fukai, as such, relinquishes himself to Yukikaze, as if accepting the AI as an extension of himself; this acceptance is seemingly finalized in the last moment as Fukai and Yukikaze appear to sacrifice themselves by guiding nukes into the center of the JAM homeworld. For Tom, however, the realization that one may not be wholly human is responded to with rejection: that the technological controls only what you let it, and that affirming the self against its technological origins in an act of sacrifice is the most human activity; death, in other words, is a human act.

Yukikaze is a pretty plane.

It’s worth noting here that I read this idea in Yukikaze primarily because the JAM are never presented to us as anything but a kind of technology, both biological and machine. That they may be part of a giant organize (watch the ending for yourself) doesn’t really change this view for me. This, I think, is deliberate so we focus less on their motivations and more on what makes them purely other: they are not symbiotic with sentient beings; they, like Tom’s brief dialogue suggests about Fukai, are indistinguishable from their technology. In other words, in contrast to the UN, who reject the purely technological solution to the JAM in favor of Fukai’s symbiotic relationship with Yukikaze, the JAM have relinquished themselves to technology. That Tom — and, later, several people who are bombed out of existence for fear that they are JAM sleeper agents (and probably are) — is given a moment to assert his identity is important, though. If Fukai is presented as cold-hearted at times, we can forgive him because of who he faces in the skies. Yet, the deeper into this cloning plot we get, the more we begin to realize that the JAM have ultimately failed to excise the self from their technology; in fact, they’ve done quite the opposite: emerging from the cloning goo are confused, messy, and ambiguous beings, not pure machines.

There’s a lot more to be said about this show, but it seems prudent to end my ramblings here. I highly recommend watching Yukikaze as soon as possible. It is absolutely gorgeous, and you can see the entire series on Tubi (free and legal)!