Secretly Tsunemori: The Anime Parallels of Sui Zhen’s Secretly Susan

Secretly Susan’s release has had a long tail but the premiere of ‘Hangin’ On’ last week might have finally revealed the tip. It’s the final piece of a trilogy which started with ‘Infinity Street’ and was bridged by ‘Take It All Back’, establishing the narrative — separate to the music — of Susan, a “digital doppelgänger” living in post-apocalyptic Earth. The nature of the apocalypse is vague — that it was an apocalypse in the first place is only ever implicit — and so are its characters, leaving plenty of room for interpretation.

What Sui Zhen has made explicit comes via press materials, interviews, and planning documents which contain cues for the videos’ aesthetic and Susan’s context within it. The rest is up to you. Where does Susan come from and how did she get there? Why does she play with that goopy brain thing and stare wistfully at the water? Who is Rhys Mitchell playing? These are all for you to deduce — or invent — for yourself. What’s at least clear is that Sui Zhen is playing with recognisable tropes, although so much of what’s captivating about the spectacle is the unusual way they’re arranged. It’s Douglas Coupland meets David Lynch, but it’s also Godard meets Wong Kar-wai, ASMR meets Eizin Suzuki, Pulp Fiction meets Northcote Plaza. And where the dystopian ideas find obvious root in cinema and literature, less obvious is how similar ideas are explored in anime, even though dystopian fiction is one thing anime does really well.

Part of why is demonstrated by the surreal, CG backdrops of the Susan saga. Without the realist obligations and constraints of live action, anime (and manga) has greater freedom to explore how extremely society might transform under certain conditions. The sprawling, twisted metropolises of Ghost in the Shell and Akira; the superficially placid fortress cities of Evangelion’s Tokyo-3; the blinding sheen of Ergo Proxy’s Romdeau; the looming but intricate maze of Berserk’s Falconia — it’s not that these don’t have equally impressive contemporaries in other forms, but the ability to create the setting from scratch gives writers a particularly convenient sandbox. With some of these series, it’s as if the creators programmed their parameters and then hit Play on their new civilisation; the series itself is whatever unfolds. And how that civilisation progresses, or regresses, inevitably tells us something about our own. The extramusical narrative around Secretly Susan feels similar.

Sui Zhen in STRINE WHINE.

Sui’s lyrics are personal, directly relating to moments of her own biography: love songs speak to recently ended relationships, settings are inspired by real places. ‘Dear Teri’ is about a friendship with Le Butcherettes’ Teri Gender Bender. ‘Infinity Street’ was inspired by Hickford Street in Reservoir. These aren’t explicitly hand-wrung rebellions against the digital panopticon. That makes for a messier execution of Secretly Susan’s dystopian trappings, but truer for it: like light passing through the hypothetical double slit, lives pass through a virtual medium and have their facets defined by it, but aren’t the medium itself in totality. The banalities of life continue whether you’re aware of their political underpinnings or not.

In 2012, Production IG released Psycho-Pass, a police-state thriller written by Gen Urobuchi. Centering on rookie cop Akane Tsunemori, Psycho-Pass follows her entry into the Public Safety Bureau and coming to terms with her role as an enforcer of a state she’s beginning to question. In Psycho-Pass, your mental state is constantly monitored by city-wide scanners; among other things, your psycho-pass comprises of a hue (a colour reflecting your mental state, which becomes a beauty standard in Psycho-Pass’s society) and a crime coefficient (a number suggesting how likely you are to break the law.)

The system is allegedly run by a perfect algorithm, eliminating personal bias and human error. Are you a good person? Then you can get the best jobs. Are you going to commit a crime, or influence someone else to? Then you’re going to die. The series is driven by pursuit of someone who somehow can’t be scanned, and therefore commits crimes with total abandon — the PSB helpless to stop him because, for some reason, the system doesn’t interpret his actions as crime. The core questions are: how is a system like that run? What do we value to preserve safety? Are emotions a liability or liberation?

But in a few episodes of Psycho-Pass, Akane Tsunemori goes out with her friends. They talk about careers and boyfriends. She cycles through holographic outfits in her bedroom. None of this has much to do with the central mystery of the series, but it gets at the same point as Secretly Susan’s grounded lyrical content: a technocratic dystopia isn’t going to look or feel like you’re John Connor or Kyle Reese in the brown-black trenches of machine warfare. It’s going to look and feel like your life probably always has.

Sui Zhen frequently refers to Susan being comprised of “metadata,” which is a very specific term. If data is all the colours of the spectrum, metadata is the prism through which they’re refracted; it’s the parameters of data, its descriptive boundaries. It’s an essential part of information, but not the meat of the information itself. Metadata could tell you the name of this essay, but not what the essay is about.

Susan isn’t the sum of digital input, but the sum of its reference points, and therefore appears constantly bewildered and curious about what those fragments suggest about the breadth of human experience. While a movie like Her imagines how a program would self-actualise given the ability to process the entire store of human knowledge, abstracting itself into an entity imperceptible by our own consciousness, Susan is a portrait of jumbled outlines with no means of filling them in.

In Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film Ghost in the Shell, a hallmark for anime like Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion, a military AI called The Puppeteer breaks its tethers and fights to preserve itself. Like Susan, the Puppeteer is driven by the need to fill in the jumbled outlines of understanding welded to itself by a global network. Unlike Susan, whose world has been abandoned by humanity, the Puppeteer’s world is still full of people who can enable that. It has an unparalleled grasp of the idea of human purpose, but the signifier has yet to become the signified.

Ultimately, it’s pursuing procreation instead of replication — the merging of two sets of DNA to create a third that’s like both and unlike either. Where the Puppeteer finds its final realisation in Kusanagi, Susan finds hers in the wild people of the ‘Hangin’ On’ video, apparently the remnants of humankind on Earth. Her goal isn’t procreation, but, as Laura Snapes points out on NPR, “the prospect of freedom.” Not just freedom from her campino-coloured confines, but the freedom to explore and define herself against other people. This is metaphorically similar to the Puppeteer’s idea of procreation, or, as Katsuragi tells Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion, we’re all the sum of our interactions with other people. Put differently, merging our experiences with another’s makes us a different person than we were before that interaction.

That idea of a virtual consciousness self-actualising by consuming the input of the web also appears in Mnemosyne, a six episode series that aired in 2008, but with different implications. In the fourth episode of Mnemosyne, an AI based on its inventor’s daughter, Ruon, goes rogue after falling in love with a man she met through a virtual reality sex program. The development was codenamed Project L’Isle-Adam, a reference to the French author of The Future Eve.

In The Future Eve, a fictionalised Thomas Edison invents an android version of a friend’s fiancee. The fiancee is “physically perfect but emotionally and intellectually empty… Far from having any ambition or goals of her own, she lives her life based on what she believes is expected of her.” Ironic! This is typically the way in which androids designed as substitutes for human affection are described, but in L’Isle-Adam’s parable, it’s the human herself.

The moral of the story is that real women are the real fakes and robots would be heaps better, which is pretty creepy, but Mnemosyne plays it differently. AI!Ruon’s ambitions are separate to her inventor’s will. An AI created to satisfy the emotional needs of her inventors rebels to pursue her own goals. In Susan’s case, there’s a pervasive sense that as a “digital doppelganger” she was created to fulfil someone else’s emotional needs, someone who’s no longer around — whether dead or off-planet. ‘Hangin’ On’ is the moment Susan finally discovers she can find emotional needs of her own.

That notion of realising there’s life beyond the immediate is familiar in everything from Thoreau to Huxley and Orwell, or, contemporaneously, Maze Runner and Divergent. In anime’s dystopias, it’s in Psycho-Pass and Ergo Proxy.

In Psycho-Pass: The Movie, set after its first season, Tsunemori travels to another city to see how they’re implementing the same system as Tokyo. They’re still in a transitional state, and she sees that the world outside is in total chaos. Guerilla warfare and poverty are normal for everyone except the military oligarchs of the other city. She runs into her former partner, Kogami. Kogami left Tokyo to pursue a form of justice that was informed by personal morals rather than the opaque commandments of his technocratic hometown.

At the end of the first series, Tsunemori ultimately concludes that the system is worth preserving as long as it’s held to account; Kogami believes that a system for people should be delineated by people. Susan’s choice in ‘Hangin’ On’ is more like Kogami’s than Tsunemori’s: safety is not worth the sacrifice of liberty.

Ergo Proxy is notable for a few reasons beyond its parallels to a series of music videos. First, its closing theme is Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’, a rare use of Radiohead in television and one that fits the tone of the show downright perfectly. Second, its main character is modelled on Evanescence’s Amy Lee. Third, those are two of the only things the show got unquestionably right: the series begins with immense promise and some of the ideas informing it are solid, but it shits the bed in the second half by emphasising the story of another character who is impossible to care about.

But before it gets bad it gets good with a story about escaping paradise: Romdeau is a consumerist dystopia. City-wide announcements encourage its people to litter as much as possible; the rubbish is turned into energy to power the city. Buying shit and destroying it is Romdeau’s eternal stimulus package, and the result is peace and prosperity.

But the outside world is a wasteland. The skies are black, the air is thick with smog, and it’s this greater peril which encourages the people of Romdeau to endure the control of their glistening city. Life in Romdeau is boring, devoid of passion and free will. People only exist to consume. It’s pleasant but dissatisfying, safe but meaningless — like the world inside Susan’s home — but only outside is there any knowledge of humanity’s history. What the characters learn about theirs and the city’s existence irrevocably flips their perspective, leaving the question of whether truth was worth exile up to the viewer.

In all three videos, Susan’s home looks wonderful. It’s cosy, soft, colourful. It provides everything Susan needs to continue existing, but as Susan clearly wonders, is existing the same as living? The outside world in ‘Hangin’ On’ is wild and overgrown. When Susan looks out the window and sees people for the first time, she’s holding an unblemished egg, she’s bathed in light, her vivid pink robe is plush. She looks clean and symmetrical — signifiers of perfection.

Outside, a jagged creek runs over lumpy, oblong rocks; the people are dirty, dressed in beige, skintight leotards. The one thing they do have in common is their tactile experiences. They play with water, scratch stones together, rub dirt on their skin. The solitary movement Susan performed inside becomes communal movement outside.

Like the conclusion of Susan’s story, none of these series make a value judgement on whichever way you oughta swing. In some ways, that story is shaded by the perils of a digital society. It wouldn’t be apocalyptic if it wasn’t, in some sense, cautionary. But it also exists separate to that: Susan is a byproduct of that dependence, not an agent of it.

But even putting yourself in Susan’s robe, her life is presented as appealingly comfortable and secure. It has to, which is another thing it has in common with these shows. If there wasn’t so much to sacrifice, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. If dystopian fiction has an overarching theme, that’s probably it, and it’s one Sui Zhen expresses uniquely. What would you give up to live your perfect life? What wouldn’t you?

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