Aren’t we supposed to be normal high school students?
— Mizuky to Sho, The Guyver
It’s no secret that the anime world has been influenced by cyborg imagery. The imaginative power of this human-machine interface is clear in the fact that marketers have accorded it official subgeneric status. Mecha, as the subgenre is known, offers a range of images, from armored exoskeletons (characters running around in militaristic metal suits) to fully integrated cybernetic organisms. It’s concerned with the status of the human body and human identity, their limits and potentialities, in a world where technological development allows radical reconfigurations of both.
The best of mecha asks sophisticated questions: at what point is the prosthetic no longer a prosthetic? How does this redefine borders of the human body? What does a reconfiguration of the body mean in terms of how we identify an entity as human, or not?
The Guyver — Bio-Booster Armor, Vols. 1 & 2 pursues this mecha “problematic” with some rigor. On the surface, it’s a fairly straightforward story about a boy who, having been altered through no choice of his own, is forced to protect those he loves from the forces of a cruel and conniving corporate enterprise. But the subtext explores the various ramifications, psychological and social, of bodily invasion and transformation.
The series begins when Sho (Tom Charles), a shy high school student living in a seemingly “normal” suburban neighborhood, discovers a mysterious device, a “Guyver unit,” while walking in the woods with his friend Tetsuro (Victor Garcia). The device is mechanical, but appears somehow invested with a life of its own. While attempting to decipher its origin and function, the two friends are attacked by a group of paramilitary soldiers who have been dispatched by the shadowy Chronos Company to recover the device and eliminate any hapless bystanders.
In the ensuing confrontation, the soldiers one by one transform themselves into grotesque monsters called Zoanoids, a process rendered in graphic detail. Horrified by these transformations, and seeing his friend in imminent danger, Sho somehow activates the Guyver unit. The device explodes into a mass of swirling metallic tentacles that wrap around Sho, transforming him into a kind of armored half-robot/half-human. Thus transformed, Sho/Guyver attacks and annihilates the Zoanoids in a spectacular series of confrontations. The biological quality of the Guyver armor is dramatically foregrounded in this early conflict. Near the end of the battle, Sho rips his chest open in order to expose two potent bio-lasers that he uses to kill his final opponent in an excessive display of violence. Having accomplished this, Sho falls to the ground in exhaustion and the Guyver unit slowly unfolds itself from his body.
While an important sequence for defining the film’s figures for good (Sho and company) and evil (Zoanoids and Chronos Company), it’s most interesting for the manner in which the transformations are represented. They are neither glorious nor pleasurable, but, to the contrary, overwhelmingly violent and horrible. Sho’s transformation in particular is represented as an invasion and violation of his body. The Guyver unit literally consumes him, and it’s clear from Sho’s tormented screams and the terror on his face that the event is not especially positive or pleasant.
He isn’t changing into something “better” than or “beyond” human. He’s mutating into a hybrid of human and “other” than human. The result is a subject who is estranged from himself. Neither entirely in control nor out of control, Sho balances between the two alternate, but intimately connected, selves. After each transformation, Sho struggles to resolve this duality with varying degrees of success, and when he sleeps, his dreams are filled with horrific fantasies of destruction.
It’s not surprising, then, that in subsequent scenes, Sho experiences intense personal disorientation and self-loathing over the creature he has become. Such forced and difficult metamorphosis is a key trope throughout the two-DVD series. As Sho and his friends Mizuky (Melissa Charles) and Tetsuro attempt to defeat the agents of Chronos Company, they are confronted with an endless succession of humans who have been altered against their will to further Chronos’ ambitions.
This creates dilemmas for the ostensible heroes, as they’re forced to kill individuals who are blameless and unwilling tools more than they are humans (or some other creatures) making choices. This translates into a deep sense of ambivalence within the characters, bordering on paranoia, regarding the body itself, ambivalence as to what it conceals and what it might, at any second, become. As Sho finds out, much to his horror, midway through the series, the enemy is as likely to be your unwitting father as some malevolent thug.
There is a kind of biological dread at work in this ambivalence, a fear of viral contamination and uncontrollable, anarchic cellular proliferation. Unlike the more typical, cool metallic mecha visions (for example, Gundam), Guyver is distinctly warm and sticky. It’s viral mecha. In this sense, the Guyver unit is not a machine per se; it’s a biological entity that attacks the borders of the human body and seeks to inject its code into its host.
The dread the Guyver inspires is mirrored in the social environment in which the characters operate. Like Sho’s body, the social organization around the characters is not what it at first seems. Under the seemingly calm and uncomplicated surface of schools, friends, and home life, hidden forces are manipulating and deforming the social apparatus. What was supposed to be natural and real turns out to be a mere façade. The school’s student-body president turns out to be an agent of Chronos; as Sho and his friends wander through a seemingly placid town, it’s citizens suddenly transform into Zoanoids. At almost every turn, the world flips on its head.
The second volume of episodes on Manga Entertainment’s DVD set ends with very little resolved in terms of these biological and social crises. While he has succeeded in his latest struggle with Chronos Company, Sho’s body is apparently still irreversibly linked to that of the Guyver. The social network, having been exploded in the course of the series, remains distinctly non-cohesive — the characters have no social institutions to run to.
In fact, there’s little in terms of resolution by the end of the series. This may be the effect of a sloppy failure of imagination on the part of the series’ creators. It is nonetheless appropriate, even if accidental. Closing all the gaps in the narrative means you’ve resolved the story, restored some sense of order, completed the circle. Guyver‘s failure to provide such conventional closure means that the narrative is at least still partially contested, open to future mutations or tangential developments: in short, only provisionally circumscribed. For a story driven by fantasies of polymorphous mutation, this seems fitting.