The Capsule Corp Legacy: Technology and Women in Anime

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In the year 2015, where technology is so pivotal and so advanced, the sad fact remains that women make up a small percentage of jobs in scientific fields. Only a few months ago, the Huffington Post reported that the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers is actually declining. Even Barbie, the woman who can do anything, failed as a computer engineer in a book geared towards young girls. The stereotype that most women aren’t on the level they need to be to excel in STEM careers is one that sneaks into everyday life from a young age. Luckily, anime fans know better—and Dragon Ball is a big reason why.

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From a narrative standpoint, Bulma is the single most important character in the Dragon Ball franchise. Without her, Goku’s life consists of chopping wood up in the mountains and turning into a ginormous murder ape once a month, never to master the Kamehameha, let alone become a Super Saiyan. Even if he does wander down the mountain at some point and the world miraculously survives all the bad guys he won’t be there to defeat, he dies of heart disease in his twenties because no one invented a time machine to travel from the future with medicine to save him. Without Bulma to fly spaceships, redeem evil princes, and basically be Anime Sarah Connor, Goku would be the most lost protagonist of them all.

The adventure begins not with our hero’s goals and aspirations, after all, but those of the female co-lead. A sixteen-year-old on a mission to summon a legendary dragon and ask him for a dreamboat boyfriend, Bulma kicks off the narrative a little sassy, a little sexy, and more than a little selfish, making her a perfect foil for the mind-numbingly pure Goku. Over the course of the series, Bulma is the surrogate big sister, the confidant, the scientist, the engineer, the mother, the rebel, and the president of the world’s foremost source of technology.

BUL_timemachineBulma inherits her father’s company, true, but she deserves her position as president, not only understanding science and technology on the page but able to put that knowledge to practical use in the lab or workshop. Capsule Corporation’s future tech has everything from scooters and flying cars to refrigerators and wardrobes, all at the click of a button, and Bulma is behind the scenes designing, engineering, and operating everything. Without sacrificing traditionally feminine qualities (Bulma prioritizes fashion and beauty and woos herself a prince—without any help from the dragon, I might add), she holds her own in a world constantly in danger of facing its end and plays a fundamental role in major plot lines. In the midst of martial arts, Bulma is irreplaceable in her technological contributions.

It’s in this field that Bulma truly makes a lasting impact. Her legacy as a tech-savvy leading lady has continued well beyond the Dragon Ball era of the eighties and nineties. Across genres in anime, women’s visibility in STEM fields has increased in the new millennium. Anime fans can see female characters excelling in fields that mirror what scientists are accomplishing today. Sure, we’re a ways off from all of life’s wants and needs fitting into capsules, but engineering, programming, and robotics are all thriving fields that could use more ladies like these ones who follow in Bulma’s footsteps.

Engineering and Prosthetics

As of the writing of this article, engineers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab are taking human prosthetics to the next level, designing them to move more fluidly, more powerfully, and more in tune with the thoughts of their owners. Ten years in the making, we’re seeing prosthetics more realistic than ever, controlled by brain signals the same way any limb would be. It’s a miracle achieved through the efforts of science—and, for Fullmetal Alchemist fans, proof that automail isn’t as impossible as turning coal into gold.

Fullmetal Alchemist follows the Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse, after a botched attempt to use the forbidden science of alchemy to raise their mother from the dead. The experiment backfired, leaving Edward missing an arm and a leg, and Alphonse a soul attached to a suit of armor. They end up traveling the world searching for the Philosopher’s Stone in the hope that it will help them regain their real bodies. In the meantime, Edward must rely on automail, robotic prosthetics, for his missing limbs, and the go-to engineer for this technology is his childhood friend Winry Rockbell.

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Winry the Riveter

The only daughter of doctors killed in duty tending to war victims, Winry nevertheless maintains a bright, bubbly nature—that is, when she’s not obsessing over machinery or throwing tools at the Elric brothers for going off for months without visiting her. Not unlike Bulma, she sports a fiery temper and a stubborn streak matched only by her technological skills. Winry takes pride in her abilities, puffing up over Edward’s participation in an arm wrestling contest with the automail prosthetic she built, and talks nonstop about materials and schematics to anyone who will listen. Also like Bulma, Winry serves as a catalyst for the narrative; the first alchemic transmutation the Elric brothers attempt is to turn dirt into a doll as a birthday present to Winry. Their mother’s praise at the result stirs them on to continue studying alchemy, though Winry’s terror at the sight of the transmutation and the fact that she bursts into tears over it foreshadow the dark future the brothers’ lives will take.

BUL_winfixingFrom a young age she follows in her grandmother’s footsteps as an automail engineer, a profession that is her passion. Winry’s idea of a shopping spree means buying new tools and supplies for her workshop, and she can’t resist taking things apart and putting them back together to see how they work. Both the Elrics and Winry thrive in science, but while Edward and Alphonse play God to resurrect a life through alchemy, Winry plays by the rules to restore life through automail; science punishes the brothers and rewards her. Winry’s work with automail, particularly in relation to Edward (the famous Fullmetal Alchemist), is highly regarded across the country. As she experiments with more lightweight materials and builds more complex prosthetics, her skills grow and her products improve. Her engineering is dictated by logic and math, and what she chooses to do with that knowledge comes from her compassion.

Though Winry doesn’t join the Elrics on their journey, she becomes their anchor after they burn their house to the ground and leave their village for good. With no physical place to call home, Edward and Alphonse still have Winry, who will embrace them as they are. Her expertise with automail technology allows them to live as ordinary or extraordinary a life as possible anywhere in the world, but her friendship and care give the Elrics a safe haven whenever they need her. Just as Bulma developed into a mother figure in the latter part of Dragon Ball Z, Winry is a figure of emotional support as well as technological. She reminds the Elrics that no matter what happens they have someone to return to.

Social Media and Information Technology

It goes without saying that social media has exploded in the last decade. More and more sites are being designed with specialized focus, from sharing 140 characters to novels, from pictures to pins. On top of that, technology is a prime source of information and communication. Blurring the lines between information retrieval and social media is almost an inevitability, and it serves as one of the major plot points of Eden of the East.

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Saki and Akira

Saki Morimi is a recent college graduate with job-hunting struggles that stem from her social awkwardness. Akira Takizawa is an amnesiac, a film buff, and possibly a terrorist, with 8 billion yen just a phone call away. The two meet in Washington D.C. and, a few wacky coincidences later, return to Japan on the same flight. Takizawa learns that he has been wrapped up in a game where he and eleven others compete to “save Japan.” Each player has been allotted 10 billion yen and a cell phone to connect them to a concierge who will make their every request come true, but salvation must be the goal. If the money is depleted or spent selfishly, a mole among them will eliminate that player. When one saves Japan and wins, the others will face elimination.

Meanwhile, Saki regroups with her friends, the programming team behind the up-and-coming cell phone app “Eden of the East.” The app recognizes objects via camera and combines real-time elements of social media with a search engine and information database, allowing users to tag and define the world around them.

Saki, as seen through the Eden of the East app

The Eden of the East app in action

Though not the programmer behind Eden—that being snarky Micchon, another female member of the group—Saki is the reason that the app has taken off. The other members all acknowledge, and in fact say outright to Takizawa, that without Saki’s ability to recognize Eden of the East’s marketability and spread the word about it, their programming never would have gone anywhere.

Eden of the East team (Micchon, center)

The Eden of the East team, clockwise from top left: Sis, Kasuga, Osugi, Micchon, and Hirasawa

Though essentially Bulma’s opposite in all respects, from her red hair to her gentle demeanor, Saki channels her ability to lead and inspire in innovation and technology. Saki serves as the audience surrogate to Takizawa’s charming hero, and though she has the chance to walk away from the madness that follows him, she chooses to stay by his side. Her support moves the whole Eden team and its technology to his aid. Saki influences others more than she realizes; her dedication to her loved ones and her ability to see the best in others under all circumstances motivates the Eden team to work harder and act more selflessly. Takizawa in particular, an above-average person in all respects, completely reconfigures his plans due to her influence and makes choices disadvantageous to himself as a player for Japan’s salvation entirely for Saki’s benefit.

While the technology of Eden of the East ranges from being discussed almost exclusively in layman’s terms (the Eden app) to fantasy tech (Takizawa’s phone) as opposed to hard science, it is nevertheless a constant undercurrent. The story could not happen without technology, and in particular, that which people use every day and take for granted. In the era of social media and “internet famous,” Eden speaks to the individual’s ability to be great with as simple a tool as a cell phone. Saki, who recognizes the power of technology and acts on her compassion for others, is then a perfect example for viewers of the many capacities for progress in science. Marketing, publicity, and communications are just as critical a role in the industry. There are programmers like Micchon who use technological skills to create amazing things, and marketers like Saki who promote those accomplishments and put that technology in the hands of people like Takizawa, who can turn codes and programs into a revolution.

Robotics and Programming

Robots of all shapes and forms have existed in technology and literature around the world for generations. Robotics, once thought to be mere science fiction, now plays a fundamental role in the progress of technology. As discussed earlier, the study of robotics is making impressive strides in the medical world, and yet, as with social media and information, the blurring of academic and entertainment is inevitable. July 2015 saw the first official challenge between America and Japan in a battle between giant robots. Which would sound silly if it weren’t so awesome. Mecha has been a staple of anime for a long time, though no series approaches the genre quite the way Robotics; Notes does: from the perspective of student fans of mecha anime seeking to build their own giant robot.

Gamer Kaito Yashio plays Nick Carraway to his childhood friend Akiho Senomiya’s Gatsby as they—or rather, she—fulfills a lifelong goal of engineering a mecha modeled after the titular robot of her favorite show, Gunvarrel. Aki serves as president of her high school’s robotics club, following in her genius older sister’s footsteps, and is the primary engineer behind project GunBuild-1; Kai, the club’s only other member, uses the garage where they meet to play video games unbothered. Whenever the club (read: Aki) is in need, however, he is quick to take action, finding sponsors to fund her research, coercing other students to join the club to prevent its disbandment, and reassuring Aki at every turn that she in no way lives in her sister’s shadow.

BUL_akiblueprintsAki is a pretty direct successor to Bulma. She can design, calculate, and build advanced machinery; comes from a family of scientists; serves as president of the series’ primary technology-based organization; possesses enthusiasm and stubbornness in achieving her goals; and is the catalyst behind the male protagonist’s action and the rallying of good versus evil. Aki’s presence is such that it’s easy to forget Kai is actually the main character. Her passion for robotics is infectious to other characters as much as it is to the viewers, but she backs up her starry-eyed love of mechas with knowledge and experience with technology.

Along the way, Aki and Kai pick up new members of the club, including Frau Koujiro, a shut-in and the programming prodigy behind Kai’s favorite game, Kill Ballad. In exchange for help finding hackers using cheats to beat her game, Frau agrees to handle programming GunBuild-1 and styles the controls after KB. Junna Daitoku, a member of the school’s karate club, joins the team to assist with motion capture sequences for Frau’s programming model. Rounding out the club is Subaru Hidaka, pretentious nerd by day, Tuxedo-Mask-esque robot fighter by night, who joins to keep Kai from revealing his secret identity. While all of their reasons for joining the club stem from something other than a passion for giant robots, the members form a deep friendship and band together under Aki’s effervescent leadership. Her insistence on team-building moments like putting their hands in on the count of three often go ignored, but her quest to accomplish greatness through technology is met with respect. In return, Aki lights up over every member’s skills and abilities that go into GunBuild-1.

The Robotics Club: Frau, Aki, Kai, Junna, and Subaru (Gunvarrel in the background)

The Robotics Club, from left: Frau, Airi, Aki, Kai, Junna, and Subaru (Gunvarrel in the background)

Eventually the robotics club does complete GunBuild-1, an accomplishment that stirs up interest on the quiet island they call home. In front of a crowd of curious citizens, the Gunvarrel lookalike creaks and moans into its first painfully slow step. Aki is thrilled that the mecha her club built is moving—success!—but her audience and sponsors, used to the instant gratification of more advanced technology, react with boredom and disdain. Most of the cast agrees that GunBuild-1 was more of a stepping stone than a final project for the robotics club, and Aki eventually relents and joins her team in building a second, more advanced machine. Meanwhile, Kai, notoriously apathetic towards anything outside of his online fighting game, becomes invested in a mystery surrounding the island: a series of notes left behind by a disappeared programmer that predict a tragedy that will wipe out most of humanity. In the face of this threat, Aki delivers a speech about the power of giant robots to fight for justice that moves the whole island to help the robotics club finish the mecha that will save the world.

Me, too, Aki.

Me, too, Aki.

What’s wonderful for all of these characters is that their expertise is never questioned based on their gender. None of these ladies exist in worlds where people don’t expect women to excel in STEM professions. In fact, each of these series features more than one occasion where other characters surmise that the only person equipped to solve a problem, or the best of the best to turn to for help, is a woman, and the decision is made without commentary. Viewers are spared not only negative stereotypes about women’s proficiency in math or science, but also the desperate-for-praise scripts that point out an exceptional woman among women in male-dominated fields. Bulma and her successors aren’t “women in technology,” they’re just “in technology.” That’s the kind of atmosphere everyone in STEM professions deserves, and positive representation such as that of these fictional characters inspires optimism about gender and technology in the real world as well.

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About Author

Paige Sammartino is a writer and book publishing professional. Her parents had serious foresight when they named her. Part-time superhero, full-time Slytherin.

1 Comment

  1. I could add Wahanly from War on Geminar. …yes, it’s a Tenchi Muyo series, but she’s one of the less sexed-up characters, and decently cool.