Metabolizing the Future

June 5, 2021   •   By De Witt Douglas Kilgore

The Metabolist Imagination: Visions of the City in Postwar Japanese Architecture and Science Fiction

William O. Gardner

ANYONE WHO STUDIED architecture in the 1970s (as I did as an undergraduate) would have been aware of the avant-garde futurism flowing from the drafting boards of an international coterie of architects and city planners during that time: collectively, it has been called the megastructure movement. In his pioneering 1976 treatment of its flowering, architectural critic Reyner Banham called this time “the mega-period.” The writing and drawings of the movement theorized buildings that would handle the distribution of information, material, and people in more efficient and flexible ways. The result would be cities that were more dense and more mobile, more fluid and individual in the arrangement of their various parts. Cities, in other words, less like the “machines for living” of modernist fancy and more like living organisms. The movement is fascinating not only for the actual structures its proponents created (Moshe Safdie’s Habitat in Montreal for Expo ’67, for example) but also for the science fiction (cinematic and literary) inspired by their work. William O. Gardner’s book on the Japanese branch of the megastructure movement, Metabolism, gives us invaluable insight into how it operated as an architectural theory that evolved not only through plans, manifestos, models, and buildings, but also as science fiction. In so doing, he takes us into a design imaginary that continues to influence how we see our world and its possibilities.

In six chapters, Gardner lays out the history of Metabolism, from its origins in the devasted cities of postwar Japan, through its apotheosis in Expo ’70 (the world’s fair held in Osaka), to its critique in the science fictions of prominent animators. Because The Metabolist Imagination has two foci, architecture and science fiction, perhaps the best way to evaluate what it does (and does not do) is to take each in turn. Gardner rightfully notes the tremendous impact of the French architect Le Corbusier’s utopian urban projects of 1920s on Japanese architects in the 1960s. He does not, interestingly, mention Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect whose work also influenced Japanese iterations of modern architecture from the 1930s to the 1950s. While he attends to the influence of postmodern design on projects like the headquarters building of Fuji Television (by Kenzo Tange Associates), he doesn’t direct the reader to make connections with the work of Paolo Soleri, the Italian American architect whose Arizona-based Arcosanti project is another significant node in the traffic between architecture and science fiction. These choices might make the reader wonder whether those connections would make a difference to the intellectual tradition Gardner outlines. On one hand, it might give us a broader selection of how megastructural design influenced real-world building. On the other hand, it could divert our attention from Gardner’s focus on how these ideas were crafted and critiqued by the architects and writers of Japan’s Metabolist movement.

Gardner makes it clear that the connection between Metabolist architecture and science fiction has to do with how conceptually ambitious its designers are in theorizing how their designs might function in the world. This is an architecture that articulates a new national aesthetic that could serve as the model for a global, even cosmic, transformation. Gardner’s presentation of Asada Takashi’s Scale [1] — indexing the size of adult humans to the range of scales from atomic to galactic — indicates how this generation sought to respond to the devastation wrought by conventional and atomic weapons on wartime Japan. This notion gives us insight into the magnitude of their ambition. Naturally, thinking about a design as part of some cosmic physical order is more difficult than only allowing for immediate cultural traditions, client interests, or zoning ordinances. And that’s the point. It leads to the most ambitious side of design thought: that individual designs may be part of a coherent blueprint for a future cosmopolis. This ambition makes it apparent that, through the Metabolists, modern Japanese architecture positioned itself on the international stage. Gardner’s book highlights how Metabolists worked with science fiction to achieve that prominence.

While we encounter several eminent architects in The Metabolist Imagination, science fiction writer Komatsu Sakyō is the figure to which Gardner gives the most rounded treatment. The writer is a central figure in three of the book’s six chapters. “Ruined Cities: Isozaki Arata and Komatsu Sakyō” pairs Komatsu with writer/architect Isozaki Arata. Gardner examines their roles as proponents of the charred ruins school of writer-designers. The chapter offers a clear view of how Japan’s disastrous World War I losses affected the school’s future vision. In contemplating ruins, they found perspective on the ephemerality of human effort, its fragility. This underscores the notion that, despite their constructive aims, they recognized no easy path to utopia.

“Planetary Cities: Komatsu Sakyō’s Disaster Fiction” is a robust consideration of Komatsu’s particular apocalyptic vision in his 1970s science fiction. It is a perspective that takes account of the racial/cultural gulf between Japan and the Euro-American-dominated West. Gardner shows us that Komatsu thought about how his work could intervene in science fiction’s generic habits around race. For example, he was self-conscious about how his novel The Japan Apache Tribe (1964) differs from Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts (1936) in its use of racial metaphor. Komatsu shifts the meaning of the human/salamander conflict of the Czech playwright’s satire toward one that accounts for how Japan was assigned the role of monstrous alien by the white-dominated Allied Forces of World War II. As a result, his cosmopolitan vision, according to Gardner, contests a Western perspective strongly invested in whiteness, masculinity, Christianity, and capitalism. Gardner’s analysis of Komatsu’s more influential novel Japan Sinks (1973) reveals how that book explores the global problems that prevent the kind of multiracial cosmopolitanism that Komatsu hopes for but despairs of. While white Western writers like Arthur C. Clarke championed the utopian potential of global communication — following a visionary optimism popularized by H. G. Wells — Komatsu was quite pessimistic. His vision was perhaps influenced by awareness of the racism that tends to spoil claims for the benignity of the West’s technological products.

However, a book that invokes architecture must show how its ideas are demonstrated in the speculative designs, plans, or buildings of its designers. Gardner has the additional task of illustrating how the ideas of his fiction writers — Komatsu in particular — appear in those designs. To this end “Future City: The 1970 Osaka Expo,” his chapter on the first world’s fair in Asia, is the centerpiece of The Metabolist Imagination. Gardner shows us that the Osaka fair was a Metabolist showcase. Its theorists had room to build and explain their ideas to a global public. It was there that these innovators articulated a futurism in which Asia and Africa would figure as key creators of things to come. Komatsu appears again as a central figure in Gardner’s account of the exposition. As a founder of future studies in Japan, as part of the Thinking the Expo group, Komatsu helped articulate the “multipolar humanism” that inspired the fair’s motto, “Progress and Harmony for Mankind.” This sign of utopian idealism is a striking counterpoint to the gloomy critique that imbues his literary work. However, Gardner points out that the stance Komatsu and his colleagues took in their articles, designs, and fiction was informed by their evaluation of the parlous state of the world in the 1960s. Instead of simply settling into hand-wringing critique, they proposed projects that could reform the problems caused by a world system dependent on Western civilization and its enlightenment. Gardner does signal service in the showing how these ideas appear in the fair work of sculptor Okamoto Tarō and architect/planners Tange Kenzo and Kawazoe Noboru.

In “Liquid Cities: The Technopolis from Expo to Cyberpunk,” Gardner focuses his attention on how architecture and fiction structured the work of architects Isozaki Arata and Itō Toyoo. His treatment of their stories from the early 1960s indicates that these architects used fiction as a way of testing their unbuilt ideas. Architecture is such an expensive (and collaborative) medium that literary production is a common practice among artistically inclined designers. Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, R. Buckminster Fuller, Paolo Soleri, Denise Scott Brown, and many others supplemented their practices by putting pen to paper. Thus, they showcased the thought behind their designs, enhancing their reputations in ways unavailable to less voluble artists. This literary production, in fact, is inextricable from our understanding of these architects. For his own study, Gardner notes that the

literary tradition of science fiction […] offered architects the possibility of simulation of the future, in which specific variables of a given “reality” could be altered and the ensuing result could be worked out imaginatively; alternatively, it could serve as a medium for criticism and philosophical exploration outside of the conventional architectural media of drawings, models, and buildings.

So, by unearthing the literary production of the Metabolist movement, Gardner makes their work more visible and newly relevant.

Architecture is the art of housing not only the functions of human civilization but also of expressing the aesthetics guiding particular ways of life. This commonsense draws our attention to its production of the buildings we inhabit: physical objects that often serve as symbols of permanence. Gardner’s study of the Metabolists highlights the strand of their work that seeks to account for the actual fragility of our built environment. The aforementioned chapter on ruined cities — prompted by the wartime destruction of Japanese cities — forms one aspect of this theme. His chapter on liquid cities forms another aspect: the idea that cities are not only always in a state of flux but are also — through the rise of information technology — dematerializing, producing computational spaces inhabited by our incorporeal avatars. The reader will recognize that this transposes Metabolist ideas into the past four decades of speculation on virtual reality, especially in the science fiction genre/field of cyberpunk.

Gardner’s explication of the Expo ’70 future city as cybernetic helps us understand that Itō’s idea of architecture as a “media suit,” Isozaki’s identification of organicism as the flow of information in and out of buildings, Kurokawa Kishō’s capsules that manage the flow of information in and out of living spaces, and Yatsuka Hajime’s definition of architecture as a stream of images within the “circuits of information and desire” in consumer culture, all herald our present world. We have moved from the concrete of industrial society to the fragmented plasticity of information flows in our postindustrial postmodern world.

Gardner is, however, careful to note that Metabolist ideas raised suspicion about their potential for Orwellian control even during the moment of their most utopian articulation. Art critic Haryû Ichiro, for example, critiques Expo ’70’s utopian designs as the instantiation of new surveillance and control mechanisms in the interests of capital. Any notion that ordinary people would control the information flows — as Kurokawa’s capsule designs propose — is mistaken. In the current information ecology dominated by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and Jack Dorsey’s Twitter, this critique seems prophetic. We participate in these virtual spaces, but we do not control them.

Gardner shows us how these ideas, and the appraisals they inspired, are handled in SF culture by exploring how debates on Metabolist design profited from thinking through Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, beginning with Neuromancer (1984). He notes, for example, that Itō Toyoo was deeply engaged with the Scott film following its release. He considered Blade Runner’s retrofuturist cityscape a prediction of how Tokyo would evolve. Gardner argues that reference to the Scott film became almost pro forma in Japan’s design press during the 1980s. He quotes architectural critic Igarashi Taro’s observation that aspects of Tokyo’s cityscape brings to mind the screen dominated mise-en-scéne that Blade Runner injected into the global zeitgeist. This exchange of ideas between a Hollywood film and one of Japan’s most decorated architects indicates the global cross-pollination that exists in architecture and science fiction.

The connection between Western visions and Asian futurism, is, however, always troubled by the racism woven into the fabric of the modern world system. Gardner indicates that Japanese designers could not and did not miss the racial anxiety that made Japanese global ascendance an existential problem for the white West. While The Metabolist Imagination shows us how Japan’s writer/designers created a distinctly Japanese futurism, the traffic of futurist images between West and East indicates how it gets entangled with Western cultural claims of authority over human destiny. Gardner highlights the problem by noting that the futures we inherit from Gibson’s and Scott’s imaginations are “techno-orientalist” in nature. They represent both a “fascination” with Asian futurity and a “fear” of its enfranchisement of an “Oriental Other.” In fairness, neither of these cyberpunk imaginaries are “white” like those of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). However, their protagonists are white men who explore and seek an escape from “the Orientalized data matrix” of the Metabolist imagination, not to live in it. Indeed, the escape into a figural whiteness that they imagine is like that made fantastically literal in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838).

Confronting this imaginative limitation prompts us to realize that any future actually emerging from Japan could never rest on the kind of cyberpunk that prioritizes the narrative interests of white male explorers. This perspective is highlighted in Gardner’s reading of Masaki Gorō’s novel Venus City (1992). He shows us a narrative that flips the script on who has control of the future — however illusory — by race, gender, and nationality. The result is a text focusing attention on a future that emphasizes a Japanese perspective. What we have been trained to expect from stories that ascribe adventure roles along the axis of Japanese female (submissive)/Caucasian male (dominant) is revised and interrogated. However, Gardner argues, the novel does not, in so doing, map “a new imaginative territory of the future.” Instead, it operates within the techno-orientalism inspired by Western fiction. Thus, it reveals the limits of the “freedom” offered by 1980s cyberpunk or uncritical acceptance of futures based on Western models.

In the final chapter of The Metabolist Imagination, Gardner highlights the movement’s influence on Japanese science fiction in the years following its peak. His focus on the great anime (1988) and manga (1982–’90) Akira, and Patlabor, the anime television series (1988–’94) and films (1989, 1993), showcases how visual science fictions broadcast and critiqued the Metabolist tradition in the 20th century’s closing decades. The focus on these works shines light on how Metabolist ideas have persisted in the global imagination. “Metabolist Echoes” is at its best during Gardner’s incisive political analysis of Patlabor. He focuses his attention not on the television series but on the first two films (Patlabor: The Movie [1989] and Patlabor 2: The Movie [1993]), which he considers “a critique of postwar architectural and urban planning developments.” The films channel actual criticism of the “construction state” that continued the erasure of prewar Japan Allied bombing began in World War II. The patlabors (bipedal robots/machines driven by human pilots) are both capsules and media suits, representing in cyborg form the ideas championed by the Metabolists Kurokawa and Itō.

The cyborg is familiar figure in academic literature both as an ordinary feature of postmodern life and as the site of new liberatory social affinities. The cybernetic mediation that now connects a good chunk of humanity is the mundane counterpoint to the theories and fictions exploring its frontiers. Gardner cites philosopher Lieven De Cauter’s revival of the Metabolist “cybernetic theory of the capsule” as a way of seeing its relevance to our own time. Instead of liberating the individual from the dead weight of current oppressions, the capsule only shields them from the violence and immiseration on which their privilege depends. The narratives that emerge from this situation cleave persistently to the critique of privileged isolation that E. M. Forster forecasts in the 1909 short story “The Machine Stops.” Gardner accepts De Cauter’s reading that the “First World […] can be seen as ‘an archipelago of fortresses, capsules and heterotopias within an expansive territory of chaos, exclusion and poverty.’” This is a grim revision of the shining and hopeful future imagined at Expo ’70. The villains of the Patlabor films demand that we wake up and resist this reality. This appeal is in line with Gardner’s own project.

In his closing statement, Gardner maintains that we now inhabit “the city of the future, and its ruins.” The Metabolist Imagination makes a compelling case for the truth of this idea. The utopian plans and schemes of the past century have only ever been fully realized as science fiction. The buildings, signs, and master plans produced by visionary architects, as Gardner points out, are often only concepts that influence the living world in bits and pieces, prey to ever-shifting political and economic interests. But even partial realization of these designer’s dreams can influence the way we picture and live the future. The value of this study is its focus on a futurism that is not completely beholden to Western cultural investments. The history Gardner unveils and the readings he supplies are invaluable to non-Japanese readers who will have only encountered the work of the architects, writers, and filmmakers Gardner covers in translation. What this means should not be underestimated. While we may appreciate the work of architects like Kurokawa, Itō, and Tange; may be strongly moved by the anime masterpiece Akira; may be acquainted with the cinematic translations of Komatsu’s disaster novels; and may be longtime fans of Ishirō Honda’s original kaiju movie, Gojira (1954), this admiration has almost always been detached from knowledgeable engagement with the sociopolitical discourses that produced them. Gardner’s book is an invaluable attempt at mending this divide. The reader will come away with a more acute understanding of the futures that Japanese creators have gifted to our planetary culture. It is knowledge that might help us understand how we use the future to shape our world.


De Witt Douglas Kilgore is associate professor of English and Adjunct Professor American Studies at Indiana University. He is the author of Astrofuturism: Science, Race and Visions of Utopia in Space (2003).


[1] Note that this review follows Gardner’s usage of placing Japanese surnames before the given name.