Design a site like this with
Get started

Project Itoh’s Harmony – “The society that strangled you with kindness.”

-everyone agrees suicide is a selfish, shameless act –

On the 20th of March, 2009, Japanese science fiction author Satoshi Ito, better known by his penname Ito Keikaku (Project Itoh), died of cancer at the age of 34. Ito had been struggling with cancer since 2001, long before his literary career took off, and at the time of his death was still something of a rising star in the Japanese science fiction literature scene, his debut novel Genocidal Organ being nominated for the prestigious Nihon SF Taisho Award in 2006 and being published by Kadokawa in 2007, and his close friendship with Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima leading to him being chosen to adapt Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots into prose. After his death SF ga Yomitai ranked Genocidal Organ as the scifi novel of the decade and Hayakawa’s S-F Magazine ran a poll where Ito’s second novel, the dystopian thriller Harmony, was voted as the number one Japanese scifi novel. All three of his novels, including the unfinished Empire of Corpses, were adapted into lavish anime movies, and Kojima’s following Metal Gear game, Peace Walker, is dedicated to Ito’s memory. An impressive legacy for a man of his age, who started out writing fanfiction to boot – a legacy that remains tinged with melancholy, however, given how much more there might have been to it. Today Ito remains obscure outside of Japan, where his small bibliography was released via Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint – specifically for niche Japanese genre literature in translation – in rapid succession in the late 00s after his death and that was all. But recently I’ve been thinking about him – specifically about his second novel, Harmony, a novel of what can only be called ‘medical science fiction’, dealing extensively with the philosophical implications of public health policy, and beyond that of modern neoliberal capitalism, capitalist alienation, and existential questions of the nature of human consciousness.

Harmony, a novel told in a semi-non-linear fashion, bookended by faux-html known as ‘emotion-in-text markup language” which marks certain scenes, perspectives and even feelings with [brackets] and [tags] to indicate what is happening or why, is actually a simpler story than this device would indicate. It is the story of Tuan Kirie, a jaded inspector for the World Health Organisation’s ‘Helix Agency’, a kind of public health gestapo in a world where, following a cataclysm of nuclear war, viral pandemic, and societal collapse known as the Maelstrom, a philosophy known as “lifeism” has led to the world being governed by ‘admedistrations’ (props to translator Alexander O. Smith for all these neat neologisms) which serve as decentralised organisations of social control managed by colourless bureaucrats, with the WHO and Helix as their emergency shock troops, if the peace is ever too threatened by unreliable old humanity. To quote the text:

“Lifeism: A politically enacted policy or tendency to view the preservation of health to be an admedistration’s highest responsibility. Based on the welfare societies of the twenty-first century. In practical terms this means the inclusion of every adult in a homeostatic health-monitoring network, the establishment of a high-volume medical consumer system with affordable medicine and medical procedures, and the provision of proper nutrition and lifestyle advice designed to mitigate predicted lifestyle-related illnesses. These activities are seen as the basic minimum conditions for human dignity.”

The real ruling authority in Harmony’s world is this ‘health monitoring network’: a nanomachine-based augmentation known as WatchMe, which serves both as internal problem-solver – almost all illness has been eradicated, and WatchMe with the assistance of scifi ‘medicules’ can heal many minor physical wounds too, resulting in a world where almost no one dies of anything not old age – and a watchman over every single admedistration citizen, notifying authorities, relatives or emergency services in case of any form of unwellness, physically or mentally. AR notifications control the content people go through the world consuming, and WatchMe ensures unhealthy individuals are given therapy, exercise or anything they require to keep themselves happy, and the result is a world where even being slightly fat or having bad skin are enormous social stigma which could get you looked down upon and shamed by all your peers – and it is this pressure, at the lowest level of human interaction, that has created the world of lifeism.

Tuan is a woman who rejects all of this, but quietly: like Orwell’s sickly Winston Smith or Huxley’s pathetic Bernard Marx, she is a rebel in the most passive and cowardly sense, who uses her job with the WHO to travel to the places the admedistrations are less present in and grift cigarettes and alcohol and other kinds of contraband, using a bootleg bit of software called DummyMe to hide the health effects of this from the network. Her compulsive self-harm – by vice, not with a knife – has given her bad skin and bad habits and an even worse reputation with her superiors, but uncaring she keeps on enjoying her slow death, at least until a suspected terrorist attack that seems to have hacked WatchMe to induce people to commit suicide somehow occurs, and she’s forced for personal reasons to investigate it and to find out who or what is trying to destroy the lifeist society she hates so much.

Tuan’s past is the crux to this story, with large parts of it being in flashback; when she was fifteen, she and her classmate Cian Rikado were induced by their mutual friend Miach Mihie to join a suicide pact with her, in order to deny the lifeist society their bodies before they had WatchMe installed in adulthood. “Because we are important to them.” Miach says to her friends. “Our future potential is their industrial capital. We’re the infrastructure…we’re no different from those who came before us; we’re still trying to fuck the system. It just happens to be the case that the best way to hurt them is to hurt ourselves.” In the end Cian and Tuan survived their attempt to starve to death via WatchMe-blocking medication – Miach died, and her death haunts Tuan through every page of the novel, the miserable tragedy of Dazai’s protagonist in No Longer Human emanating from her bitter, self-loathing, philosophical narration, as she exists in limbo, without the courage to die for her cause as the political ideologue Miach had or the ability to to move on and embrace a mediocre life of bland happiness as her friend Cian has done.

Tuan is our protagonist but Miach is the character who sets the tone of the story, and who proves – I will try not to spoil things too much because you should read the book yourself! – instrumental to its resolution. Her oddness, this small and pretty girl who seems apropos of nothing to possess a radical contempt for the world she lives in, has both liberated Tuan and scarred her for life, and while Tuan muses cynically on the hollow convenience of lifeist society (“Everything in our world had a user review attached to it.”) it is with Miach’s voice that she speaks. “We’ll make a declaration, together.” Miach promises Tuan and Cian in school. “Our bodies: our tits, our pussies, our uteruses. These things are ours. That’s what we’ll tell them. We’ll whisper it at the top of our lungs!” An avid reader of “dead-tree media”, that is physical books (I reread Harmony on Kindle, oof), she tells her friends eagerly about the forbidden hedonism of eating contests, the ancient danger of knocking on doors as a greeting, the risks of children dying on jungle gyms, and about the thrills of high school girls having sex with older men for money: “girls who weren’t even poor would sell themselves as fuck toys, and they wouldn’t feel guilty about it at all…if there were still men of that calibre of depravity around today, maybe growing up wouldn’t be as bad as it sounds.” There is a visceral quality to her character, an obsession with flesh and pain and pleasure that creates someone uneasy to read about, a person whose extreme nature is almost a caricature. But the surreal nature of this schoolgirl would-be terrorist (“Miach knew everything. For example: how to tweak a medcare unit to convert medicules into a chemical weapon capable of killing a city of fifty thousand people.”) who hates the world is only as we see her, through Tuan’s bitter and yet adoring perspective. She is Tuan’s Tyler Durden, the person Tuan wishes she was, an idealized portrait of beauty that brings to mind Yukio Mishima’s puberty-fuelled homoerotic idealization of his high school classmates in Confessions of a Mask: that this idealized beauty, much like Mishima’s, takes the form of a figure steeped in death, who killed herself at fifteen, might give you an idea of the novel’s general vibe.

Another quote that works for this purpose: “The more advanced a people became, the closer they grew to death.” This isn’t a new idea in scifi at all: from Childhood’s End to Brave New World, science fiction of the twentieth century is intensely focused on the idea that scientific advancement and post-God rationality will eventually create a world in which mankind, in the form that we today know it, would no longer exist. In its more philosophical moments Harmony presupposes that this will reach an inevitable conclusion, that consciousness itself is the result of a struggle between human desires and urges, and that with the ‘outsourcing’ of physical and environmental health that has taken place in lifeist society, there is no longer any real purpose for human beings to think of ‘I’ anymore. When every decision has already been made by a social system that ensures everyone lives in the healthiest fashion possible then there’s surely no need for an ‘I’ to have to process making it. “Where, I wondered, does one draw the line?” Tuan muses. “Why form a wall around the soul or human consciousness…morality, holiness – these were just things our brains picked up along the way, pieces of the patchwork…what if the useful shelf life of our emotions had expired some time ago?” Although the actual plot is simple, the real struggle of Harmony is here: between the living person Tuan Kirie, as her investigation goes on and the terror campaign worsens and the world begins to roll, slowly but surely, towards social collapse, lifeism facing the return of premature death through the terror-induced suicides, and between the Miach Mihie who lives in her memory, who whispers in her ear about black, suicidal beauty all the while. How exactly this plays out in-story – whether Miach the dead anarchist, or Tuan the despairing survivor in love with her ghost, wins out, ideologically – is something I won’t talk about in detail.

What I want to talk about is why I came back to this book in 2021.

You can probably guess.

-For people living in fear, moderation just doesn’t cut it­-

Right now we’re two full years into the COVID-19 era. 2022 serves as something of a turning point; we are no longer in a short-term crisis, as in whose exciting days of 2020 where the ‘novel coronavirus’ and not yet simply ‘COVID-19’ was a lark where you got a little holiday and got to feel the liberatory notion that the world might be ending. To use a tired, tired phrase, this is the ‘new normal’. I’ve been wearing a mask a day for two years – a picture of mine from January 2020 of me innocently trying on the first one I bought when people were talking about this ominous flu from Wuhan keeps haunting me everytime I see it. And yet the normalisation of Covid hasn’t meant its diminishing. A world used to a quieter kind of crises, the long rot of neoliberalism, has been flung into a place where every day an invisible killer stalks every street and lies behind every cough, sneeze or headache – this is probably the largest global upheaval since World War Two, and it shows no sign of stabilising any time soon.

What has proven the most pointed thing about these times, looking back from here and now, is the way they have completely destroyed what came before it. All across the world systems and governments and ways of thinking that pre-2020 were seen as basically fine, if rapidly corroding, are being exposed as far more broken and non-functional than any of us really imagined. Although of course there hasn’t been nuclear war (yet), we’re facing our own Maelstrom, a world where governments and systems stretched thin by the multitude of new tasks and problems the virus has created shake apart beneath the pressure of that and of performing the regular governmental duties they had already half-abdicated to capital. A world where the superpower, the standard-bearer, the paragon upon which all the logic of our post-Soviet world rests, can’t even keep its own people alive.

And yet here in East Asia COVID-19 has not yet taken over the world. Life in China, outside of lockdown zones, remains stuck in some kind of normality. The Maelstrom hurts – it hurts the economy, it hurts people’s lives, it hurts our plans for the future. But the virus is not shredding our whole universe, and the existential nightmare of seeing the authorities entrusted with public health – the god of democracy – just plain give up doesn’t haunt people in Japan, China, Taiwan or Korea. Is this ‘Confucianism’? Is this ‘collectivism’? Is it the superiority of socialism with Chinese characteristics? Or is it simply what might be the stirrings of what Project Itoh called ‘lifeism’? “A politically enacted policy or tendency to view the preservation of health to be an admedistration’s highest responsibility”?

One thing that is made clear in Harmony is that, despite the talk of bodies as “public property” and a clunking bit where a character compares lifeism to Nazism that this is very much a market-based society – it is still capitalism. Many references abound to consumers and products, the ‘outsourcing’ of individual will not only to the decentralised authorities but also to the choices people make as buyers, the courses and diets and things all offered to them provided by others, whole industries of lifestyle planners and dieticians and wellness treatments that serve as an unsubtle parody of, well, neoliberalism’s fuzzy wellness industry and focus on ‘self-care’ as softeners of the natural misery of capitalism. The admedistrations are about maintaining public health for the sake of society but do not replace the market, only intensely but not fatally regulating it, with public health – the common good – as the priority. Simply put, it is not a novel about what kind of terrifying thing might replace capital but about where capital might go to protect itself – and the specific form of lifeist society we see, “The society that strangled you with kindness.”, more than a little resembles much of that Zizekian cliché, ‘capitalism with Asian characteristics’. The bland, faceless government of the admedistrations, which has at once extended itself massively into people’s lives while itself withering away from existent politics into the simple administration of things, resembles the supposed technocracy of the Communist, Liberal Democratic or People’s Action varieties – the vision these governments wish to project of themselves, harmonious societies where all that remains to be done is to trust the paternal bureaucracy with your own best interests, where no one is unhealthy or unhappy or ugly or just weird, where the social community exists as a uniform thing in eternal and apolitical, uh, harmony.

This is not to fall into orientalist ideas of the massed Asiatic horde threatening Anglo-European individualism, although obviously such a racist dichotomy informs the notion of ‘capitalism with Asian characteristics’ very heavily. No one who has been to Japan or China can think this idea of society is really rooted in racial/cultural heritage as some ingrained, omnipresent thing – it is instead an elite-led ideological trend born from the result of Asia’s own weird journey to modernity, through the trauma of the west and of capital’s intrusion to the developmental dictatorships of the twentieth century to today. COVID-19 is a sign that the mandate of capital is in the process of passing from an Anglosphere liberalism to a new phase which happens to be rooted in those developmental authoritarians that today, even where nominal democracy flourishes, shape the societal and political form that East Asia has taken. That this form might seem startling and incomprehensible to us Anglo-European observers (Surely the Chinese are lying about their case numbers! Surely this will be the outbreak that spells doom for ‘zero covid’!) does not mean it is actually worse than the disaster we find ourselves in, no matter how much we want it to be so. In Harmony, although much of the novel is bitterness about lifeist society, there is no one who ever says that the Maelstrom era was preferable.

East Asia has so far dealt better with the pandemic because of the specific nature of its form of capitalism, which combines a state that is both stronger and weaker than the Anglosphere model, built on either capitalist or socialist dictatorship and in modern times diffused into a broad network of authoritarian tools inherited from the past, wielded now by a post-political elite pursuing a goal of modernist social harmony couched in traditionalist language, aided by societies which appeal to a notion of a common good that both incorporates and manages to muzzle – not avoid, but quieten – the capitalist alienation that grips ‘the west’. It is this system that we can see the shadow of in Harmony, Ito caricaturing modern Japan into the absurdity of a system whereby the “gods of medicine” are triumphant and the Japan the Japanese government would like is existent in its unfettered entirety. A world of people solely as components of capital, healthy and happy and harmless, a biopolitical heaven.

With all this said it must be stressed that any potential functional pandemic capitalism, as COVID-19 as political and social phenomenon intensifies, is not going to be Japan or China or Singapore. It might be that the virus will by a cruel quirk of fate overwhelm East Asia as it has America and Europe. The great hope amongst western observers is that it will overwhelm China. China is the state closest to the vision of lifeism, where Xi’s return to socialist ideology and the threat of the virus have mixed to create the wartime environment of post-2020 medical socialism, the state where the worst excesses of the market, the human cost of the virus, and the social cost of the dissident and the wrong and weird and the uncontrollable all are fair game for the semi-decentralised network of the party-state in its quest to serve the people and protect them from infection, the army of doctors and medics and volunteers of COVID-19 times a mythical force on par with the PLA and the Party themselves, all three expressions of shared intent to make capitalism work despite itself. China is a prime target for predictions of pandemic control failure in the hopes and dreams of many pundits precisely because if it too ‘falls’ to COVID-19 it will prove that this illusion of a way to deal with the virus was just that, and that the sickness of western civilisation is not that at all but simply a universal malaise. This might happen.

But it won’t prove anything, because the trend ongoing is bigger than a single government. Even China is not lifeism, and to assume it ever could be is to misunderstand the point of Harmony or of science fiction in general. Rather, lifeism is a trend which Ito in his bitterness noted in his Japan of hospital wards and apolitical post-crash inert oligarchy and the Japanese tendency towards chronic over-politeness and searching for, well, harmony – “It was this world – the one that demanded you sympathize with everyone, even people you’d never met, that I couldn’t stand. The air reeked of kindness, with the awareness that everyone was public property.”  China is only the most significant indicator of this trend, the vanguard of what might be a future form of capitalism, as many observers, even liberal Anglosphere experts in their fear of “democracy in peril”, have noticed. After Singapore it is the state to first progress beyond needing the window-dressing of made in America liberalism that for a long time kept the rest of the non-western world, no matter how successful, in ideological hock to Anglo-Saxon visions of the world order. We must remember that it isn’t only about China but merely what China might portend.

That said, I live here, and it was here that got me to think about this book again. Isn’t this world reeking of kindness the same place China appears to be through propaganda, the world of official rhetoric, that happy, harmonious place that disaffected youth are seeking to circumvent as the control of the state over what does and doesn’t align with socialist core values increases. Tuan Kirie is herself a government official in a modern soft-authoritarian East Asian technocracy, restricted to a world of tedium which she circumvents in thrilling moments of stolen vice – if she were in China today she might be downing baijiu and sleeping with mistresses, instead of sneaking alcohol and smokes on trips abroad. The scale of the tedium and the scale of the vice is different, but we can identify a similarity of circumstances. Like I say, trends. As another character says regarding lifeism: “Give birth, consume. That’s the safe, stable cycle of life. Those who would attempt to destroy themselves, and thereby destroy that, are anathema to the rest of us. Before they are allowed to do such a thing, it is our responsibility to notice the tell-tale signs and subject them to heavy therapy. That’s what being a thoughtful society means.” This dovetailing of paternalist logic with capitalist roots has an overlap with the broad contours of Xi Jinping Thought. ‘Thoughtful society’ does sound a bit like something you’d see on a poster here.

Or to quote Tuan herself, after her failed suicide attempt: “Mankind was trapped in an endless hospital.”

On certain bad days in pandemic China it sometimes feels like that. On most days it doesn’t. I am still for the record a supporter of ‘zero covid’ and of China’s response – as flawed as it has been, I feel safe in my daily life, and I know that if the state messes up as it inevitably will then at least, unlike my own government back in the UK, it is trying in a blundering way to help. But it would also be true to say that certain of the trends of the Xi Jinping era, which the pandemic has accelerated, are things I have issue with. I believe the current course of socialism with Chinese characteristics, balancing between capitalist soul-erosion and statist paternalism, has a lot of potential to be less the bright future of socialism but only another stepping stone onto the next kind of future capitalism. Not that it will, but that it might.

And who knows? With the great discrediting of The West that has gone on here, even if the current government of China gets into later pandemic trouble then, given time and reflection upon whatever is happening now and how the ‘liberal’ part of capitalism has failed it, the world could start to feel like that everywhere, one day. Not Ito’s admedistrations exactly, but something feeling a little close to them – the only society that could perhaps perfectly tackle both Covid and the social decay of neoliberalism, by creating a world of perfect consumers just like on the slightly surreal Spring Festival ads you see around any Chinese city at the end of the lunar year. An apolitical administration of things, for the sake of society and for the consumer’s own good, predicted on a kinder, softer exploitation that is still nevertheless exploitation. A harmonious society. The death of real politics. The spectre of this is why I was pushed to reread Harmony last year.

What compelled me to write about it was its problems.

-the day the world went away-

Harmony is a novel of fascinating ideas. It is also deeply flawed. The book it put me in mind of rereading it recently wasn’t Brave New World or 1984 – obviously, they’re there – but French philosopher Georges Batailles’ Blue of Noon. This novel, by the author of the more famous Story of the Eye, a piece of foul erotica featuring murder, vomit, insanity, sex and a severed eyeball going where eyeballs are not supposed to go, is as similarly horrid as the above-mentioned title, following a degenerate named Troppman who stumbles around interwar Europe drinking, fucking and generally being gross with a series of women who seem to represent in various moments differing strands of ideology competing for space in the time between the wars – but finds himself most drawn to the absolutely disgusting ‘Dirty’, a prostitute who in our charming opening scene is dead drunk and vomiting and described in prose worthy of a horror novel. Bataille is famous for his association of the erotic with the violent and abhorrent, and the lust for destruction that propels Troppman through Europe and fuels the debauchery of his eventual return, unable to help it, to his deathly mistress Dirty, lingers in some form over Harmony. Maybe not entirely intentionally.

The intense focus on suicide, gore-filled violence and the ideation of death is shot through with an eroticism that at first seems very anime in its presence, expressed almost entirely not through sex scenes and human relationships but through the singular character of Miach, whose obsession with discussing both sex and death and her homoerotic attachment to her friends who she wants to die with her, especially to Tuan – at one point she deliberately gropes Tuan’s breast so hard it hurts – serves as what can seem a superficial and entirely unrealistic characterisation, an example of what the anime-watching kids call ‘yuribait’ – girls who kiss and grope each other to get the male brain going. That Ito subverts this with an extremely dark bit of late-novel revelation about Miach’s past that involves, um, a lot of violent rape, does go some way to twisting her superficial anime villain sexuality into something much more horrible and interesting, but still there’s a part of me that wonders about the ethics of a dude in his thirties writing so much about a sexy cool schoolgirl who, it is of course noted, has bigger tits than Tuan does. And that Tuan, possibly an avatar for our confused, angry, dying author is also a woman, is interesting; people (my good pal ST) have talked before about anime ‘sad girls’ who self-harm and suffer from depression as a fetishistic fantasy, and in that sense Harmony is the ultimate sad girl novel. The sad girl is the evolution of Saito Tamaki’s notion of the ‘beautiful fighting girl’ of anime tradition as the superficially female but deliberately unrealistic sexual fantasy and coping mechanism of the otaku generation – from the fantasy of a capable waifu who can serve as both symbol of innocence and strength to the fantasy of a girl who represents the otaku’s own loss of innocence and strength, women in otaku fiction very seldom resemble real women. And to me neither Miach or Tuan – one a perpetual schoolgirl, frozen in death, and the other an adult woman still mentally stuck in her teenage years, unable to get over her trauma – really read like they were meant to be real women. They are sad girls, the frustration of a man poured out into two female avatars, one who resembles him and one who, perhaps, in his blackest moments he might have wished he had the strength to be, and what happens when they slough out their philosophies with one another. The end result is quite unpleasant to parse sometimes.

Harmony struggles with sex and violence, and as well with containing its own self-hatred and anger. “Why had my brain developed this function it was expressing now?” Tuan asks. “In what environment would self-loathing give me an evolutionary advantage?” In what is sold as a wholly rational world, the world of lifeism and admedistration, human beings are still capable of feelings, and their feelings are all grim. “The problem isn’t our consciousness, it’s the pain that our having a consciousness brings us when we are forced to regulate ourselves for health or for the community.” What we see here is characteristic of the otaku, who Ito was definitely one of (writing Metal Gear fanfiction for God’s sake). It is characteristic of perhaps the personality of the otaku generation, Evangelion’s Shinji Ikari – in post-crash Japan, an administered society of fake kindness where all problems are to be ignored until they go away, the otaku feels like Shinji in post-apocalyptic Tokyo-3, trying to connect with others and finding that it hurts, that the expectations of others weigh down on you and that human contact involves just as much pain as pleasure. The otaku are selfish people but they have to live in a society, the proto-lifeist society, that demands they feign kindness, keep up appearances and show the correct social signals, and they want it all to go away and to be allowed like Tuan to fester in their selfishness. “Don’t do that!” Teenage Tuan says internally, when her mother offers condolences for Miach’s death. “Don’t feel guilty about someone else’s death! She had nothing to do with you!” Tuan only wishes to be allowed to not give a shit about anyone else.

However, this does feel a different thing to read about after the last decade. Tuan Kirie is no hero, but she is our protagonist, and since Harmony’s publication we have seen that darker side to the once mythologised as eccentric but harmless otaku subculture that began in the eighties, with the Kyoto Animation arson attack as its tragic real-life manifestation. It is easy to enjoy the fictional violence of Miach Mihie and her Fight Club fantasies of social collapse – it becomes a little more difficult as otaku have only become more obsessive and sickly in the years since Ito’s death, as otaku-focused industries have become more and more focused on a mixture of escape from and contempt for the real world, from isekai stories about being reborn as a badass woman rapist in another world to the bizarre v-tuber industry and its fictional 2D darlings played by real women. In this brave new world Harmony rings even truer but also in its toxic bitterness feels even more real. I’ve cited Mishima here because to me Harmony on this reread has come across as something very reactionary. Dystopia, of course, always runs this risk, but most dystopia does not go as far as focusing wholly on the glory of suicide and the evils of the ‘welfare state’. That fascist impulse to death – the glorious destruction of ‘me ne frego’ – is very evident in Harmony. I would not call it a fascist novel or say that Project Itoh was some kind of actual fascist – at the very least, Tuan Kirie is angry at the Nazis for making a world she can’t smoke in – but that for someone so influenced by Hideo Kojima and Metal Gear’s pomp, camp and scifi cheese, Harmony demonstrates none of that series’ ultimate faith in humanity and ability to handle complex issues of philosophy beneath the surface of its bombast. Miach Mihie is very much the sexy charismatic death-worshipping demagogue that Metal Gear’s mythical tragic hero/villain Big Boss is supposed to be a criticism of, except here it isn’t a criticism.

This also creates the problem of sympathy.  Harmony holds some of the horrible darkness of the novels of Ryu Murakami within its pages, of his excellent amoral critique of the oozing sores of the fetid underbelly of Japanese society, but without Murakami’s skill at distancing his awful characters from the reader’s sympathies. With its long stretches of monologuing and philosophy – of course a Metal Gear fan wrote this – it sometimes feels too up close and personal re: Miach and Tuan, and frankly since neither is very likeable that aspect of the novel’s style can become difficult. A novel that is Bataille meets dystopia, with a protagonist in love with death and cynical and dismissive of everything around her, is not something that goes down easy. That of course is the novel’s style, its spiky, unpleasant charm – but I’m not sure how much of that is intentional, and it can be counted as a minus as well as a plus.

There’s nothing wrong with unlikeable characters exactly, but it is a difficult balancing act for even experienced writers, and Harmony doesn’t have the raw honesty and intense focus of something like Mishima or Dazai’s classic entries in the Self-Loathing Japanese Misery Diary genre because, well, it’s a genre novel, trying to juggle a thrilling plot of science fiction terror attacks and international conspiracies with political/theoretical navel-gazing about a variety of seriously heavy topics – while the screwed-up relationship between Tuan and Miach is easily the novel’s most compelling part, it also might, depending on your tastes, be too much on its own to handle the weight of so much else, and especially in such a slim and actually quite short book like this.

None of this is meant to cast aspersions on Project Itoh. His work was formative for me. Rather, I hope that by taking it seriously I can show respect to the man whose ideas and writing have so influenced my own. If you read my amateurish cyberpunk novel Hong Kong Giant, written a century ago in 2016 and posted to this very blog last year, you’ll probably be able to notice I share many of Ito’s preoccupations and probably some of his flaws. I was an otaku too, one of those weird western ones, a weeaboo, in my youth – I feel like many ex-4channers a connection with the bleakness of the otaku worldview, by which I mean the true otaku perspective, of a hedonism as barren as that of anything else in the end-of-history caught-up-with-the-west partying of 1980s Japan, that in the decades following has come to represent a rejection of reality, hope, and of any and all sense of social obligation.

This trend, which in Japan was called otaku, in the west was embodied by the 4chan generation and the world of Pepe the frog, and in China is being seen already as the embryonic notion of ‘lying flat’, was what defined my youth, as 2008 and the end of New Labour shook apart Britain’s last (probably ever) period of prosperity. So the story of Tuan Kirie, who hates the world and does the bare minimum she can, and the destructive id that haunts her in the form of Miach Mihie, resonated with me a lot a decade ago. Now? Well, just like final (honestly really this time guys) Evangelion movie 3.0+1.0 was no longer the immensely important thing that the TV series was the first time I saw it but just a Pretty Good movie, Harmony is now just a Pretty Good novel. I’m thankful for that.

Otaku, 4channers and the ‘lying flat’ generation in China all share the perspective of Miach: a love for what they perceive to be life and a hatred for what they know as death. In a world where everything seems to be okay, where we are told through media and society and culture to take care of our peers, to look out for others, to be kind to ourselves, the falsity of this sugary vision – the neoliberal vision we all witness as children, of a world that works – versus the harsh reality of how capital and power actually play out (Harmony’s blissful admedistrations are contrasted with Tuan’s work in warzones, conflicted states and other violent places outside of Lifeism’s view) – this scrambles all the signals, and leads to a desire to reject the whole thing in its complex, lying, bullshitting entirety.

Otaku embrace the false realities of Japan’s parasitic media industries as a means of passively throwing aside a troublesome world that has already failed them, and 4channers see in Trump and other signs of the apocalypse a liberation from their own decay which they observe with ironic detachment, and in China the youth who are ‘lying flat’ are not, contrary to the hopes of westerners, doing so out of political opposition to the CPC but out of apolitical disdain for a system that tells them everything is fine when it does not feel so. Life becomes the selfish escape into feeling, whether the feeling of enjoying a kawaii anime or getting buff and into weird reactionary philosophy to own ‘Chad’ or watching trains every day for all of your life or spending eight hours a day playing phone games in the dark – death becomes community, prosperity and happiness, or the images of them that these dispirited people are taught are the things they should strive for (and that, in our neoliberal age of individual responsibility, that it’s their own fault when they fail to achieve). That society pushes back at this, as lifeism does in Harmony, creates even more of a sense of contempt. “We don’t know what rock bottom is like.” Miach says. “And they wouldn’t let us know, even if we tried.”

Or to quote the totalitarian villains of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, directed as mentioned by Ito’s good friend, idol and sort-of collaborator Hideo Kojima: “Everyone grows up being told the same thing. Be nice to other people. But beat out the competition! You’re special. Believe in yourself and you will succeed. But it’s obvious from the start that only a few can succeed…” In Metal Gear Solid 2 Kojima and his cowriter Tomokazu Fukushima depict a world where the hypocrisy of this feel-good post-Soviet capitalism is on the brink of giving way to dystopia – Harmony depicts as setting where it has mutated into that exaggerated world that stinks of kindness. They depict the otaku mindset and its fascist tendencies, whether through the toxic legacy of socially-stunted and awkward military manchild Big Boss in Metal Gear’s world or through Miach Mihie’s nihilism in Harmony, and how this mindset is a product of capitalism’s inability to provide for basic human psychological needs while creating a facsimile of a world where all are met. This contradiction creates the fascist tendency, the desperate need for a rupture or escape or both, which is reflected in pathetic miniature in the selfishness of the otaku mindset. I should know – I’ve been there.

That this mindset persists in today’s China, that the virus of the otaku is rapidly spreading amongst China’s youth, is proof that this is not only a problem of democracies or western societies but a problem endemic to capitalism. As I’ve talked about elsewhere, when There Is No Alternative the only alternative left is that triumph of death. Is there a way for capitalism to deal with this, the rise of the pro-humanity death drive of the hedonists, the fascists, the militarists and the anime nerds and the selfish hopeless youth who have no future? What will win out, humanity or capital? This is a question that concerns us all. Project Itoh gave us his own answer – given what I’ve told you about the novel so far, you can probably guess it isn’t a very optimistic one. What exactly does he say?

You should probably hunt down this pretty short old scifi story and find out for yourself.

-here’s to you-

On the 20th of March, 2009, Japanese science fiction author Satoshi Ito, better known by his penname Ito Keikaku (Project Itoh), died of cancer at the age of 34. He left behind a meagre legacy, three finished novels (one a video game tie-in) and one unfinished one. He never wrote a masterpiece. Both of his finished works which are not Metal Gear fanfiction read like Metal Gear – in fact, Genocidal Organ began as fanfiction for Kojima’s earlier Snatcher franchise. He could have accomplished much more than he did – but more importantly, he could have lived much longer, and maybe found an answer to the many existential questions that pepper the pages of his two finished original novels. It is of course easy for me to project these ideas onto a dead man, who died before I ever read any of his work. I don’t mean to talk too much about Ito the person, and hopefully in this article I haven’t assumed too much about his character. I’ve tried to stick to the text of Harmony and what it says to me, about myself and about the world. I haven’t spoiled it almost at all because I think more people should read it. I think it deserves much more attention than it got. Given that Genocidal Organ is such an uncertain first novel and Harmony was his last, it serves by default as a kind of statement, the final statement he ever got to make. Rereading it now I don’t agree with a lot of what it says at all.

Still, I can’t deny the influence it had on me, its crystallisation of the conflict of modernity between the fascist impulse of otaku culture to burn it all down, let it all go to waste, and the capitalist homogenisation of the world around us into a stable nothing, which might be so visible as to be parody in modern China but is present more or less everywhere, and with the failure of liberal capitalism might well turn out to be the future itself, across national and cultural boundaries. And on a more basic level, the characters of Tuan and Miach spoke a lot to me, otaku young man trying to hide from the world, in love with the ideas of sad girls who aren’t girls and beautiful violence that isn’t beautiful, never a fascist but often hopeless.

“Will we strive for paradise, or will we strive for the truth?” Miach asks. I believe now that paradise and truth are not mutually exclusive. I believe that there is a future beyond even this grim version of snug comfort-capitalism, of lifeism. But I doubt it, sometimes, and a black little voice that talks a little like a certain impossibly smug cartoon schoolgirl asks if I really think a better world is possible. As a recovering 4channer, a veteran anime nerd and a guy who still writes novels about sad girls encountering lots of violence, I can’t ever wholly shake off the me who found this book so resonant about a decade ago. But I can at least criticize him for what he was, and look more closely at the kind of things he enjoyed. Even with its flaws I recommend this book to anyone who feels a little too dirty for this healthy, beautiful world, or anyone who just wants to discover what might be the only meaningful dystopian novel published this side of the twenty-first century so far. See if it strikes a chord with you as it did me.

And to be a sentimental hack for a moment:

[sincerity]Thanks for the silly scifi anime book, Mr. Ito. [/sincerity]


2 thoughts on “Project Itoh’s Harmony – “The society that strangled you with kindness.”

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: