Research Portfolio | Foreign Languages and Literatures, Theater Arts

What can we learn from giant robots?

Globalization isn’t just about wider markets. It’s also a grassroots cultural movement, evident in the flow of trends and fan cultures from east to west and back again. Through a MISTI Global Seed Fund, MIT students are exploring these forces in a “live action animé" performance—giant robots and all—in Japan.  


When a guy in a 10-foot-tall robot costume walked into a panel discussion on Japanese anime a few years ago, he inadvertantly set into motion an original MIT theatrical production—Live Action Anime 2009: Madness at Mokuba—that opens in Tokyo in May 2009.

A Libretto Inspired by a Robot
Culture often develops in such unexpected ways, as Assistant Professor Ian Condry of Foreign Languages and Literatures would be the first to admit. An anthropologist intrigued by the Japanese style of animation and its fan culture, Condry wrote the libretto for the show—inspired in part by the “robot” who showed up at his presentation.

Media and Globilization
“We’re using popular culture as a vehicle for thinking through media and globalization,” Condry says. “Part of what makes this an interesting project is that a lot of students interested in Japan come to it through pop culture.”

A Pathway to Japanese Culture
Directed by Professor Thomas F. DeFrantz of Music and Theater Arts, the show brought students into theater and into Japanese culture who might never have explored either very deeply. Three of the student performers—all science and engineering majors—are now studying Japanese.

Madness at Mokuba featured such anime standards as a Japanese schoolgirl, a lovelorn fanboy, a masterless samurai, and of course, giant robots. “We’ve taken something from Japanese popular culture, transformed it, and we’re offering it back,” DeFrantz says.

Performance in Tokyo 
Wildly popular when it was first performed at MIT in December 2007, the show went on to the
Tokyo University of the Arts with support from the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). The May 2009 trip was a first to Japan for almost all of the student cast members.

“Pop culture is a very powerful force driving interest in other cultures,” Condry says. “It’s a form of globalization from below.”


For more information:

Madness in Mokuba

Ian Condry, Foreign Languages and Literatures

Tommy DeFrantz, Music and Theater Arts

Cool Japan: Media, Culture, Technology

robot sheltering a plant