Azuma Hiroki’s Quantum Families and the Limits Japanese Postmodernism

Christopher Howard, Chongqing University [About | Email]

Volume 20, Issue 2 (Article 5 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 August 2020.


This paper analyses Azuma Hiroki’s prize-winning science-fiction novel Quantum Families (2009), examining its role within the development of Azuma theorising and evaluating its perspectives on ethical and political commitment. Quantum Families, I argue, plays an important role in Azuma’s oeuvre, taking advantage of science-fiction’s role as a “literature of ideas” to work through many of the theoretical suppositions he had been grappling with in works from Ontological, Postal (1998) onwards.

Although the novel’s references to the likes of Jacques Derrida and Murakami Haruki are designed to think help think a theoretical path out of the impasse of postmodern solipsism identified in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (2009), there is little self-reflection as to whether the postmodern paradigm itself requires reconceptualisation or abandonment. Whilst postmodernism still has a particular currency in Japanese critical thought, I wish to look at how the work of Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou challenges these suppositions and particularly the antipathy to any commitment to “ideas,” which are routinely dismissed as “ideology” or even equated with “terrorism” in Quantum Families.

Keywords: Azuma Hiroki, Murakami Haruki, Jacques Derrida, postmodernism, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek

Azuma Hiroki’s Quantum Families and the Limits of Multiple World Science-Fiction

The aim of this paper is critically to engage with Azuma Hiroki’s prize-winning science-fiction novel Quantum Families (2009a), examining its role within the development of Azuma theorising and evaluating its particular perspectives on ethical and political commitment.  (1) Despite being a rare example of Azuma’s creative rather than critical or theoretical writing, Quantum Families, I argue, plays an important role in Azuma’s oeuvre, effectively allowing him to take full advantage of science-fiction’s role as a “literature of ideas” to work through many of the theoretical suppositions he had been grappling with in works from Ontological, Postal (1998) onwards. In addition, the use of this particular format, I argue, helps elucidate the links between his theorising and more concrete, creative practices in Japanese subculture and literature.

Partly because of his strong familiarity with Euro-American critical theory, Azuma has thus far received a largely positive reception from Anglophone writers. I nevertheless also want to use this paper to scrutinize in more detail some of the ethical and political aspects of his work. Even if, as I want to argue, Azuma is trying to articulate his own theoretical path out of the impasse of postmodern solipsism he previously identified in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (2009b), there is nevertheless still little self-reflection as to whether the postmodern paradigm itself requires either reconceptualisation or perhaps even abandonment given its waning role in Anglophone and Francophone theorising. Although in Quantum Families, Azuma appears to still be influenced by some of the Derridean ideas from Ontological, Postal (Azuma, 1998), these I want to suggest sit awkwardly with his subsequent turn to the familiar postmodern themes of Baudrillardian simulacra or the Lyotardian End of Grand Narratives. In particular I want to argue that between his interests in Derridean deconstruction and postmodernism, Azuma has developed a deep antipathy to any affirmative commitment to “ideas,” which are routinely dismissed as “ideology” and in Quantum Families often equated with acts of “terrorism.” In particular, this has also led Azuma to a position hostile to most forms of explicitly leftist and anti-capitalist thought and thus in direct conflict with many contemporary European theorists such as Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou.

After giving an overview of Azuma’s position within Japanese intellectual thought and an introduction to the major themes of Quantum Families, the paper will follow two further parts. First, I want to examine the position of Quantum Families within Azuma’s theoretical corpus, looking at how it not only relates to his pre-existing writing on Japanese subculture, and particularly science-fiction and fantasy works based on multiple world narratives, but also to new areas such an explicit engagement with Murakami Haruki. Second, I want to evaluate Quantum Families’ use of the multiple world format in articulating Azuma’s position on ethical and political matters. This involves not only evaluating Azuma’s position in relation to Derridean ethics but also offering a critique of Azuma’s antipathy towards ideas-as-ideology through putting his work into a dialogue with Žižek and Badiou.

Situating Azuma Hiroki: Subculture and Multiple-Worlds

Kadobayashi Takeshi describes Azuma as currently being “one of the most influential public intellectuals in Japan” (Kadobayashi 2017, 80). As Kadobayashi also describes, although Azuma has written and edited publications on a much wider range of topics, including the aftermath of the Fukushima 3-11 incident and the Japanese constitution, in Anglophone accounts he is still chiefly positioned within the field of Japanese subcultural studies (ibid.). The most dominant trend in Japanese subcultural studies has been the focus on the production and consumption of manga and anime, including related cultural forms such as games and light novels.  (2) Over the past decade, English-language translations of important Japanese essays about manga and anime subculture proliferated through the journal Mechademia, alongside full translations of books such as Azuma’s Otaku and Saitō Tamaki’s Beautiful Fighting Girl (2011). Theoretical concepts originating from Japanese studies of manga and anime such as “manga-anime realism” and “media mix” are now also becoming common in the work of many Anglophone writers.  (3) In this regard Azuma has himself also developed concepts, such as “character database,” (2009b) that have been widely adopted by Anglophone writers. This particular concept is used by Azuma to illustrate how the figure of the otaku (Japanese manga-anime fan) is no longer primarily invested in the narrative content of manga and anime works, but instead concerned with their affective relationships with preferred character-types. As visual media, otakus’ primary engagement thus becomes with the way manga and anime characters embody some of their favourite recurring iconographical elements repeated across a wide range of pre-existing characters (essentially a “database”). Although these could include many different elements, Azuma often focuses on examples such as various cute (“moe”) features including different kinds of animal ears or tails (39-47). These interests in recurring character features rather than narrative, are theorised by Azuma in relation to the proliferation of postmodern simulacra under the conditions of the loss of Grand Narratives

Whilst the concept of character database can potentially apply across a range of genres in manga and anime, much of Azuma’s wider theoretical and critical work has focused, however, on examples of Japanese science-fiction texts, from sekai-kei animation  (4) such as Neon Genesis Evangelion (Anno Hideaki, 1995-6) through to numerous multiple world or “timeloop” stories.  (5) It is rather unfortunate that most of the Anglophone literature on Azuma has overlooked this work, as its function is typically not to illustrate the “character database” at work, but rather to use these science-fiction trends to precisely think through the limitations of the database model. At the forefront of Azuma’s concerns is the way this mode of character-based consumption can lead to “animalisation,” by which individual otaku revert to solipsistic patterns of desire, seeking out their own personal favourite character elements divorced from a community of readers based around a shared interest in narrative (86-95). Although we could make some arguments for the role of fan communities in the socialisation of otaku, Azuma still seems to think that these are mere transient forms of connectedness which otaku can choose to temporarily follow or ignore according to their own volition (92-3). Instead I would argue that it is instead through thinking through the issues raised by particular science-fiction texts that Azuma attempts to redeem some role for narrative under the conditions of postmodernism, particularly through analysing specific texts as examples of metanarratives that foreground the necessity of individuals’ ethical decisions as part of our inescapable co-existence with others.

It is important to note, however, that whilst in Japan the field of “subcultural studies” has often drawn on various ideas from European critical theory, a great number of books and essays are disseminated outside the confines of traditional academic publishing, written in a more populist, or perhaps “para-academic” style, that is able to draw the attention of much wider readership. Although the ability to attract a wider public, which includes many practitioners and fans of manga and anime, may appear a positive alternative to the limited consumption of Anglophone academic publishing, I would nevertheless argue that it is still important to reflect upon what is lost when standards of academic rigour are typically diluted. Whereas most of the early Anglophone accounts of Azuma’s work such as Jonathan Abel’s introduction to Otaku (Azuma, 2008), Shäfer (2009) and Goto-Jones (2009) were highly favourable towards Azuma’s subcultural theorising, more recent accounts of his work such as Looser (2017) have at least noted that across both popular and academic publishing formats Azuma’s overall theorising shows signs of being somewhat “contradictory” (Looser 2017, 353).

I think it is important to ask questions about why Azuma and other Japanese theorists remains so focused on the topic of postmodernism whilst Anglophone critical theorists have typically significantly reduced their interest. I would suggest here, for example, that the waning influence of Baudrillard and Lyotard in Anglophone theorising is at least partly due to the appreciation that writers including Deleuze, Badiou, Žižek and Derrida, either have their own methods to redress problems such as postmodern solipsism, or in many cases their work suggests the problems identified by postmodernism were incorrectly formulated in the first place. Within Deleuze’s version of semiotics, for instance, there never really was any kind of signifiable “reality” prior to the proliferation of postmodern simulacra; nor in Deleuze’s writing is there any simple mirroring of the collapse of Grand Narratives, but rather an emphasis on the deterritorialisation of hierarchical structures alongside ineluctable new processes of reterritorialisation (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987).

I would argue, however, that Azuma adds a further level of complexity to such debates about the intellectual quality of Japanese subcultural theory because of his academic background in philosophy including the publication of his substantial exegesis on the work of Derrida, Ontological, Postal. How should we then judge Azuma’s more populist subcultural works in comparison to the academic rigour of Ontological, Postal? Of course, critical theorists and philosophers should be able to write in a more populist style, but whereas I would argue that, for example, Badiou’s more populist publications from The Meaning of Sarkozy (2008) to Trump (2019) maintain a theoretical consistency with his other “more philosophical” works this does not seem to be the case with Azuma. This is also the case with the relation between his previous studies of Derrida and the subsequent work on Japanese subculture now laden with the language of “postmodernism.” Despite Azuma’s attempt to justify the tradition of “End of Grand Narratives” postmodernism (Azuma, 2000; reprinted in Azuma, 2011, 27-49), he has made no formal repudiation of Derrida’s work in support of, say, Lyotard. Indeed as I would like to argue in works such as Quantum Families we can still find echoes of those Derridean ideas discussed in Ontological, Postal. Rather than condemning Azuma for inconsistency, a more charitable reading would perhaps still see his work as thinking through Derridean themes such as non-self presence in interpersonal communication, the ethical subject’s relation to the other-as-singularity, and the connections between decision, responsibility and finitude whilst at the same time deliberating these topics in relation to the problems posed by postmodernism. What often appears to be lacking in Azuma’s work, however, is a sense that these issues are being worked out thoroughly and coherently in preference for an abundance of populist soundbites.

Reading Quantum Families

The essential science-fiction conceit of Quantum Families is that characters from parallel worlds now have the potential to interact with each other due to technological developments that can harness the effects of quantum mechanics, even if the effects of such technology are often hard accurately to control. In the case of Quantum Families, the interactions between parallel worlds also frequently take place as such worlds are experiencing different time periods thus adding an element of time travel to the novel. The narrative focuses on the interactions between a father (Ashifune Yukito), living in a present day version of Japan, and two siblings from different future parallel worlds (Fūko and Riki). What is interesting about this scenario, however, is that from the different worlds we experience, these incarnations of Fūko and Riki are effectively “impossible” siblings. In Fūko’s timeline Ashifune dies when she is two years old as a result of a terrorist incident (Azuma, 2009a, 53). In Riki’s timeline, however, Fūko is never born and Ashifune avoids any involvement in terrorism. Together with a future version of Ashifune’s wife, Yurika, they make up the “quantum family” of the title rather than a “natural” biological family.

Recurrent themes of the novel include the ethical relation to others, issues of “terrorism” and ideological commitment, and the problems of interpersonal communication. The latter also relates to the idea of the “postal,” a Derridean concept described at length in Azuma’s Ontological, Postal. Following the Derridean notion of différance, this concept refers to the way in which the reception of messages never entirely coincides with the intentions of the sender.  (6) Both the themes of terrorism and the difficulties of communication form the driving force of Part One of the novel wherein a mysterious phone call from a future parallel world inadvertently leads to Ashifune’s endangerment in a terrorist incident.

The traversing of parallel worlds effectively allows us to learn about multiple variations of the character of Ashifune, even if in narrative terms we remain attached to the “original” Ashifune (the first person narrator from the section Father I). Whilst retaining his original memories, as a result of the mysterious intervention the “original” Ashifune takes possession of a parallel world version of himself with a different lifestyle and personal history. The original incarnation of Ashifune is a self-loathing character, frustrated with his commercially unsuccessful writing career and weary of his university teaching job. The “new” Ashifune, however, discovers he now exists in a new parallel world in which he has a more successful career as well-known writer and political blogger and much happier family life. Not only does he have a better relationship with his wife Yurika but he already has a young daughter in the form of another version of Fūko.

The most important aspect of this situation, however, is how Ashifune adjusts to this new life. His initial attitude is that of detached cynicism, referring to himself as a “game player” (96), enjoying petty acts of one-upmanship against “characters” who are not really those of his wife and child. Although this attitude begins to waver when Fūko and Yurika are involved in a minor accident in a shopping mall car park, (140-2), it subsequently completely changes when Ashifune learns one of his blog followers, Yuzuriha Nagisa, has arranged an imminent terrorist attack in the mall. Despite his earlier feelings that they are not his “real” family, when Ashifune becomes aware that this also poses mortal danger to Fūko and Yurika, he is overcome with an urgent desire to rescue them from this plot.

If Part One emphasises Ashifune’s turn from cynical detachment to ethical commitment, Part Two of the novel focuses on the assemblage of the quantum family itself, Ashifune (from 2008), Fūko (from a parallel 2035), Riki (from a different parallel 2035) and Yurika (from a parallel 2036). Here what I argue is most important is the further development of Ashifune’s attitude towards others, as well as the reaction of his “wife” Yurika. Ashifune makes the decision to continue living in this specific parallel world and timeline, abandoning all others, in order to keep the “quantum family” united. To placate Yurika, he also tries to expunge any memory of Nagisa, who in Yurika’s timeline has also had an affair with Ashifune. Ashifune realises, however, that the repeated interference of “Nagisa” across so many parallel worlds is perhaps far from a coincidence and instead a “network effect” (354-5) beyond the control of the protagonists. What is more immediately important, however, is the refusal of Yurika to join the “family.” As I will discuss below, her action to thwart the desire of the main protagonist, Ashifune, has very strong echoes of Azuma’s concept of “gamic realism.”

I also argue that the link to “gamic realism” is further apparent in Riki’s confession that there is a reason for the persistence of a second name across the parallel worlds, that of “Shioko.” Although this name is also used for a fictional character created by the writer Ashifune, Riki eventually reveals this entire scenario of assembling the quantum family in 2036 has likely been instigated by the mysterious phone call actually being attributable to Fūko’s granddaughter also called Shioko (350), calling from 2064.

Quantum Familes as an example of “Gamic Realism”

Perhaps the most obvious recurring reference point in Quantum Families is the novel’s link to themes prevalent in 2000s Japanese science-fiction and fantasy texts dealing with the topic of parallel or “multiple worlds.” This includes numerous works discussed in Azuma’s The Birth of Gamic Realism (2007) from novel games such as Ever 17: The out of infinity (sic.) (Kid, 2002) to science-fiction light novels such as 9-10-9-10-9 (Maejō, 2007). Despite the essay by Steinberg (2012) on the role of multiple worlds in the anime series The Tatami Galaxy/Yojōhan Shinwa Taikei, (2010), I would argue that in Gamic Realism Azuma himself pursues a different theoretical agenda, emphasising less the position of the protagonist as a Deleuzian nomadic subject (what Steinberg labels “vague protagonist”) and instead positioning the protagonist closer to Derrida’s concerns with the subject at the moment of ethical decision and the effects of such decisions on others. Here, however, I nevertheless want to take up further one point briefly mentioned in another text by Steinberg (2010) about the way in which Azuma’s Gamic Realism is written partly in dialogue with Ōtsuka Eiji’s work, looking in more detail at why Azuma opposes Ōtsuka’s hostility towards the so-called “novel game” format. In the process Azuma develops a new potential model for multiple world narratives, or the related subgenre of timeloop stories, in which particular narratives across a range of games, light novels and related forms are effectively transformed into metanarratives focusing on characters’ decision-making.

One of the crucial arguments in Gamic Realism is that the trend of novel games offers something beyond Ōtsuka’s conceptual division between “manga-anime realism” and the “naturalistic realism” found in more traditional art forms. This roughly equates to a distinction between the simulacra of manga-anime characters, and “real world” actions and situations. What is often at stake in this distinction, however, is the way artworks also function as a form of interpersonal negotiation between producers and consumers, whether about manga-anime simulacra or indeed about the “real world” (Azuma, 2007, 62). Rather than being dependent on any kind of naturalistic essentialism, our very understandings about the so-called “real world” are in this manner also the result of interpersonal interpretation, debate and negotiation. Although for Ōtsuka, some forms of Japanese subculture focus almost entirely on manga-anime realism, others may contain elements of both realisms. One example highlighted by both Ōtsuka and Azuma, for example, is the way some anime or manga texts, such as those from the sekai-kei subgenre, highlight the finitude of characters beyond their status as simulacra through narratives focusing on their death or injury (140).

The co-existence of manga-anime realism and naturalistic realism is also of renewed importance, however, when dealing with the phenomena of novel games and light novels. Although these use illustrations or graphical representations of manga-anime style characters (simulacra) they are predominantly text-based narrative formats which often follow narrative trends more closely linked to “naturalistic realism” (81). Unlike light novels, for Ōtsuka, however, it is impossible for the format of novel games to follow the example of sekai-kei texts and successfully invoke characters’ finitude, a claim that is subsequently repudiated by Azuma (175-6). As with many Western role-playing games (RPGs), the format of largely text-based novel games such as One: To the Radiant Season/One: Kagayaku Kisetsu e (Tactics, 1998) typically revolves around readers/players occupying the perspective of the main protagonist in a narrative that unfolds through the reader/player making their own decisions at particular narrative junctures. As a game, the failure to achieve the player’s desired narrative resolution, which may include the death of the protagonist or one of the desired “moe” heroines, can, however, simply be resolved by “replaying” or “resetting” to begin the game once more at the initial point. It is for this reason that Ōtsuka thinks such games evade the implications of death and finitude. Azuma, however, argues that some novel games can subvert this structure and effectively become metanarratives about choice. In doing so many texts also make various links between the “cruelty” of choice and the themes of finitude, death and the responsibility towards other (finite) individuals (188-9)

As to be expected, many of the “gamic realism” texts examined by Azuma are indeed novel games. In the example of Ever 17, (Kid, 2002) for instance, the aim of the game is to save the lives of seven characters trapped in an underwater theme park in 2017 through a time travel narrative that takes place across the two time frames of 2017 and 2034. Although these timelines are ostensibly focused around the two alternating protagonists of Kid and time traveler Kuranari Takeshi, what the work of the game self-reflexively reveals, however, is that there is another figure beyond these two characters in the “metaposition” of the player directing their actions. Becoming conscious of the role of this game-player, in the final part of the story the character of Coco not only subverts the player’s position by directly addressing him/her outside of the diegesis but she also refuses to follow the choices made by the player. Furthermore by ignoring the player and making her own decisions, Coco ultimately finds the optimal path to save all the characters’ lives (224). For Azuma, the example of Air (Key, 2000) is also interesting for the way in which it subverts the novel game format firstly by having one part of the story, “Summer,” in which there are no choices made available to the player but also through the final part of the story “Air” in which whatever choices the player makes, there is no possible resolution facilitated by the text in which the protagonist, Yukito can save the life of the cursed object of his affections, Misuzu (306). Not only are there examples of this “gamic realism” in games, however, but Azuma suggests gamic realism is also part of a variety of non-game texts which also foreground the implications of choice. Here timeloop stories, such as All You Need is Kill (Sakurazaku, 2004), or multiple world stories, such as 9-10-9-10-9, focus on narratives in which rather than simply being “resettable” through repeating a timeloop, or moving to a new world, character choices have a definitive effect on the mortality of the self or others.

Azuma makes the echoes between these kind of “gamic realism” and Quantum Families quite obvious. Not only is the main character in Quantum Families, Yukito, the namesake of the protagonist of Air, but the novel also follows the structure of having two main timeframes (2008 and 2035). More importantly from a conceptual point of view, however, Quantum Families eventually also reveals the existence of another “player” position in the form of the 2064 version of Shioko manipulating events. Despite these similarities, I will argue that Azuma also appears to be using Quantum Families to go further than many of these texts in Gamic Realism to develop additional ideas in relating to the topics of human finitude, ethical commitment and the unconscious. This is in addition, of course, to the shift away from manga and anime towards literature.

Theorising Beyond Japanese Subculture

Whilst Quantum Families also references Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction stories, Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled fiction and Dostoevsky’s Tales from the Underground, the most prevalent literary reference point remains the work of Murakami Haruki. Here Murakami’s novels and short stories are cited on multiple occasions by the character of Ashifune even if, as a self-professed intellectual, he is often embarrassed to admit his fandom to others. The version of Ashifune we follow in the novel is arguably also himself a rather “Murakami-esque” flawed and world-weary protagonist who becomes involved in a quixotic science-fiction style mystery. The prevalent use of the first person perspective in the first part of the novel, however, not only fits in with some of the major discussion points of Gamic Realism, but also connects the book to other Japanese literary traditions such as that of the I-novel (watashi-shōsetsu). On this occasion the self-conscious use not only of “watashi” (for the characters of Fūko and Yurika) but also of “boku” for the male protagonist Ashifune nevertheless appears deliberately to echo Murakami Haruki’s own attempts to re-interpret the novel genre by using the more casual form in many of his works. Indeed in using both forms in the same novel, it here echoes the structure of Hard-Boiled Wonderland (1985).

What is perhaps useful, however, is to consider how Azuma and Murakami are both interested in thinking through the shift away from (postmodern) detachment to commitment which also appears to characterise the trajectory of Ashifune in Quantum Families. In doing so, however, both Azuma and Murakami also still position themselves against older generations of Japanese intellectuals either with a strong interest in the Marxist tradition (such as Karatani Kōjin) or in other forms of organised political activity for a cause (such as Ōe Kenzaburō). Despite making his well-known proclamation, the nature of Murakami’s shift from detachment to commitment has, however, been questioned by many commentators because of his evasion of an explicit explanation of what this exactly means. Even sympathetic commentators such as Strecher (2002) believe Murakami’s subsequent literary output seems to lack a coherent position explaining this statement. (38) At the very least, however, Strecher points out that whereas earlier works such as Hard-Boiled Wonderland simply appear as a defense of the protagonist-as-individual against the dehumanising forces of bureaucracy, in novels after Murakami’s declaration, such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-5), this defense of the individual-qua-singularity also extends to the protagonist’s responsibility towards others-as-individuals (ibid.).

There are, however, some potential differences between Murakami and Azuma. Here I think it is revealing that after deliberately name-dropping Hard Boiled Wonderland numerous times and mimicking the novel’s use of boku/watashi the mode of narration also takes some different turns, particular in Part Two. After the alternating first person narration of Ashifune and Fūko in Part One there are eventually shorter excerpts of first person narration from Yurika and Riki in the second part. The dominant mode of Part Two, however, is that of third person narration. Following the denouement about Shioko at the end of the novel, the reason for this, perhaps, is to emphasise that as we gradually realise, the characters are also in a situation which is not entirely that of their own making but rather subject to the actions of Shioko-as-game-player. At the same time as the story appears to open up the possibility of ethical decisions by characters to affirm which particular world they want to occupy, the narrative seems to close down, or limit this freedom, by emphasising the structuring role of Shioko alongside that of the seemingly inescapable influence of Nagisa.

One of the problems for Azuma that I think Quantum Families tries to contend with, however, is how to conceptualise the relation between “terrorism” and “post-postmodern” political commitment after the “End of Grand Narratives.” Is it possible, for example, to reaffirm the legitimacy of any kind of political commitment, whilst simultaneously delegitimising terrorism? In Japan much of the intellectual thinking about terrorism also has two particular historical reference points: the terrorist attacks of the Japanese Red Army during the 1970s and the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo metro in 1995. The former even appears to be alluded to in Quantum Families, with Nagisa’s group’s violent outburst part of a network of other global terrorist events linked to more explicitly leftist “ideologies.”

As I want to argue below, on the one hand Azuma’s interest in commitment resonates much more with an ethics of the other-as-singularity rather than any form of commitment to an idea. On the other hand Azuma also complicates such ethical decision-making by adding dimensions that undermine any pretence to self-presence by the ethical subject such as in the form of Shioko’s influence or indeed from the possible influence of the unconscious. One interesting feature of the novel that may help us understand a little more about Azuma’s position in Quantum Families is the way in which it uses people’s proper names and how this is potentially related back to a discussion in Ontological, Postal about the distinctions between Derrida’s work and that of the analytical philosopher Saul Kripke (1980). It is likely to be apparent to many readers that some of the character names used in the novel have different levels of symbolic significance. This is not only the case with the name of Yukito echoing that of the protagonist of Air but it is also unlikely to be a coincidence that Ashifune’s wife’s surname, Oshima, and the forename Nagisa, together mimic the name of the radical Japanese film-maker, Oshima Nagisa. Whilst it would be an easy point to make that this is not mere symbolism but rather testament to the way in which in signifiers such as names can operate beyond the self-presence of the individual, I want instead to look at naming in relation to the difference between Derrida’s deconstruction and Saul Kripke’s anti-descriptivism. Such a reading also seems to be suggested by the text given the prominent use of so-called “Everett-Kripke-Sheen” numbers (the procedural tools by which Fūko tries haphazardly to navigate parallel worlds using quantum technology) in the novel.

The previously dominant “descriptivist” theory criticised by Kripke attempts to define named objects (including people) in relation to a cluster of recognisable descriptions. One of Kripke’s main examples, repeated by Azuma (1998, 110-1), is that of Aristotle who can be described under a cluster of descriptions including “student of Plato,” “teacher of Alexander the Great,” “author of De Natura” and so forth. The anti-descriptivist position, however, is that if one (or perhaps even all) of these descriptions turns out to be untrue, such as new evidence emerges that Aristotle was not the teacher of Alexander, then this does not mean that there was no longer a person in question identifiable as Aristotle. There is thus something consistent in the identity of a person that exceeds predication, with a name functioning as a “rigid designator” of identity through what Kripke calls “baptism.” Such an anti-descriptivist model is also used by Kripke to look at how the properties ascribed to an object can be modified across time due to new understandings without entailing that there is effectively a “new” object. In a rejoinder to some forms of relativism, this aspect of Kripke’s Naming and Necessity has been used, for instance, to oppose Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm shift. Although we may change the way in which we conceptualise the object water, for instance, from pre-scientific ideas to the scientific description of water as H²0, essentially the object remains the same.

In contrast to the kind of logical formalism practiced by Kripke, what Azuma, following Derrida, also notes, however, is that any attempt to define an object according to its properties or predicates is also subject to the process of deferral (1998, 126-7). Here, the predicate specifying Aristotle as “teacher of Alexander,” for instance, becomes one part of a potentially endless chain of predicates specifying other objects such as defining who or what “Alexander” was. What the engagement with Kripke’s “baptism” also points to, however, is that despite the movement against self-presence there is a “remainder” (128) of the finite individual qua “singularity” beyond that of the semiosis of signifiers even if it lacks full presence. In Quantum Families it is also evident that despite these movements across parallel worlds, the incarnations of the various characters we encounter are very much still constrained by their own finite existence as singularities. As with Ashifune’s eventual demise this also means they cannot evade death and their decisions may involve responsibility for the mortality not only for themselves but of others.

It is this emphasis on the subject’s finitude and singularity, without, of course, full self-presence, which also has echoes in Derrida’s work on ethics and responsibility and his engagement with figures such as Levinas. A very simplistic account of this Levinasian-Derridean axis may emphasise how the ethical encounter with the other-as-singularity requires the suspension of any fixed ground from which the other could be judged “objectively.” Within this framework, responsibility must be taken for decisions and commitments but without the ability to absolve oneself of the consequences of one’s actions by appeal to objective moral laws (Critchley, 4-9). In this context it is important that most of the metanarratives identified in Gamic Realism, focus not simply on individual subjective choice but the often profound consequences of such choices on others. Indeed, as argued by Howard (366), the multiple world narrative of 9-10-9-10-9 not only focuses on the protagonists’ forced, existential choices between different worlds, but how and who the protagonists will share a particular world with. This is echoed in the final stages of Quantum Families where the family members have to decide whether or not to remain together, foreclosing all other possibilities (Azuma, 2009a, 356). As is emphasised by Ashifune, this is also a commitment to living with particular incarnations of each other (344), terminating the possibility to exist with other particular incarnations. Although there may well be a tension between Derrida and some aspects of Lyotard’s thinking in some of Azuma’s work, I would argue Quantum Families still retains a sizeable affinity here with the former in emphasising the roles of decision and its effects on others in contrast simply to the incommensurability of private language games.

Can we really make a strong case, however, for Azuma, as a covert “Derridean” despite his more populist turn to the language of postmodernism? In focusing so heavily on Derrida’s The Postcard (1987), Ontological, Postal, it should be said sidesteps any sustained confrontation with Derrida’s later writings on either ethics or politics leaving major publications such as the Specters of Marx (1994), The Gift of Death (1995) and The Politics of Friendship (1997) as simply reference points for Azuma to illustrate Derrida’s continuing interest in topics of temporality and communication. I would also argue that it is rather more difficult to position Azuma as a faithful Derridean after looking more closely at Derrida’s disagreements with Levinas. Here Derrida is concerned about Levinas’ inability successfully to theorise the “wholly other,” (Derrida, 1978) a criticism I suggest can also be extended to Azuma. Rather than being totally ungrounded, our ethical encounters with others-as-singularities are typically shaped by presumptions of what others are, or at the very least that they are human individuals. In contrast nothing about the “wholly other” can be specified in advance, otherwise it would not be experienced as absolute otherness. Here we can only remain in a relation of openness towards the world, ready for the surprise of the radically new when it arrives. In the case of this ethics of parallel worlds, Azuma, I would argue, also seems still to be working with the idea that the ethical other always refers to identifiable, finite persons even if they do lack self-presence. Of course, the fact that the Derrida’s “wholly other” cannot be recognised potentially leaves this encounter with “the Messianic” as a form of permanent waiting. This is in profound contrast to Badiou’s insistence on the active declaration of otherwise ungroundable truths.

On the other hand, it is interesting, however, to think about the potential role of the unconscious or instinctual drives in Quantum Families as part of a shared interest between Derrida and Azuma in psychoanalysis. Here both thinkers also appear to share a preference for the theorising of Freud over that of Lacan. Quantum Families departs from the typical manga-anime situation of the male protagonist’s desire for the “moe” heroine in its emphasis on family relations. I think, however, we could make a very convincing argument that Azuma is deliberately imbuing this particular family with noticeable Freudian echoes of the Electra and Oedipus complexes in the pairings of Fūko/Ashifune and Yurika/Riki. Even more interesting than this, however, is the idea of “Nagisa” as an unknown function of the network, effectively a kind of unconscious “symptom” that blocks the creation of a happy nuclear family (Azuma, 2009a, 342). This even leads to the potential idea that the network of parallel worlds is itself structured by unconscious principles. Is there really an infinite succession of parallel worlds, or, as is perhaps suggested by Quantum Families, are there unconscious principles delimiting the variety of worlds available, constantly introducing recurring characters, personality types, places and events (such as terrorist acts)?.

One potential way to view the enigmatic end of the novel might be to see Ashifune’s death as a radical act of refusal, refusing to accept that all of their actions have, in fact, been influenced by the 2064 incarnation of Shioko. Even if his attempt to excise the influence of Shioko and Nagisa leads to his death, it is, in fact, a mark of his freedom. On the other hand, it is not clear whether the future Shioko really is some kind of transcendental “ground” determining the actions of others. As we learn right at the end of the novel, the name Shioko is also relevant to a much earlier moment during Ashifune’s adolescence, in which some kind of uncontrollable desire drives his sexual assault of a student also named Shioko. Is this experience another function of the database, or perhaps an a priori traumatic experience that shapes the future timelines of this family, including the Shioko of 2064? There is also no way to tell to what degree the future Shioko may herself be tied up in quantum technology conundrums of her own, particularly since it is also evident that she was only able to make a failed, unintelligible call to Ashifune in 2008.

If we follow this line of reasoning, there is again another link between the novel and Ontological, Postal, particularly in regards to the latter’s criticism of Lacan. Here Azuma faithfully follows Derrida’s critique that whilst demonstrating the unstable movement of signifiers in other discourses, Lacan’s own discourse appears instead to come from a fixed, transcendental position of mastery (Azuma, 1999, 117-8). This is in contrast, say, to the way deconstruction refuses to specify its own limits and procedures. This criticism is likely why Azuma’s interest in the unconscious tends, like Derrida’s, to engage with Freud’s speculations rather than Lacan’s theories. We can perhaps also see this idea of the non-mastery of the theorist in the potential parallels between Ashifune and Azuma himself. Here it seems more than mere coincidence that both Ashifune and Azuma (at the time of writing) were almost exactly the same age and that both split their time between being writers and working in a university. Derrida’s criticisms of Lacan, have, however, been refuted by the latter’s supporters, including both Žižek and Badiou.  (7) Much of the argument here revolves around the role of Lacan’s turn to mathematics rather than language, which had already taken place before Derrida’s criticisms. For Lacan, the formal notations of mathematics are not subject to the same processes of semiosis as linguistic signifiers. In addition, what characterises mathematics is the way in which it describes operations rather than ontic objects. Although Lacan, and subsequently Žižek, have still grappled with way in which humans must nonetheless continue to live within the confines of language, Badiou has moved in the opposite direction to make mathematics the entire basis of his attitude towards ontology, including using it to justify the possible emergence of truth-events described below.

The Limits of Quantum Families

Even if Quantum Families is trying to think through the necessity of decision and ethical commitment towards others beyond postmodern solipsism, the novel nevertheless follows the lead of postmodernism in dismissing forms of definitive commitment towards political ideals, usually instead labeled as “ideology.” Indeed in many cases any kind of conscious commitment to a political goal is intertwined with “terrorism.” What I think would be problematic for many contemporary continental thinkers is that Azuma includes in this process any form of leftist commitment to redressing inequality. Within Quantum Families it is quite clear that Azuma is aware of recent anti-capitalist theorising both in Japan and Europe. The version of Ashifune that previously ran a political blog is unequivocally positioned on the political left, writing about workers’ demonstrations, migrant issues and the problems of “neets”  (8) (Azuma, 2009a, 98-9). In the section labeled “Materials C,” the novel even describes Ashifune’s blog as part of the anti-neoliberal struggle against “Empire,” echoing Hardt and Negri (2000). Azuma even describes the way in which capitalism is extending its ineluctable thirst for profit into the quantum technology itself. It is mentioned several times, for instance, that Fūko’s company are trying, albeit without much success, to perfect their control of such technology as a means of monetising the potential of parallel worlds. If one wanted to perform a deconstructive reading of Quantum Families itself, however, perhaps one move would be take what is likely to be a flippant aside in the novel as representative of Azuma’s attitude towards liberal capitalism. After moving through various worlds Ashifune makes the assumption that even with so many different worlds the continuing existence of brands such as Coca-Cola means that such capitalist commercialisation is inevitable (Azuma, 2009a, 311). Such ideas about the inevitability and inescapability of liberal capitalism, essentially what Mark Fisher (2008) calls “capitalist realism,” are anathema to thinkers such as Badiou and Žižek. Indeed, for Žižek, this kind of “End of Grand Narratives” postmodernism, in which any kind of belief is now permissible, is not non-ideological but precisely the ideology of contemporary capitalism (Žižek, 2017, 21). Although Badiou’s work rarely mentions the word “postmodernism,” when it does so it is with contempt, bundled together in the Logic of Worlds (2009a) with a range of theories given the pejorative label “democratic materialism” (2). Such a version of materialism, which also includes those theories grounded in either language or affect, is to be contrasted with “materialist dialectics” the only kind of materialism that recognises the possible interruption of radical, universal new ideas, or what Badiou himself terms “truths.” It should be noted, however, that whereas in Pocket Pantheon (2009b), Badiou appears more conciliatory towards Deleuze and Derrida, now considered worthy philosophical rivals, his attitude towards his former colleague at University Paris VIII, Jean-Francois Lyotard, remains far more critical, again emphasising what he perceives was Lyotard’s inexcusable move towards viewing liberal capitalism as the most acceptable form of social organisation (94).

Although, as with the case of Johnston (2009), entire books are required sufficiently to compare the similarities and differences between Žižek and Badiou, I nevertheless want to foreground those connections that position these two thinkers against the kind of “End of Grand Narratives” postmodernism still apparently proffered by Azuma. Not only are they also both hostile towards an ethics-of-the-other, preferring universality to singularity, but they also share an allegiance to the re-emergence of some form of the “idea of communism.” The main focus for both thinkers, however, is a theorisation of the potential for radical interventions that can completely reconfigure symbolic systems. Indeed, contrary to Azuma’s view, Žižek is not therefore seeking some kind of collapse or destitution of the symbolic.  (9) For Žižek, such interventions involve the creation of new master signifiers, whereas for Badiou they are dependent on the emergence of a truth-event.  (10) Both these forms of radical assertion are, however, entirely dependent on the affirmation of a subject or subjects. For Badiou this is invoked in the subject’s fidelity to the event without any a priori empirical proof of its existence, whereas for Žižek it is the Lacanian “act” indicative of the subject’s “impossible” decision to go beyond the limits defined by the existing symbolic system.  (11)

For both thinkers such radical interventions have their origin at points that have been marginalized or excluded from the situation. Indeed, situations/symbolic systems can only keep their semblance of consistency, by precisely excluding or marginalizing particular elements which threaten to reveal the inconsistency of its assumed order. Whereas both Žižek and Badiou may be sympathetic with equality for the “proletariat,” it is revealing here that the focus for Badiou’s own political interventions has been the French sans-papiers, whereas Žižek has increasingly turned to figures such as the slum-dweller as indicative of those parts which, even more so than the proletariat, border on exclusion within liberal capitalist economies.  (12) Importantly, Žižek, for example, also dismisses the political usefulness of theories of hegemony which he instead associates with liberal capitalism. For him whilst there may indeed be hegemonic struggles in liberal democracies there remain more radical positions that are still entirely excluded from the coordinates of those antagonisms.  (13) If Badiou and Žižek are interested in communism, it is less in recreating any historical examples, but in theorising how we can assert the equality for all amidst the process of including what was previous excluded and radically re-imagining the entire symbolic system. If Badiou and Žižek resolutely oppose current forms of capitalism, it is because such forms are the most powerful force in structuring social relations, often violently extirpating that which is economically unproductive. Finally, If Badiou and Žižek are anti-liberal democratic it is because they believe the liberal democratic state acquiesces to the demands of capitalism and only advocates minor forms of change which fail to re-imagine the social system for all.

Contrary to the notion of Grand Narratives, what Badiou and Žižek are also both aware of is that there cannot only be one truth-event or one new master signifier, for when this reconfigures a situation, eventually it will create a new order, with a new exclusionary logic which will then eventually require a new intervention. In this manner, new truths or master signifiers should not try to totalise a situation to prevent such later interventions. Both thinkers also have other caveats for new truths or master signifiers. For Badiou, for instance, the Nazis’ radical intervention is to be condemned as an “evil” simulacrum of a “pseudo-truth” because rather than being universally directed to all, this pseudo-truth was instead based on brutal new exclusions of Jews and other minorities (2001, 72-7). In his discussion of another form of evil, “disaster,” Badiou also emphasises that no one person or group has the right to define the precise meaning of a truth, or who belongs to that truth (80-7). Not only does this mean he would abhor the kind of violent purification practiced by the Japanese Red Army, but why he also appears suspicious of previous historical activities in the name of the Communist Party.

If Badiou is looking at the role of the French sans-papiers as a potential evental site for a new truth-event for global equality, how might we approach Japan? Here perhaps there are also potential evental sites given the social position of neets, burakumin, ethnic Koreans, or other ethnic minorities in Japan. These groups, however, also have their own diminished position within larger subsets constituting the Japanese proletariat, the Japanese slum-dweller, or the Japanese homeless. Without more radical political and economic intervention these latter two groups are likely only to grow in proportion with the increasing use of robotics and AI. What is perplexing about Azuma’s attitude, however, is that even when he occasionally acknowledges the plight of the above groups, they remain peripheral to his more abstract attempts to conceptualise the limits of personal choice. Conveniently ignoring some of Derrida’s later remarks in Specters of Marx, Azuma also seems happy to overlook the former’s concern with widening global inequalities of wealth and power and the possible need for more decisive interventions despite postmodern declarations of the End of Grand Narratives or the End of History.


By way of Quantum Families, Azuma has not only been able to produce a book to rival the thought-provoking and entertaining science-fiction novels of Murakami Haruki but, as I have also argued, he has also used this opportunity to continue to think through many theoretical ideas he had been working on for the previous decade. Nevertheless, I would still argue that the novel forms part of a wider pattern with Azuma’s work in that many of his ideas are not worked out as consistently and rigourously as those philosophers with whom his ideas engage. This not only includes Derrida, for instance, but also the likes of Žižek or Deleuze who sometimes appear as fleeting reference points in his non-literary output. What is particularly worrisome about this trend, however, is the way in which Azuma continues to recycle theories from postmodernism whilst ignoring the general trends of much of the Anglophone and Francophone theory-building written since the 1990s. This is not merely a theoretical problem, but also casts doubt on Azuma’s relevance for redressing contemporary social problems. I would even argue that from Azuma’s subsequent monograph The General Will 2.0 (2011) and Genron’s edited volume Japan 2.0 (2012) there is an increasing turn by Azuma to state-centred liberalism with a remarkable absence of debate about Japan’s social inequalities.

It should also be said, however, that the idea of situated universal struggles, the importance of new truths or master signifiers, and the necessity of painstakingly working towards a cause, all seem distant from many other aspects of Japanese subcultural theory. Even if fan production may be an important part of such subcultural activities, rather than simply celebrating its pluralism, Badiou and Žižek would undoubtedly be concerned that that fan production can only potentially play a positive role within the struggle to establish truths or master signifiers. For Badiou many examples of fan productions may be examples of minor or temporary forms of change, elsewhere described in the Logic of Worlds as modifications, facts, or singularities, rather than part of the struggle to establish lasting universal truths. Perhaps even more so than Badiou, Žižek often emphasises the way in which liberal capitalism embraces rather than shuns these minor forms of change as a distraction from the necessity of more radical upheaval. These debates, of course, also form part of both thinkers’ antagonism towards the models of change theorised by Deleuze.  (14) For Badiou, much of the current discussions of pluralism vis-à-vis media mix, multiple worlds, or character databases is likely to be trapped at the level of “democratic materialism” divorced from wider concerns about political activism towards a cause. This is not, however, to say that all subcultural production must be dismissed or indeed that all Japanese subcultural or media theory follows such a pattern. The Japanese journal VOL (2006-2009) used the work of Deleuze, Hardt and Negri, and occasionally that of Žižek and Badiou, to understand contemporary social problems in Japan, including the plight of groups such as neets.

It is, of course, undoubtedly still important to engage with the range of criticisms directed against Žižek at Badiou. There are those from within both the disciplines of both philosophy (Laruelle, 2013) and mathematics (Nirenberg, R.L and Nirenberg, D., 2011), for instance, who still critique Badiou’s decision to base his ontology entirely on mathematics, or else his dependence upon Zermelo-Frankel set theory above other mathematical models. On the other hand, there are a range of other criticisms emphasising his failure to offer more concrete guidelines for sustained political activity (Johnston, 2009) or that he misconceives the position of some his rivals such as Deleuze (Crockett, 2013). Nevertheless, Badiou and Žižek rarely shirk away from addressing these complaints and perhaps this would also be an attitude well adopted by Azuma and other Japanese subcultural theorists.


1. The novel was previously serialised in the literary magazine Shinchō from May 2008 until September 2009. It was the winner of the 2010 Mishima Yukio prize for literature.

2. The “light novel” is a form of popular literature focused predominantly on fantasy or science-fiction genres and typically marketed towards adolescent readers. Although entirely text-based like traditional novels, light novels also feature manga-anime style illustrations and follow some of the narrative conventions from manga-anime texts. Although some light novels are released by major publishers, they gained popularity as a form of fan fiction and are regularly sold at manga conventions rather than traditional bookstores. See also Azuma (2007, 27).

3. The concept of “manga-anime realism” is discussed in more detail in the main text. As suggested by Steinberg (2010) “media mix” is analogous to the English-language concept of “transmedia storytelling” (100). For Steinberg, Japan’s “media mix” has not only had a different history of industrial development from that of, say, the United States but is also indebted to the vast number of fan-based productions across various media in Japan (103-4).

4. For a brief English-language description of sekai-kei see Howard (2014, 366-8), who draws much of his analysis from the Japanese-language study by Majima, Satoshi (2010).

5. Azuma’s interest in the philosophical nature of science-fiction and the genre’s role in articulating ideas about the relationship between human existence, society and the world can be found in reprints of early essays in Azuma (2011, 266-88).

6. For Derrida’s own account of différance, see for instance Derrida (1978).

7. For some basic details of Badiou’s relation to Lacan and his defence of the use of mathematics as a (non-deconstructable) ground for conceptualising ontology see Hallward (2003, 49-61).

8. The word Neets has been adopted into Japanese directly from the English (meaning Not in Education Employment or Training)

9. As described by Kodabayashi (2017, 87-89), Azuma’s criticism of Žižek completely misreads Žižek’s position—for Žižek (via Lacan) shifting imaginary identifications of interface culture are no threat to the symbolic order. Indeed, they are very much a part of its functioning. The capitalist “play of identities” as an example of the imaginary actually aids in the filling in the gaps in the symbolic. Here the shifting of identities is also part of the normal functioning of an interpellated subject within the inevitable processes of semiosis—a signifier [which constantly shifts] represents the subject for another [master] signifier. Even more Žižek absolutely does not seek the end of the symbolic, which would be more akin to social psychosis. What he rather calls for is the de-substantialisation of current master signifiers and the creation of new master signifier which could create a more equitable symbolic order.

10. For some of Žižek’s own meditations on the need to return to master-signifiers and his criticisms of Badiou’s alternative conceptualisation of the truth-event see Žižek (2006, 303-27).

11. As another point of conflict between Žižek and Badiou, the latter tends to see radical intervention as something completely unpredictable and unverifiable that emerges ex nihilo, whereas for Žižek the logic of a symbolic system can still be seen in its symptomatic exclusions. For Badiou this is one of the reasons why events are rare and sudden, whereas for Žižek political interventions can always be prepared for by critique.

12. For his discussion of the slum-dweller see Žižek (2006, 269-70); for a brief introduction to Badiou’s long-standing engagement with the sans papiers as part of the L’Organisation Politique see Hallward (2003,43-5).

13. This issue is the focus for Žižek’s disputes with Ernesto Laclau in Butler, Laclau, and Žižek (2000).

14. See Badiou’s Deleuze: Clamour of Being (2000) and Žižek’s Organs Witout Bodies (2003)


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About the Author

Christopher Howard (Ph.D. SOAS, University of London) is a researcher at Chongqing University, China. He has published several essays and book chapters on Japanese and East Asian film and media in publications including the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (AHCI) and The Journal of Science Fiction Film and Television.

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