The following may contains spoilers for NieR: Automata Ver1.1A!
Based on, and directly adapting the videogame NieR: Automata, Ver1.1A has amazed viewers with its first four episodes. The animation quality has been beautiful, and the voice acting and sound effects feel like they’ve been ripped straight out of the game (and some have). Another thing fans are incredibly impressed by is how well director Ryouji Masuyama and the production team at A-1 Pictures have tackled and included the game’s heavy philosophical elements.
For many, the NieR franchise is defined by its themes of existentialism, purpose, and what it means to be human. As can be the case with anime adaptations (we’re looking at you Junji Ito), layers of depth and subtext are often stripped away in favour of action and surface-level entertainment. However, almost every line of dialogue in Ver1.1A references or overtly asks what it means to be human, and each character contains the same level of existential dread as an early 00s My Chemical Romance Fan.
Inside the show’s second episode, a sub-plot plays out like a Studio Ghibli short film. The film features gardening robots, workplace dread, a lot of TV, a search for purpose, and the catastrophic consequences of never-ending war.
A Short Summary:
The mission of the machine lifeform was to destroy the androids. However, that machine lifeform no longer possessed the will to fight. The machine lifeform found a small ring of flowers. The machine lifeform felt a mysterious <Something> beginning to be born within it.
After re-awaking from a battle against a group of human rebels, a robot finds itself alone, surrounded by broken robots. We see the robot’s primary directive ‘DESTROY ALL DOLLS’ glitch and distort. After receiving repairs, the robot carries out mundane work, until it stumbles upon a book with a bookmark. On the bookmark is a flower.
The sequence is interspersed with short cutaways, in the same vein as cutaways from the game, explaining how some of the machines gained independence from their directive and developed a passion for learning. The robot lifeform then returns to the city ruins. However, it does not attack humans, instead, it walks. It is soon joined by a handful of smaller robots who name it ‘Big Brother’. The robotic lifeform finds the flower that was on the bookmark in the overgrown city. The words ‘DETECTED EMOTION MATRIX’ appear on the robotic lifeform’s HUD and its glowing red eyes turn a shimmering white and gold.
The robotic lifeform then plants its own seeds, carefully watching and protecting them until they grow into a field of dandelions and grass.
NieR’s Obsession With Humanity?
The franchise often focuses on the meaning of humanity and our purpose as humans. The franchise is even more interesting because it contains very few humans, and they often get very little screen time. By focusing on the physical (and emotional) battle between the YORHA androids and the enemy machine lifeforms, the show attempts to find objective, definable answers, as a machine would.
That is why viewers are given this short film, as it directly opposes the idea that there is an objective, universal answer. When the robotic lifeforms are created, their prime directive is ‘DESTROY ALL DOLLS’ (dolls being the androids), as a result, that is their purpose. However, it is a machine, so how can this answer the question of what our purpose is as humans?
When the machine lifeform’s prime directive glitches, it loses its purpose, however artificial that purpose is. The following scene depicts a series of events that many of us have experienced, and so many more of us have daydreamed about, leaving our jobs to find new meaning. The scene contains images of the robotic lifeform at a factory where it undergoes repairs and then immediately begins working at a computer station. One shot shows the robotic lifeform looking at its own hand and moving it around. This is a common shot used in sci-fi films, and although there is no dialogue, the words ‘What am I?’ can almost be read telepathically by the audience.
After it has abandoned its initial directive and purpose, the robotic lifeform finds the bookmark with the flower and begins its quest for knowledge, finding a new purpose. This leads the robotic lifeform to consume content and learn. It plugs itself into dozens of tv screens at once, absorbing all the information and sits atop the television tower reading a book. It is important to note that everything the robotic lifeform consumes is man-made. TV programs written and directed by, and starring humans, as well as books which people would have researched and written.
When the robotic lifeform finds the flower in the city ruins it immediately scoops it up, but the flower dies in its hands. The viewer then gets a shot from the robotic lifeform’s POV with the words ‘DETECTED EMOTION MATRIX’.
The word ‘matrix’ has two meanings (outside of the 1999 film). It is most commonly defined as ‘the cultural, social, or political environment in which something develops.’ In the case of our robotic lifeform, its emotions have developed around this dying plant, be it excitement for discovering the plant or grief that it has died. But in mathematics, a matrix is ‘a table of numbers, symbols, or expressions, arranged in rows and columns, which is used to represent a mathematical object.’ So, while it is suggested that the robotic lifeform has developed some form of emotions, its understanding of emotions only comes from quantifiable data it has absorbed from consuming human media, as opposed to first-hand experience as a human would understand it.
This emotion matrix kickstarts the machine lifeform’s foray into gardening, causing it plants fields of dandelions. It does so with the help of three smaller robotic lifeforms, who presumably have also abandoned their prime directive. The smaller robotic lifeforms all refer to the larger robotic lifeform as ‘Big Brother’. This could suggest one of two possibilities: the smaller machines may have learned of the concept of brothers and siblings from their study of humans and are merely imitating it in an attempt to better understand humans (a plot that appears more often as the show progresses). Or these machine lifeforms do see each other as siblings, possibly a result of them all being made in the same factory. However, it is only the machine lifeforms that have escaped their prime directive, with white and gold eyes instead of red, that seem to acknowledge the kinship of their fellow robotic lifeforms. The machines that are still driven by their violent prime directive, with red eyes, show no signs of any companionship with their fellow machines, outside of morphing their physical forms together for a combative advantage.
The short film then gets broken up as the viewer returns to the show’s main plot. However, the main plot conjoins with the short film towards the end of the episode. As the human rebels and YORHA androids are battling against red-eyed machines. The battle starts with the robotic lifeforms lifeform we have been following attempting to stop the marching armada of red-eyed machines from trampling over its flowers. Its signals and protests are ignored without remorse by the group and the result of its new purpose is destroyed by what it once was. The ongoing battle only furthers the destruction caused to the flowers. Caught in the crossfire and conflict is the robotic lifeform. Its body is hurled into the air and lands at a cliffside. Its eyes are still glowing momentarily and the camera cuts to a small flower, the same one that was on the bookmark, on a ledge just below the machine lifeform. The eyes then go out.
Collective War Topples Individualism
This intersecting of the two plots suggests that there is no objective answer to what our purpose is, as the purpose is ‘objectively subjective’. If everyone shared the same purpose, there would be no war and destruction, there would be no main plot and side plot, there would just be unification. While this sounds idealist, the fact that everyone has different purposes, informed and shaped around their own experiences and knowledge is part of what makes us human.
There are many existential and philosophical questions that the NieR series raises and tackles, some of which it attempts to provide closure to, but most of which it leaves open to interpretation. But one major theme that NieR categorically answers at every given moment is the consequences of war. It demonstrates this not only from the perspective of humans who are mercilessly killed by machines following their programming but also as this theme dominates and outweighs all other questions and topics that are explored in the series. We spend half of the episode following the machine lifeform finding its new purpose and experiencing emotions. We, the audience, form an emotional connection to it. Then it is wiped away like it is nothing by war.
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