Reo Niiboshi and Mabu Akutsu, a pair of fictional police officers, debuted in the manga Reo and Mabu: Together They’re Sarazanmai by Misaki Saitou. While they spend their days raising a lost child named Sara in Reo and Mabu, they appear as antagonists transforming humans into zombies of desire in the following Sarazanmai anime television series. The second episode of Sarazanmai reveals their process of creating zombies (offering humans to the Otter Empire while dancing), as well as the fact Mabu has a mechanical heart that runs on desire energy.
The anime leaves Mabu’s robotics ambiguous, resembling both cyborgs and androids. His heart is definitely mechanical, which alone would make him a cyborg, but the rest of his body is unclear. His chest turns transparent and Reo extracts his heart from it without bloodshed. He may have more mechanical organs, based on the Chief Otticer tinkering with his insides during “maintenance” surgeries. The Chief Otticer and Reo refer to Mabu as a “doll” as if he were entirely artificial. Sarazanmai doesn’t focus on robotics, but it has a place in robot fiction with how Mabu being a “doll” affects his relationship with Reo.
The rest of this post contains spoilers for Sarazanmai and discussion of ableism.
Like other anime from director Kunihiko Ikuhara, Sarazanmai deals with oppressive systems. In Sarazanmai, oppression such as homophobia, colorism, and classism manifest internally through the abstract Otter Empire. “Robots” have been metaphors for the oppressed since Rossum’s Universal Robots, the 1920 play by Karel Čapek that coined the term for artificial humans. In R.U.R. they represent slave labor of the working class, but androids (machines designed to resemble humans) have since been used for other groups as well. Direct allegories for ethnic groups that borrow from real history and culture range from David Cage’s hamfisted Detroit: Become Human to Janelle Monáe’s revolutionary Metropolis albums.
Indirect connections between robots and oppressed groups have also emerged over time. In science fiction, humans with mechanical body parts are known as cyborgs. Writers often use them to tackle the question of how “human” a person is if part-robot. Cyborgs in anime have tragically struggled to hold onto their “humanity” in their modified bodies as early as Cyborg 009. Dramatizing artificial limbs as signs of “inhumanity” can Other real physically disabled people in the process. Any similarity to real people who use prosthetic limbs and other assistive technology are often unintentional or unobserved. For instance, Joaquin dos Santos admitted Shiro of Voltron: Legendary Defender was designed with a high tech mechanical arm as his idea of a “cool” hero, rather than a representation of disability.
While cyborgs can unintentionally invoke physical disability, androids can invoke (stereotypical) developmental disability. In K.A. Cook’s words, “often the only way allistic writers can imagine and depict what it means to be sapient but not human is to borrow, liberally, from autistics.” As ze goes on to explain in this Tumblr post, writers often characterize androids as “inhuman” through stereotypical autistic behaviors such as difficulty understanding tone in conversation, unusual speech patterns, and clinging to uniformity and regulations. Again, this sorting of behaviors as “human” or “inhuman” can Other real autistic people (even if they are stereotypes).
As Mabu has qualities of cyborgs and androids, his writing leans into both physical and development disability. Most obvious is his “mechanical heart,” implemented by the Chief Otticer into his corpse without informed consent. The mesh of red (organic?) and gray (mechanical?) parts is not unlike the implantable cardiac defibrillators, ventricular assist devices, percutaneous heart pumps, etc. found in real life. The Otter Empire resurrects Mabu, but don’t grant him immortality. The Chief Otticer explains that crushing the heart would kill him, same as an organic one. Mabu no longer lives on food nor water, but his heart absorbs the excess desire energy released during kappa zombie creation. He may be alive, but he has new needs to survive.
Ever since Mabu’s resurrection, i.e. becoming a robot, he and Reo have been at odds in their relationship. For one, the Otters manipulate Reo to believe that Mabu hates him through forbidding Mabu from speaking words of love. Reo rationalizes Mabu’s change in behavior that the Otter Empire replaced the “real” Mabu with a doll built by them. He–and by extension, Sarazanmai itself–puts a lot of weight on the lack of “I love you” between them. However, more has changed about Mabu: he can no longer eat food, nor can he cook. Although he has memories, his cooking skills have vanished. Now, he needs lessons from the Chief Otticer to bake ningyoyaki.
Being unable to eat and cook is a stark contrast to the Reo and Mabu manga and keeponly1luv, the in-character Twitter account of Reo and Mabu. Those establish Mabu’s passion for food, from eating out at his favorite restaurants to preparing meals for Reo. He relishes the challenge of recreating others’ dishes, but more than anything enjoys eating with his partner. With Mabu unable to eat and cook, they’ve lost their favorite way to spend time together. Without it, their connection has deteriorated. Even if Mabu could say “I love you,” this would still be an emotional hurdle. As it stands, it confirms Reo’s fear that Mabu has been irrevocably altered.
Mabu’s physical abilities have changed after resurrection, not unlike a disability acquired after a near-death experience, and it has affected his relationship with Reo. Becoming sick or disabled can make certain pastimes with loved ones impossible. While Mabu is metaphorically disabled through possessing a mechanical heart, this can also be seen with the literally disabled characters of Sarazanmai. For Haruka, becoming paraplegic means he can no longer play soccer with Kazuki. For Kazuki, becoming depressed means he can no longer play soccer with Enta.
However, it’s not as simple as Mabu being abled before Sarazanmai and disabled during it. In Reo and Mabu and keeponly1luv, Mabu has traits similar to the ones observed by K.A. Cook, though not to characterize him as inhuman. Human (well, kappa) Mabu’s quirks include waking up and tweeting “it’s morning” at 5:00 AM every day, insisting on undressing for cooking, having a sense of taste more precise than those around him, and hyperfixating on replicating flavors. Portraying Mabu with “robotic” qualities before turning into a real robot complicates which traits indicate “inhumanity.” I don’t mean to diagnose a fictional character, but having these quirks as a human makes Mabu easy to read as neurodivergent (autistic or otherwise).
More definitively, Mabu has “poor” penmanship and drawing skills compared to Reo that would be considered dysgraphia (another developmental disability) for a real life adult. He avoids handwriting complex kanji, including those in his own name, by writing primarily in hiragana and katakana. His handwriting indicates “canon” neurodivergence more than anything, rather than coding or coincidence. There’s nuance to be found in a neurodivergent(-coded) character becoming physically disabled, represented through playing with robot tropes. No matter the interpretation, Reo notably adores Mabu for who he is. Mabu acting “different” from social norms doesn’t cause a rift between them, but when he and their relationship changes.
Even when Mabu undergoes “maintenance” to be able to consume again in Sarazanmai, he struggles and it appears physically painful. Reo can’t stand to watch, and only resents him more. As much as Reo says Mabu has changed, so has he. Mabu’s death traumatizes him, and abuse from the Otters without support from his partner leaves him mentally ill. When Mabu first learns to cook ningyoyaki from maintenance sessions, Reo eats them even though they’re half-baked. In doing so, Reo subconsciously begins to accept “doll” Mabu’s differences. When Mabu finally explains the Otters forbid him from saying “I love you,” Reo realizes Mabu never stopped loving him. Even though they couldn’t eat together and Mabu couldn’t cook for him, he cared deeply for Reo. Their circumstances changed, but Mabu’s feelings hadn’t, and neither should have Reo’s.
It’s unclear if Mabu remains a robot by the end. He and Reo both die, nearly disappear from existence, and come back to life through Keppi. Mabu retaining his mechanical heart makes sense, considering Reo learns the hard way that Mabu was the “real” one all along, but otherworldly circumstances don’t have a clear-cut answer. In terms of disability, it would parallel how Haruka’s paralysis was not reversed in reconnecting with Kazuki. Even when Kazuki planned to relieve his adoptive family, he planned to wish himself out of existence rather than “cure” Haruka. In the end, Haruka would rather remain connected to Kazuki, no matter the situation–just like Mabu with Reo. Ultimately, by neither confirming nor denying the state of Mabu’s heart, the final episode of Sarazanmai signifies that Reo would now accept Mabu either way.
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