Parasytes Among Us- The Limits of Rationality

One of my quarantine binges has been Netflix anime in general, but recently I got a notification that Parasyte was now on Netflix, and even though I’d seen it before I decided that it would be well worth a second watch. And boy was I not disappointed. It’s a 24 episode examination of the limits of rationality and what makes us human which ultimately seeks to answer the question of what is different between a human being and a parasite?

The Limits of Rationality

In the fan-favorite series Dragon Ball Z, “power levels” is a loosely defined concept that usually varies throughout a season or a series. In one season, Goku can go head-to-head with a planet-destroying menace, and in a later season, he’s killed by a standard-issue energy rifle.

While this level of almost arbitrary variability would never work in the world of strict logical rules that is Parasyte, it’s a big part of what gives each season its fun roller coaster vibe. In one episode the hero is beaten to within an inch of his life and in the next, he has a new hairstyle and is on top of the world.

This perpetual back and forth was taken to its logical extreme in a season where Goku fights the planet-destroying Frieza for the better part of a season. The fight featured fast action, standing in place yelling, and about 4 transformations for each character for about 20 episodes. That fight was four episodes short of being as long as this whole series.

In Parasyte, the back and forth drama happens not through changes in power level but through changes in the viewers’ perception of rationality and humanity and how those concepts are portrayed within the series.

Initially, this is done primarily through contrasting the parasyte Migi with the human protagonist and host of the parasite, Shinchi.

The parasites in this series are introduced as beings that operate only on the instinct to take over the brain of whatever human host they can find, at least initially. After this, they are shown to be able to learn the rules of the world around them rapidly.

When Migi encounters Shinchi, Shinichi’s headphones block Migi’s access to the ear which seems to be the parasite’s preferred method of entering the human head. Migi instead goes for the nose at which point Shinchi sneezes blasting the parasite out onto his bedsheets.

Suddenly wide awake, Shinchi sees the parasite and freaks out. The parasite, knowing that it can’t live without a host for very long, makes the rushed decision to burrow into his wrist and attempt the long passage to his brain.

Doing the logical thing, Shinchi quickly makes a tourniquet of the cord of his headphones to stop this from happening. It’s this kind of fast pace logical action that is the core of a lot of seinen productions like this.

Once you understand the rules and motivations of one character and what another character can do to defend themselves from those things all steps taken from that point will be primarily a battle of the wits between the two.

Over the first couple of episodes, we learn a bit more about the logic that parasytes seem to operate under. Because their first meal comes from eating the head of their human hosts they seem to think of human beings as a food source that encourages a series of gruesome murders all over the world. When our protagonists find a parasite in the wild they realize that because Migi does not control Shinichi’s brain other parasites see him as a threat to their species and themselves. Ensuring their survival is the underlying motivation of parasites behavior and both their conclusions of eating humans for sustenance and Migi’s conclusion to defend Shinichi can be derived directly from that logical underlying motivation.

In killing the first parasyte, Shinichi is shocked that Migi shows no care for others of their species. It was simply a thing that Migi felt as though they needed to do when they killed the other parasite; there was no sympathy or empathy, nothing but a logical desire to survive.

“Is that it’s heart?” It’s like I’m talking to an insect that doesn’t have a shred of empathy.
– Shinichi

This is the first and perhaps the most continuous differentiating factor between our human protagonist and our parasitic protagonist. Shinichi feels compassion and empathy for other creatures not only humans but animals as well. but Shinichi also realizes that there are humans that do not seem to feel the same way and so he questions if humans are that different from parasites after all, especially when pushed to consider how humans think little of the animals we slaughter to feed ourselves.

I should also mention that after recommending this show to a friend, she found herself turned off when Shinichi randomly grabs his love interest’s breast in a scene in episode one. This comes off at typical anime fan service, but it’s a subversion of the trope. The reason this happened, which isn’t given context until later, is that with Migi in control of Shinichi’s right hand after detecting his arousal Migi makes a move that’s considered impolite from a human frame of reference, which the young parasyte is unaware of.

Another similar trend along those same lines is a later scene where a cold parasyte antagonist refers to the same woman as “a female” (note: other parasytes do this too because they see humans as objects for their control) a common and objectifying use of the phrase in real life. The character later refers to a woman as a “sow” with a “healthy sheen to her skin” contextualizing such behavior as dehumanizing by having a parasyte antagonist say this because we’re meant to dislike this character at this point in the show.

Philosophy of a Parasite

The evaluation of what makes someone human or parasite in terms of philosophy tends to stem more from motivation than action. Even though Migi consistently defends his human partner from other parasites Migi is doing this out of a desire for self-preservation because as he says multiple times if his host dies he will die along with it. It is not because he cares for Shinichi that he acts, it is not an act of compassion but instead, it is an act of rational self-interest.

This is a philosophy that was popularized by early 20th-century fiction writer and amateur philosopher Ayn Rand.

In her books, Rand postulates that the only reason that humans act compassionately towards one another is that it is beneficial to themselves to do so and thus concludes that if it is not beneficial to you to help someone else that you should not. This idea underpins the idea of ethical egoism which she pioneered. She’s also known for objectivism, which proposes that some moralistic truths exist separately from human acknowledgment or understanding and perception, which seems like the perfect philosophy to examine through the conflict of a human protagonist and an inhuman being sharing his body.

This brings me to a technical question that arose while I was writing this script.

Is Migi a protagonist because their goals generally align with keeping the narrator alive and safe? is Migi an antagonist because they ate the narrator’s arm and threatened to kill family members and loved ones out of their self-interest?

Or is Migi neutral in this respect, caring only for themselves and not so much having the same relationship to the narrator that either a protagonist or an antagonist would in a usual human drama? Is Migi good or is Migi evil? And how would Migi even define good and evil from their perspective?

And does Migi even have the agency to be considered either? Even though they possess powerful shapeshifting abilities, their body is largely subject to the whims of a human for survival, though Migi is certainly not a neutral actor in the plot either, because they actively take a role in their preservation of self.

For Migi, self-preservation and survival are good, therefore keeping his host alive by whatever means necessary is good. Anything that would endanger their life, therefore, is evil. This is why Migi threatens to kill Shinichi’s parents if he reveals Migi’s existence to them because at that point they may become a threat to Migi’s survival and would, therefore, be an evil act.

Likewise, if it is necessary for survival Migi sees killing other parasites or even humans as good, but takes some more neutral stance in the matter if they are not directly threatened by the human or parasites in question. If anything Migi leans towards actions like that being evil but not out of compassion for the other humans are parasites but because it would put them at unnecessary risk.

Rand’s ideas are popular however they are not without a large amount of criticism. Most academics find that her philosophy is inconsistent and that her beliefs do not match her conclusions. Non-academics who read her work however often think of it as profound perhaps because they do not evaluate it in the same way or recognize these inherent inconsistencies. Taken together, Rand’s philosophy of objectivism and rational self-interest at first seems to be very similar to the philosophy that motivates most parasites. We see over and over again different examples of parasites doing different things but all for the same reason, to prolong their survival.

Two parasites mentioned that they have shifted away from eating humans instead of shifting over to the diets that humans themselves enjoy, though one of them only says this to make Shinichi feel that they’re harmless. they do this not out of compassion for the human species but after realizing that humans find it alarming when they are murdered and fearing that this alarm will lead to their discovery and ultimately death.

Therefore the parasytes that choose to act in a more pacifistic manner than their counterparts will often completely abandon this in favor of fatal violence if they feel that they are close to being discovered and that their life is threatened.

We don’t see parasites inflicting violence for pleasure, instead of for a large part of the plot we only ever see them act in self-preservation. On the other hand, we are frequently forced to face the fact that humans are irrational and sometimes pursue violence against other humans or other types of animals for reasons that do not objectively benefit them.

On the other hand, we see several examples of humans not taking seriously a series of murders happening on a global scale when they are far more often willing to react to changes in people’s character or personality. A good example of this is when the murders first hit the news and Shinichi’s father and mother discuss it without much emotion at all but then freak out when Shinichi suddenly overcomes his fear of bugs right in front of them.

If a parasite were in this situation they would likely feel threatened by this trend and would act rashly while not caring at all if a person has experienced character development because that would be meaningless to their self-preservation.

From the perspective of Shinichi, the philosophy of a parasyte is like the philosophy of an insect. Cold and uncaring.

The third parasyte we are introduced to is Ryoko, who seems more capable of blending in with human society. She’s very different from the parasytes in the show so far. Instead of considering Shinichi a threat to her survival, she finds him to be a curious outlier she wants to learn more about.

Compared to other examples of her species, she’s less reactionary seemingly because she’s more long-sighted than others of her species. She realized that to survive she must find a way to coexist in society.

This differs from many of the parasytes we encounter early on who are more short-sighted and perhaps even fearful, especially of Shinichi.

Despite being cold and seeming unemotional, the rational parasytes do seem to feel emotions on some level, though they seem to be limited to fear. Instincts born from self-preservation. This aligns more closely with Darwin’s theory of emotion.

However, the show also seems to believe in a biological root to emotion similar to Schachter and Singer’s Two-Factor Theory of emotion. The two factors in this theory are physiological arousal and the cognitive interpretation of that arousal. When we consciously perceive arousal we then look to our environment and use our situation to apply a cultural label that we conceptualize as emotion.

We can see this theory tested more clearly with our protagonists because parasites that more easily take over the head of their host are more able to control physiological responses to external stimuli, therefore, stopping many of their emotions at their root. However, with Migi being in control of Shinichi’s arm, the parasite is often aware of Shinichi’s emotional state but not through the lens of emotion itself. Instead, Migi perceives the physiological change itself and does not interpret it as emotion. You could say that what Migi is experiencing here is emotion however I agree with the Schachter and Singer’s Theory in that a crucial component of that would be missing and that is the lens through which we interpret our physiological changes through a cultural framework of emotion which Migi seems to be lacking. Although Migi does seem to understand that Shinichi perceives these changes differently.

Early in the series when Shinichi is confronted by another parasite he often becomes panicked causing his heart to race in a way that interferes with Migi’s ability to defend him. And thus Migi will often chastise him and tell him to get his heart rate under control so that he can combat and defend them more effectively.

There is also suggested a difference between a parasite known as Mr. A who ends up attacking Shinichi’s school and his counterpart Ryoko who says that they bonded with her hosts in different ways. both of them have taken control of the head and the brain but it is suggested that perhaps Mr. A did so in a less effective manner which could give him less control of his physiological state which is why he doesn’t experience fear in the rational way that Ryoko does but instead in an emotional way closer to how Shinichi does even though he seems cool and collected.

But does he? In attacking the school and killing many people he does more to threaten exposing himself than simply allowing Shinichi to live. This suggests that his inability to control his physiology has undermined his rationality and ability to operate purely with the motive of self-preservation.

This would suggest that rationality is superior to emotion in a similar way that objectivism proposes the same. But the show quickly disputes this in a later episode with another parasite going by the name of Hideo.

At first, this new parasite seems to be rational and well-adjusted like Ryoko was however while he seems to be fitting in once he is discovered he quickly resorts to attempting to kill the person who has found him out as a means of self-preservation.

Murder to them is still nothing more than a tool even if it’s a tool that can be used more judiciously then haphazardly. But still, there is no concern for the victim, only rational self-interest which leads him to go on a killing spree in Shinichi’s school as the first murder goes awry.

In these first few episodes, Parastye: the Maxim has already done a lot to make us question the dynamics between humanity and inhumanity, but the next series of episodes rapidly expand on this concept, so tune back for the next article where I’m going to compare the character progression of Shinichi and Ryoko.

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