On Taboos and Trespass

In the Context of Shimizu

Reiko Shimizu is a curious case. Although without doubt one of my favourite mangaka, before The Top Secret, I would have hesitated to count any of her works that I am familiar with among my favourite manga, despite the magnetic pull I felt. Her longer series that she is best known for (namely Princess Kaguya and Moon Child) are disappointingly imbalanced, their large, complex cast falling apart and losing that complexity and initial rawness as the story goes on. And yet, as is the case with every work of hers, there is something about their fantastic setting and imaginative breadth that leaves an impression on me, one I cannot shake off.

In contrast, Shimizu is at her most brilliant when she writes short stories, be it a oneshot or a single volume, as she never fails to make the most out of the limited space to tell a concise tale wherein narrative, characters and themes converge to form a cohesive and resounding whole, all the while exploring concepts that reach far beyond that space. The episodic structure of The Top Secret thus makes the series one of her most solid creations, the flexible length of the stories being the perfect fit for her multi-angle and multi-layered approach to its themes. (According to an extensive review of the series, Shimizu insisted each self-contained case be printed in a volume of its own.) That is what fascinates me so much about Shimizu: her utter and unwavering devotion to a handful of themes — themes that come up in her works time and again, and that are explored with an astounding amount of delicacy every single time. Some of these themes are linked to her genre, specifically the marriage of sci-fi and shoujo manga, while others call to something much deeper.

Three recurring themes that intrigue me are taboos, the relationship between the original and the substitute (such as robots, clones and legacies), and the unchanging (unchanging love and devotion in particular). For the purposes of Refugium’s subject matter, the following section will explore various elements in the context of taboos and trespass. In other words: the crossing of borders.

Forbidden Feelings

Whether it is one-sided or requited love, neither of which is limited to the romantic kind, Shimizu depicts a wide range of relationships across her works. What sticks are all the dynamics — not few in number — that contain elements of obsession, destructiveness and codependency. More often than not, those relationships also entail something “forbidden”, something considered reprehensible in one sense or another: large age gaps, affairs, incest, dubious consent, coercion, abuse of power, collateral damage, even fatal consequences (up to the scale of natural disasters and racial extinction). In short, Shimizu’s characters are oftentimes marked by feelings that are not supposed to be, yet exist and persist, despite everything. Always, they are given narrative and visual focus in a form that screams fragility: Dare to touch that which you desire and it will break. One interpretation of that is that some things are better left untouched — that some yearnings ought to remain unfulfilled, for all eternity. It comes as no surprise then that all of Shimizu’s works deal with the tension and temptation of touching, of destroying the status quo, if only for a moment.

the voice in my head said



Frank Bidart, from: Guilty of Dust

In The Top Secret’s pilot, Reed finds himself hopelessly attracted to Macaulay, whereas Kevin regards (again, a visual word, which comprises both considering and looking) his mother not just as a parent, but as a woman and perhaps an object of desire. For the record, the taboo in Reed’s feelings does not lie strictly, or solely, in the fact that they are directed at someone of the same gender, at least not unambiguously so. Considering that homosexuality, while no longer as much of a taboo as it once was in some parts of the world, is still far from being fully accepted, we can only assume that it carries considerable weight as an aspect of the taboo in the story — if not intratextually, then in relation to reality.

Shimizu has drawn explicitly romantic and sexual relationships between women before, notably in Princess Kaguya (though I cannot attest how they played out in the second half of the series, due to the frustrating lack of availability of translated material), and The Top Secret in particular is heavy, albeit subtle, on homoerotic subtext past the pilot. Shimizu’s works do, however, implicitly or for lack of other indications, feature settings where homosexuality is most likely not normalized. Specifically in the position of president, it is difficult to assume that the wide public would readily accept Reed’s — undefined — feelings, were they to come to light. Still, the pilot leaves enough room for us to decide for ourselves how much weight we attribute to same-gender attraction specifically. Next to it, there are several other, more or less equally weighty taboos to Reed’s secret: Reed is a married man and family father; Macaulay is a young man who would most likely be considered inappropriate for Reed’s age, especially considering Deborah’s age; Macaulay is already in a relationship with Reed’s daughter; and last but not least, Macaulay is a dubious undercover agent who approached Deborah with an ulterior motive. Faced with a public thirsting for sensational news and in light of Reed’s pristine image, any of these reasons are condemning enough on their own.

What makes this story stand out to me among Shimizu’s works (that I am familiar with) is that it does not flirt with the forbidden at any point, making it one (rare?) instance in her stories where the principal figures are set on never acting on their feelings. There is no back and forth as far as Reed and Kevin’s feelings are concerned; at no point does the object of affection turn into temptation. Shimizu’s characters so often struggle with the contradiction between their feelings and their actions, or rather, their internal convictions and external expectations. This pilot, in contrast, strictly differentiates between feeling and acting — hardly surprising, since it makes this differentiation, as mentioned in the previous section, its very theme: In a reality under — even indirect — threat of the MRI scanner, looking, in one’s own altered system of values, may shift from the domain of feeling to the domain of acting.

A truth should exist,
it should not be used
like this. If I love you

is that a fact or a weapon?

Margaret Atwood, from: “We are hard on each other”

Kevin and Reed’s only claim is for the space and freedom to feel; the limit of their desire is the threshold between inner self and outer world. As a consequence, both of them take — drastic, life-altering — measures to ensure, to the best of their knowledge, that that desire does not extend beyond the allotted space. As Kevin rightly defends, feelings cannot be forbidden — nor can they be wrong. They are part of the human condition, their mere existence is beyond our control. However much we may wish to be able to change, redirect or reject them, to deprive ourselves of the right to our feelings would be to deny a part of ourselves. It is not just our actions (external, governable by ourselves and by law and morals), but also our feelings and how we deal with them that define us, even if the latter may not be visible or known to anyone but ourselves. Reed hangs on to his feelings even as he breathes his last, as Kevin does with his when he walks out of the story. As persons, both Reed and Kevin are as much characterized by what they do (thinking, feeling, protecting) as by what they do not do (uttering, acting, violating). Without their desires and their measures to protect that which they hold dear, both would be contourless: Reed a seemingly perfect — robot-like — human being, Kevin an inscrutable cog in the wheel.

then the voice in my head said




Frank Bidart, from: Guilty of Dust

The narrative, in turn, permits them that space, even if the public does not. No judgement is passed on either man: Before anyone on the investigation team can utter a word in response to Reed’s emotions on display, and before we are able to see any reaction to the media's publication of Reed’s secret, the scenes move away to avoid depicting any kind of condemnation. The ending’s focus lies on Kevin’s perspective and the unspoken feelings that connect the two men. I would go as far as saying that the narrative takes a risk by choosing these two (sets of) taboos specifically to get its message across, to ask understanding from the reader. In depicting Kevin’s feelings towards his mother in particular, it effectively alienates him from the reader, much more so than is the case with Reed. Despite that disassociation, the core themes of the story remain valid concerns — an astounding achievement.

Borders of Law and Technology

Borders in The Top Secret are not just crossed in terms of desire and manifestations thereof that society frowns upon. The sci-fi elements of the series provoke active engagement with numerous ethical and legal questions, many of which remain highly relevant and controversial to this day. In fact, with the advance of digitalization and the presence of the internet that permeate nearly all spheres of our life, many of these questions are more critical and urgent than ever. They chiefly concern our relationship to technology, medicine, the individual and the collective — and also to law, and the question of what and how much it should regulate.

As technology and medicine advance and cross borders that previously could not be crossed, law, aided or hindered by ethical viewpoints of the time, is tasked with regulating a new reality, under consideration of what was, has been, and might be. Questions surface regarding what can, and subsequently, should or should not be done, and if yes, in which cases and on which conditions. Technological feasibility does not necessarily equate to societal desirability, and not all that is feasible should also be carried out. In assessing current and in anticipating future developments, law determines what interests and rights are at risk and thus call for protection. This, in turn, necessitates establishing what (values) we as a society consider worth protecting — but also, at what cost. The solution agreed on is, depending on the matter at hand, ideally a compromise on societal level: Although it may not reflect a given individual’s personal view on the matter, it should leave each person with some freedom of maneouvre, provided that their freedom does not infringe on the rights of others. It is in this way that we can function as a society without forcing our views on others by demanding that they feel and act the same.

What strikes me is how thorough the series is as it tackles its themes. Too often in fiction, and especially in manga, law exists on the sidelines, as an afterthought, and actors will do as they please as the narrative, as if by magic, renders them invulnerable to the law. This is not the case with The Top Secret, and it is perhaps precisely the constant mirror of criticism that it holds up to its own face (more specifically, to the Ninth, the investigation team that enters the series after the pilot) that makes its writing, its genuine empathy for each and every person above all, ring so true.

As in law, the careful weighing of the different involved interests in every single case lies at the heart of every authoritative decision. Even as technology advances, supplies systems with a wealth of information and speeds up processes, this responsibility cannot be delegated to machines and their algorithms (…yet), but rather remains a human decision that requires innate human skills — and human empathy. The Top Secret introduces a game-changing technology, but what it chooses to focus on is the distinctly human process of gathering and evaluating the interests in play and at stake, and, once gathered, asks how to proceed with that knowledge. In asking that, it also asks what expectations we have on our legal system and framework.

In the series, the interests of the state and the general public, represented by the police (the Ninth), are weighed against those of the individual: the individual victim, the individual culprit, the suspected, the families of the affected. True to the complexity of life, these parties are not always on the same side. The state may, for political reasons or otherwise, prohibit or enforce the usage of the MRI scanner; the police, albeit an arm of the state, may disagree with decisions from higher-ups, for reasons rooted in their sense of right and wrong after having been closely involved, or due to their own expertise with the technology; a victim, culprit, suspect or their family may have a strong desire to see a case closed by all means necessary, or, on the contrary, have absolutely no interest in having a case more closely examined, be it for reasons of privacy or something else altogether.

The questions that arise are questions such as: When is a crime — or a mere suspicion — considered so severe that it justifies an invasion of privacy to the extent that the MRI scanner allows for? What happens if no proof whatsoever links the crime to the suspect, but the images of the MRI scanner say otherwise? What happens to evidence provided by the MRI scanner through unlawful means (i.e. in cases of prohibited usage), and how is such evidence weighed against the crime? What if, in perusing a person’s brain to solve a specific case, hints to another crime surface? How much should the general public know about this new technology in the interests of legality and transparency, compared to the risk that such widespread knowledge will lead to the adoption of circumvention strategies by future culprits? Can a person be morally or legally forced to grant access to their brain or the brain of an immediate family member post-mortem if it means possibly closing a case? And if yes, how high is that possibility required to be? If a person does not have much longer to live, or is comatose without much hope of regaining consciousness, does the prospect of closing a case justify disconnecting them from life support? Evidently, the MRI scanner’s possibilities hold consequences for many areas of law.

Some of these questions are not new to the law (e.g. rules of evidence in criminal law; disclosure of data to third parties for the sake of law enforcement; the precondition of a substantiated suspicion before the state may take surveillance, enforcement or anti-abuse measures, such as in criminal law, tax law, social security law). Others become more prevalent with technological advance and digitalization (e.g. the application of artificial intelligence and algorithms in criminal profiling, in the judicial system, in the medical field and thus also in insurance law).

In The Top Secret, the main threat is directed at the right to one’s own body and thus to physical integrity on the one hand, and the right to privacy on the other hand, both integral to our identity and construction of self, touching on our very concepts of body and mind. These threats are far from being fictional. While the aspect of privacy will be touched on extensively in the next section, here is an example regarding the right to one’s own body: In medicine and public health law, the domains of organ transplantation law and reproduction law have long fought with the relationship between the individual and the collective; that is to say, how much the rights of an individual can be passed over in service of others or of the collective. Issues and discussions revolving around the latter often show the transboundary aspects of medicine and law, that is, transcending bodies, financial means, national borders and the legally feasible. (I’m thinking of fertility tourism in particular.)

Due to my interest in the domains of IT law and public health law (especially data privacy law and biomedical law), The Top Secret’s topicality and modus operandi fascinate me. As a manga, it is not specifically targeted at an audience familiar with the legal perspective, yet, unlike the vast majority of works in the medium, or in fiction in general, treads expertly and with a lot of nuance on that ground. As science fiction, it accomplishes, in my humble opinion, what the genre should strive to do: employ sci-fi elements that may be more or less far away to ask the difficult questions on the horizon — not to answer them, but to put them into the room, as one would say in German. In fact, as can be read in an interview with Shimizu, the series is deliberately meant to be set in a world that, although set in the year 2055, i.e. fifty years in the future at the time of the pilot’s conception, is not much different from ours, with the exception of a new piece of technology. This choice brings the series’ themes across even better, and the dangers they address seem less far removed — if not immediate when read in the year 2022.

For all of its mystery and distinct cases, The Top Secret’s narrative is less about solving the case in question and more about asking what it means to solve a case, and whether the end justifies the means, that is to say, the costs. The MRI scanner is an ultima ratio, a last resort — but not one that should necessarily, much less automatically, be employed in every case. Some truths may be best left buried.

The Sanctum of Mind in Light of Eroding Privacy

Freedom of thought is a human right that protects a fundamental element of identity and individuality, is the core of our right to privacy, and is the basis of various other rights that ensure the functioning of democracy, such as freedom of opinion, of expression, of religion and belief. Freedom of thought is absolute, and, unlike freedom of expression for example, does not permit limitations under any circumstances. More specifically, it assures us the right not to reveal our thoughts, and prohibits manipulation of our thoughts as well as penalization on the basis of thoughts alone.

Most of us would agree that we should ultimately be measured by our actions and our conduct, and not by what we think without uttering or acting on it. This goes all the more so considering how many attitudes and values are naturally imparted to, if not imposed on us as part of socialization, which influence and shape us, with or without our knowledge or agreement: upbringing, immediate environment and relationships, peer group, culture, religion, media we consume, language, just to name a few factors. Our initial, reflexive reactions (partly) reflect our influences, and are largely beyond our control; in contrast, I believe that it is our reaction to that reflex and our choices that show who we are or aim to be. In the same vein, as a natural occurence in communication, we may think something, but express something else as we adjust our message to the respective recipient.

Thinking, as a crucial precondition to the forming of identity and of opinion, therefore is not, cannot and must not be forbidden, and should not be condemned, neither legally nor morally.

The Top Secret’s pilot presents the mind as the last bastion of freedom, the domain of our thoughts both inaccessible and exempt from judgement. As no one can peer into our brain, we ultimately retain our integrity through what we do or do not do in the realm of the perceivable. The story then asks, among other things, from the perspective of the individual person: Is that freedom still guaranteed, and are we still exempt from judgement if our thoughts were no longer inaccessible — if even just the slightest chance that someone could lay their hands on them existed in this world? In other words: Does freedom of thought necessitate inaccessibility of the mind? If the answer to that last question is yes, in a world where our innermost is accessible, “bastion” obtains a new meaning: No longer an impenetrable and absolute shelter for our thoughts and feelings, the mind instead turns into the one thing that must be protected at all costs.

It is easy to see why The Top Secret, over two decades after its conception, is still relevant, if not even more so than before. In an age of rapid advancement of technology (information technology in particular), neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and the digitalization of them all along with many domains of our life, freedom of thought, a right previously taken for granted, is under a growing threat — one closely linked to the threat to the right to privacy, as will be discussed in a moment.

In The Top Secret, the MRI scanner is not the sole piece of technology with an impact on freedom of thought and privacy. No, the threat that emanates from it is a result of its combination with the immense presence of the media in everyday life and the public consciousness. Kevin’s mother represents the average person as she watches the news on what seems to be a daily basis, forming her opinion on people and events alike. The television shapes her image and thus her opinion of the president, without her knowing him directly. And, as shown in the investigation leaks, information travels fast.

Though the pilot is set in the year 2055, its choice of media — television and printed newspapers — reflects the year of its conception, 1999. In the year 1999, the world wide web was still just taking off, not everyone had access to a personal computer or a comparable mobile device just yet, and the introduction and spread of smartphones from the year 2007 onward were still — considering how much technological progress took place within that particular period — ages away. In effect, this meant that a sizeable part of the population was not online yet. Even so, the pilot shows just how fast information was already capable of spreading.

Now, what does this mean for us, over two decades later? In 2022, the speed of communication and thus the speed at which information travels and the amount of persons it reaches are unprecedentedly vast. Our access to data is similarly vast, and ever-growing as more and more information is digitalized, which in turn means that the amount of persons, including corporates and government, who have access to that data has also grown. At the same time, our privacy as well as our very concept of privacy are eroding rapidly, and borders of privacy are trespassed in domains, ways, and to an extent that the average person is often not even aware of. In fact, it is not uncommon for the average person to position themselves against the introduction of new technological tools, yet be more or less oblivious to their own digital footprint and the risk to their data privacy in everyday life.

Data is collected, archived, retrieved and distributed at a pace and to an extent we cannot possibly follow. It has become impossible for an individual to track all of their data, let alone to have full control over it (even with well-meaning legal efforts such as the General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union). Worse still is that this digitalization, delocalization and (factual and potential) wide spread of our data essentially mean that its complete deletion can prove to be an immensely difficult, if not impossible task.

As individuals, users can hardly be reproached for their ignorance. In the omnipresent digital sphere of our life, our data and thus parts of our privacy are routinely and readily exchanged to gain access to goods and services, sometimes without our express consent, or even without our knowledge. As a result, privacy is often not an option anymore, especially for persons with less digital competence, who can neither alter their settings, nor take countermeasures nor switch to alternatives in order to better protect their data. Similarly, abstaining from the usage of technology, especially the internet, is hardly possible. Firstly, educational or professional demands may leave no other choice, be it because there is no non-digital alternative, be it because it would not be possible to keep up with the pace set by digitalization and globalization otherwise. Secondly, refusing participation in the digital sphere often means social exclusion to various extents, depending on age and social circumstances first and foremost.

What’s more, society as a whole is still in a continuous struggle to catch up to the rapid progress of the technological potential, not just in terms of knowledge and infrastructure (in education and business, for example), but particularly on a fundamental level, namely by critically reflecting on how all this technology and our current use of it is affecting us, what measures to take to not mindlessly succumb to it, what we need to prepare all who come after us for, and what position we take as a society as we move forward.

Having rudimentarily established in what ways our (data) privacy is threatened nowadays, we can now pursue the next question: How does this affect freedom of thought?

The availability of personal data in conjunction with new and better means to gather, analyze and link data (some keywords: big data, algorithms, neural networks, big tech) leads to application of that data in various fields such as (scientific) research, education, government, healthcare, fintech, and marketing, with goals such as optimization, automation, prediction and prevention. In the following, one practice in particular can be singled out to be discussed in relation to freedom of thought: microtargeting.

By making use of data pulled from a variety of sources (depending on the area of application), notably data gained from digital footprints, a custom profile of the user can be generated and assigned to a specific segment of the audience, user or customer base. As a result, a “personalized” — targeted — experience can be offered based on a person’s preferences, activity and personality. Examples of a personalized experience are tailored advertisements (goods and services, for example); recommendations for the next video, song or article; the selection of posts that show up on a social network feed, or of search results to be (first) displayed in a search engine — all by way of algorithms. Microtargeting is primarily associated with marketing, but a particularly delicate and dangerous application of it occurs in the field of politics, where voters can be targeted with messages intended to sway them based on their profile.

As has been said far above, the world around us influences and shapes us, far more than we might be aware of. When algorithmic systems use big data and knowledge of cognitive psychology to make a preemptive choice for us (e.g. what we see or hear next), suggest our next associations, and anticipate our desires and actions based on its image — that is its custom profile of us, not just in a single instance, but repeatedly over a long timespan —, what exactly does that mean for us? Freedom of thought prohibits the manipulation of our thoughts. What, however, constitutes as manipulation in the digital age, and where does manipulation begin? Law is still working on answers to these questions, mostly by regulating transparency and data protection, and by pushing for more control on the side of the user, but by nature, law is slow. As for the average person, considering the field where most of their everyday struggle with the digital takes place, society still seems a long way away from collective reflection on this front.

On the topic of big data and microtargeting, the data in question is pulled from many sources: surveillance records; tracking software or hardware such as wearable technologies (e.g. smart watches, especially used as lifestyle trackers); credit card logs; customer cards and purchase histories; social networks; smart home functions; any kind of database. Smartphones and websites, for example, can track your clicks and your time spent on an application or a page, and can read what device and software you use. Some of this data is directly provided by the user, even voluntarily. (Then again, is it still voluntary when you are required to sign up or subscribe in order to gain access? Or when you use a streaming website that automatically tracks what you have consumed to suggest new titles?) A non-negligible amount is obtained from third parties, for example data brokers, and exchanged among platforms.

The usage of big data comes with the risk of reidentification, such as by comparing anonymous data with non-anonymous data from other sources. This risk naturally increases with the amount of data available. Along with the aforementioned fact that data on the internet in itself is difficult to keep track of, control and get removed, this means that the bubble of anonymity we are able to maintain is far smaller than before, and continues to rapidly decrease in size.

This begs the question: How does the (unregulated) collecting, storing, exchanging and linking of big data relate to the aspect of freedom of thought that gives us the right to not reveal our thoughts? As with the previous question, it is up to law to regulate the specifics, and to determine at which point this boundary is crossed — just as it is up to us to think about these questions as individuals and as a society. Laws are, after all, created by a society of a particular time and space, and as such reflect its values in that particular time and space. If the system is supposed to grow along with developments of technology, we have to keep (re)evaluating our relation to it.

This finally leads us back to our initial question: Does freedom of thought necessitate inaccessibility of the mind? Though the technology behind the MRI scanner does not (yet) exist in our world, the question that The Top Secret asks is not abstract in the slightest. When private aspects of our life that we never intend to communicate exist as data and can be proved and traced back to us, we are faced with a choice much like how Kevin is in the story.

Would you access an embarrassing or potentially incriminating website knowing that your internet service provider or Wi-Fi network admin, such as your employer, can access your browsing history? Would you still conduct any kind of online search knowing that search engines can track your search terms and further metadata? Would you access a website by clicking on a search engine result knowing that the website can see what page or search term you have come from, and can, in addition, track your behaviour and extract some of your device information? (Do you read all the different privacy policies, and do you know the content of data protection laws with regard to different spheres of your life?) Would you click on a product or service if it can later be displayed to you on unrelated sites as part of microtargeting?

And, beyond the sphere of information, of “thinking”: Would you still buy something that you do not want to be associated with you if a record of it is created and forever saved in your customer account or on your credit card? (What if cash is abolished? What if online shop accounts are required to be linked to your ID?) Would you still utter your information and secrets in online communication if the respective site or app can hand that data over to government under certain circumstances? As mentioned before, there is often, on multiple levels, not much of a choice anymore these days. The question of “do or do not” then turns into one of what precaution to take and where to draw the line.

I don’t strive to live a life as immaculate and irreproachable as Reed’s. To be a person is to be bound to be disagreeable to someone somehow, to rub them the wrong way, whether you feel shame about it or hold your head high. Still, there are parts of me that I am only comfortable to expose under the condition of a sufficient degree of control, and others that I may not want to communicate to anyone ever. They do not have to be embarrassing or incriminating; they may be something as elementary as the path I took, and the things I have looked at, processes almost as natural as breathing and moving your head in reaction to sound. I do not want the trajectory of my gaze or the path of my thoughts to be perceivable indiscriminately, under conditions and by persons I did not choose. Though I take precautions to guard my data, there are things I will not buy, not log, not access, not show, not communicate online, because I do not want them to be made vulnerable by being turned into data. In that regard, I would affirm that the existence and widespread usage of intrusive technology today does in fact have an impact on whether or not we “think” freely — if thinking is, in a wider sense, defined as the (previously or assumedly) unperceivable perception by our senses.

As with the MRI scanner, technology is not inherently good or bad, but a result of how we choose to apply and use it. An individual is subjected to forces beyond their control, but there are measures we can take on an individual level. We can inform ourselves to rise above our digital ignorance, to learn how to live mindfully in this age, and choose how to define our own relationship to technology, as individuals and as a society.