The Rise of the “Actroid”

“Hello. I am Gregor Samsa.”

Gregor Samsa wakes from his sleep and finds out he is no longer physically human. His family struggles with his new identity as a non-”human”. If you think you know the work, hold that thought: the year is 2040, and the world is at war again. Instead of a bug, Gregor is now a robot that is unable to get out of bed and is tethered to a power source. So, how does the Samsa family cope with this realisation?

This is “The Metamorphosis, Android Version”.

Gregor striking a dialogue with his father, while Greta listens intently.

The Seinendan Theatre Company and Osaka University’s Robot Theatre Project took “The Metamorphosis”, the famed 1915 novella by Franz Kafka and essentially put a futuristic touch. It is adapted and directed by Oriza Hirata, an influential figure in contemporary Japanese theatre. Playing Gregor is Repliee S1, an “Actroid”, a humanoid robot with a lifelike appearance. Look closely, and you can see him (or it?) emote according to the scene with smiles and frowns, arms moving in sync. Designed by roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, “Gregor” insists that he is the same Gregor Samsa pre-transformation, but that might not be the case.

The Samsa family unit consists of the father (Jérôme Kircher), mother (Irène Jacob), Gregor and his sister Greta (Laetitia Spigarelli). Later, a potential tenant comes into the picture, played by Thierry Vu Huu. Things were already bad before Gregor’s transformation (with a war going on), and now the family has to deal with the unexpected fact that one of them has turned into an android.

As you watch the show, you will notice that Gregor, though the one physically affected by the change, is not its focus, nor its main character. His circumstance is a framing device, and him a sounding board for the other characters.

Mom offers a comforting word to Gregor.

The conversations that Gregor has with everyone else touches on various issues. Mom teaches refugees, so she naturally brings up the fact that it’s harder for them to get jobs, with so many of them coming. Dad is about to go on strike, but is disappointed in the lack of unity between unions. Greta is losing her job to an American franchise, a not-so-subtle jab at American consumerism impacting local businesses. The father does not like the doctor once he finds out that he is a descendant of immigrants – broaching on the sensitive on what makes a “native”. In the midst of this, Gregor is noticing his own personality changing, with him slowly losing empathy and becoming increasingly blunt and apathetic.

The elder Samsa, frustrated.
The Samsas discussing Gregor’s (and their own) predicament(s).

My favourite scene of the whole play is when the doctor and the family attempt to answer the question: in the age of robotics, what makes a human (I’m a nerd, what can I say)? Most vital organs can be easily replaced with artificial parts, so does it make these people less “human”? If we judge by physical wholeness, are those with physical disabilities considered as less “human”? One could easily say it’s consciousness that is key, but what about artificial intelligence? At the end of the scene, there’s no definite answer, leaving it ambiguous.

The doctor attempts to explain the difference between a “robot” and an “android”.

“The Metamorphosis: Android Version” ends with Gregor basking in the moonlight from his bedside window, with no clue as to what will happen next. That itself is already way better than how the source material ended (spoiler: he dies), so I’ve got no gripes with that. Judging from how the audience responded on the night I went, they were pretty OK with the open-ended ending as well.

A common obstacle in making an artificial humanoid (whether mechanical or CGI) is the uncanny valley – the closer it looks to a human, the “creepier” it is, due to many factors like the lack of smooth natural movement or other minute behaviours not being replicated. Repliee S1 overcomes this by being unabashedly mechanical. Its bare skeleton exposed, you can see the hydraulics, pistons and hinges that being it (or him?) to life. Giving it facial expressions while in this state enhances the audience’s empathy towards Gregor, which can’t be said if he was sheathed in skin.

The parents insisting this is the same Gregor Samsa they raised.

I should know. I was immersed to the point I forgot that the character lying in bed was just a machine. I genuinely thought that “Gregor” was real – a man trapped in cold, unfeeling metal.

I am curious though: with the rise of these “actroids”, how long do I need to wait to see a play where all the characters are played by automatons? I would pay good money to watch it! ◆

Photography Credit: Erin Lim

The George Town Festival is sponsored by the Penang State Government and supported by Tourism Malaysia.