Dean Talks Anime
Opposite Ends of Cyberpunk and Anime
(AKA: You Snooze, You Lose)
A review/opinion by Christopher Kinsey
Blade Runner. Those two words strung together will invoke a sense of nostalgic interest in many things. Neon, flying cars, gritty rain, ethics, the purpose of self, Tannhauser Gate, all wrapped in a detective story that would make Phillip Marlowe feel at home. And yet it’s possibly the one film anyone can point to and say “That is cyberpunk” and not start a debate about it.
Now there has been a glut of “Punks” in nerddom. The largest and most bloated of them at the moment is “Steampunk”, a movement which should be about exploring the interesting alternate histories of Jules Verne-Esque technologies which quickly devolved into how much brass you can put onto a stylized piece of Victorian wear. There are also the lesser punks, your Cthulupunk , Dungeonpunk, Desertpunk, Cattlepunk, Ocean Punk, Post-Cyberpunk and my favorite because it has no punk in it; Raygun Gothic. Yes, we are drowning in a sea of punks and we owe it all to William Gibson, and to an extent Phillip K. Dick.
In the dark future of Neo-York-Tokyo-Kong guns and breasts keep ever vigilant against corruption.
This brings us back to Blade Runner. The neon skyline has etched itself on our collective nerd unconsciousness and I feel there is a really good reason for this. Beyond the polish and imagery of the film and the powerful message of the story inherent, it was a perfect blend of smart concepts and action to keep you thoughtful and entertained. This movie had influence even in Japan. But it seems to me that at the time it’s been hard to get that right blend to make something with an even keel like Blade Runner again. My examples this time are Ghost in the Shell and Bubblegum Crisis.
In May of 1989 came the manga Mobile Armored Riot PoliceAKA The Ghost in the Shell. It was billed at first as an over the top action thriller with cyborgs and questions of humanity. And it functions pretty well in that respect. We’re introduced to the members of Section 9 who are tracking a criminal known as “The Puppeteer”. His methods involve taking over other cyborg’s computers and making them commit crimes, but then leads to a discussion of the self. The problem with Masamune Shirow, our creator, is he has this terrible problem. Anything the man writes seems to have huge gaping holes which he attempts to fix in huge footnotes that just break any amount of immersion the art and story might have given you. As the story went on the philosophical questions put forth and the footnotes just overran the whole comic.
“Shall we stare and talk about the ramifications of what we just did for a little too long?” “Ayup.”
It seemed quite clear by the end of the comic’s run Shirow was completely done with comics to turn to nothing but pin ups. Between OVA runs of his titles that didn’t meet his expectations and not being able to draw/write in his own way, he pretty much wanted to be left alone and do pin up art. But in 1995 the movie version came into being, and it resurrected everything about GITS. And with good reason, credit where credit is due, this is a gorgeous movie. Its director, Mamoru Oshii, is a known perfectionist and it shows. There are several iconic scenes in this film that will floor you with the execution.
But for all its beauty, it’s boring as hell.
Just about all exposition happens in drawn out musings while almost nothing is really happening. Even the film’s climax takes place within two of the character’s minds as the merge to on. It’s not even like they needed to stretch for time, the exposition is very ham handed and plodding it’s like the footnotes from the manga above were just ratcheted into the script. You would swap from the beautiful moment of Kusanagi rising from the depths to an exposition by sunset about the philosophy of remembering how to feel.
It did, of course, get better. The television series focused more on the interesting crimes that could be committed in a world where everyone has a computer in their body that can be overridden, and where is the human spirit when it’s digitized? This was put among a real sense of action and emergency when there were true repercussions to the actions of the hacker, The Laughing Man. It explored not just the realm of the self, but also what these things did to society as a whole. By making the conflicts external and internal beyond the cops and robbers motif, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex broke free from both the manga and the movies making its own identity and fleshed out a world instead of relying on cyberpunk tropes and scenery to cover up the lack of anything really to say.
So GITS started boring, but got better. But there was another anime that started off like a cannonball, Bubblegum Crisis. This is a series that is a love letter to everything 80s in sci-fi anime and Blade Runner itself. In 1987, two years before GITS dropped, a planned series of 13 OVAs was put into production, of which ultimately only 8 were produced. But it’s been such a cult favorite nothing could have killed it.
In this series a series of cyberdroids called “Boomers” are used for military/manual labor. However, you know what happens, once in a while your fancy schmancy new robots have to go crazy and kill people. Tasked with chasing after these robots are the A.D. Police, but they’re woefully understaffed and tangled in red tape thanks to the omnipresent control of the Boomer’s manufacturer’s influence over the government. It’s up to four plucky young women with the “Hardsuit” technology to take on this menace from the shadows, the “Knight Sabers”.
This entire concept is pretty much the epitome of a pre-teen’s idea of the best cyberpunk story ever. Especially with the nice young man who is nothing more than a self-insert backup that drives the secret truck with the secret Knight Saber hardware. It is possibly the most 80s anime ever, between the glamor-punkette music of Priss, the retro 80s fashion, inexplicable fan service and a propensity for one of the male leads to wear his sunglasses at night, watching this anime is like watching a mix tape super impose of about any 80s science fiction anime ever. There is nothing about this anime that delves into anything more than a “Fight the power” mentality, and even that is quickly brushed aside for sexy women in powered armor fighting monstrous cyberdroids that have turned from their masters.
Fun is a word I’d describe it. Just plain fun and it’s great to pick apart. Especially the Blade Runner mentality and ham fisted nods to said work. For instance, one of the Knight Sabers is the lead singer of a band named “Priss and the Replicants”. Nothing more needs to be said, really. In the background you can pick out so many designs from the movie its fun just to try and count them. Sadly it wasn’t meant to last. I mentioned only 8 of the planned 13 episodes were produced, mostly to some legal troubles of rights to the characters and what have you. But the fandom remained strong. There were a few spin off OVAs about the AD Police and origins of the boomer crisis. So while things were hectic, the popularity of the brand bolstered at least another attempt at the concept.
That attempt came ten years later. At this point it kept everything from before plot wise, but the influence of anime that needed it’s sci-fi to be more in line with providing a warning message of “What has science/mankind done?!” meant some of the fun wore away. Oh, it was a sleeker looking show, to be sure. Also the english VAs had a lot more time to hone their craft which led to a polished show when it came over. But there was something to the really old VA stuff from the early days of OVA importing. Very worthy of riffing on at times, and you can’t escape those moments when Jill down at reception had to come u and voice a third tier character.
But that’s me rambling again. Obviously a dedicated voice acting staff with some talent makes for a more watchable story in the long run. So ten years out and BGC was back, all polished up and set to be the next Ghost in the Shell. Ultimately it wasn’t. It drew a decent audience for 24 episodes and spun off to another short TV run for the AD Police, but they were turned into tortured pretty-boys who looked good in spandex on futuristic motorcycles.
So still, we search and strive. GITS learned to incorporate and adapt to be more appealing to a casual viewer, and BGC had to adapt to a smarter audience and just went too far from its roots in simple entertainments like explosions and titillation. It’s tough to get that right mix to get the feeling of the cyberpunk of old. Is it a genre that we’ve just outgrown? When we started seeing the effects of the true internet and its power, did we decide that the aesthetics be damned and just get me more cat pictures? I’d like to see someone else take a serious crack at it (And not just the old “You die in the game you die for real” crap), because I think the more real the underlying realities of “cyberspace” becomes, the more we need these kinds of stories to remind us what humanity is.
Well, as long as it isn’t Serial Experiments Lain. The world needs fewer coma patients.
Dean The Adequate’s deck is a sweet modified IntellaD.U. he got from a black market in Thai-town. He runs with a street jammer only known as “Baka” who runs a combat arts program that instantly muscle trains his cyber skeleton to mimic and diversify 430 different combat forms of martial arts. Together they solve crimes in this metroplex of greed and human suffering in the far flung future of 2025. If you’ve got the NuYen, they’ve got the answer.