Cyberpunk anime – the past, the present, the future (?) Part 1.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good cyberpunk anime. The last good cyberpunk anime that I saw was Bubblegum Crisis OAV. Personally, I think that neither Ghost in the Shell TV series seson 1 nor 2 serves as a perfect example of cyberpunk anime; I think of either as a perfect example of postcyberpunk anime. I’ll get to that later. But first I would like to take a look at one of my favorite anime genre, perhaps one that’s not exactly dying and phasing out, but rather morphing into something like a next stage in its growth. Note that I’m talking about Cyberpunk Anime, and not cyberpunk in general.

Because I spent most of my childhood in the ’80s, I have a sense of nostalgia for these 10 golden years of my life. But I didn’t get to see much about cyberpunk anime, or cyberpunk anything until much, much later.

Arguably, my first encounter with cyberpunk anime was Ghost in the Shell the first movie. By using the term “cyberpunk” and not “postcyberpunk”, I’m not retracting my earlier statement about Ghost in the Shell being a better example of postcyberpunk anime and not a great example cyberpunk anime; I’m merely stating the fact that for my first true exposure to anything cyberpunk in anime was by watching Ghost in the Shell the first movie. My second exposure to Cyberpunk anime was Akira. These were the full length films, and finally, my first exposure to Cyberpunk anime was Bubblegum Crisis OAV.

Summing up the classic definition of the cyberpunk genre, to which cyberpunk anime owes its birth, and we can see that 1. it features marginalized, alienated loners who live at the edge of the society. 2. the dystopia society is changing everyday being impacted by the changing of technology. 3. information, net-like technology, mechanical or cyborg elements are readily available in an ubiquitous datasphere. 4. the modification and/or the morphing of human body (taken from Wikipedia. Paraphrased from quotes from Lawrence Person.”) (This isn’t an academical paper so I’m not going to bother do a full-on reference/bibliography list, pardon my indulgence in getting away from the formal academia – but this is an anime blog). Let’s take a look at each of these elements, with some anime as examples.

1. A Cyberpunk (anime) features marginalized, alienated loners who live at the edge of the society. Cyberpunk arisen out of the ’80s where big corporations were being formed and a lot of new discoveries were being made in technology. There were grand talks about AI, machines/robots replacing human labor, and android performing hard tasks for humans. With these supposedly possible technological breakthrough, it looked like humans or at least some humans were going to be displaced as a result, and perhaps falling off their original position and become marginalized. Looking back at the representative cyberpunk anime of the ’80s (from the American and my point of view, at least), we have Bubblegum Crisis OAV, with its 4 protagonists – Priss, Sylia, Linna, and Nene. Priss is definitely one of the marginalized people described in classic cyperpunk. She can’t make enough money and she lives in what looks like a slum that one can find in any modern city of the world. She doesn’t look like she’s got much rights, as she is kicked out of her home because Genom, the Mega Corporation, has bought out the land where her home is. Also, she doesn’t have a regular, steady 9 to 5 job with a steady salary – important in the older Japanese mind (I do note that it’s hard to define “regular” these days), but she performs in clubs as a singer for a rock band, the Replicants (a tribute to the “Replicants” in “Blade Runner“). She’s supposed to be a loner but that is not portrayed very well in the show. Sylia owns a clothing store but her real job is the contact/agent for the Knight Sabers vigilante/mercenary/bounty hunter group. Linna and Nene are also exceptions to the character rule – Linna works as an aerobics instructor and other jobs, and Nene is a police officer – although Nene is rather powerless when it comes to the policies of the AD police department. What these 4 have in common is that they’re all marginal people in a Mega society.

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2. the dystopia society is changing everyday being impacted by the changing of technology. Genom creates satellites that can destroy an entire city; boomers running amok and smashing things; new drugs or Cybernetic parts (as also seen in Ghost in the Shell) that can enhance people’s powers (also for definition no. 4), and so on.

3. information, net-like technology, mechanical or cyborg elements are readily available in an ubiquitous datasphere. Back in the ’80s when computers aren’t everyday household tools like they’re today, they were featured in anime in everyday use – for simple uses most of the time, but also for advanced uses in the greater environment depicted in anime. These concepts were ahead of its time in reality, perhaps not by as much as 50 years, but still ahead of its time. Take note that cyberpunk genre works always take time in a possible near future, on this planet or very close to this planet, and not in a far, distant future, on a far away place, and certainly not inter-galactic/intra-galactic places. Hence a space opera is not a cyberpunk piece.

4. the modification and/or the morphing of human body. We have the armor suits for the Knight Sabers, the cybernetic parts for Motoko Kusanagi and some of her crew from Ghost in the Shell the movie, brain enhancer drugs, data ports on the head, and so on for other anime.

It seem to me that most of the cybepunk anime made in the ’80s and early to mid 90’s were following these conventions. The TV series version of Bubblegum Crisis (which is often seen as a series that stands apart from its OAV predecessor based on its different character designs and other designs) matches these categories, but it showed a beginning of a change, a step into the next phase.

Looking at the characters in the classic cyberpunk anime, we don’t see any of them trying to change the society in which they reside. We don’t see these characters rising in importance in the society necessarily, although the things they do almost always comes in clash and affects the status quo in some way. Some examples are Shotaro Kaneda‘s friend Tetsuo becomes super huge and ends up almost assimilating all organic matter nearby; the Knight Sabers’ repeated involvements with Genom’s schemes and foiling them, thus affecting the de facto government in the Mega Tokyo; Kusanagi’s effect on the information network universe after seeing the “god” of net, and so on. However, nothing really changes on a greater scale, or at least, these characters never get the chance to do so.

In Bubblegum Crisis OAV, it looked like that the a showdown between the Knightsabers and Genom Corp was inevitable, had the series not been canceled. In episode 8, when the niece of the police chief who’s a reporter trying to get the scoop on the Knightsabers, meets Sylia and they discuss the question about whether Genom is evil and should Genom be removed/destroyed, Sylia basically answers that Genom may have done a lot of evil things, but it have also done a lot of good to the society. Based on that answer we can see that at least in the mind of the Sylia, the leader of Knightsabers, what’s happening in the society does not have to be changed. However, with her team members, especially Priss, being increasingly dissatisfied, and Sylia herself having questions about Genom’s involvement with her father’s murder, some kind of confrontation is inevitable. The OAV ended on that episode (note: Waa! That sucked!), and hence it stops short of opening and stepping into the next phase of cyberpunk anime. However, the next phase of cyberpunk anime, which was the postcyberpunk anime (although not officially termed), was waiting in the depth of the cyberworld, waiting to be dived in.

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(To be continued in Part 2.)

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