009 re: Cyborg

They were born 50 years ago. They were never forgotten. Now the world needs saving, they're back in action.

Rating: 4

Fifty years ago, in 1963, ISHINOMORI Shōtarō (石ノ森 章太郎, 1938-1998) started writing what would become the most successful work of his hugely prolific career: Cyborg 009. It was the first "super-powered hero team" in Japan (for a historical comparison, DC launcher the JLA in 1960, and Marvel launched the Avengers in 1963), and was so popular and lover that, although Ishinomori tried ending the series several times, fans kept demanding more, and he continued writing it until 1981.

The adventures of the nine cyborgs have been adapted for the big screen four times, in '66 ("Cyborg 009"), '68 ("Cyborg 009 怪獣戦争 / The Monster War"), '80 ("Cyborg 009 超銀河伝説 / Legend of the Ultra Vortex"), and last year in this latest instalment. There were also three TV series, in '68 (in black and white!), '79, and more recently in 2001 ("Cyborg 009 The Cyborg Soldier"). Almost everybody in Japan knows their names and their special abilities, just as everyone knows that they fight in the name of peace and justice against anyone who would wage war and destruction.

Cyborg 001 is the Russian Ivan Whisky, with the body of an infant; he's super-intelligent, and has various ESP abilities, like telepathy, telekinesis, and the power to teleport himself and others. 002 is the American Jet Link, who can fly up to Mach 5 on his jet-powered legs. 003 is the French Françoise Arnoul, the only woman in the team, with enhanced vision and hearing. 004 is the German Albert Heinrich, with a machine gun hand and missiles in his legs. 005 is the Native American Geronimo Jr, his body is armored and extremely strong. 006 is the Chinese Chang Changku, who can breathe fire. 007 is the British Great Britain (yes, that's actually his name!), a shape-shifter. 008 is Pyunma, from somewhere in central Africa, who can breathe underwater. And finally, the main character, 009, the Japanese (did you have any doubt about that?) Joe Shimamura, whose body contains most of the modifications trialed in the other cyborgs: he's nearly invulnerable, he has an "accelerator" that allows him to move and react hundreds of times faster than a normal person, he can survive without air for long periods, etc etc. Together with Isaac Gilmore, one of the scientists who built them, they rebelled against the Black Ghosts, weapon merchants who are working to start a new world war, and who funded and directed the cyborg program to produce weaponised soldiers.

Although most of the stories are action based, and many of the enemies they fight are clearly evil, there is space for plenty of political arguments and ethical ambiguity, and more often than not the characters expound on philosophical themes like the nature of good and evil, and what could be the defining characteristic of humanity.

There are two incomplete story arcs in the manga, the "Angels" arc and the "Battle of the Gods" arc. They are two versions of the same story, in which the Gods come back to Earth to eliminate humans and start again from scratch. They're filled with slow, abstract sequences, philosophical discussions, and introspective monologues. They have relatively few action scenes, and both lack any kind of resolution: Ishinomori never wrote and ending for either.

The "009 re: Cyborg" movie is director KAMIYAMA Kenji's (神山 健治) effort to give closure to those stories. A new 3D cell-shaded CGI technique has been employed, producing very realistic backgrounds and giving the characters very fluid movements. The character design has been updated to modern sensibilities, getting rid of the racial stereotypes that afflicted earlier depictions of Chang and Pyunma, and making all of them at the same time "typically anime", realistic, and completely recognisable. If I gave the impression that I disliked any kind of CGI in anime, it's only because most of it is rather poor. This film sets a new, high bar for what's possible with the right tools, people, and funding. During the Q&A after the European premiere on April 4th at the BFI, Kamiyama said that making this movie cost, in money and effort, about four times would it have cost had they used more traditional techniques, so we won't see anything this good from lower-budget production for quite a while.

Kamiyama has quite a curriculum: started out as background artist on Akira and Kiki, worked alongside OSHII Mamoru (押井 守) on "Blood: the last vampire" and "Jin Roh", then directed "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex" (both series and the movies) and "Eden of the East" (series and movies). For "re: Cyborg", to fit everything in less that two hours, and well aware that most people know all the characters already, Kamiyama opted to skip most introductions, and concentrate on Jet and Joe, who often argued against each other in the original manga. The director also said that using the American and Japanese characters to drive the story has resonances with the actual international relations of the two countries. One aspect that was not discussed in the Q&A, is the way 003/Françoise is written: in the manga she's very rarely on the front lines, preferring to act as support and coordinator. In this story, instead, she often drives the group's decisions, and the only reason she does not save the world on her own is the narrative imperative to have the main character in a final show-off. Sure, she's still portrayed as a very sexual woman, and the 3D very much accentuates her "assets", but she's a far cry from the decorative damsel in distress she could have been.

The movie is full of references to the Cyborg manga (a scene near the end is the same as the closing panels of the second story arc, for example) and to other works, mostly Oshii's (Françoise launching herself into the void just like Major Kusanagi, soldiers kitted up with the same armor seen in Jin Roh, a diaphanous girl leading our heroes like it Avalon). I was a bit perplexed by this abundance of Oshii-isms (at least there's no dog), until I discovered that in 2010 Panasonic sponsored a short (4 minutes) 3D CGI animation directed by Oshii, called "009: The Reopening", which forms the basis of "re: Cyborg". Also, as is evident in GITS:SAC, Kamiyama quotes Oshii very often; here, unlike in "Solid State Society", such choices don't feel forced or repetitive, but work pretty well inside the story.

When asked about the possibility of more 009 productions, Kamiyama said that since his film is as close as we're going to get to a conclusion of the saga, there is now the chance to re-start from the beginning, with new adventures. He was particularly ambiguous on whether such reboot would be directed by him or by others.

The general theatrical release of "re: Cyborg" is expected some time around July, and I strongly encourage everyone to go watch it, and watch it in 3D. There may be some aspects of the story that people won't like, mostly due to the very Japanese syncretistic approach to religion, but it's still a technically impressive and very worthy addition to the long saga of the nine cyborgs.

This review was originally published at: https://www.easternkicks.com/reviews/009-re-cyborg
DatesCreated: 2014-03-19 12:03:25 Last modification: 2023-02-10 12:45:24