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Cyberpunk Reviews: Ongoing Thread

Recently, Johnny requested a volunteer willing to review cyberpunk anime and manga. I happen to have a library of the stuff, so I was happy to volunteer. I'll be looking to periodically post new reviews for you folks, with the goal being to offer you source material to get that Sindome feel from. If you aren't familiar with the idea of cyberpunk, these works will give you a good idea.

Johnny specified that he was looking for me to review anime/manga which either had existing English dubs or translations. If enough folks want me to translate Japanese stuff, maybe I can do that in a separate thread. Without further ado ...

GHOST IN THE SHELL

If you're into anime and you like cyberpunk, you more than likely know Ghost in the Shell. It's a giant in the genre, truly quality work. For those of you who are newcomers, this series offers a fantastic window into what many elements of Sindome would be like if given visual form.

Those of you who know GitS probably have an obvious question: which one are you reviewing? Indeed, the series was so successful as to produce two seasons of TV episodes plus numerous movies. I'll try to examine a little about each. What we can start with is the idea that the series follows Public Security Section 9, a special operations unit similar to Judges but more secretive in nature. They primarily pursue cyberterrorists, but as you'll see, they get into trouble with plenty of other sorts.

_GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)_

GitS originally started out in 1989 as a manga produced by the vast imagination of Masamune Shirow, who was previously better known for his erotic works (an oddly large leap). The very first movie made its debut in 1995 and was considered to be a critical success, so much that it even made its way to American theaters in a time when most Americans had never heard of animation for adults.

The year is 2029, and although mankind has greatly advanced in some ways, it remains familiar and cyberpunk to us in its dark alleys and slums overshadowed by towering skyscrapers. Even the futuristic technology has that cyberpunk feel, thanks in large part to the attention paid to the small details. When we see a machine with an arm tightening its grasp, we see its individual components turning and working in order to drive that motion. This isn't Star Trek technology, but chunky, practical stuff.

Do you like Sindome's cyberware? If so, you're gonna love Ghost in the Shell. By the year of the movie, most people have a cybernetic brain at the very least, partially replacing their actual brains and permitting them to interface with a worldwide network similar to the Matrix. People can communicate mentally as with a SIC chip. One character, a sniper, has a telescopic eye to assist with his arm. Most importantly, we have our main character.

Major Motoko Kusanagi (often referred to just as the Major) is said to be a full prosthetic, which means that she has had all but her brain and a few other bits replaced by cybernetics. This is a central element in the film, as it raises the philosophical question - even for Kusanagi herself - of whether she is still truly a human being. This continues throughout the broader series, but in this particular film, we're treated to a detailed view of the process involved in creating Major Kusanagi's body. It's really fascinating, supremely detailed stuff, yet none of it looks like it would be wildly beyond our own possible future.

The Major is a strong female character in a time when they were rather uncommon in anime, and she essentially commands the members of Section 9 under the cunning and wise Chief Aramaki. On the surface, the movie details Section 9's pursuit of a mysterious figure in cyberspace known as the Puppetmaster. To say more about them would be spoiling too much of the plot, but suffice to say, their existence turns out to be just as cyberpunk everything else.

Ghost in the Shell is rife with imagery and references questioning whether, to borrow a line from the Matrix, we are plugged into the machines or they are plugged into us. How far can you take it before you're no longer a human being? Are the superhuman abilities worth the loss of self? Do we still have a soul if we replace the rest of our body with the synthetic? In a world where AI exists, could they have souls? The 'ghost' in Ghost in the Shell is a reference to a sentience, to a soul.

One of the great visuals in the movie is when Major Kusanagi is trying to take on a massive, AI-driven tank by herself. She back flips her way up a staircase and lands laying down just as the tank begins firing bullets at her, instead striking a carving on a wall depicting a tree of species. The bullets streak all the way up the tree, only for the tank to cease firing just short of striking humanity. It's but one example of the symbolism telling us that humanity has not yet been surpassed, and that even with technology, it can life on - perhaps even with the soul the Major wonders whether she still has.

One should not expect much comedy in this movie, because it takes itself very seriously. The dialogue is as detailed as the world, and the characters often have melancholy or serious attitudes about them. One gets the sense that people are either downtrodden and on the littered bottom, or wealthy and scheming high above. Just as in Sindome, the financial divide and the impact it has on different people stares us in the face and influences the society of 2029.

This is a truly superb movie with an excellent eye for detail. It also shows us some of the earliest uses of CGI in anime, without it ever coming off as intrusively obvious. This is a film from which the Wachowski brothers drew inspiration when they created The Matrix, among many other inspired parties. If any anime were to be reviewed as recommended viewing by me as the first entry in this series, it'd be this one.

_GHOST IN THE SHELL - STAND ALONE COMPLEX_

For the sake of brevity, I'm going to condense this into examining Stand Alone Complex and its second season, aptly named 2nd Gig. The TV series continues to follow the cases of Major Kusanagi and Section 9 in protecting Japan from terrorism. In the first series, Section 9 is once again in pursuit of a super-hacker named the Laughing Man, whose relationship with them ends up being far more interactive than one would expect for a wanted criminal.

Stand Alone Complex continues to examine those deep philosophical ideals mentioned above, but in a slightly less serious way than the original film did. Major Kusanagi is more sexualized, but she otherwise remains the same kickass cyborg commander - albeit while conducting herself more comfortably in her "own" body. Jokes are cracked, and less serious characters like the think-tank Tachikoma are regularly featured. In this sense, one could think of Stand Alone Complex as being divergent from the original film and closer to the manga.

Throughout the series, we are treated to a much broader depiction of the virtual world, as well as the varied technologies of the cyberpunk future. However, people still ride in cars or fly in helicopters. They still eat, they still struggle to make a living, and they still have those deep questions about life and death. Figures within the government continue to conspire, while the Laughing Man acts from behind the scenes to mysterious ends. Major Kusanagi is fascinated by him, and her pursuit is dogged.

If Stand Alone Complex tells us a story of intrigue, then 2nd Gig takes that up to eleven. The Individual Eleven, to be exact! Refugees have taken residence in Japan as an extended result of the two world wars which took place prior to the TV series, and a shady group of cyberterrorists known as the Individual Eleven are working to stir up a hostage crisis among these generally "invited" but unwanted refugees. The story involves a great deal of governmental conspiracy stirred into the action and depiction of the fading past/approaching future world, and we're welcomed to explore even more of that delightful material in 2nd Gig. In one episode, the Major even visits a 'chat room' made up of peoples' avatars seated around a table, where they engage in debate.

2nd Gig goes into greater detail about who Major Kusanagi really is, how she became a full prosthetic cyborg, and her personal beliefs and fears. We meet figures from her past and explore her attempts at life in the present, up to and including the romantic. We're also treated to a central villain (though we don't realize it at first) whose motives give us something very deep and murky to think about. That said, you action and cyberpunk tech fans will not want for material. Bullets fly in almost every episode, and we even see mobile suits similar to Ingrams in Sindome.

Last but certainly not least, the music in Stand Alone Complex and 2nd Gig is extraordinary, much like the quality of its English dub. The composer, Yoko Kanno, is famed in anime for her works. Here, she uses her diverse preferences in musical styles to really bring the TV series to life. Even when she's producing soft rock or a jazz piece, it just fits. I would even go so far as to encourage you to look up songs from the original soundtracks on YouTube, as they in themselves will give you an idea of the feel cyberpunk should have.

1) Awesome writeup Kuroyama! I am very much looking forward to what else you dive into. Maybe Blame! or Biomega mangas? Not classic cyberpunk thematically, but visually perhaps.

2) If you really want to deep dive, an area I have no experience with but am curious about, is Japanese cyberpunk cinema. I recently came across this article - http://www.midnighteye.com/features/post-human-nightmares-the-world-of-japanese-cyberpunk-cinema/

"What came to be known as cyberpunk by the mid 1980s was thematically characterised by its exploration of the impact of high-technology on low-lives - people living in squalor; stacked on top of one another within an oppressive metropolis dominated by advanced technologies.

Live-action, Japanese cyberpunk on the other hand, is raw and primal by nature, and characterised by attitude rather than high-concept. A collision between flesh and metal, the sub-genre is an explosion of sex, violence, concrete and machinery; a small collection of pocket-sized universes that revel in post-human nightmares and teratological fetishes, powered by a boundaryless sense of invasiveness and violation. Imagery is abject, perverse and unpredictable and, like Cronenberg's work, bodily mutation through technological intervention is a major theme, as are dehumanisation, repression and sexuality. During the late eighties and early nineties, it was a sub-strain characterised largely by the early work of two directors; Shinya Tsukamoto and Shozin Fukui."

It's Sybele, back with another cyberpunk anime review! This one was another Johnny request, and one I'm sure most any anime fan (cyberpunk or not!) will recognize ...

COWBOY BEBOP

If you like anime, you know it, and you're a little nuts if you don't love it. If you've never seen it before, get set for a wild ride with a great central story weaved throughout the otherwise different-plot-each-episode style.

Compared to Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop isn't so down to Earth, literally. In fact, Earth's suffered a worldwide catastrophe and most of humanity has migrated to other reaches of the solar system. Some might label it as being a little on the sci-fi side for that reason, rather than cyberpunk, but I disagree. Much like in GitS, the machinery has that chunky design that looks very much more function than form, and just about every planet our protagonists visit (with a few exceptions) could pass for a slice of Red Sector.

To understand Cowboy Bebop, you've really got to understand the unique angle it's coming from. The series was made at a time when blues and jazz just happened to be popular in Japan, and it's from those musical roots that the series draws much of its character. Every episode's name is the name of an actual song. The original songs composed throughout (once again, by the great Yoko Kanno) are typically of the blues and jazz variety. In that vein, the world oozes the kind of soulful melancholy you would expect of the genre. We're talking downbeat, smoky lounge jazz.

For all of the coolness presented in Bebop's vision of the near future, the central cast of characters is really the driving force behind the series' success. They click together like it was meant to be, even when the story drives them apart in a kind of push and pull. The characters are all bounty hunters who pursue marks throughout the solar system, but each of them has a sad story behind the facade that is their present lives.

Let's briefly examine said crew. Our protagonist is Spike, cool and skillfully brash figure of the lot, as skilled with a gun as he is with the martial arts. Jet is the actual captain of the ship, the calm head who tries to hold things together through his serious demeanor while actually concerning himself with their financial situation (and who always, somehow, manages to scrape together a meal out of something). Ed is our young computer hacker extraordinaire, probably more than a little unbalanced but nevertheless a genius, whose gender I intentionally obscure as one of the show's big secrets. There's Ein, the "data dog" who was created to be a little more than he appears, and is Ed's frequent companion. Last but most certainly not least is Faye Valentine, the conning, gambling, gun-toting femme fatale who uses a bullet or a fist as often as her feminine charms to get what she wants - which is usually money.

The story brings this motley crew together in odd, sometimes amusing, sometimes sad ways. Their time together is adventurous and full of character throughout, with more than a little dramatic interplay. When they're not chasing bounties, they're just as often chasing each other. Faye has a habit of stealing the ship's money and/or food and leaving in her own little craft, no notice given. The Bebop (our ship's name, too!) most always goes after her, only for the crew to take her back in the end. They come off as bad people, but just as in Sindome, we see that "bad" people can have many facets.

Cowboy Bebop generally doesn't take itself too seriously until it comes down to main story episodes or character episodes, at which time things tend to get very serious. New characters we're introduced to along the way die, we gradually piece together the truth behind each of the crew members' pasts, and the realization of just what makes them tick ultimately brings us to the conclusion of their stories - separate and together.

As I said, though, things don't often get too heavy. There's a lot of humor in Cowboy Bebop to counter all of that melancholy feel just goes so well with jazz, that favorite musical genre of mine. To give you an idea, one of the craziest episodes has the entire crew totally tripping after eating mushrooms they did not know were hallucinogenic, leaving Ed and Ein to go and capture the bounty in competition with bombastic characters straight out of the classic blaxsplotation genre of films. Yes, you have a kid and a dog competing against pro bounty hunters while we watch the rest of the crew tripping balls in their own unique ways.

It's tough for me to get into the main story without spoiling anything, because it's revealed to you in just tidbits at a time. Suffice to say, the better part of it goes to Spike, our main protagonist. However, there's a lot devoted to Faye, who has a lot of issues and an unclear memory concerning her past for reasons later explained. Jet has perhaps the most downbeat history of all, as befits our most blues-y character. Ed, well, is Ed. Crazy. You'd never guess Ed's background and conclusion until it comes right at you. As for Ein, he may be the only "person" on the Bebop who hasn't had a tragic past. Aside from being a data dog worth millions.

So, enough about the coolness of the setting, the music, the characters. You want to know about the tech? There's a whole lot of it to be seen. Yes, we've got cyberware. Jet has a cybernetic arm, and Spike - at the risk of spoiling just a little - has a cybernetic eye (which is actually very important to his story). We've got spaceships, but they're not Star Trek or even Star Wars spaceships. These are either big, slow, functional behemoths or sleek but small fighters. We do see lasers fired once, but otherwise, there are no phasers and photon torpedoes here. Those ships are pouring out bullets and rockets, just like the characters do on the ground!

What about the settings? Well, we see that humanity has developed the technology to create habitable colonies on most worlds or their moons (Jupiter Jazz being one of my favorite episodes, by the by). On Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter, we find Faye making her way through a downtrodden and rough city populated almost entirely by men - and we meet one awesome side character along the way. There's a space station devoted to gambling - sound familiar? - and even a stop off for space truckers who're featured in one episode. We do occasionally get glimpses of very upscale places, including a really cool opera, but the rest is as I said above - little slices of Red, each with their own character.

This anime is by no means new, but the animation remains great to this day and the English dub is superb even by modern standards, featuring some of the greats in the field like Steve Blum and Wendee Lee (who I had the pleasure of speaking to back when I was doing voiceovers - really cool lady, the only person who could pull off Faye). You've probably heard them in lots of other anime, and you'll recognize them for it, but it's in Bebop that they get to really pull off a diverse and ultimately mature performance to the full extent of their skill.

Most definitely not least is the soundtrack. You'd expect a series which bases its theme around music to have a great OST, and it blows that qualification out of the water. Yoko Kanno gives us everything from amusing tracks, to exciting, to upbeat, to the truly downbeat ballads you'd expect of the blues and jazz genre. There's a great deal of English in the musical lyrics, too, pronounced quite well by Mai Yamane and Steve Conte, as well as Gabriela Robin (a pseudonym for Kanno, herself). The music tells the story just as much as the words spoken, and it's something worth enjoying all by itself.

This is really the stuff that classic anime is made of, set in a cool, lounge jazz space setting. Yeah, it's a little on the sci-fi side, but it's not so far-fetched as it could be and retains a lot of that cyberpunk feel. However, it's mostly a story about how four very lonely people find themselves stuck together, and how they learn about and resolve each others' past pain and suffering in varied ways and to varied degrees of success. The ending isn't as clear cut as we might like it to be, but I think it concludes on just the right note.

For those of you who enjoy the series and want more, there's also a Cowboy Bebop movie entitled _Knockin' On Heaven's Door_. Once again, a musical reference for a movie that stays faithful to that love of the blues. As you'd imagine, a movie budget offers a far more detailed world for us to see, though it doesn't pull away from its roots and make things look too advanced. Everything's faithful to the source material. The only thing you might find strange is that, rather than a continuation of the TV series, the film is really just one long standalone episode which actually takes place toward the end of the TV series' continuity. It's great stuff, with great music and some really awesome animation techniques straight from the intro onward.

Will this series continue to be written? I had not heard of Ghost in the Shell, but I will definitely be looking for it.

If books might be included, how about Steve Barnes with Streetlethal? I was was one of the first exposures I had to cyberpunk other than the Shadowrun game.