I seem to be ashamedly following the crowd these days, albeit a bit late. I’ll usually explore niche genres at my own pace, slaking my thirst for all things obscure, but I still marvel at the seemingly endless array of Japanese animation that’s passed me by, and believe me, I’ve seen TONS of it. I’m now jacking into the matrix of 90s cyberpunk anime. This may seem a bit pedestrian for the full-fledged otaku, but I needed to broadcast my newfound respect for these techno-classics, loud and clear.
1988, and once upon a tween, I spent weekends with my grandparents in grubby South Plainfield, NJ. While my grandmother slaved over a hot cauldron of borscht and prepared all sorts of russian treats, we’d make the weekly pilgrimage to the local fleamarket, a fantasy nerdworld for me growing up. The following afternoons were spent gushing over the treasures I’d convinced Gramps to purchase for me that day, in a cheerfully comatose state, and only half-heartedly listening to my grandmother’s tales of slavic yore. One such weekend, I remember rushing particularly eagerly to the fleamarket’s rather large comic stand to snatch up whatever English translated manga I could get my grubby paws on. (I’d become a fan of Robotech this way, even before catching it on television, and definitely not knowing it’s true origins.) I had a voracious appetite for giant robots and samurai warriors clashing swords, and spilling blood, over their many cleanly laidout black & white pages.
I’d come across Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed, completely by accident, and instantly began to drool. I was sucked in by the amazing front cover, the logo itself was ultra-cool. Emblazoned with a post-apocolyptic landscape, a hulking bioroid with rabbit ears, and paired with a pixie-coiffed blonde, snazzily outfitted in chest-hugging paramilitary gear, and accessorized with a ridiculously large grenade launcher, wow. When I leafed through the pages, I became instantly enamored with it’s highly complex artwork, sporadically-placed and highly detailed informational sidebars, and dystopian future worldview that this skillful artist had artfully crammed inside. Appleseed merges cyberpunk elements and mecha genres, with a heavy dose of politics, philosophy, and sociology. Actually a bit overwhelming for a 12-year old, wouldn’t ya say?
Here’s the basic rundown of this manga-masterpiece. After World War III, the nations of the world have crumbled, and an experimental city known as Olympus, inhabited by humans, cyborgs and bioroids, is constructed. Olympus was meant to be the ultimate utopian society. In order to combat techno-crime, an elite taskforce was implemeneted by the police. The ESWAT (Extra Special Weapons And Tactics) bureau was formed of both natural humans and augmented cyborgs, for equal footing. Our protagonists are the pair from the cover I’d mentioned. Briareos, a cyborg with enhanced physical strength and an integrated head, and long sensor antennae which resemble the ears of a rabbit, and Deunan Knute, a natural human skilled in operating her ‘Landmate’, (exoskeleton powersuit, more powerful and responsive than police-issue). Olympus is fairly devoid of big-time crime, and the ESWAT is used to combat terrorist attacks when necessary. These fearless peacekeepers combat crazed hackers, renegade robots, and other nuclear weapons of death at every page turn. Not only are they partners on the battlfield, they’re also lovers, which must make for some uncomfortable snuggling sessions, heh.
The manga, first published by Eclipse Comics, and now Dark Horse, spanned 4 large volumes, going from 1988-1995. I’d heard through the fandom rumor mill that there was an animated feature available on VHS, but for a rather hefty sum of $75. (I still have a closet full of rotting VHS tapes, ho-hum, need to convert those treasures quick!) When I finally got ahold of this elusive slice of celluloid, I was gravely disappointed. Here’s the rundown of the late 80s feature.
Although ultra-modern and economically strong, for some, Olympus is less a ‘utopia’, and more of a ‘cage’. Calon, a city police officer, is one of these people. He’s become disenchanted with life in Olympus following the suicide of his wife, an artist who felt stifled by the pre-programmed environment. Calon becomes bitter, and believes that it is his duty to “free” natural humans from this unnatural environment. So, he hooks up with a cyber terrorist and attempts to disable Gaia, the computer system which controls Olympus’ infrastructure. Out to stop them are ESWAT officers Duenan & Briareos, and they’re determined to stop this terrorist plot by any means necessary. Simple enough, huh. Well, what results is a slap-dash mess of shoddily drawn cel animation, horrible character design continuity flaws, horrible story pacing and red herrings, and not to mention an amazing bland English voice dub that made me cringe on several occasions.
It wasn’t until 2004, that we’d see the ESWAT in actio again. Appleseed (2004), directed by Shinji Aamaki, this time blending cutting-edge 3D CGI with conventional cel animation. It retells the original manga, albeit in a parallel timeline. Now for the rundown. Deunan is a young soldier, and the last survivor of the Global War. She’s rescued by bioroid Hitomi, and then attempts escape from the hospital, and taking her hostage, but is stopped by Briareos Hecatonchires, her former lover, now a rabbit-eared cyborg. She learns the war ended months earlier, and is now in the utopian city of Olympus. While there, adjusting to her new lease on life, Deunan joins the ESWAT organization. It’s not a bad feature, and worthwhile eyecandy, although it didn’t hold my attention for very long. I couldnt get used to the 3D rendered designs, but that’s just a taste issue. I decided to give it a shot despite my dislike for the Original Video Animation I’d seen as a teen. While much better than the original outing, I wasn’t engaged. I’m sure I’ll give it another shot in the near future, …thanks, Netflix!
In 2007, we were treated to a sequel, that far surpassed it’s predecessor, Appleseed: Ex Machina. Aramaki again directed, but this time benefitted from production by none other than John Woo! Only 3 minutes into the film, I was blabbarskaka’d. The 3D CGI that I usually loathe, looked amazingly realistic, with a nod to the original anime character designs, and I actually felt at points I was watching live actors. The action scenes were top-notch, which was to be expected from the man that brought you dazzling Hong Kong action cinema classics such as, The Killer, Hard-Boiled, and the A Better Tomorrow trilogy.
This time around, Poseidon, a multinational industrial conglomerate whose operations include the manufacture of cyborg components and consumer electronics, has a dirty little secret to hide. One of their top researchers has gone rogue, taking his expertise in mind control and delusions of grandeur with him. Using his knowledge, he plans to take over the world by transmitting a signal to the latest consumer gadget manufactured by Poseidon, bascially a bluetooth earpieced iPhone multimedia device, which will allow him to control the mind of whoever is wearing it. Add to this heady mix, a new partner for Duenan. Enter Tereus, cloned from Briareos’ original human form, and augmented with super strength and speed. After the opening action sequence, Briareos is out of comission for awhile. This adds a slight love-trangle to the action-heavy mix. Fianlly, Appleseed done right!
It wasn’t until this year’s Comic-Con 2010, that I’d found my bearings again. Surrounded by hunderds of fans, cosplayers, and the like, it was a venue that really renewed my interest in the cyberpunk genre. I used to pass it off as nothing more than pretentious drivel, maybe stemming from my own lack of political education and worldview. I’ve discovered a new world for me to explore, one vastly far apart from the transforming giant robots with colorful catch phrases and pint-sized magical girls in brightly-hued spandex tutus. Anime with something to say, in spades.