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Thought Experiments: Cyberpunk is Alive and Well and Living in - Where Else?- Japan
by Brooks Peck


Let’s play a word game. I’ll say a word and you say the first thing that comes to mind.

I’ll say “cyberpunk.”

I’m guessing you’ll say “history,” or “the eighties,” or “dead.”

While it’s possible to point to current novels and stories that use and abuse cyberpunk themes and motifs, as a thriving sub-genre of science fiction—as a movement—cyberpunk has moved on. It petered out even as the Internet boom peaked, but perhaps this isn’t strange. The Internet boom was a capitalist triumph, the opposite of classic cyberpunk’s anti-establishment attitude. If you want more proof that cyberpunk literature is finished, see the 2003 anthology The Ultimate Cyberpunk. It’s a reprint anthology, a summation and historical overview. A book end.

But don’t get me wrong—just because the revolution’s over doesn’t mean cyberpunk’s not worth reading. In fact, I’m here to argue that cyberpunk isn’t dead at all. It has moved to other lands and other media.


Where cyberpunk thrives today is in Japanese manga (comics) and anime (animated TV shows and movies). Japanese writers and directors have embraced cyberpunk themes, tropes, and styles. They have carried them east to reincarnate cyberpunk in comics and on screen.

We should have expected it. From our point of view, Japan already occupies a proto-cyberpunk future, with its crowded metropolises and cornucopia of techno-gadgets. It makes sense that cyberpunk would resonate with writers and artists living there. The Japanese, though, don’t simply mimic cyberpunk; they have picked up the genre and run with it. (It may be that cyberpunk also thrives in Japanese prose literature, but I’m not qualified to say, considering that my Japanese language skills are limited to Kono sushi no tanjoubi wa?* The international popularity of manga and anime means that plenty of translated titles are available for monoglots like me.)

Let’s survey some of the more prominent titles.





Japanese cyberpunk begins here in an over two thousand page epic that took writer and artist Katsuhiro Ôtomo eight years to serialize. It opens with Tokyo blowing sky high, and the action accelerates from there. Kaneda and Tetsuo are disaffected motorcycle gang members, buddies since childhood. When Tetsuo begins to manifest extreme psychic abilities, he and Kaneda become enmeshed in a battle over a mysterious Power called Akira. Soon everybody wants a piece of them: the military, underground resistance movements, some freaky psychic children. . . .

Akira’s cyberpunk connections aren’t digital, they’re visual. Computers, networks, and A.I.s don’t come into play, but the design of the story world vibrates with cyberpunk imagery. It’s a dark, urban maze populated by the disenfranchised poor and their high-tech oppressors. The pyramidal buildings of Neo-Tokyo in particular evoke Blade Runner’s future Los Angeles.

Ôtomo also created an anime version of Akira, released in 1988. The film caught the attention of the Western world and is credited with starting the anime craze in America. Andy and Larry Wachowski, creators of The Matrix, are longtime manga and anime fans and cite Akira as one of their favorites.

Although “Akira” may sound cool and edgy to us, it’s actually a common name in Japan. This ultimate horror, this world-destroyer, has a moniker rather like Fred or Dave.



Ghost in the Shell


The Ghost in the Shell franchise spans manga, film, television, and games. It begins with the eponymous graphic novel written and drawn by Masamune Shirow. Set in the mid-twenty-first century, Ghost depicts a world where “cyber” technology saturates daily life. Almost everyone has a cyberbrain that can store memories and act as a direct interface to the Internet—here called the Net. Hackers engage in direct mind-to-mind attacks to steal information, spy, even take over people’s bodies. Expert hackers can turn invisible by hacking others’ vision. In this first novel it’s sometimes difficult to tell if events are happening in the real world or in cyberspace—the artwork makes little distinction between the two and neither do the characters.

This book follows the adventures of Section 9, the covert operations section of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. Section 9 specializes in investigating high-tech crimes and cyberterrorism. A typical mission for Section 9 might involve stopping a hacker from turning a dignitary’s bodyguard into a puppet to be used to assassinate the dignitary.

The star of the book is Major Motoko Kusanagi, whose body is almost completely cybernetic. This brings up one of the main differences between the cyberpunk found in manga and anime, and typical William Gibson-inspired prose works: Japanese cyberpunk often features robots, cyborgs, and everything in between. It loves to explore blurred boundaries between human and machine. Many of the heroes of the works mentioned here are cyborgs or robots. You might say that robotics isn’t a core cyberpunk topic, but remember that Blade Runner, a hallmark cyberpunk film, is all about artificial people.

In the case of Ghost in the Shell, the cybernetic modifications have a very “street” feel. The characters obsess over what they’ve got and what they want, rather like tattoo addicts. Most of the modifications are used to make people stronger, more menacing, or sexier. Major Kusanagi, for instance, is probably middle-aged (no one is sure) but her form is that of a young, Barbie-doll shaped woman. This makes for an erotically lush comic, but before you condemn it as crass titillation, ask yourself what you would choose if you could design your own body.



Ghost in the Shell, the movie


Ghost in the Shell was adapted to film in 1995 by director Mamoru Oshii. In the movie, Major Kusanagi pursues a computerized super-spy dubbed the Puppetmaster who creates a robot that claims to have a “ghost,” or soul. While the manga is energetic, cartoonish, and often whimsical (the word manga can translate to “whimsical pictures”) this film is serious to the point of ponderousness, and often confusing. Highlights include some intense action/future combat and enormous cityscapes. The film mixes traditional 2-D animation with computer generated graphics—quite groundbreaking at the time. It was the first anime film to be released simultaneously in Japan and the United States.



Ghost in the Shell 2:
Man­–­Machine Interface


The sequel manga to Ghost in the Shell. Published in the United States in 2002, it brings comics into the computer age. While the character design is recognizably Shirow’s, almost all the backgrounds—rooms, cities, submarines and especially cyberspace—are computer-generated art. The story revolves around Motoko Aramaki, a character similar to and perhaps connected to Major Kusanagi. Aramaki is a security expert for Poseidon Industrial, a floating city. She has her own yacht, a submarine, and a harem of cyborg bodies stashed around the world, all ready to spring into battle. The manga mixes action with lengthy, abstract cyberspace sequences stuffed with technobabble.

Man­–Machine Interface’s characters operate in augmented reality as well as in virtual reality, and are usually surrounded by floating data windows that only they can see. Masa-mune also expands the reality of the manga by including side notes that explain elements of the story or even contradict his characters’ opinions and ideas. The result is as info-rich as cyberpunk’s best data fantasies. This manga not only tells a cyberpunk story, it’s a cyberpunk object. Challenging to read, but rewarding.



Ghost in the Shell:
Stand Alone Complex


The Ghost in the Shell television series is much more accessible than the manga or anime films, and in my opinion is the most enjoyable of the bunch. Closely related to the first manga, Stand Alone Complex chronicles further adventures of Section 9 as they deal with everything from rogue warbots to wine thieves. The half-hour episodes come in two varieties: “Stand Alone,” or self-contained stories; and “Complex,” an overarching throughline about a super hacker known as The Laughing Man. This is thoughtful science fiction television about cops dealing with futuristic problems; it never pauses to explain to viewers how things work.

The strange thing about Stand Alone Complex, is that throughout, Major Kusanagi never wears any pants. Instead she sports a kind of armored thong. Everyone else wears pants—this isn’t some No-Pants Land alternate universe. Only the major goes pants-free. I assume this apparel choice was dictated by high-level executives on the show to keep it interesting to the target demographic—teenage boys and me. The show’s writers and artists, though, stage a small protest. In one episode the major attends an important briefing wearing a negligee. When her commander asks why, the major answers, “I have no choice.”



Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence


The anime sequel has no connection to Man–Machine Interface, but is a sequel to the first movie. It was the first anime film to be nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (it didn’t win). Once again the question of the meaning of life for artificial beings is a central theme in this story of sex dolls that seem to have souls. The ones that do 1) go on a murderous rampage, and then 2) feel very bad about it and commit suicide. Where are these playmachines getting souls? The answer is disturbing.

Innocence is a gorgeous movie to look at, and animation fans shouldn’t miss it. One five-minute sequence of a parade is said to have taken a year to complete. But like the Matrix sequels, Innocence doesn’t build much on the first film of the series, and rolls out so much philosophy and religion you’ll find it either deep or sophomoric. Still, it’s a serious story, not fluff, and that’s a rare thing in science fiction movies.



Serial Experiments Lain


Lain Iwakura isn’t a typical cyberpunk hero. She’s a shy eighth-grader who doesn’t like to turn on her computer. But after receiving an email from a dead classmate, she starts to explore the online world, here called The Wired. Strange things happen. Lain sees ghosts, has hallucinations, and people report meeting a wild, extroverted double of hers. This is just the beginning of Lain’s trip down the digital rabbit hole.

Her story is told in thirteen half-hour episodes by a pool of directors and animators, so the style shifts from episode to episode. The short series is trippy and elliptical, a favorite among those who enjoy a weird intellectual puzzle. Maybe it’s just about a troubled teen. Maybe it’s about the emergence of a whole new cosmology via computers.

Lain is a good example of how Japanese cyberpunk doesn’t hesitate to mix the scientific with the spiritual and magical. But it’s not fantasy. In these types of stories, science (or mad science) is often needed to gain access to lands of the dead, ghost worlds, or the collective unconscious.



Battle Angel Alita


Now here’s a dystopian vision that will warm the hearts of cynical futurists everywhere. In Battle Angel Alita, a manga series written and drawn by Yukito Kishiro, the gap between rich and poor is literal, as the wealthy live in the floating city Tiphares, while the dregs of society toil below in the Scrap Yard. Inhabitants of the Scrap Yard work in factories that supply goods for Tiphares. Inhabitants of Tiphares use up the goods and drop their trash back down onto the Scrap Yard, a slum literally built from Tiphares’ garbage. The whole system is designed to support and protect the Tiphareans with no regard for the Yardeans (seeing a trend?).

Almost everyone in the Scrap Yard is a cyborg, and the place looks like a techno-fetishist’s dream. Anything you can imagine sticking into or onto a body—spikes, blades, armor, extra limbs—someone’s got it. The Scrap Yard’s tough guys are in an arms race to become the biggest, the strongest, the most dangerous. Street brawls and gladiatorial combat are popular pastimes.

The hero of the series, though, is a diminutive robot named Alita, found broken and battered on a junk heap by cyberneticist Daisuke Ido. Repaired, Alita has no memory of herself or her origins, so she sets out on a quest of self-discovery. One thing she soon learns is she has amazing combat skills, which come in handy when she assists Ido with his other job: bounty hunter.

The series is a frenetic blend of Rollerball, Tank Girl, and A.I., and it stands out from most manga for the quality and detail of the artwork. The action scenes highlight a difference between the visual languages of American and Japanese comics. American comics tend to show static images—if a character is in motion, we see her frozen, held in an instant of time captured like a photograph. Manga uses lines that sweep and blast across the page to indicate movement. In manga, a single panel can relate a long series of motions and actions.



Armitage III: Poly Matrix


One thing the Japanese clearly believe is that there can never be too many sexy, ass-kicking robot babes. Armitage III is a movie about a robot cop who lives on Mars and likes to wear short-shorts. She partners with a disgraced cop from Earth to investigate a series of murders. The victims, as it turns out, are more than they appear to be. Okay, they’re robots.

What sets this film apart from others in the robot hottie genre is its exploration of prejudice against robots. Robots are taking people’s jobs, and folks are getting angry, writing letters, and staging protests. In most manga and anime about robots, the society accepts and welcomes them. Perhaps this is because often the humans are becoming robots at the same time that the robots are becoming human, and the line between them is too fuzzy to make any clear distinction.

Armitage was one of the earliest anime films to feature voice acting by Hollywood stars in the American release, in this case Kiefer Sutherland and Elizabeth Berkley. Armitage is the name of Case’s shadowy employer in Neuromancer, don’t forget.



Cowboy Bebop


Lastly, let’s remember that the punk in cyberpunk can refer to music as well as to body piercings. The Cowboy Bebop television series may not appear to be openly cyberpunk, but it throws its own spin on the genre. For starters, it’s a postmodern cut-up of science fiction, westerns, jazz, and rock’n’roll fused together to create a fresh setting. Hero Spike could pass for Gibson’s character Case on a shadow-ridden street corner. Spike is a hard-boiled, disaffected loner, a ronin with a dark past who refuses to admit he does good for any reason other than money. And then there’s the music. Composed by Yoko Kanno, one of the most famous composers in Japan, Cowboy Bebop’s soundtrack mixes rock, blues, funk, and jazz. The tracks drive the show, filling it with energy. Each episode is a concert, each scene a sharp-edged music video.

Set in 2071, the story revolves around the crew of the spaceship Bebop, who try to make their living as—wait for it—bounty hunters. Each of the crew has a complex past that comes to light over the course of the series against a backdrop of chases, fights, confrontations, and betrayals. The show was planned from the start for twenty-six episodes only, and ranks as some of the best science fiction television I’ve seen.

Cowboy Bebop’s creator Shinichiro Watanabe also directed two segments of The Animatrix. This collection of animated short films set in the world of The Matrix serves newcomers as a good gateway drug to full-on anime.


So what lies ahead for cyberpunk? Just as there are sure to be more cyberpunk pastiches published in the West, more robot cops will flourish in Japan. Remember, though, that manga and anime are no longer exclusively Japanese forms, but are becoming worldwide styles. Perhaps as these styles migrate to the west, there will be a blending of old and new leading to hybrid forms. What would manga by Pat Cadigan look like? What would Rudy Rucker’s anime be about?

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"Thought Experiments: Cyberpunk is Alive and Well and Living In- Where Else?-Japan" by Brooks Peck, copyright © 2006, with permission of the author.

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