Fans of Japanese pop culture will likely be familiar with Shotaro Ishinomori, one of the key architects of the framework for many long running superhero works such as Super Sentai and Kamen Rider. One of his only slightly less well known works is Cyborg 009. Sharing themes with Kamen Rider, the story focuses on nine ordinary people from across the world who are kidnapped by a shadowy organization and unwillingly converted into powerful cyborg soldiers. Escaping with their free will intact, the nine turn their new abilities against their former overlords, aspiring to protect others from their machinations. Told primarily as a manga with adaptations across various media, the series ran through various titles; sadly Ishinomori would pass away before being able to personally tell the conclusive arc of the story.
This long history and lack of a definitive ending leaves the door open for Production I.G.’s 009 Re:Cyborg, a 2012 animated movie which picks up in the modern day. With the Cold War threat that created them long defeated, the members of the group have tried settling into some semblance of a normal life while standing prepared for action should they be needed. The call soon comes when suicide bombings targeting skyscrapers across the globe leave the world in panic and authorities baffled. The sole clue to be found is claims by the bombers to be acting under the influence of ‘His Voice’ compelling them to take such action. Attempting to lead a quiet life in Japan, Joe Shimamura ‘Cyborg 009’ has also heard ‘His Voice’…
One of the things I’m always interested to see is when a fan within the industry gets to tackle a long beloved franchise from their childhood. Although this doesn’t promise entertainment (there are many fan-led reboots that are too introspective and too insular), there’s something heart-warming about knowing what you’re seeing is being made by someone who followed this originally as a passionate outsider. So it’s with regret that I say I feel director Kenji Kamiyama missed the mark.
The story feels quite pretentious, and to be honest at odds with the cheesy retro nature of Cyborg 009 itself. As the director of the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series, perhaps it’s not surprising what Kamiyama does with the property, but it does feel misplaced and in fact retreading elements of SAC and especially its movie, Solid State Society. In both films we see a vast conspiracy that is apparently compelling people to act against their will, and the suggestion/threat that the semi-retired former protagonist may in fact be part of the problem. However, while Solid State Society made such a plot work, 009 Re:Cyborg feels more like Kamiyama is simply writing what he’s comfortable with and filling in the plot holes with claims that the story is intended to be open to interpretation. This is a stock post-9/11 paranoia plot, even citing that event in its opening minutes. A story about eeeevil American money grubbing and lightweight analysis of cultural memes drags a cast of poorly explained characters into the modern day on a partial wave of nostalgia. We’ve just seen the release of Hideo Kojima’s apparent final Metal Gear game and with it a richer look at many of these ideas. Indeed even Ghost in the Shell itself handles them better. Here, the script wants you to believe it’s much deeper than it is.
It’s a shame because the core idea of 009 Re:Cyborg could have made a good story. The nigh immortal cyborg team continuing as shadow protectors of humanity and having to emerge yet again to face a modern threat is similar to the way the title character of Doctor Who has stayed relevant across the decades since his 1963 debut. But for one thing, the film itself assumes familiarity with the characters and setting rather than properly explaining them, and doesn’t seem to have much interest in the full team. Two of the team are given brief appearances before completely vanishing with no explanation offered of where they went, even when they return somehow before the credits roll. It’s understandable that Joe would be central as the Japanese character, but other characters seem present purely for logistics. Dr Gilmore is the team’s benefactor, coordinating their efforts until it’s finally time for Joe to step up. Ivan/001 (a baby cyborg with psychic powers) is present solely to use his gifts to teleport the team. A similar role befalls Francoise/003, the sole female member and responsible for watching Joe during his retirement. One of her earliest actions after re-awakening his memories is to strip down to her underwear and bemoan that unlike him her body has aged slightly since last they met. She spends the rest of the film handling data management or fighting his corner when Gilmore is rightfully concerned by Joe’s admission of being compromised by the enigma of ‘His Voice.’ Lastly we have Jet/002, the American member who abandoned the team when Joe was put in charge and whose character arc entails learning maybe America doesn’t have the world’s best interests at heart. I’m hardly the biggest fan of America’s foreign policy, but the way this film criticises it while making America out to be money obsessed religious nutjobs veers quickly away from any kind of valid criticism into near racism.
The visual design of the movie at least suggests there’s untapped merit in moving these characters away from the retro manga style and into something closer to life. It’s interesting to see how the character’s wacky cyborg super powers emerge out of this, such as Jet having MCU Iron Man-styled transforming feet thrusters. A minor misfire does mean that Great Britain/007 (oh, the puns) does end up looking like a dead ringer for Hitman’s Agent 47 though.
Coming from Production I.G. the animation is of a high standard. I was initially concerned to see the film was using cel shaded CGI, but I think this qualifies for the best use I’ve ever seen. I’ve spoken frequently of Japan’s love affair with the technology since the 21st century started and productions like this convince me it has paid off. One of my chief criticisms of the technology is often movement itself suffers greatly, resulting in either awkward jerky movements or equally cumbersome motion capture. Here we get movement which is on par with the strengths of 2D animation, with at worst minor background characters losing out in their few seconds of screentime. The Blu-ray disc contains a 3D version of the film but lacking a 3D TV I can’t comment on that.
The film has an able cast in both languages. Many famous names on the anime voice acting scene from both Japan and America are present, leading to a solid delivery regardless of which version you watch. An interesting choice of the dub is to actually effect regional accents on most of the cyborgs to further hint at their mixed heritage. In some cases this works well (J.B. Blanc gives 007 the confident British tone that fans of Beware the Batman will recognise from his Alfred) and in others less so (Stephanie Sheh’s attempt at a Russian accent for Ivan does little to help an already whimsical character). Kenji Kawai brings his experience in delivering haunting soundtracks that will never leave your skull, especially powerful use of Mongolian vocals to bring an alien quality to the spiritual scenes of the film in a similar manner to how he punctuated the ELS in A Wakening of the Trailblazer.
As is common with anime film releases, the extras are focussed on production and promotion, including a variety of interviews with Kamiyama himself. In both positive and negative ways this helps paint a picture of why I find the film so dissatisfying. It seems clear from these that he had a grasp of key themes of 009 and wanted to address how the questions that haunt these characters would shape their response to the status quo of the 21st century, but he also comes off as a fairly insular and guarded person. This does hint at why the film seems to offer no quarter with its interpretation. One of the most interesting nuggets from these extras is that Lucasfilm’s world famous Skywalker Sound requested to do the sound mixing for the film after seeing the initial preview. There’s also some very interesting discussion on the creation of cel shaded animation vs traditional and a selection of imaginative and amusing commercials for the film, including the characters shilling for the likes of Pepsi. Another feature also helps provide context for the legacy of 009 prior to the film. The content is split over three discs, with a Blu-ray containing the best quality of the film, a DVD copy of the 2D version, and an extras DVD rounding things up. The retail release also comes with an informative booklet and is housed in the type of high quality, decorative packaging that has become the Anime Limited standard.
I’m not quite sure how to evaluate 009 Re:Cyborg. Pardon the reference but it reminds me a lot of the case with Gundam AGE that came out at roughly the same time- a long standing iconic story reimagined by someone who understood the core tones that resonated with all fans, but produced something that gave very little to anyone outside the original fanbase. I’ve enjoyed several of Kamiyama’s earlier projects but this one just feels muddled, making me wonder if just maybe it needed the time to breathe that a full television series would have offered. In factors such as animation, soundtrack, and acting the film is quite strong but the script is what really lets it down. It’s not the worst example of this (it’s not Planzet, for instance) but it feels as if the story was left too much in the director’s hands to the point it feels less like a personal message and more like leafing through a private diary. I appreciate the film is attempting to look at questions for which we don’t really have an answer, but I think there’s a difference between exploring uncertainty and simply posturing.
I’d say at the very least give it a watch but I don’t think this is going to capture the imaginations of new generations to Ishinomori’s pioneer works.
009 Re:Cyborg is available on Blu-ray/DVD combi from Amazon UK.
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