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Review: “RE:Cyborg 009” Is Upgraded for the 2010s, For Better or Worse

by on January 7, 2016
 

RE:Cyborg 009Abducted by a terrorist organization years ago, nine human beings from around the world were modified into ruthless killing machines, but they retained their consciences and decided to defend the world as a group of cyborgs with extraordinary powers! This was many years ago, and nearly three decades later, they’ve all gone their separate routes. Joe Shimamura, 009, may have had the best escape from the world of fighting crime, as he’s been living in a loop of high school years, given the team’s persistent youth. When he finds himself compelled by a mysterious voice to blow up skyscrapers, his former teammates must get involved. A new terrorist threat has emerged, and it may be up to the nine cyborgs to save the world.

RE:Cyborg 009 is the latest in revivals of a legendary franchise. The movie features 3D/CG graphics instead of traditional hand-drawn animation, but you’d be forgiven for not realizing that based on frozen frames. At its heart, the series does retain the “superheroes being badasses” aspect that’s to be expected from this franchise, but a few diversions send the movie into odd territory. To see that this isn’t too out of touch, though, you need to understand the history of the franchise. There are a few parallels that are readily apparent when you compare the worlds of American and Japanese comics, animation, games and the like. Osamu Tezuka is Japan’s Walt Disney, creating long-lasting characters that could lead adventures and pull on heartrstrings. Both countries have had their eras of talking animals, for example, and while the concept of a superhero decidedly stems from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, the concept was elevated to a new level when Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four and Spider-Man appeared in the 1960’s. There were teen heroes and families of heroes, but everyone was “iconic.” Lee realized that icons can, and should, be able to be tarnished. Spider-Man had rent to pay, while the Fantastic Four had to be aware of their public image.

RE:Cyborg 009Soon after these American books changed the concept of the superhero, Japan took it in a different direction, but with a very similar mindset and creator. Shotaro Ishinomori (at the time, Shotaro Ishimori, before a late-in-life name change; there’s even a notable parallel in the name change, as Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber). The Fantastic Four had its four titular heroes, each with different powers but the same uniform. Ishimori crafted a team of nine heroes with the dark and tragic origins more common to DC  (last son of Krypton, family gunned down in an alley), but also adopting Marvel’s “heroes on the run” gimmick, borrowing from the Hulk’s escape from the military and Spider-Man’s dodging of J. Jonah’s haranguing. They share the superhero story trope of heroes getting powers against their will, and subsequently getting viewed as villains.

Ishinomori’s heroes had no formal team name, but were known as Cyborgs 001-009 and they helped kickstart Shotaro Ishimori’s world, as well as the grand genre known as “tokusatsu” (literally, “special effects”) that would permeate Japanese culture (eventually even getting traction in America). Cyborg 009 wasn’t live-action, but a multi-member team with a uniform design using individual special abilities to fight villains on a weekly basis? Ishimori clearly had an enduring concept to work with here, and the comic story continued until 1981, well after the runs of Super Sentai (a team of uniformed heroes fighting evil) and Kamen Rider (a lone hero on the run after he was granted powers by an evil organization). Animated works, movies, and revamps have all led to 2012’s RE:Cyborg 009 revamp movie.

RE:Cyborg 009The question then might be, “what is Cyborg 009?” It’s a franchise that’s never seemed to gain too much ground in America. Despite Mach-Go-Go-Go getting significant attention in the cultural landscape of America, Cyborg 009 was limited to New York and Hawaii in it’s early days of animation, and the manga market of the 60s or 70s was insignificant compared to what it is today. The early 2000’s series airing on Toonami was the grandest arrival of the franchise, but even then, presumably poor ratings led to the show being rescheduled and the DVD release being aborted after both an edited and unedited attempt at the first few episodes.

Is Cyborg 009 just something American’s won’t “get”? Is it the fact that the team all wear the same costume, more or less, which is visually bland in comparison to super-teams like the Avengers? The Fantastic Four aren’t as popular as the Avengers, but any attempts to change their costumes are usually met with indifference, if not large-scale negativity, and clearly the failure of the movie and the dissolution of the team in modern Marvel continuity show a lack of interest in anything Fantastic at the moment. FUNimation’s hoping that this movie, a re-imagining of the franchise for modern audiences, will at least get people interested enough to check it out, but there’s nothing on docket for them in the future. There’s no major live-action remake on the way, and no current anime series coming soon to our shores. A recent American comic and translations of the classics are the only currently-available media for the franchise. As it stands, RE:Cyborg 009 exists for the people curious about the franchise and for the erstwhile fans that are rewarded for their patience with a big-budget movie, but does it succeed in either of these goals?

RE:Cyborg 009Two aspects stand out from RE:Cyborg 009, and both suffer from a disconnect with expectations to some degree.

The animation is unique, but that’s not exactly a positive. Instead of traditional animation (which allows for stretching, squashing, and all the other features we’re used to from cartoons), the movie goes for a cel-shaded CG look, as The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Jet Grind Radio championed for video games. There are moments where the CG is used effectively, in a few fight scenes and in most usages of data on computers and such, but CG could have been integrated into hand-drawn work in these cases. Overall, the CG does a dissservice to this movie. It’s well-directed, but the footage never flows smoothly, clearly moving at a bit of a “stutter” due to the frame rate of the characters. At other times, especially when characters should be more emotional (such as struggling to defuse a bomb or becoming amorous with one another), the animation feels like we’re given Barbie dolls and told to make them emote. You can get a fair bit out of them, but Lingerie Seduction Barbie still going to be a chunk of rigid plastic, and Bomb Disarming Ken can’t sweat or strain.

Animation flaws could be overlooked if the plot was great and a testament to all things Cyborg 009, but it will likely leave a sour taste in your mouth. Understandably, this movie has decided to skip the origins of the heroes, which may be a misstep for America but is appropriate for Japan where these heroes are probably more like Batman (you know his parents died, he shall become a bat, etc). Once you get past the “everyone was a team of clandestine superheroes years ago,” you’re tossed into the new status quo: the team has not operated at full capacity in years, and members have their own vendettas against one another. Like (the underrated) Titan Maximum, starting the story off years after the glory days is a unique choice that’s not detrimental. What is detrimental is that the story goes all-in for a 9/11 / war on terror / the influence of God in modern lives plot that might make things too heady for what is fundamentally a traditional “cyborgs versus terrorist organization” plot. While this might actually be right up Ghost in the Shell‘s alley (and is an area of experience for RE:Cyborg 009 director Kenji Kamiyama), it’s a bit off for the American viewers of Cyborg 009. Some of the later work by Ishinomori in print touch on bits of this, but those are barely-known in America, and would likely be generally less common in Japan than the other arcs. It’s not that such a story can’t work, but it’s as if the first new Superman movie in two decades went way too heavy on past continuity and the Jesus allegory.

Oh, wait, that happened.

RE: Cyborg 009The on-disc extras for this release are disappointing, only because of knowledge of what could have been included. A special prologue gives a good amount of exploration about the origin of the franchise, a briefing on the characters, and even an explanation of the “God” elements that appear in the franchise. The latter might be unknown to American audiences, since it was ignored in the series aired in the States. Beyond that, there’s an average assortment of trailers, teasers, and even a “no talking, no smoking”-esque pre-movie piece. One of the teasers stands out for being live-action, especially given that it gives glances at what the heroes would look like in live-action. What’s disappointingly not included is a commentary (which is a bit of surprise, as FUNimation’s been on a kick), or any of the promotional spots that featured new footage of the cast promoting Pepsi and other products in Japan. Humorously, the Pepsi drink promoted was Pepsi Nex, which itself appeared in the cartoon Tiger & Bunny. They’re nothing amazing, but the knowledge that they’re out there and not included is just a bit disappointing. There’s also something odd about heroes grappling with concepts of God and humanity reaching beyond its means in the movie, and then fighting over a soft drink in commercials. One presumes rights and availability were the reason for the omission of the ads, which doesn’t take the sting out of it but does explain why they’re missing.

Included with the combo pack is an expansive guidebook that gives a great amount of insight into the movie. There’s a lengthy interview with the director, a breakdown of many of the plot elements of the movie, and character bios. It’s similar to the other books that have appeared in the Dragon Box releases of Dragon Ball Z and the collections of Ghost In The Shell: Arise, and really gives a good argument for the continuation of physical media.

Re:Cyborg 009 requires a look by fans of the franchise and the greater story, or even those of Kamiyama’s other works, such as Ghost in the Shell. It keeps characters consistent with their past selves and brings them effectively into a new era. The problem is, much like the real world, the new era is not that fun. It’s depressing and dark at times, and that’s where these heroes reside. If you want some heroes with rocket-feet and machine-gun hands fighting evil, that’d be great, but when evil’s a more nebulous “all of mankind/possibly the literal Christian God,” those superheroes might be a bit underwhelming.

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