Suppose the reality of the Japanese Far East we admire in their fantastic animation movies is already science fiction to many of us in the West, with the cyberpunk genre, this cultural gap is further exacerbated because we move into a futuristic environment, typically in highly evolved and opulent cities, where technology is advancing rapidly, and the god of money forgives no one.
The day-to-day truth of these worlds is what, for us, today, are newly emerging and constantly evolving concepts such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, cybernetic networks, robotics, and, in general, an increasingly close correlation between mind, body, and technology.
Moreover, beyond the sci-fi factor, these stories often paint a dystopian society that amplifies the worst flaws of our own, where powerful and faceless multinational corporations impose repressive control over the population, and the main characters are often the outsiders, rebels, hackers beyond the ordinary standards who always aspire to destroy established authority structures and restore social balance.
The setting always has a dark, sophisticate atmosphere, soaking in the vivid neon lights that illuminate the shadows of decadent metropolitan locations, often to the beat of electronic music-laden soundtracks in synth remixes of the great classics of the past.
This strange habitat is the ideal experimental terrain for delving into the myriad nuances of human identity, loaded with a wide variety of symbols and abstract concepts such as cyberspace and cyberbrain, where stylized fighters in the fascinating manga aesthetic employ futuristic enhancements to come at justice by unconventional and morally ambiguous methods.
As always, I will translate the above by recommending what I consider to be some of the greatest exponents of Japanese cyberpunk, four animated movies that are must-sees for any fan of the genre.
We begin with an immortal cult classic set in the Tokyo of tomorrow, some 30 years after the devastation of a mysterious explosion that turned it into a megalopolis under army rule, where the wealthy minority lives in the corruption and ease of technology, while the rest of the population hustles in the streets trying to survive in the third-world slums.
The protagonists of this fable of the future are the very young Kaneda Shōtaro and Tetsuo Shima, thugs and street riders who, one night, while speeding on their powerful motorcycles fighting with a rival gang, become involved in the escape of a strange boy with extraordinary psychic powers.
Immediately military and police surround them and take away poor Tetsuo, severely hurt during the confrontation, while arresting Kaneda and the rest of the gang.
At that point, his friends begin to search for Tetsuo, who is subjected to relentless experiments to unlock his psychic potential and find the key to get to Akira, a mutant hailed by the population, whose immense power could finally rid the world of the cruel military dictatorship.
Akira is the unquestionable cyberpunk masterpiece of Katsuhiro Ōtomo, the beloved screenwriter and director whose films took the world of Japanese animation and manga to another level.
Famous for his unmistakable vision, Ōtomo shapes a world with profound moral, political, and technological implications with the impact of a devastating meteorite on popular culture, instantly becoming a mainstay of the sci-fi genre.
The quality of his genius and designs reflected in every minute detail of this future Tokyo, constructed with surgical precision in each of the backgrounds, the characters, and all of the most insignificant props.
In short, a 1980s movie that is simply still generations ahead of most of today’s competitors.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Not even 10 years later, from the Japanese forges came another cyberpunk animation movie destined to become a myth, again set in the future Tokyo of 2029.
Humanity and robotics are now inseparable, with computers dominating every aspect of daily life and almost the entire population surgically grafted with one or more cybernetic implants.
In this world, as varied and colorful as it is monotonous and dark, we follow the adventures of young cyborg Motoko Kusanagi, the leading element of the special police squad called Section 9.
For some time, the city has been under attack by the so-called Puppet Master, an uncatchable hacker capable of commanding people through their implants.
All of these attacks occur against Megatech, a leading manufacturer of artificial bodies, including Motoko and almost all of his colleagues.
So when a strange cyborg woman is automatically created in the factory, Section 9 realizes that the Puppet Master is not a man but an artificial intelligence that wants to be reborn and be free in a cybernetic body.
Directing this unprecedented masterpiece is the great Mamoru Oshii, who builds on Masamune Shirow‘s famous manga, bringing his unique interpretation of cyberpunk into popular culture.
It is a mammoth work with meticulous attention to the visual intricacies of the striking landscapes of this Tokyo of the future, a metropolis vibrant with human and electrical energy, sophisticated and ancient at the same time.
From the foundation of this work would emerge the sci-fi inspiration of years to come, such as sisters Lana and Lilly Wachowski inheriting and translating its soul in the Matrix saga.
A massive debt for all fans of the genre, then, who owe Oshii all their favorite movies, books, and video games, perhaps without even knowing it.
With the next story, we are no longer in Tokyo but in the similarly futuristic Metropolis, a fictional Japanese city where this animated movie takes place, obviously inspired by Fritz Lang‘s 1920s masterpiece of the same name.
The main characters are young Kenichi and his uncle Shunsaku Ban, a private investigator who is trying to frame the diabolical Dr. Laughton, a cruel scientist who conducts biomechanical tests on human subjects.
All the evidence leads to Metropolis, an immense human conglomerate ruled by President Boone and the inflexible Duke Red, to whom Laughton is actually employed.
Indeed, for years, Duke has dreamed of building an android in the likeness of his late daughter, Tima, to connect with and rule over every system in the city and achieve his insane goal of absolute perfection.
However, Rock, the Duke’s adopted son and a member of the violent Marduk party, opposes the plan and attempts to assassinate Tima, failing miserably and, indeed, unwittingly helping her escape.
Finding each other in the city’s slums, Tima and Kenichi will end in the crossfire between Duke Red army and the revolutionary rebels of the Atlas sect.
This increasingly tense conflict will inevitably result in a war with neither winners nor losers, leading to the destruction and subsequent rebirth of the entire Metropolis.
Once again, the great director Rintarō achieves something remarkable, wrapping in its own dimension the political message that unites and divides the fight for robot freedom against the internal conflicts among the belligerent humans.
In the colorful and elegant Japanese brushstrokes, quotations from Lang’s outstanding movie and Osamu Tezuka’s original manga find the way to unique originality, carving a place in the history of cyberpunk movies with glorious plot grades and impeccable animation.
As a final recommendation for today’s cyberpunk movies, I recommend a gem of Japanese animation that served as a prelude to Christopher Nolan‘s far more famous and recent Inception.
The protagonist of this story is psychiatrist Chiba Atsuko, a member of a revolutionary science project to help subjects with deep psychological trauma by entering their dreams through the character/mask of the vivacious Paprika.
But when some subjects begin to show signs of imbalance, even going so far as to attempt suicide by the project leader, Chiba realizes that these are not mere accidents but that someone is actively sabotaging their studies.
Meanwhile, the situation and remaining researchers are fewer and fewer, and the government even obstructs them, while others go crazy and end up lost in their own unconsciousness.
To find the culprit and bring the subjects’ minds back to normal, Chiba has no choice but to put on Paprika’s shoes again and dive into the crazy collective dream where his friends are imprisoned.
Perhaps it is even reductive to speak of a simple cyberpunk genre when approaching this movie, as Satoshi Kon submerges the viewer in an eerie dimension in which it is difficult to discern between dream and reality, entangling from time to time with other dreams in a dead-end loop of shared dream absurdities.
Its most significant beauty lies precisely in the increasingly agitated pace and general confusion that escalates to total delirium, overloading our senses with contradictory messages and primal impulses within this world that is like an absurd childhood fantasy full of color and fun, suddenly ripped open by unexpected and violent horror/thriller bits.
I wouldn’t know what else to add to further describe this inimitable masterpiece, except that it is an experience akin to ingesting a heavy cinematic peyote.