Electric Dragon 80,000 V (2001) by Sogo Ishii

A blend of cyberpunk and superhero movie, “Electric Dragon 80,000 V” follows Dragon Eye Morrison (Tadanobu Asano), a guitar-playing, reptile loving man with an unusual talent: following electro-shock therapy for violent behaviour as a child, Morrison is now able to conduct electricity, and refocus its energy. City lights flicker as he saps the power from around him. He has a job as an animal detective, looking for reptiles, in particular an iguana that has gone missing. He also plays guitar, able to focus his chaotic abilities into music. Things turn nasty when another man with electric powers, Thunderbolt Buddha (Masatoshi Nagase), appears on the scene; with an unspecified vendetta against Morrison he will go to any lengths to ensure a highly-charged showdown with our hero.

“Electric Dragon 80,000 v” is a tongue-in-cheek cyberpunk superhero story. It strips away philosophical concerns regarding humanity’s future and their place in the universe, evolution  and the coming machine world or digital singularity. Instead it plays with many of the tropes of the genre in an entertaining way. The plot is wafer thin, essentially the build-up of two challengers culminating in a final glorious showdown, but at under an hour in length the premise does not have time to outstay it’s welcome. Everything in the film revolves either around Morrison or Thunderbolt, there are no subplots or side-characters to distract from the frenetic energy and punk style. Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase give great performances. Although there is little dialogue shared between them for the majority, they embrace the wild, raucous tone of the film.

 Shot in black and white, with high contrast between the flashing lights of the city and the dark shadows, the film has a sleek aesthetic while also capturing the chaos of a world overrun with pylons, cables, and urban sprawl. The story’s comic book feel, with a hero and villain narrative, is heightened by the use of narration, flashes of electric-style font, and close-ups or cutaway inserts. Cyberpunk has always been a genre in which directors can show off their skills, and here is no different. Sogo Ishii uses everything from speeded up sequences, overlays, digital and practical effects, and shots from almost every angle to establish a tone that grips the audience from the beginning with its frenzied energy. The rock-metal soundtrack by Ishii’s group MACH-1.67 does a superb job of conveying a sense of pent-up aggression and the surging electric currents that symbolise it.

At times the film feels like a simple homage to earlier cyberpunk works, using many of the same techniques and even borrowing more than a few ideas, such as the machine-man duality and the idea that technology, in this case electricity is both a great and terrible force. However, the film rarely labours these themes, presenting them visually without the need for further explanation, perhaps in understanding that they are well worn ideas. It simplifies its message to the point that it stands as both an prime example and celebration of many things the movement as a whole tries to convey. The idea that Morrison was a troubled youth and given electro-shock therapy harks back to notions of government control, rebellious youth and the limits of personal freedom; while the concept of electricity coursing through his veins represents themes of potential, either for good or bad. Morrison directs his energy towards playing guitar, while Thunderbolt uses his powers for evil. This dichotomy is starkly drawn here and the film builds up both characters and their final confrontation in an entertaining way. Morrison’s love for animals, alongside his love of music, also shows he has a connection to the physical world unlike his counterpart who appears to be allowing the machine to take over.

Rubber’s Lover (1996) Shozin Fukui

In a secret laboratory a team of scientists are experimenting on humans in an attempt to produce psychic abilities. Their experiments take the form of a Digital Direct Drive, a machine that plugs directly into the brain, and uses ‘ether’ to provoke a psychological response. Given the unreliability of their current operations their experiments are often more a form of torture leading to death than viable scientific enquiry. Motomiya (Sosuke Saito) injects his rival scientist Shimika (Yota Kawase) with ether in an attempt to steal his research. He is helped by another scientist Hitotsubashi (Norimizu Ameya) and lab assistant Akari (Mika Kunihiro). Kiku (Nao), who is auditing the company’s books, comes downstairs to see what is happening and is raped by Motomiya, who seems to have gone insane. Motomiya soon regrets his decision as it seems the high dose of ether given to Shimika and his connection with the machine have created a monster that he cannot control.

“Rubber’s Lover”, written and directed by Shozin Fukui, is a prime example of the cyberpunk and splatter-horror genres. Drawing heavily on traditional horror – the mad scientist working on a creature – and melding it with an industrial aesthetic, it creates a nightmarish world of flesh and metal that is emblematic of the wider movement. Shot on 16mm, the black and white square aspect ratio induces a sense of claustrophobia with the chiaroscuro lighting obscuring and enhancing the special effects by helping to inflame the imagination. The film uses shots of industrial buildings, inexplicable metallic constructs looming against a pale sky, to create an atmosphere of harsh modernity. The sets are dressed to create a confused technophobic tangle of wires and screens, with the addition of some interesting ideas, such as the monitors showing close-ups of eyeballs, or the giant equipment for injecting ether (akin to a pneumatic drill). Shozin Fukui’s direction shows a flair for the genre, with camera angles carefully chosen to create a sense of unease, or to keep things fresh and engaging. There is also a clear desire to create backgrounds with a sense of movement or mesmerizing imagery, either by including flickering monitors, animals, or the large post-modern artworks on the wall of Kiku’s office. The soundtrack to the film, provided by Tanizaki Tetora, is a mix of industrial scrapes and echoes, seeming to evolve naturally from the visuals of pipes and machinery. Later it also includes tribal drums that serve as a reminder of the atavistic nature of humanity, despite technological advancement.

The plot of “Rubber’s Lover” includes many interesting elements. Firstly, the concept of human experimentation, something that is a mainstay of horror cinema, and may have dark echoes of Japan’s own past in relation to war time atrocities. The film leans heavily on the notion of experimentation as torture, going so far as to have one victim’s head explode after being pumped with ether. The film also has themes of drug-use and abuse, with Shimika becoming addicted to the ether as it appears to expand his mental capacity. Such discussions around drugs are far from the mainstream, but absolutely in keeping with the anti-conservative agenda of the film. This is a film that emphasises the ‘punk’ in cyberpunk, outrageous in its depictions and brutal in its conclusions about corruption and where society is heading.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) by Shinya Tsukamoto

We begin with a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) inserting an iron bar into his leg in a gruesome and inexplicable scene. The man, after seeing maggots crawling around this, runs down the street where he is hit by a car. The film then cuts to a young office worker (Tomorowo Taguchi) who is experiencing hellish nightmares of twisted metal. When he awakes he finds a piece of metal sticking out of his face. This man later returns to his apartment, where he makes love to his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). However, a giant drill emerges from his groin and his transformation into the “Iron Man” of the title accelerates. We later learn that this man and his girlfriend were the ones who hit the first man in their car, later disposing of the body and having sex nearby where they dumped it.

“Tetsuo” has a surreal nightmarish quality heightened by use of non-linear storytelling, bursts of stop-frame animation, even the stark chiaroscuro photography. The visuals are stunning and horrific and there are genuine moments of terror as the film plays a lot with claustrophobic close-ups and angles. Shinya Tsukamoto both wrote and directed and it is clearly a singular vison that is being presented here, although drawing on many cyberpunk ideas such as transhumanism and the fetishization of machines. The music by Chu Ishikawa also captures this terrifying tone, with dark, metallic clanging beats really exaggerating the sense of dread and unreality. The overall sound design also goes a long way towards creating a nightmarish vision of a future overrun by the machines.

This film is definitely an experience more so than a story. The make-up and special effects are incredible, capturing the tangled filth of the industrialised world, and a great example of body horror. It can be a difficult watch at times, and will certainly not be for everyone, the frenetic editing can make it tough to follow. There are hints of social commentary, a critique of industrialisation and man’s relationship with machines, alongside themes of psychoses, paranoia, shame, abuse and sexual violence. A unique and terrifying industrial body-horror that is worth a watch for fans of the genre.

Psycho-Pass (2012) Series One

Akane Tsunemori (Kana Hanazawa) has recently joined the police as an Investigator tracking down dangerous criminals. Due to advances in technology they are now able to determine an individual’s crime coefficient and take them down without the need for evidence or trial. The Investigators work together with Enforcers, people who have high crime coefficients but work on the side of the law, whose criminal tendencies make them ideally suited to tracking and capturing other criminals. They use guns known as Dominators, which give a reading and will allow either a paralysing or fatal shot to be taken. Among the Enforcers in Akane’s unit is Shinya Kogami (Tomokazu Seki), a man who was once an investigator himself, but whose obsession over a particular case led him to tip over into criminality. Akane’s respect for him puts her at odds with her superior investigator Ginoza (Kenji Nojima), who believes that Enforcers and Investigators are fundamentally different and that her role should be more that of a handler than a colleague. They soon find themselves on the trail of a serial killer named Shogo Makishima (Takahiro Sakurai) who appears to be able to outwit them at every turn. His apparent lack of a crime rating also leads them to question the morality of deciding right and wrong based on the “crime coefficient”.

An intelligent crime drama, “Psycho-Pass” takes theories of criminalistics and forensic psychology to their natural conclusion in a futuristic setting. In deciding that people can be categorised as criminal or innocent through a simple number based on various factors, society has given itself over to notions of right and wrong being determined by computer. In this world there is no room for nuance. There are no crimes of passion, crimes of necessity or opportunity, only crimes. The calculation of this number is opaque, nevertheless the police force have completely prostrated themselves before the technology – and the all-powerful Sibil System that controls it – no longer trusting their own judgement of a person’s character. As well as this criminological aspect, there is also a more philosophical theme running throughout. The notion that people are fated to be a certain way, and that in fact the moral or right path for a person is to do that thing they feel most suited for, even if that involves crime or killing. Essentially, the technology has taken away people’s free will as they are forced into behaving exactly as the machine wants them to, whether right or wrong. As the series progresses the various flaws in this seemingly utopian system become apparent. Ideas of good and evil are subject to question and various revelations regarding the characters leads the viewer to reassess what they have perceived about this world. In Makishima, the series has a villain that is a perfect foil to the protagonists. While they are bound to the law, he is entirely lawless, perhaps even in a Nietzschean sense “Beyond Good and Evil”, believing that the only moral path for a person is to do what they wish or are best at. A secondary villain emphasises this point even more, that criminality is often a matter of context; psychopathy often being a useful aberration in human populations, perhaps the desire to confront and destroy pre-existing systems being a necessity for humankind to progress.

The animation by Production IG (Ghost in the Shell) is exceptional. Textured surfaces, background details and lighting effects all help to create the sense of a real world. Likewise, weather effects such as the pouring rain in the opening episode, or wind rustling coat collars, work towards the noirish feel. There are a number of technologies in the film, such as the avatars that characters can create around themselves, that are interesting additions to the world. The visualisation of online spaces is also well done with unique character designs. The series does not shy away from depicting violent and brutal crimes, with abuse and murder both graphically portrayed. This all helps to create a sense of dread that pervades the story. You are aware early on that there really are lives at stake if the detectives fail to catch the killer. An absolutely thrilling ride from start to finish, with high-tension action sequences and a story that goes headlong for several important questions about how society is managed. A blend of all the best elements of cyberpunk and noir detective stories, with themes of criminality and societal control that encourage the audience to think about the potential implications of these things on our own world.

Blame! (2017) by Hiroyuki Seshita

In the future humanity cowers in a vast city that extends down to unfathomable depths and stretches away limitless in all directions. Humans lost control of the robots many generations before and now the machines continue without instruction, building the city and hunting down any remnants of humanity. A group of scavengers come across a mysterious traveller named Killy, who is looking for any surviving humans with the “Net Terminal Gene”, which would allow them to interact with their environment, thereby neutralising the threat from the roving Exterminators. When he reveals to them a potentially limitless food source in another part of the city, they agree to accompany him on his quest.

Based on a manga by Tsutomu Nihei, “Blame!” is directed by Hiroyuki Seshita from a screenplay by Sadayuki Murai. It features elements that will be familiar to fans of post-apocalypse science fiction: deserted cityscapes; robot killing machines; and humans struggling to survive in a world that has superceded them. One of the most exciting things about the film is the scale of the world that they have created. The art direction is mesmerising to look at, with vast expanses of uninhabited skyscrapers. There is an eerie atmosphere surrounding everything. Likewise the design of the scavenger, or “electro-fisher”, suits shows great care, blending both ancient samurai and futurist aesthetics. The scuffs and scratches on their helmets and the decrepitude of the buildings do a fantastic job of making the world feel lived in. The robots, with their insect-like look and movement, provide several creepy yet thrilling action moments. The film benefits too from having a relatively small cast, which we are introduced to little by little. There are three young scavengers, Tae, Zuru and  Fusato, their elders, Killy and a scientist Cibo whom they meet on their journey. The story is pared down to its essentials, and follows a straightforward quest narrative: mysterious outsider, small band setting out on a quest, and a final climactic struggle for supremacy.

“Blame!” differs from many cyberpunk stories in that it wears its pessimism about the future of humanity on its sleeve. This is a world that has quite literally outgrown humans. They are shown to be minute figures scuttling around in their meaningless lives, while the robots they created have taken over control of the world from them. This provides a rather dark and depressing backdrop to the story. The film also touches on the idea of a loss of history and culture. The people here are not only cut off from any other survivors by their distance, but they are cut off from the past. They cannot remember a time when humans were in control of technology. In this regard the film takes present concerns about the efficiency and dangers of Artificial Intelligence to a devastating conclusion. There are theological themes at work here. The main computer system is an almost god-like figure, while the humans appear to have no religious affiliation. It is interesting to consider a time when humans will no longer be the dominant power in the world, having ceded control to computers. “Blame!” is a hugely entertaining watch for fans of cyberpunk or apocalyptic science-fiction, with great design, exciting action and interesting underlying philosophy.