Appleseed Saga: Ex Machina (2007) by Shinji Aramaki

Deunan Knute (Ai Kobayashi) and her partner Briareos (Koichi Yamadera) are assigned with ESWAT to an old cathedral to rescue EU officials taken hostage by cyborgs. On returning to Olympus Briareos is sent to recuperate while Deunan is assigned a new partner. Her new partner, Tereus (Yuki Kishi), seems strangely similar to Briareos old physical form, and Deunan learns that he has been cloned from her former partner’s DNA. Olympus is once again imperilled when they discover a mysterious signal being used to control both cyborgs and humans (who have taken to wearing a popular headset communication device). It is this signal that is prompting the increasing waves of terrorist activity. Meanwhile, Athena (Gara Takashima) is attempting to convince world leaders that they should join together a global satellite network that might prevent future terrorist attacks.

Shinji Aramaki directs this sequel to his 2004 “Appleseed” film. This time around we get more focus on the relationship between Deunan and Briareos and the introduction of what might be considered an atypical love triangle with the introduction of Tereus. The plot is focussed on an external threat to Olympus and therefore more familiar territory to action movies. Again the film provides us with a thinly veiled commentary on everything from terrorism, consumerism, surveillance, and communication technologies with a story that moves briskly between several incredible action sequences. The animation style is altered slightly from the first film, with less of a cell-shaded appearance to the characters. It is interesting to see the development and introduction of several new technologies, such as the bee-like flying transports early on and the Connexus devices that satirise people’s addiction to mobile communication tools. Tetsuya Takahashi again provides the music, this time alongside Haruomi Hosono. While the techo-beats and electro-rock are carried over there are also more of the softer moments and a heroic score to complement the narrative of our protagonists fighting against attempts to destroy Olympus.

“Appleseed: Ex Machina” raises interesting questions about the need for difference. Unity is something that many in society strive for, here exemplified by the idea of bringing together the world’s satellites into one system. However, when large numbers of cyborgs and people are following the commands of a single source we also see the dangers of unity (or perhaps more accurately “conformity”). We see the zombie-like citizen completely under the control of the mysterious force. It is good to see a film tackling such fundamental questions as what a Utopian society should or might look like while criticising what many consider to be an ideal.

Appleseed (2004) by Shinji Aramaki

The film opens on a young soldier Deunan Knute (Ai Kobayashi), fighting amongst the rubble of a bombed city. After a battle with robotic enemy forces she is picked up by ESWAT, an elite team of soldiers, who tell her she no longer needs to fight. The world war that has devastated the majority of the planet had no ultimate victor. The surviving humans have retreated to a Utopian city named Olympus. The population of Olympus, half human and half Bioroid (synthetic humans), live a peaceful existence, their lives dictated by a supercomputer named Gaia and the Bioroid leader Athena (Mami Koyama). Deunan is reunited with her old partner Briareos (Jurota Kosugi), who has lost his body and been given a new cyborg one and a Bioroid Hitomi (Yuki Matsuoka) who is assigned to help her adjust to Olympus. The peace is short-lived when they uncover a plot by the army, led by General Uranus (Yuzuru Fujimoto), to overthrow what he sees as a Bioroid dictatorship and establish human supremacy again. Deunan and Briareos must fight to maintain the delicate balance that has been established.

“Appleseed” is based on the manga by Masamune Shirow (Ghost in the Shell) and does an incredible job of world-building, introducing us to Bioroids, Gaia, ESWAT, Landmates and other technologies and systems that create a believable backdrop to the action. The design of all these elements is spectacular and there is clearly an attention to the minutiae and practicalities of everything. The animation uses a cell-shaded CG technique that gives the film a unique look and the flexibility of the camera allows us to swoop around the ruins of the city in the opening and the vast scale of Olympus in a way that gives a sense of reality and permanence to the setting. If there is one issue with this style it is that it leaves certain things looking too pristine, lacking texture and wear. Where the animation really excels is in the action sequences, from the opening battle with tanks and snipers, hand to hand brawls, gunfighting, and the final destructive battle, the choreography and camerawork enabled by the animation make for fast-paced exciting moments. Director Shinji Aramaki has an eye for dramatic action sequences, with the rain-battered remote laboratory sequences being a particular highlight. The music by Tetsuya Takahashi and Boom Boom Satellites is a mix of electronica, rock, and an occasional emotional piano track. The soundtrack suits the futuristic feel and is a shot of adrenaline for the frenetic action scenes. Deunan is a great protagonist, established as a legendary soldier, her relationship with Briareos and her backstory give her complexity and sympathy from the audience. There is not a lot of time spent on the relationship between her and Briareos as the plot involves a lot of exposition and the various twists and turns allow little time for character building, but those moments we do see work well and offer just enough to keep you emotionally invested.

“Appleseed” is laden with philosophical and political discourse, questioning the future of humanity as we become increasingly reliant on technology. The character of Deunan, a hardened soldier, is fitting for the narrative as she encapsulates the warlike nature of humanity, but also the compassion that can hold us back from violence. The tension at the centre of the film arises from General Uranus’s realisation that humans are no longer the dominant force on the planet and his desire to rectify what he sees as the natural order. Violent tendencies make humans unsuitable to rule without safeguards, as their past actions have shown that they seem hellbent on their own destruction. Far from technology being the danger, it is technology that protects humans from themselves. However, the lust for power and human failings continue even in the future and create problems that must be constantly guarded against. The film’s message is one of the importance of balance. It is interesting that early in the film Hitomi notes that the population of Olympus is roughly 50/50 Bioroid and humans. To have more of one or the other, as the villains of the film desire, would upset the balance of society. The strong anti-war message of the film is also stated obliquely in a similar way. The world war produced no victor, only losers. To compete for absolute dominance is a futile endeavour, and the only way humanity can proceed is by acknowledging the need for co-operation. A science-fiction action film with an important message on the future of humanity and how catastrophe might be averted.

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.