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.

Cutie Honey: Tears (2016)

In a world that is split into the rich, living in ultra-modern skyscrapers, and a poverty-stricken underclass consigned to the lower levels of a multi-storey city, an unlikely hero arises in the form of a beautiful android. In a dramatic opening scene we see a tense confrontation on a precarious walkway high above the city. Hitomi (Mariya Nishiuchi) is being taken to safety by her “father”, the professor who created her. Lady Jiru (Nicole Ishida), who has seized control of the city, is hunting down the pair for reasons that will later become apparent. Following a fall to the city streets below, Hitomi begins working to fight the “Sodoms” or military police that terrorize the citizens of the lower levels. She soon meets the journalist Hayami (Takahiro Miura), who is involved with a resistance movement. He explains to her that the AI that controls the city is causing the pollution on the lower levels and they intend to bring it down and end the tyranny of the Lady Jiru.

The character Cutie Honey first appeared in the manga by Go Nagai. This film is a huge departure from earlier incarnations of the characters, and almost unrecognizable from the Cutie Honey portrayed in Anno’s earlier live-action adaptation. Hitomi’s ability to change into any form means the film fits more into the superhero genre, though science-fiction and cyberpunk are also major elements. Cutie Honey: Tears does a good job of creating its world, and contrasting the dismal lower quarters with the pristine upper class lifestyle of the villains. It owes a debt to Metropolis (with the opening scene in particular a possible homage to the end of that film) and includes many ideas seen in other films, drone cameras and mass surveillance, Artificial Intelligence, inequality and the darker side of technological advancement. Director Takeshi Asai is clearly a fan of the genre. Cutie Honey: Tears makes use of some great sets, with gritty urban cityscapes and near-future high-rises creating visually interesting environments for the action. Occasionally, the world building feels a little haphazard, sometimes perfectly evoking a sense of place, and other times forgetting rules it has previously established. Mariya Nishiuchi is charismatic as Hitomi/ Cutie Honey, and I wish there had been more martial arts sequences as she sells the fight scenes well. Nicole Ishida plays the cold-hearted counter-point to Hitomi’s sympathetic protagonist with suitable hard-edged style. The climactic battle between the two women, an archetypal struggle between a rational, calculating villain and our warm-hearted, determined hero, gives both actresses a chance to shine in their acting and action roles. The special effects are good for the most part, though the CG effects lack polish at points. It is good to see a lot of practical effects and the design of the Sodoms, the costumes of Hitomi and Lady Jiru, and other details are great.

The film’s central plot is familiar to many science-fiction stories. Essentially a divided society in which the wealthy elites live in a rarefied world while those below struggle. The film ties in an ecological message to strengthen this point as it is the high-rise dwelling rich who are poisoning the lower classes with noxious fumes from their new AI technology. While nothing new the film does contain a fair amount of action and excitement and Hitomi is an interesting protagonist. There are few twists or surprises, save one shocking turn in the final act, and for the most part it is a by-the-numbers science fiction film. However, fans of this kind of anti-capitalist cyberpunk will find things to enjoy here.

The Ghost in the Shell (Deluxe Edition) – Masamune Shirow

As cyber-punk manga goes this is probably the most well-known and highly-regarded of them. Influenced by a variety of sources, and in turn providing inspiration for many later artists, “The Ghost in the Shell” is a work that has become truly embedded in the public consciousness (whether people know it or not).

The manga focuses on a future society in which the internet and cyberisation have blurred the lines between humans and robots, and the real world and the online world. Our protagonists are a special ops team whose purpose is to stop high-level hackers and other cyber-criminals. Led by their charismatic leader Motoko Kusanagi, under the supervision of Aramaki, Section 9 is intended to operate somewhat independently of regular law enforcement. They are joined by other team members, Bato, Ishikawa, and even, unusually, a fully human member Togusa. Each chapter of the manga follows the team on a separate action-packed mission and there is clearly a love of cop dramas and science-fiction throughout. Shirow is also dedicated to details and his entertaining footnotes are a pleasant addition to the narrative. Whether it is explaining his thoughts on the political set-up of Japan, or simply to tell you that he quite likes porridge, it is an endearing part of the work that helps you feel closer to the author and understand their reasoning behind certain story decisions. The world of “The Ghost in the Shell” contains a fantastic level of details, whether it is government ministers who reappear, or the explanation of how cyberisation techniques work, and all of this helps create a reality to this unfamiliar future. There is also a sense of fun that is lacking in later iterations of the franchise, with characters often appearing in more cartoonish form to make quips.

The art work is great throughout, with incredible cities, crowded streets and more.  They are drawings that it is fun to pick over and spot little additions or simply marvel at what you are seeing. Shirow keeps everything hi-tempo, and states a dislike for exposition when it can be avoided. You will often see characters being active while explaining which helps keep things interesting while giving huge amounts of information at the same time. And every moment of drama is captured perfectly, whether helicopters landing, or characters running, leaping or fighting. The stories all work well in the episodic format as well as a longer story involving the Puppeteer (that was used in the anime film adaptation). A must-read for fans of dystopian science-fiction and action-packed comic books.