Akira (1988) by Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira opens with the devastating image of what appears to be a nuclear explosion tearing apart Tokyo in a flash of blinding white. 31 years later Neo-Tokyo has risen from the devastation, the urban sprawl of the city burying the secrets of the past. Motorcycle gangs, rioting and protests against the government are commonplace, and the city appears to be once again on the brink of societal collapse. Teenage friends Tetsuo and Kaneda, members of a biker gang head out to take on their rivals, the “clowns”, in a high-speed chase through the city. Tetsuo crashes into a boy who appears to have strange powers, his first interaction with a trio of mysterious children with telekinetic abilities. The government capture Tetsuo, who soon comes to realise that he is developing powers that he is barely able to control. Meanwhile Kaneda has fallen for a girl, Kei, who is working with a radical anti-government group attempting to uncover the governments secretive experiments on these children.

Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also wrote the manga on which it is based, “Akira” is a stunning achievement. From the high-speed chase that kickstarts the action to the cosmic horror of the final moments, the animators go all out to create a world that is vibrant and alive. The backgrounds are detailed with graffiti and signs of decay that make the world feel real and lived in. Add to this the explosions, shattering glass, water and lighting effects, and there is so much visual information on screen at any one time that it demands your attention. This is a good thing as the story moves at a break-neck pace. The manga on which it is based runs to 2000 pages, which means certain characters and subplots in the film are addressed only briefly, such as the government discussions and the quasi-religious group who worship Akira. Characters such as Tetsuo’s girlfriend and the leader of the resistance movement are likewise underdeveloped. This does however go a long way to making the film’s world feel absolutely real, as there is always the sense that a lot more is happening off-screen. There are two main story threads, one involving Tetsuo and Kaneda’s relationship, and one involving the secret government experiments, both of which are engaging and benefit from the background information we do get. The impact of the score is one element that cannot be understated, with tribal drums and breathy vocals, chanting and bells, it creates a unique sound that is traditional and timeless. The blasts of sound are an assault on the senses in the same way as the striking visuals.

Akira is a film that is at once epic, dealing with themes of cosmic significance, societal collapse and man’s hubristic drive towards ever more destructive technologies, and at the same time deeply personal, dealing with the psychology of Tetsuo, a young orphan who feels mistreated by the world. The nuclear era has more than ever led humanity to confront its inability to control what it is creating. The scientists and military in the film are representative of the naïve attempt to control such weapons (in this case represented by the children they are experimenting on). In one scene of the film we see the colonel and the scientist descending in an elevator, looking out over the towering skyscrapers. This visual metaphor for the inevitable fall after the rise of civilisation is poignant, even more so given that what they are facing has already happened before. They are doomed to this cycle of destruction and rebirth. Kaneda and Tetsuo are oblivious to their machinations, living at street level they are unaware that there are grand schemes afoot. The tragedy of Tetsuo is that he is a victim of society who is suddenly given absolute power. He is jealous and insecure, but what is terrifying is not that he is a flawed individual, but that he is given a power that allows him to act out his most harmful urges. It is also possible to see in him a rejection of religious ideology. Those who believe Akira and Tetsuo to represent some sort of salvation are in for a rude awakening when they realise that ultimate power can be misused and in fact will rarely benefit society. It is a rejection of the notion that absolute power is a good thing and questions the belief that the relentless march of progress is heading in the right direction.

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.

Gantz: 0 (2016)

The hugely successful franchise, with manga, anime and live action versions, continues with this computer animated film. When Kato is killed in a subway stabbing he appears in a mysterious apartment room with a giant black ball in the centre. The set-up will be familiar to those who have seen previous instalments in the series, and this film cuts straight to the action. The Gantz ball sends Kato and his team, model Reika, Suzuki, young boy, to Osaka to take on the terrifying aliens that have invaded. These take the form of various creatures of Japanese mythology. There the team meet with their Osaka counterparts, led by a cocky trio of men, and a young woman Ayumu.

“Gantz: 0” is directed by Yasushi Kawamura, from a screenplay by Tsutomo Kuroiwa, and this latest episode essentially retreads familiar ground, while attempting to go one better on the action and excitement of previous installments. Hiroya Oku’s manga has been adapted a number of times, most of which follow the same story, or at least the first part of the manga series. This film takes the action to Osaka, an idea developed in a spin-off manga series. The decision not to spend to much time on explanations, which would be meaningless exposition for most fans, plays to the film’s advantage. Instead we are given a new set of characters and get straight to the battle. The animation is spectacular and allows for the sequences to get as crazy as both manga and anime versions, with incredible creations for the aliens, and the use of various technologies seen later in the series’ such as the bikes and upgraded weapons, even a gigantic mechanized suit. It is great to see Osaka recreated affectionately here, and places such as Dotonbori feel realistic. The film takes place almost entirely in this location and it is clear the animators put a lot of effort in to the sets, with plenty of background detail. The characters are as interesting, though understandably given little time to develop.

The Gantz franchise has always delighted in giving its audience, primarily young men, exactly what it wants, fully embracing the low-brow exploitation angle, while at the same time being excellent at telling a story full of intrigue. This film has all the usual elements, exciting fight sequences, monsters, beautiful female heroines, and a dark tone enlivened by its more peculiar comedic elements. The central concept of the story, of people battling impossible odds is there. There is certainly meaning behind the madness and it could be argued that this is the ultimate exploration of a trend towards extremes. It involves so much of Japanese culture and mythology you can feel it bulging at the seams with interpretations, though it rarely stoops to explaining itself. It’s heroes are archetypical and the struggle against villains as a timeless story that has been expertly updated by this series. This film is sure to please fans of the franchise. It adds little in terms of developing the series, but fits perfectly in the cycle and gives exactly what fans might hope for.

Mutant Girls Squad (2010)

A delightfully silly slice of gory action from three masters of the genre. When Rin (Yumi Sugimoto) reaches her sixteenth birthday she is told by her father that she is a mutant. This certainly explains her feelings of isolation at her highschool and alienation from classmates. Shortly after this revelation their home is invaded by the anti-mutant police who kill Rin’s parents. Rin meets Rei (Yuko Takayama) who is part of a team of mutants fighting against the human society who are oppressing them. They are led by Kisaragi (Tak Sakaguchi), a samurai transvestite. Rin also befriends another mutant Yoshie (Suzuka Morita) and the three of them are tasked with taking down a government official opposed to mutants.

The title should give away the fact that this film does not take itself too seriously. What little plot there is acts as a slender frame on which to hang outrageous comedy-horror action sequences. Everything from the police having guns on their noses, to one girl’s power being to have two tiny arms reaching out from her ears (this is far from the most ridiculous of their abilities), will certainly appeal to anyone with a childish sense of humour and love of obscene splatter comedy. The handmade quality of the film gives it a real charm and the amount of effort that has gone into costumes, special effects (including a lot of physical effects) and gore speaks to a highly motivated and talented crew. The film is helmed by three directors, Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police), Sakaguchi (Re:Born) and Noboru Iguchi, from a script by Iguchi and Jun Tsugita. The directors clearly share a love of schlocky horror and action and their enthusiasm is infectious. The film is hyperactive and insane, feeling like a student film given a budget that allows them to bring their madcap ideas to life. All of the main actresses go all-out in their performances, embracing the wacky premise and melodrama, and do well in both comedy and action roles.

The film is essentially a bully revenge story with a well-worn message of anti-discrimination and embracing difference. It revels in weirdness and eccentricity and is a film that wants to run as far from ‘mainstream’ as it is possible to get. Only recommended for those with a black sense of humour and a love of gory violence.

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.