05 Apr 2013
Shotaro Ishinomori's Cyborg 009 franchise is, despite not being quite so well known in the west, a seminal and influence part of Japanese anime and manga - given the esteem in which it is held by so many, it would arguably take either a fool or a genius to attempt to give the franchise a 21st century makeover. Up to that particularly weighty plate has stepped Kenji Kamiyama, a director and writer who is already well-versed at taking a classic and bringing it to new audiences and new levels thanks to his work on Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
Rather than rebooting this franchise entirely and starting from the beginning, Kamiyama has instead opted to take on perhaps an even greater challenge - picking up a concept that was unfinished due to Ishinomori's death and giving it a modern spin of his own to take it to its completion. Before we're even introduced to any of the team of cyborgs that sit at the heart of the film however, we're treated to a disconcerting sight - the fall of a cluster of massive skyscrapers as the result of a terrorist attack, accompanied by pseudo-biblical text.
This is no one-off occurrence either - terrorist atrocities are sweeping the world and creating unrest everywhere they go. Tensions are heightened not just by the acts themselves, but by the aftermath of conspiracy and hearsay that follows - is the US government responsible? Is this simply an attempt by those in power to create a new faceless villain to drive the military industrial complex to new levels?
As Doctor Gilmore's cyborg team are reassembled, including our titular Cyborg 009 Joe Shimamura in one of the first of a number of set pieces which punctuate the film, more ominous facts come to light as news begins to spread of something known only as "His Voice", which seems to be at the core of the suicide attacks that are rocking the world. Perhaps the biggest shock of all is that Joe has himself been at the mercy of "His Voice", leading to doubts on his creator's part that this particular protégé remains trustworthy, but as the mysterious goings-on intensify trusting Shimamura is perhaps the only choice in the face of an unimaginably potent force.
In terms of sheer scope, it's hard to think of anything braver than the core plot of 009 Re: Cyborg - I won't spoil the gist of things, but suffice to say that it grants the film an enemy that is in turns ludicrous and impressive. It's a smart decision in that it allows Kenji Kamiyama to spend some time doing what he does best - delving deep into philosophy and exploring the nature of humanity in adversity, although admittedly within the limited running time of a one-off film you won't find the same kind of depth of treatment that you might be used to from Stand Alone Complex or Eden of the East. Nonetheless, it propagates the seeds of some interesting trains of thought that are worthy of further pondering should you wise to pursue them further.
If you don't want to tax your brain too hard however fear not, as a dose of action is never too far away - for all of the long periods of dialogue there are just enough action scenes to spice up proceedings. Not all of them succeed in grabbing you by the collar and dragging you along for the ride admittedly, but in particular some of the later set pieces in the film are greatly satisfying to watch. The film does carry a feeling of expectation that you know at least a little about the Cyborg 009 universe, but even without any prior knowledge you shouldn't find yourself feeling lost so much as curious about one or two aspects of the film and its interactions between characters.
This brings us to the two core pillars of the film which make it stand out from the crowd visually. For starters, the entire film is rendered using computer graphics (with Production IG partnering with Sanzigen for this purpose), but using cel shading to give the film something of a more traditional 2D look. I have to admit that no matter how hard it tries, this kind of approach still looks incredibly stilted to the point of being off-putting at times - character movements look decidedly odd at times (which you can argue away in the case of the leading cyborgs perhaps, but not human characters), and in a world where real-time graphics in video games are looking ever-more realistic in every way the overall aesthetic is downright frustrating initially. Whether it's simply a case of getting used to it or a genuine increase in quality, many of these issues seem to be assuaged during the latter half of the film, to the point where once again some of the final set pieces in the film genuinely look impressive with the dynamism and fluidity afforded the production by the use of CG finally coming to the fore.
Alongside this, the film has also been created in its entirety to make use of stereoscopic 3D - I'll be the first to admit I'm not a big fan of 3D movie-going (actually, let me rephrase that - I almost exclusively detest it), but 009 Re: Cyborg actually makes a damn good fist of its use of 3D. Much of the depth added to the film using this technology is achieved without being either overly distracting or superfluous, and when push comes to shove it actually accentuates some pivotal scenes, such as the return of 009's powers or the final slice of action which effectively brings the film to a close. It's no Avatar, but it proves that stereoscopic 3D can work effectively in the context of Japanese animation, even if watching with subtitles has a tendency to break (or at least lessen) that effect somewhat.
As a huge fan of Kenji Kamiyama's work, it has to be said that 009 Re: Cyborg is a good film rather than a great one - the shift from the longer running time of a TV series to a one-off film has clearly meant compromises to his signature style of story-telling and exploring interesting concepts, and this leaves us with a film that sometimes feels like it desperately wants to break out of the strait jacket of its length to further explore its characters, their situations and a wider world that bears some occasionally uncomfortable similarities to our own. If you can accept that the film is in effect "Diet Kamiyama" however, what we find is a movie that does a solid job of balancing action and dialogue while somehow managing to carry an almost insane premise with a sufficient degree of skill and confidence to be plausible and even fascinating in its own way.
Bundle together its premise and its use of the latest technologies, and add in the simple fact that it's a new take on a much-loved classic franchise of many decades, and you won't see a braver animated work this year. That it largely succeeds at many of the things it attempts into the bargain makes it worthy of praise in our book.
The European premiere of 009 Re: Cyborg took place at the BFI in London - the film is expected to enjoy a UK-wide theatrical release courtesy of Anime Limited in June