In the west, we got Lee Majors, who for 10 minutes back in 1970-whatsit had impressionable teenage boys dreaming of possessing their own bionic biceps and pneumatic nipples. In Japan, meanwhile, the man-machine entertainment option bar none was provided by Cyborg 009, an epically long-running manga and subsequent anime created by Shotaro Ishinomori.
First published in 1964, Ishinomori’s sci-fi spy saga centres on nine strangers – ranging from a Chinese restaurateur to a French ballet dancer to a British actor – who are kidnapped by the nefarious Black Ghost organisation, and turned into cyborgs in order to do its evil bidding. The cyborgs, however, rebel and form a new, quasi-superhero team under the aegis of their mentor, Doctor Gilmore.
Oft-compared to Marvel’s X-Men, Cyborg 009 is something of a Japanese cultural institution. Maybe not quite up there with kabuki and karaoke, but not too far off. Which means the majority of UK viewers, for whom the big screen revival of 009 Re:Cyborg will be their first exposure to Ishinomori’s brainchild, are likely to feel more than a little bit out of the loop.
For, confronted as you will be with a principal cast numbering in the double-digits (oddest amongst them being a pacifier-sucking psychic baby with a bootleg Beatles barnet – aka Cyborg 001), the chances are you’re going to be left feeling like your non-Bond-believing mate who was swept to the cinema on the tsunami of Skyfall hype, only to completely miss the flourishes which helped make that movie so special to fans of the 007 series.
As written and directed by Kenji Kamiyama, 009 Re:Cyborg kicks off in 2013, a time when Gilmore’s troops have scattered around the globe in the aftermath of the Cold Thaw decades earlier. But a new menace demands the reteaming of the bionic nonet, as all over the world buildings begin to blow up.
Not, as it transpires, the shoddy workmanship of Bob the Builder finally coming to light; rather a series of terror attacks – seemingly unconnected aside from the perpetrators’ reverent reference to “His Voice”, the unknown force apparently compelling them to commit their atrocities.
Cue bombastic melodrama!
Much of which emanates from the duelling bromance between the Luke and Han of Kamiyama’s tale: 009, eternal high schooler Joe Shimamura, and 002, the rocket-heeled and lustrously locked Jet.
Cue also a wildly incautious depiction of 21st century geopolitics!
Because if Ishinomori’s source manga occasionally attracted comment for a lack of er, subtlety to its well-intentioned internationalism (google yourself an original illustration of the sole African cyborg, Pyunma), then Kamiyama picks up where the old boy left off.
Y’see, the fallow years have seen Jet join the US’s National Security Agency, a real-life intelligence outfit which is portrayed as being at the behest of a private equity firm, which in turn is a vehicle for the Israeli secretary of defence, who in turn is engineering murderous outrages in order to boost his own arms trade interests, which in turn include resurrecting Iraq war victims as ungodly robo-zombies.
Whatever you make of the politics, it’s all so messy and unsophisticated as to less resemble the plot of an espionage actioner and more the droolings of the guy you sometimes see in the corner shop who tries to tell you what the radio in his head is saying when you all want is a couple of packs of Frazzles.
In truth, it’s the same strain of semi-lunacy we, over the years, have come to somewhat expect from our sci-fi anime: where a crazed mangling of current events can coexist with the kind of overblown soap opera familiar to anyone who’s ever played a Final Fantasy or Metal Gear video game through to its conclusion. Only in Japanimation could you have a scene where one of the main characters delivers a philosophical-cum-theological monologue whilst astride a nuclear warhead hurtling through the stratosphere.
But if 009 Re:Cyborg, for all its pretensions at a deeper meaning, struggles to distinguish itself as anything other than one more juvenile adventure, then at least it looks plenty pretty enough.
Adopting an entirely 3D computer-generated approach, the movie delivers bullet-time effects which are beyond the reach of any purely hand-drawn animation. However deliberate effort has been made to give the characters a traditional cel-painted look, and that effort certainly pays off. If only the narrative were half as neat.
009 Re:Cyborg is released in the UK on 12 April