8 Man After (1993)

8 Man After is a short OVA series that I’d recommend to cyberpunk fans or folks who collect 1990s anime – especially if you crave a bit of violence, as it has what might now be called an ‘old-school’ violent anime feel. However, it’s not R-rated or anything, and there is a bit of character development and time spent on the setting too.

What I’ve been wondering about is to what extent the 8 Man After series is a response to things that came before.

And to discuss that, I think I have to jump back to the 1960s and 8 Man. Based on the manga by Kazumasa Hirai, the original iteration could be grouped into that robot boom in anime, the one that included Cyborg 009 and Astro Boy for instance. Tonally, those two shows might differ somewhat from 8 Man but again, I suspect modern audiences would find the ‘60s version of 8 Man somewhat ‘tame’ in some ways.

However, getting back to the ‘reactionary question’ I wanted to share a part of the premise I copied from Wikipedia:

Murdered by criminals, Detective Yokoda’s body is retrieved by Professor Tani and taken to his laboratory. There, Tani performs an experiment that has failed seven times; Yokoda is the eighth subject to have his life force transferred into an android body.

Sound at all familiar?

A cop murdered by street trash and returned to life as a robotic avenger – sounds nothing like Robocop, right?

Well, maybe if I look at the changing levels of onscreen violence in media during the 1960s to the 1980s and then further in to the good old grungy 1990s, then I think I can see what 8 Man After was going for. And after the grit of Robocop, maybe the teams at Ashi Productions and J.C. Staff felt that audiences wouldn’t accept a comparatively ‘clean cut’ cyborg revenge story?

In 8 Man After our hero Hazama is sometimes a little callous, and you could argue he must be in order to survive a city steeped in grime and corruption but the basic detective and cyberpunk tropes play out much as you might expect if you’re a fan of the genre.

Now that I’ve spent all those words putting the OVA into a bit of context, I should get to a few of the things I enjoyed; definitely the designs and fast pace, along with 8 Man himself, who had non-conventional abilities in some ways, but one of the things I remember most is the way American Football features in the story. There are a few links back to the original 8 Man too but I won’t spoil them here of course.

I was also interested to hear just how different the US and Japanese audio tracks were – my Diskotek release has both and while the US one is uptempo, semi-industrial techno at times, the original soundtrack can be perhaps a little more moody. Both suit the story but I really enjoyed the ending credits of the Japanese OST. I can’t actually find it on Youtube to share, so you have to trust me that it’s more interesting, I guess!

Ultimately, I don’t feel like the series has a whole host of flaws or anything and so maybe my rating might seem as though I didn’t enjoy the anime but that’s not true either, I think that instead, I found it more fascinating than enjoyable overall.

3 Stars

Psycho-Pass (Saiko Pasu)

Psycho-Pass (Saiko Pasu) 2012

I thought I’d try to avoid a long, rambling preamble for a change and instead take a shot at summing up my response to the show in a few words – disturbing, fascinating and mostly compelling.

While it actually took me months to finish Psycho-Pass (usually watching one or a few episodes at a time only) that’s not an indictment on my enjoyment of the series because I think it’s easily one of the best cyberpunk/futuristic dystopian shows around.

Obviously on several levels it’s a procedural/mystery/thriller with all the conventions that go with them, but the setting really elevates Psycho-Pass beyond and it was probably the most engrossing aspect to me as a viewer. The characters ranged from utterly engaging to tedious and even criminally under-used, I feel – but I want to stay with the setting a touch longer before I get back to the characters 🙂

To understand the Japan featured in the series, which falls into the ‘dystopia masquerading as utopia category’, I want to quote from the wiki entry:

Psycho-Pass is set in a futuristic era in Japan where the Sibyl System (シビュラシステム Shibyura Shisutemu), a powerful network of psychometric scanners, actively measures the minds and mentalities of civilised populations using a “cymatic scan” of the brain. When the calculated likelihood of an individual committing a crime exceeds an accepted threshold, he or she is pursued, apprehended, and killed if necessary by police forces.

A consequence of this system that I didn’t quote above is that while people generally tend to lead safe and calm lives, it is at the cost of much autonomy in terms of deciding the path of those lives.

The tension there tends to be the cause of most crimes the characters must solve in the series, and it’s probably the main theme for both the heroes and the villain – so, classic stuff, which I was really happy about.

Psycho-Pass also definitely kept me guessing at times and while it is equal parts thrilling and interesting, I’d like to warn folks that some episodes can be seriously disturbing.

And it’s not just the violence, but the way society reacts to violence – and without spoilers, I’ll just say that part of what makes it chilling is the seemingly real possibility of a similar society rising in the future. Maybe?

Now, finally to the characters – for me, a few pawns used by the key antagonist were a bit dull, but leads Akane Tsunemori and Shinya Kogami more than made up for it, with the tension between idealistic and cynical playing out in an interesting way by the end.

The supporting cast were great too, but now I want to circle back to my ‘mostly-compelling’ comment and pair it with my ‘criminally under-used’ comment.

Yayoi Kunizuka.

For whatever reason, she was hardly used despite being one of the more interesting supporting members of the team – and yet, the series took time to devote an entire flashback episode to her punk rock past… but then just never came back to it.

Even by the end of the first season there’s no sense that she’ll be given a chance to get the closure other characters were afforded. It thus became a kind of odd detour that interrupted the pacing and dissolved perhaps too much of the building tension.

Of course, there’s two more seasons of the show but here’s where I finally get around to ‘mostly-compelling’. I kinda have no desire to keep watching – which sounds odd, because I enjoyed Psycho-Pass. BUT enough of the main plot threads were resolved so that for me, there’s not enough to keep going.

Well, that and the fact I want more from another certain other character not featured in the next season(s)!

Still, season one had a really satisfying finish on many levels – but I want to quickly mention how much I appreciated the colour and light in the wheat fields at the end; it really stood out compared to the night and neon that dominates the rest of Psycho-Pass, so I thought that was a great contrast.

Brilliant science fiction but probably not for everyone, I reckon.

5 Stars

As a tiny postscript, at times I felt like a few action sequences were a little less fluid than I was expecting, and I’m not sure if that was due to the temporary studio switch or a desire for more realism in combat.

(For screen shots I’ve used anisearch and google images this time around).

Appleseed (Appurushīdo) (1988)

Appleseed (Appurushīdo) (1988)

I think you could argue that some classics hold their status by virtue of reaching certain storytelling spaces early, by being perhaps more influential rather than brilliant in their own right.

I’d argue that the 1988 OVA adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga fits that mold pretty neatly, since so many tropes, settings and ideas have carried forth well into the present, yet the film itself has its limitations.

Of course, the Appleseed manga is probably more key in terms of the influence I’m talking about (and obviously Akira before it) but the OVA is still part of the storytelling tradition that puts certain conventions and characters into the fore.

And while there’s certainly cyberpunk elements re: technology, rebellion in oppressive societies and augmentation, the film reads more like a Hollywood action blockbuster if you strip away those typical cyberpunk or science-fiction elements.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, that’s part of the fun for me when I watch it – it’s not unlike Lethal Weapon set in the 22nd Century!

So for me, what can I say represents Appleseed’s best parts?

Maybe the ‘time-capsule’ aspects – that ‘old-school’ anime character design which was usually a little rounder of face, with visible noses and sharper use of shadow, along with what I consider the wider, more generalised US influence – the big hair, 1980s workout-costuming, a montage sequence and a saxophone and light synth-soundtrack.

Add to that robotics, guns and explosions and a clear, linear ‘police-hunt-terrorists’ storyline and you’ve got Appleseed. Even Briareos and Deunan have a bit of a buddy-cop dynamic going on – though any such character interactions/development (or exploration of the social system in Olympus) tend to take a back seat to the action and tech. (There’s bits of humour here and there too but again, it’s not the focus either).

In fact, another joy for me tends to be seeing how the future is imagined both in terms of how society is organised and how technology might evolve – and Appleseed has both fascinating ideas and amusing moments common to a lot of 80s and 90s cyberpunk: especially when it comes to the office settings or communication technology.

Here, computers are massive, police still print on paper and phones have only reached ‘video’ and yet military tech and cybernetics are light years ahead. Audiences probably appreciate a good deal of familiar things in future-settings though, and predicting the future must be so, so very difficult. I tend to think speculative fiction writers do get it right pretty often too.

Where the OVA suffers in my opinion is due to some truly clunky dialogue and the missed opportunities to reveal more detail about the world and characters, something a series might have solved, but the movie still packs a lot into its runtime and I tend to prefer it over say, the 2004 adaptation, though nostalgia clearly plays into that feeling.

If you’re curious about the film’s place in the timeline of cyberpunk or maybe Shirow’s work in general, then you’ll probably pick up a few familiar themes and ideas – I remember feeling like the multi-leg tank was a clear precursor to GITS’s spider tank.

And speaking of that robot design and influence, I think some Boomer designs from Bubblegum Crisis might be a nod to Landmates and other robots in Appleseed, which is the kind of detail I tend to enjoy noticing because it reminds me just how interconnected storytelling tends to be!

4 Stars

Appleseed (Appurushīdo)

Appleseed Appurushīdo (2004)

Okay, so it’s going to sound like I’ve got an axe to grind when it comes to early CGI… and maybe I do, I guess?

I do remember being thrilled with the visuals when Appleseed (2004) was brand new but the work of such early innovators is sometimes sorta ‘punished’ when the industry develops and we look back, which is a bit of a shame because it’s still put together so well – the opening sequence is a nice example of this I reckon.

However, when I look back on this particular version of Shirow’s magna I still find myself preferring the 1988 OVA. But in 2004, you still get great fight sequences and a fair amount of time devoted to the problem of the bioroids.

There’s also some conspiracy elements and backstory-surprises in there, along with the other classic cyberpunk tropes, but the big finish with the tank attack allows the filmmakers a chance to evoke some powerful Godzilla-like moments and really amp up the sense of doom.

To get an idea of what I mean by Appleseed’s ‘dated’ look (if you’ve never seen this film) the whole thing used to be on youtube, so you can certainly see the early/cel-shaded (and still pretty smooth overall) CGI animation in action if you like.

3 Stars

Armitage III (Amitēji Za Sādo)

The late 1980s up to the mid 1990s represented a real peak of cyberpunk in anime, with the obvious giant that is Ghost in the Shell joined by Bubblegum Crisis, Appleseed and Battle Angel etc but one OVA that can go overlooked seems to be Armitage III.

Armitage III (Amitēji Za Sādo)
1995

I think I can see why that might be so – Armitage just doesn’t seem as consistent overall, though the original four episodes are still pretty good; there’s mystery and tension, some nice reveals and great designs/scene setting with just enough character development for what I was after.

However, it’s still worth seeing if you’re a fan of the genre.

The classic ethical questions around Personhood are all there and in this series there’s some (not a heap) of political turmoil as a backdrop too, it’s a nice extra element to what is essentially a murder mystery at its heart.

The fight scenes are satisfying and the villain is pretty good too and Naomi herself is a great heroine though for me, her punk attitude comes across a touch forced(?) at times, I think she works better as a ‘conflicted’ rather than ‘cocky’ hero. Maybe it was some of the dialogue?

The OVA was edited down to one film and given a new English dub with some Hollywood folks (Kiefer Sutherland, Juliette Lewis) so I feel like the team behind the international release put some real effort into the series but Armitage III still seems to have more of a ‘cult classic’ status, rather than being as widely known as GITS.

As an aside, I did occasionally find her visual design to vary a little too much across promotional images/dvd art/episode/films, so much so that at times Armitage almost appears as two different characters (well, maybe not that different).

4 Stars

(Nearly ten years later a sequel film was made (Dual Matrix). You can see a jump in animation quality and the introduction of some CGI (mostly vehicles). And while I thought the story started a little slow (and Armitage behaves quite out of character at one important point) it was pretty good too, some of the fight sequences especially were great).

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Inosensu)

Following up a landmark work like Ghost in the Shell (1995) surely would have been daunting – and maybe exciting too – even for an ace team that worked on the first film.

And if you’re thinking of watching Innocence, I reckon you’ll quickly see where this one takes a lot of steps to both differentiate itself from its predecessor while at the same time feature enough links to the past to satisfy most viewers.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Inosensu) 2004

The first thing I noticed was the colour palette – while GITS used lots of blues, greens and white throughout, Innocence relies on browns, orange and yellow quite often.

The other obvious thing fans of the original will notice is that CGI is fairly heavily integrated to the 2D animation here. For me, this is a bit of a deterrent actually, as I feel too much of that early-2000s CGI just doesn’t gel as smoothly, at times looking a bit like game graphics rather than feature film visuals.

Of course, that’s a little unkind – it’s still arresting imagery. And often the shadow and lighting are fantastic from scene to scene, and while things like the super slick cars stand out, the parade scene is truly stunning.

However, since the storyline didn’t grip me as I thought it would, I found myself more inclined to focus on the visuals and thus notice when they didn’t always feel ‘right’ compared to what I’m used to with newer film.

Still, it was fun to see returning characters – like Togusa (Kōichi Yamadera – who you may know as Spike from Cowboy Bebop) and of course, main character Batou (Akio Ōtsuka, who I recognised as Captain Nemo from Nadia).

And where the story falls down a little for being a somewhat like collection of impressive scenes rather than a driven cyberpunk/thriller narrative, there’s still something compelling about Batou’s morose determination – though I wished we’d seen a little more of him post the climactic scenes.

If you’ve never seen Innocence maybe consider doing so; because while I don’t think it’s a classic, there really must have been a lot of love and labour put into this ‘stand alone sequel’ (as Mamoru Oshii intended), and not just due to the budget.*

3 Stars

*You might notice Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki in the credits – I believe he was contacted to help finance the film’s giant budget 🙂

Battle Angel (Ganmu)

Until the start of this year I’d never seen Ganmu – which I realised was odd, since I do consider myself a cyberpunk fan. At the time, the then upcoming live-action remake (Alita) prompted me to finally watch Battle Angel and while I still haven’t seen the CGI-version yet, I did at last watch the OVA.

Battle Angel (Ganmu) 1993

And while it’s far too short, it remains equal parts powerful and frustrating. I still really enjoyed every minute – and everyone is probably well-aware that Kishiro never planned to have more than two episodes made, and so there’s nothing remotely like a resolution to the main conflict with the OVA. It’s more like an (effective?) funnel to the manga.

And so I guess I’d say that Battle Angel is still worth seeing due to its place in the history of cyberpunk anime, for that distinctive art style, grim vision of the future and great charactarisation (save for Hugo – a touch more on that later*).

The OVAs have their share of gore here and there, which adds to the general darkness of it all, and fits the tone of the episodes too, both of which are around 30 mins long compared to a ‘regular’ series at 23ish, so there is a touch more time to reveal a bit of character development and establish atmosphere.

Each fight scene is pretty ace too – at times I got an Astro Boy vibe (which makes sense of course) but I don’t consider that a bad thing at all and again, I do think that Battle Angle is worth seeing at least once, even if there’s no way to finish the storyline in two installments.

It’s still a classic and one that I still wish had been given more episodes!

4 Stars

*This is hard to judge for me – because I suspect the manga explores Hugo’s motivations deeper, but in the anime he represents a causality of ‘compressed storylines’ where important things must of a necessity be left out, and I didn’t think his motivation was sold (to me, at least) well enough to justify his flaw.