Kamiyama Kenji’s 009 Re:Cyborg opens with beautiful/horrific images of Shanghai skyscrapers violently toppling, accompanied by a voice-over speaking in biblical terms about humanity’s moral Fall and subsequent trials sent by ‘Him’. Watching the disaster unfold on the television news, young student Joe Shimamura comments, “They must have been planning this for a long time. They beat me to it.” Alienated and confused, Joe is about to carry out his own act of explosive terrorism in Tokyo, when he is reactivated – and his memory restored – by the team of cyborg agents he led decades ago. Now reunited with them to fight a spate of apparently random acts of global terror, Joe (aka 009) must also face his own demons, while finding his place in a world that has profoundly changed.
First conceived by Ishinomori Shotaro in 1964, Cyborg 009 was a Cold War manga series that ran in multiple publications, as well as being turned into various live-action movies, television anime series, radio plays and video games over the decades. It is, as they say, ‘big in Japan’, where its superpowered cyborg characters and their conflicted exploits (turning against the evil organisation that creates them) have become iconic. Kamiyama reenlists this myth in an expressly post-9/11 context, seeing if their old values of justice can still hold in the new world order.
That said, much as Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) and its sequel Innocence (2004) delivered their dystopian cyberpunk with a hefty dose of Cartesian philosophy, Kamiyama (who directed the Ghost in the Shell TV spin-off series Stand Alone Complex) hard-wires his team superheroics with some thoroughgoing theology. So for those anime fans who just want aerial escapades and pitched cyberzombie battles, the film’s lengthy discussions about different conceptions of divinity, the religious theories of Mircea Eliade and Sigmund Freud, and the Problem of Evil, not to mention a wtf-inducing coda and final, post-credits image, might come as a real surprise, or even an irritating distraction. Yet in a story prominently featuring fallen angels, divine (or demonic) voices and a credulity-stretching deus ex machina, all this theological material comes too foregrounded to be mere subtext, and is used to present 009’s struggles as both an internal and external conflict of good and evil, in a postmodern world where the difference between self-sacrificing saviour and suicide bomber is not always so clearly demarcated.
The blending of 3DCG characters (stylised to resemble CEL animation) and traditionally drawn backgrounds offers a spectacular hybrid playground in which half-human robots can work through the shifting allegiances and crises of faith that have marked the new millennium. It is dazzling to the eye, but also challenging to the brain. Faced near the film’s end with a character’s bewilderment as to what has happened, Joe’s girlfriend Françoise Arnoul (003) responds: “Good question – it’s a mystery.” 009 Re:Cyborg raises all manner of thorny questions – but you will have to answer them according to the dictates of your own inner voice.