The World of Japanese Cyberpunk Cinema

Midnight Eye’s Mark Player has written a fascinating and very in-depth essay on the sub-genre of Japanese cyberpunk cinema and its major figures (e.g., Shinya Tsukamoto, Shozin Fukui), notable films (e.g., Tetsuo: The Iron ManElectric Dragon 80,000VAkira, Rubber’s Lover), and themes.

The world of live-action Japanese cyberpunk is a twisted and strange one indeed; a far cry from the established notions of computer hackers, ubiquitous technologies and domineering conglomerates as found in the pages of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) – a pivotal cyberpunk text during the sub-genre’s formation and recognition in the early eighties. From a cinematic standpoint, it perhaps owes more to the industrial gothic of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976) and the psycho-sexual body horror of early David Cronenberg than the rain-soaked metropolis of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), although Scott’s neon infused tech-noir has been a major aesthetic touchstone for cyberpunk manga and anime institutions such as Katsuhiro Otomo‘s Akira (1982-90) and Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell (1989- ).

In the Western world, cyberpunk was born out of the new wave science fiction literature of the sixties and seventies; authors such Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick – whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) was the basis for Blade Runner – were key proponents in its inception, creating worlds that featured artificial life, social decay and technological dependency. The hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett also proved influential with regards to the sub-genre’s overall pessimistic stance. What came to be known as cyberpunk by the mid 1980s was thematically characterised by its exploration of the impact of high-technology on low-lives – people living in squalor; stacked on top of one another within an oppressive metropolis dominated by advanced technologies.

Live-action, Japanese cyberpunk on the other hand, is raw and primal by nature, and characterised by attitude rather than high-concept. A collision between flesh and metal, the sub-genre is an explosion of sex, violence, concrete and machinery; a small collection of pocket-sized universes that revel in post-human nightmares and teratological fetishes, powered by a boundaryless sense of invasiveness and violation. Imagery is abject, perverse and unpredictable and, like Cronenberg’s work, bodily mutation through technological intervention is a major theme, as are dehumanisation, repression and sexuality.

What I find particularly interesting is that Player grounds the genre in a specific time and place, and even as he discusses and praises its boundary-pushing and experimentation, he questions its further relevance given the ubiquity of technology in our lives today. Or, as he puts it:

More than a sub-genre, it tackled the anxieties of the period in ways that conventional expression would fall short. But now that we’re in the technologically dependent twenty-first century – the post-human nightmare now a grim reality – can it still be relevant?