The name Shotaro Ishinomori may not sound too familiar, but his work almost certainly will be, particularly if you have an interest in manga and anime. A former protégé of the legendary Osama Tetsuka, Shotaro was the creator of such seminal shows as Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, which popularised the entire concept of the transforming (or henshin) superhero television series in Japan. Simply put, without Shotaro Ishinomori, there would be no Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
One of Shotaro’s earlier and longest-running manga was Cyborg 009, which told the story of an international group of cyborg spies who turned against their criminal masters to fight the forces of evil. Hugely popular in Japan, Cyborg 009 prompted a string of anime adventures both on the small screen and in cinemas – the most recent TV run ended in 2001. The awkwardly titled (to type, at least) 009 Re: Cyborg is an updating of Shotaro’s concept, bringing its multicultural, multitalented heroes into an edgier, post-9/11 setting.
Brought vividly to life by director Kenji Kamiyama and his production team Production IG (whose collective credits include East Of The Eden, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and the memorably nasty animated sequence from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill), the timing of 009‘s release makes perfect sense from a cultural standpoint; the fractious relationships of its cyborg heroes aren’t unlike those of The Avengers, while its action-filled plot is full of War on Terror angst and governmental distrust.
As 009 begins, we’re introduced to an alternate 2013 that teeters on the brink of chaos. A series of suicide bombings across the globe have culminated in a colossal explosion in an American city, which has razed six skyscrapers and left some 10,000 people dead (in an unintentional nod to Team America, perhaps, it’s 9/11 times three).
When we first meet him, the apparently ordinary Japanese high school kid Joe Shimamura (codenamed 009) is on the cusp of becoming a bomber himself, before he’s rescued from a trance-like funk by his former sweetheart, Francoise. Dragged back to the base of the fatherly Doctor Gilmore in dramatic style, Joe learns that he’s had his memory wiped, and has been kept in temporary stasis as a student until his superhuman services are once again required.
With the threat of further terrorist attacks – the perpetrators being under the psychological control of an unseen lord of chaos known only as His Voice – Doctor Gilmore reassembles his team of heroes. As well as Joe (who can slow down time and run at incredible speeds) and the computer expert Francoise, there’s stealthy British agent GB, a white-haired shooting expert named Heinrich, Chinese fire-breather Chang, African archaeology expert Pyunma (yes, archaeology really is a super-human power), square-jawed American Jet, who’s fallen out with the rest of the team and now works for the National Security Agency, a gigantic Native American named Geronimo, and a weird infant prodigy called Ivan, who can create portals in space and speak without removing the pacifier from his mouth.
If all of that sounds like a lot to take in, it is – particularly if you’re not familiar with the source manga. Joss Whedon had the earlier Marvel films to fall back on when he made The Avengers, while 009 simply has to make its introductions and hope the audience can keep up.
Add all these roaming characters to a swirling plot that involves conspiracy theories, grand devastation and third-act bout of theological beard-stroking, and you’re left with a bubbling stew of ideas that never quite coalesces into a satisfying whole.
From a technical standpoint, 009 is sumptuous. Kamiyama and his team have employed cel-shaded 3D models to provide the impression of hand-drawn animation – a little like the classic Gamecube brawler Viewtiful Joe, only more detailed – and the results are often spectacular. Although we’d never like to see this practice replace Ghibli-esque animation techniques, it undoubtedly works in a high-octane, high-tech setting like this, allowing the camera to judder and swerve among the explosions and collapsing buildings.
Backed up by some thunderous sound design and surprisingly effective 3D, 009 is an aural and visual feast. Clearly wearing its influences on its sleeve – from Killzone-like android soldiers to The Matrix-style slow-mo fights – 009 is a compendium of anime and pop staples. Heroines swan-dive from dramatic heights like Motoko in Ghost In The Shell, fringes blow across eyes in the breeze, and bad guys are sliced in twain like the comestibles in Fruit Ninja. For anyone keen on Japanese animation, it’s a real treat.
Those less invested in the medium may find themselves utterly at sea in 009‘s shifting tones and muddled plot, however. Lacking the hard SF gravitas of Ghost In The Shell, its pauses for philosophical conversation sits awkwardly with its Gatchaman-like cartoon violence, where heroes can store infinite bullets in their fingers, or outrun explosions like an emo Wizard of Speed and Time. But in among the designer carnage, there are some extremely fun, even subversive ideas in here about the threat of terrorism as a pretext for starting wars, and how religion can be manipulated – intentionally or otherwise – to justify acts of violence.
Although not a classic piece of J-animation, 009 is nevertheless an entertaining thrill ride, and well worth seeing on a big screen. It serves as a worthy reintroduction to Shotaro Ishinomori’s manga characters, and if there’s any justice, 009 Re:Cyborg signals the start of plenty more adventures to come.
009 Re:Cyborg is out in UK cinemas on the 7th June.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.