Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Cyber City Oedo 808: bluefish's thoughts

Like my friend Monsieur le Baron, I enjoyed Cyber City Oedo 808 for the flawed gem it is. With only three episodes, it's short enough not to outstay its welcome. I don't have too much to add to his review, but I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on the show.

Produced in the early 90's, Cyber City Oedo 808 comes a little after the first cyberpunk books came out. I can't call myself an expert, but it seems to me that cyberpunk in Japan is often about cops and crimefighters: Ghost in the Shell, Bubblegum Crisis, AD Police, and Appleseed. In my mind, cyberpunk should have an anti-authoritarian edge; after all, it's the megacorporations that tell us what to do, what to think, and what to feel. You shouldn't be protecting them and the social order. But my definition is probably too narrow. Like any genre, you take a setting and a series of tropes and you tell your own story with them. The way you shape the fantasy world often expresses even more than how you talk about the real world. Perhaps it says something that in the minds of these storytellers, change is best made from within, by organized groups of right-thinking individuals holding the line. It's an inherent trust that the system isn't flawed, individual corporations and people are. And sometimes you fix them with bullets.

As my friend said, Cyber City Oedo 808 is simply made. The awe-inspiring visuals that so often appear in cyberpunk just aren't there. For example, the city--itself perhaps the main character of any cyberpunk story, with its canyons of concrete and steel, its underbelly and its broken dreams--is shown like this:

 Well, it's blue. Blue is pretty cyberpunk, right?

It is a strangely lifeless world, cold and hollow. Let's compare this to another, later anime, Armitage. This particular screen was taken from the first movie. Now this is what a cyberpunk city should feel like:
 Look how shiny!

But that being said, Cyber City Oedo 808 gets cyberpunk in a way that I've never seen another anime, short of Ghost in the Shell, get. The characters are hard-edged--they're criminals, forced into bondage to reduce their sentence, pressed to the front line against the worst criminals as a disposable penal force. They've been set up by the system and all they can do is try to keep their heads--literally, given their exploding collars--and get their jobs done. They hate their jobs, and there are no good guys. The manipulation by the police chief, the nominal good guy, is just as bad or worse than what the criminals are doing. One story turns on one of the protagonists' refusal to execute a cold-blooded order from his superior. This is not a clean world where you can trust the system--this is a world where the system is the problem, but the alternative is even worse. In short, the show made me eat my words about not liking police in cyberpunk.

Armitage, to continue using that as a foil, spends a lot of time focusing on the title character crying. She is introduced as spunky and wild (and wearing something out of a male fantasy), but she ends up being emotionally devastated and wandering in the rain for much of the show, asking empty questions like "Who am I?" and "Why was I made this way?" I don't mind emotion in a show, but emotions need to mean something. We don't care about a character just because she's the title character and shows lots of skin. We care because she's a complicated and interesting person, and that was never established. What does her emotional state mean in terms of the story? It makes no difference to the audience whether she works out her angst or not, because there's nothing at stake.

Cyber City Oedo 808 uses cyberpunk to explore important motifs relating to anxieties created by the digital revolution. In one episode, a character malingers even after death because of the technology that has fused with his body. He has transcended humanity through the use of machines--but it is his hate, the very worst of his human existence, that remains behind. A chilling message for considering how humans transcend their bodies in a cyborgized world.

 Take that, Donna Harroway. (A reference no one reading this will get)

This rises head and shoulders above other shows, which use cyberpunk motifs like computers plugged into brains, but do it mostly for spice. What it means to really be plugged into the machine is never explored. The things these characters do could be accomplished just as well by typing. It's empty show.

 Just look at this joker. Those wires in his head aren't making a statement about our interreliance on technology. He's just lazy (also, a robot). Again, from Armitage.

At its best, cyberpunk forces us to face what technology means to us: what makes us individual? What separates humans from machines? How does our increasing reliance on computers compromise our individuality, our uniqueness? Are we losing what makes us human? How does it affect our relationships with each other and with ourselves? In short, this scene from Ghost in the Shell is better than any big action sequence with lots of flipping around and exploding.

This isn't to say looks aren't important in cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is partially about the attitude. It takes a lot from rock and roll: go big or go bigger. Live fast, die young, and leave a corpse that will probably poison the groundwater. Because that show is part of cyberpunk: it says look at me, I'm unique, I have attitude, I'm not just a piece of the overwhelming Machine. So here's a final shot: a dude with a mohawk, scars, and some awesome goggles, hanging out with a beautiful, tragic woman.

Thank you, Cyber City Oedo 808, for getting it right. Now someone get this team a budget to reboot this shit.

1 comment:

  1. I have to say, that shot of the city of Armitage is pretty rad. It's a shame the cool design is wasted on such a lame show, when Cyber City Oedo 808 could definitely have used some of that.