Many have made light (or should that be neon-light?) of the fact that modern-day Japan and its neighboring countries actually come close to what was envisioned by cyberpunk cinema and literature all the way back at the beginning of the 1980s. But Japan did not only become that neon blend of technology and the urban as imagined by authors such as Gibson et al, for just as it led the way in technology and entertainment, the country soon led the way in cyberpunk fiction itself. In that very same decade, Japan produced the manga, anime, and movies which cyberpunk is most famous for, especially once you remove literature from the equation. Burst City, Crazy Thunder Road, Rubber’s Lover, Tetsuo the Iron Man; these are just a few from the canon.
Loser Punks of Korea
It would be wrong though to simply look at the 1980s for prime examples of Japanese cyberpunk, just as it would be wrong to only focus on Japan itself. In doing so, you’d be missing out on cult classic Save The Green Planet! A South Korean production from 2003, this is a film based around the kidnapping of an executive by a disturbed young man. The kidnapper’s aim? To expose his hostage to the world as an alien in human camouflage. While the film’s setting seems to be the early 2000s, Save The Green Planet! is as out of our time as any other sci-fi film of its ilk. This comes not only from the high concept that drives the film, but also the cyberpunk get-up of our kidnapper and his accomplice — the high-tech miner helmets, the rubbery smocks. Their mish-mash of an outfit mirrors the furniture they’ve strapped their victim to, a cyber-grungey chair cobbled together from cannibalized bits of technology.
The film itself is revered for its hybrid of styles, lurching in tone from slapstick to horror with great aplomb. That said, the through-line of the film is never lost, one that is key to all cyberpunk, the idea of an oppressed anti-hero rebelling against those in power (albeit in a rather misguided manner…or is it?). Our kidnapper, Byeong-gu, has been pushed to desperate means by a world on the fritz. The movie shows us the chaos of the urban jungle around him with scenes of riots, and the effect of urban alienation as personified by Byeong-gu himself, a man who believes literal aliens are among us all the time. It is this world of chaos which — spoiler alert — give the aliens the justification they need for our destruction, the killing of a planet no longer green.
You can find Save the Green Planet! here.
What to watch next:
If you like the raw feel and mixed character to Save the Green Planet! then I’ll point you to the more recent movie Super Virgin, or ‘숫호구’. Made in 2012 by Back Seung-kee, who both stars and directs, this is not the porno comic book movie that the title suggests, but instead a strange and bittersweet body-swap comedy set in present day Korea.
Seung-kee plays a rough, lovable loser in a lovably rough looking city, one where he happens not only a beautiful girl but also a secret laboratory with the same higgledy-piggledy aesthetic as the lair from Save the Green Planet! In this lab, he decides to body-swap with a handsome-looking android avatar, whereupon he proceeds to court the girl of his dreams. Sounding downright bizarre? Don’t be put off, because Super Virgin is actually a subtle and understated little tale, managing to show the very real sadness behind our hero’s bumbling veneer as it goes from high comedy to high drama without once losing its lo-fi charm. That charm comes out of the lo-fi setting of Incheon City, with its rustic alleys and tiny book cafes; a great setting for this wintry tale of avatars and love. You can almost feel the cold in this film.
Before and Beyond Tetsuo
Shinya Tsukamoto, the auteur behind cult classic Tetsuo The Iron Man, has a fair few goodies on his CV for any cyberpunk enthusiast on the lookout for more techno-fetish mayhem. A Snake of June and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer are among those most-cited by fans of Japanese cinema, but often overlooked is the Tetsuo prototype of sorts Tsukamoto made in 1987, The Adventures Of Electric Rod Boy.
As can be inferred from the title alone, this example of early Japanese cyberpunk actually is downright bizarre. Basically, there’s a boy who has an electric rod growing from out of his back, one with a time machine to boot, who then decides to take a schoolmate to a future version of Tokyo, wherein which the pair do battle with a gang of vampires.
While there are no iron men entities involved as such, the hyper-fast editing and messy on-screen mangling of mechanics that defined Tetsuo is all on screen here. Such techniques were also put on display a year beforehand in a short by Tsukamoto called The Phantom of Regular Size, which is essentially a color version of Tetsuo made on a much lower budget. Do watch it if you’re interested in seeing the same film told twice, but stick with The Adventures Of Electric Rod Boy to see how Tsukamoto found his voice on a different sort of tale. You can catch the 45 minute short on the home movie release of Tetsuo and its sequel Body Hammer, as released by UK distributors Third Window Films in 2012.
The Adventures Of Electric Rod Boy is available as an extra on this release of Tetsuo The Iron Man/Tetsuo II: Body Hammer.
What to watch next:
Henge (Metamorphosis), directed by Hajime Ohata in 2011, finds the relationship of a married couple tested when the husband suddenly turns sick, and killings begin to occur in the local neighborhood.
Henge is the most unique entry on this list as the film itself is a slow-burning domestic drama that isn’t cyberpunk in the slightest. But trust me, once the film reaches it’s OTT climax, you’ll see a giant tribute to the work of Tsukamoto. The director, Ohata, has since gone on to direct a segment for American anthology movie series The ABCs of Death, and a J-pop horror movie from last year called Evil Idol Song which seems to have sunk without trace.
Anime You May Have Missed
The Japanese animation industry is most famous for films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell but often overlooked are the anthology movies like Robot Carnival and Neo-Tokyo, both released in 1987. A prime example of anime anthology is Genius Party, a two-volume showcase for new animators that came and went in the 2000s. The first one, from 2007, includes a great mecha tale set in a dystopian China, Shanghai Dragon by Shoji Kawamori. The second installment from 2008, Genius Party Beyond, includes the sleek looking Toujin Kit by Tatsuyuki Tanaka, a dark and odd tale about a young woman hiding contraband creatures in her apartment from robot inspectors, who soon finds herself on the run when her secret’s exposed.
What to watch next:
For one of the very few visual examples of the burgeoning ‘solarpunk’ scene, check out the ‘live’ CGI of a Forest within a Forest, by Japan-based art collective AUJIK.
The idea behind AUJIK is that all objects on Earth are imbued with a universal life force, from the trees around us to the tablets in our hands. This meshing of organic essence with inorganic existence is put to creepy use in a Forest within a Forest, which brings to mind that same ‘uncanny’ feeling you had upon first watching the movie District 9, a familiar looking landscape embellished by an ingrained yet alien looking element. You could consider it a form of cyber-Shinto, like an updated pagan belief of sorts, or the utopian look at our transhumanist future which defines the solarpunk movement.
Some of the movies mentioned in this article are obscure for an English-speaking audience, so they may be hard to find. Let us know if you find a source for any of these movies.
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My original comment was apparently rejected by moderators, presumably because I included links – I suppose the author’s request to “let us know if you find a source for any of these movies” meant for purchase. At any rate, most of the titles mentioned in this article are easy to find, including English subtitles for those of us who need them.