Densely plotted science fiction is rare in TV and movies, which usually keep the story simple or explain everything to the point of patronising us. Kenji Kamiyama is one of the rare writer-directors who strives for the complex science fiction usually only found in prose. His stories are so packed with detail and incident that it’s hard to keep up, but they usually make enough intuitive sense to not stop you being swept along by their steely cyberpunk cool. It’s an impressive sleight-of-hand, but it can’t always work.
Kamiyama was chief director on the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series and movie. More than any other anime in the last decade – and more than any live-action science fiction show – it demanded we pay attention. Kamiyama didn’t spoonfeed, forcing us to stay on top of the political machinations and technological shorthand like we were Section 9 experts ourselves. The first season was a towering narrative with a gripping climax, but it was ultimately cold, impassively scrutinising itself and keeping us at arm’s length. The second season was just as labyrinthine but added enough mystique and political urgency to make a deeper impression. Kamiyama gambled and won, creating a show that benefits from repeated viewing rather than being an impenetrable waste of time.
Kamiyama’s latest project is a theatrical anime adaptation of classic 1960s manga 009, about a group of nine superpowered cyborg heroes. 009 Re:Cyborg seems to position itself as a follow-up to previous incarnations, beginning with the team restoring cyborg Joe Shimamura’s memory after terrorists start destroying skyscrapers around the world. 009 is a Japanese superhero analogue, and despite Kamiyama modernising the aesthetic to look credible rather than kitsch, the extravagant spectacle and latent retro-futurism suggests the film will be a fun, pulpy adventure story. But Kamiyama couldn’t resist challenging us with another intensely demanding story. Complexity fits in the Ghost of the Shell universe, but here it’s a misjudged indulgence.
When crammed into a much shorter running time, his stories turn out to be more bewildering than majestic. Kamiyama is clearly versatile, as his previous project, Eden of the East, offset its intricate conspiracy story with cheery comedy and an endearing romance. 009 sits uneasily between Stand Alone Complex and Eden: it wants to be fun but ends up feeling like homework. This is a film where one of the superteam is an intelligent baby who can teleport people and sucks on a dummy, so a mythology with angel fossils, Hitler, the Holocaust, and a divine voice telling people to blow up buildings just isn’t compatible. (How those elements connect is one of the weirdest bits of occult revisionist storytelling I’ve ever heard.)
Ambition that falls short is admirable, but 009 Re:Cyborg didn’t need to be remotely this ambitious and address theology and metaphysics with such a heavy hand. When a lengthy infodump makes the story even more confusing, the script is out of control. Has so much been done with artificial life in science fiction that the solution is to drown the story in philosophy without checking whether the audience will grasp it or even care?
With so much plot, the characters can’t make much of an impression. Some are just ethnic stereotypes, such as the hulking Native American named Geronimo. Joe’s awakening feels arbitrary as the film loses all interest in his transition once he’s back on the team. We learn he and Francoise were in love, but their relationship just sits there, telling us that it matters. The computer-generated animation doesn’t help, hindering the character’s expressiveness. Since it makes them seem robotic, maybe it’s a deliberate use of the form, but it’s a bad choice if it prevents us caring about them.
Stoic characters are a staple in anime, and Kamiyama made it work in Stand Alone Complex because hand-drawn animation allowed him to imbue the vital subtleties that revealed them as real people. These cyborgs are just automatons wandering stiffly around the screen like they’re in a video game cut scene, except when they occasionally shout at each other. The characters look 2D, which Japanese audiences prefer, but their movements are still as awkward and overly fluid as three-dimensional CG figures.
Fortunately, relying on computer-generated animation only benefits the aesthetics and the action. Even when the plot makes no sense, you can still enjoy a single-take shot of Joe leaping between missiles to defuse them with a touch, or the detailed vista of a ruined city. 009 Re:Cyborg is a nifty visual experience, but has been hijacked by misguided philosophical hubris. Its potentially fascinating ideas might yield a great movie if they were presented with more care and discretion. Alternatively, Kamiyama should just relax and enjoy himself again next time. This film is trying far too hard to be profound.