It wasn’t too long ago that most saw the science fiction sub-genre of “Cyberpunk” as a dying format. Yeah, The Matrix was a huge movie, but that was made almost fifteen years ago, and little else came of its popularity (aside from two somewhat questionable sequels). Pretty soon, things like 9/11 took all of the fun out of life, and anything that could possibly be seen as a commentary on the decay of society and runaway governments was a big “No-No”. In this climate. science fiction and fantasy media turned into escapist Hollywood CGI-fests and lost their subversive souls in the transition. We all watched endless reality shows and procedural police dramas all decade, wore stupid clothes, and listened to terrible music – man the “noughties” were awful! Their version of the future seemed to be that of excess and world domination through “democracy”. Too bad the bubble burst and we all came to our senses.
Let’s flash forward to today: People fear a global takeover by a prominent Asian country, a government agency has been caught hoarding tons of personal information on just about every one on earth, mega-corporations control world governments, and cyber-crime is on the rise around the world. If I didn’t know any better, people like William Gibson predicted the future and we didn’t even realize it! Every day, we edge closer and closer to the 1980’s view of the near future made flesh, largely due to societal and economic turmoil in the present. The one good thing coming out of this new cynical age is that our speculative fiction is cool again, and it seems cyberpunk media is coming back as a result. Fox has a new TV show called Almost Human that thrives on just about every trope the genre has ever laid out, there have been movies like Dredd, Elysium, and a new Ghost in the Shell series hitting the scene, and even Cyberpunk video games like Deus Ex hitting the shelves – Cyberpunk is back Baby!
With all this new material out there, it’s fun to go back and watch one of the seminal Cyberpunk anime productions of the past – Cyber City Oedo 808. This show isn’t just a classic, it’s pretty damn influential for anime of the time, and one can see its fingerprints on just about everything that came after – even Ghost in the Shell. Today I feel like Cyber City Oedo 808 is becoming a forgotten gem, much like loads of other eighties anime, and people really need to get the word out on great classic shows.
Released as a three episode OVA way back in 1990, Cyber City Oedo 808 is just a tad longer than a feature film, so it’s not like a huge time investment is needed. One of the more endearing things about this show is that it reeks of late 80’s cheese. Everyone has big silly hair, garish clothing, one of them is essentially a cross-dresser, and the sounds of what could essentially be considered “hair metal” is everywhere.
It’s the year 2808 and the booming megalopolis of Oedo (Tokyo of the future) is desperate to curb the rising tide of technology-based “cyber-crime”. The city’s governing body decides to follow the old adage of “it takes a thief to catch a thief” and brings in a group of criminals in a new initiative to take on the problem. Serving ridiculous 300+ year sentences for various crimes, Sengoku, Gogol and Benten are less than enthusiastic to be talking to their captors.
They end up being offered relief from their orbital penitentiary cells, but only if they take a deal from the Cyber Police. They are given a pathway to redemption in that each criminal brought to justice results in a shortened sentence, so theoretically they could attain freedom once again. In order to keep the trio in line, each reformed convict is outfitted with an explosive collar that would detonate if they do a poor job or try to escape their duties.
For the purposes of this review, I actually watched this episode twice, once in the original Japanese (with what I assumed were fansubs), and a second time in English via the UK version. The reason I wanted to see the UK version is that it has an alternate musical track that is not present in either the American or Japanese releases, and to me it’s the superior version.
Manga UK hired a man named Rory McFarlane to compose a more intense soundtrack for their release, and to me the riff-laden guitar sound-scape is far more fitting to the setting than the original soundtrack. That’s not a jab at the original soundtrack by any means, but it just seems somewhat bland in comparison. The other gem from the English localization that stands out is the quality of the dubbing. I know this is a hot topic of debate for anime fans, but I base my opinions of dubs or subs on the actual quality of the product rather than the country of origin. Not all Japanese language tracks are God’s gift to mankind, and in fact I felt the script and voice acting was both more energetic, and fleshed out in the English Version.
Speaking of the English dub, Cyber City Oedo is one of those anime titles from the early-mid 90’s that really stepped up its game with coarse language. I would even say that it’s basically hilarious in the way it weaves its vulgar tapestry. I enjoy the cursing because these characters are supposed to be anti-social former convicts, and let’s face it most people on the outskirts of society probably talk in a similar manner. Well….that, and it’s funny in a juvenile way, and in a similar vein to why Malcolm Tucker as played by Peter Capaldi is funny. Pardon my french here, but I wanted to showcase one of the most hysterical lines in the show just to get the point across as to why I loved it. This is from episode three:
“Get lost. You wouldn’t recognize a goddamn vampire if one jumped up and bit you on the end of your fucking dick. So just get off my back.”
The dialog is full of stuff like that, people swear even if it’s completely unnecessary to what they are saying. The whole thing reminds me of why I like the movie Shoot ‘Em Up starring Clive Owen. The movie is so unnatural, so over the the top that it becomes completely hilarious for all the right reasons.
The English dub also does a great job of filling in quiet spots within the dialog. Sometimes there are long stretches of silence going on in the Japanese version, and the English dub fills this in with extra material. Even when a camera was silently panning off-screen in the original, the new version might include two characters conversing with dialog that acts as world building or character development dialog. I’m usually pretty critical of stuff like this considering I felt the “extra dialog” injected into Tekkaman Blade generally made the show cheesy and more childish, but here it really works. How else would we get a lecture from the Cyber Police liaison robot (Varsus) to Sengoku on his misuse of the word “fuck”? Outside of such a fun dub.
Cyber City Oedo 808 was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who happens to be one of my favorite 90’s anime directors. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, his works should. Kawajiri is the guy behind Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Highlander, The Deadshot segment of Batman: Gotham Knight, and even Demon City Shinjuku. Don’t forget his name, because the material he directed was essentially what got me into anime back in the nineties. Don’t be surprised if most of my posts on here have something to do with his works! There is really no other director that captured the American Market like Kawajiri, and his films were staples of many Blockbuster video stores around the country. Granted this is generally because his shows are all pretty violent, full of action, and other things teenage boys thought were awesome back then.
I mentioned the characters of Sengoku, Gogol and Benten earlier, but did not say much other than the fact that they are foul-mouthed former convicts. Sengoku is essentially the main character of the show, although each episode is a character piece where each one gets the spotlight. He’s your typical hot-headed badass that doesn’t take any sass from anyone. Whether it be his boss, the robot assigned to watch over him, or fellow teammates, Sengoku is usually snarking at somebody. In the English dub he is especially hot-headed but likable in a weird way.
Gogol is a huge intimating computer hacker with a red mohawk and scars all over his face. I was pleasantly surprised by his character, as one would assume he would be the one-dimensional brute of the team, but he’s really the brains of the operation. Benten is an androgynous martial arts master that fights using mono-filament wire and acts pretty sadistic towards people he is fighting. Of the three, Benten is the least likable simply because he comes across sort of creepy. He does end up fighting a vampire though, so there’s points there!
My long-winded introduction was basically laying out Cyber City Oedo 808 as a classic Cyberpunk show, but one might wonder how much it has in common with notable literary cyberpunk stories. Cyberpunk, as a genre, deals with the conventions of post-humanism, technology running amok, and the collapse of society, or as a notable anonymous article once put it [cyberpunk is the story of] “high tech and low life.” The world of Oedo is a very dark one, and it seems to run in a similar manner to the universe of the 2000AD books that Judge Dredd eventually came from.
It’s hard to piece together the societal structure the series is based in, but one can see that it is presented as very high-tech, and yet VERY fascist. In the first OVA episode, for example, a man under pressure confesses to a murder that is responsible for a horrible crisis that Sengoku is attempting to unravel. This is enough for Hasegawa (their boss) to order Sengoku to kill the man there and then without so much as a trial. When Sengoku fails to do so he is reprimanded and his sentence is increased due to insubordination.
Sengoku shares the sort of philosophical leaning that many cyberpunk heroes deal with. He seems to resent what the world has become, and especially the over-use of technology in Oedo. A notable scene from the Japanese version shows a little bit of dialog that really sums his stance up: “What a Joke…We built a monstrous city, then we put the computers in charge…we rely too much on you damn machines, don’t we, junkpile? ” The English edition is basically the same just with more “F-bombs”.
If you are a fan of cyberpunk and have yet to see Cyber City Oedo 808 do yourself a favor and take a trip over to YouTube and watch the UK versions of it. It may be old, and the dub is unintentionally hilarious, but this is definitely a style of anime that really isn’t done anymore. Robots, Cyborgs, and Vampires all rolled into one, it sounds like my idea of a great way to spend a snowed in winter day!