For me, one of the most overlooked and underappreciated anime / manga franchises out there (at least in America) is the venerable Cyborg 009 series by the late Shotaro Ishinomori. Created in 1963, Cyborg 009 could be considered Japan’s first superhero property, and one of, if not, the first fully racially integrated superhero team stories out there. There have been countless comics, movies and TV shows made for the franchise, this being the most recent. It should be no surprise to my readers that I really like older anime and things that have interesting art styles, and I find Ishinomori’s versions of the classic 60’s manga style to be at least up there with Tezuka.
Sadly, I recall the art style of the 2001-2 show (that aired on Cartoon Network) to be a dividing force in anime fandom at the time, with some of the more “mainstream” fans disliking it “because it looked old”. Thankfully 2017 is an entirely different beast, and while this show has had a modern facelift, anime fans seem to be more willing to try different things today which is great! Don’t be surprised if I do more Cyborg 009 reviews soon, as the 50th anniversary has brought a handful of new shows, films, and comics to enjoy.
The main story of Cyborg 009 involves a shady militarized weapons manufacturer and terrorist organization called Black Ghost, and their newest project – cyborg super soldiers. Nine people from around the world are kidnapped and forced to undergo experiments which turn them into cyborgs with superhuman powers. Realizing that they have been wronged, and that Black Ghost is a threat to humanity itself, the cyborgs band together in order to stop Black Ghost in its’ goal of starting the next world war.
This story picks up years after Black Ghost has been eliminated, and the Cyborgs are trying to live as close to normal lives as they can, only to have that ripped away from a new threat – Metahumans with abilities like their own that have seemingly been ordered to kill the Cyborgs. Called “The Blessed” these guys are all sorts of zany bad guys such as a Cowboy that can control the weather, and a man that can alter gravity at will.
Cyborg 009 – Call of Justice is a “Netflix original” that was originally released as three films in Japan. It was produced by Production I.G and OLM Digital and distributed by Toho with Kenji Kamiyama (he directed Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex ) as executive producer and chief of the project, and Kokai Kakimoto (Psycho-Pass movie unit director) as director of the films themselves. Netflix basically took this footage and edited it into a twelve episode series that premiered last month (Feb 2017).
I mentioned earlier that there was a “facelift” of sorts for the animation and character designs, and for once this is a modernization that isn’t terrible. The Cyborgs in Cyborg 009 have always had iconic red costumes adorned with yellow buttons and long yellow scarves. This motif is intact, but the suits have been “upgraded” to armored protective suits with yellow vent ports in the place of buttons. oh yeah, the yellow scarves are there! It’s subtle, but it’s a welcome upgrade for the long running series. Another change is that the character designs have been tweaked a bit, even from the 2012 film 009 Re:Cyborg, also from production I.G.
While this may be the farthest departure from the classic art style by Shotaro Ishinomori, the character designs are good, in honestly my only quibble is that every iteration seems to make Jet Link (Cyborg 002) look less and less stylized that his original design. Jet used to have crazy spike hair and a huge hooked nose, now he just has a big nose and shaggy blond hair as if played by a young Owen Wilson. This isn’t a deal breaker, but I wish classic character designs wouldn’t be hidden sometimes – this was also an issue for me with the recent Harlock CGI film. The flipside to that sentiment is that thankfully, Cyborg 008 – an African man named Pyunma, has been toned down as to not look like any sort of blackface character as he previously was depicted. Granted, this hasn’t been an issue since the 70’s or so, but seeing the original 1960’s version of this shows Aquaman is pretty uncomfortable at times.
You may have noticed that this show uses 3D CGI graphics to render characters rather than a traditional style that mimics old-school cel art. Japan has caught a lot of flack for years in the way that they handle this sort of animation as it seems somehow “cheaper” than American and even European counterparts. This sadly isn’t an actual technical limitation, but a misguided stylistic choice. The following is an excerpt from an Anime News Network column on the issue that may shed some light:
Part of the problem is that not only are CG artists trying to imitate the look of 2D animation, but they’re trying to imitate an aesthetic that was born out of cost-cutting. If anime had always been lavishly funded, it might have consistently been animated on 1’s or 2’s (that is, 24 or 12 frames per second, or a cel every 1 or 2 film frames). But it’s usually far less. To try and match that, CG artists have started rendering at lower frame rates — 6 or even 4 frames per second.
This style is jarring to western fans used to things like CGI animated films from Disney, Dreamworks, or Pixar. Hell there are even crappy children’s shows that look infinitely better than a lot of CGI anime – a recent whipping boy for this is 2016’s Berserk TV series – check out the bloodbath that unfolded after that show premiered to see how passionate fans are about this issue.
So where does Cyborg 009 – Call of Justice fall into this picture? Well, thankfully it looks pretty good – it’s by no means the best I’ve seen, but the animators made some cool choices that show a lot of depth and show off action very well. There are a few janky scenes here or there, but for the most part the animation seemed on par with shows like Cartoon Network’s recent Green Lantern series or Disney’s Tron show. It seems that Japan is finally drifting away from the fake low framerate effect on their shows, now they just have to work out stiffness a bit more, and we’ll really start to see the style come into it’s own.
I did forget to mention earlier, but I watched this anime in English on Netflix, so we have an anime dub in play. This one was produced by California-based Bang Zoom! Entertainment who used to always do dubs for Manga Entertainment releases. They are usually a solid studio with this production being no exception. I haven’t followed a lot of today’s voice actors very much, but everyone involved seemed to do a great job, and there wasn’t anyone in the cast that grated on my nerves.
All-in-all I really enjoyed this show, and hope more people check it out. Thankfully, it exists as an entry point into the franchise and really doesn’t require any knowledge of a 50+ year old back-story, but it also doesn’t alienate long-term fans. Perhaps the plot is a bit “too safe” to be anything immediately classic, but it’s a fitting chapter in a long story. If you think this looks cool, or want to see what is basically “Japanese X-Men” I’d give this show a shot!
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