An Introduction Into Japanese Cyberpunk
Awake into a world of extreme fetishism, hybrids of flesh and mechanics in a nightmarish intercorrelation. Sexual cravings displayed through giant rotating phallus. Sensory assaults promoting explosions of mechanical expression and evolution. Raw and primal visions that serve to push through the boundaries of the human condition. This is the world of extreme Japanese cyberpunk, an underground movement of films that began to gain international notice in the late 1980s.
Live action Japanese cyberpunk is categorized by its graphic depictions of sexuality, visual experimentation, mechanic mutilation, industrial themes and violence – and which is depicted in an invasive, violating and sometimes symbolic way. The detachment of what we consider humanity through visceral narrative and dark industrial soundtracks.
Japanese cyberpunk differs from the Westernized postmodernist depiction of the genre. Defined by works such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s cult novel Neuromancer, which is focused more on the concept of advanced technology and the breakdown of social order. Although this notion has also inspired Japanese cinema with works such as Masamune Shirow’s Ghost In The Shell (1995) and Katsuhiro Otomo‘s Akira (1988).
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo (1989) and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) – see trailer below – are perhaps the best-known examples of early Japanese cyberpunk work. Tetsuo is a sensory audio/visual attack on the post-human condition shown though nightmares and extreme body modification. An interpretation of the impact technology has on society, and the effects on human existence from a post-modernist view. This is visually represented by the climax of the film, where the two mutated beings confront each other and, ultimately, fuse together to infect the world with their mutations.
Shigeru Izumiya’s Death Power involves a narrative about a powder, which induces severe hallucinations of a nightmarish and truly disturbing nature.
The film also deals with sexual fetishism and the relation between male and female sexuality and control. The displayed violence is shown in abominating and sadomasochistic fashion.
Tetsuo’s setting utilizes the streets of Tokyo. Industrial areas, abandoned warehouses and scarp yards. The budgetary constraints actually help the film’s illusion. Stop motion cinematography mixed with real time actions in industrial locations further denote the feeling of an incoherent, manic and metallic world.
This is something which is shared with Shozin Fukui’s Pinocchio v946 (1991) and Rubber’s Lover (1996) – both films are stylistically similar to Tsukmoto’s work. Pinocchio v946 is very vivid and assaulting piece. Fukui worked for Tsukamoto on the filming of Tetsuo, which is why the visual style is very similar. However, Pinocchio v946 maintains a very separate concept, focussing on how technological amendments to a human body effects mentality.
The story follows a scientifically altered individual who has been brainwashed by a corporation. As the character begins to regain his memories, the modifications become increasing apparent through a physical Metamorphosis.
Shigeru Izumiya’s Death Power (1986) is considered one of the first movies of the Japanese cyberpunk movement. The movie involves a narrative about a powder, which induces severe hallucinations of a nightmarish and truly disturbing nature. However, upon the ingestion of the substance, the narrative becomes incoherent and the visual representation truly takes the viewer on a journey through fears of technology and its rapid growths – a notion that is also shared with Tetsuo.
Modern Japanese cyberpunk
With the increasingly available distributions through DVDs and internet, a new era of the Japanese cyberpunk has arisen. These films continue in the same spirit as the earlier examples. However, much of the post-modernist views have now become less apparent. The sexual perversion and physical mutation of the earlier works have now been replaced by a more mainstream sensibility. This has allowed the international accessibility of the films to grow.
Noboru Iguchi’s The Machine Girl (2008) focuses on a Japanese schoolgirl called Ami, who is on a quest for vengeance after being tortured by the Ninja Yakuza Family. After her arm is severed, she is mechanically enhanced with the ability to mutate and grow weapons. This is the continuation of the phallic symbolism.
What also remains intact from the early examples of Japanese cyberpunk is the extreme attitude. The effects and gore are very vivid and outlandish. Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Tokyo Gore Police (2008) relies heavily on this formula. Nishimura also created the special effects for The Machine Girl, Meatball Machine (2008), Mutant Girl Squad (2010) and RoboGeisha (2009), among many others. He is credited for doing the special effects for Fukui’s Rubber’s Lover, which is where his vision for cyberpunk effects was established.
Shinya Tsukamoto returned to the genre he helped define in 2009 for Tetsuo: The Bullet Man. The film continues in the style of Tsukamoto’s earlier work, but is updated by being filmed digitally. This hinders the film’s ability to fully show the raw, nightmarish, postmodernist vision in the way the earlier movies did. The soundtrack remains one of the film’s strongest assets. The audio/visual relationship is perfectly balanced by Chu Ishikawa’s industrial score to the film.
Japanese cyberpunk’s roots are firmly tied in the anxieties and fears of a post modernist future. The early works have their limitations. The narrative is, at times, incoherent, so individual perception is really required. However, as a study of experimental cinema, some of the artistic choices are unlike anything seen before. The aggressive visual style, industrial soundtrack and stop motion elements are very primal and raw, which creates a unique sensation for the viewer.
Further reading: ‘Post-Human Nightmares: The World of Japanese Cyberpunk Cinema’, Midnight Eye
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