If a term for the way in which a single anime is capable of flipping seamlessly and without warning between heart-racing action and mind-bending existentialism hasn’t been invented yet, I propose that we call it 009 Re: Cyborg. Of course, the problem there is that once there’s a term, we’ll have to name the condition of being utterly unable to grasp it, because watching this animated feature, I’m pretty sure I was suffering just that.
All the elements of a regular story seem to be there. When we first meet Joe Shimamura, he’s your typical disaffected anti-hero high schooler. His home life brings new meaning to the words “austere” and “privileged”, and apparently in response to all of this he’s off to blow up a Shinjuku skyscraper as seems to be all the rage at the moment. However, a would-be girlfriend, one large thug and a skydiving secretary later, and Joe has woken up to who he actually is – a cyborg, one that was designed to protect humanity, not destroy it.
So, we have a mystery on our hands – namely why people are blowing up buildings and who’s behind it. Simple, right? Well, not exactly, because this mystery involves a “voice” (one that you, the viewer, never actually hear), and not just any voice but His voice, strongly implying that these amateur terrorists are in fact, Blues Brothers-like, on a Mission from God to “reset” humanity. Aside from the discomforting, heavy-handed association with (and some might argue exploitation of) religious fundamentalism and events that are on our own televisions on an almost nightly basis, this somewhat changes the ballgame. Throw in the excavated remains of what looks a hell of a lot like an angel, and the whole God is Angry You’d Better Build an Ark theory is looking pretty good.
Which is of course the point at which the 009 Express seems to leave the rails a little, because maybe there is no God and it’s all in everyone’s minds. Not sure how that explains the angel skeletons, nor the fact that 009 – basically a robot – is having his own inexplicable religious experiences (perhaps on the behalf of humanity, who knows), but 009 Re:Cyborg gets a little lost in all its existential considerations at that point. As a straight action story it works, and the action is pretty damn spectacular once it really gets going. In view of the fact that the film is 3D with cell rendering and that clunky, awkward edge to it that 3D motion not captured from living actors has, that’s really saying something.
But as a drama, and some kind of attempt at existentialist examination, it approaches incomprehensible doing at least Mach 4. It’s all very lofty in its ideas and ideals, but practically speaking it makes very little sense, and I’m not convinced that attempting to tell some 60-odd years worth of narrative (the manga series by Shotaro Ishinomori began serialisation in 1964 and ran until 1981, spawned 3 series, 3 films, 2 radio dramas, and a game) should serve as an excuse for an impenetrable, holey (not the religious kind) story line.
That the action is hugely engaging is this film’s only real salvation, and it’s certainly worth the viewing for that alone (particularly on the big screen). But be warned, there’s no god you can possibly appeal to for enlightenment on the less action-orientated side of things, imaginary or otherwise.
009 Re: Cyborg is screening in cinemas around Australia right now as part of the REEL ANIME 2013 festival: see the official site for details!