Red pill or blue pill: why you should pay attention to cyberpunk and where to start with cyberpunk anime

cyberpunk anime Neuromancer
Neuromancer cover by Josan Gonzalez. Pic credit:

Gods know cyberpunk anime are as rare as unicorns if not even rarer — almost as shounen-ai anime. What little has been animated has been recycled over the years to keep new generations from complaining of old-school animation… and a couple of other sensitive topics besides.

Just consider the Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed franchises and you’ll get the drift. There are so many adaptations, sequels, and spin-offs of those that, in the end, even the hardcore fans are bound to get bored with the whole affair.

So, what’s the big idea?

Cyberpunk, post-apocalypse, and the general public

Firstly, as a subgenre, cyberpunk isn’t all that clearly defined. I’ve seen intelligent, educated people engage in heated conversations over slippery boundaries of complex Sci-Fi topics and, notably, the boundaries between post-apocalypse and cyberpunk.

Where does one end and the other begin?

What everyone unanimously agrees is that cyberpunk is, without a shred of doubt, a subgenre of Sci-Fi set in a dystopian future… but so can be post-apocalypse.  

Where does one draw the line, then?

The first answer that comes to mind to arguably everyone is: at high tech. The whole premise of cyberpunk is rooted in what Bernard Stiegler was warning about when founding Ars Industrialis (“An International Association for the Promotion of an Industrial Politics of Spirit”) — that the “life of the mind” must not be conquered by the “technologies of spirit.”

Which is, by the by, exactly what’s been going on with the world for some time now. As stated in the Ars Industrialis’ manifesto:

“Our age is facing the worldwide threat that the “life of the mind” (…) will be entirely subjected to the demands and requirements of the market, to the law of rapid profits for firms exploiting the technologies of what have come to be known as the culture industries, program industries, media, telecommunications, and lastly the technologies of knowledge, or cognitive technologies.”

If left unchecked, the possible outcomes are but two: a cyberpunk setting where high tech is dominant and humans instrumentalized or a post-apocalypse setting where the civilization is destroyed by the same technologies (and is left with or without any of its shreds).  

In plain words, cyberpunk is perfectly positioned to embrace a unique perspective that generates brain-shattering experience… but only if it is multidisciplinary. In actual fact, there is enlightening cyberpunk and trash cyberpunk (for lack of a better term). The first must inevitably draw on philosophy, science, and psychology at the very least; the latter deals with high tech alone, without any deeper context or discourse.  

It’s no wonder, then, that cyberpunk is not for everyone, not even when their endorphin and serotonin levels are at their highest and their brains are receptive to new, profound ideas. The general public simply doesn’t want (or doesn’t have the time) to think about anything overly complex… which is exactly why you should reconsider giving cyberpunk a go.  

If you do, however, make sure to use all of your brain cells and eliminate all potential distractions. Cyberpunk is, terrifyingly enough, a grim preview of what may well become our lives in the not-so-distant future if we don’t start utilizing our brains for the benefit of the civilization, using technology to propel us forward, not to dominate us.

Cyberpunk has been around for ages, but you may not have noticed

It would naturally follow that because it is not widely popular (and is, thereby — unprofitable), cyberpunk is marginalized. After all (and as mentioned above), it is fair to reiterate here that cyberpunk anime are scarce.  

Still, this premise is all but established. Cyberpunk took hold in the 1960s in what was then defined as the “New Wave science fiction” and has been around ever since — you just may not have noticed. To be sure, it’s far removed from the mainstream, with just a few notable exceptions to disprove the rule.

However, these “notable exceptions” have had a massive influence on entire industries, genres, and generations of talents — and the list is not definite.  The first Sci-Fi writers who exchanged utopian dreams for dystopia are nowadays known far and wide: Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison alone are famous enough to lend worldwide popularity to cyberpunk.  

Philip K. Dick, in particular, often juxtaposed androids (Andys) with humans, picturing them as being more human than humans — a recurring premise in some other notable Sci-Fi works as well.

It would be unfair to skip William Gibson and his novel Neuromancer, which established cyberpunk as a definite Sci-Fi subgenre (1984). In consecutive years, Neuromancer became the first book of the Sprawl trilogy, followed by Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988).  

Regardless, certain cyberpunk movies have fared somewhat better than the novels, some in retrospective and only one franchise — instantaneously.

Let’s take a brief look at the notable ones.

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) initially underperformed, even managing to polarize critics over its “lack of action.” Afterward, however, it attained a cult following and is now considered one of the all-time best Sci-Fi movies. In fact, Blade Runner ranks second, with only 2001: A Space Odyssey preceding it.

Blade Runner is specific in that it has three alternate endings — Theatrical Cut, Director’s Cut, and Final Cut, with the latter being considered the definitive version.  

Thirty-five years later (2017), it got a sequel (Blade Runner 2049), which, again, underperformed. 

Blade Runner poster. Pic credit: IMDb.

Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

Johnny Mnemonic is based on the novel of the same name by William Gibson, with Keanu Reeves playing the titular role. The film got unfavorable reviews and earned Reeves a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Actor (which he lost to Pauly Shore for Jury Duty).

Notwithstanding that, every cyberpunk fan will tell you that Johnny Mnemonic is a seminal film. If nothing else, it provides a peek into the Neuromancer universe, but it certainly lacks a deeper meaning.

Johnny Mnemonic. Pic credit: Youtube.

The X-Files (1998, 2000)

Soon thereafter, two additional attempts at William Gibson bringing the subgenre closer to wider audiences were made by The X-Files series: Kill Switch (eleventh episode of the fifth season, comprising a monster-of-the-week episode) and First Person Shooter (thirteenth episode of the seventh season, also a monster-of-the-week episode). The first drew largely positive reviews upon airing, but the latter failed big time…. for a good reason, I may add.

The X-Files Logo
The X-Files Logo. Pic credit: Youtube.

Equilibrium (2002)

Another movie worth mentioning (that is not necessarily perceived as cyberpunk by everyone, mind you) is Equilibrium, starring Christian Bale. It received mixed reviews upon premiering, with negative ones pointing out that it heavily borrows from Sci-Fi classics such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451.

The filmmakers had a different take, with Kurt Wimmer stating that the movie had been made for like-minded audiences and that they “got it.” And so they did (and still do).

Equilibrium (2002)
Equilibrium (2002) movie poster. Pic credit: IMDb.

The Matrix (1999)

It is probably safe to say that the only cyberpunk movie that was highly successful upon its initial release is The Matrix (1999). Consecutively, two sequels followed: The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (both aired in 2003).

The Matrix was filmed on a modest budget of $63 million and went on to gross $460 million worldwide. Up to this day, the original Matrix trilogy remains must-see for all Sci-Fi fans, cyberpunk aside.

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) underperformed and, for once, I concur. The original trilogy should have been left as is, being perfectly elaborate with a satisfactory conclusion.

The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix code. Pic credit: YouTube.

Basically, what the reception shows is that the general public is simply not ready for cyberpunk. To be sure, the subgenre deals with heavy topics picturing potential disastrous future outcomes difficult to imagine, which doesn’t necessarily make the entire subgenre “high-tech trash,” as Variety’s Todd McCarthy described Johnny Mnemonic in 1995.   

Cyberpunk in Japan

As for Japan, the genre was officialized in 1982 when Katsuhito Ōtomo debuted the Akira manga (アキラ). Six years later, the first Akira animated film (1988, directed by Ōtomo himself) saw the light of day. At the time, it was the most expensive anime ever, with a budget of ¥1.1 billion ($9 million).  

cyberpunk anime Akira
A screenshot of the original Akira manga (1982). Pic credit:

In Japan, and later worldwide, both the Akira manga and the original Akira animated film remain seminal, for not only does the manga predate Neuromancer, but the latter got its official Japanese translation only in 1985.

Because the concept was entirely new and different from the usual Sci-Fi topics, Akira went on to inspire an entire wave of cyberpunk manga, some of which remain legendary to this day: Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop being best-known outside of Japan.

How cyberpunk anime can help us become smarter

The imagination of deceptive projections for the future has been running rampant for a long time and anime just may bring a fresh point of view and food for thought.  

For one thing, visualization helps us to imagine scenarios we have nothing to compare to and are, as mentioned above, having difficulties imagining. A perfect analogy would be the undying question among just any two Tolkien fans anywhere in the world: “So, how do you imagine Elves?”

It’s difficult to imagine a being more complex than humans simply because we’ve never seen one. The same goes for cyberpunk and post-apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean we should shut our eyes and pretend we live in a perfect world. We don’t, and the matrix made for the masses won’t hold for much longer.

That’s where anime may step in, but we should pay attention to their subtle undertones. As per usual, the Japanese have a different perspective and it is exactly this cross-cultural differentiation that can help us grasp the bigger picture.

When you are ready to take a wild ride, here is where you should start.

Cyberpunk anime recommendations

Before I go on, let me just briefly clarify “other sensitive topics” mentioned at the beginning, which may not sit well with your average anime fan.

It often happens with popular culture — post-apocalypse and cyberpunk Japanese subgenres in particular — that the most representative anime explore sensitive topics — of sexual nature. Specifically, out of the three best cyberpunk anime I’ve ever seen, one is based on an eroge game (more precisely, on a yaoi video game), one — on a yaoi novel, with only the remaining one disregarding this aspect entirely.

Since yaoi anime are even rarer than unicorns and dragons combined and are usually being transformed into shounen-ai, these are fairly safe to watch by larger audiences, but the trouble is — you actually have to refer to the original to get the whole picture.

I will, therefore, mention just the one suitable for wider audiences.

That being said, let’s finally take a look at the top 5 cyberpunk anime not to be missed!

5. Akira (1988)

Akira is, obviously, the first cyberpunk anime to bring to your attention. It may (and usually does) appear retro to younger anime fans used to the ikemen culture, but if you can bear with it, your patience will be well rewarded. It also provides an invaluable insight into how people used to perceive the future that is already the past today, so definitely a must-see.

Akira is set in 2019 in the metropolis of Neo-Tokyo and follows biker gang leader Shōtarō Kaneda whose friend Tetsuo Shima suffers a motorcycle accident and, as a result, acquires telekinetic abilities. These superpowers eventually lead to him being perceived as a threat and all hell breaks loose thereafter.

Worth mentioning is that the plot differs greatly from the manga and doesn’t include the entire story (the manga wasn’t finished at the time), so if you like the anime, you may want to give the manga a go, too.

4. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

The first Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊, Kōkaku Kidōtai) animated movie debuted in 1995. It is based on the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirō and is set in 2029 Japan. It follows public security agent with a twist (a cyborg) Motoko Kusanagi who hunts the Puppet Master (a mysterious hacker).  

Ghost in the Shell is not for the shallow-minded as it draws on complex philosophical themes Ars Industrialis would applaud, focusing heavily on a technologically advanced world and its effects on self-identity.

Similar to the majority of cyberpunk movies, Ghost in the Shell underperformed upon being released, but it did receive positive reviews on the narrative and visuals. Upon being released on home video, the anime attained a cult following.

Additionally, Ghost in the Shell was popularized in the late 1990s by the Wachowskis (The Matrix franchise creators), who downright admitted to being heavily influenced by it.  

In 2004, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (イノセンス, Inosensu) was released; it is a standalone sequel to the 1995 animation. In 2008, Ghost in the Shell 2.0 was released; it features additional 3D animation and new digital effects, so it is a remake rather than a sequel.

Note: Masamune Shirō is the author of the Appleseed manga which is also cyberpunk and a very popular franchise nowadays.

3. Cowboy Bebop (1997)

Cowboy Bebop (カウボーイビバップ, Kaubōi Bibappu) is set in 2071 and follows a traveling bounty-hunting crew aboard the Bebop spaceship. The anime blends a number of subgenres, all of which generally fall under Sci-Fi with a zest of noir- and western films.

It is unanimously considered to be one of the greatest anime of all time and has received a couple of major Sci-Fi and anime awards. It is so versatile it would be unfair to label it cyberpunk but it would also be wrong to omit it from this list since it blends cyberpunk elements into a wider context.

2. Ergo Proxy (2006)

If Ghost in the Shell is not for the shallow-minded then Ergo Proxy is not for the average-minded. The plot is so profound that it requires some knowledge of philosophy (the more, the better) to be fully understood, and it also draws on Gnosticism.

Ergo Proxy follows inspector Re-L Mayer who investigates a series of murders committed by androids. Apparently, a new virus has given the androids self-awareness, but Re-L Mayer discovers a far more complicated plot that involves Proxies, a species who are part of secret government experiments.

The series features both 2D and 3D elements, has a matching soundtrack to complement the overall pensive atmosphere, and received positive reviews upon being released. It has been licensed in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Australia — a rare success for a cyberpunk anime.

1. PSYCHO-PASS (2012)

PSYCHO-PASS (サイコパス, Saikopasu), my personal favorite, was released in 2012 and has since evolved into a franchise. Albeit all the sequels are worth watching, the first season still rules supreme.

Any Philip. K. Dick fans will instantly notice that PSYCHO-PASS is inspired by his works, notably Minority Report. Its overall atmosphere is that of Blade Runner, albeit the anime deals with different topics altogether.

When we know PSYCHO-PASS was written by Gen Urobuchi (Puella Magi Madoka Magica), this doesn’t come as surprise. In fact, Urobuchi insisted on using “Philip K. Dick-inspired, dystopian narrative,” in his own words.

PSYCHO-PASS follows novice inspector Akane Tsunemori assigned to Division One of the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Division, who is charged with solving crimes with the so-called Enforcers.

The anime is set in a futuristic Japan governed by the Sibyl System, a computer network that measures citizens’ biometrics (“psycho passes”) using a cymatic scan. The Sibyl System labels those with values exceeding accepted norms “latent criminals.” Even though they have committed no crimes, they are treated as common criminals.

Inspector Tsunemori, one of the strongest female anime characters up to date, gradually starts to question the world around her and her own beliefs.  

The anime parades a slew of complex characters, each with their unique standpoints, which gradually open to a majestic mixture of perspectives that make the viewer rethink their own subjective outlooks.

PSYCHO-PASS seamlessly blends cyberpunk, philosophy, crime, and other dystopian themes with such mastery that it is not to be missed.

On a side note

DRAMAtical Murder (2014)

Remember the anime that is based on a yaoi video game? It’s called DRAMAtical Murder and (fear not!) it is perfectly safe to watch — no explicit content whatsoever.

DRAMAtical Murder(ラマティカル マーダー, Doramatikaru Mādā) is based on the yaoi game of the same name. Set on the fictional island of Midorijima in an unspecified near future, the anime follows Aoba Seragaki who is forcefully dragged into the virtual reality game Rhyme (ライム, Raimu), whereupon he discovers a hidden ability that will change his life forever.

Midorijima is known to have been privatized and turned into a resort called Platinum Jail by the Tōe Konzern, which forced the original residents to move to the Old Residential District. Naturally, nobody knows what exactly is going on, but Aoba will soon start uncovering unpleasant secrets.

As is usually the case with the anime adapting otome- and eroge games, to fully grasp the plot, one needs to play the actual games and finish all routes. Should you wish to learn more about Midorijima’s secrets, suffice it to say that Nitro+chiral has released Dramatical Murder re:code — a 15+ version of the game with no explicit scenes or excess violence for Playstation Vita.

Cyberpunk: An Afterthought

As you can see, there is plenty to go on when it comes to cyberpunk, but you’ll need some practice to learn to distinguish between the good and the bad.

Precious few works are true masterpieces; if asked to make a top 10 cyberpunk anime list, I’d have difficulties finding as many deserving the honor.

Still, every little is a gain and whatever makes one rethink the matrix is worth the trouble, so enjoy the rollercoaster that cyberpunk is.

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