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Robocop vs Anime Cyborgs

Tuesday 4th February 2014

Andrew Osmond on the history of man-machine interfaces

RobocopRoboCop is returning to the cinemas, rebooted by Brazilian director José Padilha (Elite Squad), with a cast including Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and one-time Afro Samurai Samuel L. Jackson. Joel Kinnaman is the fifth actor to play the future of law enforcement on the big and small screens. It’s hardly controversial to say Robocop has never recaptured the power of his debut, the 1987 film by Paul Verhoeven. With the character frittered away by lesser, misconceived sequels, can he make a comeback twenty-seven years on?

That’s for you to judge, but RoboCop is thrown into interesting perspective by looking at his anime cousins. In Japan, RoboCop is one of a crowd. Two of anime’s greatest poster icons – Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell and Tetsuo in Akira – are or become cyborgs. Moreover, a man-turned-robot was an anime hero back in 1963. We’re talking about 8th Man, shown in America as Tobor the Eighth Man. It’s a policeman who, yes, gets murdered by a crime gang, then resurrected in a robot body. In the US credits, 8th Man duffs up Godzilla, but here’s the Japanese version.

8th Man is breathlessly claimed by fans to be the show RoboCop ripped off, although it was made when anime was still a kids’ medium. Moreover, 8th Man itself has debts to Astro Boy and Superman (see here for more on Superman’s impact in Japan). Nor did 8th Man have those characters’ staying power. He was soon replaced by other robot heroes such as the Cyborg 009 team (film 1966, series 1968, remade 2012). 1973’s Casshan owed a large stylistic debt to the previous year’s Gatchaman (aka Battle of the Planets). That’s no surprise, as Gatchaman and Casshan were made by the same studio, Tatsunoko.

We suggested in a previous article that Japan might be less averse to robotic heroes than some Western countries, whether because of its religious culture (animism is arguably more receptive to a machine with a soul), or because of how technology rebuilt Japan after World War II. However, Japan was also receptive to cyborg imports. America’s The Six Million Dollar Man was shown from 1974 under the title Cyborg Kikai Ippatsu (Cyborg in Hair’s Breadth Danger). It was followed by The Bionic Woman, or as Japan called her, Bionic Jaime.

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That’s not to say the first RoboCop by Paul Verhoeven had no impact when it arrived in Japan a decade later. Very probably, it helped influence the SF anime of the time though it’s tricky to say how much. RoboCop’s Japanese premiere was in February 1988, by which time the robot actioner Bubblegum Crisis had been made, and Akira was already in production (from a manga that began six years earlier). However, the lurid violence of Verhoeven’s film may well have encouraged later titles; for example, the gory Genocyber (1993), or the “Man Who Bites His Tongue” episode of AD Police (1990). The latter, about a dysfunctional cybercop whose tongue is the only organ left of him, certainly plays like a RoboCop spoof. The story’s bad-taste jokes even resemble off-colour gags in the same year’s RoboCop 2.

RoboCop may also have helped his predecessors make comebacks, on the ground that cyborgs were “in” again. 8thMan came back as a live-action Japanese film (1992) and the four-part video Eighth Man After (1993). The same year saw a four-part video Casshan. It should not be confused with the 21st-century remakes that changed the title’s spelling; the 2004 film Casshern, the 2008 series Casshern: Sins. Meanwhile, other cyborg heroes were created in anime, in the likes of Texhnolyze (2003), Gungrave (2004) and the ongoing Mardock Scramble.

However, RoboCop may have been most important in shaping how anime was received in the West. In the 1990s, it was one of very few pieces of screen action-SF which you could compare to Akira, including all its gross-out moments. (Both films have people shot to pieces mere minutes into the action). At a time when anime was often bought and distributed on shock value, RoboCop was an obvious yardstick. Think about how many anime imports of that time have future police, mechanised characters and salty cussing. Ironically, the swear-heavy RoboCop was heavily redubbed on its ITV premiere, full of crumbags, mothercrushers and dipsticks. For anime like Gainax’s 1988 Appleseed, this was reversed when they were put into English. From the fondly-remembered Appleseed dub: “Half cyborg? He’s all bastard!”

Ghost in the ShellYet some anime took the RoboCop trappings, then moved past them. The first Ghost in the Shell film in 1995 has RoboCop-ish action in its first half, including an exploding head in its pre-cred scene. But it then moves into philosophy and poetic symbolism, as if extrapolating from Verhoeven’s provocative shot of RoboCop walking on water. None of the later Ghost in the Shells rely on violence; even the action is only part of the mix. Yet it’s still enjoyable action. For sheer high-concept cyborg fun, you can’t beat the second Stand Alone Complex episode, with a giant armoured tank powered by a “dead” person’s brain. The same idea was played for poignant laughs in Roujin Z.

It’s a point worth remembering if you go to the new RoboCop film. As you’ve surely heard, it’s been rated 12A (PG-13 in America), to fan howls of outrage and scorn. The backlash relates to memories of the much-hated RoboCop 3 (the film with ninja and flying, though alas no flying ninja), which had the same rating. No-one could seriously argue that the lack of violence was the only reason it sucked. Yet the assumption is that RoboCop must be outrageous, hyperviolent, Verhoeven-esque, to be RoboCop at all.

Except… back in the 1990s, that’s what many pundits and marketers said about anime. As we all know, they were wrong. Moreover, you only have to rewatch Verhoeven’s film to see it’s about more than shot-off limbs and shot-up salarymen. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the reboot could dispense with them altogether?

The new RoboCop movie opens in British cinemas on 7th February.


Akira (the Collector\'s Edition) Triple Play Edition (incl. Blu-ray, Dvd, Digital Copy)

was £29.99
Iconic and game-changing, Akira is the definitive anime masterpiece! Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark cyberpunk classic obliterated the boundaries of Japanese animation and forced the world to look into the future. Akira’s arrival shattered traditional thinking, creating space for movies like The Matrix to be dreamed into brutal reality.

Neo-Tokyo, 2019. The city is being rebuilt post World War III when two high school drop outs, Kaneda and Tetsuo stumble across a secret government project to develop a new weapon - telekinetic humans. After Tetsuo is captured by the military and experimented on, he gains psychic abilities and learns about the existence of the project's most powerful subject, Akira. Both dangerous and destructive, Kaneda must take it upon himself to stop both Tetsuo and Akira before things get out of control and the city is destroyed once again. 
AKIRA The Collector’s Edition features both the original 1988 Streamline English dub and the 2001

Pioneer/Animaze English dub!



Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira then and now

Helen McCarthy examines Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark Akira, then and now
1988 in Japan: Yamaha Motors won the J-League but Nissan won the Cup. Western pop divas Bananarama, Kylie and Tiffany were on TV. Japanese real estate values climbed so high that the Imperial Palace garden was worth more than the State of California, and Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward had a higher market value than Canada. The Government signed the FIRST Basel Accord, triggering a crash that wiped out half Japan’s stock market. Katsuhiro Omoto’s movie Akira premiered on 16th July.

Akira's Ancestors

Andrew Osmond on the unexpected forerunners of Neo-Tokyo
In Akira’s opening moments, a sphere of white light appears from nowhere in the centre of Tokyo, and swells to obliterate the city. Many Western critics saw the image as a symbol of the Bomb, like the earlier Japanese pop-culture icon, Godzilla. But the designer apocalypse could be taken as Akira’s own mission statement – to be a new kind of entertainment, blowing away its peers and reshaping the cinema landscape.

The Impact of Akira

Andrew Osmond reviews the reviews from 20 years ago.
On its explosive arrival in the West, Akira crossed the Pacific to catch the generation that grew up on the films of Spielberg and Lucas; it was also the generation that read adult superhero strips such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Akira, though, offered the shock-and-awe widescreen violence akin to that of enfant terrible live-action director, Paul Verhoeven. For example, both Akira and Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987) have a gory money-shot scene in their early minutes, in which a luckless bit-part player is graphically torn apart by a hail of bullets. Unsurprisingly, such imagery excited reviewers.

Akira 25th Anniversary Screenings

Your chance to see it in the cinema in the UK
Neo-Tokyo is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E. Katsuhiro Otomo’s debut animated feature AKIRA had its Japanese premiere on 16th July 1988. We are very proud to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of what is undoubtedly, one of the most celebrated animated movies of all time. Voted by Empire readers as one of the top 100 best films ever and cited by everyone from James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Daft Punk and Kanye West as a massive influence on their work, AKIRA kick-started the anime business all over the world, opening the doors for everything from Pokémon to Princess Mononoke.

The Art of Akira

Joe Peacock tracks down the original images from the anime classic
Watching Akira for the first time provokes a universal reaction of awe. And justifiably so: there’s often an overwhelming sense among audiences that this animated film is unlike any other they’ve ever seen. Casual viewers won’t be able to put their finger on it; they just know that Akira is visually striking. Art and illustration aficionados appreciate the intricacy of individual scenes, sometimes pausing the film to appreciate the detail in a particular frame.

Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira then and now

Helen McCarthy examines Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark Akira, then and now
1988 in Japan: Yamaha Motors won the J-League but Nissan won the Cup. Western pop divas Bananarama, Kylie and Tiffany were on TV. Japanese real estate values climbed so high that the Imperial Palace garden was worth more than the State of California, and Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward had a higher market value than Canada. The Government signed the FIRST Basel Accord, triggering a crash that wiped out half Japan’s stock market. Katsuhiro Omoto’s movie Akira premiered on 16th July.


Valentine’s Day is just round the corner and whether you’re spending it alone or with that special someone, we’ve got a selection of titles perfect for the occasion.

Tokyo Night Life

Japan Underground's Tom Smith on how to rock and roll all nite in Tokyo
I wanted to see bands playing live music, experience local pubs and bar culture, and not get back to my hotel until it was light. Now, my nights in the city are as busy, if not busier, than my days. Here’s a quick look at some of the Tokyo hotspots worth hitting for music fans.
MCM London Comic Con will be taking place on the 27th, 28th and 29th May at the ExCeL and, as usual, we’ll be running our customary Manga UK Booth for all of your anime purchasing needs.
Discover the origins of the Halo series’ legendary Master Chief and the Spartan program. Based on the novel that has sold over one million copies by Eric Nylund, Halo: The Fall of Reach is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rocksmith's Japanese Stars

Tom Smith on the downloadable J-rock gods in Ubisoft’s game
As part of the DLC catalogue for Ubisoft's guitar ‘game’ are six of quite possibly the biggest names in rock from Japan, each covering a very different base.
With the DVD release of the fantastic Digimon: Digital Monsters here at last, it's time for us to talk about the best Digimon.

Bandai Museum, Tokyo

Rayna Denison checks out Bandai’s toy museum
In the dark days between the closure of the first Bandai-Gundam Museum in 2006 and the proliferation of Gundam cafes across Japan’s capital over the past few years, a small glimmer of mecha-shaped light remained for anime fans near Japan’s capital: the Bandai Museum in Mibu, Tochigi Precture. This new “Omocha-no-machi” Bandai Museum opened in 2007, following the demise of the original museum in Chiba, offering a huge collection of toys from the Edo-period to the present day.

Who's Who in Dragon Ball #2

Continuing our round-up of the usual suspects
Ever wonder just how Goku and friends became the greatest heroes on Earth? Wonder no more, as the original Dragon Ball reveals the origins of Akira Toriyama’s beloved creations! The faces may look familiar, but everything else is different in this classic series!

The World of Hideaki Anno

Evangelion's director in conversation at TIFF
This year's Tokyo Film Festival also included a festival within a festival, an awesomely thorough programme of screenings and live appearances by the maker of Evangelion. It covered Anno’s career from his early amateur films to his live-action, to his work as an animator and anime director.

The Impact of Ghost in the Shell

Andrew Osmond remembers the early reactions to Oshii’s classic
“What makes this such a cut above the rest is a set of senses-assaulting production values that equals anything Hollywood produces… Just make sure you see it on a big screen.” - Empire.
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