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Andrew Osmond on the history of man-machine interfaces

RoboCop 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.

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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.

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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.

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!”

Yet 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.

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