No matter how I try, I can never completely disabuse myself of the idea that a project with an exceptional pedigree merits exceptional treatment. Such a project merits attention, to be sure, but never excuses. 009 Re: Cyborg features at its helm Kenji Kamiyama, he of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Moribito, Eden of the East, Blood: The Last Vampire — all projects at the high end of the scale in their ambitions if not always their execution. 009 Re: Cyborg trails all of them distantly, and I am not about to use the names on the one sheet as a way to make it important. Okay, this film is important in one sense: it's yet another reminder of how Japan isn't any more automatically respectful of its own popular culture than the West is, and how its reboots and remakes (see: the CGI Captain Harlock) can be just as overengineered and joyless as ours are.
(Re)assemble the team
If the name Cyborg 009 rings no bells for you, a brief recap. Shotaro Ishinomori's original manga/anime, which ran in multiple cycles for almost twenty years, chronicled the adventures of nine cyborgs — originally human, but altered by the sinister organization known as "Black Ghost" to do its bidding, and with each outfitted with different superpowers. The cyborgs revolted against their masters, took down Black Ghost, and then embarked on one adventure after another that encompassed everything from literal journeys to the center of the earth to wars with creatures out of mythology. (Ishinomori was a protege of Osamu Tezuka, and it showed not only in his art style but in his prolificity and his omnivorous imagination.)
009 Re: Cyborg reboots the series — man, am I ever getting weary of "reboot" when applied to creative work — by way of a hoary but dependable plot device: The original team of nine comes out of retirement to combat a new menace that threatens the world. At the center is Joe Shimamura, the handsome blond-haired (half-Japanese, says the mythology) young man who has been living for decades with false memories that are periodically reset by his handler, Professor Gilmore. Joe thinks he's a high school student, but strange things have been happening to him lately — strange, as in coming this close to setting off a bomb in Roppongi Hills Tower without ever quite knowing why.
What's happening to him is apparently not unprecedented, just inexplicable. All over the world, people are experiencing a phenomenon described as "His Voice", a force that compels them to commit unprecedented acts of violence. What looks like something orchestrated by the NSA (the go-to source for governmental evil these days) may in fact be something far less worldly, but that won't stop a world war from breaking out when those affected by His Voice are in high places, and have their fingers on some very powerful triggers. And so it falls to Joe, and the rest of his recently de-mothballed cyborg comrades, to stop the world from blowing itself up.
Not with a bang or a whimper, but a shrug
A while back, I came to the conclusion that the influences cast by the respected creators in a given field can be as baneful as they are positive. When someone casts a large and long shadow, it's hard to get out from under it — not just when you're an audience member, but especially when you're a creator. (The way Evangelion rewrote the rules for not only mecha anime but many other anime that came after it was as much for ill as it was for good — in terms of audience expectations, and creator's ambitions.)
It's hard not to watch 009 Re: Cyborg and feel like writer-director Kenji Kamiyama is laboring a little too hard within the shadow of Mamoru Oshii, a man whose talents are undeniable but also terribly erratic. I'm not surprised the influence exists; Kamiyama has worked with Oshii on and off on related projects (Jin-Roh, for instance), so some degree of influence was, I guess, inevitable. Sometimes, that influence has been constructive, as how under Kamiyama's guiding hand Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex became as different a creation as Oshii's Ghost in the Shell had been from its own source material. but even more enthralling in some ways. There, Kamiyama was plainly taking notes from Oshii for how to do that, but not getting stuck entirely in them.
With 009 Re: Cyborg, though, the whole thing feels too much a nod towards Oshii for its own good, and in the wrong ways. Some of this is about how various Oshii-esque themes bubble up in the film, but are handled in ways that are more frustrating than illuminating. The nature of memory, for instance: when the block on Joe's memories is lifted so that he can be reactivated, his response to essentially having his mind tinkered with is not one of dislocation or dismay, but rather cheeky dismissal ("Repeating high school over and over again was getting boring anyway!"). This feels like a missed storytelling opportunity, a case of the screenplay twisting the character's arm so it can move on to the next bit of programmatic plot busywork. What's doubly ironic is how an exploration of that idea, Joe's potential resentment at being treated like a slate to be erased and scribbled on, is far more interesting than what the movie actually comes up with as a story.
This brings me to the other area where Oshii's influence is present, and not in a positive way. At his worst, his movies consist of people sitting around talking about things, and a fair swath of 009 Re: Cyborg's run time is also taken up by ... people sitting around talking about things. Much of the important stuff in the plot is explained, not dramatized, and explained in some of the most snooze-inducing infodump this side of, well, an Oshii film. As a result, even the few good ideas wind up being smothered. It occurred to me that when you have a team this powerful, you'd have trouble finding an enemy powerful enough to pit them against — and I guess that occurred to Kamiyama as well, because what he ends up pitting them against is nothing short of a divine power. But that's tricky stuff to wrap up in any film, let alone one mainly conceived as an action vehicle, and Kamiyama is clearly not the man for the job. This movie handles those ideas with all the grace and subtlety of a bowler pitching his ball into the neighboring lane. (That Kamiyama's name is also on the screenplay only makes me finger him all the more directly for what's wrong here.)
At least the vast majority of the stuff that's not exposition is genuine action, some of it suitably spectacular — e.g., a His Voice-possessed fighter pilot attempting to nuke Dubai, or Joe and his comrades in the upper atmosphere trying to stave off total Armageddon in the climax. Production I.G used a CGI cel-shaded technique to render the film, the sort of thing I typically wrinkle my nose at, but even here it's not too redolent of the "doll with glue in its ball joints" look that typically plagues such work. It's just a shame all that action is ultimately in the service of a story that ends not with a bang or a whimper, but a shrug — the kind of cosmic shrug that worked for Oshii in context, but feels gravely out of place for this material. Even composer Kenji Kawai, a staple of Kamiyama and Oshii productions, seems off his game.
There's always a risk in taking a piece of popular culture and not just reinventing it for a modern audience, but trying to load it down with more seriousness than its architecture was originally rated for. Sometimes you can get away with this via sheer intensity of vision; the live-action Casshern is a prime example (and, to some extent, the anime reboot of the original series Casshern Sins). And sometimes you get 009 Re: Cyborg, which has gravitas enough for three other movies, but they only needed enough for one.
The more I think about it, the real problem was not the material itself; it was that they had the wrong man for the job. Making material like this work requires a wild, fleet-footed, unfettered sensibility — in other words, a Hiroyuki Imaishi or a Kazuki Nakashima, not a Kenji Kamiyama. Assigning him to get us to take this stuff seriously was not the only mistake they made, but it was certainly one of the biggest.