Presence 2: Cyberpunk In The Shell

Featured Image; Navy personnel pushing helicopters off the deck of an aircraft carrier to make more room on the deck for refugees fleeing the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. One of my favorite pictures of all time. Poetic in how simply it shows the defeat of advanced technology.

Man, you could write a book, and I mean a giant scholarly tome, about the shifts in genre and perception of the genre within Cyberpunk during the 2010’s. I hadn’t realized just how much the genre had changed until I ended up watching Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex at around the same time (By the way, the first iteration of this series was about GiTS:SAC and you can read it here (EMBED)). Because that was a trip. Both are cyberpunk anime, with cyborg main characters, based on a work of 80s cyberpunk. And yet.

GiTS:SAC dates from the early 2000’s, and was created as a new entry in the GiTS franchise as its own continuity, separate from the manga and movies. As a result, it oozes the 2000’s, often acting as a veiled commentary on the politics and culture of the era. Think terrorism, wars, wars on terrorism, message boards, chatrooms, that kind of thing. This isn’t going to be the first thing that I’m writing about SAC, because it’s dense with this stuff. Love this show, man.

Meanwhile, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners was created in 2020 and 2021, and released earlier this year, as a promotional vehicle for the 2020 videogame Cyberpunk: 2077, based on Mike Pondsmith’s 1988 tabletop rpg Cyberpunk. Now, I wouldn’t say it’s retro, because it really isn’t – it’s retro the same way that SAC is, which is that you can see the 80s there, but it isn’t trying to purposefully copy the style. But, it feels like an 80s anime OVA man. One of the tapes your dad rented from the weird video rental store before it went bankrupt around 2017, full of gore and nudity. It rocks.

Fun fact: one of the first Anime I watched was this VHS. Thanks, dad.

But this isn’t a review. Basically, in the 20-ish years between Ghost In THe Shell, Stand Alone Complex and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, there has been a massive change in the cyberpunk genre, and these 2 series in particular demonstrate it perfectly, since they both have the same bones in 80’s cyberpunk. So let’s get to it: Cyberpunk has become…less dystopian feeling?

Now, don’t read it like I’m saying that Edgerunners isn’t dystopian. Night City is a pretty stark place! Corporations run the city, cops are corrupt, you have to literally sell your soul to make it. What I’m saying is that dystopia has become sexy and badass. It’s kinda aspirational. While GiTS:SAC has a lot of the same, it’s also a significantly less attractive setting (infact, if you really think about it, the world of GiTS:SAC is a better place to live than Night City in Cyberpunk Edgerunners, which is really funny). It’s the perfect example of how the culture surrounding the genre has changed, and how that reflects on the way art in the genre is written. It’s pretty undeniable. Here’s my argument; there have been 3 big shifts in cyberpunk from the early 2000’s to now, and that’s made it feel less dystopian.

So first, we need to get to how political Stand Alone Complex is. I don’t mean this just in the sense that it talks about the political issues of the day – it does, a lot – but that politics as in how the government works is a huge part of the show. Essentially every episode involves a political crisis – a minister of a government agency goes rogue, for example. It’s full of veiled references to political events within Japan – one episode, for example, is basically just a retelling of the 1960 assassination of the chairman of the Japanese Socialist Party, Inejiro Asanuma. Quite a few discuss the remilitarization of Japan – something that was extremely relevant in the 2000’s, where the Japanese Self Defence Forces were deployed, possibly illegally, to participate in the Iraq War. But it isn’t there to show a certain perspective, but rather to illustrate the world and how it works. We see the political processes that make sure things get done, but also how they fail and how that hurts regular people. Politics, within SAC, is part of the storytelling, which necessarily means showing how dystopian the world has become. We see precisely who is powerful, how they are powerful, and how bad that is.

Inejirō Asanuma, trade unionist and leader of the Japan Socialist Party. One of the most instrumental figures in resisting the remilitarization of Japan during the early Cold War. The most famous photo of him is his death. I won’t show that here.

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners on the other hand has no real politics (again, I mean in how the government works). Corporations and cops essentially rule Night City, but we don’t really see how – there’s no plotting in a smoke filled room, or elections, or decision making at all. This is important – the reason why politics is relevant is to show us how power operates – in the show, we just don’t see that. Why and how corporations and cops rule the city, or how they screw people over beyond the limited things we see is just a non-factor. This is a key factor, I feel, in why the show and cyberpunk in general feels less dystopian. Politics, it turns out, is important, and Cyberpunk is now often in a kind of fantasyland where politics just don’t really exist, or when they do it’s just saying “corporations run things”. Without seeing how power operates, you’re left with a dystopia that amounts to the fact that people are poor.

Which brings me to my second point: Cyberpunk is now very individualist. Ok, this one is a bit of a stretch – cyberpunk has always been very individualist. But current cyberpunk doesn’t really examine society as a whole, rather looking at specific people – the main characters. Stand Alone Complex takes a broad view of society – we see people from different walks of life all the time. It’s obsessed with the changes undergoing society, especially those related to the internet and media. Meanwhile, Edgerunners shows us a tiny criminal crew, most of whom have very individual problems. Cyberpsychosis is a societal problem, enough of a danger that specialized police squads are created to deal with it, and yet there’s no real broad systemic analysis. It’s just something that happens, and that’s that. David’s problems are really just David’s problems, with only tiny hints at the wider social dysfunction with background characters. 

Now, none of this hurts Edgerunners as a work, and I’d even argue that being more political, or being less individual focused, would hurt Edgerunners by diluting down the main emotional core of the story, which is about the group’s aspirations and failings specifically. But I do think it’s important to note that this does make the dystopia it shows feel less real, and as a result? Kinda less dystopian.

Legitimately, Edgerunners is masterful when it comes to talk about the emotion of having to push beyond because it’s what you must do. Incredible.

But also, none of this is really specific to just Edgerunners. This kind of individual, non-political story has become a hallmark of the genre over the past decade, with some examples being much worse than others. And it’s not just the works themselves, but the way that they’re received. Cyberpunk has become something of an aspirational future to people. Take, for example, NFT’s, many of which were marketed as being cyberpunk, something which by possessing would mark you as a badass noir crypto-hacker, someone in the know about the digital underworld (It won’t and it didn’t, but the marketing is what matters). Also tangentially in the crypto realm was the Atari hotel/casino/something related to crypto, which, I shit you not, had an entire cyberpunk lore backstory as part of the marketing (The project is now defunct, as another weird detour in the long, bizarre, history of Zombie Atari). Cyberpunk cityscapes, glittering with neon and holograms, have basically become the default, positive depiction of our future.

“Cyberpunk” concept art for the Atari Hotel. I think this one is Vegas, but it might be somewhere else. It’s so hard to find reliable information about this project.

Tech people especially go nuts for this shit. They love cyberpunk, they love gaudy neon that’s trending on Artstation, they literally cannot stop eating this up. They love the idea of cyberpunk because to them the genre represents the apotheosis of what they’re about. Omnipresent technology, but with specific things gated off only to badass hacker types who are in the know, a punk attitude of moving fast and breaking things and disruption, soul crushing capitalism infesting literally everything, this is aspirational to them. Mix that with the incredibly potent dose of 80’s nostalgia that our culture has been in for most of the 2010’s, and you end up with a real vaporwave kinda cyberpunk.

It’s been fascinating to see, since Cyberpunk originally arose not out of anything aspirational, but out of failure. The dystopias of Gibson, Phillip K. Dick, and the rest of the Cyberpunk crew were ripped directly from the world’s failures – famines and overpopulation, environmental disasters, America losing the Vietnam War, the 1970’s oil shocks. The idea after World War 2 that science could solve the world’s problems had taken a severe hit. But tech people only see success, because that’s their world. The computer conquered the world, and we got the Atari Hotel as our very special future.

And this is kinda why I love Edgerunners so much. It’s the most perfect and best distillation of cyberpunk as a genre right now. It is cyberpunk in the late 2020’s, a real sexy dystopia with some real characterful animation. Need them to make one about a corporate suit.

So that’s this month! This one is a bit shorter, because I’m splitting my time working on a few other things right now. I have a lot more to say about both of these series, so expect some more when I’m finished writing.

For now, song of the month;

Love this song man, Skream is one of those oldhead dub music producers, one of the literal OG’s of dubstep. He literally helped invent the genre. He’s still making music, he’s on the BBC radio 1 residency, and he still rocks. Dubstep easily is one of those genres that deserves a historical reevaluation, both because the shit actually rocks and that everyone in the scene continues to make bangers.

Next month: thanksgiving-core post-apocalyptic sci fi. Expect this entry to be giant, I haven’t stopped writing it yet.

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