Tag Archives: Cyberpunk

A high-tech society with a breakdown in the social order.

Battle Angel Alita – Anime Review

Japanese Title: GUNNM


Related: Alita: Battle Angel (live-action movie – included in review)

Similar: Ghost in the Shell




Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 2 episodes



  • Good art and animation.
  • Grimy cyberpunk world.


  • Severely clipped version of the full story.
  • Little connection with the characters.

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Having seen the recent Hollywood release of Alita: Battle Angel in cinema and received a reader request, I thought it fitting to visit the anime version of Battle Angel Alita. This will be a combined review of sorts for the anime and movie.

Based on the nine-volume manga Gunnm from the 90s, this franchise is a classic of sci-fi. It follows Dr Ido and the cyborg Alita (or “Gally”) he reconstructed from a severed head found in the scrapyard. With no memory of her origins, Alita explores this cyberpunk city of bounty hunters and criminals as she learns to live and love.

Two episodes for nine volumes of content? It should come as no surprise to you when I say that Battle Angel Alita is an emaciated anime adaptation. Even if we ignore the manga for the moment and look at this on its own merits, there are notable issues. The story hops from key scene to key scene without the “in between” scenes where the non-crucial moments happen, yet these in betweens are often what bring a story to life and make us connect to characters.

I find this most notable in the first act, where Alita awakens with a new body and familiarises herself with the world around her. In the movie, we stay with her as she learns to control her body, wanders the city and makes friends. This is effective at endearing us to her so that when the action and suffering starts, we care about what happens to her. In the anime however, she wakes up and has no adjustment period. It skips over the first act character development. Furthermore, the movie’s take ingrains within us that she is a cyborg, whereas anime Alita just feels like a regular girl, which is rather important as a core theme is an exploration of what it means to be human.

The anime’s real focus is on the action and main events from the first half of the manga (the movie covers almost the same portion of story, though expanded upon). And when it comes to action, the anime delivers gory goodness. There are several brutal scenes.

Surprisingly, the movie doesn’t tone the violence down as much as one would imagine. Tearing the arms off a machine gets you a lower age rating than if they were flesh, so there’s plenty of brutality to go around. There is even one scene involving a severed head that is more unsettling in the movie than in the anime. I am surprised by some of the things they got away with.

The main plot events are similar across the manga, anime, and movie. The manga will of course have the most detail, but the movie isn’t short on story. It doesn’t feel like a time lapse of a longer story, unlike much of the anime.

I enjoy the story of Alita: Battle Angel. It has an endearing protagonist, some nasty villains, good exploration of theme, and a few turns I didn’t expect it to take. I greatly appreciate a story that claims it lives in a brutal world and delivers on that promise by making characters vulnerable at all times.

Something interesting I learnt after the fact was that the character of Chiren was a creation for the anime, which the movie took and expanded upon further. She is Dr Ido’s ex-wife (works as a cyberphysician like him) and a villain willing to do whatever it takes to return to the city in the sky for the elite. She is a good addition in giving more to Ido’s personal story. And she’s involved in two of the most disturbing scenes in the movie, which I won’t give away here.

A significant element of the movie and manga that is absent in the anime is the fictional sport of motorball. Imagine high-speed rollerblade racing mixed with basketball where anything goes, including shattering opponents to pieces. As long as your head survives, you can comeback back next time. Alita discovers an early passion for the sport thanks to the film’s love interest and it continues to play an important role throughout. The movie brings the visceral sport to life.

Lastly, I want to talk of the visuals. All three versions look great. Though the film version has more colour and visual variety, all versions paint a harsh world full of details. I am a huge cyberpunk fan and setting alone can often make or break my interest. The setting was the best of all elements in the movie for me. It’s rich with life and society. One gets a sense of how people would live in such a place, of how things work in this world. The bounty hunters (called “hunter-warriors”) in particular are great representations of the city with their rough personalities, rough morals, and equally rough cyborg bodies. They also generate good action in all mediums.

As for Alita herself in the movie, you will immediately notice how strange she looks with her large anime eyes. Interestingly, the director didn’t do this to make her look more anime-like. If that were the case, why was no one else given that look? It was a conscious decision to have Alita in full CG that gives an uncanny valley effect to remind the audience that she isn’t human. For myself, the eyes didn’t bother me after a while. What gets me is her smile. I don’t know why, but every time she smiles, it hits me with the uncanny valley. Whether you like the look or not, it does succeed in that regard, so don’t let it put you off watching the movie if the premise interests you.

So, to summarise: the manga is the fullest and most in depth version, while the movie is a good experience that doesn’t feel incomplete (barring the future sequel). The anime, unfortunately, is only worth watching after you have gone through one of the other versions, for it will lack any emotional weight otherwise. The anime is good supplementary material when you can fill in the gaps.

Overall Quality (for the anime) – Medium

Recommendation: Read the manga or watch the movie instead. While Battle Angel Alita is a nice looking OVA, the clipped story and lack of character moments makes it more of an ad for the manga. The live action film is also a better alternative for those who don’t want to read nine volumes.

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Real Drive – Anime Review

Japanese Title: RD Sennou Chousashitsu


Similar: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Serial Experiments Lain

Time of Eve


Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 26 episodes



  • Good music.


  • The teens.
  • Jarring sexiness.
  • Lacks world building.
  • The virtual world isn’t interesting.

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Masamune Shirow of Ghost in the Shell fame steps up into a lead production role to bring us Real Drive, a science fiction series that brings exploration of the human creature to a younger audience.

I never would have known that this came from Shirow had I not glimpsed his name in the credits on Wikipedia when doing background research. Real Drive feels like someone tried to imitate Shirow without understanding what makes Ghost in the Shell, or more specifically, Stand Alone Complex so good.

We find ourselves in 2061 AD when a virtual network called “the Metal” has linked human consciousness on a global scale. However, security leaks and data breaches have begun to affect people’s minds beyond the virtual and into the real world. The young Minamo finds herself at the forefront of the investigation after she pulls Masamichi back from a failed dive into the Metal. She is to work alongside her brother Souta, the android Holon, and other investigators to find solutions.

Shirow’s first mistake was Minamo. I haven’t seen Ghost Hound, Shirow’s young adult horror anime, so I don’t know if he succeeded there, but he doesn’t seem to know how to write using or for teenagers.

I hate all the young characters in Real Drive. Their inclusion makes no sense in this, let alone having one as protagonist. She barely has anything to do with the Metal, which is the core of the story. When Minamo hangs out with her friends, usually at a dessert café, it feels included because “you need to have that in a young adult anime or it won’t be relatable,” said Shirow, not knowing what he’s talking about. Her brother would have made for a better protagonist. He is a young counterpart to the old Masamichi, is a lead diver for the Metal, has the romantic subplot, and has a justified presence.

Also, what is with the “sexiness” at random moments? You have the usual panty shots – bad panty shots aren’t a surprise anymore, so whatever – alongside weirdly timed instances of characters trying to act sexy. For example, when an old woman is in agony, possibly dying, during episode one, her granddaughter/assistant (?) makes sure to pose cutely with her arse in the air. “Old woman is dying, so let’s focus on the teen arse and have her turn like she’s in lingerie commercial,” said someone during production. “Get on it stat!”

Wait, it gets weirder. When the chairwoman of this Artificial Island video calls the investigation team, she presents herself as though she’s ready to ask Leo to draw her like one of his French girls. Why? What tone were they going for? Is there some hidden satire I’m missing? Shirow had a fair amount of eroticism in his Ghost in the Shell manga, and it’s adaptation weren’t shy either, so perhaps he felt obligated to have some erotic element in Real Drive. It doesn’t work here – more funny than sexy.

Next, we come to Shirow’s other big mistake, the virtual world itself. The Metal is incredibly boring. Remember Luke Skywalker floating in the batca tank in The Empire Strikes Back? Ever held your breath inside a swimming pool? Well then, you’ve experienced all the Metal has to offer. It isn’t engaging to watch people floating in water occasionally attacked by bubbles (!) as a substitute for action. Why didn’t he use marine life as proxies for viruses and data breaches? A monstrous, digitally warped shark is more frightening than bubbles. At most, we get some graphics in the environment and corruption on a character’s wetsuit. Do you know why Hollywood makes hacking sequences with effects, progress bars, and furious typing? Because real hacking is reading a bunch of text, which isn’t engaging.

I can’t wrap my mind around the notion that no one at production saw the Metal and pointed out that it‘s a load of nothing. The best scene in Real Drive is the very first, set in the past when a dive turns catastrophic. There is real action. After that, dives are mind numbing.

The vagueness of the overall plot compounds this dullness. For many episodes, Real Drive is about solving virtual problems with no concrete goal. You can’t have a non-episodic crime series and say it’s just about solving crimes. You need to be more specific. Which crime? Is the goal to ultimately catch the Seattle Reaper? Shirow already knows this – Stand Alone Complex is about catching the Laughing Man – so I’m surprised at the fault here. This gives the impression that he had an idea – “I want a series about solving virtual crimes” – but didn’t flesh it out, get at the core of his idea. I doubt Real Drive would have received the green light had it not had the name “Masamune Shirow” attached.

Art – Medium

What is with the doughy women? Every female character has extra dough packed on, even those that are said to be thin. I suspect that the artist has a fetish for “thicc” women, as the android Holon, designed to have the ideal female physique, is definitely for those who want to get down with the thiccness. The world has a lovely design akin to a futuristic paradise island, but the virtual side is plain water.

Sound – Medium

The music boasts a great orchestral soundtrack. However, the sound mixing is horrendous at times. In episode two, a scene of Minamo whining to her brother about breakfast has building tension music from the likes of Fantasia. Fire the mixer. The acting is fine.

Story – Low

A team of investigators dive into a global consciousness known as the Metal to resolve problems of this virtual world. The Metal is dull, the teenagers are superfluous, the sexiness makes no sense, and the plot offers little reason to keep watching Real Drive.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Don’t bother. Real Drive is a poor man’s Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex…made by the same man.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None

Akira – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Akira


Similar: Ghost in the Shell


Serial Experiments Lain


Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Action Horror

Length: 2 hr. 4 min. movie



  • The art, especially the backgrounds.
  • World design.
  • That thing in the finale.


  • Vague research subplot.
  • Clumsy dialogue.

(Request an anime for review here.)

There was a time when if you mentioned you were into anime, Akira was one of the first anime others asked if you had seen. Akira, Akira, Akira! It was everywhere. As it happens, I had not seen it until having been into anime for several years. Overhype resulted in a letdown. Then again, no one ever actually told me why they recommended it. Most anime at the time was recommended simply for being anime. We didn’t have a large selection.

In the year 2019, Neo-Tokyo has not yet recovered from the devastation of World War III, where an explosion had torn the city apart. Terrorism and riots are routine. Haneda is the leader of a bike gang, whose job seems to be clashing with a rival gang. One such clash leads Tetsuo, the smallest of the gang, to crash into a child that looks 100-years aged. This child is an esper with devastating psychic ability. Soon, Tetsuo starts to develop powers of his own.

The story is a simple one to follow – a psychic kid runs from the government as his powers develop faster than he can handle. The change in Tetsuo from a little kid who looks up to Haneda with the cool bike into a brat with a god complex is an interesting one, plot-wise. This arc raises the stakes to apocalyptic degrees, so tension isn’t lacking in Akira. Character-wise, it doesn’t give us much. Personality and depth are in short supply, rationed out like food after the war. Everyone in Haneda’s gang combined make up one whole character and the government officials and scientists merely fill the roles given. If Tetsuo were a robot slowly going out of control, there wouldn’t be much difference. Akira is no Ghost in the Shell.

Now the action, that’s more interesting. The destruction caused by the psychic powers looks fantastic thanks to the animation. When every surface crumbles away from Tetsuo, you can feel the invisible force pushing out in all directions. It’s visceral. Each action scene is more intense and crazier than the last, culminating in one of the most famous finales in film. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for something different.

In truth, the art made Akira the famous anime it is today, and made me appreciate it more on further viewings. The parallax scrolling alone is worthy of an award. When you come across a long shot of the city with a character going across the screen, rewind to admire each background layer moving at a different speed, creating that visual depth you rarely see in anime. It’s not just the number of layers, but the attention to detail on each. Surely, Akira must have a ton of AMVs that take advantage of these scenes. I would be surprised to learn otherwise. Even if cyberpunk depresses you or if the premise bores you, give Akira some of your time to appreciate its artistry.

Art – Very High

Every long shot of Neo-Tokyo is a marvel. The depth of field obtained from parallax scrolling deserves praise. The animation is great too, except for the mouths, which are over-animated and don’t sync in any language.

Sound – High

The music and sound design are the notable parts of the audio. The clumsy dialogue doesn’t allow the otherwise good actors to get into the characters. Watch this is Japanese, but if you watch Akira dubbed, go with the 2001 Pioneer version, not the original from the 90s that exemplifies bad dubbing.

Story – Medium

A teen of psychic ability starts to go mad amidst a city in chaos. The straightforward story doesn’t flex its muscles, instead giving us characters with little exploration and a vague sub-plot about research involving the Akira entity.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch for classic anime fans and lovers of art. Akira isn’t worth your time for its story. Instead, stay for the art and the spectacle of it all, the third act in particular.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)


Fluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ghost in the Shell STAND ALONE COMPLEX


Related: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG (sequel – included in review)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society (further sequel movie)

Ghost in the Shell (movie – alternate story)

Similar: Psycho-Pass

Ergo Proxy

Serial Experiments Lain


Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Crime Science Fiction Action

Length: 26 episodes (season 1), 26 episodes (season 2)



  • Engaging themes and philosophic questions.
  • Some of the most creative villains in crime fiction.
  • The music and acting.
  • High effort put into creating a believable future.


  • Tachikoma episodes.
  • Occasional pacing issues.

Having seen and loved the Ghost in the Shell movie, I couldn’t wait to begin the series Stand Alone Complex. My first impression was one of disappointment, however, for the style and tone from the film was nowhere to be found. Gone was the gritty, used future, replaced by a clean and polished Japan. Gone was Major Kusanagi’s introspective quality that enamoured me to the film – a brighter tone took its place, matching the shiny Japan. Though once I got over this disappointment, I found myself highly engaged in Stand Alone Complex’s sci-fi driven crimes.

SAC is a separate take on the Ghost in the Shell universe. The characters and concepts are similar overall, but you need to let go of any pre-conceived perceptions about the world and characters – Section 9 agent Bato is a lot more cheerful, for example, offsetting Kusanagi’s endless solemnity. We still follow Public Security Section 9, specialists in counter cyberterrorism, as they deal with a variety of unusual high-tech crimes.

Straight off, you should know this is a crime serial. If you don’t enjoy crimes dramas (not talking about garbage like CSI) then Stand Alone Complex won’t be for you. While it does bring an interesting twist with sci-fi, it’s still a crime serial through and through. If you do enjoy crime, then you are in for a great series that explores police procedure in a realistic future of advanced AI and cybernetics.

SAC has two distinctive episode types, noted during each title sequence: “Stand Alone” episodes, which are (obviously) stand-alone stories lasting an episode each, and “Complex” episodes that follow the main plot. One could watch just the Complex episodes without missing plot. However, the Stand Alone episodes delve into the characters and explore philosophical topics more than the main arc, so they are definitely worth watching.

Even then, SAC is at its best during the main story. The first season focuses on Kusanagi and her team’s efforts to catch The Laughing Man (name based on J.D. Salinger’s short story of the same name), a ‘hacktivist’ fighting against government corruption. He has the ability to hack everyone’s brain chips (more common than smart phones in the future) to cover his face with a smiley face logo; wherever he goes, and even on camera, all anyone sees of his face is this smiley. Only those unchipped – the poor, basically – can see his true face. What an excellent villain. He’s creative in execution, morally grey in actions, and thoroughly engaging throughout. 2nd GIG is similarly creative, though I like The Laughing Man best.

Smaller crimes for the Stand Alone episodes tend to target a philosophical concept, though always with a sci-fi slant (hacking, cyborgs, the digital space, etc.), which succeeds to mixed results. One notable episode early on explores the validity of androids to be seen as human. At what stage of artificial intelligence would we consider them human, if ever? What if a human has a deep connection with a robot, does that give ‘humanity’ to the machine? These episodes don’t lend to a binge watch ‘just one more’ feeling, but are engaging in their own right.

The Stand Alone episodes fail when they focus on spider tanks called Tachikoma, AI like hyperactive children. See, these Tachikoma, being young AI with the ability to learn (hence the child-like personalities), tend to gather around the cyber campfire to engage in long-winded philosophical discussions. Rather than show these conundrums through actions, as seen in other episodes, their philosophy is told to us to the point of boredom. The discussions weren’t even interesting. Add in those squeaky voices and it can become unbearable. Tachikoma are best taken in small doses.

In the end, while Stand Alone Complex wasn’t quite what I wanted after the film, I loved its philosophy, commentary on political correctness with cyborgs (“We say ‘mechanically enhanced’ – cyborg is racist!”), conmen taking the victim route of “racism” for financial gain, and real world parallels with radical refugee insurgents and terrorism. Stand Alone Complex left me with plenty to think about.

Art – High

A sharp, clean style renders SAC nicely. The CG for the vehicles isn’t bad, if noticeable, though the full CG opening looks strange.

Sound – Very High

Same psychedelic, ethereal music from the movie, for the most part. Yoko Kanno, of course – explains the great quality. Great script and acting. The dub team did an excellent job in creating a natural translation, so either language works.

Story – Very High

A cyber police unit battles criminals of a high-tech nature, most notably The Laughing Man. SAC is a crime serial in a realistic science fiction world implemented to great results. Heavy on philosophy.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must if you enjoyed the movie – start with the movie to see if you like the themes tackled. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a great anime void of almost all anime tropes. An easy recommendation unless crime serials aren’t for you.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)


Engaging DialogueGreat MusicPhenomenal VillainStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Ghost in the Shell – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ghost in the Shell


Related: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (sequel)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (alternative series)

Similar: RahXephon

Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040




Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Science Fiction Action

Length: 1 hr. 23 min.



  • Detailed, dirty world.
  • Moments of cerebral peace and introspection.
  • Cool tech.
  • Making of a Cyborg sequence and music.


  • Too short.

In the year 2029, the human world has become one with the cyber world through the field of cybernetics. An unaugmented human is the rarity. This merging of worlds has brought a new vulnerability to humans – brain-hacking – and a hacker known as the Puppet Master is taking full advantage. Enter Major Kusanagi and her Section 9 group of cybernetic cops to investigate.

Ghost in the Shell showed me it was something special within minutes. I am not referring to Kusanagi’s camouflage skin, which is awesome, but the ‘Making of a Cyborg’ segment where we see her creation into a being far beyond that which is human. The sequence takes us through every stage of the process from her metal and muscle frame to her synthetic skin. Coupled with the ethereal music, I felt a genuine sense of watching an artist bring something to life, the creative process made manifest, the layers upon layers that go into a single human. Magnificent.

Kusanagi was bred to be the ultimate entity of justice – skilled, focused, and with a seemingly single-minded life against crime. She isn’t sure of her origins, and seeing the Puppet Master’s ability to implant false realities into the brains of others – similar to Total Recall – has made her question the truth of her own thoughts. Though she is more machine than woman, she shows a curiosity for the world. The film’s acts are punctuated by these moments where Kusanagi roams the city streets and lets the music, the environment take over as she absorbs what she knows is concrete, what is real, what will forever be real in her cybernetic mind. The world may be dirty, but it is alive to her.

I went into this film for the action and the futuristic setting, but I came out fixated on the calmer moments and the relation between organic and cybernetic. The way the villain manipulated people was an engaging and terrifying possibility. A civilian illegally hacks his wife’s mind to find his daughter after his wife took her away in the divorce; in reality, the man was never married, doing the Puppet Master’s work by proxy without realising it, leading the police to dead ends. Great idea for a villain plot – I enjoy seeing villains who rely on something other than strength.

Aiding Kusanagi is her partner, Batou, also augmented with the latest tech – grafted sunglasses seem to be a staple of cyberpunk augmentation. It isn’t cyberpunk if no one has built-in sunglasses. Kusanagi’s purpose for living does make her a little too eager to dive into enemy territory and Batou must act as the voice of caution to remind her of her limits. Regardless of caution, he will always enter the fight with her once she has decided.

My only serious complaint with Ghost in the Shell is the short length. So much of the world and the story had room for exploration. I want to know more about Kusanagi, about her history, the history of cybernetics. How does the world cope with this technology? What laws have they enacted? Great worlds and characters always leave me asking for more – I guess that’s why Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a reality.

Art – Very High

Ghost in the Shell’s grimy, rainy, futuristic world is brought to life with detailed art and great animation. The ‘Making of a Cyborg’ is one of my favourite sequences in anime. The attention to the mechanics of the cyborgs and the tech is a delight.

Sound – Very High

The music is unusual, psychedelic, ethereal chants, and I love it. The fit with the setting and humanity themes is perfect. Ghost in the Shell is from the era of great dubs for films, so the choice is up to your preference. The Puppet Master in English sounds like The Architect from The Matrix Reloaded – probably where the Wachowskis got the voice, having admitted Ghost in the Shell’s influence on their films. 90s bleeps and bloops made me chuckle.

Story – High

Cybernetic police investigate a ‘ghost-hack,’ which allows control of people’s brains. An introspective film set in a grimy world of tech and blurred lines between human and machine. Needed to be longer.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch unless you don’t like cerebral sci-fi. Ghost in the Shell is a great film and Stand Alone Complex is there if you want to see more.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)


Engaging DialogueFluid AnimationGreat MusicGreat OP or ED SequenceHoly S***Phenomenal VillainStrong Lead CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None