Retrospective: Cyborg 009: The Cyborg Soldier (S1) (2001)

With our coverage of the Mythos Arc, we’re done with the first half of Cyborg 009: The Cyborg Soldier!

That was a big departure from the first show we covered, wasn’t it.

Season 1 of Cyborg Soldier introduces the cyborgs and most of their backstories — we’ll fill in some of the blanks in Season 2, as well as a closer look into 002 and 009’s respective pasts. On the whole, it does a decent job of juggling ten main characters (nine cyborgs plus Gilmore)… With the exceptions of 001, who quickly gets relegated into plot device/psychic cure-all, and 005, whose unfortunate “magical indian” representation we’ve hashed out on the podcast repeatedly so I won’t belabour the point here because it’s depressing. It’s a shame they dropped the ball with him, since Cyborg Soldier is the series that gives us a good 008 design and overall has great interpretations of the cast while keeping with the original art style, with excellent animation to go with it.

(Sidenote: All three of us here also like their designs in Cyborg 009 vs. Devilman, but other adaptations really go too far in modernizing or prettifying them. Let 002 have his beak nose, you cowards, you blaggards.)

As we discussed at the end of episode 14, the unifying factor with the cast is that they’re people who fell through the cracks in society, whether through discrimination, poverty, war, sheer bad luck, or simply putting their trust in a system that didn’t have their back. This is why The Skull Man (2007)’s suggestion that Skull is Joe’s father doesn’t sit right. It’s not just because it contradicts Joe’s background, but by creating a Vader & Luke Skywalker situation, it makes Joe inherently important to the universe: The lost son destined to confront and redeem the sins of his father.

When, in fact, Joe Shimamura is nobody. He doesn’t even really win that many fights. When he does, it almost always takes a huge emotional toll. He’s just some guy, just like the others. Joe takes the whole season to warm up as a character and grow beyond being the audience’s viewpoint, but he finally makes his stand at the end: He’s not the most advanced cyborg and he might not always win, but dammit, he has courage.

(I still like the idea that Skull was a failed hero of the previous generation who ended up as one more cog in the system, but if I get started about Skull Man again, I’ll never stop…)

Having said that, there is a cyborg who was sold out by his father, but it’s not quite the same dynamic, and we’ll save that for later.

The setting of Cyborg 009 is a world that is falling into darkness: The Black Ghost organization’s reach extends worldwide, even growing into outer space. It manipulates governments and threatens another world war; its existence is emblematic of society’s ills. Taking down Black Ghost won’t fix everything, and accomplishing even that won’t be so easy. Ordinary authority is either unprepared for the situation, or it’s in Black Ghost’s pocket. The people who realize something’s wrong are powerless to do anything about it.

We touched upon the similarities and differences between Black Ghost and Shocker, that Shocker has more of an ideological agenda while Black Ghost is more about material wealth and power. It’s funny to me that Black Ghost feels way more successful as an evil organization when compared to the utter gongshow in 1971’s Kamen Rider — although it’s fair to note that Cyborg Soldier gives us a wider view of Black Ghost’s presence in the world, whereas Kamen Rider only shows us Japan (where that single branch of Shocker is being held at bay by a couple of idiotically-lucky heroes).

Despite Black Ghost’s looming shadow, Cyborg Soldier also shows a world that is worth saving: Kabore and his rebellion, Findol and his daughter, Rosa and Philip’s acting troupe, Professor Kozumi, Jimmy and Cathy, even ne’er-do-wells like Scar-Nose Yasu — they’re ordinary people who deserve a better world than they’ve been given.

Just as importantly, we’re allowed to see the heroes at peace: In breaks between missions and during their sabbatical near the end of the season, you see them making dinner and painting the airship and friendly-bullying each other. More than any impassioned shounen speech could convey, it’s those moments that show that yes, even if things are grim, even if they’re “living weapons” now, they’re still human.

Of course, there’s still a massive burden on the cyborgs. Modern viewers may have a harder time accepting the transhuman angst (“Woe is me, I am a monster… who still looks perfectly ordinary and gets superpowers and a sick uniform…”), but Cyborg Soldier does a good job of conveying that it’s not all cool robot upgrades, from the individual tragedies of the Assassins to the identity-erasure of the Cyborgmen and the so-called Greek Gods. The only thing that separates the heroes from the villains is that our cyborgs had the chance to run, a theme that we’ll see over and over again.

Within the main cast, the anime’s addition of the first four cyborgs being displaced from time is a nice touch: In a way, Black Ghost didn’t just take away their bodies, but also the world they came from.

Overall: Despite some low points and quibbles and legitimate criticism about some of the cast’s representation (and by the way, we’re gonna try real hard not to grouse more about the English translation since I think everyone gets the point by now, although my god, the narration at the end of the dinosaur episode was egregious, just… just look it up) it’s pretty clear to see the team is enjoying this show! I’m certainly looking forward to covering Season 2, although I’m being yelled at not to watch the God’s War OVA for my own sake. You can’t tell me how to live.

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