Review of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (2022)

Moving picture, 4.0 hours

Seen in 2022.

A cybernetic implant known as a Sandevistan changes owners, in two ways.

I watched this with Japanese audio and English-language subtitles. The subtitles appear to come from the original script. They’re heavy with the artificial slang of the Cyberpunk TRPG franchise, which originated in Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk 2013 (1988). Pondsmith, who participated in the 2077 (2020) retcon of the setting, took the ideas of Neuromancer (1984) and other cyberpunk literature and dumbed them down for a US action RPG, skimping somewhat on Gibson’s sensitive extrapolation.

The Japanese translation excludes almost all of the imaginary future slang and the associated tone, but it’s still a lot of fun to see old cyberpunk wearing the clothes of Japanese animation. It’s jerky limited animation by Imaishi Hiroyuki et al. at Trigger, not the smoothness of Akira (1988), but it’s still a lot of fun to see. Japan occupied a special place in Gibson’s work as well as Pondsmith’s, and contemporary Japanese cyberpunk like Bubblegum Crisis (1987) was amazing. This is a cleaned-up retrofuture that marries East and West in nostalgia. Unfortunately, it has little to do with how right Gibson turned out to be.

The plot of the animated series uses the same sort of bland corporate intrigue as Bubblegum Crisis for a backdrop, but it’s centred on the camaraderie of a group of adventurers. These are weak characters. Only the Togusa-like Falco and the more colourful Rebecca appeal to me. They are challenged by their mercenary tendencies within the socio-economic class system, and the internal threat of “cyberpsychosis”: In this setting, the enhancement of the individual by the implantation of electronic parts is balanced by costs in money and in Humanity, the latter being a stat of Pondsmith’s game. When you run out of Humanity, you become psychotic. In the game, this limits the power of the player characters and keeps non-cybernetic character paths competitive.

By way of narrative justification, Pondsmith has likened cyberpsychosis to “roid rage”, an unproven side effect of synthetic anabolic steroids. Cyberpsychosis is not, however, an extrapolation. It is a conceit of game design. As such it’s a weak foundation for this narrative. In context, it becomes a metaphor for steroids and other self-destructive performance-enhancing drugs, used by the working class for unsustainable leverage. It is weakened further by the additional conceit that cyberpsychosis, in this fiction, can be delayed by taking “immuno-blockers”. These are never seen to result in somatic disease, as immunosuppressive drugs would under the circumstances.

With it weak plot, weak characters and glitzy, gory but somewhat cheap animation, the main attraction here is the revival—or unironic imitation—of 1980s cyberpunk gaming tropes with the tools that real-world Japan turned out to have in the real 2020s.

moving picture TRPG animation fiction series cyberpunk