Future Imperfect: The Creative, Profound Ways Cyberpunk Deals With Crime and Humanity

Cyberpunk is one of the many subgenres of science fiction, and primarily deals with dark, futuristic locales, cyborgs, and criminal intent, and often takes on a noir feel. Think about urban nightlife, populate it with a lot of cybernetic things, flying cars, and outrageously outfitted criminals, and you’re probably going to get the feel of it.

It’s an interesting subgenre, because it deviates from the instantly conjured image when science fiction comes to mind – that is, stars, space, robots, colonies on other planets, and aliens. Cyberpunk grounds science fiction perhaps a little closer to home. In fact, a lot of the early cyberpunk works are interesting because to us, they’re familiar now. Take Synners, or Neuromancer. While not familiar in the sense that what they’re showing is reality, we have at least reached the level of technology where what has happened in early cyberpunk fiction is not impossible by today’s standards.

But sure, the Internet is not a mystified spectacle, and we’ve all had our fair share of visuals and virtual realities, experienced in different ways. The one thing that cyberpunk deals a lot of with is crime, since a lot of cyberpunk fiction anchors events in seedy underbellies with black market technology, and cyberpunk is able to negotiate with crime in so many creative with.

Take the Japanese anime Psycho-Passfor example. The premise is intriguing: in a futuristic Japan, the Public Safety Bureau solves crimes and attempts to preempt crimes by analyzing an individual’s Crime Coefficient – that is, the likelihood of him or her committing crime. Machines are everywhere in the series, and much of the technology the viewer is presented with figures out a person’s psychological state, this being the basis of whether or not one has criminal tendencies and the means to kill. And certainly it’s a brutal series, and certainly it challenges ideas and morals. Is it unethical to capture someone who’s only likely to commit a crime, but has not actually been caught red-handed? Is it alright to just rely on Dominators – guns that determine someone’s Crime Coefficient, and depending on the Coefficient, choose whether what you shoot is a paralyzing shot or a lethal one? The dependence on technology is obvious, and one questions whether the approaches are humane, whether there is even room for a human thread to run in the Public Safety Bureau’s line of work.

Psycho-Pass reminds me of a – not necessarily cyberpunk – short story by one of science fiction’s biggest and most influential names, Philip K. Dick. You might be familiar with the movie, but [The] Minority Report started out as a story about a Commissioner John Anderton, and the Precrime system, which predicts – through the help of people called ‘precogs,’ essentially people who can see into the future – which crimes will be committed in the future. And, accordingly, apprehend the criminals before a glimmer of criminal intent even sparks in their minds. It’s an interesting concept that deals with the question of whether or not someone should already be arrested before the crime is even committed. If, without a doubt, an individual would be guilty of a certain crime, then is it humane to arrest the individual while he or she is still innocent? But of course, it’s not that simple, because you will find out in the text that the Precrime system is not actually a hundred percent accurate.

There’s also the film, Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It involves an authority figure – a Blade Runner – called Deckard who’s tasked to apprehend renegade Replicants – essentially androids (and they look like humans – no immediate, on-the-spot way to figure out of they are Replicants) made to be shipped off to colonies where they’re supposed to do menial work. The film puts into question ideas of humanity, and what makes one really human.

There are, of course, much, much more cyberpunk works worth reading and seeing, and many of them – like any good piece of fiction – unsettle and make the individual questions things which are otherwise taken for granted. Cyberpunk is amazing, because it’s unrealistic but also realistic, in the way that the worlds and what is happening in them are familiar, in the way that the dynamics presented in them are familiar, except clothed in a lot of neon, grime, and cybernetic fixtures.

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Serendipity and Makoto Shinkai (On the Art of Subtlety)

Everybody knows, has watched something by, or has heard about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The two are some of the biggest names in Japanese animation today, with Ghibli and Miyazaki producing many films having both wonderful visuals and satisfying narratives. Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle – they’re just some of the movies by Miyazaki and Ghibli.

Miyazaki’s reputation is well-deserved, of course, but it’s always nice to find out about other animators. I have, actually, a specific Japanese animator in mind – Makoto Shinkai. Shinkai has a few full-length animated films under his belt, some shorts, and a commercial for cram school (a truly Japanese thing). While no one can really say for sure if he’s the next Miyazaki (going around the Internet, some are inclined to believe so, while others think this is some sort of blasphemy), Shinkai’s talent speaks for itself. His films – one of them being the popular 5 Centimeters Per Second – are always visually stunning and narratively sound.

I’d like to talk about one film in particular, however: his latest effort (and my personal favourite among all his films), The Garden of Words. Perhaps The Garden of Words is Shinkai’s most beautiful film to date, when it comes to graphics. The visuals are so realistic, so meticulously detailed, that it’s sometimes hard to believe that what you’re watching is not animated. Forty-five minutes of eye-candy is already a treat (some have even called it 5 Wallpapers Per Second, a title parody of another Shinkai film), but it’s the nuanced storytelling that makes The Garden of Words worth watching.

A brief summary: Takao Akizuki is a 15-year-old high school student and aspiring shoemaker, who skips school one rainy morning and meets Yukari Yukino, a 27-year-old woman eating chocolates and drinking beer alone in a Japanese garden. A connection is established by Yukari, who, before departing, recites part of a tanka to Takao. Takao is left to puzzle over the tanka.

It’s called The Garden of Words, but the movie doesn’t show a lot of actual, heard conversations between Takao and Yukari. Instead, the exposition is done through internal monologue and vignettes, keeping the viewer in the dark regarding some aspects of the characters’ lives while still connecting him or her with the meat of the story. That is, the relationship between Takao and Yukari.

Needless to say, for you to be able to find out exactly how the entire thing unfolds, you have to watch The Garden of Words. What I can definitely say, however, is this: Shinkai does a wonderful way of simultaneously excluding the viewer from the finer points of the story until the right time, all the while avoiding complete alienation so as to make the movie far from enjoyable. It’s a detailed film, both in visual and in narrative, and certainly it requires the viewer to pay attention. One complaint I’ve seen online somewhere is this: that the film is called The Garden of Words, but Takao and Yukari don’t really say a lot to each other. I beg to disagree. In fact, sometimes, one does not need to say a lot in order to get the message across, and I believe the ‘words’ being pointed out here by the title is the tanka itself, that first message that Yukari leaves during the parting of the two’s first meeting, and the very message that ties up the climax.

A faint clap of thunder,
Clouded skies,
Perhaps rain will come.
If so, will you stay here with me?

– Yukari Yukino, The Garden of Words

If you’re getting a little lost in the discussion, that’s okay. Go watch The Garden of Words. The thing that I’m trying to point out, though, is this: subtlety can go a long way. The Garden of Words is a film, true, and films rely on visuals as much as they rely on the story itself. But regardless of the medium, if you are able to pull off such subtle tones as the ones Shinkai did, then you’re a champion. Of course it’s hard. Subtlety requires wit and the belief that the audience will understand the nuanced layers of the story. Which, I think, worked well with Shinkai anyway. He exposed the characters’ lives – at least, one of the characters’, during the first part of the story – while furthering the story between Takao and Yukari, and so does not center just on the relationship between Takao and Yukari, but also on both characters’ lives, giving them an added layer of personality and complexity. Shinkai then seamlessly weaves the separate lives of the two into the narrative that already has them intertwined from the start. In the end, Takao and Yukari “save” each other.

What the nature of this saving is, you’ll have to see for yourself (and if I haven’t driven home the message now, watch The Garden of Words). It’s a beautiful film with a beautiful story, and the lessons one can get from it are as indispensable as the feelings that come off it. Subtlety is beauty, and the feeling of successfully putting all of the pieces together is satisfying.

A Few Things:

If you’re interested in learning more about the things I’ve mentioned here, then here are some quick links:

The Garden of Words/ Makoto Shinkai / Tanka

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