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From the Archive: ‘CYBERPUNK, or “New Metallic Cinema”’

Archives are akin to treasure troves. If lucky, you find contents of immeasurable value. You get an intimate gaze into the past through a text or an item that someone, long ago, deemed meaningful enough that its existence must be remembered. If unlucky, well, let’s not dwell on the negatives. In our office, Trondheim Filmklubb has access to multiple boxes of film magazines and pamphlets from bygone days, created by our preceding members. And in one such magazine, from 1993 – the greatest year, in my unbiased, humble opinion – we stumbled upon an article on cyberpunk. An immeasurably valued treasure, indeed.

In the article “CYBERPUNK or “New Metallic Cinema” in Trondheim Filmklubb and Cinemateket Trondheim’s fall 1993 program catalogue, Jørgen Kirksæther introduces the phenomenon as part of their “CYBERNATT” screening of Tetsuo – the Iron Man and Tetsuo II – Body Hammer. The fairly short article explores the history of cyberpunk, from its literary roots in William Gibson’s Neuromancer to its distinct visual expression in modern film.

In presenting cyberpunk as a literary genre, Kirksæther recognizes a distinct element which can be said to lay the foundation for the entire genre. Namely, that power is returned to the streets. Social injustice and class division are components cyberpunk is rarely without. Differing from other works where technology, and accompanying technophobia, is central, cyberpunk instead twists the role of technology from being oppressive to technological oppression being in the hands of those who wield it: the rich and the privileged. Additionally, focusing on the latter part of cyberpunk, it is no longer money that dictates the usage of technology because you can reach far with simply having tech-knowledge, which the rebels and criminals we often follow certainly have tons of. They, too, become the wielders. In that way, technology is no longer vilified, instead neutralized, and we can focus on the actual causes for oppression and corruption.

But there is also some frustration expressed in the article as Kirksæther explores cyberpunk in film. The frustration lies primarily in tabloid journalists’ mis-categorization of what cyberpunk actually is, thereby diluting the entire genre. Films with so-called ‘cyberpunk aesthetics’ aren’t necessarily cyberpunk but are often classified as such regardless of lacking certain narrative elements. To this, Kirksæther suggest the genre name New Metallic Cinema, which would separate cyberpunk films from science fiction that simply borrow the aesthetic.

Cyberpunk is largely defined as a genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology. To which Jasper Sharp for BFI adds: “Think postmodern narratives of crumbling dystopias overseen by inscrutable, unscrupulous government and corporate bodies. Other themes include the thin dividing line between human and machine, the omnipresence of a virtual shadow world beyond the physical, and the fetishization of technology and military hardware.” Hopefully the tabloid journalists have a better understanding of what constitutes the genre these days so Kirksæther (and most likely many other fans of cyberpunk) can relax. But it does make me wonder whether the cyberpunk-aesthetic, existing separately from the narrative elements, has a place within the genre.

The genre description doesn’t explicitly state any clear visual aesthetics prominent in cyberpunk, but rather hints at them through its setting and themes such as dystopia, lawlessness, oppression, computer/technology, and human-machine merging and fetishization. But due to cultural associations to these words, as well as literary works like Neuromancer and films like Blade Runner and Akira, we still have a visual expectation of neon lights, futuristic techno-cities that look both high-tech and sleek and run-down and filthy, technology as grimy as the cityscape, and 90s-looking computer technology. Though this is what we automatically associate with the aesthetic, films like Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix are less colorful in their visual storytelling and lack the neon lights and the gigantic, mega-corporation and consumerist-centered billboards towering over these decaying techno-cities (although neither is completely without this). The future looks more grey, dull, and often monotone here. Does the cyberpunk aesthetic then add to the genre? Does it dilute it? Can it actually, truly, exist completely separated from its cyberpunk narrative structure? And does it (still) contribute to the unnecessary confusion among, and distributed by, these tabloid journalists? Who knows.

Animated (Japanese) cyberpunk is curiously absent from this short article, focusing instead on live-action cyberpunk, as it were. But cyberpunk anime – I think, again in my humble, unbiased opinion – is almost a class of its own. Live-action, computer generated cyberpunk is of course deeply complex and visually stunning to witness, but animation does not have the same restrictions when it comes to the visual as live-action cyberpunk (not to say there are no restrictions in animation overall) and can therefore push certain boundaries that wasn’t fully or convincingly afforded through CGI just a few decades ago. For instance, the grotesque metamorphosis in Akira, the intricate cyberspace of Ghost in the Shell, and even the flawless transition between reality and dream in Paprika. But I am happy to be challenged on this opinion (in fact, I think some fellow TFK board members would disagree). Of course, this has obviously changed in the last decade, but animation and live-action films alike still have distinct restrictions and possibilities not available to the other. And I tend to drift towards animation.

Overall, reading Kirksæther’s article 30 years after its publication is a fun, immersive throwback to a time when our own society, and largely the everyday joe, grew more intertwined with technologies we can’t imagine living without today. For instance, Kirksæther speculates on the future of virtual reality and predicts the creation of “a pair of glasses with built-in screens” so that one might see the other guests in the (virtual) café with your own eyes. But it’s also an eerie and somewhat uncanny reminder of just how far (virtual) technology has come in such a short time, and likewise how dependent we have become in that time. It feels suspiciously like cyberpunk in real time.

It is kind of fitting that our cyberpunk cinema night features only animated Japanese cyberpunk. This way, we get to expand upon our understanding of cyberpunk in general while also showing the vast, complex, and sometimes contested possibilities afforded by this genre that seems to grow more and more relevant each passing year.

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