The early 2000s were an interesting time for anime remakes. Rather than trying to “update” aesthetics to match contemporary sensibilities, many chose to be intentionally retro. It’s within this context that 2001’s Cyborg 009: The Cyborg Soldier emerges. Based on the pioneering action manga by legendary creator Ishinomori Shotaro, the series embraces the rounded, Tezuka/Disney-inspired character designs that defined post-WWII manga while adding some modern flourishes.
The eponymous Cyborg 009 is one Shimamura Joe, a Japanese guy who was abducted by the mysterious organization known as Black Ghost and forcibly converted into a cyborg capable of moving at superhuman speeds. However, Black Ghost’s plans go haywire when Joe escapes thanks to previously unknown allies: fellow 00 Cyborgs just like him, numbering 001 through 008, each of whom have unique abilities like flight or super strength. Together, they battle against Black Ghost and its plans to inflame and perpetuate war and conflict on Earth.
I’ve only read a little of the original manga, but what struck me about Cyborg 009: The Cyborg Soldier is how compelling it is from the start. Between the solid foundations of the source material and a retro style combined with sharp direction and animation, it never comes across as too indulgent in nostalgia or trying too hard to make up for any perceived staleness from the 1960s original. Cyborg 009 is so influential that many of its elements have become standard tropes in anime, manga, and even beyond, but they still feel fresh when presented here. I also have to point out the stellar voice cast, which features heavy hitters like Sakurai Takahiro, Wakamoto Norio, Ohtsuka Akio, and more.
This anime (which is just one of many, many adaptations over the decades) largely follows the manga it’s based on by covering all the big arcs—though certain storylines like the Vietnam War have had their settings changed. One consequence is that the strengths and flaws of the manga also come across in the 2001 version, including the fact that some storylines are just weaker than others. Especially after the first 20 or so episodes, there seems to be a bit of meandering as the narrative has trouble finding foes as interesting as earlier ones. This comes right down to the climactic conclusion, which was controversial at the time it ran in the manga and disappointed many fans, but is presented here largely unchanged. The last few episodes are even an alternate storyline based on notes Ishinomori left for a new conclusive ending, but one he couldn’t finish before passing away in 1997.
Given how recently Ishinomori had died at the time of production, I have to wonder if that affected the approach taken for The Cyborg Soldier. It reminds me of 2021’s Getter Robo Arc, which was also a mostly straight adaptation of a deceased artist’s work, but in that case, the manga never finished, leaving both it and its anime on a cliffhanger. At least The Cyborg Soldier has some sense of closure.
The politics of Cyborg 009 with its antiwar message and its criticisms of war profiteering stand up to the test of time, especially because they’re rarely ever simplistic. In one episode, the team has to help psychic alien children who come from a world where killing is completely unimaginable, but they are invaded by other aliens with no such qualms. All they can do is run and defend, stemming the bleeding but never truly stopping it. It isn’t until Cyborg 002, an Italian-American with flight powers named Jet Link, provokes the children to stand up for themselves that they turn the tide of battle. The character abhors war, but believes that remaining passive and lacking the will to fight back in any situation means getting run over—a sentiment he developed on the mean streets of New York City. Notably, though, this isn’t necessarily the philosophy of the rest of the team, and the fact that they both have unique personalities and come from different cultures around the world helps to portray a diverse team with different perspectives.
One issue with that diversity is that in the original manga, many of the designs of the characters were ethnic stereotypes, with Cyborg 008 being the most egregious example. A black African named Punma (whose country of origin changes depending on the version), he is portrayed in the manga with comically large lips and jet-black skin like a sambo doll. However, it’s clear from his personality and background that he is not meant to be a joke: Punma is originally a clever and kind soldier fighting against a tyrannical government, which means he has the most practical combat experience. His ability to excel in underwater combat, a product of his cyborg transformation, is a pretty neutral ability, and neither he nor his people are portrayed as savages. In The Cyborg Soldier, Punma sports a much less offensive design, helping the visuals to catch up to the character within.
Another case where the politics of representation could use some work is with the sole woman on the team, Cyborg 003. French woman Francoise Arnoul has enhanced hearing and sight, which means she’s the only one with a passive ability—a longstanding trope for female team members in children’s series inside and outside of Japan. It also doesn’t help that she is often the default caretaker of Cyborg 001, a Russian baby with psychic powers named Ivan Whisky, with her cradling Ivan in her arms as the men go out. But she’s also a three-dimensional character clearly beloved by the anime staff, and there are plenty of moments where Cyborg 003 is made to shine or another character sings the praises of her sensory abilities or regrets not having them. Unlike with Cyborg 008, though, because the issues with her portrayal are less purely visual, The Cyborg Soldier still ultimately retains a great deal of this passivity it adheres to the manga.
Cyborg 009: The Cyborg Soldier ran incomplete internationally in the early 2000s, and it wasn’t until 2018 that a US Blu-ray was released in full thanks to Discotek Media. It’s one of those titles I genuinely thought would never see the light of day again, so I’m more than grateful. What’s funny to me is that even this 21st-century adaptation might be viewed as “retro” by fans (it’s 20 years old!), and that in this context, it stands the test of time in more ways than one. Not only does The Cyborg Soldier successfully convey the strengths of the original manga, but it holds its own as one of the best things to come out of that early digital era of anime, while delivering a timeless message of a wish for peace.