Have you ever noticed how often cyberpunk anime focus on law enforcement? Cyberpunk is the anti-establishment genre of sci-fi, one designed to showcase how, despite advancements in technology, life really won’t get better. In fact, it might get worse. Starting with both Neuromancer by William Gibson and Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, the genre quickly gained a reputation for showcasing untrustworthy military and police figures, who abuse their authority to oppress the vulnerable—especially those whose very personhood is a topic of legal debate.
Yet despite following many of the same trends, Japanese cyberpunk often tends to focus on law enforcement facing waves of criminals in a dystopian landscape. Some, like Ghost in the Shell, do argue that authority figures are still really bad. Others, like Akira, stick to the anti-establishment roots of the genre. At the same time, though, there are many cyberpunk anime—especially among those that were released during the late ’80s and early ’90s—that focus on officers of the law with questionable morality maintaining order against radical criminals.
This seemingly runs counter to the very core of the cyberpunk genre. After all, how can an anti-establishment genre center on the voices of authority? Numerous anime works have attempted to take this position, including the notorious Angel Cop and Masamune Shirow’s Black Magic M-66. Two works stand as particularly noteworthy examples of this, though: A.D. Police Files, a spin-off to Bubblegum Crisis, and Appleseed, the 1988 OVA based on Masamune Shirow’s manga of the same name. Both focus on law enforcement agents trying to maintain peace in a cybernetic society, as they face off against disruptors of the societal system—particularly those who found weaknesses in the system, or those who are lashing out at a world that’s attempting to push them out of.
Appleseed: a “Perfect Society”
1988’s Appleseed centers on the city of Olympus, a “paradise” erected by the General Management Control Office in the chaotic and destructive aftermath of World War III. Peace is maintained through the work of law enforcement agents, who consist of normal humans as well as half-human, half-robot beings known as Biodroids. Though these Biodroids maintain administrative duties in Olympus, they are still treated as second-class citizens by some.
As a city, Olympus is relatively safe, save for the occasional terrorist attack or criminal. To maintain their security, though, residents of Olympus sacrifice their personal freedoms to the police, becoming proverbial “birds in cages.” This leads to many gun-happy terrorists, many of whom have access to some pretty heavy weaponry, trying to break the oppressive regime, or simply acquire what’s theirs.
Appleseed’s leads are members of an Enhanced SWAT team (eSWAT). Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires are police officers from the nuclear desert—or Badlands— who were scouted and brought to Olympus by a woman named Hitomi. Deunan is a human, while Briareos is a hulking Biodroid. They see Olympus as a haven in the wake of destruction, and seek to maintain some semblance of order amid the post-apocalyptic chaos. To this end, they’ll go as far as to violently kill those deemed terrorists by the state.
In the Appleseed OVA’s opening, Deunan and Briareos open fire on a group of terrorists holding several civilians hostage. They offer little more than a brief warning before opening fire and, while they thankfully hit their marks, Deunan and Briareos are incredibly trigger happy. Rather than be forced to reflect on the violence, though, they’re treated as heroes, as the hostages, not traumatized, express incredible satisfaction at being released.
As it turns out, one of the police officers, Charon Mautholos, is working with a “freelance” terrorist, A.J. Sebastian, in order to break the General Management Control Office’s control over Olympus. A computer system called Gaia secretly runs Olympus, and Charon and Sebastian plan on shutting Gaia down r to allow humanity the freedom to behave and function in Olympus—at least, that’s what Charon wants. Sebastian is far more of a loose canon, angry at the very machine that runs society.
Appleseed takes a strange position when presenting its police officers: the officers themselves are treated as heroic, but the system they uphold is morally grey, at best. Even Charon, whose actions undeniably run counter to the heroes, is mourned by the story’s end.
The terrorists, meanwhile, are portrayed as justified in their actions. Olympus is a false paradise, though it’s not the trigger-happy police’s fault the city is bad. Rather, it’s the corporations that run the police and the city that are at fault.
At the same time, we’re also shown that the world itself is constantly on the brink of total chaos. The few glimpses shown of the world outside of Olympus showcase a world of blackened corpses and barren, nuclear deserts. In this light, the police officers are portrayed as forces of order against the tides of chaos. Though their means are objectionable, they only hurt “bad” people and misguided idealists who threaten the fragile peace.
Among one another, the police seem genuinely inclusive and accepting. They embrace the marginalized, maintain fairly open and welcoming borders, and accept folks of all different races into their ranks. Hitomi, Deunan, and Charon all hail from different cultures, while Briareos is just a giant robot. Despite their different backgrounds, no one in the OVA is treated like an outsider.
Indeed, in Appleseed, it’s the terrorists who crusade against inclusivity. A.J. Sebastian, for example, is an ethnocentric figure who argues that the Bioroids have taken over society, replacing humans as the dominant species. The police, he argues, are trying to control society for their “robotic masters.”
Bubblegum Crisis Addresses Systems, While A.D. Police Files Addresses Product
Where Appleseed stood as a unique work in a bespoke universe, A.D. Police Files is a spinoff from cyberpunk classic Bubblegum Crisis. As such, the gritty city of Megatokyo, the GENOM Corporation, and even the A.D. Police themselves are well known at the outset. In Bubblegum Crisis, the A.D. Police are framed as a necessary evil. The Knight Sabers—mercenaries who wear cybernetic suits that enhance their abilities—work outside the law to combat the insidious GENOM Corporation. One of the Knight Sabers, Nene Romanova, is even a member of the A.D. Police, using the organization’s information to aid the Knight Sabers in their crusade against GENOM.
That said, the A.D. Police in Bubblegum Crisis are not necessarily the good guys. They aren’t portrayed as wholly bad, either, though. People regard the organization as highly destructive and ineffectual at best, as they cause massive amounts of property damage during their various missions. The organization helps protect normal people from advanced cybernetic threats and their information aids the Knight Sabers, but they rarely actually address the systemic problems causing crime. They only address the symptoms.
In both Bubblegum Crisis and A.D. Police Files, the innocent civilians of the future are threatened by Boomers. No, not people born after World War II, but rather synthetic humanoids created by the GENOM Corporation. When they are under control, these beings are known as VOOMERs—short for VOodoo Organic Metal Extension Resources. The moment they are no longer under humanity’s control, they get a name change. In many cases, though, people just call them “Boomers” even if a VOOMER follows its programming.
By their nature, Boomers being out of control typically means they no longer follow their programming. But what do they actually do? Boomers perform a task—usually menial labor—but can enter an attack mode where their bodies rip through their human disguises to unleash violence upon the world. This makes Boomers an oppressed minority group who have to follow the whims of their masters, or else suffer certain death.
By their nature, Boomers tend to be wild machines without sentience. At A, most are. Some are self-aware. In Bubblegum Crisis, there are two Boomers—Sylvie and Anri—who are self-aware sex-droids who befriend the Knight Sabers. Sylvie and Anri escape captivity, but due to the way they’re designed, the two are forced to feed on human blood in order to survive. Moreover, GENOM designed Sylvie to generate a nuclear explosion if and when her power supply ran out. Because of this, the Knight Sabers are put in a position where they are forced to kill Sylvie to save those around her, and eventually beg Anri for forgiveness for what happened—which Anri, before dying, accepts.
Again, the problem here isn’t the Boomers. It’s GENOM.
In contrast, A.D. Police Files frames individuals affected by GENOM’s reckless meddling with nature and technology as its villains. The series features three episodes, each with their own self-contained storyline centered on Bubblegum Crisis regular Leon McNichol in his earlier days on the force. In later entries, such as Bubblegum Crisis 2040, McNichol has an unrequited romantic interest in one of the Knight Sabers, pop star Priss Asagiri. In this series, though, McNichol’s pursuits are focused solely on the Boomers he’s squaring off against. The series starts with him confronting a Boomer as a normal cop. but, due to his incredible survival of the event, he is drafted into the A.D. Police by Geena Malso. It turns out the Boomer was a tea shop droid who malfunctioned due to being overworked.
In the second episode, Leon discovers a series of murders that everyone immediately blames on Boomers. Leon, though, enlists the aid of Iris, a regular police officer who is considering replacing her eye with a cybernetic. The two learn that the real culprit is a CEO named Caroline Evers, who has replaced most of her body with cybernetics. Justice comes swiftly and brutally for Evers, who is later murdered in the subway by lowlives who think she’s a Boomer. The A.D. Police choose to not punish them.
As the case progresses, Leon argues that a person with more than 70% of cybernetics is no longer treated as a human, and thus can be killed just like a Boomer. Iris, on the other hand, argues that Caroline is still human. Leon ultimately sides with the street justice Caroline faces, while Iris is horrified by it, opting to cybernetically replace her own eye to remove some of her humanity.
And while her acts are heinous, Caroline is murdered not because she’s a killer, but because she is partially cybernetic. Her sin isn’t her crimes, but rather her very nature.
Similarly, the final episode focuses on a human, Billy, who was turned into a walking tank by a scientist. Drugs given to Billy alter his brain chemistry, driving him into a fit of rage that results in a rampage inside the A.D. Police precinct. Billy is given dignity in his death, begging to die in a moment of lucidity, but that doesn’t change the fact that, again, a victim of the system is framed as the primary antagonist of the episode, while the systems that allowed Billy to become this way are left mostly unexamined.
Yes, Billy ultimately kills the scientist who transformed him, but the police never question how to prevent another person from becoming the next Billy. The A.D. Police has no appetite for addressing societal problems. They just exist to punish those who were already destroyed by society.
Police Represent Order in a Toxic Society
The A.D. Police and the eSWAT both maintain order, allowing abusive power structures to maintain control over a populace. Still, while the eSWAT at least protects people from anarchy beyond their society, the A.D. Police maintain the stranglehold that corporations hold over society without ever addressing the root cause of the many crimes they stop.
This results in a strange dynamic, though. At the very least, the A.D. Police are framed as morally questionable in their actions. The eSWAT, meanwhile, despite essentially doing the exact same thing as their MegaTokyo counterparts, are framed far more positively for society. Though they are violent, the eSWAT are portrayed as inherently “good.”
Even in cyberpunk anime that questions the police’s authority, law enforcement officials are framed as people who get the job done… albeit maybe with a bit more brutality. Even in the satirical Dominion Tank Police, the ruthlessly violent police force still get their targets, even if half the city is obliterated in the process.
It is also impossible to examine these series without acknowledging the greater context of police throughout the world. Officers worldwide have been held accountable for numerous violent crimes throughout the years.
In the United States, there is a disturbing regularity of police shootings, as officers discharge their weapons against perpetrators of minor crimes. Many Americans argue that these crimes are not police working in the line of duty, but rather enacting bigotry against minority groups. Moreover, it is undeniable that Black people are significantly more likely to be victims of police brutality than white people.
Even if the violence conducted by police is entirely incidental, the police have access to high powered weaponry and it is incredibly uncommon for an officer to be criminally investigated for killing a civilian. In fact, some police, such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
This isn’t a new concern, either. American police have always been associated with these sorts of crimes, with the reputation extending far before the period that these titles were produced. The Rodney King chase, the Stonewall Riots—all of this centered on extreme violence conducted by police against minorities.
Those who disrupted the “order” of society.
While on the surface, Japanese police have historically seen far fewer scandals than their American counterparts, the methods through which misconduct can be discussed or exposed is far more minimal. This creates a false perspective of the police where they seemingly do little wrong, but that is merely because their violence is less scrutinized internally and by the media. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/30209411?seq=1)
In recent years, protests in Japan against police brutality and racism have become prevalent. The Black Lives Matter movement, which first started in America, exists in Japan. This indicates that, even in Japan, the American police system’s overzealous violence against minorities is seen as dangerous. Furthermore, it means that the Japanese see their own police department as suffering the same systemic problems the American police department faces. (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/06/07/national/protests-rallies-race-police-brutality-tokyo-japan/)
The disturbing reality is this: police in fiction cannot be separated from police in the surrounding reality. If you create a world where police are heroic, one cannot help but compare them to real police.
In this sense, only Ghost in the Shell manages to present the police accurately. Section 9 is a problematic organization that, in the manga, are brought to trial for damages they cause. In the film, Section 9 is presented as a tool of the system. Even at the end of the film, they fail to really stop the system that created Project 2501, with Batou just explaining casually to Major Kusanagi how all their actions ultimately brought very little change in the system.
This framework—the self-aware cynicism faced by officers who want to do good but are restricted by a system—is never presented in either Appleseed or A.D. Police Files. They are merely tools of order, framed as heroic and good natured. Even though the eSWAT allows a system of machines to control humanity’s free will and the A.D. Police allow corporations to continually get away with creating weapons of untold destruction, they are the “good” guys. If a problem emerges, it’s with the system—the system the police allow without question to continue on.
This, in part, is why Bubblegum Crisis works as a cyberpunk story while A.D. Police Files works only with the context of its progenitor. Without Bubblegum Crisis, Leon would be framed as the primary protagonist, not a side character shaped by circumstance and exposure to corruption.
In short, it’s cyberpunk…but that punk is sorely lacking.