In modern day media, cyberpunk has become synonymous with cybernetics and what it means to be human. To the point that people dismiss stories that don’t fall under that neat little fragment of the genre. Cyberpunk is the sub-genre about high tech, low life, corporate greed, survival in a world against you, crime etc. It has existed long before William Gibson and his story Neuromancer, which his work along with Ghost in the Shell, left hardliners firmly in the cybernetic aesthetics mindset. This is why it’s so refreshing to come across shows like UltraSeven X that challenge this idea that a genre is only this small fragment, and creativity in the genre should be lauded.
Now you’re probably looking at the featured image and thinking how can a Tokusatsu series be cyberpunk? Well, first of all the Ultra’s series this one was the first of several geared at adults. While using a cybernetics free world, it hits all the other trademarks advanced technology, mysterious organization in the form of DUES, people being pushed to use products to better their lives, even take jobs that would kill them simply because they are simple and pay well. People without hope trying to exist in a world that tells them it’s the best. Some cyberpunk hardliners will go into a excruciatingly long tangential rant against the fact the show made the proper choice to not include cybernetics and it fits. Most stories that have them rely on them as a way to get from point A to point B. The cybernetics are a set dressing that allows the ‘hero’s’ to overcome the obstacles before them, the Ultra Eye and UltraSeven serve this purpose without being exploited to break the story. It understands its a cyberpunk spy story first and foremost, just set in the universes of the Ultra’s.
When it came out the western crowd either loved it or disliked it. The main reason being while it is a Tokusatsu serial (transforming hero who fights monsters) it isn’t goofy or overly heroic like the rest of the Ultra’s series. It very much is geared for adults focusing on mystery and intrigue. The show focuses on an amnesiac man codenamed Jin, who works for a mysterious organization named DUES whose purpose is to keep aliens from invading earth. Rather than be a military force, the act more like the Men in Black meets the KGB. Unlike in MIB however, people of earth know aliens exist, but not that DUES exists. The agents don’t even known one another until their wrist communicators are called telling them where to meet. Keeping them all anonymous. The first episode plays with this, we don’t officially meet agent S until three episodes in, but she appears in episode one, and helps Jin meet agent K. Throughout the story Jin keeps running into this woman in white, who told him in the first episode to only trust her. She helps him out a few times saving him and K from a pickles they wind up in. Instead of focusing on the Ultraseven aspect he rarely appears save for the last five minutes of an episode. The show spends most of each episode having Jin, K, S and later the woman in white trying to solve that episodes mystery and if there are aliens involved figuring out their intention.
One episode that stands out to me is the third episode. Jin is sitting in the park waiting to be called when he’s approached by an overly friendly if not personal space invading man offering him a job that pays well, while the talking billboard drones throughout the city are talking about how proud they are that the world has achieved 0% unemployment, meanwhile adults are being found with shrunken brains and large sums of money, and DUES sends K and Jin to investigate. They find the friendly man’s card from before on the newest victim and go undercover to see what his job is. This whole time we are watching as the people who are lowest rung in society, those who are downtrodden cannot get credit in the society so rely on cash only jobs, but most people won’t hire them (remember that 0% unemployment thing). K tells Jin how these folks are easily exploited with jobs that pay cash since they are essentially societies unwanted. The episode had an impact on me because its found the job involves people either picking a safe but lower paying labor job, or a riskier but better paying job you do nothing but sit with a device on your head. The better paying job drains your life force yet the people doing it know this and do it anyway because the job pays well, is stable, and honest with them while treating them with respect, same for the labor job. When Jin and K confront the workers they all act angry at the agents thinking they needed saving and want to keep working. Unlike K’s initial thought they aren’t being taken advantage of but their by choice.
They are told by their society that they need to work, that they need to earn money, the flying billboards telling them that the world has no unemployed people, you live in a world with that kind of message it programs you to think your the problem not the society
It makes it more chilling when Jin transforms and goes to take down the Alien, only for him to ask if he plans on killing the humans working for him since they know the consequences and like him are just doing business, not invading. He was hired by humans to make the weapon after all. When Jin tries to say the humans are different he is rightfully called a hypocrite by the alien. The world abandoned these people, someone offers them work without hiding anything so they can survive in a world against them, but instead its shut down and they are march out as if they were victims.
Unlike other episodes that deal with victims – such as a nano company offering medicine that heightens brain activity making you a genius but in reality being a brain parasite – this one deals with honesty and how cyberpunk worlds are often not a nice place to live. The series eventually wraps with the reveal of why Ultraseven is even there, along with Jins memories returning in one of the best finale’s in the last 20 years.
Cyberpunk is about how as corporations grow bigger, as we as a society advance our technology more and more we will eventually have a social dissonance between what media tells us and what is true. Our world will become increasingly more divided and unified at the same time, every advancement can and will be used as another form of warfare and forced unification of the world, usually by corrupt capitalistic means. Whether it’s a world of micro-nation franchises and mafia run pizza companies like the world of Snow Crash, the human world being stuck on a train to survive an ice age that is divided up by classes like Snowpiercer; a detective drama like UltraSeven X, humanities hatred leading to a war with machines causing a virtual simulation of the matrix, surviving the total societal collapse, over-use of cybernetics and machinery, all of these stories fall under the sub-genre. Cyberpunk is a broad spectrum and often its fans prefer to focus on the one over the many others.
However, the commonly used and almost done to death story is “purity of body” and “what it means to be human” plots that were made popular from Johnny Mnemonic and Ghost in the Shell, which have since shown up in everything from Blade Runner, Tron Legacy, Cyberpunk 2077 and Dues Ex Human Revolution, just to name a few. In some cases, like Deus Ex and Cyberpunk 2077, they ignore the Ableist flaw in equating humanity to the amount of cybernetic augments one has, making is sound as if its entirely cosmetic as opposed to in some folks required since they are amputees. Stories relying on a religious mindset of losing humanity by augmenting to tell a story when others could be done just as easily. For example, Tron 2.0 tells a better and more compelling story of hostile takeovers and the danger of digitization while Legacy uses “machines are becoming human”. Yet Legacy was met with mild reception, and Blade Runner bombed both times at the box office despite being good films. There is also Deus Ex Mankind divided appropriating a term during real police riots to make a “aug lives matter” joke despite actual black Americans being killed regularly by police. This lies in the inherent problem with relying on this very small subset of storytelling. Making your story rely on a set dressing, instead of a set dressing complimenting a story can hurt it tremendously or make it ignorant to its times.
The takeaway here is that cyberpunk doesn’t need to rely on cybernetics and “what it means to be human” or “purity of the body” to tell a compelling story of high tech and low life with human nature mixed in. Cybernetics are just a set dressing, just like how UltraSeven is in this series. If you took out the Ultra and replaced him with someone like Adam Jensen or Robocop it’s still the same story, a set dressing is only as good as your plot. Making a set dressing the main focus as opposed to just part of the world is often what makes these cyberpunk stories so predictable, while keeping it as just part of the world as opposed to the focus you can tell amazing unique stories.