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Genocyber Wants to Break You

by Matthew Roe,

When I first came across Genocyber, the thing gave me nightmares for a week. It was something so hardcore, that my teenaged self couldn't picture ever watching it again, wanting to push it as far from my mind as fast as possible. Afterwards, while I lost a clear recollection of what happened in the OVAs, I remembered its emotional impact on me. It ended up — in some ways — to dictate the manner in which I approached horror animation. When I first started making video essays on the internet, I would continue to assert that nothing topped Genocyber on the "feel bad" anime list.

It's appeared in numerous online articles, lists, and videos discussing some of the goriest and most shocking anime out there — some have even gone as far as to call it one of the more underappreciated and understated gems of the 90s. But does my personal memory, and this niche adoration, manage to square away with how the actual anime turned out when it was released, and how it has aged in the past three decades? Well, the answer might be a bit different than you may think. But we'll get to that — let's just skip on through the plot first.

Genocyber is almost an anthology. Each arc is told in a different era, under vastly different circumstances, and with a mostly independent cast of characters — save the titular Genocyber, introduced in the opening of the first act as a biological weapon that combined the powers and minds of two psychic sisters. It's what I think an anime adaptation of From Beyond would probably look like.

In the first episode we meet the sisters, Diana and Elaine, with the former being almost entirely mechanized, and the latter being somewhat primal. Elaine has escaped from the laboratory which she had called home, hiding out with a streetrat — no really, his name is Rat. Diana is forced by her de facto father, the scientist Kenneth Reed, to track down her sister and bring her back. What ensues is a chain of brutally violent, contextually disturbing events as multiple parties try to snag Elaine for their own ends, with Elaine and Diana unleashing the hidden power of their Genocyber nature. Throughout the course of this, Elaine's consciousness is absorbed by and takes control of Diana's body, or what's left of it.

The remaining episodes take place in two future time periods — episodes 2-3 taking place on a futuristic aircraft carrier fairly soon after the opening, and episodes 4-5 taking place far into a post apocalyptic future where human kind has retreated inside the City of the Grand Ark. Both of these scenarios focus more directly on supporting characters, with Elaine and Diana (and likewise Genocyber) seemingly dropping into the story to turn its trajectory on its ear. And, a word of wisdom: don't look for an overarching narrative, because there isn't one. Why might that be? Well, I feel it was less a stylistic choice, and more because this 1994 OVA series — like the original 1992 manga by Tony Takezaki — was canceled before the end of its run.

Sure, unfinished source material isn't necessarily the harbinger of doom for an anime adaptation. But there aren't many successful anime which share the same grim fate. Sometimes unfinished inspiration can serve as a great springboard for bigger and better ideas and spins. Even if you chose to alter the existing story dramatically, you can still posit some interesting questions about the characters, setting, and themes at play. But does this anime manage to do any of this? Well… yes and no.

When Genocyber's filmmakers want to disturb you, they're gonna make it happen. The sequences ruled by mass carnage, scientific mutilation, and body transformation is where the quality of the anime really makes itself known. When bodies are torn asunder, or people are invaded with images of fresh terror crawling across their minds, Genocyber earns its hardcore cult status without a lot of stiff competition. During these moments the animation is fairly fluid, and the visuals are buttressed by complex mechanical and creature designs. The carnage feels all the more real because such detail is paid to all the guts flying about, and the monsters doing the gutting. It isn't just due to the gross-out factor either — the pacing of these terror-heightened scenes remains taut and the visual continuity is direct. You won't be guessing whose arm just flew across the room, they'll be sure to focus in to keep the condemned's terrified face burned into your memory.

But just as we're witnessing some truly fantastic heights which make creature features in general so perversely alluring, we're equally underdone by the half-baked sound design. Of all genres — except maybe musicals and war films — horror is the most reliant on immersive, unnerving sound design. The scariest moments in Castlevania work because of the atmospheric storytelling made possible by the folly work, mixing and mastering, as well as how they integrate this design with the voice acting and music. The same goes for the goriest parts of Corpse Party: Tortured Souls, the tragic moments in Gantz, and basically all of Parasyte -the maxim-.

But in Genocyber, if we're not in the middle of a rampage claiming the lives of small children, or cowering in fear of cosmic horrors beyond our comprehension, there's almost a total lack of competent sound design, going so far as robbing some solid background art of its eerie potential. While I will say the series makes up for it somewhat by its electronic musical score by Hiroaki Kagoshima and Takehito Nakazawa, it isn't memorable or powerful enough to completely offset the technical and narrative shortcomings. Though, to be fair, this inconsistency is generally indicative of low-budget OVAs in the 1990s. And since you need to put your resources where you would think they'd be the most effective, it makes sense what elements have the greatest flourish, and which aspects are almost ignored. Like the script.

Okay, that's a little unfair. But considering how much source material they had to work with, with the apparent freedom they had to craft the animated story in any way they chose — since none of the OVA episodes really reflect the events in the manga — you'd figure they'd come up with some better plotlines too. Sure, the original manga's storyline wasn't extremely strong, but that doesn't mean there isn't some awesome dramatic tension and genuine emotional moments.

In the anime, the first episode sets up the dichotomy between Diana and Elaine, as well as the conflict between Genocyber and basically the rest of the world. We see Diana as an abused science experiment just trying to find her place in the world, and Elaine as little better than a defrosted caveman. Seriously, Elaine doesn't have much of a character. She's a binary switch, an emotion gets turned on and that's all we're getting from her until something else comes around.

The filmmakers do the bare minimum to make their conflict seem palpable, or make them feel like actual people. Their evolving relationship is told in abstract moments, which would have been fine by me if the whole series had this as an omnipresent style; but it doesn't. We don't learn more about these characters, even centuries into the future, and because of this, I could never buy the reasons for why Genocyber goes all genocidal at the end of the 3rd episode, spurring the post-apocalypse in the final act. It seems as though the writers wanted to make something that involved a Genocyber-fueled act of revelation, but just didn't have the time to naturally bring us to that conclusion. As a result, the overall story is little more than a hodgepodge of tropes and directly exposited themes that each vignette does little to add to the other accompanying stories. This is vastly underwhelming when taken next to the amount of characterization and world-building accomplished in the manga — y'all managed to forget some of the best elements of the original story, and you don't really give us anything to offset that.

Sure, the anime is gorier than its source by a country mile. No disputes on that front. Genocyber remains one of the more "out there" explorations of animated violence, with animators destroying and mutating the human form in some fascinatingly creative ways. But just because you've got buckets of squishy bits and blood, and a tiny metafictional conversation about the dangers of discovery and scientific advancement, it doesn't mean you've got a great horror experience. And before you go saying I've got unrealistic expectations for a basic creature feature, I'd like to draw our attention to the writing staff on this series — namely Shou Aikawa. Aikawa has been around the block. Just a few of his credits include writer for the 1988 Vampire Princess Miyu OAV series, head writer for the likes of Fullmetal Alchemist and Martian Successor Nadesico, and — though under a pseudonym — was one of the screenwriters for the infamous 1987 OVA series, Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend. This man knows how to write, knows how to write horror and comedy, and knows how to write them well. But considering the other major writer, and director of the series, is Koichi Ohata, I can completely understand why the narrative threads spin off into the land of loose ends.

Now, the story they've scraped together isn't all bad or underwhelming. In fact, I actually find the Global War episodes to be the strongest bit of writing in the series, and genuinely a solid piece of tension building. While getting vibes throughout the arc reminding me of movies like Akira, John Carpenter's The Thing, and David Fincher's Alien³, I also found myself enjoying the characters and their changing dynamics more, while appreciating all of the classic turns that the narrative takes. Sure, I knew roughly where the story was heading, but what we experienced on our way there kept the flavor unique. The character Sakomizu being altered by his creation, allowing it to consume and assimilate the crew and passengers into a giant, fleshy whole, is a fun and wild ride, hallmarked by wonderful, villainous 90s cheese.

The character Myra descending rapidly into a mental breakdown is set up to be an obvious cliché. First by her projecting the image of her (nearly identical) dead daughter onto Elaine — and even calling her Lara, after her child — and culminating when she sees Elaine transform into Genocyber. But I found myself quickly becoming a fan of the cliché's usage here, because (if given enough time) I could completely understand and buy the context for this transformation. Not only does it make sense, it feels like a logical conclusion — hell, I'd probably wind up just like her if I found myself on some naval version of SCP-610. While the setup for this character shift is honestly too rapid, and almost missable in the slew of other dialogue, I managed to understand and empathize with Myra more than any other character. The fact we don't continue on with what was established at the end of episode 3 — seeing how the world changes and how the world changes Myra — is a real shame. They could have made this arc the whole show, allowing for the world-building to flesh out naturally through character engagement, and it would have been considerably more evocative and resonant than the mess we have. But why would this make a difference in the end?

Killing a character graphically is one thing, but killing off a character that we can understand and relate to is far more weighty. I know this is a weird tangent, but it reminds me a bit of the first Final Destination movie. We don't see any deaths or damage to the main cast until nearly 20 minutes in, when Alex has his premonition. We learned about these people, quickly determined which ones we connected to or will easily brush off, and the rest of the experience is a game of subverting expectations and manipulating emotions. By the time we get to the end of the movie, and it throws the last twist at us, we're affected more because of the connection we've made with our remaining characters. If we didn't care about them, then their death is as important to us as the color of wallpaper.

Genocyber isn't Junji Ito levels of body horror, characterization, and putting society on blast — and it certainly tries to pawn off some similar ideas — but it really doesn't need to be. It's a sleazy, neon–drenched biopunk experience that goes hard in the paint when it needs to. And, as you can see, it earned its cult status among anime fans for a reason. But, before we start to wind down, another reason to seek out this anime is the dubbing. While the original Japanese cast is on a sliding scale of fine, it's the English dub that you should really try to get a hold of. Why would I say such blasphemy? Because the dub is hysterical — like Garzey's Wing levels of hysterical. Which makes sense, since a bunch of the credited voice actors in the final two episodes were also the English voice cast in Garzey's Wing. You're welcome.

The first three episodes were reportedly dubbed by Manga Entertainment UK, and they shove as many swears and slurs as they can into the script, while also giving any thuggish character a stereotypical East Coast American accent. These choices are ridiculous, and wonderful, and kinda like a Sam Raimi movie. But the final two episodes were dubbed by Audioworks Producers Group, as Manga UK seemingly never picked up the remaining Genocyber episodes when it came time for release — every single line read is downright awful. No disrespect to the cast, as blame may also lay on the shoulders of an inept dubbing director, but it has to be heard to be believed. If you ever want to know how not to dub any animation, let alone an anime localization, watch these episodes.

While you rebels out there may find Genocyber in the bowels of the internet, you can also pick up a copy that was released by Discotek Media in 2020. Now I will warn those who choose the latter route, as this Blu-ray is unique — it is a standard definition copy on Blu-ray disc. As far as I am aware, especially due to the actual production method of this OVA series, there doesn't currently exist a high definition version of Genocyber. So sorry y'all, 480p is the best you're getting out of this. But, considering the air surrounding Genocyber, it's fitting.

Every single aspect of Genocyber is a mixed bag. There really is an abundance of stuff to love here, especially for the gore hounds and retroheads — it may be the most utterly 90s anime I have covered for ANN thus far. But there also is a cascade of completely terrible choices that weren't well-crafted the day they were released to the public, let alone in the present day. While the scattershot moments where the talents of the production staff really shine through can be enough to keep us coming back to Genocyber, I also completely understand why this series has also continuously slid further into obscurity.

A modern remake with a more nuanced and steadied approach, allowing for a larger scope when crafting the story, and providing proper production support, would produce a pretty amazing experience — as Genocyber still possesses a ton of fantastic potential. We have a current horror anime landscape which I find to be largely barren. We have gotten a handful of good projects over the past five years, but nothing compared to the swell of the dark material which helped birth the likes of Genocyber. While I can recommend this OVA to those who are curious, or those who enjoy this odd niche (like me), I really recommend we take this idea into the modern day. I think, especially due to the global shifts of the past few years which have forever changed the course of what we do and how we do it, we're overdue for another sinister period in animated horror.

Thanks everyone for making it to the end of this video. This one's been on my mind a long time, and trying to make it without showing all the stuff that would get the video taken down was a real challenge, but I had fun going back and realizing how much my first experience with Genocyber didn't really hold up to time. If you enjoyed (or have taken issue) with my review and analysis of Genocyber, leave a comment down below to let me know. Subscribe to the Anime News Network — we put out new content every week, so be sure to ding the bell. And be sure to check out my personal channel, Criticlysm, for similar content, linked below. I appreciate your support and feedback. Until next time.


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