Cyborg 009 2001: Emotional Arcs in Art Direction

Recently, I attempted to watch Cyborg 009: The Cyborg Soldier – the third TV series based on the Shotaro Ishinomori manga. While overall fairly good, particularly in its excellent orchestral music by Hayato Matsuo and Akifumi Tada (based on melodic ideas by Tetsuya Komuro), I fell out after nine or so episodes. It’s just not something I feel I want to engage with right now, with its mostly serious straight-faced action drama being a kind of show I find rather dull to watch.

That said, there are some very good episodes I managed to check out. Episode 33 “Frozen Time” is a great conceptual episode that takes the main character’s time acceleration powers and turns them into a seemingly inescapable puzzle, backed by superb sound design that nails the isolation and strangeness of his situation. (This was actually my introduction to the series, recommended to me by Adrian Dalen as a good out-of-context episode to enjoy.)

Then there’s episodes 7 and 8 “Defeat the Invisible Opponent”/”Friend”: a two-parter that delves into the past of Cyborg 009 – his time at the orphanage, the mysterious death of the priest who ran it – and how that ties into events happening into the present. It’s a conservatively animated pair of episodes, but they’re made compelling by an effective use of storyboarding and especially colour design. I’d like to look at the colours used throughout both episodes and how they tell a story just as much as the words and actions that surround them.

Episode 7 begins at dawn, with the cast watching over a massive city on the lookout for any activity from the villainous Black Ghost organization. The skies are coated in a bold yellowy orange, with the bright glimmers of the morning sun casting the buildings in deep shadows. It brings an uneasy eeriness to the quiet daybreak, which is furthered by the characters being presented with washed-out colours rather than their usual vibrant palettes.

We move forward to the early morning, in a small part of town where most of the first half takes place. The sun has fully come out, but its light is so low that it creates this blindingly white effect with faint blue tones. Long shadows are cast across the streets and alleyways, many of which carry a strong purple tint. There’s a more relaxed feeling to these scenes, though there’s still a sense of apprehension due to 009 meeting people from his uneasy past.

In the middle of this is a flashback to 009’s time at the orphanage, which is portrayed with a greyscale colour scheme. Using this type of look to present the past is a fairly standard way of establishing a different sense of time, and one that’s complimented by the priest’s black and white colour scheme. It’s as if we’re experiencing a world that looks as colourful as the man who ran it.

But there are elements that break that colouring style, such as the trick candle the priest lights, the coloured windows of the church, and the candles surrounding 009 in his guilt. That last one is particularly striking, as it slowly adds more elements as the priest comes to comfort him – before both vanish in a blazing fire.

A later flashback, where we see the priest’s death at the hands of the nefarious Ske-a, is presented with deep red and black colours. This fits the bloody nature of what’s just happened, as well as foreshadow the sense of death and destruction that will be associated with these colours later on.

As the sun begins to set, we check the other cyborgs as they search underwater for the wreckage of an oil tanker. It’s a brief scene, but the harsh orange lighting of their submarine is contrasted with brown shadows and the blackness of the deep sea. It creates a feeling of uncertainty that is further compounded by the discovery of a massive footprint left behind at the tanker’s wreckage, illuminated with a powerful faintly green light.

We return to dry land as night falls, where a faintly red and brown mist coats the docks and surrounding area. Even the light from the streetlamps doesn’t do much to dissuade the dinginess, with their strong orange lights fading to pale spotlights that cast the characters in desaturated palettes. It’s appropriately bleak as it’s here where Ske-a and his comrades’ plot is revealed, along with the existence of a towering robot that can make itself invisible.

It’s on this note that Episode 7 ends and we head into Episode 8, which kicks off with members of the Black Ghost organization assembling at a mansion. The deep blues of the starry night are quickly replaced with a stark use of black, white and grey, coldly presenting the organization as faceless shareholders complicit in their leader’s diabolical schemes.

This is contrasted with scenes of the Cyborgs figuring out what to do about the invisible robot. There isn’t a distinct use of colour, depicting the characters with the neutral vibrant colours we’d normally see them with. It suggests a more familiar tone, one that contains more life and warmth than the people they’re fighting against.

Some time has passed since the events of the previous episode and the sun is starting to set, painting the city in a reddish orange that mixes in some of the browns previously seen at the docks. It’s here that the invisible robot attacks the city on Black Ghost’s orders, absolutely demolishing it and giving an apocalyptic vibe to those colours.

That association of red with death and destruction is presented quite strikingly when Cyborg 009 resolves to head down into the city and confront the robot. A shot is presented of the characters in silhouette, with 009 in front of an open door that casts pure blood red. He knows what he’s heading into, and ignores the warnings of his friends.

The bleak colour scheme persists as 009 explores the city, finding only desolate ruins in the wake of the robot’s rampage. Eventually, he discovers a young girl on her own and decides to take her to a shrine in the woods, high above the city, where she’ll hopefully be safe.

This brings us into the second half of the episode, and a change of location also brings about a change in colours: a hue of deep blues from the night sky and pale teal-greens from the surrounding woods. The immediate desolation of seeing the ruined city has faded, though it’s still being destroyed. Things should be calmer due to the relatively warmer colours. Should be.

But 009 runs into Ske-a and his lot once again, and scenes between them are occasionally punctuated with silhouetted and greyscale shots that recall the flashbacks to the orphanage from the previous episode – both chromatically and literally.

The blues and teals take up the visual palette for most of the second half, giving these scenes a melancholic air as 009 comes face-to-face with the man controlling the robot, and has no choice but to fight him. These fight scenes do take on a stark visual shift once they both activate their time accelerator powers, their colours gaining a strong orange tint as they fight against black and white backgrounds.

(A ghosting effect is also used so that even how the characters move looks and feels different, though this unfortunately makes trying to get good screengrabs mostly impossible.)

At the end of their fight, the man chooses to sacrifice himself to save a young girl. The episode – and the two-parter – ends with 009 watching the man die on a rocky shore, lit up in washed out colours by the same kind of yellow sunrise seen at the beginning of Episode 7. Instead of uneasiness, there is now a bittersweet sorrow. Things are over and people have been saved, but not everyone.

It’s worth noting that both episodes were storyboarded and directed by Shintarou Inokawa, an occasional episode director of various anime whose only work on this particular series is directing episode 3. With him at the helm, it allows for a visual cohesion that gives an emotional arc to the colour use throughout this two-parter. 

Obviously, a lot of credit must also be given to those responsible for the background art, the colour design, the colouring itself and all the other aspects relevant to this discussion. Though unfortunately, the credits for those specific positions on these episodes have not yet been translated so I can’t name them specifically or even give links to databases crediting them.

However, I hope that the screenshots I’ve posted can speak for their efforts, for the work it takes to make what could’ve been just another couple of episodes something rather special.

Special thanks to:

Adrian Dalen, who introduced me to the series through his aforementioned recommendation.

Cure and steven.mccarthy1988 from the World Animation Discord for reading the article draft and giving feedback.

Givijoarna86, who subtitled/ripped the series and uploaded it onto YouTube back in the day.

FrDougal9000 writes for as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

Leave a Comment