Cyberpunk, for many people, is a movement which came to define the 1980s and continues to enjoy various kinds of resurgences and rebirths even into the new century. Beginning the the ‘60s and ’70s in dystopian science fiction afraid of the impact of advancing technologies in society, it’s not surprising that the genre began to actively embrace influences from the East and especially that of the more technologically advanced and economically superior Japan. However, when Japan made its own cyberunk cinema, the “punk” element is the one that’s important. These movies sprang from the punk music scene and often star punk bands and musicians as well as featuring high energy punk rock inspired scores.
Death Powder (デスパウダー) is among the first of these tech themed experimental films and is the only feature to be directed by folk singer and poet Shigeru Izumiya who had also starred in Sogo Ishii’s massively influential Burst City in 1982. Hugely indebted to Blade Runner, it takes that film’s noir stylings and terminology to create an experimental surrealist film loosely themed around two bounty hunters in search of a “replicant”.
After beginning with a chase sequence past neon signs and through a contemporary Tokyo where the faces of passersby have been pixelated out, the story focuses in on the pair of street punk robot hunters, Kiyoshi and Noris, who have been charged with investigating a gang hideout which used to belong to an artist who keeps trying to come back. However, when the duo arrive they find that the reason the artist, Harima (played by Izumiya himself), keeps trying to attack the place is that they’ve been holding his girlfriend, Guernica – an android, in the basement. After Guernica is killed in the resultant fighting, her body turns into a kind of powder which Kiyoshi later snorts. This “Death Powder” allows Guernica to colonise his body producing changes in both his mind and physiology.
This is what passes for a plot summary, though in keeping with the best of cyberpunk film making from Japan the narrative is irrelevant. One character even says to another “Like life itself, this makes no sense” – that being the point in a sense, creating meaning from the meaningless. Though it starts off with a Blade Runner-esque aesthetic bearing all of the hall marks which would come to be associated with cyberpunk from the neon signs, darkened streets and noir tinged atmosphere right down to the shades and trilbies costuming, the film quickly moves into the experimental realm with strange robotic sperm flying across the screen and melting vistas of city scenes and memories.
Kiyoshi begins to merge with Guernica’s consciousness, inheriting her memories and what may or may not be android fears and emotions. He “remembers” a flashback sequence featuring the very strange figure of Dr. Loo – a rock god mad scientistic who built Guernica for some undisclosed reason and then passed her on to Harima on whom it, apparently, depends whether not not she can become human which requires showing her love that transcends human love and will become “memories”. Like the replicants in Blade Runner she has a limited four year lifespan but when she dies her body will become a powder which gives life to other things.
Guernica is a created being, devoid of human flesh, but can she become human through experiencing human emotions and can she overcome death by downloading her experiences into another being’s consciousness? All fundamental questions found in cyberpunk explorations of what in means to be human in a world of advancing technology but once again Death Powder offers no clear answers so much as a surrealist and experimental exploration of the individual changes undergone by the individual rather than the society in the face of increasing mechanisation.
The borders between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, man and machine have all become so hopelessly blurred that concept of reality itself has become corrupted and no longer carries any kind of currency. While it may not have the raw and sophisticated artistic power of Tsukamoto’s later Tetsuo the Iron Man which has come to define the genre, Death Powder is a surprisingly accomplished low budget cyberpunk body horror extravaganza which places sensory experience ahead of narrative. Undoubtedly hugely influential yet now little seen or remembered, Death Powder is an essential addition to the cyberpunk canon and one which deserves to be as widely distributed as the classics which later followed it.
Opening sequence of the film (very trippy but dialague free until right near the end. Fast forward to around four minutes in for the nighttime chase through Tokyo!):