Bubblegum Crisis, despite its cutesy title, is a seminal work of cyberpunk anime. It’s not about Violet Beauregarde ballooning up with blueberry juice after chomping on three-course-meal chewing gum.
According to series writer Toshimichi Suzuki, the title refers to a volatile situation, like a gum bubble about to burst. Inspired by Blade Runner and The Terminator, the show takes place in a futuristic Tokyo recovering from a devastating earthquake. The city is rebuilt in record time thanks to “Boomers,” advanced robots designed for manual labor. But Tokyo’s new prosperity hides a secret. Something is causing the Boomers to go mad, toss off the shackles of their programming, and rampage through the city. With local police unable to combat the looming threat, a vigilante team emerges to protect Tokyo: the Knight Sabers.
The original Bubblegum Crisis is a straight-to-video anime series released between 1987 and 1991, but I’m not going to talk about the original series. I’m focusing on the 1998 remake: Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040. Why? Because I’d watched the remake well before seeing the original, and Tokyo 2040 still holds a special place in my fannish heart as one of the first anime titles I’d seen with an all-female main cast. Also, while cyberpunk anime stalwart Ghost in the Shell enjoys continued attention with a recent prequel series and a (much-maligned) Hollywood remake, Bubblegum Crisis remains forgotten when it deserves a look.
It’s all about ladies helping ladies.
The four members of the Knight Sabers are set up like the Power Rangers, with color-coded uniforms to match. Team leader Sylia Stingray is the “gal in the chair,” not taking part in much of the action but always in charge. Linna Yamazaki, a hot-headed country girl, dreams of a life beyond her small farming town in rural Japan and moves to Tokyo to join the Knight Sabers. Priss Asagiri is the stoic one and the lead singer of a favorite underground rock band. Nene Romanova is a police dispatcher, a brilliant hacker, and the cute one.
Linna is introduced at the start of the series as the Knight Sabers’ newbie and the audience surrogate into this dark and dangerous world of rogue robot fighting, but when she joins, the team is barely a team. There’s hardly any camaraderie, and Linna’s frustrated that Priss just grabs her paycheck and takes off until she’s called for the next job. Sylia holds a personal vendetta against the boomers for destroying her family, and Nene’s there because it’s the one place where her hacking skills are appreciated.
Linna truly wants to hang out with all these awesome ladies she’s just met, but the Knight Sabers immediately ceases being a team as soon as they finish a mission. Linna’s eagerness to scrap with Boomers ignites something within the other ladies. Linna pushes for more than just teamwork, but friendship as well, and the team finally starts to gel into a real force for change in the city. These four women have absolutely nothing in common and would probably have never even become friends if it weren’t for the team itself and their shared goal of destroying rogue Boomers.
Behind every great female team is a support squad of men Will Smith-ing them from the sidelines.
The Knight Sabers can’t save the city alone, and while the support team is comprised exclusively of guys, the ladies still run the show. Nigel Kirkland is the team’s mechanic, but his job is mainly to keep their armored suits in tip-top shape while also staying out of their way. Leon McNicol is a detective with the AD Police, an elite police unit charged with dealing with rogue Boomers, and while he starts the series out with hating the Knight Sabers’ vigilantism, he warms up to the team once he realizes that, yes, they’re all basically on the same side. So he’s the Detective Jim Gordon to the Knight Sabers’ Batman. Sylia’s brother Mackey shows up mid-series to mix things up a bit and to bring Sylia some much-needed angst to deal with because she doesn’t have enough crap from her past to deal with already. Even Sylia’s butler Meisio Henderson lends a hand once in a while, even if it’s just to offer a well-earned drink or some afternoon tea.
There is, however, a frustrating degree of heteronormativity inherent in the cast, as the Knight Sabers are paired off with their male counterparts in the support squad. Sylia has an off-again, on-again flirtation with Nigel. Sparks fly between Priss and Leon right after they meet, which, of course, means they’re going to get together by the end of the series. Nene becomes the big sister to Mackey that Sylia never was, and of course, that means they’re going to get together by the end of the series. Poor Linna doesn’t get paired up with anyone - even though Priss is RIGHT THERE - but that is just ‘90s anime for you. There’s always the one character who is lucky in all things but love.
Technology fosters in a utopia, but paradise comes at a terrible cost.
With character names like Stingray, Romanova, and Kirkland, Bubblegum Crisis makes clear that future Tokyo is as cosmopolitan as London or New York. Mega-Tokyo, the city that rises from the rubble of the aforementioned earthquake, has encouraged an enormous influx of immigrants from all over the world. One quick glance at the background characters shows a diversity never before seen in Japan. Yet something sinister lingers just under Mega-Tokyo’s sleek, utopian surface.
Boomers have taken over all physical labor in the city. Boomers are street sweepers, trash collectors, and high-level security. Boomers appear as fast food cashiers, waitstaff, and customer service agents, and a bizarre gender breakdown exists within the Boomer population. All of the heavy labor Boomers are portrayed as masculine, while the customer service Boomers are feminine. Even worse, the labor Boomers are all huge and hulking figures of metal and glass, while the customer service Boomers all resemble women with pale skin. So, in the future, women can be armored superheroes, but only male Boomers can build skyscrapers.
Technology has brought a way for all of humanity to live together in harmony, but only by creating a separate source of labor to exploit. Yep, the Boomers are essentially slaves made for all the lower level labor so that humanity can be happy and prosperous.
It’s no wonder all the Boomers go rogue.
Pow the patriarchy. Literally.
The Knight Sabers’ primary nemesis for the bulk of the series is Quincy Rozenkroiz, an old white man desperate to cling to power and relevance as the world passes him by. He owns GENOM (the largest Boomer manufacturing company) and is blind to the problems of creating sentient robots and then enslaving them. He believes that the rogue Boomers are isolated issues and can’t understand why they need destroying. After all, the more Boomers that go rogue, the more people will need to buy new Boomers.
Rozenkroiz’s right-hand man, Brian Mason, has plans that don’t involve brokering peace between the humans and the Boomers. Boomer tech helped him overcome a childhood illness, and he believes that Boomers should take over the world. Mason doesn’t think he’s entirely human and sees himself as the harbinger of a new technology-based utopia where all of humanity is subservient to the Boomers.
He’s just The Worst.
Also in the running for The Worst is Sylia’s father. He experimented with both his late wife and his daughter to develop an organic core that could handle the Boomers’ complicated programming. Yep, Boomers are cyborgs. They go rogue because what human wouldn’t go completely insane if they were tasked with repetitive work all day, every day, without rest, and without rights? Sylia’s father created a proto-Boomer, the being all other Boomers stem from. This prototype was lost during the great earthquake that leveled Tokyo, and various companies have been desperate to find it ever since, to steal the corporate secret that only GENOM has claimed as its own.
Mason manages to track down the proto-Boomer and, shocker of shockers, the being looks precisely like Sylia did as a small child. Mason dubs the entity “Galatea,” after the ivory statue that comes to life in the myth of Pygmalion. He encourages her to explore her powers, which she does with great enthusiasm, causing a mass Boomer swarm that floods Mega-Tokyo like a zombie horde. Eventually, Galatea wises up to Mason’s plans and betrays him, throwing his delusions of godlike grandeur right back at his pointy, smug face. She uses her power to awaken the Boomer tech in his body, transforms him into a half-flesh, half-metal monstrosity calls him “God,” and plops him where he has a front row seat to the destruction that he started, but she’ll finish.
Men. Are. The. Worst.
God exists, and She's a cyborg.
Bubblegum Crisis reaches its finale with the Knight Sabers facing off against Galatea, but they're no match for an all-encompassing being of flesh and metal. The proto-Boomer suddenly undergoes an epiphany. To become God, she realizes that she must integrate herself with everything in the universe. Galatea self-destructs (?!) and her neutrinos penetrate through every single living thing on Earth. The Knight Sabers are helpless to stop this. They're separated from their armored hardsuits, and end up isolated from each other in different spots all over the globe.
And that’s it.
After the climactic battle against the world's ultimate baddie, the ladies are divided from all their tech, and the baddie just disappears. Bubblegum Crisis spends an entire season warning about technology's dangers, and yet it ends with an act of self-sacrifice by one of the products of that technology. Galatea gives up corporeal form to become one with the universe, to become the universe's new God.
The show leaves the significant questions of humanity's future up in the air, but perhaps a hint can be found in Galatea's apotheosis.
The future is unequivocally female.