In a dystopian future, fifteen year old prostitute Rune Ballot (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara) reaches the end of a sad and seemingly hopeless life. She is murdered by her latest sugar-daddy, psychotic casino manager Shell Septinos (Kazuya Nakai), who burns her alive as part of a mad scheme to make gemstones from the compressed ashes of his victims. But Rune’s subconscious mind urges her to live, which under the provision Mardock Scramble 09 enables scientist Doctor Easter (Kazuya Nakai) to resurrect her as a kick-ass cyborg, unable to speak but possessing the power to control electronic devices and thus communicate through them. Rune is partnered with a shape-shifting artificial intelligence called Oefcoque (Norito Yashima), whose natural form is that of a glowing, golden little mouse. Working together as detectives, the pair attempt to build a legal case against Shell and his employers, the ominous October Group, but come up against his formidable right-hand man, Boiled (Tsutome Isobe) and a cadre of hideous mutant freaks intent on harvesting her organs.
Only a Japanese anime film could conceive a cyberpunk noir buddy movie pairing an underage hooker-turned-cyborg with a talking super-powered mouse and adopt John Newton’s famous, anti-slavery hymn Amazing Grace as its theme song! An introspective variation on the sexy but cerebral cyberpunk stylings of the classic Armitage III (1994) melded with the desaturated, downbeat look of Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mardock Scramble: The First Compression is, as its title implies, the first in a trilogy of short films adapted by screenwriter Tow Ubakata from his own series of science fiction novels. On a visual level there is much about the anime that is over-familiar: an oft-naked, blank-eyed waif; a script laden with arcane techno-jargon; dystopian chic production design swathed in sickly emerald hues resembling a nightmare vision of Oz’s Emerald City. However, the story is more intriguing and indeed uplifting than is first apparent from its muted, melancholic tone.
We discover Rune was the victim of repeated sexual abuse at the hands of her own father, who was subsequently shot dead by her brother. As a consequence, our guilt-ridden, enraged heroine suffers from low self-worth. The story’s underlining theme is the slow restoration of self-belief to a young person grown jaded before their time. Not for anything does this adapt Newton’s hymn as its theme song (“I once was lost, but now am found..."). Rune’s relationship with Oefcoque, dressed like Stuart Little in his cute wee suit and bow tie, is the heart and soul of the film as he encourages the wayward waif to take charge of her destiny, adopt moral responsibility and use her cyborg superpowers to make a difference. Equally when Rune begins to derive sadistic pleasure from punishing her persecutors with all manner of inventive splatter-filled deaths, it is the little mouse who revives her humanity.
Although vaguely akin to the noir classic D.O.A. (1950), wherein a victim investigates their own murder, the plot is a little too clinical and oblique to consistently captivate but packs the occasional affecting aside. It is more or less an origin story and ends on a cliffhanger liable to frustrate some but does its assigned task setting up the next installment. Japan’s most popular voice actress Megumi Hayashibara does a better job animating the heroine, so to speak, than the reticent chara design. Action scenes are pretty brutal and heavy on the splatter with repeated references to rape and sexual torture that might offend some. The array of techno-mutants set against Rune and Oefcoque are a genuinely unsettling bunch, including the outrageously named Welldone the Pussyhand who has exactly what you’d expect implanted on his palm.