Take Me Back to the 1980s

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You could fairly argue City Hunter (1987) and Cat’s Eye (1983) are opposite sides, narratively, of the same coin; one is about a glamorous playboy private eye recovering missing objects and saving beautiful women from peril, the other is about three beautiful women stealing gems and objets d’art. They are tonally and stylistically similar, to an extent, occupying what can be called the imaginary 1980s that is a preoccupation of a lot of pop culture and which is being revived in the modern popularisation of retrowave, synth and vaporwave aesthetics. Obviously, being products of the start and end of the 1980s, they are a more honest and authentic depiction of the idealism that pervades this kind of pop culture than later evocations of it which filter their perception through nostalgia for these original works.

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When I reviewed Winspector I mentioned how its setting was a comfortably sci-fi spin on turn-of-the-1990s Japan, a world of familiarly classic cars, big hair and dubious fashion into which are added robots, evil superscience machines, paranormal conspiracy theories and so on as if these are completely normal things to exist in the real world (rather than the world of aliens, spaceships and giant robots that something like Gavan offers). It’s a similar sort of idealism for what an epoch promises; technology is something exciting but also slightly weird and unknown, bad people are obviously bad and there are slightly cool and edgy and cutting-edge heroes to stop them, safely rebellious or safely dangerous.

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City Hunter is absolutely the embodiment of this for the “imagined 1980s”; it is a world where deadly cyborgs, deathtrap-filled villain lairs, terrifying bioweapons, vile master criminals and so on exist but so too do extraordinarily glamorous women who are often as dangerous as anyone else, feisty heroines and a stylish gunman who is lecherous, but never quite gets away with it. It’s the soft science-fiction of, say, a James Bond film – advanced technology exists to be abused and to provide something for the forces of order to bring back in line with common sense, big guns and witty quips. As dangerous as it is, you want to live in City Hunter’s world because it is cool and prosperous. Wealth and success seem attainable, and even if you are not in high society you can live comfortably and in cool fashion. Any seediness is managed to the point where it is glamorously underground, rather than sordid – proper villainy is the preserve of clearly visually-coded villains with black hats, dark glasses and black cars. City Hunter’s opening offers glamorous cars, neon skyscrapers and the titular action hero looking cool. He might be a rogue, but his roguishness is punished and he gets the job done to ensure everyone can continue living happily in prosperity and new tech is not abused.

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It is fundamentally lawful; Ryo might step in, like The A-Team, when the authorities can’t help or are compromised, but he wants to ensure people are protected from evil. But there is, in this imagined world of cool and stylish people living exciting lives, the other side; cool and generally admirable villainy. Enter Cat’s Eye, three phantom thieves who steal to try and recover lost property and who in very gentlemanly style warn the police what they are going to steal. I have seen less of Cat’s Eye than City Hunter so cannot say for sure if it reaches even the heights of speculative technology the latter does, but episode 1 begins with laser corridors, advanced impregnable vaults to loot and landing a plane on a golf course to taxi it into a waiting truck to make an escape – the phantom thief taken out of monocles, top hats and tails and put into the chic jewel heist movie with catsuits, big hair and gadgets.

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It is the same stylisation and idealism; the 1980s are an era when everything is big, high-tech and cool. The thieves don’t just steal a gem or statue, they do it in style wearing cool new fashions and using cool new gadgets. Of course they can get a plane, and land it on the fairway of an exclusive country club. Again, it is big, prosperous and puts people living modest lives as having a secret identity that puts them at the heart of the 1980s’ excesses. I think it is fair to say that without these grounding elements – the thief sisters running a cafe, Ryo living with a firebrand assistant in a dingy flat – there would not be quite the same idealisation. If these series were purely stories of successful and stylish people from the elite mixing with the elite, they would seem distant and alienating. The prosperity of this imagined 1980s would be unattainable. But these are people mostly like the viewer, with secret identities and normal outward lives. Anyone in this world, no matter how unlikely, can be a superhero, and your talents – be they thievery or sharpshooting – let you play at the top table.

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I’d recommend both of these series; they are in themselves fine mixtures of comedy and action, self-contained thrillers or heist stories with a comfortable formula, but they are also a sincere window into a kind of nostalgic, imagined 1980s from the perspective of the time. These are not modern audiences and creators distilling and filtering 1980s pop culture into a modern attempt to recapture that excitement, mimicking the aesthetic but not the attitudes – they are products of the 1980s presenting an idealised world where society’s flaws and subtleties are repainted into big broad conflicts and where anyone can be a big player in the world with the right skills. You can be cool in the imagined boom 80s if you’re good enough. If Ryo can somehow manage it while never actually scoring, if the Cat’s Eye triplets can be master thieves with networks of supporters while never fooling anyone who visits their cafe, anyone can be anything in this era of style, fashion and prosperity.

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