Mardock Scramble is a 3 volume cyberpunk novel series written by Tow Ubukata and illustrated by Katsuya Terada in Summer 2003. It was later adapted into a 3 part film series (2010) and a 7 volume manga series (2009) – the latter of which we’ll be looking at today.
Tow Ubukata, born February 17, 1977, is a novelist and anime screenwriter. He is best known for original works Mardock Scramble, Le Chevalier D’Eon and Heroic Age. Tow would also do series composition work for Fafner of the Azure, Ghost in the Shell: Arise and Psycho Pass 2. Additionally, if you were one of the lucky souls to read Newtype USA during its 6 year run, you’d have been able to read his comedic “A Gambler’s Life” segments chronicling his everyday life.
Mardock Scramble is the story of Rune Balot, an ex-prostitute who is nearly killed by her boss, Shell. She is saved by Mardock Scramble 09 officer Dr. Easter and his assistant, Œufcoque, and transformed into a high tech cyborg with mastery over electronics. Together, the trio seek to stop Shell and gather the evidence they need to charge him for all of his crimes. Easier said than done as Shell has an eccentric crew of fellow cyborgs out to finish where he left off – and one of them has history with the two officers.
The stand out theme of the series is victimhood. Or more specifically, misfortune and how one copes with it. Many of the characters in the series are suffering from some past trauma and try empowering themselves in a few different ways – some healthier than others
Empowerment by Distress Management
Being the protagonist of the series, Rune Balot’s experiences are the ones on full display and this includes her troubled past. Rune starts the story as a child prostitute. Even worse is that this is the case because she’s running from the familial implosion caused by the rape at her father’s hand. This causes Rune to have a mental breakdown and hallucinate climbing into a literal protective shell. Once she’s found on the street by Shell and is settled into her new role, she meets a girl that has tried to run away. Sadly, she doesn’t even understand the girl’s feelings anymore because “she’s forgotten how to”. Whether intentionally or not, Rune had developed a method of distress management; a manner of making hardship bearable. Steeling one’s self enough to not fall apart in the face of hardship is definitely a useful skill. Unfortunately, it isn’t much more than a stop-gap. Later, we meet a group of test subjects that refuse to leave the protective confines of their facility because it provides them with nourishment and positive sensory input. Taken to its logical extreme, distress management becomes pacification. Rune and the test subjects, through their lack of emotion, come to resemble dolls with the former garnering favor with johns because of it and the latter refusing to even defend themselves when attacked. Neither deserve the bad stuff that happens to them, but their highly pacified state keeps them from being able to move forward at all in life.
empowerment through victimization
Despite the hit or miss nature of the first form of coping, the second is far more dangerous and (considering the capabilities of this universe’s technology) far more common – empowerment through victimizing others. The nearly ubiquitous mark of the series’ villians are their inability to move on from their past traumas in a constructive manner. Instead, they fall deeper and deeper into their neurosis, usually at the expense of others. For example, the Bandersnatch Company (the first major villains of the series) are all ex-soldiers – with all of the nasty hang ups that come with war. Those hang ups bleed over into how they treat (read: butcher) others and their professed plans for Rune. That being said, even Rune herself isn’t immune to this. In fighting the Bandersnatch Company, Rune learns in a rather distressing manner the the devastation that’s caused when one so desperately (or carelessly) uses others to make themselves feel better.
empowerment for the betterment of others
Which brings us to our final method or dealing: empowerment for the betterment of others. While I doubt he had this particular context in mind when he said it, my FOSS professor always urged us to use our powers for good. Hurting others may feel good, but it’s not the type of “good” that’s enriching. Rune really comes into her own when she focuses on a task bigger than herself: stopping Shell. But not by killing him, mind you. Much like the webcomic Spinnerette, Mardock Scramble runs with the axiom that even in a world of superpowered beings, the framework of order and due process must be adhered to as much as possible. As such, the challenges Rune faces are mostly putting the pieces in place to bring Shell to justice, rather than just avenging her plight at his hands. In doing so, her actions can have some positive effect for a greater number of people.
Direct – There’s more than enough trauma to go around in regards to the cast. Albeit Rape, Child Prostitution, Murder or what not, a member of the cast is likely to have experienced it. I appreciate that the series doesn’t shy away from these topics, but also doesn’t revel in them either. The audience will be exposed to them in varying degrees, but they are brought up when they are most relevant and only to a degree of detail that’s necessary for understanding.
Burden of Morality – If you hadn’t figured it out by now, one thing I love is when a work pulls the proverbial Geneva Conventions out on its protagonist. Whether it’s Riza reminding Roy about the difference between revenge and justice, Officer Stacey reprimanding Peter for his selfish obsession or Ender frantically screaming “IT ALWAYS MATTERS HOW YOU WIN!”, there’s something to be said for a work that forces a character to prove their moral fiber instead of just inferring it. After all, no one can be bad enough to make you good.
Feels short – Not to say that the story feels rushed. The pace feels pretty natural, all things considered. The characters are all knowledgeable enough to make a reasonably actionable goal and, since their lives are on the line, expedient about pursuing it. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the seven volumes foster of being a single and somewhat narrow episode in the greater Mardock universe. Doesn’t ruin the story, but there’s more than enough clear negative continuity by the end of the story that could’ve been explored.
Mardock Scramble is its own kind of beast. Whereas Battle Angel Alita asks “What’s the most important aspect of a life?” (memories and connection to others), Ghost in the Shell asks “What does it mean to be alive?” (Self awareness and the willingness to grow and change is a good start) and Blame seems to posit that machines may eat us one day (I think), Mardock Scramble proposes something a tad more ethics related. No amount of technology is going to prevent humans from feeling pain – especially at the hands of other humans. No technological innovation is going to absolve humanity of having to ask itself the hard questions. What type of person do you want to be? What are you going to do with your experiences and what are you going to let them turn you into? Every person has to explore and answer these questions for themselves. Cyberpunk may usually ask you to consider what you are, but Mardock Scramble, in its own way, asks you to consider who you are.
For this reason, you owe it to yourself to swing by your local brick and mortar manga shop, or perhaps a digital retailer if that tickles your fancy, and pick it up.