Mardock Scramble is an exploration and condemnation of the criminal justice system and social structures that perpetuate injustice and the violation of the victims it is supposed to protect.
Trigger warning: this content is graphic in it's depicts of heavy subject matter. Sexual assault, incest, prostitution of minors, and rape among them.
At a young age of 15, Rune Balot is a sexual assault survivor turned prostitute, who is then jailed. When Shell, an entertainment star turned casino owner offers to elevate her life to something she never dreamed she could have, so long as she follows his rules, she enters a lavish life that she ends up regretting, effectively trading one form of imprisonment for another.
We first see Rune in a limousine, careening through a futuristic city of roads that appear to be light bridges, projected ads on skyscrapers dot the surroundings. Dr. Easter, following the limousine, ostensibly to save a girl from the clutches of serial killer revealed to be Shell. The victim revealed to be Rune.
"We performed Q and A with your subconscious... though comatose, It was all perfectly legal I assure you. Do you want to live, do you want to exercise your rights, etc. When the question was posed your subconscious chose 09; Mardock Scramble 09. That's an emergency ordinance for the preservation of life using otherwise prohibited technology."
Shell tells Rune she hasn't followed the rules and will become another one of his blue diamonds, locking her in the limousine and blowing it up—killing her. Dr. Easter pulls her from the wreckage and, through advanced technology interfaces with her subconscious as she's comatose, asking if she wants to be saved using a precedent in the city in which experimental technology can be utilized, Mardock 09. Thus, she awakens to a new, synthetically crafted body with numerous enhancements, including armored skin and the ability to manipulate technology using something called Snark.
Dr. Easter devised this tech during a war. If he doesn't prove himself as a 09 caseworker, helping victims of crimes be heard and to get justice, he will be charged with crimes of human experimentation and jailed.
Shell, beyond being a serial killer, launders the money of a megacorporation through his casino that has a special exception from the government to use banned technology for "amusements and pleasure". If Rune gives her consent to allow the Doctor to be her caseworker he promises to keep her safe, convict Shell for her crimes, and garner a sizeable award for solving the case, to be shared 50/50. Rune could use to start a whole new life.
Along with this deal, Oeufcoque, a sentient, shape-changing... entity? Developed for space travel by Dr. Easter, would be paired with Rune as a protector. Oeufcoque is referred to as something called a "universal item": something that can take any shape. But who’s natural…configuration is in the form of a yellow mouse which has powerful olfactory senses, allowing him to be able to sense the emotions of others through smell. When held by Rune, Oeufcoque turns into "her heart’s desire". Most of the time he takes the form of a weapon, as Rune wants and craves protection and revenge. A theme explored throughout all three, one-hour long movies.
Oeufcoque believes that since they saved Rune, they have a responsibility to her. To help her find meaning in a new life, and to help her discover her purpose. This becomes Oeufcoque's purpose and the main vector for the exploration of Rune's past and struggles as she attempts to find a place in the world with a true ally, even as she also wrestles to shape what form and meaning her revenge on Shell would look like and feel like to her. Is it enough to have him locked up? Or will she use her new cybernetic body to exact pain and vengeance, perhaps becoming a criminal in the eyes of the law herself?
What makes this more complex is that Rune's voice could not be replicated. Instead, she utilizes technology around her to vocalize herself. Thus, her ability to speak to Oeufcoque directly using her Snark is the first time she's able to freely express her thoughts and opinions; free of the rules placed on her by society and Shell.
Rune is also given "the ability to resist"; self-defense techniques, the ability to use a gun. In fact, Dr. Easter insists that her subconscious made the decision. Taking the means of her resistance even if her waking mind is still coming to grips with her new life.
Shell had surgery as a child, indicated by a cybernetic implant on his head. When he feels "stressed" his implant instead floods him with euphoria that was supposed to prevent crime in the past, when this was all experimental. With a side effect of extensive memory loss, which… he then also modifies with designer drugs, he’s able to get rid of the “stress”, experience euphoria, and never remember his crimes.
"…to overcome this little ritual of mine. These beautiful blue diamonds let me climb the stairs of the greatness of the city; to rise above it all."
He represents privilege. His memories are extracted, recorded, and erased by doctors. His brain "would rot" if he didn't. He furthers his plan to claw more and more power and to kill at a whim doing as he pleases with this regime and considers all it, “just a dream”. A fog he can't access but is aware of. Allowing this other “version” of himself free reign.
"To me, it's all stuff that happened within a dream. Besides, new memories mean that everything is in place to make my deal...To humans memories are a precious, irreplaceable thing; I don't mind having mine emptied. I'll be filled later. A vessel meant to be filled with glory. That's me.”
Oeufcoque, it turns out, has also been abused. It's possible for his user to force their will on him, changing him into a weapon used to kill innocents instead of merely to protect themselves like his purpose. When a human does this it physically hurts Oeufcoque; it could even kill him. Shell has hired his abuser, Boiled, sending him after Rune when he learns she's alive and could provide testimony against him. This becomes a vector for exploring technology as a tool, whether it possesses sentience or not. Oeufcoque serves as something tangible that bleeds and hurts, an allegory for the pain others feel in the blind pursuit of vengeance and even cruelty for Rune and the audience.
The three movies follow the duo as they confront their trauma together, figure out what it means to support one another, and protect each other fiercely. Oeufcoque provides information while generally attempting to be non-judgmental giving Rune the information she needs to make her own decisions; all while she does not have a voice of her own. She “forgets what her voice even sounds like”, something she will have to rediscover throughout.
This is where Mardock Scramble really sings, in my opinion. This dynamic is used as an intersectional lens to explore hard subject matter that cyberpunk generally tends to avoid while claiming to be exploring the margins and disenfranchised. Rune's past and how she deals with her new-found autonomy in a foreign body is compelling and done well, as far as I can tell. All of the characters are more complex than is typical and provide a lens for looking at where society is failing.
Where things get significantly murky is regarding the team of mercenaries dispatched to kill Rune in the first movie. All obsessed with a different body part. Transplanting their victims onto their own bodies; there is horror aspect introduced. One transplants eyes onto his body, someone else transplanting the breasts of victims; another, most disturbingly, is looking for the perfect victim to kill and transplant their sex organ into his hand. Clearly used to show fetishization of the human form, as they seemingly only kill women and appropriate their bodies for their own, it is still jarring and disturbing, even if it's used a vector for Rune's empowerment in the long term. A major theme of the first movie. The subject matter doesn’t shy away from being transgressive and disgusting.
It explores privilege and how power structures in place preserve and amplify it; consent and the damage the patriarchy can have, especially women; prostitution, sex, nudity, incest, the male gaze, fetishization of the female form, and other difficult subject matter is interacted with and given varying degrees of nuance and time. As a man, it's hard for me to judge if it is all done well or is ultimately simply problematic. Based on the dialogue and the premise, it feels like the intention is good and it was certainly unlike anything I'd ever watched, especially in cyberpunk as mentioned previously. It is graphic in it's depiction of these things and does not shy away from the subject matter. It is trying to convey that these things are disturbing as Rune comes to grips with them. But it is, at times, hard to watch; with the later movies significantly toned down and exploring alternate subject matter, for the most part.
The animation is gorgeous, Rune is able to do very cool things; the fights are great. The music as well, is superb. Mardock Scramble, at the very least, has gone under the radar. I hope that despite the difficult and triggering subject matter more people end up being able to experience it and share their thoughts on it so there is a more nuanced take on it than I can provide. It may be problematic in some instances, but it is complex beyond simple shock value, especially in the latter two movies, and tackles themes often skirted.
If you buy the bluray you can also watch either the director's cut version or theatrical, the later of which has toned down all aspects of the sexual scenes, including the assault at the beginning. You can find the movie trilogy here. I intend to read the original novel and manga in order to help me decide how well it tackles the subject matter.