#165 : Wicked City

Our world is not what it seems. Beneath the surface of the apparent calm and modernity of our lives resides a more primal force. Do things go bump in the night where a shadow world coexists in parallel with our modern civilization? Indeed it does. While there are peace treaties between both the light and dark worlds, there are rogues who disturb this peace and give a bad name to the darker side of existence. Enter the Black Guard, a secret organization of humans who fight these monster terrorists of the shadow realms. For one Black Guardsman, our protagonist Taki Renzaburō, an assignment with a brand new partner to escort and guard an emissary to an upcoming peace negotiation would change his life forever.

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Wicked City, while loaded with eroticism and violence, is very tasteful and exudes style. As a Madhouse production we see a heavy emphasis on great line work, color, mood and lighting. Adding in the directorial style and character designs of action superstar Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) we gain more to the overall package. While still an action film, Wicked City is so much more, like fine jazz with monsters and the supernatural, occasional nudity/sexual action and Kawajiri’s signature element of cool. If a B grade action movie, a horror film, and a passionate late night romance flick got married under the umbrella of animation we would get Wicked City. And the product would become a first class production… a sum of separates becoming greater than the whole, but still at heart a B-movie.

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Now with all the film-noir esthetic and the action you may think you have the entire plot and structure of this movie. Not quite. One might miss a very important element to Wicked City, though it’s hard not to. This is a genuine love story. A true romance based on bringing together two people destined for each other, yet from completely different backgrounds. “Two different fates, my love paramour, ooze out and away…” (any Cocteau Twins fans?). The bringing together of protagonist Taki with his new partner Maki (how cute, it rhymes) destines many great things for the future of both humanity and the dark world. Ironic that the match maker is an emissary for the human world, Taki and Maki’s assignment, who is one dirty old man who makes Dragon Ball’s Roshi seem tame in comparison. Oh Giuseppe Mayart, you’re such a character. Being part of the Black Guard may not pay much and includes a lot of risk, but you can meet your special someone if you take the right assignment. How’s that for job security?

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While the original Japanese track is quite good, I have a strong love for the English dub. As one of Streamline pictures best recordings in my opinion, Wicked City would be naked without the voice work Greg Snegoff’s adaptation of Taki. Do you remember Golgo 13 in The Professional: Golgo 13, or Scott Bernard from Robotech? Yeah that guy! Taki is my favorite role Greg ever played, almost as if it was tailor made for him. Mike Reynolds as Giuseppe Mayart is hilarious and much of the cast is very familiar if you have seen any other Streamline dubs, or even Robotech, you will hear many familiar tonal resonances from these characters. The debate of dub vs. sub, or older dubs vs newer dubs can be arbitrary. If it floats your boat, it’s the only ship worth sailing on.

WC_4Back in the day many of us in the west thought anime was more mature focused, heavy in action and that old cliche, “Not a cartoon… not kids stuff.” Wicked City was a target example of this trend, yet like the cream in one’s coffee, it rises to a slightly higher standard. Much like Fist of the North Star and Wicked City’s fellow sibling Vampire Hunter D… and I say this because because the original novel based on both Wicked City and Vampire Hunter D are products of author Hideyuki Kikuchi, Wicked City presents a story filled with action and mature themes, but also contains substance underneath the facade of being “bad-ass.” My personal favorite of Kawajiri’s work along with his direction on Phoenix: Space Chapter.

#155 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Space Chapter

YSC_1The distances between stars or planets can be compared to some of the relationships we have with the closest people we see on a daily basis; many times it can be vast and wide. How well do we really know each other by way of how each of us truly feels about each other? A more intriguing thought, what secrets do we conceal, or what elements from our past do we struggle with that haunt us and affect our current relationships? The final production of Madhouse’s adaptations of Osamu Tezuka’s collective Phoenix manga, The Space Chapter, would leave historic Japan behind for the far future and outer space and would deal with these issues of inner space head on. The lessons of karma, duty and fate are yet again front and center stage.

YSC_2Bias here, this is my personal favorite of the three as this is the most psychological, the darkest and the most passionate in terms of relationship dynamics. As an OVA set in the far future, in deep outer space and with highly advanced technology you would think the clothes of science fiction would overtake the content of the the story’s relationship dynamics with spectacle and fantasy. The Space Chapter is a great example of science fiction done very well by integrating both and pushing the intensity even higher. Outer space can be a place where much contemplation can be observed and where isolation, or being alone, can bring out the best and worst in all of us. If Ingmar Bergman borrowed the set from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to make a movie, I think this would be the product… except in this case it is animated and not live action.

YSC_3Four passengers on an interstellar spaceship are suddenly awoken from stasis to realize that the ship they are traveling on has been hit by a meteor, or something similar. In haste they rush to find their fifth comrade who was piloting and watching over the ship had mysteriously died during their sleep. Realizing the damage is beyond repair, they all decide to all abandon ship in separate escape capsules. Now adrift in space alone with limited air and food, the situation becomes one of survival and opening up about their mysterious fifth crew member. Everyone had a different story to tell. He was rumored to be immortal and forever young. He also seemed to be an android from medical examinations. There were even romantic feelings between him and the lone female crew member. His last words left in the ships log struck a note of fear in the others, someone was out to kill him. Who could it be?

YSC_4To add more drama to our story a mysterious fifth capsule appears and catches up with the other four belonging to the fallen mystery man, including signs of a passenger. One by one the original four members would be reduced to two leaving the remaining duo to land on a mysterious planet. From here the story’s mysteries begin to twist even more with the ultimate truths coming out. … and what of our friend the phoenix? She is most definitely here and is a very integral part of the story as she has a very special relationship with our mysterious crew member. The lessons of karma and balance abound with his past as we see the corruption of what was a good innocent man showing a side of evil that we wish did not exist in humanity.

Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, Ninja Scroll), the inclusion of his personal touch is seen throughout the OVA, minus the super heavy action he is often noted for. The stylized character designs add a layer of maturity to Tezuka’s originals and mixed with Madhouse’s signature heavy use of limited color (blue for this OVA) in the capsule scenes and stark lighting add to this production’s intensity. While this may have been the final outing for Phoenix in the 1980s it would not be the last overall (the 13 episode TV series from the early 2000s is great!). Osamu Tezuka’s work is key and essential for all of us who regard ourselves as fans of Japanese animation. This trilogy as a whole (Karma Chapter and Yamato Chapter) is one of the best examples of the output from the 1980s and is finally now a part of the Classic Anime Museum. It has been a long time coming.

#54 : Neo Tokyo

Short collections are always welcome in my world. Anime often becomes a system of stereotypes… Shonen fighters, magical girls, mecha, Ghibli films. All are great, but is this all that there is to Japanese anime? And of course the answer is absolutely not. There is always something of an alternative. Something more artsy, a little bizarre and uniquely it’s own thing. Art for arts sake and without compromise. A true hallmark of that awesome studio known as Madhouse, welcome to the trilogy Manie-Manie Labyrinth Tales, better known here in the west as Neo Tokyo.

NT_1We begin with my personal favorite, The Labyrinth. Directed by Rintaro, this a feast of visual delight. Rintaro has always been known for being excessive with visuals to the point that what you are watching becomes more important that the story itself. The story is simple here, an imaginative girl who while playing with her lost and found cat gets sucked into a surreal psychedelic ‘labyrinth’ that leads to a circus via a clock. It just goes to show, watch the invitation you receive from Pierrot-type clowns around grandfather styled clocks. I don’t know if this segment has a meaning or point and I don’t care. It’s pure Rintaro and often when I watch his work I just want to bask in it like a painting in a museum. Plus having the music of Erik Satie is a plus for me 🙂

NT_2The second part known as The Running Man is perhaps the most recognized of the trilogy. I believe this had some play on MTV back in the day and it was in the promotional material of Streamline Pictures. This film looks and feels like its creator, Yoshiyaki Kawajiri. He is best known for a lot of seinen action, think Ninja Scroll, but you cannot deny his talent as a character designer. Top notch, meticulous detail exudes in this tale about a reporter who has followed an unbeatable professional racer throughout his career. How has this man survived for so long in this dangerous sport and how long will he last at the top? The action is fast paced, but the sections where it feel that time or movement slows to a grinding halt is where the real drama begins.

NT_3Now to the final segment, I present Construction Cancelation Order. I can sum this one up with one name, Katsuhiro Otomo. It’s Mr. Akira essentially and yes this is a tale where the societal conditions have gone wrong, except this one has a bit more humor. A nerdy salaryman inspector is to visit a construction site in the remote region of South America to essentially shut it down. And that is a tall order as the machines have total control of the situation. And even though the site is in effect falling apart at the seams and abandoned, the worker robots still continue as programmed. Can our faithful inspector do anything to stop this insanity, or is their a way to just get out alive? This reminds me a lot of Otomo’s later work Roujin Z where he shows how letting technology thrive to solve our everyday problem without a safety net can bring disaster and a chuckle or two.

Hold on… we are going back to the first segment again to finish off as a sort of coda. The labyrinth doors closes… The end. Lets gives a round of applause for our three directors everyone.

NT_4So… what does this trilogy of shorts have to do with a title like Neo Tokyo? Honestly, I can’t see one, except… except that it was most likely borrowed from that contemporary hit film, Akira. As stated, Akira was a license to print money here in the west back in the early 1990s and it’s creator and director Katsuhiro Otomo was associated with the film right off the bat. I am sure the consensus was… we need to find more work that features this guy to cash in on this Akira trend. And of course Neo Tokyo was prime for the taking as there was not much else out at the time that had Otomo’s name as director on it. Too bad this film is nothing like Akira and that is neither good, nor bad.

A distant cousin to another all time favorite of mine, the beautiful Robot Carnival, Neo-Tokyo is for me darker and perhaps more streamlined. Helmed by three of Japan’s best directors and produced at Madhouse, Neo Tokyo stands as one of the best examples of how far Japan stretched animation in the 1980s. I often have forgotten about how unique this one was in the past, but that is true no more.