Monday, 9 November 2015

#11: Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990)

Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Screenplay: Akinori Endo
Based on an Original Idea
Voice Cast: Hiroya Ishimaru (as Shunsuke Sengoku); Kaneto Shiozawa (as Merrill "Benten" Yanagawa); Tesshô Genda (as Rikiya "Goggles" Gabimaru); Emi Shinohara (as Remi Masuda); Kyousei Tsukui (as Versus); Mitsuko Horie (as Kyōko "Okyō" Jōnouchi); Norio Wakamoto (as Juzo Hasegawa)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

With this, Yoshiaki Kawajiri debuts on this blog, a director who had immense cult fame in the West when works like Ninja Scroll (1993) were released through companies like Manga Entertainment, a household name to the point he's been hired on many US-Japanese co-productions such as The Animatrix (2003) to Highlander: The Search For Vengeance (2007). Unfortunately after 2008, though he works on productions frequently, he's never been back in the director's seat and a proposed sequel to Ninja Scroll is merely a half-whispered rumour baring a 2012 teaser trailer. The sight of his most well known protagonist fighting a female assassin who fights with razor sharp origami cranes, riding a giant one, amongst other colourful faces causes anime fans like myself to pine from his absence. Quite a few of the blog entries so far have lamented the death of straight-of-video animation from decades before, and it feels like he was a casualty of it. The drastic shift in audience and marketable preferences has also more than likely caused problems - whilst there are potential exceptions in his CV like Birdy The Mighty (1996), he was obsessed with adults, usually tough and cocky men, in something very ultraviolent works which veered sometimes into the transgressive and body horror related. Violent anime and anime which breaks from the conventions of cute schoolgirls are still being made, but not as frequently, and unfortunately this means something like Cyber City Oedo 808 feels like a creation from another time period.

Cyber City Oedo is set in another dystopian city, Oedo (Tokyo), thus enforcing how much anime staff were obsessed at one point, and still are, with seeing the worse in their futures, were crime is rife and only a tougher, unpredictable choice of law enforcement is required. It isn't just an obvious metaphor now watching so many sci-fi anime like this but an entire spectrum feeding off cyberpunk or at least the notion that everything with be noir-like and blue hued in the future to match blog entry #7) Twilight of the Dark Master (1997). Riffing on Japanese history where the anti-heroes all have jitte, a weapon Edo period police had as a symbol of their position, it's been decided to reduce multiple life sentences for certain criminals if they're willing to repay for their crimes through catching other criminals. An explosive neck collar operated by their boss' lighter à la Battle Royale (2000) is the insurance policy in case any of them decide to try and con the superiors.

Split into three parts, each episode specifically follows one individual character. There's the cocky Shunsuke Sengoku - pompadour, red coat, gets years onto his sentence because he doesn't follow orders - a template character for Kawajiri that especially predates Jubei in Ninja Scroll. Rikiya "Goggles" Gabimaru - orange mohawk, slightly older, a cyber hacker - a character you don't see in lead roles in anime anymore. And Merrill "Benten" Yanagawa - originally a female character design changed to a male bishonen, with long red nails and feminine features, giant white hair, pursuant to white suits - who follows the archetype of the quiet and wise individual who also uses monofilament wire straight from the short story Johnny Mnemonic. The plots for the three episodes are very basic, very action orientated with a lot of various tones and genre tropes mashed together. The first follows an act of cyber terrorism on a space scraper, a sky scraper so high its top pierces the atmosphere into outer space, by someone presumed to be already dead. The second follows a corrupt military project involving psychic test subjects in armoured suits, as problematic an idea for police enforcement as an ED-209 would if the test of targeting Goggles succeeds or not. The finale one deals with vampires, not the last time Kawajiri mixes them with sci-fi, as he'd make Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000), and the beginning on the blog of the strange obsession anime has with vampires being from outer space or being in science fiction settings.

A lot of whether Kawajiri appeals to you or not depends if you can accept the inherent absurdity of his work even when he's deathly serious. Many of his creations adaptations, are about men fighting other men with henchmen with elaborate physical differences or weapons, from a man with a bee hive growing out of his back or the various body horror content of Wicked City (1987).  The stack has to be put up against the lead, and for Kawajiri this includes setting off a series of strange and colourful antagonists against them. Almost every Kawajiri protagonist, including all three here, have to be impaled in the gut by a villain, and many have to a moment where they overcome a task battered and almost dead. Here, during a search of a cryogenic storage area for the terminally ill in an outer orbit space station, when there's a possibility of a vampire terrorising the Earth below killing black-market biological researchers, a character cannot just fight guards here but cybernetic, laser breathing sabre tooth tigers which come out from a few of the containers. The spacescraper, who's gyroscope would have to be physically impractical to keep it in balance, is not just being hacked to get at one person, but is part of a plan involving both having hostages in an escalator, including a young female employee with a crush on Sengoku, but also activating a satellite cannon to hit the building itself if need be. Cyber City Oedo's advantage if you can accept this is that this pulp sensibility means that there's an entertaining unpredictability and creativity to the content. Kawajiri's work can be very episodic or divided by different obstacles to defeat with a simple plot to follow, so instead it's how the stories play out that's the concern with him..

In this context, this seriousness to the material alongside both an unintentional and intentional absurdity is what makes Cyber City Oedo entertaining. The characters, all three protagonists, are stoic or have a tendency to make sarcastic jokes, which doesn't come off as bland due to the exaggerated character designs and how they're all depicted. This particular entry also has the scene stealing side character of Versus, a mobile robot used in the police service to help the anti-heroes, a box on wheels that unintentionally retorts to comments with sarcasm just by pointing out the illogical comments the  humans make. The episodes like many of Kawajiri's films and other project are colourful in the side characters and minor bystanders they have, from a blonde mulleted, one white paint leg wearing female assassin to a skeleton connected to a computer still able to terrorise people.

I cannot comment on a Kawajiri production without mentioning his character designs, which are incredibly recognisable to the point a certain anime fan, if you put a screenshot of his work in front of them, may instantly recognise its his work. Even when he's not the character designer in the credits, even a production like Highlander: The Search of Vengeance takes a page from his character design style. Prominent facial features, realism in the character designs even for the most exaggerated and fantastical, a loving care for body shape and physical appearance. It's not a surprise that Takeshi Koike, the director of Redline (2009), is his protégée as the obsession over character design is also there. Koike also took the influence of immaculate animation design in general as what cannot also be argued against is that his mentor's work, including Cyber City Oedo, was also exceptionally well animated and good looking. The dystopia here is animated with such loving detail by Madhouse that one wonders if a loving obsession with futuristic turmoil is visible in such anime. This is far from the grimiest depiction, actually quite bright and poppy at points comapred to the bleakness of A.D. Police Files (1990), but but especially with the final episode you have moments of Kawajiri's baroque sensibilities, suddenly the finale turning into gothic sci-fi with a cryogenic mortuary that's elaborately sculpted and a mood to the work in general that singles him out as being unique.

Even with a grimmer film like Ninja Scroll, in terms of gore and shocking content, there is this balance between humour to seriousness that populates Kawajiri's work, but here in particularly it works immensely, helped especially as all three protagonists appear in all three episodes with merely who gets central attention changing. Hopefully Cyber City Oedo will get a reappraisal one day, as it manages to pack a lot of invention into itself even if its stories are very predictable in what happens. That's not the point of it, and instead one finds entertainment in the fact that, no, I wasn't lying about the cybernetic, laser breathing sabre tooth tigers and they were depicted in all their ridiculous glory amongst other things in this specific anime.

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