Off we go for another step back into the past of hazy VHS images, dodgy dubs and teenage thrills of something unusual. Unlike Cyber City Oedo 808 less stuck in the memory about Wicked City (1987) and Demon City Shinjuku (1988). I even had to ask myself, did I ever see these films? (OK, they are really OVAs but I think of them as films.)
I’m old enough for that question to be reasonably genuine. I’m pretty sure I remember Wicked City though Demon City Shinjuku, I’m on the fence about. The same is true of the films, because Wicked City is the better of the two films and Demon City Shinjuku, having watched it, or watched it again, I’m on the fence about it. Like Cyber City, these were directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri; like Cyber City, they are influenced, for all their supernatural storylines, by a cyberpunk aesthetic; and like Cyber City neither film is perfect and both are definitely products of their time.
This is good. This is bad.
In Wicked City, a Black Guard – and human! – Taki, is tasked with escorting Giuseppe Mayart, to sign a new peace treaty between humans and demons, alongside Makie, his demon counterpart. But demons are looking to disrupt this new peace treaty and stop the demons taking over the human world…
Whereas, in the Demon City that is Shinjuku only Kyoya can take up the mantle of his father and use his Nempo skills to save the world from Rebi Ra, the man who cracked open the world to bring hell into Shinjuku, and is issuing in a new demon world…
Are you sensing any similarities of storylines? No. Me neither.
If Wicked City is the better of the two films it is also problematic. So in part is Demon City Shinjuku. Both are unquestionably misogynistic. From what tattered remnants exist of my memory, I recall that in the anime that found our shores in the 90’s this was not uncommon (I likely missed much of the rest, reliant on what others bought and fragments of late night Channel 4). Focussing on a teen male audience, boasting English dubs overloaded with swearing, so both films have the perfect content to match this: sex, violence and perversity. Demon City Shinjuku shows its problem with gender immediate, our protagonist, teenager, Kyoya happily slapping a waitress’s backside as if that’s what men do and women should just accept: “touchdown”, he jokes, having watched shuttle land on the TV. Wicked City is both more and less obvious in its sexual imagery: a spider woman spinning thread from her vagina makes anatomical sense when she is shown descending from the ceiling, but also having met said spider woman earlier she’s a demon version of the black widow spider, ready to consume our protagonist not using her *ahem* usual mouth.
The sexual violence is unmistakable; a sexual assault of Makie not only lingers on parts of her naked body but is shot and acted in such a way that is disturbingly suggestive that she is both hating and loving what is happening to her. It’s pure gratuitous exploitation because the director has nothing to undermine what is happening, such as the bizarrely staged sexual assault of Nami in the (admittedly live action) film of Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41. It’s unpleasant but the unpleasantness is at the expensive of the male guards not Nami in that films, whereas in Wicked City, Makie’s assault is a goad to our protagonist and nothing else. Makie is victim. You can understand why many people in the 90’s were worried about anime judging from such moments.
I find nudity, sex, violence and intersections thereof in anime an intriguing and sometimes difficult concept. In a live action film an actor has to perform a scene, in anime it is animated, removing some questions of exploitation of a living person (recognising there is also voice acting) so whether not a scene is animated, what matters is then: what is the intent? Recently, watching a very different anime, Domestic Girlfriend, I liked the emotional and sexual frankness that I also found watching Scum’s Wish. Scum’s Wish managed to be very honest and very, very dirty without any (to my mind) unnecessary trappings of exploitation. Domestic Girlfriend, avoiding most, did indulge a little, i.e. unnecessary tits. Wicked City then becomes an interesting beast because its nudity is both necessary to the plot and something upon which is lingered on more than is necessary, and animated in a way that many will rightfully find offensive. Maybe being a certain age, you see beyond it, you contextualise it in a time and place (and a wider context in other films and series) but as an introduction this cannot be glossed over because it’s something that some people will find distasteful.
That said it’s unlikely that person will be watching Wicked City or Demon City Shinjuku. But you never know.
The similarity in plot of both films is not surprising as for the most part they are a series of action sequences connected by a plot. The plot of Wicked City is definitely the strongest, because it attempts to at least put some attention into character. Though don’t look for massive depth. Taki is apparently a salaryman (though really a member of the secret Black Guard) and a bit of a ladies man (thankfully sans arse patting). Makie is his demon mirror image (she’s a model in her day job and Taki is obviously meant to fancy the pants off her) and much of the story of involves their getting closer while protecting the lascivious mediator, Mayart, who is more interesting in trying to escape to some strip club or parlour where he can be washed by some young and naked lady (cue more nudity and comic relief). More importantly perhaps is how the actions sequences can both move the plot forward and sometimes reveal more about our characters, their pasts, which suggests a more nuanced world than we are allowed to see. This is not just a story in a vacuum.
Mainly our protagonists’ story is a roller-coaster that accelerates them on towards the climactic showdown. Its eighty minutes are an exercise in lean, relentless action with the odd comedy moment courtesy of Mayart. Aside from the questionable sexual aspects of the story Wicked City takes hold of you and doesn’t let go until the curtain falls. The end also provides a nice spin on Taki and Makie’s relationship, proving that theirs is more than a token romance, and adding to the sense of Wicked City being a neat storytelling package.
The look of course takes cues from elements of cyberpunk, if more Blade Runner than Akira. Bold colours and sharply delineated cityscapes mix with the visceral organic of the demon worlds (though Makie’s extending nails screamed razor fingered Molly from William Gibson’s Neuromancer to me but maybe I’m biased). The world that Kawajiri conjures is a dark blur of blues, of shades veering towards black interspersed with glosses of orange neon and harsh blood reds. Anyone who grew up watching anime of the period will recognise the colour palette and like Cyber City, I still find the garishness of it all oddly appealing. The same is true of Demon City Shinjuku that follows the same visual template as Wicked City. Unsurprising as you assume Demon City Shinjuku was made to cash in on the success of Wicked City.
Not quite my image of razor nailed Molly Millions but it'll do...
Sadly, Demon City Shinjuku, unlike Wicked City doesn’t allow you to really invest yourself in its protagonists. You might not walk away from Wicked City thinking Makie and Taki the perfect characters but there’s just enough about both, just enough of a sense of them existing as people to make you want to invest some part of yourself in them. OK, true, the chances are you are likely watching Wicked City (and Demon City Shinjuku) for the action and (more so at the original time of release) the animation than anything but action on its own is a bit pointless.
Thus the problem with Demon City Shinjuku: its plot is so thin to be almost translucent. After Rebi Ra has created hell in Shinjuku and so created a place nowhere and nothing will enter for it will never return, Kyoya will dare its boundaries… to follow Sayaka, who just happens to be the daughter the Earth president. And why: because she’s a babe and that is what men do, men follow babes into hell. (Well, Kyoya does after first refusing to do so but then does anyway cos Sayaka is a babe - thus Kyoya must follow her.)
What can possible go wrong?
Cannot think of a thing, especially as Sayaka seems to be magnificently ignorant or absurdly trusting: follow some random dodgy looking man into an alley because he says he knows where Rebi Ra is? Yeah, why not, totally not a bad idea.
And as of course Kyoya has followed her in cos, well, Sayaka is “a babe” he’s there to rescue her. And so Demon City Shinjuku then just falls into a series of action sequences designed to make Kyoya stop being a bratty, sexist teen and embrace his Nempo destiny to take down the terrible Rebi Ra. Rebi Ra at least is a bit more fun, as is the kid who befriends them in Shinjuku and has electric roller-skates and a two headed dog. The kid at least suggests some form of survival is possible and so some form of world exists in Shinjuku even if a deadly one. The addition of the mysterious (albeit obviously named) Mephisto adds to... well not very much. It’s unfortunate as the opening action sequence where Kyoya’s father is beaten by Rebi Ra at least has a visceral grandiosity to it as Rebi Ra manages to crack the city apart with a single blow of his sword. After that it all rather goes downhill and by the end it’s hard not to become distracted. Like Wicked City, Demon City Shinjuku is only eighty minutes but that feels about fifty minutes longer than it needed to be. Yes, there are a few nice set pieces, such as the one on the train and the opening, but the wafer thin plot and lack of meaningful characterisation just leaves you feeling pretty underwhelmed, especially after watching the superior Wicked City. Admittedly Demon City Shinjuku manages to avoid the worst of Wicked City’s sexual exploitation but there’s nothing else left to really capture the imagination. Yes, there are some nice images though the animation like Wicked City will seem dated and jerky.
That said the HD transfer is pretty damn fine so we get the best colour and image quality that you imagine the source material has to give us. I didn’t explore the dubs, being my bête noire, though the original swear laded British dub is absent from Wicked City it seems (which even for someone as dub-phobic as me it could have been interesting to remember what it has been like back in the day). The voice work seemed perfectly serviceable as are the subtitles, though neither leave any particular impression (except perhaps Mayart’s giggling perviness in Wicked City).
For those who watched these as teenagers (or even older) back in the 90’s, for all their faults, it’s nevertheless slightly fascinating and slightly disturbing revisiting these (even if I still cannot recall if ever I saw Demon City Shinjuku) and I wonder what a younger generation will make of them. The visuals definitely still have impact even they will never seem as nuanced as newer anime though the contrasting colours, like the red and black cityscape certainly convey power. But the jerkiness of the animation, the simplicity of the character design and dubious gender politics of the films may put some people off. Who knows?
So for all my problems with both films I’m glad Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuku got a release. And that they were in one package, so not having to make two purchases. Now we need more films, OVAs and series from the period to emerge, to remind us of those we watched and discover those we didn’t. I suspect though we’ll only see those that inspire nostalgia. We can dream…