Column: "Natestalgia!" - Yoshiaki Kawajiri Triple Feature!

In this installment, Nate revisits "Wicked City," "Ninja Scroll," and "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust"

PREVIOUSLY, ON NATESTALGIA:


CRN writer Nate Ming decided to do the unthinkable, and write about things he likes and feels nostalgic about. The last time he ventured into this wretched hive, he talked about four of his favorite manga that seem doomed to never get anime adaptations--but should! But even with all the fun and games, Nate has a painful confession that he must find the courage to admit...


I CAN'T DO IT. I'VE TRIED, SO HARD.


Two installments in a row, I promised I was going to watch the Fatal Fury OAVs. The real problem isn't that they're bad--they actually make the most of their short runtime and have pretty cool animation--it's just that I can't really find anything interesting to say about them.

 

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How many times have you seen somebody make fun of this kid?

 

So yeah, short review: they're cool. They're dopey. They more or less hold up. Get Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture instead, which is Masami Obari completely losing his mind and working without limits, and culminates with hardened American street brawler Terry Bogard punching out a god. Speaking of filmmakers who are given free reign over their projects, how many of you are familiar with Yoshiaki Kawajiri?

 

Kawajiri is a pretty important name to people who followed anime during its big home video rise and fall throughout the '90s and '00s. He's done a variety of work in the industry, including key animation, character design, and storyboarding as one of the key figures of Studio Madhouse. However, Kawajiri's real claim to fame lies in his filmography. Many of his most famous films are brutally violent and overtly sexual, with incredibly detailed art and fluid animation. Did you want to feel like a cool kid among your anime-watching peers in the late '90s? Log on to Yahoo! Chat, head on over to the "Japanese Anime" room, talk about how badass Kawajiri's work was, and then say something about how Eva sucked.

 

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Then adjust your JNCOs with the 50-inch pant legs and make sure your No Fear wallet was still attached to its chain. EXTREEEEEME

 

I decided to rewatch three of Kawajiri's most famous films, and see how they held up. Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust are still mentioned as some of the most important must-watch titles around, but how much of that is just nostalgia talking? I was surprised at which titles held up more than the others!

 

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Released in 1987, Wicked City is based off the first book in Hideyuki Kikuchi's series of novels. Originally put together as a 35-minute one-shot, Kawajiri impressed the studio so much that the project was changed into a feature-length direct-to-video movie.

 

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Here's our hero, Renzaburo Taki, a man's man of '80s Japan, a playboy salaryman who drives a luxury sedan. He's also apparently 25 years old, to which I offer a resounding cry of bullshit--that dude is at least ten years older.

 

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For comparison, here's a 25-year-old Chris Hemsworth in Star Trek

 

Taki is a member of the Black Guard, an elite organization that polices demon activity in our world. An upcoming summit between the Human World and Demon World will secure peace for the next five hundred years, and Taki is supposed to guard Giuseppe Mayart, a 200-year-old human with incredible spiritual power. The only catch? He'll be working with a Black Guard from the Demon World, a beautiful woman named Makie who poses as a model in the Human World.

 

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Several attempts are made on Giuseppe's life, but over the course of the film we find out that Taki and Makie aren't guarding Giuseppe--it's the other way around! The "summit" actually occurs when Taki and Makie fall in love and sleep together, conceiving the first child that is half-human and half-demon. Finally, there is a bridge between the worlds, and it was all brought about by a dirty old man trying to get two twentysomethings to get their freak on.

 

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Seriously though, Wicked City is like two steps shy of full-on hentai. There's so much sex and nudity in this film that it was pretty hard finding screencaps that I could actually post here on Crunchyroll--between all the snu-snu and the horrible knock-down, drag-out, rip-you-open fights, this is not the kind of anime you watch with your family around. However, I do have to say that a lot of the sexual content is an important part of the story, and very rarely feels thrown in just for the hell of it. More often than not, it's disturbing instead of titillating (anybody ever see the movie Teeth?), and I actually have a lot more respect for creators using overt sexual content as opposed to wink-and-a-smile fanservice.

 

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Wicked City was also made into a barely-related live-action Hong Kong film in 1992, and still retains a cult status among anime fans. Strangely, this is the movie I had the least hope for, but it held up pretty well. Its plot is concise and straightforward, and it keeps a pretty good pace throughout the film. The world-building is great, and I love the consistency in fight scenes--Taki's gun is so powerful that it blows him back with each shot, and sometimes it launches him back through walls if he fires enough shots, leaving him winded after fighting multiple opponents.

 

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Shortly after, Kawajiri also directed Demon City Shinjuku, another OAV based off a Hideyuki Kikuchi novel, but that was a hell of a lot tamer and focused on a hot-blooded, youthful protagonist. It really feels like Wicked City set a template for Kawajiri's future work--I mean, let's look at the similarities in Ninja Scroll.

 

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Kawajiri had done quite a bit of work between Wicked City and 1993's Ninja Scroll (originally Jubei Ninpuuchou) but I think this is the movie he's best known for. An original story by Kawajiri with influences from Futaro Yamada's Ninpouchou novels (one of which was adapted into Basilisk), Ninja Scroll tells the story of Kibagami Jubei, a rogue ninja who gets dragged into a showdown with the freakish group of assassins known as the Eight Devils of Kimon.

 

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Much like how Renzaburo Taki was an ideal (if somewhat realistically flawed) male hero for then-modern-day Japan, Jubei is an ideal manly-man hero for a story set in the early days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Principled, yet ferocious in combat, he believes in paying back injustice and never using people, even for his own gain. I appreciate heroes who have basic abilities compared to specialized ones, so Jubei's simple-yet-stylized swordplay is complemented by his ability to perform kamaitachi--drawing his sword so quickly it creates an air current to hit distant targets.

 

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Kagero is a poison taster for a small clan's chamberlain, and is also a member of the Koga ninja clan. Kinda like Makie in Wicked City, she is very yamato nadeshiko with her pale skin and classic features, and has some of the worst luck I've ever seen an anime character have. She's immune to all poisons, and sleeping with her--or even kissing her--will kill anyone, so she's doomed to a lonely life.

 

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It's not just the male and female lead--Ninja Scroll also gets its very own old guy, although Dakuan is more "manipulative living corpse" and less "likeable dirty old man." After Jubei kills Tessai, one of the Eight Devils of Kimon, Tokugawa-spy-disguised-as-a-monk Dakuan convinces Jubei to help him stop the Eight Devils' plot... by poisoning him. "If you want the antidote--and 100 ryo--you'll have to help me on my mission!" Jerk.

 

What's also impressive are the Eight Devils of Kimon, who really stand apart from each other in terms of abilities and visual style. While there are a lot of bad guys for a 94-minute movie, each one of them gets the chance to shine, and each one of them gets their own spectacular finish.

 

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Just taking a look at the first, we have the muscle of the group, Tessai. He can turn his skin to stone and fights with a gigantic double-bladed sword. When he gets all creepy-touchy-feely on an unconscious Kagero, she accidentally poisons him, setting him up for the George Carlin definition of leaving this mortal coil--he doesn't pass away, he f**king dies.

 

ouch

 

Unknowingly weakened by the poison, Tessai fights Jubei later in the movie, throwing his giant sword at him. Jubei cuts off Tessai's hand, causing Tessai to catch the returning sword with his face. It is probably the single most graphic moment of the movie short of the final battle. Holy crap.

 

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The rest of the fights are just as exciting and inventive--each Devil is beaten in a different way, often through quick thinking and creative use of Jubei's kamaitachi. Jubei's duel with the blind Utsutsu Mujuro in the bamboo forest is very well-choreographed, even though it's the most straightforward "duel of skill" in the entire movie.

 

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Not the villain of Ninja Scroll.

 

A quick word about the movie's main villain before we talk about him--his name is GENMA, not GEMMA, so I have no idea why Manga Entertainment's dub and subtitles keep referring to him as Gemma, which is a British girls' name pronounced with a soft G (like Gemma Arterton, or Gemma Atkinson). Maybe it has something to do with the way the syllable "" ("n") works as a double consonant/pause sound for "m," and it just got lost in translation? Oh well, whatever, the bad guy's name is Himuro Genma, and he's a terrifying, nigh-unkillable monster of a Big Bad.

 

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The final fight with Genma takes place on a sinking, burning ship that's carrying tons of gold. This is one of the most savage, back-and-forth fights I've seen in anime, with Jubei getting kicked around, getting his arm dislocated, then responding by headbutting Genma's head through some floorboards. Then he bisects Genma from the waist-up. At final count, Jubei kills Genma three separate times (four if you count the flashback where Jubei initially cuts his head off), and Genma still gets back up each time. It's not until he's drowned in burning liquid gold and sinks to the bottom of the ocean with the rest of the boat that the fight's over, and we can all breathe easy.

 

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But action aside, Ninja Scroll didn't blow me away as much as it did when I was younger. The story's kind of all over the place, you're not given as much information about the world and just told to go on the ride, and it feels like the only thing driving the story is the (admittedly jaw-dropping) action. It's still an awesome movie, but Wicked City feels like a more complete package. Also, Ninja Scroll's sexual content feels a lot more tacked-on and exploitative--Kawajiri had all this violence, and figured he'd throw some sex in too because WHY THE HELL NOT.

 

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After that, Kawajiri took a very long break from movies--he did some storyboarding, some key animation, a little TV direction, and then in 2000, he came back with Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, released in Japan (again) as plain ol' Vampire Hunter D.

 

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The first thing I need to say about this movie is that it is absolutely f**king gorgeous. The character designs are detailed and bright and colorful, and the animation is as smooth as it's ever been. D himself is sleek and graceful, a walking Yoshitaka Amano painting moving through a crazy steampunk/western far future.

 

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For those of you who don't know this series, Vampire Hunter D is based off another Hideyuki Kikuchi novel series, this time taking place around the year 12,090 AD. Vampires have been the dominant species on the planet for centuries following a nuclear holocaust, but their numbers are dwindling as humanity reclaims the Earth. D is the most powerful and most feared among the Bounty Hunters, skilled killers-for-hire who protect humanity from the creatures of the night. But D isn't a beloved hero--he's a dhampir (or incorrectly translated as "dunpeal"), a half-vampire, half-human with all their strengths and none of their weaknesses.

 

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leila

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D is hired to rescue a girl named Charlotte, who was abducted in the night by Meier Link, a vampire noble who lives in the area. D promises the girl's father and brother that he'll bring her back--or humanely put her down if she's been turned. However, Charlotte's family has also hired the Marcus Brothers, a gang of Bounty Hunters, to track down Charlotte and eliminate Meier Link--but the real surprise is that Charlotte and Meier are actually in love with each other! Meier wasn't abducting her... they were eloping.

 

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The Hunters' paths intersect, with the Marcus Brothers (and lone Marcus "sister" Leila) going out of their way to try and beat D to their quarry. However, the Marcus Brothers die one by one at the hands of Meier Link's hired mercenaries, the Barbaroi.

 

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Unsurprisingly, D absolutely wrecks their shit, tracking Meier and Charlotte to a castle ruled by the spirit of Carmilla, a long-dead vampire. Despite her claims of offering to help Meier and Charlotte run away together, she's actually after Charlotte's blood so she can be resurrected. Carmilla almost succeeds, killing Charlotte and almost coming back, until D shows up and wrecks her shit.

 

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Showoff.

 

D and Meier have a final showdown, and D wrecks Meier's shit too lets Meier go, since with Charlotte dead, his mission is accomplished. Lone Marcus survivor Leila leaves Carmilla's crumbling castle with D, quits being a Hunter, and has a long and happy life with friends and family. D shows up at her funeral, talking to Leila's granddaughter and glad that she was able to live a full life, instead of dying in an unmarked grave like so many other Hunters.

 

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It's surprising how well this movie holds up compared to the other two. While Wicked City still has the clearest and best-written plot, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust tells a pretty sprawling epic adventure story that jumps from location to location. It does feel like there are too many characters in the story, though, and at around the two-thirds mark the writers noticed this and started viciously trimming the cast down.

 

Looking back at these three movies, it was nice to see which ones had aged better than others. Yoshiaki Kawajiri definitely makes visceral popcorn actioners as opposed to thought-provoking or heartwarming anime, but it's a niche that's being filled less and less these days. Kawajiri has script approval for a Ninja Scroll sequel, but other than that he's still been working in TV animation, with the occasional theatrical entry--the last big movie project he was involved with was Highlander: The Search for Vengeance.

 

highlander

The less said about that, the better.

 

Have you seen any of these films? What are your favorite Yoshiaki Kawajiri works? Am I the only one who thinks he has a weird love/hate relationship with the yamato nadeshiko type? Sound off in the comments!

 

NEXT TIME, ON NATESTALGIA:

 

giantrobo

 

Power up your Shizuma Drives--I'm going to be taking a look at my all-time favorite anime, Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still! What makes me like this Yasuhiro Imagawa masterpiece so much?

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