Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Demon City Shinjuku (1988)

The evil-looking Rebi Ra (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) proves that you can judge a book by its cover when he fights the heavily bearded Genichiro (Banjo Ginga) atop a building in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo.  Genichiro’s Nenpo (which I assume is not to be confused with Ninpo, the martial art of the Ninja, as Nenpo deals with controlling and channeling one’s chi) and his wooden sword are no match for Rebi Ra’s demon sword and magical powers (one of which includes regeneration, which Genichiro also fails at as two of his limbs are hacked off), and the bad guy causes an earthquake which rends Shinjuku in half and unleashes demons into the sector.  Ten years on, Genichiro’s son Kiyoya (Hideyuki Hori) is conscripted into the struggle between good and evil when Sayaka (Hiromi Tsuru), the daughter of the Federation President who has been attacked by Rebi Ra’s forces, approaches Kiyoya, and he falls in love, or lust, or something.

Yoshiaki Kowajiri’s Demon City Shinjuku (aka Makaitoshi Shinjuku aka Hell City Shinjuku aka Monster City) is an anime loaded with monsters, shit-talking characters, virginally innocent victim women, mystical powers, and lots of action.  So, basically, an anime from the late Eighties.  There is all manner of gruesome creatures, but the key difference between this and something like Kawajiri’s Wicked City is that the monsters here are external.  No human characters explode from some vile beastie escaping its human meat cage.  Also, it moves along at a nice clip, and it is focused on its main narrative (in other words, you can pretty much make sense of it from beginning to end as a single piece).  

One of the points of the film is the old saw about absolute power corrupting absolutely.  Rebi Ra is given power, and it not only corrupts him to the core but it also corrupts Shinjuku.  Rebi Ra’s consolidation of power leaves the area in ruins (why monsters wouldn’t want to live in a nice house is beyond me), like a nuclear bomb producing a postapocalyptic wasteland, just without the bomb.  This corruption attracts, of course, the worst elements of humanity.  The people who walk the streets are vile, manic punks (and again, why they would want to live here instead of leaving via the extremely convenient and unguarded bridge is half-mysterious; in this Shinjuku, there is no law to stop them doing whatever they wish).  When Sayaka approaches a man to lead her to Rebi Ra (in what is one of the clearest indications of both her naivete and the writer’s [Kaori Okamura, based on the book[s] by Hideyuki Kikuchi] desire to get the viewer’s blood pumping with some threats/dress tearing), he and his hysterically cackling cohorts corner her in an alley.  No locals are around to help her, and we know none would, anyway.  The park at the initial quake’s epicenter has been transformed into a purgatory for orphaned kids who have been turned into fire demons.  Below the streets, Chibi (Kyoko Tongu), the rollerskating, opportunistic youngster hides, doing what he needs to survive.  He’s a friend to Kiyoya and Sayaka in as much as they’re human and won’t kill him, and he gets monetary recompense for his troubles.  Chibi knows the new Shinjuku, but he doesn’t participate directly with it, so he’s not totally corrupted by it. 

In this same way, there is a less developed (but still visible) theme about technology and its effects on people in opposition to “the old ways.”  All I know about the actual Shinjuku is that it’s a big commercial area where a lot of businesses are headquartered, so I can’t say if the decision to set the demon city there has to do with the idea of big business being bad, the technology prevalent there being bad, or Kikuchi just wanted to set it there for some random reason and/or wanted to see it destroyed (or a combination of all three).  At any rate, there is a delineation between the forces of good and evil drawn along technological lines.  Kiyoya and the good guys practice Nenpo using thin wooden swords.  Their focus is on empowering and developing the inner spirit (think: The Force in the Star Wars movies before they fucked up its ancient mystical aspects with that Midichlorian bullshit).  They are simple, peaceful people, though still human.  Contrast this to the characters in the demon city.  Rebi Ra’s sword (the clearest distinguishing aspect between he and Kiyoya/Genichiro) is large and wide and steel (a double metaphor for the phallus and the uncaring hardness of the villains), though it also channels power (just externally from the demons through Rebi Ra, not internally from Rebi Ra’s chi).  The guy who accosts Sayaka in the alley has an arm that’s either robotic or heavily armored (we’re never told explicitly which).  Chibi’s two-headed dog was created by humans using science and technology (he’s menacing but a good guy, most likely because, as we all know, animals intuitively sense goodness in people, and it doesn’t hurt that Chibi raised him from a pup).  The hag who owns the music store is represented as images in a bank of television monitors.  She, naturally, is as avaricious as anyone else, though without the barrier of technology to protect her, she’s much more forthcoming.  Sayaka even gives up her laser ring gizmo.  A simple, low technology life frees one from the spiritual clutter that blocks the channeling of chi in this world.  It’s how you beat the bad guys.

As an anime, and as a story, Demon City Shinjuku is satisfying.  It doesn’t bog itself down with subplots taken from the books that it can never develop in its runtime.  The obstacles/battles are interesting in their variety and character designs, and they all move the plot a little bit closer to its finale.  Sure, the dialogue is dumb, but it would be more egregious in a poorly-paced or a more schizophrenic narrative.  While it doesn’t top (for me, at any rate) Kowajiri’s Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust or Ninja Scroll, it would certainly make a nice B feature to either one of them for an evening of anime fun.

MVT:  The designs and the animation are smooth and visually striking.

Make or Break:  The opening sets the stage well in terms of world building, violence level, and basic storyline.

Score:  6.75/10

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