Ninja Scroll: The Series (Jūbē Ninpūchō Ryūhōgyoku Hen)

In many ways this is a less compelling echo of the film.

Same lead character of Jubei, similar quest feel with stumbling blocks presented by different monsters/adversaries to defeat, and there’s even some (toned down in comparison) sketchy content, but all without the production budget and schedule of a feature film.

Ninja Scroll: The Series (Jūbē Ninpūchō Ryūhōgyoku Hen) 2003

Naturally, there are going to be differences between the two forms – and I don’t always like to compare based on budget; as I should take the time to describe and evaluate a thing upon its own terms, right?

Still, I think at least some comparisons are worthwhile for this review – one of which being the MA vs R rating.

Another is the tone, far more comedic at times.

The Ninja Scroll series has significantly slower pacing too, as its straight-forward quest storyline is stretched to fit into the monster-of-the-week format (a format that I usually love).

Despite what probably sounds like a long list of grievances here, I enjoyed individual episodes enough to overlook the at-times stark differences between series and film, such as the Shelter from the Rain and A Dragon Within eps.

It was interesting also how bold this one is, with more exaggerated character design and the use of brighter colours; the series does ensure that it’s distinct from the film. However, in terms of storyline, in a way, the anime seems only generally concerned with the main quest its characters are on, and the supporting cast has limited impact on plot or theme, leaving the heavy-lifting to Jubei.

(Well, aside from Shigure, but she’s sort of ‘tagging along’ in her own story, sadly).

Further, while the design of a lot of the creatures and enemies were usually pretty interesting, during a lot of their scenes, I found myself keen get back to the main quest.  

In that respect, the last two episodes were among my favs, since the team got to the lost shrine/city at last and kicked the magical aspect up a few notches at the same time. (There were also a few fun surprises toward the end, a nice escalation of stakes also).

However, I’m not sure I’d recommend Ninja Scroll to everyone, but if you love supernatural ninja stories there’s going to be at least a few elements you’ll enjoy. In addition, I liked the OP a lot!

3 Stars

Highlander: The Search For Vengeance

Highlander: The Search For Vengeance lands somewhere between spin-off and remake of the very famous 1986 Christopher Lambert film Highlander, a movie Queen fans may also remember due to its OST.

Highlander: The Search For Vengeance (2007)

I’m not really planning to do a comparative review so I’ll just say that I agree with what seems to be the general consensus out there, that among all the Highlander texts following the original, this is among the better ones.

In terms of genre, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance is a post-apocalyptic, science-fantasy action film from top to bottom, with top notch animation (Madhouse and Imagi Animation) that follows Colin MacLeod through the centuries on his quest for revenge.

And it is a classic (or ‘basic’ if you’re not a fan) revenge story with Colin hacking his way through various obstacles on a path toward his ages-old enemy Marcus Octavius, at times taking a break for war or love or perhaps just gratification – and as this is an anime take on the franchise, get ready for plenty of fan-service.

The non-linear structure to Colin’s search adds an extra layer to the narrative, weaving in and out of the past and future as we see him fight and struggle and even repeat some costly mistakes in different historical eras.

I’d have loved to see a little more from Colin’s memories of the 20th Century for one, but what existed served the overall picture of a battle throughout history.

It seems that when Yoshiaki Kawajiri is working with US production companies there’s a toning down of onscreen sex and violence compared to his other work, yet not a removal.

So you’ll still get explosions, decapitations, nudity and even (in this film) a presumably romantic sex scene, much like what could be seen in an 1980s/1990s action or thriller film. (Thus, in terms of audience it’s obviously not aimed at kids).

A few quick dot points before I finish:

  • I’m a fan of Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s character designs and this anime is no exception
  • I do love imaginings of the future and cities in various states of decay (in fiction, at least) and so the New York setting was a highlight for me
  • Colin probably isn’t perhaps as multi-faceted as some other leads in the film, so you might find a fav side-character instead
  • If you’re exhausted from and furious about COVID and can’t stomach another virus subplot, then I’ll note this does feature one

Overall, I enjoyed the structure, the action and the scaling up of problems for our hero to face, all of it interwoven with backstory and some memorable leads too (not only Moya, who probably doesn’t have enough screen time to be called ‘lead’, I guess).

If you like the genre in general, or you’re a fan of the original movie, you’ll find this both a little different and very familiar, which could be a mark for or against, I suppose.

4 Stars

Not a lot of green at all in the film and so the small amount combined with the pink in Dahlia’s apartment really stands out

Goku Midnight Eye

As I’ve mentioned here ad nauseam by now, science-fiction, futuristic, cyberpunk stories tend to be among my favs and so I expected to enjoy Goku Midnight Eye. In the end, it’s not my fav cyberpunk release but it still has plenty of the things you’d want from the genre.

Goku Midnight Eye (1989)

So too, if what you want is that the cross-pollination between US cinema and anime, with an undertone of ‘action-movie-from-the-1980s’ clear in both episodes.

Episode one was probably my fav of the pair, probably due to it being an origin story where we see how Goku gets his magical eye, an eye that can hack into any computer in the world.

Almost a year later comes episode two, which features a somewhat overpowered Goku. He still faces threats, and while his super-extending staff is almost comical, there’s maybe a tongue-in-cheek feel to everything that keeps this and the previous episode entertaining.

If I did read the tone of the OVA correctly, I do wonder how much of that is due to Buichi Terasawa’s manga – who is also responsible for Space Adventure Cobra, where the film adaptation is somewhat similar in tone but in a less grimy way, I guess.

And despite great direction from Yoshiaki Kawajiri there are a few tired clichés, especially when it comes to women characters, who seem to have only two options: femme fatale or eye candy (so very much noir-influenced). One character especially is noteworthy for her role as world-building element.   

Ultimately, I would have watched more Goku (if any had been made) because I do like lone detective stories but I don’t know how to rate this.

(It’s a product of its time for sure, maybe of the OVA-era too… and something about that stripper-motorbike hybrid struck me as the kind of element that you could write an entire post on, but I’ll save it for now).

I can say that Goku is not aimed at kids, at least.

But if you want that mix of action, violence, nudity, oddity and futuristic tech from a bygone era of anime, then Goku’s your man.

Cyber City Oedo 808

Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990)

This is a classic (and fairly violent) OVA series and one which I suspect most cyberpunk fans are at least aware of, but is definitely worth watching if you like the genre but have never had the chance; it’s probably online somewhere by now but I’m not sure who streams it.

For me, so much of Cyber City Oedo 808 feels wonderfully connected to the 1980s (no surprise considering the release dates) whether it’s the assumption that floppy disks will be part of the future or the big hair and heavy metal theme song, or the old school blue palette used for night, it has so many things that I tend to be fond of.

At the same time, in terms of plotlines, the anime is a little more fantastical, even mystical – considering the way machines and computers infiltrate humanity, but especially when I think about episode 3 (Crimson Media) which features the ‘vampire’ storyline.

But in all the big ways it’s definitely science-fiction.

For one, there’s a crime-ridden, megacity-setting where the power of technology is used to both monitor and maim. Cyber City Oedo 808 also makes extensive use of futuristic weapons, equipment and vehicles, and conventional ideals of what it is to be human are abandoned. It’s not a long exploration of those issues though, since the focus is firmly on action, technology and sometimes the gore (directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri)… so the anime is not setting out to be philosophical perhaps, but I felt like there was plenty of room to consider those aspects if I wanted to.

Cyber City Oedo 808 follows three convicted criminals who have been offered the chance to commute their sentences by hunting down and executing other criminals. Each lead basically gets their own episode, though they do operate (somewhat grudgingly) as a team at times.

I quickly alluded to this before, but as a Yoshiaki Kawajiri film, there is a bit of fan-service when it comes to the detail on the violence, but in a way, it seemed like both less and more than what you’d see in things like Wicked City or Ninja Scroll.

With each episode, the storytelling is really focused; I felt like I was in good hands when it came to info around setting and character motivation too, and I hadn’t realised that Akinori Endo also did screenplays for Armitage III and Battle Angel, which was cool.

I love each storyline and so it’s hard to choose a stand out without going into spoiler territory, but since Benten is my favourite character, I reckon I have to go with the menace of Crimson Media, complete with its quieter moments. (You can also see a real echo of Benten’s own temperament in ‘villain’ Media, but again, I don’t want to drift into spoilers here!).

5 Stars

Tension stays pretty high in part due to these ‘kill switch’ collars that ex-convicts must wear.
This guy always makes me think of Vic Rattlehead.

Demon City Shinjuku (Makai Toshi: Shinjuku)

Demon City Shinjuku (Makai Toshi: Shinjuku) 1988

I swing back and forth on how much I enjoy the works of Yoshiaki Kawajiri (and Hideyuki Kikuchi) due to their tendency to drift into territory I’ll describe as crass at best.

Other times, the team-up creates things which are sinister and stylish from start to finish – with plenty of action to go along with the horror elements. Demon City Shinjuku mostly fits under this description for me.

And if you like the supernatural genre or films with great action sequences or with low-level lighting, stylised reds, pinks and blues for the palette of a city in endless night, and a city filled with mysterious characters and seemingly insurmountable odds for the hero(es) to tackle, then you’re in luck with Demon City Shinjuku.

To contrast, I’m certainly aware that some of the criticisms aimed at this film (and which can also be applied to many films and genres, especially fighting shonen) are certainly valid. Character development is not missing precisely, but the storyline is mostly built around getting the hero from one battle to another. And those battles tend to be exciting or surprising and are clearly so well directed, and thus the trade-off is definitely worthwhile for me.

On the other hand, Sayaka Rama doesn’t have much of a role beyond damsel (but she’s pretty brave, forging ahead in her high-vis pink dress) and so that issue with the characterisation being a little thin plays out elsewhere too. Again, I think there is a trade-off – which is the mystery behind a lot of figures (and the setting itself) especially for someone like Mephisto.

I also found it interesting to see the shinai from Kendo being the hero’s weapon of choice, which is something I think modern martial arts anime has maybe moved away from a little. As tends to be the case with me, I really enjoy Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s character designs – and even though his role is mostly confined to the prologue, the character of Genichirou strikes me as a cool mix between Clint Eastwood and Jet Black, or maybe he just has a 1970s vibe in general.

In terms of audience, I’ll mention that Demon City Shinjuku has far less sexualised violence compared to say, Wicked City or even Ninja Scroll, and the violence is somewhat more restrained too. I wonder if at this point in his career (right after Wicked City) there was an urge to make something (potentially) more commercial and suitable for distribution in the US, as Bloodlust perhaps was.

4 Stars

A Wind Named Amnesia (Kaze no Na wa Amunejia)

A Wind Named Amnesia (Kaze no Na wa Amunejia) 1990

As part of my recent Hideyuki Kikuchi kick, I finally watched A Wind Named Amnesia and found it really compelling.

If you’ve read any of my reviews here at the Heap you’ll know I tend to be a bit of an ‘ideas-man’ – sometimes over their execution, though perhaps that implies I think the film failed in that respect, which it didn’t.

Maybe it wasn’t the perfect balance between concept and narrative but again, it worked for me as the central mysteries pulled me along. And the premise is definitely interesting – an unfathomable wind has removed the human race’s memory of everything, leaving them in a primitive state.

When Wataru, our hero, is granted speech, he has to navigate humanity’s struggles to rebuild – joined by the mysterious Sophia on a dangerous cross-country road trip. At times they’re chased by an obsessed killing machine and at other times the film is more episodic perhaps, as they encounter and try to help the humans they meet.  

It’s there that the mix between blockbuster action film tropes and speculative fiction might clash for some folks, but the sequences are all great even if the animation isn’t consistently top notch; I’d argue the direction easily makes up for what some might feel is lacking when compared more modern animation techniques – there’s still genuine tension in the scenes.

And what holds it together is Wataru and Sophia’s relationship – while he’s a bit slow to ask her important questions, I think the film wants you to have the jump on him in that respect. And why not? He’s not long regained the ability to think, speak and operate on more than instinct alone.

Be prepared for some violence and nudity but nothing you wouldn’t find in an old school action blockbuster actually – in fact, I think Wataru’s character design is meant to channel Rambo in some ways. Elsewhere you might pick up on perhaps a criticism of primitive life but it’s not an entirely bleak film either, with some hints of optimism throughout at least.

4 stars

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (Banpaia Hantā Dī: Buraddorasuto)

Even today, nearly twenty years after the release of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, I’m still fascinated by the fact that the English dub was done first. And, twenty years later and I’ve still never heard the Japanese cast 🙂

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (Banpaia Hantā Dī: Buraddorasuto) 2000

Finishing the English voice acting first was done as part of push for (much-deserved) attention overseas during a US theatrical run in 2000 and I wonder if the film’s subtitle had a related secondary function?

The first was of course to distinguish it from the original anime adaptation, but to me it’s suggesting that a vampire’s struggle with (or failure to contain) their desire for blood will make up a good amount of the plot.

Instead, the source material probably has a more accurate title perhaps – the third novel in Hideyuki Kikuchi’s series that makes up the key aspects of the movie was called Demon Deathchase.

I like it because it’s more functional in terms of a descriptor – since the film is kinda one long chase sequence.

There’s still room to breathe and reflect here and there, and plenty of fighting and gore, but the pacing is brisk as D seeks his bounty through increasingly grim scenes. There’s not a lot of time for character development either, but the scene-setting and atmosphere-building (via the creepy OST and the beautifully gothic visuals) aren’t ignored by any stretch.

The opening alone feels like a lesson in establishing both setting and mood – but it soon leads to the main plot – the rescue mission of a maiden ensnared by a vampire, and then it’s straight to the first impressive fight sequence as D and competing bounty hunters rip through some of the shambling zombie-type vampires. (It’s not until later that we meet the real Vampires; once again the arrogant noble-types).

On almost every level this adaptation is superior to the 1985 one, though in a way it’s not as bold, nor do we get the same feel for D as a character this time around.

I think Bloodlust is not as much a gore-fest either, and perhaps it’s even somewhat toned down for Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who was behind Ninja Scroll, Wicked City etc. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is also something of a tragic love story and so if you’re looking for the kinda crass sexual content sometimes found in his other films, you won’t get it here.

(And whether that was done in part to placate US censors or audiences, I obviously can’t say, but it was a nice change from Kawajiri).

While I don’t always place spoiler warnings within reviews of ‘old’ films, I should do so more often, and will add one now – as this next para will spoil a few things.

The film follows certain horror conventions almost as much as dark fantasy and so a good deal of the supporting cast is quickly established as cannon-fodder.

This meant that once I knew most of them would die, I didn’t have to bother becoming too invested in their lives or storylines, but obviously Leila remains important enough to survive, and again, D is the main draw.

Yet it’s Grove who’s probably the most memorable of the supporting cast – and arguably the most tragic – in the film. He’s basically an ace-in-the-hole but when he’s not kicking monster butt he’s bound by the toll his power takes on his body and though his fellow hunters care… there’s no quest to help him; he’s just a caged weapon to be used up. (Maybe there’s more to it in the novel, of course.)

For me the dub was memorable though I guess Wendee Lee might have possibly been under-utilised a little?

And if I compare John Dimagio (who you’ll doubtless know as Bender among many other roles) he was able to play three or four characters and I only picked up on him voicing two of them 😀

In terms of a more specific negative for me, I admit that I wasn’t totally sold on semi-Beetlejuice-esque update to Left Hand – his dialogue too, often fell into a ‘comic-relief’ vein which I didn’t love but, it is a distinctive feature of the film.

But again, everything is really high-level with Bloodlust, right down to the very last scene, which is a touching coda that I won’t spoil, and is probably my second-favourite moment in the film.

Definitely for fans of Kawajiri and the vampire genre in general.

And certainly anyone who is familiar with Vampire Hunter D but might not have seen this one yet, it can be fun to compare the two films, for instance, there’s still a strong western feel and a retro-look to a lot of the character design.

Supposedly a television series has been in development for many years – so if it is released one day, I’m sure I’ll check it out with high hopes indeed.

5 Stars