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)

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

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 🙂

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 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 usually place spoiler warnings within reviews of ‘old’ films, nor much beyond my general note in the About section, I’ll probably do so now – 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, and so once I knew most of them would die I didn’t have to bother becoming 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 like 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, as it can be fun to compare, 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