(**Warning – This review is a tad more not safe for work then my average review. You have been warned**) Wicked City is a 1987 Madhouse film directed by one of anime’s living legends, Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Never heard of him? Well that’s probably because the types of films he makes are a hard sell these days. Ultraviolent, hypersexual, horrific action titles used to be a dime a dozen in the day, Kawajiri was the crowned emperor of the genre, but today these types of anime are few and far between. Sure he’s not as well known as other living legends like Mamoru Hosoda, Makoto Shinkai, Hideaki Anno, or Mamoru Oshii. He may not be as remembered as our recently departed Ryūtarō Nakamura, Osamu Dezaki, and Satoshi Kon. But he’s just as much of an auteur as any of them, if not more so, and he leaves a distinct mark on any anime he directs. I think someone should get rolling on trying to crowd-source Kawajiri’s next film or something…since the market rarely provides for him a chance to get his teeth wet anymore. Anyway Kawajiri was once known for epic titles such as Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and a bunch of stuff I already reviewed. Wicked City may not be his magnum opus, but it is a damn good film, and his most sexual to date. Wicked City is the first of many film adaptations of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s novels that are directed by Kawajiri .
The film drops us into a near future (late 90’s) bar where a salaryman named Taki Renzaburo has been trying to bang some lady for about 3 months now. Taki finally gets lucky and is invited over to her apartment. The two start to get frisky, and after the deed is done the bar lady is revealed to have a vagina dentata! In fact she’s not a women at all, but instead some-sort-of a demon spider lady, or should I say black widow lady, as she tried to kill the man she just danced the horizontal mambo with. But Taki is no ordinary salaryman, he moonlights as a “black guard”, or a skilled fighter entrusted with keeping the peace between humans and demons. Taki manages to escape from the black widow’s clutches, and she runs away rather then fight him head on. Taki reports this to his boss who says the creepiest sentence a boss possibly can utter “be a little more sexually cautious from now on”. Yeh I feel awkward now too. Taki and his boss explain how the “Black World”, or demon world, and the human world have had relative peace for centuries all because of a well designed peace treaty which is about to expire. Some of the more radical demons would love to see the non-aggression pact expire so they could openly kill humans as they please. A new peace treaty is being written up by the head humans and demons, one that aims to keep the peace for 500 years, but it will take an old master to wrinkle out all the details. Taki is assigned to guard this master, Mr. Giuseppi Mayart. If the demons manage to kill this man then peace may never be reached!
Taki is given support from the demon world from the likes of the beautiful Makie. Taki described Makie as perfect, and she really does seem that way. Taki is a tough badass, but approachable, salaryman. He isn’t the best fighter in the world, and he often loses important battles. But he grows and improves as the film goes on. His main weapon is a pistol that has one hell of a recoil, but can seriously damage the demons. Mr. Mayart seems like a generic pervy old man, but there’s way more to his character then that. For example he later comes across as a complete and utter horrible human being, but in a way that you can’t help but laugh with him. He’s genuinely funny and always talking about wanting to pork someone. If he’s not talking about that, he’s discussing his favorite porn models. Anyway you can probably guess the story, Makie and Taki must protect Mr. Mayart from the many demons who are trying to kill him, and awesome fight scenes ensue. But the story is very well told, gripping, and has a huge plot twist that works perfectly. The story may not be entirely original, but the way it is told is excellent and should be used as an example for future filmmakers. This is how you make an action film! Not to mention Yoshiaki Kawajiri just directs it in such a way that it feels like a Hollywood film (with a lot of sex) in a way so few anime films do. Oh and it has brilliant fight scenes perfectly choreographed, but that’s par for the course for Kawajiri. And it shows you a few things you’re not likely to see elsewhere. For example ever see a tough salaryman pull a naked grandpa out of a silly putty lady who was absorbing him? There’s also a girl with a huge pulsing vagina that takes up most of her body. And don’t forget the vagina dentata spider lady. There’s a lot of sex (well….mostly rape) scenes in this film that will make you never want to have sex (again).
The art style is undeniably old school Madhouse, and of course that means I absolutely love it. The art is beautiful, very colorful and lively at times. Many scenes have that trademarked Kawajiri -blue-tone, but unlike in Demon City Shinjuku it looks excellent and works to the film’s advantage. The character designs are brilliant, they have that old “manime” look to it, only with that Madhouse class and shine. This should be no surprise when you learn who designed them, none-other-than Yoshiaki Kawajiri himself. The animation is pretty great during the fight scenes, and even the ordinary scenes flow pretty well. That being said there’s quite a few still shots throughout. So it’s far from perfect. The background music is pretty standard fair, nothing noteworthy. The insert songs (1, 2) however are works of art. “It’s Not Easy” is a pop ballad sung entirely in English and blew me away. Both songs are sung by the unsong hero of 80’s pop singers, Hitomi Tohyama. God I just eat up these 80’s songs…uh…Anyway.
There were two English dubs produced for this film, one for Streamline’s United States release, and one for Manga U.K. ‘s edited United Kingdom release. The Streamline dub was directed by the late, great Carl Macek (of Robotech fame) and recorded in Los Angeles. I’ve never considered myself a huge fan of their dubs, finding many of their productions to be over acted and lacking subtly. Here however their ADR work simply is better then the Manga U.K. production. Macek manages to direct with a tad more subtly then he’s used to (which still isn’t enough but hey I’ll take it), and it’s not hugely overacted. It is quite well cast, specifically Greg Snegoff as Taki. Michael Lee Reynolds also makes for a hilarious Giuseppe Mayart. Manga U.K.’s dub was most likely created in their London Studio, although it is hard to tell for sure. Their dub was directed by Michael Bakewell (of BBC fame). As you all probably know I am a huge fan of Manga U.K. dubs in general, and Michael Bakewell in particular. But their dub just is not nearly as good as Streamline’s/Macek’s dub. Manga’s dub gives many of the characters weird, almost silly Brooklyn accents for no apparent reason (their accents really don’t sound anything like a real Brooklyn accent, considering I’m from the area you’ll have to just take my word for this) . Vincent “Sengoku” Marzello plays Taki, but his cheesy attempt at a Brooklyn accent just isn’t doing it for me. Toni Barry makes for a sexy Makie if nothing else. Some of the acting is quite poor in this dub, which is disappointing. Other writers have criticized Manga’s script, but it was written by Greta Mitchell who is responsible for the top notch script for Judge, and personally I found it to be quite inspired. It’s got that standard Manga U.K fourteening/14ing going on, which I do like. And it’s not forced into each line, it’s more natural. Not to mention some of the more liberal lines flow really well (or they would if they were said by a better actor). George Roubicek is of course the all time master of Manga U.K. dub scripts…but that’s neither here nor there I suppose. There is some doubt as to whether or not Bakewell is really behind this dub, and it’s hard to verify. I really hope it’s not him, because this is really below his level. If someone knows please feel free to enlighten me. Streamline’s dubs are not exactly my cup of tea, but here Macek’s production simply outshines Bakewell’s work.
This film was originally licensed by Streamline, and had a limited theatrical run in 1994. This lead to the film getting plenty of recognition and reviews from mainstream critics ( 1, 2, 4, 5, 6). After their licensed expired Urban Vision rescued the film and released it on DVD. This is how I own it and how I recommend watching it. Used copies are still cheap on amazon, but the market fluctuates greatly on this one. Make sure you don’t overpay, but also that you get it before it disappears forever. I do hope Discotek rescues it one of these days. Urban Vision’s R1 dvd does not have the Manga U.K./Bakewell dub on it, it does contain the Streamline dub and the original Japanese audio though. It also has a great extra feature, an interview with the living legend himself, Yoshiaki Kawajiri !
Positives: The textbook for how to make an action movie, creepy images, good story and interesting twist, perfectly choreographed action scenes, great animation and wonderfully colorful artwork. Good ol dash of that ultraviolence. The insert songs are wonderful 80’s pieces! Yoshiaki Kawajiri directed it.
Negatives: Michael Bakewell let me down. When you think about certain aspects and analyze them, they start to not make much sense.