Wicked City (Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1987)

“The best parts of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Videodrome packed into a sexy sci-fi actioner.” – Adam Groves, FRIGHT.COM

Drafthouse Films LogoThere is Earth, our familiar world, and then there is the Black World, a parallel dimension that very few people are aware of.  For centuries, a pact between the two worlds has ensured our peaceful coexistence, but terms must be negotiated and renewed to continue the relative harmony.  With little time before the expiration of the existing treaty, a militant faction of Black World radicals commit themselves to preventing the establishment of a new peace accord.  Two agents from the elite organization called the Black Guards – defenders of the balance between the two worlds – are charged with ensuring the success of the treaty.  Director Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll) blends stylish eroticism, graphic horror and pulse-pounding action as these two agents from distant worlds struggle to protect a key figure to the peace process, a centuries old psychic with plans of his own.  Long out of print and unavailable in North America, Wicked City finally returns!

Special Features:

  • Introduction with cartoon historian and Wicked City distributor, Jerry Beck
  • Audio commentary with Japanese film curator, Jasper Sharp
  • Interview with director, Yoshiaki Kawajiri
  • Original theatrical trailers
  • Character biographies
  • Original Japanese and English-dubbed language options
  • 16-page booklet with image gallery and concept art

Black World Edition – Package includes:

  • Wicked City on Blu-ray or Standard DVD
  • High quality 720p HD Digital Download of the film
  • Instant Download of the 10-track Wicked City soundtrack
  • 27″ x 40″ Theatrical Poster
  • Unofficial Wicked City black tie and cufflinks set

Can Drafthouse Films save the beloved anime I grew up with?  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, companies like Streamline Pictures, Manga Entertainment, and A.D. Vision brought Japanese animation to North American audiences in versions faithful to their original presentations.  Suddenly, North American audiences had domestic access to alternative forms of animation representing the work of masters like Masamune Shirow, Hayao Miyazaki, and Katsuhiro Otomo.  Sadly, most of these companies fared poorly in the years to follow.  In particular, Streamline Pictures, founded by Carl Macek and famed animation historian Jerry Beck, was a trailblazer during this period, releasing uncut anime with quality dub tracks, but eventually fell into hard times financially.  Starting in the ’90s, its catalogue became scattered to the four winds, with some titles landing in operating entities (Disney, Discotek, Funimation) and many others rolling through various media acquisitions, leaving some films out of print, with lapsed rights passing to other companies, or purportedly still lost within the much larger MGM library.  These films are a significant touchstone for many anime and genre film fans and their absence today from home media is a frustrating predicament.  Drafthouse Films seems to have the will and determination to pursue individual movies, and I have to believe that the anime of this period is meaningful to those in charge of this growing paracinematic label.  So let’s imagine a repertory foray into Japanese anime with Wicked City (1987), a genre-busting horror/action/erotic thriller made early in the directing career of acclaimed animator Yoshiaki Kawajiri.

Adapted from the horror novel of Hideyuki Kikuchi and originally conceived as an OVA short, Wicked City is a theatrical feature portraying the longest night in Taki Renzaburo’s career as a Black Guard, a human agent tasked to maintain a long standing peace accord between our world and a demonic parallel dimension called the Black World.  On the eve of the treaty’s renewal, Taki is partnered with a female Black World agent, Makie, and assigned to protect a lecherous, centuries-old psychic key to the agreement’s renewal.  Over the course of what appears to be a single night, Taki and Makie struggle to protect their charge, Guiseppe Maiyart, from Black World radicals intent on destabilizing the peaceful existence of the two worlds and preventing the completion of the accord’s renewal.  Maiyart, for his part, exacerbates his guardians’ challenges by refusing to cooperate with their efforts, being more preoccupied with finding some ladies than in keeping himself safe for the next day’s meeting.  Against tentacled assassins, decapitated heads, devouring shadows, armoured terrorist leaders with extendable elbow spikes, and all manner of sexually dangerous Black World women (vulva-bodied succubi, soapland prostitutes with permeable, gum doll-like bodies, spider-women with vagina dentata), the pair of Black Guards repeatedly sacrifice themselves for Maiyart and for each other.  Eventually, Maiyart’s behaviour is revealed to be a ruse and, as dawn finally breaks, the true purpose of the night’s events and the roles of Taki and Makie in an ongoing peace between the two worlds is eventually revealed.

As noted in Jasper Sharp’s review at Midnight Eye, Wicked City “represents the conjunction and culmination of several strains of 1980s fantasy cinema”.  Sharp notes elements of demonic splatter/body horror, sci-fi noir, and morbid sexual imagery, all refracted through the vicious eroticism of late Nikkatsu Roman Porno.  Dissecting the film further, we can note that the neo-noir influence on Wicked City extends beyond its futuristic, perennially nighttime setting and relates to a larger noir vernacular that includes liminal manhood, first-person narration, guns, cigarettes, femme fatales, and high-contrast lighting epitomized by the obligatory ’80s use of venetian blinds.  We can also add the unlikely-partners trope typical to ’80s cop films, ranging from 48 Hrs. (Walter Hill, 1982) to Alien Nation (Graham Baker, 1988).  There may be a desire to read Wicked City as an assembly of these parts, and as such it may explain some criticisms of the film as having pacing issues, lagging between specific set-pieces.  I don’t see this criticism however, as film noir (particularly those employing voice-over narration) often takes moments to let its narrative breathe and provide its protagonists moments to reflect and take stock of its plot.  Similarly, Euro-horror (particularly those of the erotic, lesbian vampire ilk) frequently emphasize its psychological component with a languid approach to pacing.  Certainly pauses in action to convey declarations of intention or expressions of emotional purging are themselves frequent elements of Japanese cinema generally and of anime specifically.  Wicked City is most successful when it can be appreciated for its appropriations, but is taken as a whole and allowed to have its own semantic and syntactic parameters.  It is a film that sets its own rules and is received best when allowed the freedom to proceed accordingly.

Wicked City posterRevisiting the film now after a long absence, I can’t help but still be impressed by the quality of Wicked City‘s production.  In an era when most anime was made for direct-to-video releases, Wicked City was produced for theatrical viewing and its animation reflects a higher standard.  Sharp rightly cites the film as emblematic of ’80s anime’s “near-obsessive pursuit of cinematic realism to portray something that, in the pre-CGI era at least, would have been impossible to render in live-action, and even if it could, would have been far too graphic to slip by the censors.”  This realist style is represented in Streamline Pictures’ original theatrical poster.  The poster also distills a variety of cinematic influences into a few complimentary images.  The urban metropolis, the gun-toting, suit-wearing hero, the red neon line, the bullet hole and cracking, and the dangerous bedroom-eyes of the woman in close-up all inspire noir associations, while the fanged-and-tentacled monster suggests horror/science fiction possibilities.  Prior home video appropriations of this poster for their cover art have made the mistake of changing the title lettering to obscure the cityscape and have omitted the canted text below the poster’s bisecting line.  Given Drafthouse Films’ penchant for using original poster art, care should be given to preserve the title as it exists here and to use the tilted section of text for a testimonial quote.

Credits:  The director’s interview, trailers, character bios, and language options are all carry-overs from the Urban Vision DVD.  Jerry Beck was a co-founder of Streamline Pictures and his former partner Carl Macek is now deceased.  Given Beck’s prominence as an animation scholar and his direct connection to Wicked City, I thought an introduction by him would be particularly interesting, giving some insight not just on the film, but also on its production history, its role in popularizing anime in North America, and in the significance and legacy of Streamline Pictures.  Jasper Sharp is one of the West’s most notable Japanese film scholars, writes on both high and low cultural Japanese film traditions, and even speaks of Wicked City with some fondness – so who better to give good commentary?  A 10-track soundtrack of the film was previously released on CD.


One thought on “Wicked City (Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1987)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s