Reviewby Mike Crandol, Dec 15th 2002
Tokyo: 1912. The imperial government begins to put in motion its plan to industrialize the capital so that it may take its place among the great cities of the modern world. The evil sorcerer Kato (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Street Fighter II's M Bison) would rather see Tokyo in ruins, and plans to resurrect the spirit of the warrior Taro Masakado to destroy the city. To do this he must possess the soul of a young girl with untapped supernatural powers, Yukari Tatsumiya. Various spiritual guardians try and fail to protect Yukari from his demonic powers, only for Kato's plan to be thwarted by the benign Masakado himself. Kato bides his time until he can use Yukari's daughter Yukiko to carry out the destruction on his own, but a new warrior appears to protect the Tatsumiya household: Keiko, an unassuming shrine maiden who wields the power of Heaven itself.
It's hard to make a scary animated film. A good anime can easily be just as funny, engaging, heartwarming or tear-jerking as anything in live-action cinema, but Horror is the one genre that simply does not translate well to animation; its one-step-removed reality dilutes any immediate feelings of fear it might instill in its audience. Madhouse's 4-episode OVA Doomed Megalopolis comes closer than most at pulling “scary animation” off. The unrelentingly dark and creepy premise combines loads of grotesque imagery with a strong mix of supernatural and psychological terrors, and the result looks like something from one of Sigmund Freud's worst nightmares. While it won't make you jump out of your seat, it might have you looking over your shoulder before it's over with.
Since animation can rarely shock, Doomed Megalopolis wisely chooses the alternate Horror route: it disturbs. Taking a cue from The Exorcist, the story revolves mostly around Kato's repeated efforts to possess Yukari and later her daughter Yukiko (who may or may not be the offspring of Kato himself). He is temporarily successful each time; head-spinning and vomiting up strange phallic creatures are only some of the joys Yukari experiences time and again, and she is quickly reduced to a raving madwoman. All characters are prone to nightmarish visions of demonic children chanting strange tunes and their own flesh being devoured by Kato's spiritual minions. And as if this weren't enough an incestual subplot is thrown in for good measure. It's definitely not for children, but for the most part Megalopolis handles things in a tasteful manner, and though much of it is purposefully disgusting it never stoops to pure exploitation.
Some things fail to get explained properly, though this may be the fault of the translation. It's never too clear how Yukari is supposed to aid Kato in his plots to destroy Tokyo, or why he wants to destroy it in the first place. Yukiko's usefulness is even more vague, especially once her true identity is revealed. The story relies too heavily on the simple old cliché, “She's the One” without illuminating what “The One” can do….and there are some laughable plot devices such as the mechanical ghostbusting apparatus named “The Turbine Divinity”…but in spite of these shortcomings Doomed Megalopolis is an enjoyable show. Yukari's tragic story makes her a sympathetic character, the mystery surrounding her and her brother Tatsumiya keeps things interesting, and the spiritual warriors Harai and Keiko have some pretty cool psychic battles against Kato.
A rarity among anime, Doomed Megalopolis is also a work of historical fiction. Our story takes place between 1912-1928, a period during which Tokyo (and all of Japan) was undergoing rapid changes in an attempt to modernize the country as quickly as possible, and was beginning to lose touch which 100s of years of tradition. Tatsumiya works for the Ministry of Finance, and the plan to modernize Tokyo is a steady undercurrent of the story, along with concerns about the spiritual ramifications of the project. There was probably a very real fear at the time that such rampant industrialization could not bode well for the future, and Kato is the fictional personification of the vengeful spirits of the old world, angry at being cast aside and forgotten. His most successful attempt to destroy the city results in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, a real event that claimed the lives of over 140,000 people. The legend of Masakado, Tokyo's guardian spirit, is also historical fact, and his shrine still exists in the city today much as it appears in the anime. Even the Lagrange Equation, which Yukiko solves and Kato puts to devious use, is a genuine mathematical theory.
The artwork is not quite the caliber we've come to expect from Madhouse, but is still better than most other releases' from the era. Kato's shape-shifting black crows, which attack the good guys at the end of episode 1, are the one true standout, featuring a wicked stylized design and some amazing animation. The look of the human players isn't as successful…the designs are fairly nondescript, and the female characters are hard to tell apart. The music is repetitive and relies too heavily on synthesizers at a time when anime scores were beginning to move back to a more orchestral sound. Rin Taro's expert direction helps to cover up the less-polished technical aspects, and he employs some innovative layouts, color schemes, and effects animation to spruce things up.
ADV is going to catch a lot of heat for not including the original Japanese language track on this release. It is a strange move from a company that is usually more sensitive to the fan community, and with bilingual DVDs more or less an industry standard it will doubtless hurt the disc's sales. The old Streamline dub is passable but not up to today's high quality performances. An even more inexcusable omission are subtitled translations of the kanji on various signs and title cards, leaving the viewer to guess at what vital information they may be missing. There are no extras apart from some previews, but given the age of the material this is no great surprise or disappointment. The transfer looks good, but still one gets the feeling ADV slapped together this release in a hurry with no real thought or care put into it. Hopefully they will do a better job with the many other classic films they purchased from the Streamline morgue.
Doomed Megalopolis deserves better than this bare-bones release. Ironically enough the English-only vocals and lack of textual translations are a throwback to the very things that made Streamline unpopular with hardcore fans, and ADV has been making a point lately to avoid. But it's good to finally see a DVD release of this classic title, quality horror anime being few and very far between. Sometimes you just have to take what you can get.
Overall : B-
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : C-
+ beats the odds: a genuinely creepy anime
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