Reviewby Theron Martin, Feb 4th 2010
DVD - Complete collection
In an alternate-history version of Japan, rumors fly in Otomo City about the existence of a masked avenger who may be responsible for a series of killings – or so hack reporter Hayato Minagami believes. When he returns to his old stomping grounds to investigate, he finds himself teamed up (reluctantly at first) with Kiriko Mamiya, a young woman who aspires to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning new photographer. Together they delve into the case of an individual called the Skull Man by some and the Phantom by others, a path which leads them to the White Bell Society, a prominent local religious organization which they eventually discover has a very seedy underbelly and connections to both their pasts. Powerful figures work in the background, while shape-changing monsters lurk to wreak havoc on both sides. Amongst it all strides a force of vengeance, but is he ultimately playing for the good guys or just a murderer with a big grudge?
The Skull Man was originally a one-shot 1970 manga by legendary manga-ka Shotaro Ishinomori, creator of such classics as Cyborg 009, Kamen Rider, and Kikaider, among many others. Kazuhiko Shimamoto revived the title for a longer run in the late '90s/early 2000s, one that did get released in the States by Tokyopop in the early 2000s. For the most part, though, the title languished in obscurity until Bones picked it up in 2007 and produced this 13-episode anime adaptation. The series may well fade back into obscurity after a few months, however. Though its gritty style would seem to be the kind of thing that works well amongst American fans, its artistic design style is a little too archaic and it does not have quite the flash that would be expected of hit current titles of this type. Those who take a pass on the series for those reasons may be making a mistake, though. Overall, it's better than that.
The Skull Man is equal parts mystery and horror, combining the sensibilities of an old-school detective story with bloody '80s monster flicks. It's awash in brutal and unforgiving violence, although (surprisingly) the violence rarely dominates the story. Instead, it is used more to punctuate the ugliness involved in a complicated scheme to turn unsuspecting people into monsters and the man dead-set on destroying people so afflicted, even if that means becoming evil himself. In many senses the Skull Man probably has more in common with the title character of V for Vendetta than any other masked avenger, down even to his penchant for spouting poetic references, albeit one with a more supernatural than scientific power base and who has some rather powerful minions at his disposal. In fact, for much of the series whether the Skull Man is a hero or villain is in doubt; viewers will certainly question that through the first few episodes at least.
The title character is not actually the series' main character, though. That role falls more to Hayato, whose investigation into the matter of the Skull Man brings him to the brink of the damnable things brewing in Otomo City. Hayato initially gives the impression of being a lovable scoundrel, and indeed he does have an occasional light-hearted moment early on. As he starts to get more intimately involved in what's going on, he turns more serious, but this is more of a natural story progression than an outright change to his character. Kiriko complements him by providing more youthful enthusiasm, fodder for one bawdy early scene, and a potential romantic conflict later on despite her almost exclusively dressing in a boyish fashion. She is much more integrally involved than just being a hanger-on, however. Just below this level is a broad array of major supporting cast members, including Shinjo, a dedicated young police officer who thinks Hayato is up to no good but is basically a good guy himself; Gozo Kuroshio, a prominent Otomo businessman who looks out for Hayato but may also be involved in some much more questionable matters; Father Yoshio Kanzaki, a priest and childhood friend of Hayato's who gets deeply mixed up in the affair concerning The Skull Man; and Kyoichiro, an older private investigator who frequently crosses paths with Hayato.
Although the writing does include a few moments of levity, this is predominately a serious story which works a surprising amount of complexity into its mere 13 episodes; stories this involved typically have nearly double this number of episodes, yet the plotting here never really seems hurried. The main plot about the Skull Man eventually boils down to something straightforward, but the convolution and misdirection the story goes through to get there keeps the true avenger's identity and purpose obfuscated for much of the series. Even once it is revealed, the story does not become so simple, as by that point the various behind-the-scenes schemes which have been percolating for the previous few episodes have begun to come to a head and set themselves on a course for violent clashes with each other. A score card may be required to keep track of who all has allegiances with (or connections to) who and what their true motivations are, and the writing's sparing approach to revelations requires the viewers to make some mental effort to fit all of the pieces in place; this is definitely not a series enamored with having its characters spill their motivations in grand speeches or with going into great detail about how things came to be. Even flashback scenes which reveal critical background details are most notable for their brevity, as they show precisely enough to give a sense of where the character is coming from and no more. This is a rather unusual approach, but one that makes for a compact and compelling story because it forces you to pay attention to all of the provided clues.
The character designs, by adhering faithfully to Ishinomori's distinctive style, instead feel like throwbacks to the earliest days of television anime. Except for some silly-looking cyborg designs which pop up late in the series, the designs are all nicely-rendered and visually appealing, just not what current fans are likely used to seeing. (This is most notable in Kiriko's build, hairdo, and style of dress.) Skull Man is suitably menacing in his mask, while the monsters the pop up from time to time are more ordinary, save for an avian-themed creature reminiscent of one of the nyokai in The Twelve Kingdoms. Various visual clues strongly suggest an early '80s setting, though the CG effects scattered throughout are near top-of-the-line; one scenes involving a car tumbling off a cliff looks unnatural, but in other places the CG is so smoothly and seamlessly integrated in that it takes a bit of effort to notice. The animation is above-average, too, although the series saves its most fluid and detailed action scenes for a couple of key sequences towards the end of the series. While the graphic content can get quite intense at times, fan service is limited to a couple of highly suggestive shots of one female character.
The musical score, courtesy of Shiro Sagisu (responsible for titles as diverse as Bleach, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Kimagure Orange Road) is very hit-or-miss. In some places the individual numbers lamely move the story along, while in others they work quite well to promote suitable senses of suspense and/or dread. The instrumental opener, set to series clips, is not only the score's weakest link but one of the most underwhelming openers in recent memory. Closer “Ashita wa Ashita no Kimi ga Umareru” is a far better song set to much more interesting – and telling – visuals.
As with all Section 23 releases, this one does not have an English dub. All 13 episodes are included on two disks in a standard-sized case, with the sole Extra being a collection of promo clips on the second DVD. The subtitles are free of typos save for two places in episode 11 – almost back-to-back, in fact – where words are clearly omitted for making sentences grammatically correct in English.
The end of the series resolves some things and definitely offers some surprises, but it also does more than just leave an open ending: it strongly implies that this was just the first stage of a longer ongoing saga. Nothing has ever been said about any follow-up, though, and the direction it would have to take leaves you in doubt whether a follow-up even could be made. If the series must stand solely on its own merits, though, then it will stand just fine.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Involved and involving storytelling, makes even some old storytelling clichés seem fresh.
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