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Buried Treasure
Urban Square

by Justin Sevakis,

Urban Square
~In Pursuit of Amber~

As anime screenwriters go, Kazunori Itō is definitely one of the best-known. Japanese and old-school fans know him for his work on Urusei Yatsura and the groundbreaking mecha police sitcom Patlabor, while pretty much everyone else knows him best for the first Ghost in the Shell movie and more recently, the .hack// franchise.

However, Ito's career is littered with some more interesting, obscure works. My favorite of these is Urban Square, an amusingly suspenseful parody of Hollywood film noir, told from the point of view of a young, failing screenwriter. It's almost impossible not to consider it a self-reflective work, considering the source.

We meet Ryō Matsumoto, a college-aged aspiring screenwriter, right as his latest work is being rejected. "You should write about what you know," says the producer in a gentle way that implies that Ryo's work is that of an amateur. "I think you're more interesting than what you wrote." After drowning his sorrows at a bar and taking shelter from the rain under an awning, Ryo has the sudden misfortune to collide with a passer-by. The man is in a panic, and after politely picking up Ryo's screenplay and giving it back to him, he takes off running again until, seconds later, he's shot dead. The man who shot him carries a large automatic rifle, and eyes Ryo. Like anyone would in that situation, Ryo runs like hell.

The next day, the body is gone and nobody on the police force will believe his story. Luckily, he does manage to find to the cute girl he spotted at the bar the night before, and talks to her. Her name is Yuki Tamura, and she happens to be a student of a Professor Ramujo... and guess what? There's an envelope stuck in his screenplay addressed to Professor Ramujo! He has no idea what this envelope is, where it came from or even who this professor is, but he decides to go with it. "Well, Yuki, why don't you deliver the letter? We might figure out what's inside!"

To this, Yuki can only note how ridiculous Ryo is. "I've heard that line in some grade-B dramas I've seen," she notes. But Ryo is confident, Yuki thinks he's funny, and soon she's agreeing to dinner. But when Ryo returns to his apartment, a hit-man breaks into his apartment and tries to take him down... WITH KARATE. Like, ridiculous screaming Bruce Lee-style kung fu. This assassin is trying to get back the envelope. Ryo is saved by a Deus Ex Machina by the name of Detective Mochizuki (the hardboiled type with a mustache and a cigarette constantly in hand). Mochizuki has been following the murderer, who is affiliated with a crime syndicate, as is Yuki's professor, who is helping them forge certificates of authenticity for forged works of art. The syndicate has managed to track down Ryo and Yuki as well. The two are taken hostage for knowing too much, and lots of chasing and shooting ensues.

However, it's more important that every single one of these story elements is a complete cliché, coincidence, or other staple of sloppy, hacky writing. Not only does the story realize all this, Ryo realizes it too. He's still pretty bitter about his writing being rejected, and he can't help but mutter to himself about how actually writing any of this would get him laughed out of any creative office in Tokyo. Despite all the wink-wink-nudge-nudge elements, the story is quite content to wallow in its own absence of originality. Instead, it focuses on making Ryo just smart enough to know the story and keep one step ahead. If the world of old clichés in his head matches the one he's living in, it's hard to find much fault with leaving things as they are.

In that way, Urban Square doesn't try to accomplish much more on the surface level than having a good time. In terms of the story's ambition, it's almost the opposite of Ito's segment of Twilight Q, "Reflection," which I've written about previously. Where "Reflection" went wrong was in trying to bite off more than it could chew within the short time allotted to an OAV and thinking the overlying concepts had more gravitas than they actually did. Urban Square is far more preoccupied with maintaining its adrenaline level, to the point where the story almost slips into the background, as does the sense of satire. Somewhere along the line, it stops being a parody and becomes an homage.

And what of our young screenwriter and his strong, amused love interest? Are their emotions any less valid, the danger any less real for being a gigantic honking cliché? Is the gun being fired at them any less lethal for being the ridiculous-looking Smith & Wesson M-459 (as the LD packaging gleefully points out)? Urban Square takes the unique position that not only are these tired plot devices still effective, but fun as well. As long as somebody knows how it's going to go down.

Produced by Bandai Visual back when they were called Network Co., Ltd., the animation in Urban Square is the sort of subtle, intricate work that doesn't stand out, but rather quietly excels while still being unnoticed. Smooth and consistent, clearly great pains were taken with intricacy of movement and physical layout. Chase scenes, guns, and the light angles in the dark color palate of anime noir create a mood fairly unique among even the violent OAVs of the late 80s. Animation director Hideyuki Motohashi (Fushigi Yuugi TV, some episodes of Cowboy Bebop) is clearly having fun with the mechanics of armed stand-offs, as well as with the more complicated movements of hand-to-hand combat. Fans of Patlabor and Kimagure Orange Road will appreciate the soft-edged look of Akemi Takada's character designs, which capture the formal look of a 50s detective movie.

While most of the voice acting is top-notch, special attention must be paid to Kazuhiko Inoue who plays Ryo. Somehow maintaining that brash fatalistic energy of youth and blending it seamlessly with the self-referential humor that only a writer would see in these situations, Inoue takes what could have been a very annoying character and makes him the sort of likable kid with big dreams we feel like we've all known at one point or another. He reminds me of some of my old film school friends.

If there's one significant source of annoyance for me with the OAV, it's the soundtrack. Composed and performed by the band "Chickenshack," the pieces are clearly aiming for cool jazz, but end up sounding like mildly intrusive elevator music. It's the sort of aural experience one has learned to associate with having painful dental work performed.

Musical score aside, Urban Square is a delightful tongue-in-cheek love letter to old Hollywood, to youthful ambition, and to guns. It's silly without being dumb, derivative without being uninventive. And unlike so many anime inspired by Hollywood, it knows what makes action movies so much fun.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
Urban Square was never licensed, and has never been issued on DVD in any country. The laserdisc and Japanese VHS were released once in 1986, and reissued in 1998. Given the way the industry looks right now, I doubt we'll ever see a legal English release. I fansubbed the show back in the VHS days, and then released the script. Late last year, a fansub group reworked my old script and released a high quality fansub from the laserdisc source. This is likely your only hope of ever seeing this OAV.

Screenshots ©1986 Emotion. All rights reserved.

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