The Fall 2020 Preview Guide
Ikebukuro West Gate Park
How would you rate episode 1 of
Ikebukuro West Gate Park ?
What is this?
Crime-ridden Ikebukuro is a haven for violent gangs, the Yakuza, and home to Makoto Majima. To protect his friends, this charismatic troubleshooter mediates disputes among the warring factions—even fixing problems the police can't.
But when a rising tide of violence results in Makoto losing a loved one, can he ride out the storm, or will he drown in all the spilled blood that floods his streets?
How was the first episode?
Is someone you know going to head shops? Smoking the ganja? The devil's weed? Are they caught up in REEFER MADNESS? They better watch out, because the G-Boys are on the case!
I know there are different cultural norms surrounding weed usage in the US and Japan, but it was pretty hard to take Ikebukuro West Gate Park seriously once the main character Makoto and Mion, the twelve-year-old he's helping out, walked into what was supposed to be a very sinister drug shop, and it looked almost exactly like my neighborhood head shop, complete with extremely normal-looking couples browsing the displays. And when Makoto and his friend King walked into the scary drug dealer's house to find a room full of, GASP, marijuana plants, complete with a “shocking” shot of a bong, I felt like I had been sucked into a particularly D.A.R.E. program.
Makoto Majima is everyone's best buddy. He pals around with King, the leader of the local gang known as the “G-Boys”, and hangs out with detectives. He's not anyone special, just a humble neighborhood produce seller with no particular alliances, but when a twelve-year-old tries to commit arson because she thinks a building's tenant sold drugs to the man who hit her mother with his car, naturally it falls to him to figure out just what's going on. Because… I don't know. He's nice and good with kids?
It's just so ridiculously earnest that it's hard to take seriously, especially when Makoto sports a shirt with the phrase “SMOKING KILLS” printed on it in big letters. Sure, the very subtly-named Smoke Tower was peddling harder drugs, including one that I guess eats away at your brain, but the fact that they got busted for a tiny packet of weed is laughable to someone who has been living in the first state that legalized cannabis for recreational use. It just doesn't make sense to make such a big fuss over it. (Unless you're driving while intoxicated, in which case, screw you.) Plus, I have very real issues with the fact that possession is a genuine life-ruiner in Japan, while people who get caught with child porn get off with a slap on the wrist.
To be fair, outside of the absolute doofiness of acting like weed is some sort of demonic force, there are some good parts of the episode. The animation and action are competent, and while noticeable, CG is becoming better and better integrated these days. Mion in particular struck me as a believable twelve-year-old who has limited impulse control or understanding of the world. When the bouncer at the drug shop startles her, and she grabs a bottle and throws it at the wall in a panic, it very much seemed like something a preteen would do.
Gang stories have the most potential to be interesting when they focus on the power vacuum that causes them to form, and the mistrust that has formed between the cops and the downtrodden. Maybe that's what Ikebukuro West Gate Park will do, but I seriously doubt it. After this after-school special of a first episode, it looks to be about how the G-Boys are the “good” gang without ever really questioning power structures
This new series is based on a light novel series which ran from the late '90s through late 2000s and has previously been adapted into both manga and live-action forms. Stylistically, it is highly reminiscent of other series which have dealt with gangs and the underbelly of society in one part or another of Tokyo; the focus on events in Ikebukuro most closely associates it with Durarara!!, though without the supernatural elements. Hence it is less about grand events and more about the problems of ordinary people.
No familiarity with previous versions is needed to understand this one, and the first episode establishes the circumstances quite clearly and firmly. Makoto is a former (and perhaps current?) delinquent who nonetheless has something of a reputation for being able to get things done, enough so that even the suave, bishonen boss of a local street gang (whom he knows from their school days) trusts him and both a street-level detective and the ward's chief of police will work with him on matters that the police cannot handle officially. The end of the episode suggests that this could bring him trouble from the powerful individuals behind those he interferes with, but for now this is all a case about dealing with the source of why a 12-year-old girl was unthinkingly trying to cause even bigger problems to get back for her mother being hurt.
To say that the matter is resolved with a level of simplicity only to be found in TV shows is perhaps an understatement, but this was clearly an episodic case from the beginning so that's no surprise. The more important aspect is showing off the networking that Makoto has done. He may not be a formal gang member but he has a good working relationship with them and also knows police and hackers and has access to enough manpower to be able to get a guy tailed for multiple days. He's a likable character with an attitude more in line with “don't mess with my home turf” than being a do-gooder, and the little quirk about his favorite ramen type was amusing. Other characters straddle the line between being anime archetypes and more real-seeming people, but the series generally feels very grounded.
The artistry conveys that impression as well. With a mostly-muted color scheme in play, nothing is especially flashy about the visuals, but the animation quality seems high, especially by taking fewer shortcuts than expected. Overall, the episode does not do anything particularly special, but it is a well-rounded starter for the series.
Ikebukuro West Gate Park would really like you to believe it's a cool, hip, streetwise show about an equally cool, hip, streetwise young man who roams the back alleys of Ikebukuro to right the wrongs that proper authorities can't. It certainly tries hard to sell that image with the vibrant, street-art inspired opening, the plethora of fashionably dressed street punks, and an opening episode all about our vigilante anti-hero and his gang leader best friend busting up a drug ring that's entered their turf. But then you start looking closer and you notice things like the plucky kid sidekick, or how our hero gets all his information from cops, or how he's literally wearing a shirt that says “Smoking Kills” like he's an off-brand D.A.R.E. spokesman. And that's when you realize you're not watching a cool, hip, streetwise cartoon about gang wars. You're watching an after-school special that's one step away from a rapping dog mascot telling you that the Devil's Lettuce will ruin your life.
In short, IWGP is a backstreets crime show written by and for absolute weenies. It wants to wear the aesthetic of a seedy drama, but absolutely lacks the teeth to sell it. Our hero, Makoto, is a disaffected but golden-hearted young man who is moved to help his equally golden-hearted childhood friend and leader of the G-Boys. Like they actually run a gang called “G-Boys” and expect you to take it seriously. The action climax of this premiere is one (1) gang member chasing after a child and getting knocked out with a single kick, before our heroes triumphantly plant drugs at the bad guy's store and then let the cops handle everything. The central drug our heroes are trying to hunt down is apparently a super-dangerous hallucinogen, but the only narcotics we actually see is the bad guys' weed farm. I know that's still way more taboo in Japan than it is in the US, but the effect is like a superhero storming into a supervillain's lair to discover their evil bootleg DVD factory; technically illegal, yes, but decidedly unimpressive.
That's the only real impression the premiere leaves, honestly. The production is mostly solid, with a few decently animated spurts of action, but there's also a handful of awkward moments like the opening car chase that suggest the team isn't entirely comfortable yet. The designs are nice enough, though they all wind up feeling like background characters from Durarara!! after a while, and none stick in the memory for long outside of some quickly flashed tattoos. In general the show doesn't look bad, but it also doesn't do anything to stick in the brain. Combined with the Very Special Episode level of conflict, it makes for a premiere that's the definition of underwhelming.
Ikebukuro West Gate Park is a well-produced and well-intentioned caper that follows a gang of youths who call themselves the G-Boys, and the ironically upbeat narration makes it clear that, though the city of Ikebukuro might present itself as welcoming and prosperous metropolis, it has a seedy underbelly that needs dealing with. Takashi, the “King” of the G-Boys, discovers that a young girl named Mion attempted to burn down the building that serves as a local drug dealing hotspot, the so-called “Smoke Tower”, after her mother was hospitalized in a hit-and-run perpetrated by a junkie. Takashi enlists his friend Makoto to take care of the girl and take down the Smoke Tower drug ring by any means necessary. When you take this solid premise and factor in Doga Kobo's capable production values, you have the blueprints for what should have been a fun and entertaining addition to the fall lineup.
Unfortunately, IWGP's handling of the subject matter is, frankly, dumb as hell, so much so that I just couldn't bring myself to take the premiere very seriously at all. I know that a story about a bunch of ethically-upstanding gang members waging what is basically a one-man war on drugs is a fantasy scenario anyways, but IWGP also fails to make its fantasy exciting or interesting in any way. Instead, our main man Makoto just takes this unaccompanied twelve-year old girl, walks right into the ridiculously conspicuous Smoke Tower, and whatever plan he might have had is immediately brushed aside when Mion throws a jar of “herbs” at the wall and spooks the drug dealers. This forces Makoto and Mion into the tepid chase scene that ends with them just meeting up with a cop who, despite saying that he can't just let them in on a police investigation, gives them the name of the number one suspect in the whole Smoke Tower case. Makoto finds the guys place, steals some of the drugs that are being hidden there, plants the evidence back in the tower, and boom: The cops can now arrest everyone. Consider the drugs to be solved.
Did I also mention that the big scary drug that is being sold out of Smoke Tower as some kind of incense is a vaguely-defined narcotic that freaking dissolves its users' brains? Don't even get me started with how Ohkoshi the Drug Man's apartment is lit with ominous, otherworldly green light, so the show can communicate the absolute terror to be found in an apartment filled with…marijuana, I guess? Also, apparently it is impossible for local law enforcement to bust an entire sky-scraper filled with drug dealers, including at least one bozo who has converted an entire apartment into a grow house for illegal substances, because it would take half-a-year to analyze some impure narcotics to separate powered vitamins from the brain melting super drug…but you get one guy from a Ramen shop to plant some evidence that he stole from a crime scene that the police were already investigating, and you're golden? I get that Japanese society still has a very weird relationship with the legality of drugs in this day and age, and maybe there's an unfair level of bias coming from me on account of living in part of the US where literally everyone and their grandmother smokes marijuana, and the real drug crisis is coming from over-prescribed narcotics straight out of doctor's offices. Not, you know, scary buildings filled with evil junkies peddling their devilish herbs straight out of Stan's own spice jars. And maybe all of this silliness is based in real ripped-from-the-headlines stories that I'm just too ignorant to be aware of.
It still didn't work for me very much at all. Still, I'd like to think that not every single episode of Ikebukuro West Gate Park is going to be as goofy as this premiere was, and maybe it'll be easier to like the characters and their stories when I'm not suppressing an endless wave of eye-rolls. If you want something that feels a smidge more down-to-earth than an epic fantasy or horror action show, then maybe IWGP will be for you. Just keep those expectations in check, is all I'm saying.
This is not Ikebukuro West Gate Park's first rodeo. Based on a series of six novels that were published between 1998 and 2009, the series has also had a drama adaptation and several manga versions, one of which was released in English by DMP, which explains why this show sounded vaguely familiar to me. Since the novels aren't available in English translation, I can't say how this adaptation stacks up compared to the others, but as a first episode, this feels pretty middle-of-the-road. While it introduces an interesting world, it also relies on too much exposition and gives us far too many named characters to completely pull of an engaging half-hour.
What's most interesting to me is the set up of the story's version of Ikebukuro. It appears to have a three-layer system, with the obvious bad guys (criminals and drug users) at the bottom, the official police at the top, and a gang known as the G-Boys floating around in the middle, neither fully bad nor entirely good. It seems that the police rely on the G-Boys to a degree, feeding them information through protagonist Makoto. He's a close friend of the leader of the G-Boys, Takashi (who goes by King), but not a member himself, which makes him a safe third party to relay information between the two groups who really can't be seen interacting with each other in an official way. Whether Makoto has deliberately not joined Takashi in the G-Boys so as to play this role isn't yet certain, because “official” stuff aside, he really is in with the G-Boys up to his eyeballs. Of course, his other best childhood friend, Reiichiro, is the chief of the Ikebukuro police department, which makes all of this seem like a very deliberate decision that the three young men came up with in order to facilitate their policing of the city.
In this episode, that policing takes the form of taking down a drug vendor who is using his herb shops as a cover for his more…potent herb sales. While it was clear that getting rid of this guy was always a primary goal for Makoto and Takashi, they're moved to action sooner by a twelve-year-old girl named Mion, who was trying to burn down a building to get rid of the drug vendor's shop after her mom was hit by a car driven by a junkie. Mion is easily the best part of the episode – neither her age nor her gender stop her from not only taking action on her own, but also being included in Makoto and Takashi's plans. In fact, Makoto factors her into his decisions over the course of the episode, possibly realizing that if they don't let her participate, she's got enough chutzpah to just take matters into her own hands again. She does listen to him, but she also takes action when she needs to in order to help, making her a particularly good character. Sadly, I think she may only have been in the show for this episode.
Mion aside, the rest of the episode is pretty cut-and-dry. Bad guys exist, good-and-mediocre guys take them down by working together, action scenes happen but are outnumbered by exposition. There's some potential here, but unless Ikebukuro West Gate Park starts showing more than it tells us, it risks squandering its appeal.
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