Reviewby Theron Martin,
Demon City Shinjuku
Ten years ago, two students of the master Aguni Rai – Levi Ra and Genichiro Izayoi – battled when Levi Ra sought to harness the power of demons to achieve even greater feats of chi manipulation. Genichiro lost, allowing Levi Ra to trigger the Demon Quake, a massive earthquake which affected only the Tokyo ward of Shinjuku and split it off from the rest. Shinjuku quickly became a haven for monsters, demons, and those with sinister motives, while Levi Ra spent a decade at its heart, marshalling the power to open a portal to the Demon Realm. With his success just days away, Levi Ra sought to keep his former master out of the picture by threatening the life of a popular president under Aguni's protection. But Levi did not count on Genichiro having a son, Kyoya, who inherited his father's talent for Nempo, or that the president's daughter Sayaka would be able to convince Kyoya to get involved.
The late '80s and early '90s were a heyday for intensely graphic, often sexually explicit supernatural action anime movies and OVAs, titles which became staples of late-night viewing rooms at geekdom conventions throughout the '90s and even well into the 2000s. At the heart of such fare was Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who directed three of the defining titles of this genre: 1987's Wicked City, 1993's Ninja Scroll, and this 80-minute OVA from 1988. (A few years later, after doing some other projects, he would also follow up with the spiritually similar Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.) Of that trio, Demon City Shinjuku is arguably the least of the titles in many senses, but that did not prevent it from airing on Sci Fi Channel during the '90s or seeing multiple VHS and DVD releases over the last 26 years. Eastern Star has recently finally released the title on Blu-Ray, and HIDIVE has also picked up both subbed and dubbed versions for streaming. This review is based on the latter.
Demon City Shinjuku achieved its notoriety by playing heavily to the zeitgeist of “anime cool” which drew in countless Western fans in the late '80s and 90s. Though details vary a lot, it follows the same basic structure as both Wicked City and Ninja Scroll: a virile young man teams up (antagonistically at first) with a dark-haired beauty and is accompanied and/or advised by a wizened old codger who nonetheless has real power. The trio get involved in battling demonic monsters and/or demonically-empowered humans in an assortment of supernatural battles, with varying degrees of nudity and sexual content and large amounts of intensely graphic action involved. Dark overtones and imaginative, horrifying monstrosities are staples of all three. Take these factors together and the productions just scream “this is stuff that Western animation does not provide to us” to Western viewers.
Of the three, Shinjuku is easily the mildest in content, though that is only in relative terms. Though Sayaka gets sexually threatened at one point, she does not get abused like her counterparts in the other two do and has only one scene where she comes even close to showing anything. This may be because, unlike in the other two cases, the symbolism of her innocence and purity gets driven home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and is, in fact, somewhat important to the story. Violent content also seems a bit less extreme than with the other two, although this has its share of severed limbs, ruined corpses, and a cat implied by shadows to have been drawn and quartered by a monster. This is not necessarily a problem, as the other two rank among the most extreme non-hentai anime titles ever made.
However, the looser storytelling here is a problem. Character motivations are on the thin side, if not outright inscrutable; Levi Ra, for instance, basically wants to invite demons in so he can be the Most Powerful Evah, and no real hint is ever provided about what the pretty boy Mephisto is aiming for. The president who is Sayaka's father also seems too perfect to be believable as a character, and nothing is ever really explained about why the military has not just stormed Shinjuku to reclaim it by force from the monsters or why the access points to the city are not closely guarded. That does allow Sayaka to wander in unopposed and Kyoya to follow her, but what transpires after that is basically just a series of supernatural battles/incidents linked by encounters with colorful characters and insipid (but thankfully brief) philosophizing. This was based on a novel but probably could have worked just fine as a video game.
No one watches fare like this for the story and characterizations, however. They watch for the fights, the imagery, the monster designs, and the graphic content, and on those fronts Shinjuku fares much better. The images of Shinjuku's ruined skyline, highlighted by reddish glows and dark, lightning-strewn clouds is iconic, and the artistry makes terrifically vivid use of color in many scenes. On my first rewatch of this in many years I was also struck by how starkly Sayaka, in her pink hair ribbon and dress, stands out as a symbol of gentleness and purity amidst all the ugliness surrounding her. Action scenes and animation take a few too many shortcuts to be called top-rated, but they still contribute some lively exchanges, one of which was adapted for use in the American live-action movie Johnny Mnemonic. Character and monster design styles, which Kawajiri did himself, are also both highly typical of Kawajiri's other works.
The technical side of the production does have one glaring weakness: the musical score. Music director Motokazu Shinoda only has one other minor anime credit besides this, and it's not hard to understand why: he does not at all seem to understand what he should be doing here. The very sparsely-used score is about the most generic synthesizer-based music imaginable and contribute little to nothing; in fact, the parts with no music are generally more effective. The production has vastly more appropriate sound effects used, however.
The original English dub, provided by Manga Entertainment, is still in use. All cast members, even down to minor roles, have limited to no anime credits outside of this project, and few of the voices match up well to the qualities of the original performances, but the characters' attitudes still come through quite well and deliveries are professionally smooth. The most interesting aspect is the dub's tendency to use widely-varying accents; Sayaka sounds British in English, for instance, while Mephisto sounds Romanian and a couple of minor characters have distinctly American Southern accents. About the only character played straight is Kyoya, but he makes up for that with the occasional swear word and a cocky, youthful impertinence which seems to fit well. The script varies a bit but is not problematically far off.
The streaming version being offered on HIDIVE is probably the same version on the Blu-Ray release. Though still in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, the crisper images make for a significant improvement in visual quality over the early DVD releases, enough so that I recommend either the Blu-Ray or streaming version for anyone likely to rewatch this title. Overall, Shinjuku is one of the weakest of Kawajiri's numerous directorial efforts, but it still has some appeal for its visuals and as a representation of the heady peak period of the OVA market.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : D
+ Vivid images, monster design
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