Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD - Remastered Special Edition
In a setting where the human world has (mostly) peacefully coexisted alongside the Dark World for centuries, Taki Renzaburo is a strapping young Black Guard, one of the select individuals charged with dealing with threats to the peace between the worlds. A fateful encounter with a woman at a bar who turned out to be a demon is a precursor to a hairy new job: protect an old fart named Giuseppe Mayart until his involvement in a peace conference the next day, as Dark World radicals are certain to try to take him out. For the task he is partnered with a gorgeous Dark World woman named Makie, but even between the two of them both Giuseppe and those after him prove to be quite the handful. As the threat level rises, so, too, do suggestions that the radicals may be just as interested in Taki and Makie as they are in their charge.
Despite clocking in at 82 minutes, this 1987 production is actually technically an OVA, as it was originally released straight-to-video. It is based on novels written by Hideyuki Kikuchi, the prolific writer most famous for being the creator of Vampire Hunter D, and was the lead directorial debut for Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who would later go on to direct fare like Demon City Shinjuku, Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and X. It was originally released in the U.S. in 1993 by Streamline Pictures, and earned quite the reputation in the American fan community; anyone who was into the darker and grittier side of anime during the mid-to-late '90s probably ran across this one at some point, as it was one of those titles that fans could point to and say, “this is what anime can do that American animation won't.” Though it did receive a DVD release in 2000, the new offering by Eastern Star marks its first American rerelease in 16 years.
To say that Wicked City is sexually charged might be an understatement. Its graphic depictions of both consensual and non-consensual sexual activity stop just shy of the hentai range, and both nudity and sexually-themed disturbing imagery are regular features. The latter includes one female character who manifests a toothy maw in her crotch, a sex worker who absorbs one male character into her body, and the production's most infamous scene: a Dark World woman basically turning her body into a giant vagina which sucks men in for mind control effects. And yes, you can absolutely read all kinds of unpleasant subtext into all of those scenes.
In fact, in a lot of senses Wicked City was a stage-setter for all of Kawajiri's later works. A lead trio composed of an adult man, a sexy adult woman, and a grizzled shrimp of an old man would later be repeated (albeit with a markedly different personality set) in Ninja Scroll, and dark, corrupt settings prowled by supernatural threats are a feature of all of his works. On the less pleasant side, this work establishes a pattern of attitudes towards women that is at best chauvinistic. Like most of his later works, this one features a female co-protagonist who might be competent in some regards but ultimately ends up getting victimized (usually sexually). It also strongly suggests (again, as some of his later works do) that getting sexually involved with women – especially outside of a committed relationship – rarely ends well for the man.
The story at work in the production is a simple one: two agents from a secret organization pair up to protect a VIP from radicals who seem to be targeting him. Much mayhem ensues and the male and female co-leads kinda sorta get romantically involved. They also discover near the end that what was really going on is far divorced from what they thought was going on. Sprinkle in a goodly amount of graphic violence, sexuality, and horror elements and voila! You have a movie. Personalities are developed enough to give a basic sense of who all the major players are, but do not expect much depth or complexity. The plot at least somewhat follows a sense of logic and action scenes provide an adequate but not sensational thrill.
So aside from the sex, what is the main draw here for a 2010s audience? If nothing else, the demon designs and transformations still stand out. Kawajiri has few equals in anime when it comes to grotesque monster designs, and both the spider-woman and vagina-woman in particular are classics in that regard. The backgrounds, dark tones, and varying color schemes also go to great lengths to promote a creepy, surreal feel, camera angles and scene framing are satisfyingly dynamic, and character designs are classic Kawajiri: lots of long faces, rugged features for the men and gorgeously seductive faces for the women. The Madhouse animation effort does still cut some corners but is generally smooth and active. Also watch for animation of an illegal chess move at one point.
The soundtrack for the movie, when present at all, is a mix of more jazzy themes and deeper, discordant electronic and symphonic themes designed to heighten tension. Its effectiveness varies: stronger towards the end and weaker early on, but overall it is the weakest production aspect. The sound effects work quite a bit better, however, and resonate powerfully in the 5.1 surround sound mix. The closing theme and one insert song are both done by recording artist Hitomi Tohyama in an unremakable adult contemporary style typical of late '80s/early '90s anime OVAs and movies.
Wicked City has been dubbed into English twice: originally by Streamline Pictures for the U.S. release and later by Manga Entertainment for the U.K. and Australian releases. (As I understand it, though, Australia did get both dubs.) Unlike Urban Vision's 2000 DVD release, this one offers both. The Streamline dub directed by Carl Macek is by far the better of the two, as the deliveries are smoother and more natural-sounding and the English script (which varies markedly between the two versions) is far less hackneyed, though there are a couple of places in it where lines were dropped. Most importantly, Gregory Snegoff's natural-sounding, attitude-laden performance as Taki does not make him sound like a two-bit Jersey gangster, like Stuart Miller's Manga performance does.
Even though still only available in DVD form, Eastern Star's remastered release is a significant visual upgrade over Urban Vision's 2000 DVD release. The lines are sharper and the images are distinctly clearer; this is a step up almost akin to a normal DVD vs. Blu-Ray contrast. In short, this is probably as good as it can look without being put on Blu-Ray. While its Extras lose the character profiles present in the Urban Vision release, they retain the interview with Kawajiri and assorted trailers and add both a set of “Storyboard to Screen” pieces (where you can see the original storyboards for various scenes while the subtitled Japanese dialogue plays) and an audio commentary by ANN columnist Mike Toole.
In all, Wicked City isn't great fare, but if explicit, sexually-charged supernatural action stories appeal to you then it should fit the bill quite nicely. It doesn't even age that badly for as old as it is, either.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : C+
+ New DVD transfer is a substantial upgrade on visuals and Extras, perversely creative imagery.
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