Wicked City, feature image

Review: Wicked City (Blu-Ray)

Wicked City made a name for itself locally as part of the first wave of influential anime that hit Australia in the mid-90s. In 2021, now’s the perfect time to check it out again in HD to determine if its cult status was built on hubris or if it holds up.

Set in the sprawling Tokyo metropolis in the late 20th century, Renzaburou Taki spends his days as a semi-competent salaryman to cover for his real job as Black Guard for a government controlled agency which aims to balance relations between humans and demons from the Black World. In Wicked City, Taki is paired up with a fellow Black Guard from the Black World, Makie, to protect Giuseppe Mayart so he can play his part in the latest top-secret peace treaty negotiations between the Human World and Black World. The issues are further complicated with underworld subterfuge and interference from other demons trying to disrupt the process, leaving Taki and Makie sole responsibility to ensure Mayart’s safety and another period of peace between worlds.

Wicked City, Taki shooting his gun

Wicked City takes the form of a seinen detective noir story, and given my general enthusiasm for this style of anime (see B: The Beginning and Cop Craft), I was really looking forward to revisiting this one given the many years it’s been since I last watched it.

From a contemporary vantage point, it made for interesting viewing.

In terms of its visual style, this smacks hard of the kind of seinen anime that really seemed to thrive, for better or worse, during the golden era of the 80s bubble in Japan. This is Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s first film sitting in the director’s chair but the style and approach reflects other projects to come, such as the infamous Ninja Scroll. Realistic features dominate with hard lighting, uncompromising violence and often sexually macabre character designs. It feels like a grown up affair, the kind of cult animation typical in the great video rental haunts of the 80s and early 90s. Detail is sumptuous in the background and the craftsmanship in the animation is stunning. I forgot how much I enjoy seeing hand-drawn animation end-to-end in anime given the continual increase in CG to help fill in the gaps – the meticulous mechanical designs on the vehicles and attention to detail felt authentic and nostalgic. For fans of animation, there’s an awful lot to love here.

Wicked City, Makie at the airport

The narrative reflects its source material – Wicked City is based on Hideyuki Kikuchi’s Black Guard series of novels, which explains the rapid pace, world building and decidedly crime thriller/noir story. It likely informs the overwhelmingly machismo aspects of the story, with Taki quite confident about engaging in sex and being exposed to all manner of adult content.

It’s an intriguing mix. On one hand it’s a welcome contrast to the high school drama/light fan service and highly merchandised affairs of more contemporary anime. None of these elements are bad as such, but after a while it’s good to go back to something pitched to an older audience that doesn’t feel the need to wink at sex and relationships yet fail to explore it more honestly.

On the other hand though, the story and direction are told with a hard masculine edge which dates itself from contemporary society. I’m not talking about the sex, nudity and violence in here as these on their own fit the style of the narrative (violence and sexual relationships are common in fiction after all). Arguably, the problem with Wicked City is the way it depicts acts of sexual violence against women. While the antagonists use this as a way to cement how terrible they are in order to bring satisfaction to the ensuring biffo with Taki, the sequences are drawn and directed in a way to highlight eroticism over violence to appeal to a discernibly male gaze.

Wicked City, Kanako as the spider demon

While I wouldn’t call for censorship to these sequences, it does put it into a challenging space, especially when viewed with a more mature and progressive lens in 2021.

For the local Blu-Ray release we get a fantastic HD transfer that does an admirable job of maintaining the production’s lavish animation and colour palette. It’s presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, reflecting it’s initial life as an OVA that was then reformatted for widescreen presentation in the cinema. The original Streamline dub’s in there for those who remember it and may come off as a little hammy for those more familiar with contemporary dubbing practices. Extras include storyboards and artwork materials, along with trailers. There’s also a limited release from Madman which pairs this up with a second disc containing Demon City Shinjuku, another infamous part of the early days of anime in Australia.

Wicked City, Taki at the office with his boss

Even with its issues, Wicked City remains a fascinating piece of anime history that is in many ways unlike the typical anime landscape today. I think this is why I enjoyed revisiting it, but it’s important to bear in mind it brings with it the baggage of the time in which it was produced.

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A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.