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Old Skool Anime: Wicked City (1987)

As a fan of anime since its introduction to the west more than thirty years ago, a number of director Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s works have always been among my favourites. His resume as an animator and storyboard artist is extensive, even still working to this day at 70 years of age. As a director his works may be in the lower double digits, but most of them are of major significance to the world of anime.

Manga Entertainment UK (now known as the UK arm of Funimation) have always retained the license for Kawajiri’s best movie, Ninja Scroll, since its initial western release in 1995. Its releases on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray formats often fared better than Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, a much bigger budget release from the same year. Given the latter was intended as Manga’s next Akira, with company production costs involved, the comparison to Ninja Scroll's straight to video success wasn’t a completely positive outcome for the company in the long term. Further proof that Kawajiri’s works helped bring anime to the forefront following Akira’s explosive introduction; Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuku (then known as Monster City) were part of the initial big wave of anime to flood retailers and put Manga Video on the map.


Set around the turn of the 21st century, the human world and the Black World - aka big nasty demon world - coexist due to a peace treaty in place, unbeknownst to most of the world, of course. On both sides are secret agents, or ‘Black Guards’, that keep the sanctity in place from radicals who attempt any breaches. Taki Renzaburo, a human Black Guard agent, is teamed up with a Black World counterpart Makie, and assigned to guard 200-year-old mystic Guiseppe Mayart, a lecherous type who also happens to be a key signatory of the Human/Black World treaty.

This release marks the first time since its VHS days that Wicked City has been released in the UK, and in its uncut form at that. Given its status as 'classic Manga' (referring to Manga Video, not the original literature) it was a release over 25 years awaiting. And while it no longer incurs the wrath of the censors, with almost two full minutes cut in its previous release, it is still bound to raise an eyebrow or two for newcomers. Sexually charged content, you say? You got it!

The terrific opening scene introduces Taki and his sensuous side, finally bedding the girl he’s been after at the local bar, only to find, after the fun is over, she was in fact replaced with a spider demon with teeth in the wrong places. It serves as a warning of what’s to come. Wicked City successfully cements the Black World antagonists in mostly sexually graphic ways. The hentai moniker is dodged, just, but there is plenty of unpleasant subtext emanating from scenes such as a sex worker who absorbs others into her body, and a member of the demon world with the ability to turn her body into a mind-controlling vagina to entice her prey. Yikes.

Japanese attitudes towards sexual fantasies are welcoming thanks to their traditions of liberal thinking that anything from our imaginations is completely permissible. Nudity and sex are accepted more now than ever, particularly in Britain, and varying degrees of anime content has helped with that acceptance. Anime in of itself became a means to display such imagination even more than most manga literature. Wicked City is prime evidence of this and became one of many sources to project as such to a world viewership. It is also important to remember that sex in Wicked City is the catalyst for everything, in both its consensual and non-consensual means. To significantly edit such a work would lose its meaning.


For the most part, as Kawajiri's first solo directorial outing, Wicked City sets the stage for his works to come. The distinctive colour palette of red, blue and black depict a bustling city on the verge of Armageddon, the sky painted with an ominous red sunset as if casting a perpetual dusk in its wake. Agents from both worlds all dressed in black, with skin so white it’s as if they've never had a smidge of vitamin D in their entire lives. Both the opening and closing monologues set the scene and would be a technique revisited to close the first chapter of Cyber City Oedo 808. Immediate comparisons also draw with Ninja Scroll, which depicts a similar trio of adult male, sexy adult woman and an impish old man, the latter more of a guide than Mayart is here. The main similarity is Kawajiri's use of the female 'hero'; proficient for sure, but also victimization fodder. In Wicked City's case, this could be perceived that the women are the weaker sex. However, with great pain often comes the greatest revenge, particularly in Makie’s case here. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Or abused. A lot.


The monster designs, especially the transformations, are still up there among the best on offer, and another signature of Kawajiri's works. The imagery of the final monster was widely used as part of Manga Video's advertising campaigns, and with good reason. Grotesque yes, but also crisp and fantastic on the eye. The long, rugged faces of the men with seductive, beautiful women would remain Kawajiri constants throughout all his directorial works also.

Then there's the dub. The Manga UK dub, applied once the rights were acquired, is noticeably absent in this release, with the Carl Macek-directed original Streamline dub present instead. The former has become increasingly harder to come across, even on YouTube, but in all honestly detracts from Wicked City's notable qualities as a movie. The Streamline dub is much better, but having the option, as the Diskotek US release has, would have appeased the purists. Interestingly, although running at almost 90 minutes, Wicked City is an extended OVA, not a movie. Yep, this was straight to video. But as we all know, straight to video anime was a cut way above, say, Disney’s straight to video entries of the 1990s.

At first glance, Wicked City may seem like an exercise in just how much an OVA can get away with. With as much to shock as there is entertainment, it is certainly worth watching/revisiting. You’ll remember the horrific monsters more than the protagonists, but as anyone familiar with the works of Yoshiaki Kawajiri will know, big characters will come. Wicked City is purely a work with different intentions. A work that doesn’t hold back. A work that reminds us of a time when anime was so fresh in the west. A work that deserves a place on anyone’s anime entertainment shelf. Just don’t take the warnings lightly.  

Wicked City is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Discotek Media in the USA, and is available streaming on Hi-Dive,  VRV, Tubi TV and Retro Crush. Wicked City/Demon City Shinjuku is available in the UK on Blu-Ray from Manga Entertainment/Funimation.

Kevin Kissane is an Information Security Specialist by day, and avid animation, movie/TV and video game fan by night. With a love for animation since the Saturday morning cartoon era of the 80s, and riding the crest of the 90s anime wave in the UK, I continue to celebrate the medium as much as possible. If it is retro, it is likely to turn my head. Follow him on Twitter here.