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Old Skool Anime: Cyber City Oedo 808

Here at Old Skool Anime the criterion is ostensibly Anime of yesteryear. Regular readers will notice the content is largely derived from Manga Video’s peak of the 1990s, from hilarious profanity-laden English dubs to rescored soundtracks. Manga Video tailored Japanese productions to Westernise them, which for a time was one of the only steppingstones toward the international recognition we see today for the Anime industry. And what greater example of this can there be other than Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Cyber City Oedo 808.

Cyber City Oedo 808 was originally released in its native Japan between 1990 and 1991, coming at the height of director Kawajiri’s prolific Anime output. Like many of his works such as Wicked City and Ninja Scroll, which was still yet to come, they would become a major part of the influx of Anime heading to western shores in the early 1990s. Cyber City Oedo 808 would be released in the UK by Manga Video four years later, each of its episodes made available monthly across three VHS tapes. Each episode features three criminals-turned-cops, given the chance to reduce the sentences for their own horrific crimes as would-be expendable public servants.

Although all three of these Cyber-Policemen feature throughout the series, each episode in turn focuses in the main on one – Sengoku, the cocky, confident yet the most contumacious of the three; master hacker Gogul, sporting a striking red mohawk and vision visor a la Star Trek’s Geordi La Forge; and finally, the androgynous albino Benten, a master marksman and most physically agile of the trio. They work together on each other’s cases, masterminded by police chief Hasegawa, largely thanks to the neck collars deployed on each as part of their deal, giving them little choice in the cases they take. With Hasegawa’s judiciary power – including the power to instruct executions on site - and his criminal force’s deadly talents, the Cyber Police take on Oedo’s most high-profile criminals.

As for the city itself, it remains one of Kawajiri’s boldest visions. From the very first shot, as the camera pans back from dark, blue-soaked space to reveal the equally blue inside of a prison cell, it is unmistakably Kawajiri. Coming off the back of the hugely successful Wicked City and Demon City: Shinjuku, the “Kawajiri blue” effect projects the desired ominous feeling at the site of a skyscraper with hundreds of floors or Benten’s travels in an elevator that literally goes up into space. The city’s name ‘Oedo’ is a nod to Tokyo’s previous name Edo and its 808 districts. The Cyber Police’s trademark weapon, the Jitte, was the very weapon used by the Edo Police force from those ancient times, a symbol of keeping order.

The first outing – Memories of the Past - is a mix of tropes from two 1989 hits, Die Hard and another anime classic, Patlabor: The Movie. Mamoru Oshii’s mecha-based effort deals with the potential devastation malicious software vulnerabilities can cause, and here in Kawajiri’s Oedo its biggest skyscraper has succumbed to the mercy of a hacker who has taken over the building. The skyscraper setting, the mystery of the perpetrator and the potentially fatal hazards is kind of a future shock Die Hard, albeit with a more deus ex machina threat as opposed to straight-up terrorism/robbery. That coupled with Sengoku’s constant derogatory yet hilarious (in the English dub) contempt for his colleagues, particularly the mobile criminal databank robot Varsus, the introductory chapter is a highly encouraging start.

Episode two – The Decoy Program - revolves yet again around hacking, only this time it’s the next Cyber Police agent in line that is the perpetrator: Gogul. Whilst investigating the sale of Cyber Police files to an unknown source, Gogul reconnects with an old flame and partner in crime, Sara, to enlist his help hacking into a top-secret military project file. Subsequently they both end up on the run from military forces, but what Gogul doesn’t realise is that he becomes a key player in the very project he wished he’d never laid eyes on. This episode ups the stakes on every level, with a vibrant red- against-black colour palette more akin to the horror setting of Monster City, and the violence packing multiple heavier punches. Best of all, we truly see some of the tightest action sequences Kawajiri has ever put together, including a real sense of threat that emanates from the screen constantly, consistently, and spectacularly. A stark reminder that our “heroes” are truly expendable, and merely the lesser of Oedo’s evils.

The final episode – Crimson Media - saves the best for last. This Benten-focused vampire tale was included in Old Skool Anime’s Halloween picks last year for a reason – a super stylish supernatural tale told with true Kawajiri urban gothic elegance. Following the murder of three geneticists, in a manner befitting the mythical creature of the night, Benten’s investigation leads to a standoff with a perceived old flame – much like Gogul in episode 2 – and the plight of a new one, Remi, who has awakened after centuries in cryogenic suspension due to a life-threatening illness. A perfect mix of Sci-Fi crime, horror, and action, Crimson Media is perfectly paced, and brilliantly written, and the final battle a clear influence on Kawajiri’s later work, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.   

Cyber City Oedo’s re-scored soundtrack and English dub remain key elements to its enduring popularity 30 years on. Andy Frain, the man responsible for bringing over the material for Manga Video’s 1990s success, wasn’t a fan of Kazz Toyama’s original score. Opting for a more metal-based, harder-hitting sound, Andy hired Rory McFarlane, a session musician and score writer, and the results are punchy thrash metal that is both raw and bursting with high-energy. It’s not that the original soundtrack is poor, far from it in fact, it is just the hallmarks of a differing marketing vision. Moments where tension would build just from the sound of Gogul’s footsteps slowly mounting a staircase are replaced with thunderous metal ambience. Both work as well as one another despite their radical differences.

Neither are as radical however as the Manga UK script and subsequent dub. If ripping out the original soundtrack is invasive, the script re-write is something else. Thirty years ago, there was no assumption that customers wanted completely faithful translations or subtitles, and so they were altered to fit more in line with the “beer and curry boys” and adolescent teenager demographics. With Cyber City, any scene-setting scripting was injected with crass quips and authoritative objection. Taking advantage of the lack of lip-syncing required of the mouthless robot Varsus, Sengoku’s order to simply “get lost” is amplified into the snidely delivered yet crass “look, just fuck off will ya?”. This leaves the puzzled robot left trying to dispute the implication he can copulate with dialogue fading into silence, as opposed to simply explaining he cannot get lost due to built-in GPS. This script rewrite is often hilarious as a result, and results in one of Manga’s most entertaining dubs of the time, markedly better than the efforts shown in parallel releases AD Police and GenoCyber.

Finally, both versions are finally available for all to judge. Since the Manga VHS release, the only trace of updated media in the west came in the form of a US free-region edition DVD, containing everything mentioned except for the Manga UK music track. That is until the restorative team over at Discotek Media added Cyber City to its classic anime output. This was subsequently published by Anime Limited for the UK across two Blu-Ray sets in the space of two years. The Japanese version never saw release officially on UK shores and following a 27 year wait it finally arrived. Not only that, also included was the Rory McFarlane soundtrack CD. The further set released earlier this year is the fully remastered version, and now it has never looked – and sounded – so good and serves as an anime history lesson for both eastern and western practices. Despite relatively little success in Japan, Cyber City’s exposure to the west courtesy of the booming anime VHS market and late-night UK television broadcasts of the 1990’s left lifelong impressions with an entire generation of Anime viewers. With its legacy cemented, Cyber City Oedo 808 remains Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s crowning OVA jewel. Through today’s modern media, it will certainly continue to be celebrated.