It’s easier than ever to find anime nowadays, thanks to Netflix, Crunchyroll, and other streaming services. Back in the early ’90s, however — when I was discovering it as a high school student — anime was still very much a niche thing thanks to its scarcity. You might stumble across a dubbed copy of My Neighbor Totoro at Blockbuster Video, or Suncoast might have an anime shelf, but if you really wanted to get into anime, then you usually had to rely on fan subs. Subsequently, my earliest anime experiences involved borrowing grainy, faded VHS tapes from friends who got them from friends of friends.
This changed by the late ’90s. I could rent copies of Macross II, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Project A-Ko from my local video store or catch the occasional anime movie on Syfy, née the Sci-Fi Channel. During this time, I saw commercials for an “anime of the month” club à la Columbia House that specifically touted anime for adults, and really pushed hard on the “cutting edge” content (e.g., sex and violence). These commercials were filled with action-packed clips from Akira and Ghost in the Shell, but one clip — of a woman transforming into a grotesque spider-like creature and attacking her lover — was particularly memorable.
It’s a signature scene from Wicked City, one of Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s earliest works. While Kawajiri remains best known for 1993’s Ninja Scroll, he worked prolifically throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, writing, directing, and/or designing Demon City Shinjuku (1988), Goku: Midnight Eye (1989), and A Wind Named Amnesia and Cyber City Oedo 808 (both 1990). Despite being one of his earliest endeavors, though, Wicked City makes it pretty clear that Kawajiri’s dark aesthetic — a blend of highly stylized action, graphic violence, body horror, and sexual content — emerged fully-formed early on in his career.
The following contains potential spoilers for Wicked City.
On the surface, Renzaburō Taki looks like any other white collar office worker who spends his days selling electronics and his nights chasing ladies. But in reality, he’s a member of the Black Guard, a secret organization tasked with maintaining peace between the human world and the Black World, an alternate dimension populated by monstrous, demon-like creatures with strange powers. This peace has lasted for centuries, but when Taki’s latest date — the aforementioned spider-lady — turns out to be a denizen of the Black World, it’s a sign that the peace may not last much longer.
To that end, Taki is assigned to guard Giuseppe Mayart, a 200-year-old prophet who’s instrumental to renegotiating the peace treaty. When he’s attacked by more Black World agents en route to Mayart, Taki is saved by his new partner, a beautiful woman named Makie who moonlights as a model but is actually from the Black World herself. Working together, the two agents must guard Mayart from attacks by Black World radicals seeking to undermine the peace treaty. But guarding Mayart is easier said than done: for all of his importance, Mayart’s also a lecherous old man who would much rather go out and get laid than remain under Taki and Makie’s watch.
Wicked City’s opening sequences immediately immerse the viewer in its horrific yet strangely compelling world. Kawajiri does a masterful job of setting the atmosphere, from the neon-drenched Tokyo skyline to the foggy runway where Taki has a gory encounter with Black World agents to Makie’s icy, otherworldly nature. And while all good anime fans should prefer the Japanese language version, I do quite like Taki’s opening narration in the English dub, which has such juicy lines as “There’s a world of darkness out there, beyond time or space. A world filled with evil that is undeniably real. And in that world, there are things that run wild.” Though somewhat awkward in the English dub, Taki’s running narration feels like a nod to old school film noir, further adding to the film’s hard-boiled sensibility.
But Wicked City’s opening minutes also make it abundantly clear why those ’90s commercials touted it as “anime for adults.” From Taki’s disastrous date to Mayart’s lechery, there’s a lot of naked flesh on display from the very get-go, and said displays are usually associated with horror and violence. Makie is compromised and assaulted on several occasions and, in the film’s most horrific scene, captured by Black World radicals and gang-raped before Taki’s eyes.
None of this is presented as even remotely titillating, and thankfully so. Rather, it’s violent and traumatic, with the body horror aspect only adding to the disgust. (Case in point, not only does Taki’s date reveal herself to be a spider-lady post-coitus, but she’s also got a nasty case of vagina dentata that tries to take a bite out of Taki’s sex life… literally.)
It’s all very disturbing and transgressive stuff, and to be honest, I’d have trouble recommending Wicked City to anyone because of it — and that’s even after taking into account the movie’s intriguing world building, thrilling action, and Madhouse’s visceral animation. Much like Requiem for a Dream, I feel little need to ever watch Wicked City in its entirety again despite believing that it has some admirable qualities.
(Speaking of the animation, I wonder how drawing frame after frame of spider-lady sex, demon rape, etc. affected the film’s animators. We know ultra-graphic video games can negatively affect their creators, so it stands to reason that hand-animating graphic scenes could have a similar effect. It’d be interesting to read animators’ reactions to the graphic content they were assigned to draw with such intricate and elaborate detail.)
But for all of its disturbing and horrific content, Wicked City ironically ends on a surprisingly conservative and traditional note that seems to subvert its own transgressive-ness. That subversion, however, comes with some problems of its own.
After Taki saves Makie from her rapists, they seek shelter in an old church and comfort each other in their trauma, both of them having been sexually assaulted and violated throughout the course of the film. But when the remaining Black World radicals, led by the aptly named Mr. Shadow, arrive to kill the two agents, the truth is finally revealed: far from guarding Mayart, Taki and Makie were, in fact, being guarded by Mayart until such time as they could consummate their relationship. Due to their genetic compatibility, Taki and Makie’s union is the new peace treaty. Their child — the first one born to citizens from both worlds — will be what finally unites humanity and the Black World.
Makie, now clad in virginal white rather than the sleek, stylish black suit that she first appeared in, quickly dispatches Mr. Shadow with her newfound powers. Powers that are the direct, and very sudden, result of becoming pregnant. In other words, Makie — as powerful as she is — only unlocks her final form upon becoming a mother, that most traditional of female roles.
This final twist is a fascinating rebuttal of the violence inflicted on Makie; falling in love and embracing a traditional, life-giving role allows her to defeat the forces of evil that so violently assaulted her. At the same time, though, it signifies a reduction of Makie’s status and autonomy as a character in her own right. As Susan Napier notes in Anime From Akira to Princess Mononoke (emphasis mine):
The most powerful women in Wicked City… are all evil and are ultimately destroyed by Taki. Makie is initially positioned as a stronger fighter, and a generally more powerful agent than Taki, but she is soon refigured into a sacrificial victim, giving her body for the sake of her duty to the egregious Giuseppe, and is finally saved by Taki, rather than through her own abilities. No longer a powerful figure in her own right, she has become a means of restoring Taki’s ego after his embarrassing encounter with the spider succubus. Her final transformation… moves away from the sexual toward the maternal, as she becomes pregnant with Taki’s child. Wicked City thus uses the image of female metamorphosis to inscribe itself back into the patriarchal order. Despite the film’s brilliant and memorable transformation sequences, its underlying message is what scholar Rosemary Jackson describes as an essentially conservative fantasy. The collectivity is threatened by a series of fantastic others, but ultimately order is restored by the reassuring image of Makie’s beautiful body serving its most traditional function.
To be fair, though, Makie isn’t only one compelled to adopt a more conservative role. At the film’s beginning, Taki is a ladies’ man making bets on who he can bed. But at the end of Wicked City, he willingly admits his love for Makie and drops his carefree, playboy lifestyle in order to settle down and protect his young family, whatever the cost. Of course, Taki still gets to run around and kick ass as a Black Guard while Makie is, presumably, back home caring for their child. It’s a win for conservative family values, albeit with demonic monsters and inter-dimensional procreation thrown in for good measure.
The question remains, though: Is any of that enough to redeem the movie’s sexual violence and make sitting through it worthwhile?
I remain conflicted about that, and writing this review has done little to resolve that conflict. But it’s worth noting that Wicked City does try to be more than just a lurid showcase of sex, nudity, and violence; it has a bit more on its mind and tries to tell a compelling story. Although it’s arguably the most graphic of any Kawajiri title that I’ve seen, Wicked City doesn’t feel as exploitative as, say, Goku: Midnight Eye or even Ninja Scroll, both of which feature plenty of sex and nudity but lack the subtext that potentially elevates Wicked City. (With “potentially” being the operative word there.)
Whenever I watch a decades-old anime like Wicked City, I often ask “Could this get made today?” The otherworldly setting and storyline, the world building, and the characters (especially Makie) are still fascinating in their own right, so there’s definitely enough there to inspire a new Wicked City or something similar. Obviously, the sex and violence would be a problem, though. The original Wicked City walks a very fraught line; I envision a modern remake either downplaying such content altogether (and hopefully treating Makie better) or trying to somehow make it even more extreme.
But far more integral to the movie is its gloomy, nigh-omnipresent sense of dread, from the shadowy towers that loom over Tokyo in the movie’s opening to the nightmarish Black World and its denizens’ monstrous powers — and how much of that is a product of the movie’s hand animation that would subsequently be lost in a more modern, CGI-heavy production? As it stands, Wicked City remains a fascinating — albeit deeply disturbing and problematic — exhibit from an era of anime that still feels incredibly obscure, an era characterized by animators like Yoshiaki Kawajiri brazenly pushing the limits of style and substance, for better or worse.
Note: Wicked City was based on the first novel in Hideyuki Kikuchi’s long-running Wicked City series. In 1992, Wicked City was adapted into a live-action film directed by Peter Mak, produced by Tsui Hark (Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Once Upon a Time in China, The Blade), and starring Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai, Michelle Reis, and Tatsuya Nakadai.