In the late 80s and early 90s, the OVA market was full of enigmatic and explicit curios. During this time, Yoshiaki Kawajiri was an up and coming animator who had proven himself with his work on Lensman: Secret of the Lens. On that project, Kawajiri was not only director, but also did character designs, storyboarding, and key animation.
Compounded with his vast experience throughout the 70s on many animated projects, Kawajiri had become very experienced in his craft. He was tasked with adapting one of the novels of Wicked City by Hideyuki Kikuchi into an OVA, with a runtime of about 35 minutes.
Kawajiri’s progress was so impressive, that the producers decided to double the length of the animation, and to effectively make it into feature length. In less than a year, the man completed the famously violent and highly sexual work of art. For the first time ever, Wicked City is in high definition on Blu-ray.
Wicked City (1987) Blu-ray
Studio: Mad House, Video Art
Publisher: Discotek Media
Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Release Date: September 29, 2020
Over the years, Wicked City has been grossly misunderstood as a vile, misogynistic, and violent anime from the late 80s. While the film is not perfect, it is a very visceral tour-de-force that can put off viewers with a weak constitution.
Renzaburo Taki is a salaryman by day, and a “Black Guard” by night. He is a brutally effective peacekeeper between the human world and the the black world. Kind of like the Men in Black, but for monstrous abominations instead of extra-terrestrials.
The plot involved Renzaburo being partnered with Mackie, a beautiful female black worlder. They are assigned to be body guards for a powerful psychic, Giuseppe Mayart. It does not take long for things to go south, as the lean run-time and break neck pacing leaves very little time for much complexity to the story.
The real problems with Wicked City is that a lot of the story is underdeveloped. This is probably due to the fact that this was originally going to be 35 minutes, and Kawajiri had to expand what little there was into just over 80 minutes.
Story elements like what the black worlders are is very vague and inconsistent. The goal of the antagonists are nebulous and not defined clearly. The main villain does not even get a name, and a lot of what is learned is explained to us in exposition instead of showing it.
Why the radicals are so opposed to the union of humanity and the black world is never explained. At best, the main villain might have a personal grudge against Mackie. If that is his motivation, it makes him look like an embarrassing jilted ex. The fact that the film is as good as it is, despite the conditions the director had imposed on him, is a miracle.
Wicked City is not only staged with impressive action sequences that are stylized with Kawajiri’s flair, it is also a gorgeous looking movie. Despite still being in 1.33:1, the director masterfully uses the square-like frame to its fullest. A highlight is the battle sequence at the airfield.
The use of stark blacks and deep, moody blues that contrast with a shocking red makes a statement. Kawajiri’s signature way of faces angrily contorting monstrously to convey extreme emotion is on full display. Grisly body-horror transformations, and twitchy, flexing muscles express insane power during bouts.
The backgrounds are gloriously rendered. Almost every scene is set at night, and even the calm parts have a cold yet romantic ambiance that is enhanced by the music. Hazy lighting and the crystal clear animation cels suggest great care was put into this production.
The story may be thin and lacking components, but the style and thematic elements are strong enough to carry it. As mentioned earlier, Wicked City has some extreme sexual imagery in it- but it does serve a purpose.
Mackie gets molested three times in the span of a very tightly paced film. Her character development is centered on these parts, and despite her falling into distress, she is the most proactive character in the story. It is all in service of the film’s climax, where it all pays off with rich symbolism that glorifies motherhood.
The entire movie is steeped in yonic imagery. It is a core theme to the entire story, and how humanity is forever trapped into an endless cycle of sex and death. I don’t know much about Kawajiri as a person, but it would be fascinating to hear what Sigmund Freud would have to say about Wicked City.
There is a beauty to how the grotesque visuals are rendered. A lot of it has to do with the stylish lighting and colors. Some of the concepts would be utterly nauseating, but Kawajiri makes it look so elegant and classy.
When Wicked City is not being hyper violent or depraved, there are moments of genuine tenderness between Renzaburo and Mackie. It may have only been a single night for them to fall in love, they do have legitimate chemistry, and their banter sounds natural in all three audio tracks.
The original Japanese audio and the Streamline dub gets a decent 5.1 DTS-HD. It is no ATMOS, but it is the best Wicked City has ever sounded. Also included is the original Manga Entertainment UK dub that has a 2.0 Dolby mix. This was a movie that was originally meant for the OVA market and was mono, so this kind of treatment is impressive.
The UK dub is an interesting experience, since the boys at Manga Entertainment took it upon themselves to “punch up” the script. There is much more swearing in this version, and it has some hilarious performance choices. Like the Swedish-accented lady-monster who give Mayart a soap massage, or Renzaburo with a thick Boston accent. It’s worth a listen to for the sheer absurdity.
There is not much for special features in this Blu-ray. Almost everything is recycled from the previous DVD release from Discotek, and there has been nothing new added. Even the commentary is the same one, and there is no mention of the Hong Kong remake from 1992 anywhere.
The real reason to get this Blu-ray is for the pristine 1080p image quality, and to have both Streamline and Manga Entertainment English dubs. The packaging does also have a very handsome reversible cover, that exudes a very classy aura.
Wicked City’s spiritual symbolism will likely go over the heads of casual viewers. Some of the nuanced metaphors will be overlooked due to the intensity of some of the sequences. Anyone who is willing to look deeper will discover an adult film that is more meaningful than it initially suggests.
The fact that this is not a real movie might have knee-capped Kawajiri from the start. He wrote the initial screenplay when it was just meant to be 35 minutes, and then having to suddenly make it into feature length affected the final product. It did not get an official theatrical release, and is made in the 4:3 aspect ratio.
Kawajiri’s style and care put into his protagonists is what carries the experience. The awesome violence or erotic scenarios are there to serve the story, and the director is able to tie it all together effortlessly. The underdeveloped plot is disappointing, but everything else makes up for it.