Cyber City Oedo 808
When I saw the first episode of Cyber City Oedo 808 many years ago, I saw a bad videotape, a bad translation, and must have been in a bad mood. It's rare that I change my opinion on something, but after seeing the recent DVD of the entire series, I've determined I might have been...well...just a little off in my judgment. At the time of this writing, I've rewritten over half the "short" reviews I'd created for the site in its infancy, and up until now, I'd never actually changed a letter grade. But I've decided my initial review of the first episode was a little premature. Although not a completely successful venture, the studio and director behind the American fan favorite Ninja Scroll has assembled a decent far-flung futuristic piece.
A couple thousand years from now, the world has sent its criminals into various space-orbit detention areas. There are a few of these nefarious convicts that the government has decided are worth more out catching other evildoers than sitting rotting in jail. Thus, the show starts as three of these folks are released--Sengoku, a dark-haired greaser with a major attitude and foul mouth, Goggles, a huge scarred hacker who wears a visor out of Star Trek to see, and Benten, an androgynous guy with a penchant for astrology and high-tech piano wire. Each of them has a prison sentence entailing several hundred years, but they can work off a bit of their sentence by catching and dispatching various lotharios. If they don't succeed, however, there's a price. Each one of them has been fitted with a collar ala The Running Man. If they disobey or get out of line...boom!
The first episode, which is by far the weakest of three, focuses on Sengoku's attempts to figure out what's happening in Oedo's largest skyscraper. The massive structure has become sentient and has tons of captives within its walls. One of the building's engineers seems to be a prime target, and Sengoku learns the reason why millions may die over one man's sin. The second episode features Goggles as he becomes the target of a special forces group who's decided to test its new secret weapon out on him. His old partner brings him the plans to this cybernetic monster, but there's no telling who's on whose side. Finally, the third episode gives the spotlight to Benten as he hunts down a vampiric serial killer who's taking down biogenetic engineers. As he gets closer to the truth, Benten realizes that the mysterious girl he met late one night might be the key to the murders...but whether she is the perpetrator or the next victim is anybody's guess.
Yoshiaki Kawajiri has made quite a name for himself with violent and stylish thrillers like Wicked City, Midnight Eye Goku, Ninja Scroll, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. Here, his work is on full display; in its rich animation and beautiful and detailed backgrounding, as well as its dark subject matter and "cool" factor, Oedo bears Kawajiri's signature proudly. Action fans will enjoy this show immensely. Though it isn't quite chock full of the bloody exploits on display in Ninja Scroll, it still moves quickly and has some nicely done skirmishes. Another important point: this is a series where the artwork actually gets better and not worse as it progresses.
Thankfully, too, this is true of the plot. Those loyal readers who read my trouncing of the first episode are likely wondering if I had a lobotomy in the meantime to talk it up now. That's not really the case. I still feel that the first episode is a hard sit, especially since Sengoku is easily the most disagreeable of the three anti-heroes on display. The first show is also the most predictable of the lot, relying on plot solely and virtually no character development or relationship. That the storyline in the first episode is a simple revenge tale makes it no better.
However, things pick up when Goggles becomes our lead, not just because he's a more interesting character but because we're given a little bit of insight into his background...not a lot, mind you, but enough to be intrigued. Finally, the third episode really kicks into high gear. Although its story is still pretty hackneyed, the character interaction is finally tuned up properly. Benten seems just a bit player in the first two stories, but he comes into his own in the final episode. By this point, he turns into a fully developed character. It's a show that shoots itself in the foot in the first installment, but manages to bandage the wound and sprint quite nicely through its remaining two.
There are still some holes that those of us who are nitpickers will find extremely distressing and annoying. There's still no good explanation why the Cyber Police are so desperate that they would employ felons guilty of murder, grand theft, and other crimes against society. Are they actually innocent and their society is too corrupt to admit it? Doesn't seem that way from their attitudes. Or does somebody in charge have an ulterior motive for the program? Who knows? It's a huge logical gap to have to jump to truly get into the series.
There also aren't any hard and fast rules about what will reduce these guys' sentences enough to get them back their freedom, either. Although we have to assume that they are willing to do most anything to get just a taste of freedom, believing that they would just blindly follow orders without some sort of binding agreement seems downright silly. None of the questions the show brings up are answered, as Oedo ends as ambiguously as it began. Ultimately, Kawajiri and company don't want the audience poring over the details--they hope you'll think the world and characters are cool enough to forgive the obvious shortcomings.
I'm in a more forgiving mood after the whole series, too...it's a good trip. However, despite the absolutely gorgeous video quality of the current DVD, there are some significant problems with it. The Japanese language track on the first episode has soft but significant bleed-through of the English language track, which is quite annoying to say the least. Meanwhile, the subtitles are often slightly mistimed, and the first episode's translators cannot punctuate a sentence to save their lives. Those who like English dialogue might also been in for a shock...although there is a bit of rough language in the original version, it is not nearly as colorful as the dub would indicate. Let's just say that the dub track gives Pulp Fiction a run for its money in terms of total expletives. Be aware and consider a rental first.
So what's the verdict? Although I think it may take some patience to get through the first episode, which I think is still pretty bad, the rest of the series is worth it. And if you are a fan of Kawajiri's other work, you already know what to expect of his fast-paced smackfests...you'll like this one, too.
Cyber City Oedo 808 -- graphic violence, profanity (extreme in the dub) -- B