Streamline Pictures brought a surprising amount of anime to the US during the 80s and early 90s before the company imploded several years ago. One of their major titles was Wicked City, a 1989 film often cited by critics of the anime genre for its graphic violence and sexual content. Although there's no doubt this film is not for children and that the charge is fair, the film is also unexpectedly effective at creating a rich, dark atmosphere and plausible, imperfect characters. Unfortunately, this film is often mistakenly lumped in with pornographic fare like Legend of the Overfiend and La Blue Girl, which The Anime Review won't touch. This is a carefully crafted, stylish thriller that adults with an interest in horror will likely appreciate, though the graphic nature of the motion picture won't appeal to all.
Wicked City is set in the late (and obviously alternate) 1990s. For thousands of years, a treaty between our world and a parallel dimension of beasts and demons has kept brutal and nasty creatures from invading. A new agreement is about to be signed, and it will extend the peace another 500 years. However, a faction from the other dimension wants to stop the pact from taking place, and they are willing to kill anyone in their way. Taki is a Black Guard, a human whose secret job is to protect against monsters that come over and get out of control. It's not always an easy task, since the monsters can often take human form.
After a brush with the enemy in a shocking opening sequence, Taki is assigned to guard Giuseppi Mayart, an ancient medium and representative between the worlds who is to sign the peace accords. He's also given a partner, Makie, a beautiful and deadly woman from the other side. Despite being over 200 years old, Mayart turns out to have the raging hormones of a 17 year old, and a good chunk of time is spent rescuing Mayart from the situations he gets himself into. As the show progresses, Taki and Makie find themselves attracted to each other, but love between the two worlds can be deadly. Regardless, it won't matter much if they can't keep Mayart alive another 24 hours--if the treaty isn't signed, the monstrous beast dimension will certain engulf our own.
Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, famed for Ninja Scroll, Lensman, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, the picture has an amazingly realized sense of atmosphere. Drenched in shades of blue and black, Kawajiri makes some excellent visual choices that add a great deal. Rather than going for gore, he often stylizes the violence, making it disturbing without throwing the red paint factory into a tizzy. The result is a creepy, dark saturation into this world. The character designs follow old-school patterns, but they look good by that convention. The characters don't always look perfect, but a few action sequences are great--they actually have true movement, which in a fistfight is non-existent in anime. The music is great up to a point, but a couple of poor choices near the end date the film a bit more than necessary.
The show has come under fire in some circles as misogynistic, a charge that I feel isn't warranted. Makie is seen as far more capable than her male partner, and though she needs assistance at one point, she is not an easily defeated woman. Many of the villains are female--but how often do you actually get to see women in these parts in regular films? It's nice to actually see the "fairer sex" get some equal time in the heavy's chair. In this movie, the women are superior to the men, no contest.
I think the discussion stems not from the treatment of women so much as the sexuality in play throughout the show. There's a lot of it, though it's handled conservatively in many spots. It's rare to see any film make sex essential to its plot--here, in several spots, you could not edit the scenes significantly and still have a valid storyline. However, there are a couple instances where the film goes overboard, particular with depictions of two of the demon world characters, in ways that will likely shock some viewers. Is it passable as an R-rated film? Essentially, yes, considering that David Cronenburg's 1999 film "eXistenZ" does many of the same things and got away with it. However, it's edgy enough that queasier or easily offended viewers should stay away.
Having said all of that, Wicked City is a good but not great movie. There are a few too many plot holes and undiscovered territory to be superb. At its core, you have an all-too-typical "buddy movie" with cops from different backgrounds being forced to work together ala Lethal Weapon. There's little emotional resonance, either, because the plotline falls apart at the end, as the audience is expected to believe just a little too much. For all but the last twenty minutes or so, I was enraptured, but the ending goes too far off course, in my opinion. As I stated before, I think a little restraint might have been warranted in a couple of places.
Whether you'll like Wicked City is a matter of taste. Fans of Kawajiri's Ninja Scroll will probably like it immensely, as well as most horror advocates. For the squeamish and those who don't want sexual content in their films, ignore it. I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, and though it isn't superb, it's better than many of its cousins in the genre.
Wicked City -- graphic violence, strong sexual content and imagery, brief profanity -- B