The wedges forged between us is at the very core of conflict, the very thing that often is the source of artistic inspiration. And whether the conflict itself is something that succeeds in pulling us into a particular work or not, remains in the ever aware eye. Something many a modern fan seems to overlook, is that moment, that spark that happens. Ones capable of igniting the right conflux of emotions and ideas that somehow work like a magic elixir upon the faculties. There may even be a dangerous, forbidden quality about it that makes the whole experience troubling to the touch, yet on the whole irresistible. So upon looking back twenty-five years, and considering the first full-length directorial work by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, it is with frequent surprise that it is a conflict that continues to provoke & thrill.
Produced by a young Studio MADHOUSE, and initially intended to be a short OVA production, Kawajiri made his adaptation of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s tale into a thing of dark, psychosexual beauty, punctuated with just enough moxie and depth to make it far more than a merely atmospheric masculine fantasy. Set in an alternate Japan, wherein a long-standing treaty between humanity, and beings from a dimension of shape-shifters is ready for a much needed reassessment. This non-aggression pact of sorts has been a tenuous one for several generations, so when tough guy/ladies man & top guard, Taki Renzaburo is tasked with protecting an ages old psychic for the good of the treaty renewal. Makie, his mysterious otherworldly partner is practically a beacon for an endless night of intrigue and sexual terror as radicals attempt to not only foil the coming ceremony, but to seemingly torment her for her own sympathies for unification. As mentioned, this is a story that was initially meant to be rendered as a short, but became much more when Kawajiri saw potential in such a world. Beyond the veneer of what many might consider to be merely a production bordering on hentai, the film presents not only some of the most iconic imagery from 1980s anime, but some unexpected thematic meat to chew on as well.
Not unlike the plot of Alien Nation, a science fiction buddy cop film released soon after, the core premise tinkers with race relations while staying true to a classic 1980s movie formula.
While re-watching this recently, I was struck by just how much of this was so obviously a creative starting point that would lead to much of what would become Kawajiri’s most popular film, Jubei Ninpucho (aka Ninja Scroll), complete with plucky hero, capable heroine, and the disturbing trials that befall them on their respective quests. Many have argued that the acts often perpetrated against the female lead in these films leave little to consider, save to make them lesser characters by the finale. But in the case of Wicked City, the use of sexual violence serves a larger purpose than merely a means to establish a sense of gender dominance, but rather it creates something of a nightmare scenario for Tokyo lothario, Taki. One that presents him not only with an equal but a means for him to consider his own place within a relationship more substantial than a one-nighter. It’s not enough that she be from a group of immigrant aliens , looking to further relations between themselves and humans, but that she be a smart, tough, resourceful woman, capable of holding her own in a troublesome situation. Whenever she is in distress, it is often a scenario often relegated toward humiliation. Par for the course for a lot of “adult” material of the day, unfortunately. But what turns it all on its head is a finale that on one level alters the female lead into something of a domesticated creature, and on another, empowers not only those looking to better understand their neighbors, but creates a powerful reminder of the gender scheme in general.
Atop of all this, comes the revelation that the film is strangely quasi-Catholic. You heard correct. Perhaps this speaks more to my upbringing than the film, but a great deal of Wicked City’s striking imagery, from the intense use of light and shadow, to the almost John Woo-esque fetishism for black and white suits, coupled with a finale in a chapel that cannot be overstated. (a lead villain is killed by a major symbol, no less!) In a very real way, this is the psychological assault that Hollywood was attempting roughly around the same time with Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction–only better. A calculated, and artistically impressive call for men to keep their pants zipped long enough to find the right girl. One with just enough experience and stoicism to create a potentially happy future. While time has certainly inched away from such sentiments in many places, it remains a fascinating memento of another time.
Still not convinced? How about Makie’s mysterious acquisition of a stylish (for the mid-1980s) white dress? Or even better, the tunnel-attack, and subsequent wrath of the frighteningly arachnoidal femme whom Taki had mistaken for a hot date at the start of the picture. Her web-shooting coming from no less than where his attentions were highly concentrated once upon a time. (Yes. Let that one stir around the brain pan just a little more.)
For whatever reason, Wicked City opts beyond the life of one with its collaborative solution for its denouement. While this may sound like something of a backhanded thing to remark about a Showa Era video made writ-large for a male audience, it is telling that Makie’s past becomes a prism which Taki must focus within in order to attain something resembling a tractable future. While a similar mechanic is indeed used in Jubei Ninpucho, the repercussions of it in this case carry far more symbolic weight. It seems ready to embrace prolonged cooperation, rather than simply living another day. And for such a piece that bursts at the seams with horror, and atmosphere, there’s a world of possibility at the heart of truly adult matters. Something anime can do more to offer in this day and age.