Demon City Shinjuku (Makai Toshi: Shinjuku)

Japan (1988) Dir. Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Oh, the things a man will do for a pretty face. There may not be the kind of reward he is hoping for at the end of it, but male bravado is just as toxic as the male libido when it comes to overriding the brain. Unless he’s asked to save the world or something…

A powerful warrior Genichirou battles his former friend Rebi Ra on top of a skyscraper in Tokyo with the former summoning his evil demon powers to secure the victory, with the final blast being so immense it causes a huge earthquake that rips Shinjuku in two. Rebi Ra vows to summon every demon to possess their abilities and turn Shinjuku into a hell on earth before destroying humankind.

Ten years later, with global peace achieved, World President Kozumi Rama arrives in Japan for a conference but is attacked and kidnapped by a demon controlled by Rebi Ra. Rama’s daughter Sayaka seeks help to rescue her father, and unable to refuse a damsel in distress, Genichirou’s son Kyoya, a kendo teacher unaware of his father’s power but confident in his own fighting abilities, agrees to accompany her to Shinjuku.

Coming one year after Wicked City, Yoshiaki Kawajiri adapts another novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi in Demon City Shinjuku, the first in a series, just like its predecessor, that doesn’t seem to have been followed up in animated form. Fortunately for those of us unfamiliar with the source material, Kawajiri approached both films as standalone entries making them easier to get into with no prior knowledge.

Whilst there is little thematically or aesthetically to separate both films, understandable given the repeated factors involved, Demon City is a less graphic affair in both violence and sexual content – the latter almost completely absent – but that doesn’t mean this isn’t any less horrific in its own way. With much of the horror being psychological, Kawajiri compensates for the paucity of gore by presenting us with a visual head-trip.

Partly why this isn’t as visceral as Wicked City is because our main protagonist Kyoya is a reluctant hero and his weapon of choice is a wooden kendo stick. He doesn’t go for the kill, only to wound and disarm thus there is no need for him to be so violent, although this changes once he gets into Shinjuku and his life is jeopardy. Rebi Ra might not be so benevolent but unlike Kyoya, he is fully aware of what he is capable of.

Before this, Kyoya is shown as being a bit of a goof, going gaga over Sayaka when she appears on TV, showing no interest in the gravity of her father’s work. Suddenly, something inside of him awakens when Rama is presented with a bunch of flowers and Kyoya screams at the TV not to take them. The flowers turn into snake-like tendrils, wrapping themselves around Rama’s body then whisking him away.

Kyoya is then visited by Rai, a Nenpo master, who explains to him about his father’s powers, and that Kyoya is the only person who can stop Reb Ra. Unfortunately, Kyoya isn’t aware he had any power and wouldn’t know how to unlock it, but he is handy with a kendo stick! Star Wars fans might feel a slight liberty has been taken in transposing the formative years of Luke Skywalker from Tattooine to 1980’s Tokyo.

Not that Rebi Ra hold to any direct comparisons with Darth Vader, though Rai has the faint air of Yoda about him, and Sayaka is Princess Leia by virtue of being the token heroine. In Shinjuku, there is a young orphan boy on electric skates (R2-D2?) with his two-headed dog Kuro (Chewbacca?), and another ally in demon hunter named Mephisto (Han Solo?).

I don’t know if these parallels were deliberate on Kikuchi’s part or I’m reading too much into this and they are purely coincidental, but it doesn’t take anything away from what this film has to offer on its merits. In just 79-minutes we do get plenty of action, a bit of comedy, a robust story to drive things, and some inventive set pieces that mess with our minds once inside the titular Demon City.

Since Shinjuku is the realm of the demons under Rebi Ra’s mental control, and he is aware of Kyoya’s impending visit, he dispatches many gruesome agents to greet him and Sayaka. From giant spider-creatures to underwater menaces that can attack people in their dreams, and unsettled spirits torturing living, the city is alive with evil, and every obstacle and ghoulish adversary only serves to push Kyoya closer to realising the latent powers within him.

Fans of Satoshi Kon’s work might find traces of this film being a possible influence on him as Kawajiri plays with reality to depict the mental control of has over the demons, turning solid ground or puddles into a sentient trap. The liquid mind warps of Paprika will come to mind, whilst it is noticeable how much Sayaka resembles Mimi, the tormented protagonist in Perfect Blue. Again, this might just be my own observation or maybe this is a case of paying it forward regarding movie inspiration.  

Even if the story and the script tends to get a bit hokey and trips over itself to make it seem more substantial than it is, there is no denying the visuals are a real treat. We are still in the era of cell animation yet via this Blu-ray transfer we can see how much effort has gone into making this film feel alive. It permeates old school charm yet the fluidity of the animation, detail of the artwork, and atmospherics of the bold colour palette refuse to date it as a 2D relic.

Demon City Shinjuku might be an average but earnest meshing of extant ideas remixed to suit Kikuchi’s horror stylings, but it is Kawajiri’s vision that makes it much more than a covert homage, itself proving a fertile breeding ground for future anime classics.

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