The Skull Man Collection (Cert 15)

2 Discs DVD (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 307 minutes approx.

Release Date: December 6th

Vigilantes are a curious lot. They usually work on a system of righting wrongs even if the law has decided there is no case for criminal to answer to or are too slow to crack down on them. Then you have those who operate on a different level where the morality is somewhat skewed and driven by a darker philosophy.

A young actress is murdered in Otomo City, one of many in a recent spate attributed to a mysterious man in a skull mask known as the Black Phantom. Tokyo based journalist Hayato Mikogami returns to his hometown to report on the story, whilst taking the time to visit his father’s grave. On the train journey there, Hayato encounters 16-year old Kiriko Mamiya, an aspiring photographer trying to sneak her way into Otomo City.

Unaware of the changes due to the murders, Hayato inadvertently breaks curfew on his first night back and witness the killer in action. Now a witness himself, Hayato is keen to solve the mystery, treading on the toes of local police Detective Tsuyoshi Shinjou in the process, but the further he and Kiriko delve into the many connections of the deceased, the closer to danger they walk.

The Skull Man has an unusual origin. Shotaro Ishinomori wrote it as a 100-page one-shot story whilst he was developing the famed Kamen Rider TV show. The producers adopted he story as the basis for the TV show with numerous changes as the original was too dark and violent. Then in 1998, Ishinomori commissioned Kazuhiko Shimamoto to create a reboot manga which ran for 3 years, taking the story in a new direction.

Jump forward to 2007 and this animated adaptation from Bones is a little closer to the ’98 reboot but still travels its own path. It is a complex blend of murder mystery, horror, political corruption, and science fantasy, tightly packed into 13 episodes which frankly don’t feel enough. With a range of characters needing room to be fleshed out and back stories told, another dozen chapters might have done this sinuous adventure justice.

However, it is possible to enjoy this series though mileage will vary on how it plays out with its convoluted closing stretch and shift from tense mystery to horror fantasy. The first few episodes do a great job in pulling us in, echoing the gentle false security of Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent and the unexpected early shocks of When They Cry, in which a small city is blemished by these senseless murders.

In reconnecting with his past, Hayato finds himself given a helping hand from a friend of his late father, wealthy industrialist Gozo Kuroshio, whose influence keeps Hayato and Kiriko safe from police harassment. But Kuroshiro’s philanthropic front is just that, as he funded a human experiment programme that left people as shape shifting mutants. And more interestingly, Skull Man seems to be working for him too.

Kiriko is in Otomo City is to find her older brother, whom she last heard was a member of a cult called the White Bell, viewed by locals as a peaceful collective but of course, the truth is far different. Hayato’s investigation exposes the fact many of Skull Man’s victims were White Bell members, which doesn’t correspond with the murders of non-members, like the mayor of Otomo City.

For the first half of the show, this mystery is wound tighter with each episode yet still finds time for some light hearted asides to give the cast depth and colour, whether helping out at the church orphanage run by Hayato’s old friend, father Yoshio Kanzaki, or Detective Shinjou’s hapless pursuit of café waitress Nami. As twee as this sounds, it all counts from something, rare for a story about to spin wildly out of control.

Come the second half, the focus shifts to the pernicious machinations of Kuroshiro and his corrupt consortium, its tie in with the White Bell cult, and the truth behind the Skull Man’s allegiance. The mutants, known as Lost Numbers, initially appear randomly and seem incongruous, their history being a bit vague, including the duo of sexy biker Rena Shingyoji and Tetsurou Shingyouji, both working as assassins for Skull Man.

By the time the final act comes, the initial taut murder mystery has been pushed to be background in favour of a typical anime bombast, with rampaging mutants, even more cast members being introduced, and megalomaniac villains biting off more than they can chew. The is a definite clash between the finely tuned, slow burn of the opening chapters and the explosive excess of the climax, with plot threads hurriedly brought to a close and little time to digest the importance of the revelations.

Personally, I would have preferred it if the show stayed with the style and tone of the first half and kept the story on more plausible even keel, but we know how they like to end things on a bang in shonen anime. In all fairness, most of the key plot points were all tied into the denouement, and the developments remained on message, so at least the script didn’t veer to far from its thematic foundation.

Despite being made in 2007, this show has an old school, cell drawn aesthetic to give it a welcome vintage feel which frankly suits its style. The colour palette is slightly muted but the artwork is detailed, and the animation is on point, especially body movements, with only a touch of CGI for the vehicles. The sound design is terrific, adding great depth and atmosphere throughout.

The Skull Man is a nice surprise even with its flaws which could have been resolved with a two-cour run to explore all facets of the story. The rush to the finish will make all the difference between enjoying it or not, but I can recommend this for anyone wanting a change from today’s genre heavy production line output.

P.S. don’t skip the post credits of the last episode!

 

Extras:

Japanese Language 2.0

English Subtitles

Disc 1:

DVD Credits

Disc 2:

Japanese Promos

 

Rating – *** ½ 

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