Summer In The City – City Hunter TV 1

 

CH title

I’m an absolute mark for 80s and 90s action cinema. Representative as some of them may be of an overbearing masculinity that sought to quell the voices calling for societal change in that period there’s something intrinsic to them that draws me in. Perhaps it’s the outrageous stunts, the pithy remarks, the exotic locations, the stirring soundtracks or the melodramatic delivery. Perhaps it’s an inherent desire that has borne out in recent times that wishes the systemic complexities that conspire to lay waste to all we hold dear in this world could be dealt with neatly at the end of a righteous fist or an enormous rocket launcher, like a modern day Gordian Knot. The best examples exhibit the deeper emotions tied to this, the lone figure who takes action motivated by love for family or friends whose imposing presence and proclivity for violence belies a compassionate nature. Anime is filled to the rafters with characters who subscribe to this philosophy to some degree but naturally for a Japanese cultural medium they don’t usually embrace those other traits of the all-guns-blazing big screen action hero. For pure embodiments of that particular aesthetic, and boy do I mean Aesthetic, there are fewer better examples than City Hunter.

City Hunter has for as long as I can remember been a series I’ve only known by reputation. The closest I had ever come to Tsukasa Hojo was watching some of the anime of his earlier work Cat’s Eye and a semi-inebriated viewing of the City Hunter live-action Jackie Chan vehicle, which I went into knowing it took some artistic license with the property. On the face of it there was plenty of appeal for the reasons stated above; hard-boiled private eye Ryo Saeba cleans up the streets of 1980s Tokyo with a big attitude and an even bigger gun, accepting any assignment as long as it’s at the request of a beautiful woman. The sheer amount of content however, spanning multiple TV series to movies to OVAs, seemed a daunting prospect. Then it was announced that City Hunter would be returning to cinemas in 2019 with the anime’s most notable director and cast members (not to mention a French live-action instalment under the Nicky Larson moniker) and I figured it was high time to discover what this world of sweepers, gangsters and femme fatales had to offer beyond a convenient accompanying visual for somebody’s vapourwave track.

Screenshot_20180611-195255

City Hunter delivers on expectations however it does take a little while to get there. In keeping with Ryo’s occupation of sweeper, i.e a sort of troubleshooter for hire, the stories are primarily episodic as he takes on the varied and occasionally bizarre cases of a succession of comely clients. The series takes a leisurely pace establishing Ryo’s modus operandi and extraordinary skill before the inevitable death of his partner Makimura, making way for his sister Kaori to fill the role. From here the tone improves considerably as Ryo has another more developed and dynamic personality to bounce off of, generating much greater diversity in terms of gags, plotlines and character interactions. Ditto for the introduction of Saeko Nogami, an alluring Tokyo police detective who easily cajoles Ryo into performing favours for her, and Umibozou, a hulking fellow sweeper with a skin of steel and a heart of marshmallow.

And thank heavens they do, for there’s one core component of City Hunter that has not aged particularly well and truthfully isn’t a good look for any era. While Ryo Saeba’s credentials as an action hero may check out his interpersonal skills with women are considerably lacking; no matter the situation, if there’s an attractive lady involved it takes mere seconds for him to devolve into a slobbering, pawing lech with no concept of personal space. This was an element I had prior awareness of yet it still took considerable mental effort to grapple with. I get that this is intended to be a humanising characteristic for Ryo that’s played for laughs, and eventually Kaori is on hand to punish him for these transgressions, but one still can’t help but think there must have been a less gross method to make Ryo a relatable dude. Attitudes of the time be damned, it’s difficult to get behind a protagonist who repeatedly lifts women’s skirts or touches them inappropriately. Besides being altogether heinous behaviour it rapidly becomes a tedious bit of shtick that’s draining to watch.

39dd148a23088054a6e78276c19f0eed

As mentioned though progression begets improvement, and whatever my rationale for forging on it was justified by the remainder of the series. While it keeps to a formula per se there’s a great variety of stories in here that really showcase the City Hunter agency’s capacity to help people. Not every case that lands on their desk will serve some greater purpose as part of the War On Crime after all. Some folks just need assistance finding their missing kids, keeping a creeper off their back or stealing a rare flower back from a pompous stage magician. As well as providing opportunities for the rest of the cast like Kaori or Umibozou to shine it displays the full range of their talents and that the solution to a predicament doesn’t always have to come from the barrel of a Colt Python. It imbues the show with that essential heart, that a compassion exists within the cast that motivates them beyond the next paycheck. These are people who really care and however trifling your problem they’re gonna solve it in the most exciting and action-packed manner possible. Ryo’s bad habits persist to be sure but they’re gradually dialled back allowing City Hunter’s charm to show itself. Crucially it emphasises the sparingly used moments where Ryo actually acts cool and lives up to his reputation; he’ll be a horny buffoon for ninety percent of the runtime but he’s such a total dude in that last ten percent you’ll forgive nearly anything. A significant part of that is Akira Kamiya’s voice performance, best known for playing Kenshiro in that colossus of manly melodrama Fist Of The North Star, whose seamless shifting from jackass to badass sells the whole bit.

Screenshot_20180611-195355~2

City Hunter mirrors the seedier early chapters of the manga for the initial episodes before giving way to more light-hearted adventures. One of Ryo’s first assignments has him straight up assassinate a guy at a boxing match for instance but as the show rolls on it’s uncommon to see anybody die outside of a flashback, opting instead for the justice shot on a henchman’s firearm or winging them in the shoulder. His marksmanship skills are often put to use in more unorthodox ways to create the illusion of a girl possessing telekinetic powers or to crack into a heavily shielded museum display. Thus when we do encounter those rare scenes where a villain gets it right between the eyes it’s because Ryo means business and matters have finally forced his trigger finger. I wonder whether this syncs up with any editorial suggestion for the manga to move away from its grittier roots to make Ryo more broadly appealing, such that he wouldn’t be gurning at girls one minute and gunning down gangsters in cold blood the next. Tsukasa Hojo has stated that in the process of creating City Hunter he wanted to write a male character who differed from the composed, stoic heroes he experienced growing up. In a sense with their superhuman shooting ability, professional-for-hire work approach and penchant for beautiful women I can’t help but read Ryo Saeba as a less intimidating, more relatably human version of Golgo 13. Any audience familiar with Golgo 13 would immediately throw away notions of having anything close to his jet-set lifestyle, gifted with god-like skill that earns him obscene riches and sexual experiences which he seemingly takes no obvious pleasure in. Ryo on the other hand seems somewhat more grounded; while the everyday person might never match his proficiency with guns they could probably easily surpass him on the dating scene. If Golgo 13 resembles the more serious iterations of a character like James Bond then Ryo Saeba is more like Magnum P.I, a dude whose ability you recognise & respect but could still see yourself grabbing a beer with. His spy car’s even a Mini!

Screenshot_20180611-195721~2

In terms of that classic action cinema atmosphere I hold so dear City Hunter has that capital ‘A’ Aesthetic down pat. The opening sequences do an incredible job distilling the essence of the show down to ninety seconds, the soulful vocals on Ai Yo Kienaide pairing so gloriously with the Koji Morimoto animation (that first OP I would say does it better as it has small tidbits of Ryo being anything besides a hyper-competent cool dude, though Go Go Heaven has really grown on me!). It’s become kind of passé these days to bear an overly fawning appreciation for those decades though I feel City Hunter captures the appeal so many others can only craft a pale imitation of. The neon metropolis of 1980s Tokyo we see here is surely so far removed from reality one might never get a true sense of what it was like to actually live there. That isn’t the point in this case. It’s more about the City as a concept, a massive swarming of human lives that when brought together create the boundless potential for anything to happen. In a place this huge your biggest worry might be a wayward daughter or an international espionage conspiracy; either way there’s an action hero with a heart of gold ready to step in to get their hands dirty and sort things out without regard to decorum. The bad guys are always in the warehouse down by the docks, civilians don’t get caught in the crossfire and there’s never a traffic jam to get in the way of a good car chase. Call it delusion or naivete, it sure beats the frustratingly hectic yet also sometimes interminable grind of living in an actual sprawling metropolis. As a recent transplant to one of the largest urban centres on Earth I have a visceral understanding of how it feels to be lost in those crowds absorbed in their own individual worries, to have that glamorous ideal of big city living peeled away and to pine for a more romantic vision. What is an action movie, anime or otherwise, but a welcome escape from the pressures of our own more complicated lives? Amongst all the serialised anime that comprise the majority of my regular viewing there’s plenty of room for a procedural show to throw on the TV without demanding a ton of engagement, a comforting balm to ease the loneliness of living in the Big Smoke (pro tip: it’s been a great timekiller on my new longer commute to work!). City Hunter’s enthusiasm is infectious and I’m a sucker for stunt-filled thrill rides with a beating heart that bring folks together. Now fully initiated in its universe I’m eager to pore through its history and see what awaits around the next street corner.

Advertisements

Ireland In Anime: Folklore, Fairies and Familiar Familiars

Hidari.full.1223552 It’s that time of the year again, when for a brief day the far flung countries of the world bend over backwards to stake out their connections to a miniscule island in the North Atlantic ocean. As crass, cynical and cringe-inducing as some of these displays of affection are I take no small amount of bemusement in their sheer volume, not to mention a not insignificant level of appreciation and dare I say pride in the heartfelt sincerity of a great many of them. It’s a testament to the far-reaching influence of Ireland’s people & culture that our national holiday is celebrated so raucously the world over (even if it can be all too often diminished to an easy excuse to get drunk before lunchtime). For a country that’s historically never been a heavyweight in conquest or commerce the Irish sure have made their way to the most unlikely of places. So it naturally follows that I’d get curious about those instances where my interests converge, those strange recesses where Irish culture and folklore have nestled themselves in their trademark manner into the realm of anime.

A big part of anime’s allure is the very nature of its place of origin. Japan has always possessed a hypnotic mystique to Western audiences that stretches back centuries and persists to this day. However fanciful the manner, anime nonetheless provided a window through which those audiences could learn about a nation whose culture, experiences & viewpoints were so vastly different from their own. It stands to reason that that fascination would be reciprocated as Japanese creators looked beyond their native shores for inspiration, offering unique interpretations of stories and imagery Westerners have seen countless times. From the Greek pantheon battling it out as armoured pretty boys in Saint Seiya to Norse deities shacking up with a mortal in Ah! My Goddess, from a French literary hero remoulded as a Japanese icon in Lupin The Third to the innumerable brash & blonde American exchange students, it seems all the big hitters have gotten multiple wonderfully singular shout-outs. I wasn’t much surprised to see Irish culture get comparatively short shrift, even though close neighbour Britain had regular visits via anime penchants via Arthurian myth and Victorian elegance, though if one looked carefully enough there were small pockets of enthusiasm which would only increase in potency over the years.

To begin with references to Ireland were limited in scope to the odd geographic location. White Base had a brief stopover in Belfast during its journey in Mobile Suit Gundam, and you can even see Dublin targeted for destruction by the Sphere Of Vogler in Giant Robo. These surface level acknowledgements would persist in the form of a handy resource for exotic nomenclature; the submarine Tuatha De Danann from Full Metal Panic, named after the mythical first race of people to inhabit Ireland, is an esoteric example. More clumsy is visual novel adaptation Clannad, intending to take its title from the Irish word for family (clann, pronounced similar to “clown”) and instead coming off more as a nod to the folk music supergroup.

Lyle89

Representation would occasionally become a bit more ambitious by featuring characters who actually hailed from the island, with depictions varying wildly. There’s Leigharch, the drug-crazed getaway driver in Black Lagoon, whose name at a guess is either a running-together of lean ar aghiadh (“let’s continue” or “let’s go”) or a misspelling of leirgeach (“ridiculous), either of which are pretty apt for this lunatic who embodies the Irish reputation for partying hard. Nabari No Ou boasts Tobari Durandal Kumohira, the school teacher/ninja who as a lad was dragged to Japan all the way from County Waterford by his eccentric grandad to be forcibly trained in the ways of the shinobi. His birthday even falls on March 17th in case you didn’t get the point! Mobile Suit Gundam would rep Ireland again in Gundam 00 with Lockon Stratos (and his brother!), the laconic sniper with Ulster roots in the suitably emerald green mech. As the first installment in the franchise to be set in our own timeline this led to the memorable revelation that the Real IRA were still making trouble in the 24th century, only ceasing hostilities under threat of getting their asses kicked by giant robots from space.

Fate-stay-night-Lancer

These are only scattered fragments though. Anime with a bit more of an Irish flavour throughout are a little rarer but the frequency of their appearance has increased gradually over time. The Fate Stay/Night visual novel and its multiple anime adaptations is a notable standard bearer. The secret sorcerer war calls upon heroic spirits from history and legend divided up according to speciality, running the gamut from King Arthur to Alexander The Great. The Lancer class servant has traditionally featured mainstays from Irish myth, beginning with Cu Chulainn and his lethal spear Gae Bolg. This was carried on with the appearance of Diarmuid Ui Duibhne, knight of the Fianna in prequel series Fate/Zero and some cameos by Fionn MacCumhaill before reaching fever pitch recently with Cu Chulainn’s trainer Scathach serving as the sort of de-facto mascot for the Fate Grand Order mobile game. Glad as I am to see Irish legend repped so lovingly it has led to more than a fair share of mangled pronunciations in my experience. Koo Choo Lane lads? For real?

Scrapped Princess, based on the light novel by Ichiro Sakaki, doesn’t quite fit the bill upon first glance. However its tale of a girl of unparallelled beauty who is prophesised to bring doom to the world, escaping into exile with the help of her small band of loyal protectors, bears more than a passing resemblance to the myth of Deirdre Of The Sorrows. Updated to the year 20XX with a surfeit of far future technology and space dragons it’s easy to see how this inspiration could be obscured. 2006’s Code Geass is slightly less arcane; its titular terminology for the various mental superpowers displayed in the series is derived from the Irish word geas or geis (sounds like gesh), meaning spell/enchantment, which I’ve heard unfortunately vocalised over the years as gas, geese or even gay-ass. Some outlandish theories have been proposed that the anime’s plot is a retelling of the Irish War Of Independence, Japan/Area 11 being another island nation engaging in armed insurrection against the Britannian Empire with rebel fighters Lelouche and Kallen as analogues for Micheal Collins and Countess Markevicz. Persuasive as some of the arguments are these theories seem fanciful at best to me. If you’re wanting a more deliberate anime revision of Irish history you can’t do much better than the 2002 short Comedy from Studio 4C’s Sweat Punch anthology, where a young girl seeks the aid of a mysterious forest-dwelling swordsman to fend off the invaders of her village. Only after the warrior completes his mission is it revealed that his services helped turn the tide of Ireland’s struggle for freedom in its favour, though considering the presence of British redcoats and mystical mercenaries one somehow doubts this is an altogether accurate account of events.

74859

These all pale in comparison to the most overt depiction of Ireland in anime, that of course being the 2010 series Fractale. It concerns the inhabitants of an elaborate virtual reality system that preserves humankind in a consistent state of happiness and contentment, though naturally a dark secret lies at its core that the protagonists must bring to light. For whatever reason though this simulation of a perfect world takes the form of County Galway in the West of Ireland, its idyllic landscape dotted with dry-stone walls and whitewashed cottages with some episodes of the show even featuring locations taken directly from Galway city. The end credits theme is a rendition of the Irish ballad Down By The Salley Gardens, itself originally a poem by William Butler Yeats, to further drive the point home. I recall series director Yutaka Yamamoto, aka Yamakan, was a guest at Akumacon at NUI Galway back in 2014 who no doubt took the opportunity to partake of a little sightseeing while he was in the area. I regret missing out on the opportunity to attend and perhaps ask about Yamakan’s rationale for basing Fractale in this locale, although based on his more recent incendiary comments maybe it was for the best!

More recent anime offerings have been regularly delving into Ireland’s folklore for inspiration and I for one am all for this practice, not least for the quality content produced from it. Yoh Yoshinari’s hard grafting came to fruition last year with the premiere of the Little Witch Academia TV series (deferred as it was by Netflix hoodoo). The anime’s magic school is located somewhere, as a lot of magic schools are, somewhere in mainland Britain and much of the references follow suit. An unmistakeable Celtic influence informs a healthy portion of the visual motifs though. Documentation and sygaldry pertaining to the story’s arch-magical force Grand Triskelion is laden with the shapes, spirals and interwoven lines so closely associated with the artifacts produced by ancient Irish peoples whose artistic tradition was then kept alive by early Christian scholars. Indeed their main magical McGuffin is a powerful wand called the Claiomh Solais, an Irish phrase that translates to “sword of light”. It has a nebulous basis in myth, and could also probably refer to an Irish nationalist newspaper of the same name, which as newspaper names go you gotta admit is one of the coolest!

W8eQM47

Still ongoing is The Ancient Magus’ Bride TV series which is profusely steeped in Celtic myth. While focus is often given to the ghosts & fairies of mainland Britain there’s more than a fair share given to Ireland’s strange creatures. From cu sidhe with canine mascot Ruth to banshees in taciturn housekeeper Silky to the fair denizens of Tir Na N’Og  it’s clear that manga  author Kore Yamazaki knows her onions about the folklore of the islands of North-Western Europe. I was quite impressed with a small arc concerning a leannan sidhe, a fairy woman who consorts with a mortal and grants them profound creative inspiration, paying due diligence to a vampiric nature that was outlined by, once again, WB Yeats! There’s a lengthy essay alone in the legends surrounding The Ancient Magus’ Bride and luckily Anime News Network has come through with a timely article on just that courtesy of Rebecca Silverman.

I’m dead certain that there’s a whole heap I’ve overlooked during the course of this hastily assembled article, but such is my enthusiasm for seeing the familiar stories I’ve grown up with be retold in a medium I’ve loved so much for most of my life. It prompts questions as to what has spurred this semi-recent uptick in interest in the anime & manga sphere; exhaustion with all the familiar world mythologies? A particular brand of maniac being elevated to a position of creative control? Whatever the reason I hope to see more unique explorations of my native folklore from this outside perspective. Feel free to yell at me through the usual outlets about anything I missed, and whenever this reaches you I hope you’re having/have had a wonderful St Patrick’s Day. Slainte!

Missteps in Welcome To The Ballroom

WTTB title

(Putting the delinquency in Juve-Niall Delinquency! Here’s a post that was intended for 2017’s 12 Days Of Anime challenge which, for my very first year of participation not to mention returning to long-form writing for the first time since college, I’m gonna chalk up as breaking even for reaching the halfway point. Who knew it’s actually quite difficult to write effectively for twelve days straight AND work twelve hour shifts five days a week? Not me I guess! Anyhow, some of the ideas I had for that challenge I have since had bigger & better thoughts about so look forward to those later on down the line. For now here’s a fitting tale of something else that hit the skids part way through!)

Welcome To The Ballroom had a tough go of things from the off, as it was perhaps unfairly held up as the spiritual successor to dancing boy superhit Yuri On Ice. Trailers and promotional material for this adaptation of Tomo Takeuchi’s manga suggested something if not in exactly the same vein then certainly a prestige production worth keeping an eye on. The presence of many of the staff that worked on the anime of beloved volleyball manga Haikyuu proved a considerable draw and that was enough to pique the interest of myself and many others. I for one was happy to take it as is for being a sports anime about a competitive activity I had rarely seen on TV outside of Strictly Come Dancing.

WTTB 2

Beginnings were promising: ballroom acolyte Tatara could arguably be described as a wet drip of a protagonist but his nervous determination still made him relatable and a nice contrast to the usual hot-blooded aggression of sports anime heroes, embodied in this case by characters like Tatara’s absentee coach Sengoku or rival-cum-eventual ally Gaju. It takes two to tango though so I was more interested in how he’d interact with main female lead Shizuku, inwardly hoping it would prove to develop into something more than just a device to romantically pair them up. Imagine my disappointment then when she was effectively sidelined in favour of pursuing more narrative threads involving her dance partner Hyodo and how he relates with Tatara, playing up the friendly rivalry between them as if she didn’t also have a stake in the competition. It was here that my problems with the show and its attitudes toward gender politics became apparent. For maybe you’d have been sensibly under the impression that ballroom dancing was a team sport involving co-operation & communication between partners, performing together to put on a greater spectacle than either could manage alone. Welcome To The Ballroom has a much different outlook, rigidly sticking to a lead/follow dancing dynamic with the lion’s share of the attention (and credit) placed on the male lead.

WTTB 1

Much criticism circulated online regarding this and rightly so. It’s difficult to reconcile Welcome To The Ballroom pretty much portraying women as props to be swung around by the men. We understood that this would be a sports anime, not realising it would be to the most archaic definition where female involvement was disregarded almost entirely. For some reason I stuck with it though. Maybe it was the occasional fluidly animated & expressive dance sequences that showed off the elongated character designs (Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure gets a pass but this bothers you? C’mon lads!). More so it was for Tatara’s viewpoint as an outsider looking in on all this, tentatively questioning this particular competition framework and why it demands conformity to these positions.

Things seemed to be improving after a stronger finish to the first cour with Tatara working amicably with partner Mako to push her into the spotlight, even if it was a strange turn to have the tournament judging panel react perplexedly as if they literally didn’t realise she existed previously. They looked even better with the advent of the second cour: Tomo Takeuchi must have heard these same concerns raised before with their manga and plotted a change in course. New character Chinatsu, strong-willed & assertive, arrived at just the right time and she offered the perfect foil to Tatara’s conflict-averse demeanour. It’s to be expected that Chinatsu & Tatara would have a challenging time aligning their clashing personalities, and I figured the logical progression would be for them to settle their differences and come to an accord. These two had so much to learn from each other: with Chinatsu’s background in leading the dance and Tatara more blatantly highlighting the backwards attitudes of the sport’s judging criteria I dared hope the show might evolve into a pointed critique of the ballroom dancing ethos in particular and gender roles in general. There was ample room to develop and make up for earlier shortcomings, so what does Welcome To The Ballroom do but double down on its distasteful elements. Focus is placed on dancing the “proper” way and never straying outside the bounds of your gender-assigned position no matter where your strengths lie. It’s one thing for Tatara to be more assertive to better communicate with his dance partner; it’s another matter entirely to refer to Chinatsu as a wild horse that needs to be broken, clearly spelling out the series’ opinions on how men & women ought relate to one another.

WTTB 3

It was at this stage, after holding out longer than most, that I resigned myself to the eventuality that Welcome To The Ballroom was never going to magically morph into the ideal show I believed it could be. What made it all the more galling was how it would hover frustratingly close to making a cogent point and pull back at the last second. It instead became an exercise in constantly adjusting your expectations, which in the best case is a signifier of a text challenging you as a viewer and in the worst is just seeing how much you can excuse before it makes you quit (a decision made a touch easier in this case by an always ill-advised homophobic joke). Its decline was perhaps made all the more precipitous by those early allusions to Yuri On Ice and as mentioned it may not been entirely fair to expect something else on that level. Then again producer Tetsuya Kinoshita didn’t exactly cover Welcome To The Ballroom in glory in a Q&A where he had plenty of backhanded compliments for Yuri On Ice, so if their intent was to distinguish themselves from that anime then job well & truly done. Cap it off with unused scenes from the manga that would have given much greater insight into the female cast and you have all the hallmarks of a story not reaching its full potential. It’s a shame to see such promise go to pot but if anything maybe it can serve as a lesson in not setting your hopes unreasonably high. While I don’t regret what I watched I’m glad I opted out when I did; it takes time to learn how not to be afraid to ditch that sunk cost fallacy and drop out of whatever media you consume if it ain’t working out, and Welcome To The Ballroom proved quite a test of that instinct. At least we got two pretty rad Unison Square Garden OPs out of it!

Re-Entering The Ring with Tiger Mask W

Tiger Mask W

Tiger Mask is an ubiquitous figure that anime fans of a certain age have some semblance of familiarity with, either via Ikki Kajiwara & Naoki Tsuji’s manga or its numerous TV & film adaptations. More likely you’ve seen the story of the cat-cowled wrestler defeating heinous heels to save the orphans paid homage in the Tekken fighting game series. Such is Tiger Mask’s cultural cachet that he’s escaped the bounds of fiction on many occasions, referenced in notes attached to mysterious charitable donations and notably entering the squared circle in person over the years to take on the wrestling stars of his day.

For a long while this was mostly lost on me. I had seen the odd episode of classic Tiger Mask but never had time to pursue it further. Indeed my last major dalliance with professional wrestling was WWE Smackdown back in the mid-2000s, which coincided nicely with Cartoon Network airing the dub version of Kinnikuman 2, AKA Ultimate Muscle. Therein lay the key to my understanding though: whether an avid fan or not most everybody at one point knew who Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, The Undertaker and Stone Cold Steve Austin were. To give a latter day example Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson now packs cinemas on a yearly basis. These larger-than-life characters were hard to ignore and through them you became versed in the codes, customs and theatrics of professional wrestling; the realm of babyface heroes, villainous heels, outrageous ring setups, backstage drama, venom-laced promos and pinfalls broken at the last second.

Tiger Mask W 1

It’s into this world that Tiger Mask W steps and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The venerable New Japan Pro Wrestling franchise has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, winning over a new generation of fans worldwide. What better way to expand its already fervent base in the anime fan community than with a bit of savvy cross-promotion in the form of a new series? Or indeed to broaden the scope of the original Tiger Mask mythos by incorporating all the developments in the wrestling world of the last few decades. Enter Global Wrestling Monopoly (GWM), the monolithic organisation serving as the primary antagonist of the show. With its notorious reputation for poaching wrestlers and muscling out the competition with unscrupulous business practices that is in no way inspired by the real world activities of World Wrestling Entertainment they provide a formidable existential threat for Tiger Mask as well as a mortal one, seeing as they are in reality a front for his sworn enemy the evil wrestling stable Tiger’s Den! Now it’s up to our feline fighter, with a little help from New Japan’s biggest stars, to see off this menace both in & out of the ring.

The structuring of the series in this way is clever stroke. For one it reflects a natural progression of how a modern day Tiger Mask would operate now, working his way up the fight card legitimately to draw out the target of his vengeance shielded within GWM. He even has a manager in his trainer’s niece Haruna, who matches wits across the table with head honcho Miss X. This all makes it much easier for a newer viewer to follow. I still recognise all the codes from my earlier WWF/WWE experience, such that I can interpret the narrative that couldn’t have existed in the first place without the far-reaching influence of an organisation like them. Simultaneously it ingratiated me to the star studded roster of NJPW who cameo and co-star throughout. Whether through their camaraderie with Tiger Mask on the wrestling stage or the zany antics surrounding it they’re a massively charismatic bunch. The show’s been a huge help in interpreting the cultural osmosis of Anitwitter and Pro-resu-twitter I often find myself immersed in!

Tiger Mask W 2

This is Tiger Mask though, and that means regular assaults by the latest wrestling assassin dispatched by Tiger’s Den to vanquish their feline foe. These encounters retain the brutality of the original material and then amp it up some; more than once have I gnawed my knuckle at the sight of necks being crushed and limbs being bent at torturous angles. I’ll never forget the collective grimace from the audience when playing a clip from the show at my anime fight scene panel earlier this year as they bore witness to a man getting piledrived by the face. It’s delightfully visceral. The anime then occupies this weird space where the deliberate drama of the professional wrestling world is juxtaposed against the “real” life or death struggle against Tiger’s Den. Strange occurrences crop up frequently like Tiger Mask racking his brains to develop a strategy to defeat a deadly opponent when all of a sudden we get exchanges along the line of “NJPW star Hiroshi Tanahashi?! What are YOU doing here?” / “I’m glad you asked that Tiger Mask! I’m here to help you come up with a new technique!” This would be tonal whiplash anywhere else yet it somehow fits in with the melodramatic nature of wrestling storylines anyway.

Tiger Mask W 3

All these disparate elements culminated in one of the most explosive finales to an anime series this year. After many victories, defeats and a journey of redemption Tiger Mask is at last face to face with his nemesis in the ring, winner takes all! On its own this would simply be a splendidly animated action set-piece to close out the show, but that would be to discount all the groundwork that led to this moment. The bubbling anger, the sneer of the scoundrel who’s eluded our hero and mocked him from the shadows all this time, the ruined lives seeking justice with the vanquishing of this villain; it washes over you like a tidal wave. An urge took hold of me and I found myself joining the chorus of voices lending their support to Tiger Mask in his final fight, shouting at the television willing him to land the pin and groaning in despair at every close call. I was back in my childhood on a Saturday morning cheering on my wrestling idols of old.

The high was so powerful that immediately afterwards I gorged myself on the most notable match-ups of New Japan. It was a glorious embodiment of the passion that drives the fighters, the fans, the series cast and the production staff who if even for a little while want you to feel an ounce of the boundless emotion they get from witnessing such a spectacle. I was touched by something truly special, connected across time & space with so many others fervently wishing for the same, a novice to the scene made to feel welcome amongst this great host. Tiger Mask W was the last place I expected to receive such an affirmation, speaking volumes about it’s ability to grasp you tightly in a headlock of undiluted feeling that is savage but sincere. It’s a testament to the power of anime itself that it can craft such singular experiences, reviving the legend of a hero of days past to send me back to relive a moment I believed long since lost.

The Pulp Fiction Priests of Vatican Miracle Examiner

VME title.jpg

Coming from Ireland I’ve been surrounded all my life by the rituals & iconography of Christianity. Our culture has been steeped in it for centuries, often to an unhealthy degree with the amount of sway the church has held on national affairs even to this day. As such the clergy have over the years lost some standing as figures to be emulated or admired. Indeed one of our greatest cultural touchstones, the satirical sitcom Father Ted, portrays them as hypocritical buffoons stuck in the past. The Irish experience with Christianity and Catholicism especially is a very particular one, its references generally lost on those outside the confines of this small island.

So I take no small amount of fascination/amusement in those instances where the disparate threads of my life intertwine when depictions of Christianity turn up in anime. Japan has its own complicated history with the religion, being one of the notable examples of a nation whose culture wasn’t subsumed when the missionaries arrived on their shores (dramatised to maudlin effect in the 2016 Martin Scorsese film Silence). Portrayals of Christianity in anime are often then quite shallow, generally only existing as a cool visual aesthetic or a source of esoteric references; think the nuns with guns in Chrono Crusade, zealous church enforcers in Hellsing or whatever the hell was going on in Ninja Resurrection. The trailers for Vatican Miracle Examiner appeared to be pushing something different though. Would this slick gothic mystery thriller do due diligence to matters of the faith?

VME 1

Based on a series of light novels by Rin Fujiki the anime follows the investigations of a pair of handsome priests who are dispatched by the Vatican’s Congregation Of Causes Of Saints to locations around the globe to investigate the authenticity or otherwise of reported miracles. Things are never as they seem of course and they get even stranger when they inevitably become embroiled in a murder mystery, leaving the clerics to turn their inquiries to catching the culprit and how their crimes are linked to the miracle of the week. Thankfully the good fathers have the skills to back it up. Josef Kou Hiraga is a genius of mathematics & science, his role suited to confirming whether the miracles have a basis in physical possibility. He can perform the last rites and then conduct the post-mortem on the body straight afterwards with machine-like accuracy. His partner Roberto Nicholas is of a more poetic bent, an expert in cryptology & arcane literature. His maxed out library skill can decode the theatrics obscuring the real motivations behind the heinous acts that otherwise bamboozle the regular authorities. Together they fight crime in the name of truth, justice and the good word of the Lord!

So does Vatican Miracle Examiner buck the trend of Christianity-centric anime before it? The short answer is not a chance! It’s inspirations lie less in the Bible than they do in the pulp fiction novels of yesteryear or the airport fiction of today . There’s simply no room for a nuanced take on theology with all these bodies piling up! This is disappointing in one respect but highly satisfying in another simply by nature of the impressive lengths the show takes its mysteries to. For never is it a simple of a crime of passion or for individual gain, as nearly every time Fathers Hiraga & Nicholas follow the clues it leads to them uncovering the sinister workings of some massive conspiracy that threatens the world. To reveal any more than this would be to ruin one of the great pleasures of Vatican Miracle Examiners, but suffice it to say that however crazy you suspect the truth to be it’s nearly an order of magnitude beyond that. All the old favourites are brought up or alluded to: Satanists, aliens, voodoo, King Solomon, the NWO, subterranean civilisations, you name it! I was counting the episodes until crystal skulls were name-dropped but was left wanting, though there’s still plenty of absurdity to go around.

VME 3

To be fair to Vatican Miracle Examiner there are token efforts made to address matters of religion. Josef & Roberto do grapple with the sceptical nature of their work and how they can possibly align it with their vocation, for is disproving a miracle not also questioning God’s existence? Their compromise is that by eliminating any possible explanation for the causes of miraculous occurrences then that will only make the veracity of a true one more apparent. Each have a personal stake in proving divine intervention after all, Josef for the sake of his critically ill brother and Roberto to reconcile his troubled past, and their resolve is tested more than once. These attempts still can’t help but be coloured by the show’s more outrageous leanings; Josef engages in a theological debate with his hacker comrade Lauren over a game of what can only be described as 360 degree chess in one episode, though the fantastical moral quandary discussed is actually more of a means to trick Lauren into admitting some semblance of faith in a higher power. By the way did I mention that Lauren is a super terrorist with an IQ of 200, released from prison to the Holy See who would make use of his abilities and fitted with a poison-filled anklet that will kill him immediately should he disobey orders?

VME 4

One would hesitate to call Vatican Miracle Examiner good, but it is definitely entertaining. This may take some getting past the construction of the anime itself which is a perplexing beast. Director Yoshitomo Yonetani and series composer Seishi Minakami are well versed in adapting from page to screen yet this production is not always so coherent. Strange effects are employed that are never used again, like a rendering of the sky to resemble Vincent Van Gogh’s “A Starry Night” which has no leaning thematically. Similarly they can’t quite figure out the exact proper use for a Dutch angle so take to using it liberally for any scene with a hint of unease. The framing of faces close together is another standout, meant to convey an uncomfortable confining mood, but with the lovely mugs of Hiraga & Nicholas has you wondering when they’re going to start kissing each other. Charitably you could say it all adds up to an atmosphere of uncertain dread that amplifies the madness of the plot and such is its brazenness they almost get away with it. This may be more a holdover of the books’ anything-goes philosophy or at least a symptom of uneven planning. I can see a resourceful approach like that adopted by David Production on Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure going a long way towards elevating the material here.

Nowadays when you hear the term “light novel” it brings to mind any number of tired conventions involving being trapped in a video game/parallel world/another body where the main character is the worst at everything but secretly the best at everything, so it’s preposterously refreshing to have something like Vatican Miracle Examiner that strays so wildly away from the norm. It evokes memories of older fare like Crystal Triangle, Spriggan or the works of Kazuo Koike & Tetsuya Sarawatari, particularly with the license it takes about what drugs actually do, and that’s a forgotten corner of anime that’s rarely seen these days that’s still fun if only for novelty’s sake. It’s a big greasy serving of priest-sploitation (or as I prefer to call it a police priest-cedural) that you know is probably bad for you but can’t help gorging on anyway. Much like the examiners themselves their methods may be radical but dammit if they don’t get results!

Vatican Miracle Examiner is available for streaming on Anime Strike.

The Lucky Losers of Magical Circle Guru Guru

Guru Guru title

Make no mistake, there is a LOT of anime coming out these days. Probably too much, if not for an audience to keep up with then certainly for the already stretched-to-breaking anime production industry to viably sustain. With such an immense volume of content coming to fans worldwide as it airs in Japan, from the latest big ticket series to the most esoteric short projects and that’s without mentioning the heaps upon heaps of older catalogue shows given new leases of life all on multiple streaming platforms, it trains a regular viewer to take a selective approach to their watchlist. However it still irks me greatly when some folks are wont to dismiss an anime season outright and then bemoan that they have too many things to watch in the next, as if the temperature of the medium can only be measured on a quarterly basis with “winners” and “losers” in each. Falling into that habit of making blanket dismissals only limits your taste and can close you off from singular experiences. Wouldn’t it be better to see a “weak” season as instead an opportunity to try something you might not otherwise have the time for?

So it was that one of the most consistently great anime of 2017, a superlative example of how to do an adaptation right, went mostly unnoticed when it aired back in July. This was personally a serendipitous experience as at various separate instances in the months leading up to the premiere of its newest incarnation I had heard the name Magical Circle Guru Guru dropped in relation to a host of things. Maybe it was about the original manga by Hiroyuki Eto or regarding the previous TV series and its sequel in conversations about the anime of the 1990s & 2000s. Either way it had wormed its way into my brain and here came a plum chance to satisfy that latent desire.

Guru Guru 1

The story is complete sword & sorcery fluff: an evil demon has arisen from his slumber to cast his dark influence upon the land, so the king beseeches a hero to step forward and take up the quest for justice. But luckily this is merely the setup for a good-natured satire of fantasy conventions with some loving homages to RPG video games of old, particularly Dragon Quest. Young protagonist Nike is no starry-eyed adventurer, instead pushed into action by his own over-bearing parents with visions of fortune & glory for their child. He summarily crashes through the window of Kukuri, last survivor of the Migu Migu tribe and sole heir to the strange magic of Guru Guru. With only the rantings of Kukuri’s elderly guardian to guide them the pair set off on their quest, and if Kukuri can experience the wonders of the wider world and Nike can fulfil his ambition of being a cool dude who gets loads of babes then all the better!

The anime is wise to never let the story get in the way of a good joke. This is immediately apparent in the rapid fire pacing of the episodes, which rush through the housekeeping of exposition to continually bring the focus back to the gags. This might arouse suspicions of the show having a severe attention deficit as it eagerly leaps from one tangent to the next but it never feels that way. For all the hoots our heroes couldn’t give about their quest it’s always moving forward in one way or another. This is an advantage the older anime adaptations didn’t possess of the manga having long since finished. Guru Guru 2017 will readily burn through half a volume of the sixteen book run in a single episode, while comparatively the 1994 series had to be content with covering volumes one through four across forty five episodes. The new anime is the leaner, meaner edited down experience yet it still rarely misses out on any of the original content from the manga, efficiently condensing down certain elements into blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gags or containing them within the swiftly flashing RPG menu-style pop-up text windows. Occasionally Guru Guru will cram so much into an episode, often introducing, elaborating & resolving a major plot event before the eyecatch and then doing it over again in the second half that it regularly eschews opening & closing credits altogether! The anime’s energy is infectious, like it can’t wait to show you what new cool thing it has in store just around the corner.

Guru Guru 2

It’s a miracle then that Magical Circle Guru Guru manages this pace while still leaving room to enamour you with its huge cast of bizarre characters. This version fully leans into the ethos of not giving a crap about the generic fantasy plotline, choosing instead to draw attention to the artifice of its setting whether it be for a good joke or, surprisingly, for a touching character moment. The world they inhabit is endearingly half-baked, so what the hell does it matter if it’s in service of something greater? By removing the focus from taking the grand quest too seriously it can now lay it on the interactions of Nike, Kukuri and their weirdo allies. A powerful tool they have at their disposal is Gipple, our heroes’ be-thonged wind sprite companion who serves as magical storage space, portable shelter and sarcastic travel guide. His most important function however is as a blunt instrument to cut through the treacle: whenever a dose of schmaltz rears its head or the party are about to walk into a hoary old “the real magic is the friends we made along the way!”style cliche, Gipple is on hand to make pained grimaces and break into convulsions, bringing the scene screeching to a halt. It’s a stroke of gross genius. By having an in-built mechanism to steer the story away from the path well trodden Guru Guru circumvents your expectations. Nike & Kukuri in a way break character from the plot and speak their minds to each other sincerely, making the bond they share feel so much more genuine.

Guru Guru 3

Consistency is the watchword for Magical Circle Guru Guru, and Production I.G. asssembled a solid stable of talent that delivered week after week. Director Hiroshi Ikehata is something of a journeyman who’s found a home for himself at I.G., and his performance here has piqued my interest further in the forthcoming FLCL sequel where he’ll soon be directing. Adapting a finished manga is an advantage readily capitalised on with veteran animator Hisaaki Okui proving themselves admirably in their first series composition gig to keep this anime all killer and no filler. Little did I know either that this would be one of the hidden visual showcases of the year, boasting sizeable storyboard and animation direction teams who maintain a level of quality from reliably good to regularly great. It’s quite difficult to poke holes in this production, and it can’t be overstated just how solidly planned out it is. Even as the series approaches the climax at time of writing its pacing may have gotten the best of it and certain story factors have needed to be pared back, but rather than paper that over it embraces the stumble and works it into a gag that doesn’t feel at all out of place with the show’s satirical tone. Even when falling down the stairs it still lands on its feet!

guru owns 3

There’s so much to unpack with Magical Circle Guru Guru that couldn’t be contained within a single reasonably sized blog post: the meta-textual nature of the Guru Guru magic itself, the surfeit of awesome ideas waiting to be appropriated for a tabletop RPG session, it’s strange affinity for the wise old man character archetype reinforced by a wacko recurring hanger-on party member before culminating in a team of geriatric adventurers who have their own anime intro sequence and can’t seem to keep their shirts on. I’m confident it’ll be looked back on as an overlooked classic that got lost in the seasonal scramble, but it’s waiting right there to be discovered and thoroughly enjoyed. It pays to take a little side quest now & again for who knows what magical adventure you’ll get swept up in next! (BLURRRGH!)

Magical Circle Guru Guru is available for streaming on Crunchyroll.

The Ghastly Goods of The Laughing Salesman

Laughing Salesman title

We seem to be living through a time when the wicked face little to no consequences for their heinous actions. With the advent of more sophisticated & widespread communication we’ve gotten closer to people we may never have been able to previously meet and expanded our experiences with access to all kinds of specialist knowledge at our fingertips, but more often than not this turn of events has only made us more privy to the bullshit behaviour transpiring in the world at large. It’s all too easy to fantasise about a suitable comeuppance for these dastardly miscreants, though is it the best course of action to counter one wrong turn with another?

It’s into this new realm of terror that the newest incarnation of The Laughing Salesman emerges, based on the 1968 manga by Fujiko Fujio A aka Motoo Abiko, one half of the famous duo behind Doraemon. It’s essentially a series of cautionary tales centred on the strange interventions of the titular rictus-grinned salesman Moguro Fukuzou. Wherever a person feels a sense of longing, envy or desire Moguro is wont to appear before them offering his services for no monetary fee, just the satisfaction of having a customer receive what they need. This assistance always comes with some fine print however, and woe betide anybody who dares ignore it lest they face an all-too-fitting punishment to match their transgressions as Moguro seals their fate with a triumphant “DON!”

Laughing Salesman 3

The Laughing Salesman doesn’t fit neatly into the Twilight Zone-style hypothetical moral quandary mould however. For all the supernatural aura surrounding Moguro the problems he’s “helping” with seem all too ordinary. Indeed even the targets of his actions are generally average folks without obvious malice who let their poor impulse control get the best of them. So one quickly realises this is less a story about an avatar of reprisal meting out karmic justice to ne’er do wells than it is about tut-tutting the everyday bad habits or poor character of certain sectors of society. It betrays its seinen manga roots in this manner, if it weren’t obvious from the revolving cast of put-upon white collar workers, as these stories quite clearly skew towards an older audience who wouldn’t be above feeling a pang of self-righteousness watching these unfortunates who don’t have their lives fully together fall to pieces. Thank heavens I’m not as bad off as that guy! This dearth of sympathy can be off-putting to say the least and if often can’t help but feel like the series is punching down at its subjects.

Saying that, if one can get past that pretty mean aspect it becomes all the more fascinating of an anime. Moguro’s creepy appearance and apparent omnipotence certainly lend him an unsettling diabolical air, but at the heart of it this dude is just a massive asshole. So if you can divest yourself early of the notion of there being a grand lesson to be learned from all this misery you may find yourself taking a perverse pleasure in trying to guess just how badly Moguro is going to destroy his victim’s life. Much like Fujiko Fujio’s more famous rotund disaster artist this salesman has a wide variety of useful items on offer to solve any problem so long as you follow the strangely specific rules, and the fun lies in waiting for the appropriate catastrophe to unfold. Some episodes play out as bumbling comedies of error with a cruel punchline. Others feel more in content & tone like a full-on horror film, to such an extent that you’ll wonder if Moguro really just sent a man to his death for want of meeting a girlfriend. Nevertheless you’ll feel the anticipation build as he sets his sights on the latest mild-mannered office drone, lures them down the path of temptation, exacerbates their worst tendencies and then looms from the shadows at the finish, full of I told you so-s even knowing full well he set them up for the fall, before laying the “DON!” down on them and vanishing into the night, hooting with glee. That sure showed them Moguro!

Laughing Salesman 2

This newer series is comprised of twenty minute episodes broken up into two separate segments, with writing duties divided between Asami Ishikawa, Midori Natsu and Naohiro Fukushima. While one part will usually be a straight adaptation of one of the stories from the manga the other will be a new tale that puts a more interesting spin on the formula. For society has progressed on quite a great deal since the times of the manga and the previous TV series so now The Laughing Salesman can take aim at more present day concerns such as mobile phones, self-improvement fads, adults still living with their parents and of course THE INTERNET! Updated subject matter does not necessarily mean any great break from convention though so don’t expect many grand revelations beyond “Don’t be a jerk on social media”. By nature of its structure this means some stories will always resonate better than others, but also that if one segment doesn’t work for you then chances are the next one will. All the better for one to get into the Golgo 13-like rhythm of anticipation to see not if but how Moguro will get his man this week.

Laughing Salesman 1

The Laughing Salesman’s vindictive tone takes some getting used to but there are rewards to be garnered if, much like the premise, you go along with its obtuse demands. For one there are fascinating things to be read about the psychology of social conformity and the petty slights that some just can’t let slide. It’s fun in and of itself though you can’t help feeling that there might have been a more sophisticated application of this premise that really could have delved into some deeper issues, but alas that’s not what’s in stock here. This is car crash television in the real sense of the term, as you fear the dire consequences to come but cannot avert your gaze. Let the buyer beware!

The Laughing Salesman is currently available for streaming on Crunchyroll.