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.
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.
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.
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!
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.