City Hunter was doing pretty well for itself in 1989. The second TV anime adaptation of Tsukasa Hojo’s manga following the adventures of dirty-minded detective Ryo Saeba was still going strong up until the end of Spring, with a third season due to premiere in October of that year. Some serious momentum to be sure, so wouldn’t it be risky to let that slow if the viewing public had no City Hunter to watch for any extended period? Such one can imagine may have been the rationale of the producers at Sunrise when they aimed to fill that gap in the Summer of ’89 with the franchises first feature length outing. Retaining series director Kenji Kodama and much of the TV staff it’s a wonder that a blockbuster movie in the vein of its action cinema inspirations hadn’t happened for City Hunter sooner.
Trouble arrives in .357 Magnum when two strangers fly into Tokyo: the first a foreign dignitary in possession of a valuable briefcase who is promptly killed for his troubles by mysterious assailants in broad daylight at the airport terminal; the other is world famous pianist Nina Shutenberg who seeks the aid of Ryo and sidekick Kaori in locating her long lost father, a man who also has ties to Ryo and fellow sweeper Umibozu’s former mercenary careers. To complicate matters further these disparate cases link back to top Tokyo cop/femme fatale Saeko Nogami’s investigation of the airport assassins, whose organisation can’t be charged for their crimes because of DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY. Soon Nina finds herself in terrible danger, Ryo has another would-be paramour to bodyguard and Kaori has her work cut out keeping his libido in check.
So far, so City Hunter, and indeed .357 Magnum goes to some lengths to cultivate a familiar environment for fans of the TV series. We first catch up with the down-on-their-luck team in a scene mirroring the first episode of season two as Kaori peddles their services outside Shinjuku station while a disinterested Ryo finds distraction in more salacious pursuits. Cameos abound from characters such as Saeko’s equally devious sister Reika and Umibozu’s business partner/love interest Miki. It’s a comfortable setting to slip back into but for City Hunter’s debut feature film it comes off as playing it too safe. Remember it was headed for a third (albeit truncated) season that Autumn so one would hope they’d be a bit more ambitious, though looking at the time frame it appears obvious; it’s a tall order to ask many of the same staff just coming off City Hunter 2 and presumably already laying the groundwork for City Hunter 3 to fit this into their cramped schedule too. Thus the quality level of .357 Magnum’s animation rarely strays above TV standard and the plotting & pacing are more equivalent to a longer series episode than a feature film. This has the unfortunate side effect of protracting Ryo’s frequent bouts of lechery, such that it feels like the middle third of the movie is nothing but a succession of panty raids ended swiftly by a mallet to the head. As a compromise though we do get a genuinely thrilling assault on the villains’ mansion at the end, catharsis arriving in the more socially acceptable bad behaviour of gun-based violence. It’s equally ambivalent on whether this story will be canon or not; the plot point concerning Nina’s father is drawn from an episode in season one but never greatly elaborated on, which is perfectly fine for a Shonen Jump franchise film that doesn’t want to upset the status quo too much. But -then- some shadowy figures appear at the end to threaten the head villain, alluding to greater powers operating behind the scenes. Will these be expounded upon in later films or TV series? When I finish watching them I’ll tell ya!
This isn’t to say .357 Magnum is completely featureless, as it still stays true to City Hunter’s spirit as an homage and response to contemporary action cinema. It’s bang on trend for the late 80s with the gang of vaguely Eurotrash terrorists/criminals who bamboozle the local authorities with their cunning foreigner ways (see also: Die Hard, Red Heat, elements of Beverly Hills Cop). Saeko’s efforts to apprehend these villains within the rule of law are thwarted by goddamn bureaucratic regulations so naturally it falls to Good Guy With A Gun Ryo Saeba to bring them to book. He’s not off the case! He was never on the case to begin with! But will he be able to finish the job when he learns that Nina’s father, the former honourable mercenary commander, has thrown his lot in with these miscreants? Another story would have this end in tragedy, and to be fair .357 Magnum wrings a fair amount of melodrama out of it to lead your thinking that way before upending your expectations. This is City Hunter after all, a much kinder universe where in spite of the gunfights, car chases and collateral damage an actual death is rare and most everybody gets a happy ending as they’re whisked away on Sunrise Airlines. In a genre prone to manufacturing cheap drama out of killing off characters suddenly, often women and often to no other purpose than providing the heroes with a motivation, it deserves some credit for showing an alternative outcome.
And how about those contemporaries? 1989 had some notable standouts in the action cinema field (which will also have their 30th anniversaries this year. How ’bout that!). In the anime realm alone there are some heavy hitters: Kenichi Sonoda’s rip-roaring getaway driver romp Riding Bean; Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s lurid adaptation of Buichi Terasawa’s cyber-enhanced sleuth Goku Midnight Eye; two wildly different visions of the future of law enforcement with Manga Video bloodbath favourite Angel Cop and the much more sensible first film from Mobile Police Patlabor; some other problem-solvers for hire get to work in the Crusher Joe OVA and beloved career criminal Lupin The Third conquers America in Goodbye Lady Liberty. All fine entertainment you’ll no doubt agree, but it’s in other media where we see some interesting parallels. This year saw the release of action classics such as Road House and Tango & Cash, while closer to home there was the continuing partnership of John Woo and Chow Yun Fat in The Killer and Takeshi Kitano making his directorial debut with Violent Cop. Also appearing was a little franchise sequel called Lethal Weapon 2, notable in this case for featuring a similar plot to .357 Magnum involving foreign criminals evading justice using the shield of DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY. This device was nothing new in fiction, having cropped up before in TV series such as Mission Impossible, not to mention employed in the real world for actual heinous deeds (or just to get out of paying a parking ticket). Lethal Weapon 2’s depiction however, along with its brutal revocation, is easily one of the most memorable so it’s just amusing to learn that City Hunter beat it to the punch by a matter of weeks (In other relevant popular culture though the Batman comics storyline A Death In The Family can argue it got there before the pair of them in December 1988, installing the Joker as the Iranian ambassador to the UN so he can more effectively taunt Batman over the murder of Jason Todd). For alternative trends of 1989 they could have latched onto we had the phenomenon of K9 and Turner & Hooch coming out in quick succession. Maybe .357 Magnum needed a crime-fighting dog sidekick to give it a real shot in the arm!
Not the most auspicious of starts for City Hunter’s film career, but from my viewing of the output so far there seems to be a subtle refinement over time, perhaps when the production team have been freed from the precarious position of working so closely between TV series. We’ll find out as well what parallels or otherwise exist in contemporary popular culture and by the end of this see what size shoes Shinjuku Private Eyes will have to fill come early February. Keep your ears to the streets!