By the mid 1990s those last vestiges of 80s decadence had well and truly been overshadowed by stark reality and economic hardship. Especially in Japan, whose world-beating but incredibly volatile bubble economy burst spectacularly in 1992, the effects were widely felt. The anime OVA boom which gave rise to any number of weird projects shrank considerably and there was no small amount of hesitation in the production of any new works. Much like how 90s fashions mutated from 80s aesthetics there was a similar unwillingness to let go of familiar comforts no matter how wrongheaded a choice it may be. City Hunter saw out the end of its regular run both on TV and in print by the close of 1991. Tsukasa Hojo seemed content to pursue other avenues in his manga, whether it was the adventures of an unorthodox prison doctor in Rash!!, or the comparatively more serene tales of a psychic gardener in Under The Dappled Shade. City Hunter, with its international success and rich world ripe for further adaptation, was difficult for others to move beyond however, so Sunrise and Yomiuri TV brought the gang out of retirement at the turn of 1996 for one last job (or as history will show, a sequence of them) but would these now classic characters still prove relevant years after the fact?
The Secret Service does on the face of things aim for the political thriller heights its title suggests. James Maguire, presidential hopeful for the recently liberated fictional country of Guinam, is in Tokyo to ingratiate himself with the Japanese government and maybe pick up a few policy ideas going forward. A deadly threat looms over the visit and thus his aide Rosa taps the City Hunter team to bolster their defences. Maguire’s concern is not for his own life however but that of his estranged daughter Anna, a law officer in her own right who by sheer happenstance has been placed on his security detail via the Tokyo police force. As Ryo and Kaori delve deeper into the case the lingering ghosts of Maguire’s past as a freedom fighter place further strain on his convictions and any hope of reconciliation with his daughter, and worse yet may prove the undoing of them both. With an assortment of alluring beauties in the diplomatic entourage will Ryo be able to keep his mind on the job and his hands off the clients? Will Kaori somehow rig a battering ram trap to swing in through a 59th story window to pulverise Ryo’s entire frame when he inevitably fails to do so? The answers may not surprise you in the least!
And therein lies the problem: even if you had little to no familiarity with City Hunter there’s next to nothing in The Secret Service that holds any mystery. It’s almost immediately obvious who in Maguire’s group is leaking sensitive information to the villains and you can see their motivations for doing so from leagues away. Similarly the cause behind the rift between Maguire and Anna is an easily resolved misunderstanding, such that the special has to insert a separate ulterior motive in the third act to keep the family drama chugging along. Not even the assassin drafted in to counter Ryo possesses much charisma, swayed to the job with the vague goal of “killing City Hunter will make me famous”, which to be fair was the same for the hitman in Million Dollar Conspiracy but at least that dude had the explosive RC car gimmick! It’s perhaps a symptom of the longer runtime that the boilerplate City Hunter plot upcycled from the TV series can’t withstand extended scrutiny; with the proper execution it can be engaging but dumped here with little in the way of artistic flair its shortcomings are far more difficult to mask.
That’s without getting into City Hunter’s -regular- shortcomings in the area of gender relations, an ever-present background noise to be dealt with for any iteration of the franchise but of particular note in The Secret Service for the extra layer of discomfort placed on top. Anna has the unlucky chore of being the target of Ryo’s unwanted affections while he serves as her bodyguard, which isn’t an unusual problem initially as she soundly rebuffs him at every turn. It’s the way Ryo gradually wears her down, not letting up in his antics but then feeling super bad about it and guilting Anna into liking him to the extent that she concludes she should apologise to him, that makes the experience so much more exhausting. The emotional manipulation, whether it’s leveraging Anna’s daddy issues or making the allusion that her vocation diminishes her as a woman, make for a problem you can’t overlook as the usual City Hunter cheeky carry on. It doesn’t help either that Anna’s involvement could be read as a blatant case of nepotism rather than an acknowledgement of her skills. Sure it was engineered by the devious Saeko Nogami in an effort to get these two to reconcile, but who is she to talk when her dad is the goddamn chief of police! It sure would offer one explanation as to how she gets away with being a maverick renegade; there’s a much more entertaining film buried in here somewhere about Saeko cleaning up the streets of a crime-ridden Tokyo while butting heads with the chief as she forestalls his attempts to marry her off by taking on increasingly dangerous assignments, but alas!
The Secret Service came to be in a world that had passed it by in more ways than one. In the action cinema landscape there was a palpable sense of a changing of the guard, a certain specialisation that set them apart from the mindless meat grinders of the 80s. Young guns like Michael Bay came to prominence with Bad Boys in 1995 and defined a new template for the genre, while Robert Rodriguez caught greater attention via the redux of his earlier work in Desperado. The simple cops & robbers story was transmuted into a character driven saga lent further prestige by the involvement of Al Pacino and Robert Dr Nero in Michael Mann’s much acclaimed Heat. Not to be outdone some established properties upped their game considerably, such as John McClane bringing a friend along for another bad day in supersized return to form Die Hard With A Vengeance. Even the legendary lothario James Bond, a clear influence on City Hunter, picked up a few new tricks by the time he returned to the big screen after years in the wilderness in GoldenEye (thanks in no small part to the charms of one Mr Pierce Brosnan). Bolstered by some consistent successes the anime industry was regaining confidence and ready to take some chances again. 1995 saw the release of seminal Ultraman homage Neon Genesis Evangelion and for years afterwards dozens of anime series would wedge obtuse psychodrama into their plotlines with generally awkward results, but Eva still proved there was a larger than expected audience for more challenging content. Similarly the year would be capped by Mamoru Oshii’s philosophical cyber thriller Ghost In The Shell, a film still discussed and reimagined ad nauseum that would make equally sizeable waves among the global anime community (not to mention being bang on trend for stories of technological intrigue with Hackers, The Net and Johnny Mnemonic all released in ’95). While not the first anime to interrogate complex themes of existence, consciousness and the nature of the soul these properties did highlight a wider shift in audience taste towards more intellectually stimulating material. Placed alongside such contemporaries City Hunter’s old-fashioned charms seem positively quaint. I will give the production credit for cracking open a newspaper in the intervening years at least, as James Maguire’s journey from a country’s political prisoner to its president mirrors that of Nelson Mandela who was inaugurated in South Africa in 1994.
City Hunter was out of touch but not out of time. While it wasn’t the most glorious of returns The Secret Service certainly put Ryo Saeba & Co. back on the viewing public’s radar, enough to generate sufficient goodwill for additional specials that Sunrise and Yomiuri TV would be more than happy to supply. Looking at the timeline I wonder whether steadily renewing interest is what may have spurred Tsukasa Hojo to return to the City Hunter universe just a couple of years later and I’m eager to see if this is so. Just when ya think you’re out they pull ya back in!