Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Urban Hells

For more from Elwin Cotman, visit his blog.

A wide shot of four skyscrapers, pitch-black silhouettes. The camera pans back, revealing the clouds that cling insignificantly to the buildings, while below the city spreads out endlessly. It is daytime. It will be night soon enough. Over the ambient soundtrack, a voice narrates the precarious situation. Our world coexists with another: the Black World. For centuries, a truce has existed between the two, but now the terms must be renegotiated. There are those entrusted to protect the human race from Black World radicals and the war they desire.

Cut to a nighttime street. Cars locked bumper to bumper, honking. An underground after-hours club. An average-looking Japanese salaryman is having a scotch at the neon-lit bar, conversing with a suave bartender. Cut to a restroom: closeup on a woman’s mouth, a hand with lilac nails sharpened to points filling in her lips with red lipstick. Before the mirror she stands, pearl-white skin, her black bangs forming a straight ridge above her eyebrows. Her too-perfect hair falls straight down on either side of her angel’s face. She smiles at her reflection, puts the lipstick in her purse and leaves the ladies room. The camera pans down to a hand on the floor, in the front of the shot, the fingers clutched and rigid. The woman approaches the man. This is a quiet bar, on a slow night. They are the only customers. Small talk is exchanged before they leave together.

Last year, I was a panelist at the inaugural FOGcon (Friends of Genre) convention in San Francisco. The theme was “The City in Science Fiction and Fantasy.” As an urban fantasy writer, I loved this. For many years, the prototypical fantasy setting was the pastoral, medieval Europe pastiche. However, there were always writers who bucked the trend, looking for magic in the crowding, filth and stagnation of the urban. Fritz Lieber is a notable old master. Nowadays, the city is seen as an ever more viable location for weird fiction. I don’t know what it’s like to be a squire riding around Europe on a horse, but I know what it’s like to be within the majesty and mystery of New York City or San Francisco.

It’s a blast to write supernatural scenes that take place in apartment complexes and abandoned warehouses, neglected playgrounds and parking lots and highway underpasses. I grew up in an industrial city, so to me these landscapes are beautiful. When it comes to appreciating the city’s place in dark fantasy, one director had as much of an impact on me as any writer: Yoshiaki Kawajiri, creator of Wicked City, Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

From the early days of his career, Kawajiri shared an almost symbiotic relationship with weird author Hideyuki Kikuchi, creator of Vampire Hunter D and one of the most unabashed pulp writers working today. Kikuchi’s novels are typically post-apocalyptic, filled to the brim with chimerical monsters and spaghetti western plots. Kawajiri’s second adaptation of a Kikuchi novel was Demon City Shinjuku (1988), in which the ruins of the Shinjuku district are the setting for an epic battle against the forces of Hell. Armed with a bokken sword, the young hero descends into this dungeon to defeat an evil sorcerer and complete the monomyth. Naturally, as a child watching it (courtesy of Blockbuster) I loved the fight scenes. What really grabbed me, though, was the detail of the city itself. With a photographic eye, Kawajiri transfers Shinjuku locales straight to the film, only now they are the desiccated corpses of what they once were.

This all fits with his dark vision. Cities are man’s greatest shrine to himself. Instead of living within nature like other animals, we destroy nature and replace it with edifices of our own construction. They are the ultimate statement of our dominion. So what happens when these places are wrested from us by creatures out of nightmare — the man-crab who the heroes battle on the subway, or the serpent-woman in the bar — then molded to reflect the hells they come from, and we’re forced to hide like rats in the sewers?

Simply looking at Kawajiri’s titles let’s you know his obsession: WICKED CITY. DEMON CITY. CYBER CITY. His directorial flourishes are instantly recognizable: breathtaking fight scenes, graphic sex, monsters, body horror, apocalyptic imagery, and a focus on urban areas. His character designs are distinctive: realistically rendered human characters, by anime standards, with square-jawed men, porcelain-skinned women, gangly villains with aquiline features and widow’s peaks, and brilliantly detailed monsters. These are demons of the medieval variety; they represent the forbidden feelings of lust as well as avarice. In olden times, witches were thought to gain powers by sleeping with Satan, and this association of black magic with sex has lasted through the ages.

The director does nothing by half measures. Every single setting in his films is gorgeous, be it gorgeously ornate, gorgeously futuristic, or gorgeously decayed. What his movies lack in plot they make up for in some of the most fully rendered cityscapes put to animation. His cities are monstrous things, black buildings reaching ever higher, streets that seem to descend into the earth’s bowels, the powerful observing their domain from Towers of Babel. Demon City Shinjuku is one of those movies where I can turn the sound off and just enjoy the power of the visuals.

Kawajiri directed three movies based on Kikuchi’s books. He also wrote the screenplay for A Wind Named Amnesia (1990), another Kikuchi adaptation, a science fiction road trip where the heroes battle demons genetic, cybernetic and, scariest of all, human. The mix of action, science fiction and the dark supernatural in Shinjuku and Amnesia set a precedent for Kawajiri’s later work.

Kawajiri’s heyday was the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when anime was hyper-violent. I don’t think I’m being nostalgic when I say that, no, they really don’t make them like this anymore. Sometime in the last fifteen years the anime industry toned down the gore significantly. Kawajiri is working within the same body horror genre as his contemporaries John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. Because he is making cartoons, he can take his exploration of the grotesque to lengths they could not. Kawajiri is interested in the way the body can be mutilated, infected and destroyed. Humans get eviscerated in all kinds of ways, but the greatest danger is from within. The idea of the body turning against itself is only appropriate for films in which civilization is attacked from the inside. In keeping with the subject matter, Kawajiri’s color palette is dark, with light and shadow combining to eerie effect. The use of music and diegetic sound gives a feeling of creeping dread. These are movies made by someone who understands horror.

In his films, the city is usually a staging ground for good versus ultimate evil. There are casualties. Tokyo often takes a beating. He is interested in the destroyed city, the megalopolis turned anarchic. The dead city where most of the population are corpses, turned into a playground for devils. At the heart of his films is the message that there are other things out there. They’re older than us, stronger than us, and they’re ready to strike.

Take for example, his 1987 adaptation of Kikuchi’s Wicked City, the film whose intro I described in the first paragraph. It takes place in Tokyo in the 1980s, and focuses on a member of the Black Guard, a Men in Black-style organization fighting to maintain the truce with the Black World. He and a Black World woman are charged with guarding an ambassador from otherworldly terrorists. In true anime fashion, the ambassador is a lecherous old dwarf. This film was one of my earliest introductions to “hidden society” fantasy. You don’t have to go through a magic portal to find otherworldly things. They’re hidden in plain sight, in that girl giving you the eye at the bar, or that perfectly normal-looking hotel you drive by. Magic is in the city, and it’s dangerous. Those who fight black magic also live in the city, their mystic temples situated amid the modern buildings.

I’ll always remember the scene in Wicked City where the heroes are driving through a tunnel, and strings of giant spider web appear across the windshield. Before they know it, they are tangled in a giant web in the middle of the tunnel. Or the battle on the airport runway, when airplanes taking off and runway lights glowing through the fog accentuate the kung fu and gunshots. Every train yard, parking garage and construction site can be the scene for a Sergeo Leone-meets-Dario Argento showdown. There is a playfulness to this approach. Kawajiri elevates his pulp material through the integration of setting.

Wicked City is also a prime example of his erotic excesses. His most explicitly pornographic film, its demonic bestiary includes a spider-woman with a fanged pelvis, a prostitute whose body melts to entrap the dwarf ambassador, and, for the operatic climax, a mesmerist whose whole torso turns into a pulsing vagina. These demons are portrayed as powerful villains who constantly get the drop on the heroes, and their particular ways of entrapment say as much about visions of sex at the start of the AIDS era as does Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Also, for all the molestation she is put through, the female protagonist Maki is a respectable fighter and integral to the plot. The hentai elements are less excusable in his other films (in Ninja Scroll they’re downright distracting) but it’s something that has to be mentioned when talking of his oeuvre, the same as with Cronenberg or Miike.

In other hands, Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990) would be a forgettable shoot-‘em-up. Instead, it’s a masterful cyberpunk actioner, thanks to the beautiful animation and Kawajiri’s well-defined sense of place. The premise of the OVA is tense enough: three convicted felons are fitted with exploding collars, and are employed to hunt down cyber-criminals in exchange for years off their life sentences. If they fail, the collar blows up. This OVA perfectly demonstrates the genre-bending nature of Kawajiri’s work. In the second episode, one of the heroes battles a military cyborg made from the remains of a dead man, but the way it is filmed the robot might as well be a demon from Hell. In Kawajiri’s hands, the skyscraper becomes a tower where a knight goes one-on-one with a dragon in a blood-drenched fight to the death.

The “scientific demon” motif occurs throughout the series; the villain in the first episode is a dead architect whose conscious inhabits a skyscraper’s computer mainframe, a nightmare vision of a decaying corpse surrounded by electrical wires. The villain in the third installment is a biotech-based vampire. This is Lovecraftian scifi. Kawajiri loves molding the accoutrements of the contemporary and/or futuristic to fit his horrific visions. I can recall no less than four movies in which the despotic overlord rules the city from the largest building, looking down like Sauron over his domain. Thus, the natural hierarchy of the city, in which the powerful occupy shining towers, is taken to mythic levels. Cyber City Oedo 808 is unfortunately only three episodes, but Kawajiri packs enough mystery and action into them for a whole series.

The urban landscape doesn’t mean there isn’t a larger world in his films. Ninja Scroll starts with the hero roaming through feudal Japan. Cyber City Oedo 808 starts in space. However, the heroes inevitably end up in urban areas, fighting Boschian cyborgs and yokai in abandoned Shinto shrines and mountainous skyscrapers. The city becomes a version of the labyrinth; if these desperate characters ever want to leave, they have to battle their way out. Kawajiri bucks this trend in Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, which is a quest story, the titular hunter tracking his quarry across a post-apocalyptic landscape. In Kawajiri’s earlier movies, the city has been invaded, occupied, stricken with plague, and reduced to ruin. In Bloodlust, it’s wiped out entirely. The freaks who the Black Guard fought against have taken over.

His arguable best movies are Ninja Scroll and Bloodlust. One is mythic steampunk in the Tokugawa era, the other is post-apocalyptic. It’s interesting that the definitive director of urban fantasy anime had to move away from the contemporary to do his best work. His movies are daring, horrifying, and, to this day, he is the only person on Earth to direct a good Highlander sequel. We’re lucky to have him.

Elwin Cotman was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Jack Daniels Sessions EP (Six Gallery Press), a collection of short stories that was nominated for two 2011 Carl Brandon Society Awards. His next collection is scheduled for a May 2012 release. He lives and writes in Oakland, California. His favorite authors (at this moment) are Robert E. Howard and Hans Christian Andersen.

2 replies to “Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Urban Hells

  1. Pingback: Locus Online Monitor » Online Periodicals, mid-January

  2. I really enjoyed this essay — I had a love affair with his films studying animation at University. Ninja Scroll is regarded as one of the best for good reason — the monsters are great and the story is fascinating. It’s interesting you describe it as mythic steampunk; a great deal of anime is set in the Meiji Era, the Japanese equivalent of the Victorian period. (I’d personally love to read some Shogun Steampunk!) It’s also interesting to look at the impact the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Japanese writing, particularly their obsession with post-apocalyptic stories in both film and print.