October 31, 2007
In the late 1980s, Yoshiaki Kawajiri directed four projects that would cement his distinctive style: the short film The Running Man, the 2-part OAV series Goku: Midnight Eye, and the features Yojutoshi (aka Wicked City, produced in 1987) and Demon City Shinjuku. All of them share Kawajiri's trademark slickness and his knack for moodiness, but only the last two feature supernatural horrors running around a nighttime urban landscape as if it were their natural habitat.
Of the two, Wicked City is the better movie overall. It posits the existence of the Black World, a world inhabited by demons that coexists with our own. Few know about the Black World, and fewer still know that every few hundred years, a peace treaty is signed between the Black World and ours, guaranteeing peaceful coexistence; a secret organization known as the Black Guard enforces the treaty. A splinter group of demons wants to sabotage the current peace treaty by killing the 200-year-old Giuseppe Mayart, a key figure in brokering the deal. Two Black World agents are assigned the task of protecting him: the human Taki Renzaburo, who carries a big gun and knows how to use it, and the beautiful, human-looking demon Makie, whose weapons of choice are her extendable, deadly-sharp fingernails.
The entire film takes place at night, of course, which allows not only for a reduced, somber colour palette and countless shadows, but an opportunity to explore the idea of an underworld in both common senses—the realm of the unnatural, and a criminal urban milieu that exists, much like the Black World, in parallel to our own. It's notable that many of the demons make their initial appearance not as ugly beasties, but as men and women in the dress we're accustomed to seeing in urban crime stories. The first female demon Taki encounters is in the form of a bar hostess; the first male demons are dressed in sharp black business suits. Confrontations take place in many of the same locations as in traditional noir films: foggy airport runways, hotel bars, back rooms, run-down buildings, brothels.
The setting is perfect for Kawajiri's style, which favours gorgeous establishing shots, backgrounds dense with details and scenes with one or two dominant colours. Particularly distinctive are the many ways that light spills into scenes: airplane lights on a foggy runway, street lights as a car speeds toward the city, moonlight filtering into a church. All of his movies play with these elements, but only Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuku make use of them all.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Wicked City is the large part that women's sexuality plays in it. Anyone with a double major in women's studies and film studies needs to watch this film, for the many ways in which it plays with the many images of women and men's fears. You've got vagina dentata, a spider-woman, a prostitute who literally absorbs her victims—the list goes on. The things that women do and the things that are done to women in this film could fill a few thesis papers, I'm sure. Either way—as a study in gender relations or just an exceedingly stylish film with nasty beasties and awesomely choreographed action—Wicked City is a must-see.
Where to find it: On DVD at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, or Right Stuf