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

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June 21, 2006
In 1987, two movies happened to come out with the same title: The Running Man. One was a masterfully directed, stylish vision of the future that presented entertainment we currently know, only with the stakes raised in order to satisfy the audience's bloodlust. The other was a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A fifteen-minute short, The Running Man was part of an anime anthology titled Labyrinth Tales, aka Manie Manie (released in North America as Neo-Tokyo). The director was Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who had worked on such significant anime titles as Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, Future Boy Conan, Barefoot Gen and Dagger of Kamui. His directorial debut was 1984's Lensman, a (very) loose adaptation of E.E. "Doc" Smith's classic space opera stories, and incidentally the first anime to make extensive use of CGI. Lensman was sort of a transitional moment for Kawajiri, with some characters designed atypically for anime: Particular attention was paid to details like facial wrinkles and hair, more intricate costume detailing for some characters, and sharper shading delineations.

Kawajiri fully embraced this style in his next two films, combining the look with moody backgrounds and lighting effects, more stylized animation, selective colour palettes and dramatic staging. These two films both came out in 1987: the feature-length supernatural noir thriller Wicked City and the future-noir racing spectacle The Running Man.

In true noir fashion, The Running Man's story is told in voiceovers by a reporter covering the story of Zack Hugh, a race car driver who has survived the Death Race for an unprecedented ten years. The Death Race is aptly named: racers tear around a track in high-tech hover cars, linked psychically to their vehicles. Spectacular flaming crashes are not only a regular occurrence, they're highly anticipated.

The first half of The Running Man jumps between a race and Zack in his home, demonstrating to the flabbergasted reporter how he's managed to survive for so long. He's been telekinetically sabotaging the other cars during races, killing the drivers so grotesquely that the ones that crash and burn can be considered lucky. But using this ability is hardship for Zack: his face contorts in agony, and his muscles become unnaturally tense.

The rest of the film is Zack's final race. As he pushes himself harder and harder, eliminating opponents all around him one at a time, the strain to his body begins to take its toll. His death is as spectacular as the race that immediately precedes it; in fact, it's only when he continues driving after crossing the finish line that we realize he's already dead, his sheer malevolence keeping him going. It's only when the car, under as much strain as his body, begins to come apart and eventually consume itself and Zack in a slow-motion fireball that the race finally ends.

Like Wicked City and the next few films Kawajiri went on to make over the years (including Ninja Scroll and the the Program segment of The Animatrix) The Running Man amplifies anime's use of limited animation, by making creative use of cycles and held images panned across the frame. Everything is given extra detail; enough to give the scenes a certain richness, but not so much that it becomes impossible for the animator to draw or the viewer to take in. What this means is that there's less actual animation, but what's there looks so spectacular—though sometimes mathematically precise to an unnerving degree—you don't mind. Couple that with careful use of audio (including silence) and a soundtrack that only steps in when it needs to, and The Running Man is as captivating as anything Kawajiri has ever made.

Haruki Kadokawa Films
50 minutes
Buy Neo-Tokyo from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

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