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For NINJA SCROLL, VAMPIRE HUNTER D, Yoshiaki Kawajiri & Under-Rated "Japanimation" - - OTAKU COMING HOME

While Nick is busy visiting every Maid-cafe in Japan, close pal and colleague Alex Eckman-Lawn steps in to shed some light on one of anime’s darkest directors and under-appreciated eras.

Previously on OTAKU COMING HOME...

What’s up Anime Vice readers! My name is Alex Eckman-Lawn, and I’ll be filling in for Nick for the next month while he’s off, appropriately enough, in great Nippon. The more observant of you may remember me from the Do's & Dont's of Anime Cons segment last week. I’m a comic artist, illustrator and Nick’s bearded partner-in-crime on AWAKENING, among other comics.

(I'm also his life partner, but don’t tell his wife.)

What part of that qualifies me to talk about anime? Well, I’ve been a fan since I was nine, when I got immediately hooked by an almost incomprehensible, severely-edited cut of VAMPIRE HUNTER D on Cartoon Network. I went to my first Otakon in ’96 (and I’ve got the badge to prove it) and learned a lot of what I know about comics by studying manga. I even did “master copies” of RANMA ½ pages when I was in middle school (luckily I do not have any scans…they’re not pretty).

I think the Japanese influence is still present and noticeable in my art, but not in that “I learned everything I know from tracing EVANGELION box art” way…

Some of my work with a not-so-subtle Japanese influence.
Some of my work with a not-so-subtle Japanese influence.

Today I want to talk about one of my favorite directors, Yoshiaki Kawajiri; a man whom most of you probably, and unfortunately, know as the guy who directed the 86 minutes of hot garbage called HIGHLANDER: THE SEARCH FOR VENGEANCE. It may be hard to believe for those of you who sat through that mess, but there was a time when Kawajiri was making some really weird, experimental and visually-exciting stuff, and doing it in a slick and stylish way that no one else could really touch. This guy was the king of the “Not for Kids!” era of anime in America.

I should say that, unlike Nick, I'm coming at anime from a visual artist’s standpoint. I’m one of those guys who can’t read a comic or watch a cartoon if I think the art is bad - - no matter how great the story might be. However, I am totally willing to sit through a bad movie or read through an aimless book if it looks nice.

Point being, a lot of Kawajiri’s work tends to focus on the visual side of things. The stories he tells tend to be of the “hard boiled” nature, and at their worst, exist purely to set the table for a visual feast.

These are just dripping with that awesome 80's stank.
These are just dripping with that awesome 80's stank.

Which brings me to NINJA SCROLL. This was my introduction to Kawajiri and it’s a damn good one. You can argue whether or not this is his best movie, but there’s no denying how visually-striking and smartly-realized the film is. From the very first scene, it’s clear that Kawajiri is paying a lot of attention to the visual statement of the movie: marrying his affection for noir with classic samurai stories and the flat, bold, color and careful asymmetrical composition of Japanese woodblock prints.

So many well-composed shots in this movie! Love all the black.
So many well-composed shots in this movie! Love all the black.

This film is also full of likeable characters, a wide array of beautiful settings and eight absurd bad guys, each with his own unique and memorable design. That includes an ugly midget with a wasps' nest for a back, a stitched-up woman full of gunpowder and an enormous, murderous, rapist who can turn his skin to stone.

This shit is bananas in the best way possible, and there isn’t an ugly frame in the entire movie. I’m proud to say this was my favorite movie when I was about 13, and it played a big part in me wanting to take art seriously as a profession.

A lit brighter and more colorful than some of his earlier stuff.
A lit brighter and more colorful than some of his earlier stuff.

But NINJA SCROLL is just the tip of the iceberg! The farther back you go into this guy’s career the nuttier things get.

I remember seeing DEMON CITY SHINJUKU on the short-lived “Saturday Night Anime” on the Sci-Fi channel (before all this SyFy nonsense), renting CYBER CITY OEDO 808 from my local Blockbuster, stumbling across his epic short "the Running Man" (which aired on MTV for some reason), buying fansubs of BIRDY THE MIGHTY.... and just devouring all of it.

This stuff defined that dangerous, gritty, and dark style of anime that piqued my curiosity way back when I was nine.

Bloodlust!
Bloodlust!

You can imagine how psyched I was when I heard Kawajiri would be the director of VAMPIRE HUNTER D: BLOODLUST. The sequel to the movie that started it all for me, directed by the man responsible for bristling my neck hairs since that first fateful night.

BLOODLUST is possibly not a triumph of cinema, but it is a gorgeous movie and absolutely memorable for that. Sure, the story is a little stupid, and the pacing is inconsistent but - - let’s be honest - - the original D has its fair share of problems as well.

You've come a long way, D.
You've come a long way, D.

Sadly, BLOODLUST marks the end of an era for me. It’s one of the last really beautiful, traditionally-animated anime movies with a budget big enough to support the ambition of the project. It’s also likely to be the last Kawajiri movie I'll really like. Not just because he seems to work only on American funded tie-in projects like the ANIMATRIX and HIGHLANDER lately, but also because the dirty, violent, dark and gritty days of 80’s and early 90’s “Japanimation” are over.

Anime is a very different industry, now, and I’m not sure if there’s a place for directors like Kawajiri. And that’s a real shame.

Never again!
Never again!

Now, there’s a lot of talk lately about those “Japanimation” days being something like the dark ages, or the humble beginnings from which a beautiful and elegant fandom has since sprung...

I’d like to officially call bullshit on that sentiment here and now.

Anime in the 90’s was something new and exciting - - dangerous, even! You had to call around, go to seedy video rental places, buy fansubs from scumbags who overcharged you, or slink through dark and unsavory arcades, Asian groceries and run-down bookstores to find what you were after. Sure, the polish was missing in a lot of releases, but most of the crazy OVA's and one-offs coming out of that era did something that I see far too rarely these days. They took risks!

This is exactly what it looks like. A woman with handlebars screaming a laser and who will KILL YOU with his glasses.
This is exactly what it looks like. A woman with handlebars screaming a laser and who will KILL YOU with his glasses.

Part of what I liked about anime back then was that I never knew what I was in for. Sure, that meant I ran into some crap (I’ll never forget buying M.D. GEIST based on box art, and the disappointment that would follow), but every tape was still bursting with potential and enthusiasm. For every JUDGE, there was a RIDING BEAN, or GOKU MIDNIGHT EYE to wash the bad taste from my mouth.

American fans got to see directors at their most daring and experimental. I think I saw TOTORO on the same weekend as ROBOT CARNIVAL. Both are great movies for very different reasons, but TOTORO is about a 0% risk. For one, you can still market it to kids. Hell, slap some ugly cover art on the box and no one even needs to know it’s Japanese!

The Fox Video box art for TOTORO. Yikes.
The Fox Video box art for TOTORO. Yikes.

Shows like BLEACH, and especially INUYASHA are so completely by-the-numbers and without risk, in both story and visuals, that I become immediately bored. INUYASHA even sticks so slavishly to Takahashi’s established moneymaking formula that it feels like her past characters are just playing dress-up in a new series. I can feel her disinterest with what she’s making, and that’s absolutely contagious to me as a viewer.

Kawajiri and his Japanimation-era brethren never let me down in this regard. I still remember the first time I saw AKIRA, BUBBLEGUM CRISIS, DEVILMAN, PATLABOR and yes, NINJA SCROLL. Those were unlike anything I’d seen before, and they challenged me. When was the last time you saw an anime or manga that totally surprised you? Something really risky or unexpected? Something that wasn’t overtly catering to a fanbase that’s sure to eat it up, regardless of the quality?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the work of more high-minded, subtle directors like Oshii, Kon and Miyazaki, but sometimes you just want a movie with style, grit and balls, man. If you decide you’d like a break from listening to the cast of FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST whine about their dead mom (I know I would), and enjoy some really well-animated and well-realized madness instead, then there’s no better era to pick from than the late 80’s and early 90’s.

And there's no better director to turn to than Yoshiaki Kawajiri. On any given day I’d rather watch DEMON CITY SHINUKU than PONYO and I’m sure if you think about it, so would you.

Alex Eckman-Lawn is an illustrator and comic artists from Philadelphia. Check out his site - - alexeckmanlawn.com - - rumble with his Tumblr - - dudenukem.tumblr.com - - and hit up his Twitter: @alexeckmanlawn

AlexEL staff on Oct. 28, 2012 at 11:20 p.m.

@zaldar: You know, PONYO does take some risks, I have to admit that! I totally respect it for that, and it is definitely beautiful to look at.

I also can't fault you for having a problem with all the sex and violence! Wicked City definitely boils down to a lot of monster gang rape and vagina dentata nightmare scenarios.

AlexEL staff on Oct. 28, 2012 at 11:23 p.m.

@mangauk: I'm tentatively excited! I'm always a little wary when a sequel comes along so many years after the original.

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