The witch is back: A critical review of “Wicked City” (1987 or 1993)

In keeping with the notion that not all bad cosmic horror is terrible, 1987’s “Wicked City” is probably not the worst cosmic horror anime out there (it’s also not that “Wicked City,” not that you had asked). It is probably one of the most controversial though, still remembered for its over-the-top content even by old school anime standards. Contemporary reviewers noted the graphic violence, casual sexuality and atmosphere of self-seriousness. One reviewer also noted undercurrents of Aldous Huxley, which you’ll have to figure out for yourself, Tonstant Weader, cos this blog sure didn’t see it. What I saw instead was a story that bounced frequently between cliché and convoluted.

Five minutes in the future, Earth has been in a state of constant, albeit uncertain, peace with the mysterious Black World, presumably a kind of shadowy sister dimension to our own populated by demons that can take human form. The time has come to renew the treaty between the two realities, and a radical demonic faction has emerged to see that it doesn’t go through. The key to the treaty is Giuseppe Mayart, a soothsayer who has traversed the worlds. Tasked with guarding Mayart is Taki, a studly human enforcer, and Makie, his fey and fetching distaff counterpart from the demon world. The pair will have to learn to work together if they want to guard their charge, as well as learn the motivations of both the deadly radicals and their own mysterious handlers.

There is little that’s original in “Wicked City.” The film opens with some pulpy detective dialogue, like a junior Raymond Chandler penning dark fantasy fan fiction, describing: “A world of darkness out there, beyond time or space… Within that world, there things that run wild.” Stirring stuff. Full disclosure, I watched the 1993 dub because that what was what available to me. Purists may scoff, but, whatever. I’m an old-ish anime junkie, and awful dubbing is part of that experience.

To be fair, most of the voice acting is OK. Pretty much everyone in the cast is nice enough to not stand out, landing somewhere between acceptable and forgettable. If there is a positive exception, it’s Greg Snegoff as Taki, as he throws some character into his portrayal from time to time.

A performer who occasionally remembers to be human can do little to salvage a script that seldom does. After the pulp detective opening, we get the impression that Taki is a James Bond type, with god-like thighs and good reflexes in the bedroom. He works for the in-universe equivalent of Universal Exports, and he’s known around the office as a Lothario (a chance encounter with a demonic spider-woman hybrid is brushed off as a one-night stand gone awry). This does little to prepare us for later in the film when Taki gets labelled a hopeless romantic. And not a newly minted one, but an always has been. It’s strange, but it’s hardly the most vexing turnaround in the film, all in the service of the last second plot reveal.

The plot operates on a lot of convenience, which bleeds into the design. This demon-haunted world looks a lot like 1980s Japan, except less populated. There are few people on the streets, cars on the road, that sort of thing, but what’s there looks suspiciously normal. The implication, if there is one, is that this nightmare is more bureaucratic than demonic. We’re told that the world is a dark and dangerous place, a powder keg in need of policing, but we’re almost never shown it.

We are shown that the world is sexually violent though, largely through the medium of demonic cop Makie. She’s apparently dated a third of the demonic realm’s population, and her exes keep popping up for revenge… and revenge sex. This is where that nonchalant misogyny pops up, which modern audiences might find problematic. There’s still debate about whether Makie is a damsel in distress or shows some agency. It’s hard to deny that she gets groped an awful lot and that the camera likes observing it from pleasing angles. This blog is firmly on team Makie though. I find she does show some agency, particularly during the finale, but my decision ultimately has more to do with Taki getting beat up almost as much as her. The film is somewhat egalitarian regarding assault, more so regarding shootings, stabbings, being smashed into walls, bitten in half, silk restraints.

Alternatively, I might just have a thing for handsome women in men’s fashion who have perfected an icy stare. I might be a failure as a human being, but I’m doing all right as a retro anime fan.

Better to focus on the action scenes perhaps. Those are often displayed in an intriguingly limited color palette: black, blue, pink. The framing and choreography of the shooting, kicking and monster-on-monster action is well executed, in part due to the fluid animation. Fight scenes tend to be notably smoother than the rest of the film, which is detailed but somewhat static. I’d like a smoother affair across the board, but if anything had to get the attention, probably best it was the combat and grotesque transformation sequences.

In truth, the monster design is surprisingly subdued, with most of the demons resembling buff dudes with overgrown fingernails. There’s a melting woman who’s likely the most infamous, but I prefer the exploding teeth and tentacles of one particular bad man. He looks like he’s drawn straight from John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” right down to a crawling head. It’s also a nice touch that his fight has the backdrop of an airport tarmac, but that’s about as artsy and out there as things get.

Actually, I’m going to go to make a (relatively) bold statement and say that, at least for a while, “Wicked City” is not all that wicked. Sure, we get anime titties, suggestions of violence and actual violence before the opening credits, but then it’s pretty tame for the next half an hour, when the film looks like it’s going to be about interdimensional diplomacy. Even after that, much of the action is bloodless and the sex is typically soft core (barring a somewhat infamous scene with tentacles).

Let’s talk music. It’s kinda diverse, with industrial, jazz and thriller soundtrack synthesizer runs, all passed through a 1980s filter. There are even a couple of erotic thriller ballads, cos it can’t all be hentai tentacles. While no single piece sticks around long enough to make an impression, but as a whole, it stands out.

The diversity of mood also sticks out, but not in a good way. Pulp detective drama, dark fantasy horror flick, late nite skin thriller, buddy cop picture, “Wicked City” wants to have it all, and it doesn’t care how it assembles the pieces. The film’s focus takes more turns than a lost traveller, and the end reveal is so from out of nowhere that it probably needed a passport. This is nowhere clearer than the character of Giuseppe Mayart, which is when the movie wants to also be a pervy comedy. In the middle of thrilling explosions, body horror transformations and grotesque sex, there’s still time for Mayart to make sleazy comments; despite everyone – including him – warning about the danger of the situation, he still finds time to sneak off to a brothel. It’s as if he’s been artificially inserted from another movie. Also, he wears a track suit the whole movie. Huh?

There are a ton of smaller “huh?” moments too, like Makie not recognizing a former lover until he removes his sunglasses. That Clark Kent disguise, I tells ya. Elsewhere, the gang watches an airplane explode. “Is the life of one person worth so much to have to kill so many?” Taki muses, without much regard for the English language. “It’s so cruel,” Makie responds. “That ain’t the half of it, sister,” Mayart adds unhelpfully.

For a cosmic horror fan, “Wicked City” has some interesting potential with its dark world, insignificant humanity and plenty of tentacles, but it’s a potential that the runtime never quite realizes. For the retro anime fan, “Wicked City” is a rite of passage, and while it is wild, it’s maybe not as wild as you’ve heard. For both, it threatens to be a bit of a slog. The images are detailed and little organic movements keep things from seeming like you’re watching a painting, but there’s an inescapable stiffness. Perhaps it’s the muted colors. Perhaps it’s the occasionally shattering slow motion. Either way, in another film, it might give the proceeds an atmosphere of grace or gravity. Unfortunately, there is little that’s gracious about “Wicked City.”

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