Demon City Shinjuku Review
Demon City Shinjuku (occasionally marketed as Monster City) is one of those famous animé films that tends to divide fans into warring camps. On one side there are those who complain that the hero and heroine aren't terribly interesting, that the plot's a bit stereotypical of this sort of show, and that the final confrontation with the antagonist is over far too quickly. To which those on the other side reply, 'Ah, but it has Mephisto.' Which in 99.9% of documented cases results in the original party sighing and admitting, 'It's a fair cop.'
The basic premise is one that has been seen both before and since, primarily because it's a perennial horror favourite... yes, I refer to the 'demons prepare to overrun the mortal plane' concept. More specifically, the film begins by dropping us right into the middle of a flashy battle between Izayoi Genichiro (a guy who casual observers might mistake for Wolverine from the X-Men) and Levih Rah (or as Scooby Doo, head translator for the English version, chose to call him, 'Rebi Rah').
Alas for Genichiro (and the forces of good), he perishes at the hands of Levih Rah just a few minutes into the show. After a quick narrative segment establishes that the price of his failure was that one human city (the Shinjuku district of Tokyo) fell under the infernal sway of Levih Rah, we leap ten years forward in time and are promptly introduced to the hero and heroine of Demon City Shinjuku: Kyoya and Sayaka, respectively. (Trust me when I say this film rarely wastes any time before advancing the plot.)
Sayaka is the bland but beautiful daughter of the President of the 'World Federation', a 'modern messiah' who (at least according to the brief news snippet we're shown) has somehow succeeded in uniting most nations around the globe and negotiating peace between formerly unreconcilable factions. Not quite as universally-loved as he might have wished, the Prez is snared early on by a diabolical trap by Levih Rah... which incapacitates the politician and pins down one of his key advisors, the zen master Aguni Rai, who must stay to protect him from further harm.
As it turns out, both Genichiro and Levih Rah were once disciples of Aguni Rai in the mystical art of 'nempo' (which is like kendo with a side order of telekinesis). We eventually learn that Levih Rah turned to the dark side and made a pact (with what we assume is Lucifer) in order to attain ultimate power. All that he has to do to fulfil his end of the bargain is to open a conduit from the abyssal regions into the mortal world in three days' time, so that those happy-go-lucky Hordes of Hell™ can swarm over the face of the Earth.
Naturally, the only one that can stop him is... drum roll please... Genichiro's son, Kyoya! One small snag with that plan, though: his dad had only just begun training him in nempo before he died, and Kyoya has little or no interest in saving the world. Fortunate then for the world that Kyoya also has a weakness for lovely ladies, and ends up getting involved solely because the incredibly naive Sayaka marches right into Shinjuku to confront Levih Rah herself. (As you do.)
Demon City Shinjuku has been compared by some to Star Wars for its basic hero myth structure and similar mystical elements, and there's a lot of fun to be had in drawing the obvious correspondences: Kyoya=Luke, Levih Rah=Darth Vader, Aguni Rai=Obi Wan Kenobi, nempo='the Force', etc. However, there's much more direct correlation to be found with some of Yoshiaki Kawajiri's other works (both before and after), like Wicked City and Ninja Scroll.
Although it's true that Demon City Shinjuku is not as polished as Ninja Scroll (nor anywhere near as gory or seedy as Wicked City), it is an exciting and hugely-entertaining film in its own right. It cruises along at a fast clip, rarely pausing for breath, and it's not the sort of show you get bored watching. (If anything, you're far more likely at the end of its 82-minute running time to wish the production team had made it slightly longer so they could flesh out some of the characters and battles a bit more.)
Speaking of which, the battle scenes in this film (with the exception of the amazingly-anticlimactic final showdown with Levih Rah) are nicely done. The demonic creatures that Kyoya and Company face off with have interesting designs and attacks, and are sufficiently creepy enough to make you worry (briefly) for the protagonists. And the inventive way in which Mephisto defeats his opponent just when she seems to have the advantage is a scene that anyone who's watched Demon City Shinjuku will remember with an appreciative chuckle.
Which brings us to Mephisto. What at first seems to be a background character with a few throwaway lines soon turns out to be a major player in the story. Bishounen [beautiful male] to the core, cool as a cucumber, sophisticated as all hell (pun intended), and possessing an ambiguous background and powers that are never formally enumerated, Mephisto is a force to be reckoned with. By no coincidence, he's also the film's most engaging character and one that steals every scene he appears in.
Too bad then for the rest of the cast. Between the saccharine, Pollyanna love interest that is Sayaka and the fairly-wooden 'standard cocky hero' that is Kyoya, we're left with little emotional investment in the plight of the lead protagonists. As it happens, I found myself more interested in the orphan kid on the motorised rollerskates that befriends them and his two-headed doberman.
Despite these failings in the character development department, Demon City Shinjuku succeeds on the strength of its rapid pace, entertaining (albeit simplistic) plot, superb action sequences, and palpably eerie mood. And, as I said, even its detractors will sit down and watch the Mephisto scenes with you.
The film is presented in its original 4:3 (standard) aspect ratio. The video quality on this disc is excellent. First off, there's nary a trace of pixelation, cross-colouration, or macroblocking as far as I can tell. The condition of the print seems remarkable, even for something as recent as this: no dust specks or scratches anywhere to be found. Furthermore, colour levels are nicely saturated and the blacks are deep. (Always an important win for horror films.)
Speaking of colour, Demon City Shinjuku's stylistically-interesting in that the palette tends to adopt a single region of the spectrum and use it almost exclusively for a given scene. This can be observed very clearly in some of the screencaps I've included in this review, where blues and purples predominate. It's a nice atmospheric effect and reminds the viewer of the essential unreality of the demonic district that is Shinjuku.
As for the animation, it's also very good quality. Extremely sharp lines, lots of fine detail where it matters, and fluid battle scenes make for a happy audience. The character designs are pleasant enough, and the monster designs are even better. The only (minor) complaint I had on the video front was CPM's use of two overlays, one at the World Federation Headquarters building and one when Sayaka goes traipsing off into Shinjuku. (In both cases the English text could have easily been shunted off into subtitles so as not to blot out bits of the original animation, but it wasn't... which is a shame.)
Do not under any circumstances listen to the English dub of Demon City Shinjuku. Please. I beg of you. It has been known to drive lesser mortals to pull their hair out by the handful and scream 'Why, God? Why?'
Seriously, though, this is by far the worst dub I have ever heard. It's so awful that it makes me wonder if I wasn't just a little too hard on all those English dubs I deemed 'horrid' in the past... maybe they deserve to be upgraded to 'merely mediocre'. What's wrong with it, you ask? Well, apart from everything...
First and foremost, there's the matter of the silly accents. It's not something you can blithely ignore, because every single character in the film has a different one, and they're all bad. (This, mind you, for a group of people who are supposed to be, without exception, Japanese.) The waitress where we first see Kyoya slurping down noodles may as well be an extra from the Dukes of Hazzard. Kyoya himself adopts a NYC street punk schtick. Aguni Rai comes across as a bad attempt at your 'stereotypical' oriental. The orphan kid sounds like Speedy Gonzalez. And Mephisto bears the ultimate indignity, as his voice actor clearly thought he'd sound best as a cross between Sean Connery and Dracula. (I am so not joking.)
As if this weren't reason enough to avoid the English dub, I should point out that the voice acting itself (when you can hear it above the sound of your own sobbing and/or laughing) is extremely wooden, and the English dub script has been vastly dumbed down from the original Japanese. Oh, and let's not forget the obscenities. I've heard a few people say, 'I saw Demon City Shinjuku, but all the filthy language really put me off.' My response is, 'Then you obviously haven't seen the original Japanese version.' It's yet another case of a dub production team deciding that cursing is 'just the ticket' to give the show they're working on 'a harder edge'. The problem is, gratuitous obscenities just sound inane.
Anyway, pulling myself back from this abyss we call 'the tangent', there's nothing at all wrong with the Japanese audio track, which features a Dolby Digital Stereo mix. Not only is all of the dialogue crisp, clear, and centre-channel based, but there's a great deal of stereo directionality from the show's sound effects. This is a film that also uses bass and reverb to good effect, and gives a nice room-filling ambience. Probably the only truly weak spot when it comes to sound on this disc is the soundtrack itself. It's not orchestral... it's not vocal... it's kind of, well, electronic. You can get away with this sort of thing in a film like Tron, but it just seems jarring in a supernatural horror/action flick like Demon City Shinjuku.
In case you're wondering why there are two different cover art images displayed at the upper left corner of this review, it's because Central Park Media has just re-released Demon City Shinjuku as of this month. (The top image is the new, cleaner cover design, while the bottom one illustrates the old-style artwork from the 1998 release.) For those of you who have already purchased this title, don't panic... it's the exact same disc as before, only in brand-new packaging. (Speaking of which, the new back-of-the-case text blurb provides considerably less information about the story than the old one did. On the other hand, the DVD is now packaged in a transparent Amaray so you don't have to remove the artwork from its sleeve in order to view the reverse side. So, win some, lose some.)
As for the menus on this disc, they're similar to the ones found on any very early CPM release (this disc is from 1998)... which is to say, 'Nothing too flashy.' A static background image overlaid with a few menu buttons and a 'speech bubble' that fills with the name of the current selection, the access times could be a little better when it comes to moving from one option to the next. Additionally, like the menu on A Wind Named Amnesia, this one gave my DVD-ROM drive fits, but plays OK in the stand-alone DVD player.
Finally, the special features on this disc are limited to 'Character Gallery' and 'Supernatural Beasts', two sub-pages which let you select from one of four characters or three demons. However, as this will immediately play a short clip from the film of that person/thing in action, I'd strongly advise against watching these before you've seen the show itself, unless you love spoilers.
Demon City Shinjuku is a film I've seen several times already, and one I expect to watch many more. It's diverting, stylish, evokes a great gothic mood, and is peppered with enjoyable battle scenes and subtle supernatural touches. Sure, the two lead characters may be a bit lacklustre and the plot isn't going to win any awards for intricacy, but the show is always lots of fun. I'd recommend it to any animé fan, or to anyone who's fond of horror/action films in general. Besides, I promise you you'll like Mephisto.