Demon City Shinjuku may not be the first production that comes to mind when someone mentions the name of the director Yoshiaki Kawajiri. As a 1988 adaptation of a novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi, the author of the Vampire Hunter D series, the OVA is actually fairly tame in comparison to some of Kawajiri’s other works, particularly Ninja Scroll and Wicked City (another adaptation of a Kikuchi novel). The plot is also not a particularly complex or intelligent one, but even so, it has its appeal as an action movie.
The story, what little there is of it, begins with the complete decimation of Shinjuku; the entire district is ravaged by an earthquake and an influx of demons are invited into the city by Rebi Rah, whose sole motivation seems to be the acquisition of Ultimate Dark Power. As his plan unfurls, he fights and kills Genichirou Izayoi, with whom he studied under Aguni Rai to train their martial and spiritual abilities.
A decade later, Genichirou’s son Kyoya has grown into a young man who is himself studying the same arts. After witnessing an attack on the world President (yes, Earth is apparently under a worldwide government in this movie), he’s visited by the spiritual presence of Rai, who asks that he travels to Shinjuku and fights Rah. Kyoya wants no part of it, which is perfectly understandable given that over the past decade, Shinjuku has been reduced to a demonic hellhole. It’s only when he meets the president’s daughter Sayaka Rama, who is intent on marching straight into Shinjuku while dressed more for a Sunday brunch than demonic combat, that he decides to take the plunge.
And what a plunge it is, as the pair encounters everything from two-bit thugs and con-artists to monstrous demons and vengeful spirits. Their allies are few: a child whose name is never revealed, but who has a sick pair of electric roller skates and a pet two-headed dog, and Mephisto, a mysterious man that prefers to observe rather than interfere.
It’s quite the odd bunch, all right. But as I talk about the characters, it’s also worth mentioning something I like to call the Kawajiri Trio. As a director, Kawajiri has overseen numerous productions that, in some way, shape or form, feature three characters based on very specific archetypes. Such threesomes are easily recognizable not only in Demon City Shinjuku, but in Ninja Scroll, Wicked City, and even the 2007 film Highlander: The Search for Vengeance. In no particular order, they are:
- The Reluctant Hero: The male protagonist of the story. Generally stoic and doesn’t want trouble, but will end up fighting his way to the end after being pulled in by choice, love, or duty.
- The Unfortunate Heroine: The prominent female character that serves as the protagonist’s companion and potentially eventual lover. However, she is inevitably captured by the villain and raped by demons and/or murdered.
- The Old Man: Short in stature, this old man may serve as mentor to the protagonist, or as a blistering pain in the keester. In either case, he ultimately points the hero in the direction of the quest whether his contribution is appreciated or not.
These three tropes are represented respectively by Kyoya, Sayaka, and Aguni. And for the most part, they hold true to these baseline characterizations. Kyoya is initially cold to the idea of marching into Shinjuku, but is pushed along the path by Aguni, who trolls him with his metaphysical presence before actually telling Kyoya what he wants to know. Sayaka accompanies him for the majority of the trek, but is ultimately put in the position of damsel-in-distress.
Despite the ultimately compromising position that Sayaka is put in, however, the unfortunate heroine is actually not that unfortunate in this case. Those of you concerned by the depiction of sexual violence have no reason to be wary of this particular production. Also, despite her innocent, seemingly helpless appearance, she’s actually rather helpful, coming to Kyoya’s aid on more than one occasion when the demons become too much.
The graphic violence, on the other hand? The action is fun to watch, but by the standards of similar productions, it’s still relatively tame. Granted, I make this statement when characters are sliced, torn, and blown up, but the amount of blood on display is fairly light. I originally saw Demon City Shinjuku when it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel back in the ‘90s on Saturday mornings, and when I saw it later on DVD, I was surprised by how little actually had to be cut for TV airings.
The English dub, originally produced by Central Park Media upon its original western release in 1994, is not good. Characters speak a mishmash of accents ranging across American, English, Hispanic, and Romanian and the acting itself (sometimes over, sometimes under) is otherwise sub-par. It’s a film that’s easier to watch in the original Japanese language.
Demon City Shinjuku is an oddity. It’s not the best or most elaborate of Kawajiri’s directorial efforts, yet remains among his most approachable due to its more tame content. Its grim, twisted atmosphere of a ruined Shinjuku and its bare-bones tale of good and evil is one that I enjoy watching on occasion; particularly around Halloween alongside some of my other occult and horror-themed favorites. More cult film and guilty pleasure than a true classic, it’s nonetheless one that’s fun to watch.
Demon City Shinjuku is currently available on DVD through Discotek Media’s Eastern Star label. It is not rated, but contains graphic violence, brief nudity, and adult language and content.