Title: The Skull Man (DVD set)
Original Story: Shotaro Ishinomori
Series Composition: Yutaka Izubuchi
Director: Takeshi Mori
Animation Production: studio BONES
DVDs Produced By: Sentai Filmworks
Viewable at www.hulu.com (*subtitled only)
Reviewed by Grim_Noir
When you find something in the discount bin, you usually think, “For five bucks, how bad could it be?” You don’t really mean “How bad could the DVD be?” you really mean, “How bad could that mental walk of shame, the next morning, be…?
Those were my thoughts, anyway, when I plonked the first platter into the ol’ DVD drive and fired up Episode One of The Skull Man.
Well, that episode (“City of the Dancing Mask”) knocked me on my butt. This was no MST3K mock-fest, this was a genuine masterpiece that had fallen through the cracks due to a bungled U.S. release.
Every culture has their own preferred format for Superheroes: Most of Middle America is comfortable with the Steroidal Boy Scout scenario (such as Superman or Captain America), India tends to follow the Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey” model, the U.K. cleaves to the “Only A-Holes Get Superpowers” scripture preached by Garth Ennis and Alan Moore. But the Japanese have always preferred their Superheroes to be misunderstood monsters.
And right out of the gate, we see The Skull Man more as a monster than a heroic vigilante: Before the opening credits have even rolled, we’ve witnessed him straight-up murder a helpless young woman, fleeing in her nightgown into the pouring rain, as she cries for her life. When the credits roll, we are left grappling with the questions, “What the Frell just happened?” “THIS is our hero?” “What exactly is going on here?”
The opening theme itself has been controversial. The Japanese band Tokio, who performed the original music, refused to grant U.S. rights for the song Hikari no Machi (“City of Light”), so Sentai Filmworks created a more eerie and much more fitting opener. Visually, the re-made opening plays with the show’s themes of Shadow and Light, while the new audio is a mournful saxophone playing over a funeral dirge mutating into a pop song. Frankly, it really sets up what the show is about much better than the standard action show ditty that Tokio handed in. The “new” U.S. opener is off-kilter, haunting and grew on me like moss on an Antebellum column. (I know this is blasphemy to my fellow otaku, but someone needed to speak the Truth on this one.)
The story is deceptively anime-like: Struggling reporter Hayato Mikogami travels from Tokyo to his old hometown, Otome, to pursue a recent urban legend he has dubbed, “The Skull Man.” Trailed by teenaged photographer, Kiriko Mamiya, Hiyato does the Kolchak thing; doggedly pursuing the legend despite tight-lipped locals and official curfews. About a third of the way through this tale, Otomo becomes a character unto itself. In terms of secrets, corruption, conspiracies and lies, Otomo is placed squarely on the same literary map as Gotham City and Basin City.
But, Otome isn’t in our world. In the alternate universe of The Skull Man, The Great Asian War has divided Asia in two, including Japan. Travel from Tokyo to Otomo means passing through a DMZ and a checkpoint. Everything about this world is slightly gray and oppressive, including the ethics. After the ending, the question you are left asking is, “How Evil does someone have to become to fight true Evil?”
I want to use words like “Cinematic” or “Operatic.” I want to make comparisons to The Crow and The Phantom of the Opera. I want to mention other creators like Mike Grell, Sam Raimi and Howard Chaykin. While The Skull Man does encompass tropes from all of these areas, it is the skillful mixing and matching that makes this series so hypnotic.
Director Takeshi Mori has really done some spectacular work here. Even though this 2007 release is in color, the way he plays with light and dark (punctuated with fits of bloody red) evokes the great Black & White director, Fritz Lang. The soundscape is equally evocative. Never has the sound of a small bell tinkling created such a feeling of dread.
Tags: ANIME, Basin City, Fritz Lang, Gotham City, Grim_Noir, Hayato Mikogami, Howard Chaykin, Hulu, Joseph Campbell, Kiriko Mamiya, Kolchak, Mike Grell, MST3K, Otomo, Sam Raimi, Sentai Filmworks, Takeshi Mori, The Crow, The Great Asian War, The Phantom of the Opera, The Skull Man, Tokio