Yoshiaki Kawajiri is a name that comes up frequently when talking about the long and illustrious history of the Madhouse studio, and it’s a pleasure to see it still appear today, even just to make storyboards. At 71, Kawajiri’s films and OVAs have helped shape the public perception of the studio he helped create and contributed to the style many imagine when they hear “Madhouse.”
One of the last animators to work at Mushi Production before it closed, Kawajiri co-founded Madhouse and made his directorial debut, finding himself drawn to darker projects and stories. After the success of the violent and luscious horror that was wicked cityKawajiri was given the freedom to pursue original projects with an almost unparalleled and intoxicating visual style.
Looking back at old trailers for Kawajiri’s works largely conveys that their films were products of the 80s and 90s, from the music in the trailers to the original sound effects. In retrospect, it all sounds familiar and campy, but at the same time, it has no equal anywhere else in the medium. Maybe because it’s much harder than anything else.
As mentioned earlier, he’s a director drawn to darkness, as evidenced by the nightmarish body horror of wicked city. Building on the creative freedom afforded by past successes, Kawajiri has made a name for himself making violent action films that are often fantasy in nature.
While Madhouse’s identity has shifted in recent years, it’s fair to say the studio evokes specific elements, darker color palettes, heavy shadows, and cinematic influences crossed with the supernatural. Simply put, the Madhouse anime was perceived as something more adult and serious and much of that perception is due to Kawajiri’s films, which directed with seemingly limitless scope.
It is for this reason that these films, although they are labeled “hypermasculine”, are not necessarily tainted with sometimes outdated elements. To be hypermasculine is to focus on stereotypical male traits like being the strongest or the least emotional, and this mirrors the presentation of Kawajiri’s leading men.
ninja scroll might just be the most unbalanced display of hypermasculinity in these films. It follows a ronin named Jubei who encounters a female ninja and reluctantly works with them to find the mastermind behind a plague, while being chased by a group of super-powered ninjas. It came out at a time when anime didn’t care about epilepsy, which means it’s riddled with nasty strobe effects.
ninja scrollWhere Jubei Ninpucho, feels stereotypical in a very comfortable, almost video game-like way, where each section of the adventure is interrupted by a showdown with a new villain. Something that makes Kawajiri’s vision so uncompromising is that he also serves as a character designer. Each antagonist not only has a unique look, but a unique power that challenges Jubei in new ways.
Whether in the original Japanese or the cheesy English dub, Jubei has plenty of charisma that makes him easy to root for. His opponents are superhuman and on a much different level to him, but he is a quick thinker and skilled swordsman. Being relatively “normal” helps the action feel much more satisfying when outmaneuvering an enemy.
Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)
Bloodlust is a grander story than ninja scrollin that it’s not as clear cut and plays with a lot more ideas, some more fleshed out than others. The film is about D, a half-human, half-vampire known as Dhampir, who roams the lands in search of monsters and vampires. When sent to rescue a woman kidnapped by a vampire, he himself becomes hunted.
D himself is a far more powerful character than Jubei, but like Jubei, his humanity is both a weakness and a powerful strength. Although he’s not quite as charismatic, his cool and sweet demeanor is disarming. The futuristic world he inhabits is enchanting, and his story’s forays into romance are far more authentic than that of ninja scroll. That said, its conclusion might be disappointing to some.
A success in the West
Kawajiri’s filmography has been acclaimed in Japan, but his works are also among the most sellable to a 90s American audience, ever. It’s the kind of film one might imagine finding among their dad’s DVD collection of the mid-’90s. Not only were these films imaginative, unrestrained visions of creative action storytelling, but they were also simple in essence, reminiscent of popular Western films. It is well documented that the western genre is heavily based on the works of Akira Kurosawa and samurai movies. These timeless and timeless stories of wandering heroes transcend cultures, have been explored in many ways, and continue to be explored in new ways in new contexts.
ninja scroll and Vampire hunter Din particular, are – at their core – adventure films about mysterious and traditionally male protagonists. Bloodlust may not be a samurai or a western, but its post-apocalyptic world plagued by creatures of the night is just a gothic arrangement of an established story. The leads in these films aren’t all that complicated, but they’re undeniably cool and joined by a willing but perhaps outdated companion.
The kind of stories these films tell are easy to remember, but what sets them apart is the way they are told and the imagination that inspired them. The animation feels like it shows off at times, with smooth, fluid motion animated over 1s (24 frames per second). Additionally, the shading and level of detail in each frame makes every moment feel like a striking painting in motion, in a way not seen in many modern animated films.
Where Kawajiri’s hyper-masculine approach to storytelling can stray into overindulgence is the sexual content and treatment of female characters. To their credit, the female characters in Kawajiri’s works are pretty cool themselves and hold their own in battle, but the writing can also often paint them as sex objects.
In ninja scroll, Kagero, the ninja with whom Jubei travels, is the target of many antagonists who wish to sexually assault him. This frequent element only proves to be plot-relevant when it is revealed that his body is toxic. It’s an uncomfortable choice that plagues the film all these years later, especially with how her romance with Jubei unfolds. Leila from Vampire hunter D fares much better, not being the target of any leering male gazes, and overall it’s one of the best parts of the movie. Sexual content will not bother everyone, but viewers should be aware of this element, especially in the case of ninja scrollwhere sexual assaults are quite common.
Overall, these films hark back to a time when anime began to seep into western culture and was adored for being different and distinct from typical western animation. Kawajiri himself then made short films for The facilitator and Batman: Gotham Knight, continuing to lend his style to international projects through Madhouse. The journeys of Kawajiri’s ultra-violent and imaginative heroes succeeded not only because they appealed to international audiences. They were visual masterpieces that represented the best of what anime was capable of at the time. And while there have been plenty of great animated movies since, there have been very few like these.
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