This Week: Doomed Megalopolis
At the risk of sounding patently insane to a certain subset of folks given its notoriety and it being on the “bad end” of Rintaro’s directing career, this may very well be a production that time and age has been at least a little kind to.
Doomed Megalopolis falls very squarely into one of my most endearing of pet name categories, Those Dangerous Japanese Cartoons From The Back Of The Video Rental Store.
Forgoing my usual tendency to make a little purple banner of the cover art for the things I watch, this box cover is a rather iconic image, the kind of the thing that is designed wholly around burning a picture into your memory.
Maybe you want to pick up the box and check out what it could possibly be about, maybe you are thrown off by it and let it sit there and just keep walking. But its shenanigans sure are the kind of thing a wandering eye in the anime section is going to be drawn to. It is raw box cover design as marketing, and I can respect that. It certainly stuck itself in my mind over all these years, at any rate.
An adaptation the first part of the novel Teito Monogatari, the storyline is something that does not seem out of place when watching it today. A fictional cryptohistory of twentieth century Tokyo, we have astronomy, feng shui, onmyōdō mysticism, The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the development of the subway system, occult groups, and more. One could in a sense liken it to an equivalent of Japan’s version of The Da Vinci Code. It was a multimillion seller back in the 1980’s, and is credited with exploding a lot of historical concepts back into the public consciousness that had either fallen by the wayside or otherwise played down over the decades (Onmyōdō had been prohibited as superstition in the mid-19th century, for instance). So it has been a really influential book, and a lot of works that came after it in Japan and anime especially owe a lot to it.
The anime version of the book itself has some serious problems, certainly. Doomed Megalopolis, coming after an already successful live action version of the book, was designed by Rintaro to capitalize on one of the key strengths of animation to differentiate it. The supernatural elements could be played up, since they could seamlessly weave and dance those otherworldly or unnatural aspects around on screen without requiring an insane special effects budget to avoid breaking the suspension of disbelief. While certainly effective, there are several stretches where they are either just too long, too quick in succession or otherwise just overly abundant. With so much “occult” going on, one is at times hoping for just some extended scenes of genuine normality so that the magical or supernatural parts actually retain their strength.
If so much is supernatural all the time, then it becomes the natural.
This being the era of a lot of crazy gore anime OAV’s, supernatural or otherwise, it is on the tamer part of that particular end. But, as the box cover may imply, there is still a fair amount of imagery in here you probably would not want anime questioning relatives to walk in on. Some folks die pretty horribly, shadows acting like tentacles, and surreal violence are all in here. Likewise, the actual plot, while only adapting the first third of the book or so, still tends to get pretty lost in the mix. Yasunori Katō ends up chewing the scenery and having large grandiose framing with his big cape and hat, but his actual motivation for wanting to awaken Taira no Masakado doesn’t really extend any further than “wants to destroy Tokyo.” We are given some handwaved personal history on the matter of about a line or two regarding his ancestors and the indigenous tribes of Japan, and that’s about it.
On the other end, the folks fighting against him are also often presented in a similarly fragmented or confusing manner. I fully understand what they want to do, but the proper setup and delineation of “why” or “how” is not really given due time. Keiko Tatsumiya is probably the most well developed character in the production in terms of screentime and arc, but she doesn’t show up until quite a ways in.
What makes matters doubly worse in terms of latching on to what the characters are up to is the time skips: In four episodes we jump from 1908, 1923, 1927, and a few other random bits. That first one in particular is a doozy, as that is a lot of time for our characters where many things happen, but it ends up being relayed to us in a goopy narrative slog that is trying to move forwards while also going over all of the personal developments that have transpired in the meantime. The latter ones are not as bad, since they are closer together and thus is not trying to make up for as much lost ground, but this is the exact kind of thing that works far better as chapters in a book than it does on the screen, particularly when the whole book is not being adapted anyway.
For a long time, Doomed Megalopolis had a pretty bad reputation, particularly when it was a part of a limited collection of anime titles your area video store may have actually had and thus likely one of the few common denominators among folks you knew who maybe also were familiar with anime. It is very clunky, with a narrative too ambitious for the time it has and too long for the folks who just wanted dumb punchy cartoon occult violence. But I think, given the media developments that have occurred in the decades since then, it is at least something interesting to visit or revist. With all the occult business going on, it is at minimum visually dynamic and less prone to being punched with historical holes (and the author of the original book, Hiroshi Aramata, is a natural history specialist at that).
I will not say that what Rintaro whipped up here was particularly good, but I think we are at a point where I can not really claim it was overall bad either. Which is at least an improvement over prior considerations.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime series I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.