Never have I seen a show that has the been the victim of such cultural disparity as DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS. Given the incredibly polarized reception this anime gets from English viewers, it is clear that something was lost in translating this thing from Japan to America. Indeed something WAS lost in the translation...an entire FRANCHISE was lost, to be precise.
For starters, DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS is based on the novel TEITO MONOGATARI (TALE OF THE IMPERIAL CAPITAL), written by an acclaimed bibliophile and encyclopedic scholar of fantasy, folklore, history and several other subjects; one Mr. Hiroshi Aramata. The novel caused a sensation becoming a bestseller in Japan with over 3.5 million sales. Two years later it would go on to receive the Nihon Science Fiction GRAND PRIZE for BEST Science Fiction/Fantasy story of 1987! Of course with all that success come the commercial adaptations, one of which was a ridiculously expensive film adaptation in 1988 which went to hold a place in the top ten money makers of the Japanese box office of that year. After that, more adaptations came including manga, video games, spin-off novels, and this anime.
The story has become something of a classic in Japan with the novel still being republished today in Japanese bookstores and selling. According to the Japanese amazon.com, in 2007 it's had over 5 million sales in Japan alone. It's even got fans in China too with the novels and other adaptations being translated there. But in America, the only things to have been translated are the anime and the first live action film. Back when DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS was released in the mid-90's in America and reviewers started giving their opinions on it, many people in the West didn't know where the story came from. Fast forward to the 21st century in the age of the hyper fast internet and contemporary English reviewers still don't know where the story comes from. Despite the fact that this is the 21st century with information readily available online, the English reviewers continue to show no knowledge of the original novel or the author and treat the anime's story as if it was original material instead of an ADAPTATION of original material.
Now this would be alright if the harsh English critics gave the elements of the story they didn't understand the benefit of the doubt. But they don't, rather choosing to arrogantly deride the anime's basic story as if it was obscure, sleazy trash that has no standing in the fantasy/sci-fi world, when in reality there's a fanbase of thousands in Japan!! There was a recent review by an internet celebrity Bennett the Sage who chided the story as being "insultingly stupid". What's shocking is that his review targeted many of the Japanese folklore references in the story as "evidence" of the story's "stupidity" (Japanese folklore is "stupid"?).
Geez...What if a popular critic were to attack one of the HARRY POTTER films, describing the story as "completely stupid" citing the presence of wizards and witches (European folklore) as evidence of its "stupidity"? Don't you think the HARRY POTTER fanbase would have something to say about that? But many harsh English critics of DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS in the West have been getting away with these kind of attacks for years, completely inconsiderate and/or ignorant of the cultural differences and the fanbase on the other side of the world.
If the critics did their research, then I would be surprised if they showed the same level of hostility. How could anyone be so quick to attack the story as "stupid" knowing that it was based on a bestselling, GRAND PRIZE winning 3000 page novel written by a respected bibliophile, literary critic, and scholar of Japanese folklore?? If you were to do that in Japanese speaking sci-fi/fantasy circles, you would DEFINITELY raise a few eyebrows.
The story is not the problem...it's how the story is HANDLED in the anime that is the problem. Although the story the anime tells parallels the original novel, it is very compressed. Likewise the writers sacrificed exposition to focus on entertaining the audience. Even though the anime only adapts the first 1/3rd of the novel (about the first 1000 pages), it's apparently too much because the narrative still shoots along at lightning speed. The producers probably didn't think it was a big deal given the success of the book. But the book hasn't been translated into English!! Guess what side of the world they forgot to consider?
Likewise the anime IS difficult to recommend to the average American viewer simply because the story is so filled with so many Japanese specific historical and folklore references that are not expounded upon for the benefit of the uninformed foreigner. For example let me just try to convey the plot in one paragraph:
The protagonist Yasunori Kato is a descendant of many different mystics from Japan's past, including the founder of Shugendo, Enno Gyoja and the onmyoji Abe no Seimei; but his bloodline goes back to the indigenous tribal folk from Japan's prehistory (similar to the Ainu people) . Kato wants revenge against Japan for having forgotten the sins the Yamato Court have inflicted upon his people in the past. To achieve revenge, he becomes an "oni", masters the art of shugendo, onmyodo, and other eastern magic and in the early 20th century (which is where the story starts) he tries to resurrect the spirit of the ancient warlord Taira no Masakado, an angry rebel from Japan's past. Kato hopes to use Masakado's power to destroy Tokyo, the current capital of the Japanese Empire. Opposing Kato is Yasumasa Hirai, the rightful descendant of Abe no Seimei and the greatest onmyoji in all of Japan. These two master mystics fight it out with the fate of the Imperial Capital at stake. Caught in the middle of this exotic mayhem is the Tatsumiya family, the descendants of Masakado, whose eldest member Yoichiro, is seriously disturbed. Meanwhile the Soma Family (another bloodline descended from Masakado) send out a trained shrine maiden to defend the Tatsumiya family and stop Kato's machinations.
More references come pouring in...Do you know what kodoku magic is? How about Shikigami? Tsuchimikado Shinto? Kohbo Daishi Kukai? Koda Rohan? Eichii Shibusawa? Kannon? The narrative of the anime does not stop to explain these elements (aside from small comments by the characters). But they tie into the story and direct the narrative, so you need to have some prior familiarity with them. Whereas most anime take their inspiration from Japanese folklore to create their own unique fantasy universes, DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS simply attaches its fictional universe to that folklore as if it were a straight continuation of all the old folktales from ancient Japan. For example if you don't know the classic stories of Abe no Seimei (the "Japanese Merlin") when you watch the anime, you will have a hard time understanding where Kato and Hirai come from, what their magic is, and why they act the way they act. You have to have some prior familiarity with these old stories, concepts, and characters before you can totally understand and appreciate the story told here.
So the sad truth is this anime should never have been brought to the West in the first place. The only reason it even got brought over here in the first place was due to marketing pressures: it was weird, nasty and exotic so the distributors wanted it to sell to the exploding anime market in America ($$$). They could have cared less about the cultural differences or the source material. But in Japan, the anime was SPECIFICALLY made to cash in on the popularity of the franchise spawning from the novel. This is especially evident by the fact that in the interviews with the staff on the SPECIAL EDITION DVD, the first thing they discuss is the NOVEL as if it's something all their viewers have already read ("Assuming you read the novel, you know blah blah blah"). Like I said, the novel sold over 3.5 million copies in Japan upon its initial publication; the producers probably thought "Who wouldn't know about it? Why the hell would anyone buy this if he/she wasn't familiar with the story?" It's kind of like over here how producers release endless streams of low budget animated movies that tie into popular film and comic book franchises like BATMAN. If you had absolutely no idea who Batman was, then why would you even be interested in a low budget, direct to DVD cartoon like UNDER THE RED HOOD when you don't know who the characters are or what the context the story is taking place in? You might be entertained by the violence, but you would assume that the story is nonsense since it's so wild and unfamiliar. And that's EXACTLY the problem many Americans have with DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS.
And to be fair...even without the novel, I'm guessing that in Japan kids would already been exposed to much of the folklore and history referenced in the anime, meaning it would be easier for them to digest. All of this is IMPOSSIBLE for the most part in America though, meaning that DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS was and is effectively "doomed" to obscurity from the start...
Of course you can watch the Streamline's English dubbed version (also on the SPECIAL EDITION), and this is what many English reviewers have done at the expense of the Japanese version. The English dubbed version tries to simplify things by eliminating the Japanese references and replacing them with loose Western parallels (onmyoji becomes "priest", etc.). But the story makes even LESS sense without these references since its basically founded upon them. The problem is that things like the Western cultural connotations of "priest" (especially in the Christian context) don't translate properly over to what an onmyoji is. Don't get me wrong though...the actual performances in the English dub are not that bad. The problem is with the dialogue. If you want to understand the story as it was intended, the Japanese version is your only option.
But once you've got the references under your belt, you're ready to roll and the show can be very enjoyable. The animation is excellent for a low budget OVA series from the 90's. The soundtrack is very moody and evocative mixing synthesizers, organs, guitars and piano medleys to create a gothic and tragic atmosphere. The pacing of the story is very fast (and it better be, being an adaptation of 1000 pages of text), and constantly entertaining. I think episodes one and two are the best. Episode three feels a bit more formulaic and loses some steam due to the lack of the Tsuchimikado Family (Kato's main opponents from the first two episodes). However it and #4 are still good and lead up to an appropriate conclusion.
And despite compressing so much, the writers did skim the narrative down just enough to allow the story to focus on only a couple of linear plots instead of a million subplots (like in the novel). There are only two main stories here: the conflict with Kato and Yoichiro's terrible relationship with his family. In the original novel, the latter subplot was relegated to the sidelines because the Tatsumiya family was a reclusive bunch, and the narrative glossed over them in favor of the "bigger picture". The anime brings it right to the fore though, portraying the situation as a disturbing tragedy. The biggest change is to Yoichiro who is shown as frightened, sick minded and mentally unbalanced instead of mysterious and reclusive. He expresses disdain and hostility for Yukari, his sister, as a mask for his incestuous attraction toward her. Yukari is the innocent victim of his abuse, but her determination to serve her brother in the family's good name leads her to madness. Kato's supernatural terror adds extra stress to an already fractured group. The added tension between the characters gives this particular plot point emotional impact and suspense which the novel lacks. Eventually this latter plotline ties together with the other one in the last episode so pretty much everything is resolved.
The only problem I and other critics have with the show are the unnecessary exploitative elements. But to be totally honest, I really don't think the violence and sex in DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS are that much worse than other "mature" anime. In fact...let me list out the more objectionable moments right now just so you're prepared:
--A woman pukes up a worm with a phallus shaped head.
--Magical impregnation that's very quick
--A rape that occurs off-screen
--A man explodes in a quick gory flash
--A nightmare scene with some sensual conduct
--A girl has her period
--Instances of female nudity
But that's all I can think of. No full on sex scene ala NINJA SCROLL. No weaponized crotch ala WICKED CITY. And there's not even half as much gory violence as NINJA SCROLL or AKIRA. Yeah, there is an incestuous subplot, but that's nothing George R.R. Martin fans haven't already been fully immersed in (see GAME OF THRONES). Granted it's a MATURE title and it's a very dark show, but this is NOT a hentai; it's a dark fantasy story. If you're able to endure NINJA SCROLL without blinking, then I don't think you should have much trouble with this show. I think the fact that the story is confusing to many English viewers cause them to react with extra hostility toward the sex and violence on display. Human beings are naturally hostile toward that which is strange, foreign and not initially comprehensible and I think such has been the case with DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS for a long time in the West.
Besides if by chance they HAD dumped all the exploitative stuff and fill up with the narrative with more exposition, then I bet American viewers would never be interested in the show in the first place because it would be too darn boring. Imagine if in every single scene, they had to stop to explain these age-old references to the uninformed foreigner ("This man is Eichii Shibusawa...he was the founder of Japanese capitalism, blah blah blah")...the result would be at least 75% exposition and be quite a drag.
Will you like DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS? Like I said, I think that's totally dependent on how comfortable you are with the plot and the subject matter. I (and apparently a few Japanese fans) think it's the best adaptation of the novel to date, but that's only because we've had prior exposure to the story in another form. The problem is its difficult for people to like something they can't understand. You might be entertained and/or repulsed by the drama and horror, but if your knowledge of Japanese folklore and history and/or the original franchise is zip, then you undoubtedly will have a hard time with the story. To avoid that, I HIGHLY recommend you gain at least a passing familiarity with these concepts and names before you watch the show:
Masakado, onmyodo, shikigami, Tsuchimikado Family, Abe no Seimei, Doman Seiman, Feng Shui, Eichii Shibusawa, Koda Roda, Gakutensoku, Torahiko Terada, kodoku (Japanese equivalent of "gu magic"), Kannon, Kimon Tonkou
There are many more references obviously, but hopefully this quick and dirty layout will provide a framework for most of the story.
Optionally, if you have the patience and a healthy interest in Japanese history and culture, I would suggest a broader approach:
1) Buy the SPECIAL EDITION only
2) Do some research on Japanese folklore if you're totally unfamiliar with it. May I suggest reading the book Japanese Tales (Pantheon fairy tale & folklore library) by Royall Tyler? If you're a frequent consumer of anime anyway, knowing these classical references can't hurt.
3) Basic research on Meiji and early Showa era Japanese history.
4) Watch the documentaries (not the interviews) on the DVD BEFORE you watch the anime. This will familiarize you with some of the references specific to the story. These documentaries (3 about 20 minutes each) were made to help people specifically understand the references in the story better, and I think they make for some interesting viewing.
5) Watch the subtitled Japanese version only. Write down the references (names, concepts) you aren't familiar with.
6) Watch the interviews (I don't think it'll help much but there are some plot points they mention that aren't covered in the anime).
7) Google the references.
8) With this knowledge in tow watch the Japanese version one more time.
9) Watch the English dubbed version only AFTER you've explored the Japanese version.
The latter approach is probably too much for many people, but it's doable. If you want to dive in without any preparation, you do so at your own risk. Just don't say you weren't warned!!
overall score: 9/10
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