Anime has always been dominated by trends. If a show comes out and hits it big, you can be assured that several more shows that are awfully similar to it are going to follow in the hopes of recapturing that lightning in a bottle. The trends have varied over the years-robots, pretty boys in armor, card collecting, maids, and so on-but for over twenty years one maverick director has dared to be different by simply doing pretty much the same thing over and over.
When you see that name Yoshiaki Kawajiri on the marquee, you can be virtually guaranteed that you’re in for an R-rated male adolescent power fantasy romp of violence (generally of the “extremely bloody” variety and involving swords or some other sort of bladed apparatus), nudity, sex, and grotesque bizarre monsters that tend to be the cause of all the above. Sure, that’s not necessarily all he does, but nobody does action scenes or monster designs like him and his penchant for blue paint can sometimes give Night on the Galactic Railroad a run for its money. If you’re an American anime fan who got their start around the 1980s or 1990s, then you almost definitely have seen something directed by Kawajiri. Longtime fans of MTV may have seen his short The Running Man on Liquid Television. Regrettably it lacks Dynamo, Subzero, Buzzsaw, Fireball, or Jesse Ventura as Captain Freedom, but it is available on DVD as part of an anthology released in the US under the name “Neo-Tokyo.” And what Blockbuster Video doesn’t have copies of Ninja Scroll, Wicked City, and more recently Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust?
Kawajiri’s works tend to have very “1980s Hollywood action movie” sensibilities to them, and his slick aesthetics aren’t very much in keeping with the stereotypical “big eyes, no nose, tiny mouth with one massive undivided tooth” shonen look people commonly associate all anime as having. Because of Kawajiri’s tendency towards visual and narrative conventions that are a bit more in keeping with American entertainment while still being bizarre enough in its content to distinguish itself, his stuff has a way of being discovered by people who ordinarily don’t watch anime at all or even know what it is. Indeed, many a negligent parent or video store employee have allowed their kids to watch Ninja Scroll or Wicked City unsupervised because “it’s a cartoon!” Then the rock dude starts ripping off people’s arms to drink the blood that oozes forth and some old dude nonchalantly hammers away at some chick doggy style. And at that moment when that kid is thinking “oh please God, please please PLEASE don’t let my parents walk in right now.” That was the moment when a new anime fan was born.
Many such moments have undoubtedly occurred throughout history, but as good as Kawajiri is at doing action scenes and designing weird characters with crazy superhuman abilities, the man can’t do anything else. Plot, characterization, romance, comedy, and drama are not things one should expect from any of his anime. This is rather unfortunate because he always tries to have these things, and every time you’re pretty much sitting there going “man, these people are stupid. When are we going to see someone get cut in half… AGAIN?” Fortunately the answer to that question is almost always “in a few minutes.”
Given his general aversion to following the latest hot otaku trend as well as the shared similarities to mainstream American entertainment, it’s no surprise that nearly everything Yoshiaki Kawajiri does goes pretty much ignored by Japanese audiences entirely while gaining traction stateside. After so many years of this, these days most of what he spends his time working on is stuff designed primarily for the US market. The Animatrix, Highlander: Search for Vengeance, and now Batman: Gotham Knight are all Japanese animated works based off of popular American film/television franchises for which Kawajiri has had varying levels of involvement, but his methodical madness simply will not allow itself to be contained or controlled by Hollywood. The American version of Highlander: Search for Vengeance (to be in keeping with every single other Highlander movie ever made) had quite a number of edits made to it presumably as a result of Kawajiri disagreeing with the producers over how the movie should be, and rumor has it that similar edits might even have occurred for his parts of Batman: Gotham Knight. I for one want to imagine that Kawajiri wanted Batman to be running around murdering people and banging all the hot chicks to the point that even Frank Miller would have said “dude, that’s so out of character for Batman… and I’m Frank Miller saying that! I can’t write for crap! Haven’t you read DKR2 or All-Star Batman and Robin: The Boy Wonder? Man oh man, do I suck hardcore! I’ve got comic book fans all fooled! I’m just coasting on goodwill I earned back in the 80s! Excuse me while I completely ruin The Spirit!” At that point Yoshiaki Kawajiri probably took some sort of explosive collar device and strapped it to Frank Miller’s neck in some sort of attempt to recreate the Cyber City Oedo OAVs.
That the collected works of Yoshiaki Kawajiri were so heavily responsible for the “anime is NOT KID’S STUFF” narrative that was so prevalent in America until Pokémon came along is testament to how much people were just not expecting the female reproductive system to actually be the most lethal killing machine the world has ever seen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Yoshiaki Kawajiri, it’s that there’s no scarier place than the vagina, because that’s the place where giant snakes and teeth and stone-melting poison comes from. Male characters in Kawajiri anime as well as YOU, dear reader, would be apt to remember that. Female characters should probably watch out too because chances are about 100% that someone at some point is going to attempt to rape them anyway, and in the case of Wicked City this will happen with a great enough frequency in such a short amount of time as to warrant a phone call to Guinness. For a full erm, blow by blow rundown of those proceedings, be sure to listen to my podcast synopsis of the film at this link! If that doesn’t convince you of the inspired lunacy of Yoshiaki Kawajiri, then nothing will.