Friday, 13 September 2019

The Red and The Blue

Thoughts on the film: Demon City Shinjuku (1988)

First scene, pre-credits: a battle upon a rooftop. The evil Rebi Ra has sided with the demon world to become all-powerful. In attempting to open a portal that will unleash the demon world into that of our own, Rebi Ra is challenged by a former associate, Genichirō Izayoi. From the first images, the presence of Rebi Ra - and by extension, the demon world itself - is linked to the colour red. The presence of Genichirō and the side of good is linked to the colour blue.

In these first frames we can already see an obvious polarity between these saturated colours: red, with its connotations of heat - equating to hell, violence and "sin" - and blue, with its connotations of cold - equating to logic, introspection and the natural world. In a sense, these are the colours of dawn and dusk, falling at either end of a chromatic spectrum. Red also suggests fire, but in a way so does blue. The blue flame burns brighter, and perhaps that's the point.

Throughout the film the colours will be at war with one another: their battle for dominance over the cinematic frame mirroring that of the battle between characters on-screen.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

As a visual aesthetic, this same contrasting colour palette was used previously in Yoshiaki Kawajiri's earlier film, Wicked City (1987). As in this film, Wicked City concerns itself with the battle between a demon world and our own. Though both films are unrelated and based on individual source materials, there are parallels that go beyond simple auteurism to suggest an actual lineage. In Wicked City, a human agent and a demon agent must join forces to attempt to stop the "black world" from encroaching on reality. Their relationship again defined by this same contrast between a red and blue lighting strategy. The colours there were redolent of that of a police siren: an invocation of law and order?

Wicked City [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1987]:

The same connotations apply there as they do here, but the aesthetic was used much more sparingly in Wicked City than it is in this subsequent work. From the outset, the interplay between the two colours is made a defining feature of Demon City Shinjuku, obvious even in the on-screen presentation of its title. The text is repeated twice, once in red, and again in blue, as both colours re-enact a version of the rooftops battle that we've previously seen. Here, it's the colour blue that remains dominant: a telling sign perhaps of which side of this cosmic battle its filmmakers have taken.

[NOTE: One could argue from the screen-captures included that black is also a dominant colour. However, I tend to think of black, in this context, as a neutral backdrop, like the white of a piece of paper. The blank canvas or arena of a medieval darkness on to which these colours, as a personification, interact.]

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

Let's cut back to that opening fight for a second. In narrative terms, this scene is pure exposition. It establishes a context and back-story, but also gives purpose to our as-yet to be introduced central character, Kyoya Izayoi: Genichirō's son. One of the defining characteristics of the anime films of this period is their ability to marry exposition to scenes of action and spectacle. In conventional terms, it's unrealistic to assume that these characters would be sharing necessary background information so freely during the midst of battle, but then there is very little in the film that is realistic, or that aims to reflect reality in the literal sense. As such it's something we either embrace and go along with, or reject and move on.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

As the battle here progresses, Kawajiri and his animators push the saturation of the colours even further, abstracting the reality of the (human) world as it might ordinarily appear and showing instead how it is destroyed (or reclaimed) by the shadowy supernatural forces of the demon world. There are broader social and political implications to this scene, specific to the destruction of Japan by the allies during the Second World War, which I'll return to in more detail in a subsequent post, however, there's also something more subconscious to this relationship between man and "world" that is worth remarking on.

At this point, it's probably not a massive spoiler to suggest that the noble Genichirō loses his battle. It's often a cliché in such films that the early death of a character is used to provide purpose to the subsequent protagonist, and especially if the deceased character is a parent, as is the case here. However, there is also a symbiotic relationship between the characters and the worlds that they inhabit. For example, if Genichirō is wounded, then the world is wounded. If Genichirō dies then the world dies too. Each physical wound against the human body causes a corporeal "wound" upon the landscape itself.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

This subsequent shot, depicting the bruised and bloodied figure of Genichirō, makes the point somewhat clear. As the character approaches death he must look on, hopelessly, as the city he was fighting to protect falls into rubble and disarray. The colour red, now the colour of blood, suggests the severity of his wounds and the visualisation of life escaping into the shadowy depths: further clarifying the role that red, as a colour, will play in signifying death.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

After the defeat of Genichirō, the subsequent shot of the city as it's reduced to rubble is entirely saturated in the colour red. In this timeline, blue has been removed from the palette. I'll return to this image in a subsequent post as I find its significance goes far beyond the level of mere aesthetics and opens up on an interesting thread that runs throughout many Japanese genre films of this period (and especially in OAV/anime movies.)

Demon City Shinjuku is in no way a masterwork. It's anticlimactic - feeling more like a series of set-pieces than a coherent narrative - and is marred by many of the shortcomings of other Kawajiri films, specifically his fondness for obnoxious characters and scenes of sexual violence against women. However, it stands out in part due to its bold imagery, its nightmares of body horror mutation and the atmosphere of its ruined world.