The OVA is one of those curious formats found only in Japan.
Originally they were VHS tape single “episodes” of an Anime series, sold directly to consumers (for rather exorbitant prices) and generally fairly short – a half-hour to an hour. They generally had a higher budget and production values than TV animation (often rivaling movie quality) and fewer restrictions on sex, violence and nudity. They never caught on with the American audience, where their short length made them seem overpriced. Ultimately, many of the shorter series were collected in a single volume or packaged as “movies”. The IMDB actually mislabels many of these as “Mini-series” or TV shows.
But it was a tremendous success in Japan, thanks in part to the involvement of some of the greatest talents in Anime (consider, for example that Mamoru Oshii’s single episode Dallos is generally considered the first).
So it should come as little surprise to find legendary Ninja Scroll director, Yoshiaki Kawajiri (see also my review of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)) directed several OVA, including this three-parter. It has largely been forgotten for reasons that have nothing to do with the film, but is now, deservedly, being rediscovered.
The basic notion is simple enough: Oedo is a horrible snarl of a city, where crime is out of control and the increasing complexity of modern life has left the city itself unmanageable. The manipulative (and somewhat sadistic) Chief has given three dangerous felons the chance to reduce their many life sentences by catching Cyber criminals.
While all three work as a team and appear in every episode, each segment focuses on one of the main characters. As they have very different talents and characteristics, the stories are also wildly varied, from a “haunted” skyscraper with a ghost in the machine, to a duel with a deadly new weapon, or a romance with a vampire.
One particularly nice touch is that the baton the three receive as a badge of office is based on the ancient Japanese baton/badge of office issued to constables, the jitte, although here it has been transformed into a high tech weapon.
It’s hard not to see Mamoru Oshii’s The Ghost in the Shell in all this, even though the OVA came out earlier and never touches on the questions of what it means to be human that are central to Oshii’s work. Did Kawajiri influence Oshii, or was his OVA simply one of the better examples of animated Japanese cyberpunk?
I don’t know the answer to that one. Nor do I know whether it was always meant to be a three-part series or if they would have made more, if these three had been successful. But whatever the case, it is one of the best Anime of the era and definitely worth a look.
(Complete OVA available here).
(For more films by Yoshiaki Kawajiri see here)