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Friday, December 8, 2017

Manga DVD Sanctuary: Third Time's Not Quite the Charm...

Near the end of the first year of this blog's very existence (in the far off year of 2011...), I watched & reviewed two products released under the hyper-short-lived Manga DVD line. On October 3, 2003, a production company named Shadow Entertainment released three DVDs, with distribution by Sony Pictures Entertainment, that took three classic manga & turned them into what people nowadays would call a "motion comic". In other words, instead of actually creating full-on anime adaptations of these works, the panels from the manga would be shown on screen, alongside some minor visual effects, full voice acting, sound effects, & a musical score. Unfortunately, Shadow only ever produced three of these DVDs, and all those years ago I covered the Manga DVD versions of Kyoufu Shinbun & Ring ni Kakero. Now it is finally time for me cover the third of these products... This is Manga DVD Sanctuary.

Technically, it's done in 4:3 full-screen, but except for the credits
it's all shown letterboxed, so I'm cropping here.

Running from 1990-1995 in the pages of Shogakukan's Big Comic Spirits, Sanctuary was a political thriller written by Sho Fumimura (a.k.a. Yoshiyuki Okamura, but best known as Fist of the North Star's Buronson) & drawn by Ryoichi Ikegami (Crying Freeman, Mai, the Psychic Girl); in fact, this would be the first of many collaborations between these two mangaka. The manga ran for 12 volumes, & prompted both a Japanese live-action theatrical adaptation in 1995 & a 50-minute OVA in 1996, both of which actually saw English release by Viz Media (who also released the manga, translated by Matt Thorn). Unfortunately, no version sold amazingly in North America, so the manga has been out-of-print for decades, & neither the movie nor the OVA ever saw a DVD release (VHS only, people). Even in Japan, while both the manga & movie have seen re-releases, the OVA still remains without a DVD release. Therefore, the Manga DVD adaptation is actually the most recent version of this story, which makes it all the more interesting that it's the most obscure & forgotten. Looking back at my reviews, I was generally pleased with what Shadow Entertainment had done with the other two productions, so let's see if this third one follows in their tracks.

Akira Hojo & Chiaki Asami met each other as children in Cambodia during the 70s, and after experiencing the horrors that happened there, they promised each other to make their home country of Japan a "sanctuary" for its people. They decided to play Rock-Paper-Scissors to determine which direction each would take; Hojo went down the path of becoming a yakuza, while Asami went into politics. While Asami has to survive assassination attempts during his slow rise to the top, Hojo takes a more direct approach to take over the Japanese yakuza world. For example, even if he becomes a boss, he'll need the help of Tokai, who he used to work for back in the day, even though Tokai is intensely dedicated to the current regime. Not just that, but they both have to look out for Kyoko Ishihara, the Deputy-chief of Tokyo who's investigating both Hojo & Asami, especially when she gets wind of their past in Cambodia. For Asami to fulfill his dream, though, he needs to beat the odds & become Prime Minister, and the sooner the better.

Due to panning, this is actually a composite image... Crazy, right?

I won't beat around the bush here, so I'll just get to the point: Manga DVD Sanctuary is a really lackluster product in terms of what this series of DVDs were meant to be. I'm not saying that it fails to deliver on what it set out to do, but rather the main problem is that it is literally nothing more than feature-length motion comic, but with so little to it from a visual perspective. Ryoichi Ikegami's artwork is always beautiful, but Shadow Entertainment didn't really do anything else with it other than slap the panels on screen, with the production only utilizing slow pans & some slight movement of some artwork to simulate body movement (& it's only done a handful of times), plus tinting everything in a sepia tone when a flashback is shown on screen. In comparison, Manga DVD Ring ni Kakero did a fair bit with colors, did a lot more with moving the artwork to accentuate moments, & helped make the giant sound effects really pop, while Manga DVD Kyoufu Shinbun had its own cool moments, especially when it added a live actor to a scene in a moment that truly creeped me out at first. The most you get from Manga DVD Sanctuary is a couple of yakuza back tattoos being shown in full color, which do pop against the monochrome artwork, and a couple of scenes while it's raining, which utilize a rain effect to help sell the weather. It's just so bland that, though it's the last one I'm reviewing, I feel like this was the first one that got made, and the people at Shadow realized that they could do more with the other two productions; all three DVDs were simultaneously released, but I doubt they were produced simultaneously.

Thankfully, none of this takes away from the overall story being told, which is still rather intriguing, even for someone like me who has never experienced Sanctuary before & has no subtitles to work with. It's obviously a bit of a cliff notes take on the overall story, following three main story arcs: Hojo's forceful rise to being a boss, the introduction of Tokai & Hojo's attempt to bring him into the fold, & Asami's campaign to become Prime Minister. Obviously, Hojo gets the majority of the focus here, but Asami is always shown as being involved in some way, especially since the two friends constantly communicate with each other. Luckily, alongside his partner Reiji Tashiro, Hojo is consistently grabbing your attention with every scene he's in, and Tokai is a guaranteed fun time for almost every second he's on screen. The only exception would be one moment when he tries to rape Ishihara (what a dumb ass move), but then again he is crazy, even among the other yakuza. Unfortunately, the cliff notes style does result in some plot points being glossed over, like how exactly Hojo & Ishihara fall in love, and the direct ending kind of just happens with pretty much no real conflict that has to be surpassed; okay, Asami gets shot in the leg, but it's dealt with so quickly that it essentially meant nothing. Still, seeing this does make me curious about one day checking out the OVA & the live-action movie, if only to better experience what seems to be a very interesting story about the politics of the yakuza underworld. Maybe one day one of them can get license rescued...

This Manga DVD was directed by Yukio Suzuki, an animator & storyboarder who had been assistant director on movies like Barefoot Gen, Bobby's Girl, & Lensman, which would explain why, even with next to nothing making it visually special, it still was executed well enough to keep my interest throughout. It's just sad that the director with the most on-hands anime experience, the other two Manga DVDs were directed by producers, wound up with the least interesting product, from a visual standpoint. Likewise, the music by Tetsuya Yamamoto (Chosoku Spinner) is fitting for the style of story being told, but overall is rather bland & forgettable once you're done watching. Thankfully, the voice cast is very solid, with Hiroaki Hirata & Kazuhiko Inoue leading everything as Hojo & Asami, respectively. Both of them match their characters well, whether it's Hirata's laid back & casual, yet still dangerous, way of speaking, or Inoue's calm & collected demeanor. Toshihiko Seki's Tashiro is also nice, as it allows Seki to deliver his iconic way of screaming things out whenever Tashiro gets agitated. Easily the stand-out performance, though, is from Akio Ohtsuka, whose Tokai is unhinged madness personified; every word out of Ohtsuka's mouth in this role is perfectly crazed. I would love to give credit to more of the cast, but it was tricky enough to find these people being listed online, and the best source I could find for this Manga DVD has some blurry credits. All that being said, though, the rest of the voice cast is well done. Really, this shouldn't be surprising for any of these productions, since they're essentially drama CDs, but with manga panels attached to them; the voice work is the focus here.

Back when I reviewed the other two Manga DVD productions, I mentioned that I simply couldn't find Manga DVD Sanctuary at the time, hence why I never got to it; this was before I got the hang of buying from Amazon Japan. Now, all these years later, I really feel like I saved the worst for last, because this is easily the most barebones product of the three. Whereas Kyoufu Shinbun & Ring ni Kakero were given visually interesting motion comics that helped make them as interesting to watch as they were to listen to, Sanctuary was given nothing more than a bunch of manga panels that panned about, plus a splash of color or a rain effect here & there. Granted, the source material is still strong enough to not make the story itself suffer, though the cliff notes execution does water down an element or two, but the biggest problem with this is that this is, as of this review, the final adaptation of Sanctuary ever made. When it comes to the other Manga DVD stuff, it was the middle adaptation for Kyoufu Shinbun (which had an OVA already, & a live-action movie later), while it was the first for Ring ni Kakero (which would receive an anime the following year). For Sanctuary, though, there were already two prior adaptations, so simply doing a basic job would make it feel like a lesser product in the end.

Regardless, though, Shadow Entertainment's Manga DVD line would be an abject failure, with nothing else ever coming about from it beyond these three releases, and I'd argue it was because it was a little ahead of its time. The closest American counterpart would probably be the Marvel Knights motion comics, and those didn't start happening until 2009. Even then, the concept itself is very much a niche, as most people either want a comic or an adaptation, not some half-way product that's a little bit of both. I appreciate these for being the bizarre ideas that they are, & I'm happy to have Manga DVD Ring ni Kakero on my shelf, but I'm not exactly wishing that more of these were made, either.

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