Never have I seen a show that has the been the victim of such cultural disparity as DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS. Given the usually hostile reception this anime gets from English viewers not shared by Japanese fans, it is clear that something was lost in translating this thing from Japan to America. Indeed something WAS lost in the translation...
For starters, DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS is based on the classic occult novel TEITO MONOGATARI (TALE OF THE IMPERIAL CAPITAL), written by bibliophile and encyclopedic scholar of fantasy, natural history, folklore and several other subjects; Mr. Hiroshi Aramata. The novel caused a sensation becoming a bestseller with over 3 million sales in Japan alone only a few years after its publication. It would then go on to garner critical praise and receive the Nihon Science Fiction Taisho Award 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. That adaptation went on to hold a place in the top ten highest grossing films of the Japanese box office of that respective year. After that, more adaptations came including manga, spin-off novels, sequels, video games, and this anime.
Why was the original novel so popular? Basically it was a very unique melding of modern history and the occult that introduced several new topics into Japanese fiction. Onmyodo (Yin Yang) mysticism, Feng Shui mythology, Kimon Tonkou magic, etc. are just a few examples of the esoteric or mythical Eastern concepts that this novel popularized for a wide audience. Onmyodo mysticism especially went on to become a big fad in Japanese popular culture after this novel. Just look at all the anime/manga like TOKYO BABYLON, SHONEN ONMYOJI, ONMYO TAISENKI, SHAMAN KING, etc. that heavily feature ying yang diviners or a variant thereof. Beyond that, the novel was also a meticulously researched alternate history featuring a great deal of real events and people from Japan's past.
The novel has become something of a classic still being republished and read today 30 years after its publication. You're likely to find it, or one of its many spinoffs, in any local Japanese bookstore you visit. It has inspired several artists and scholars, and has elevated the status of its author, Hiroshi Aramata, to the level of a national celebrity renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge. But of course because of the huge number of cultural references and the "Japanese-specific" nature of the work, the original novel has been never been considered for translation. 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 the West, many English viewers didn't know where the story came from. Fast forward to the 21st century in the age of the hyper fast internet and many English viewers...still fail to acknowledge the source material. Despite the fact that this is the 21st century with information readily available online (literally only a Google search away), lots of English viewers continue to be ignorant of the existence of the original novel and judge the anime as a standalone product instead of an adaptation.
Now this wouldn't be such an issue if these viewers were a little more respectful of the subject matter in the story, giving the culturally relevant elements the benefit of the doubt. But they don't...rather many English viewers arrogantly decry the story and subject matter as nonsensical, sleazy trash completely ignorant (or inconsiderate) of the 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 more shocking is that his review actively targets many of the folklore references 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, calling the story "completely stupid" and 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? If these critics did their research, then I would be surprised if they showed the same level of hostility. How could anyone be so quick to call the story "insultingly stupid" knowing that it was based on a groundbreaking, Grand Prize winning 3000 page novel written by a respected "human encyclopedia", former professor, natural history specialist, folklore scholar, literary critic and translator?? If you were to do that in Japanese speaking sci-fi/fantasy circles, you would DEFINITELY raise a few eyebrows. But many harsh English critics of DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS have been getting away with these kind of ignorant attacks for years, completely inconsiderate of the cultural differences.
Let me straighten out one thing here: the story is not the problem. If it was the problem, the novel would have never sold that many copies or been critically acclaimed and Hiroshi Aramata would still be a poor obscure nobody in Japan.
The problem is how the anime handles the story.
Likewise it's difficult to recommend this adaptation to Western viewers because: a) the plot is a super abridged, highly stylized and incomplete version of a novel that has never been translated into English and b) the culture is wrong. Regarding the narrative, the anime only adapts the first 1/3rd of the novel (first 1000 pages), meaning it is incomplete. But apparently those 1000 pages still contain too much material because the narrative in the anime shoots along at lightning speed. It also features many wild and exaggerated representations of supernatural phenomena that may be entertaining for someone well versed in the story and its mythology, but distracting for those just being initiated into it. Regarding the culture, the story is filled with way too many Japanese historical and folklore references that are not expounded upon for the benefit of the uninformed viewer. For example, many of the characters in the plot are based on real celebrities from Japan's past. Although it may be fun for a Japanese person to see their historical heroes (like Eiichi Shibusawa, who reformed Japan's economy) in a story about the supernatural, their inclusion won't mean anything to westerners.
Let me just try to convey the plot in one paragraph:
The protagonist, Yasunori Kato, is a descendant of many famous historical mystics 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 (sort of like the Ainu people). Kato wants revenge against the Japanese Empire for the sins the Yamato Court inflicted upon his people in the past. His desire for vengeance turns him into an oni and in the early 20th century (which is where the story starts) he tries to arouse the spirit of the ancient warlord Taira no Masakado, a real life local deity and national rebel from Japan's past, to use as a weapon 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? Kimon Tonkou? 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 inspiration from Japanese (and Chinese) mythology and history to create their own unique fantasy universes, DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS builds its entire story purely off of those references, similar to how works like Alan Moore's LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN builds its entire story off references to classic Victorian literature. 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 just who the hell Kato and Hirai are and what kind of magics they're using. If you have no familiarity with the writings of Izumi Kyoka, the whole significance of his conversation with the heroine will be lost on you. If you have no idea about the life and legacy of Koda Rohan, you'll probably be confused trying to understand why the story treats him like such a major character but doesn't take the time to develop him. And of course if you absolutely no clue about who Kannon is, the ending of the show will make no sense whatsoever. Little to no exposition is given throughout the anime; it's completely up to the audience to catch these references.
There are also some symbols that Western viewers will undoubtedly misinterpret here, such as the pentagram that pops up a lot during the show. Most Western viewers who see the pentagram assume it has a satanic connotation because Kato is evil and he uses it. In Japanese folklore however, the pentagram is derived from the Chinese principles of "Wu Xing" ("The Five Phases/Elements") and was the magic symbol used by Abe no Seimei, the historical ancestor of both Kato and Hirai. This is never explained in the anime though. These are just a couple examples of how you have to have some prior familiarity with these old stories, concepts, symbols and characters before you can totally understand and appreciate the story told here.
So the sad, sad truth is that this anime should NEVER have been brought to the West in the first place. The only reason it did was due to marketing pressures: it was weird, exotic, and violent so the distributors wanted to sell it 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 discussed is the NOVEL as if it's something all their viewers were already intimately familiar with ("Assuming you read the novel, you know blah blah blah"). Like I said, the novel sold over 3 million copies in Japan in its first few years of 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?"
Some critics will argue that DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS, being an adaptation, should completely stand alone. But one has to take into account the period in which it was created. In the early 90's, anime was made purely for a Japanese audience. Japanese writers made no leeway made for foreign viewers. Compounding the problem back then was that a lot of anime adaptations of popular material were highly compressed and abridged, made purely for the purpose of entertainment and not intended as a replacement for the source material. For example, the AKIRA film, although a complete adaptation, heavily, heavily compresses its 2000 page source material to accommodate a 2 something hour time slot. X THE MOVIE is another example, compressing 8 volumes of a popular manga into a 2 hour time slot. In both cases (as fans of the source material will tell you), the narrative suffers a lot. The writers and artists, being pressed for time and money, didn't care about creating "epic trilogies" to bring legions of new fans into the fold. They were too busy catering to an already established fanbase. If you wanted a more developed story, you were expected to go out and buy the source material, find magazines or other fans and educate yourself. DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS does the exact same thing, except with literature instead of manga. Oh and remember...DOOMED MEAGALOPOLIS had actually had four visual adaptations of the novel prior. That was a lot of material to consult before you even approached the anime.
Actually, the closest Western literary analogy I can think of off the top of my head is, well, LORD OF THE RINGS. Nobody would dare question the high status of Tolkien's literary saga in the world of fantasy literature. But before Peter Jackson came along, the early cinematic adaptations that were created of it don't exactly rank as classics by today's standards. The first version of THE HOBBIT (1977) was a low budget made for TV affair with cheap animation that heavily abridged the story, exaggerating and downplaying certain stuff along the way. The Ralph Bakshi animated adaptation is generally criticized for featuring a narrative difficult to follow for people not familiar with the source material as well as for being unfinished. DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS falls between these adaptations. Like TV HOBBIT, its a relatively low budget affair that compresses and stylizes the story. Like the Bakshi film, it is also is darker than its source material, as well as a blatantly incomplete adaptation. The problem is that, unlike LORD OF THE RINGS, TEITO MONOGATARI has not had the "Peter Jackson" treatment that it deserves yet. Combine this with the fact that its difficult to sell the novel outside of Japan, and you realize the problem: all Americans get exposed to are these flawed adaptations which reference characters, mythology, and history found in material not available in English.
Of course you can watch the Streamline's simplified English dubbed version (also on the SPECIAL EDITION), but this makes things even more confusing. The English dubbed version tries to dumb things down by eliminating the Japanese references and replacing them with loose Western parallels (onmyoji becomes "priest", etc., shikigami becomes "spirit cards", etc.), reducing plot points in the process. But the story makes even less sense without them since those references are the foundation of the plot. Part of the problem is the translation: terms like the Western cultural connotations of "priest" don't translate accurately over to what an onmyoji is. For a parallel situation, imagine if somebody translated LORD OF THE RINGS and referred to Gandalf as a "monk" throughout. Wouldn't that be a little awkward?
Things get even more messy when you combine these changes with unexplained elements such as the pentagram symbol. The sight of the virtuous "priests" using pentagrams to execute their holy magics might be mind boggling for a Western viewer with a Christian background. It will definitely seem like nonsense. 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 story under control, 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 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. The voicework (in the Japanese version at least) is exceptionally good, with Kyusaku Shimada stealing the show as Yasunori Kato. Shimada had previously become hugely popular playing Kato in both the stage and film adaptations of the novel, so getting him back for the anime version was simply a natural idea. 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). The main two stories here are the various characters' conflict with Kato and Yoichiro's terrible relationship with his family. In the original novel, the latter subplot was relegated more 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 sick minded and mentally unbalanced. 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. Eventually this latter plotline ties together with the other one in the last episode so pretty much everything is resolved.
Some viewers may find the ending a little abrupt and unsatisfying, and admittedly it is a little forced. Character development is left hanging and several questions remain unanswered. The main reason for this though is that, as said before, the anime ONLY covers the first 1/3rd of the original novel and tags on a new ending to provide closure. Why they never finished adapting the whole novel, I don't know. Most likely it was due to time and money pressure as well as the fact that this whole production was trying to cash in on the success of the previous live action adaptation (which also only covered the first 1/3rd of the novel).
SEX AND VIOLENCE:
Now this is important to bring up because it's been the subject of a lot of a criticism Western viewers have thrown against DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS. Charles Solomon's (who clearly missed a lot of the cultural references) dismissive jab about the anime being a "jejune gorefest" is one example as are many others. While I agree that there a lot of completely unnecessary violent and sexual elements in this show, I do have a problem with such criticisms: hypocrisy. Why are so many American anime fans out there so defensive of hyper violent "mature" productions like AKIRA and NINJA SCROLL in the first place? Clearly these elements are part of the appeal of anime to Western viewers. So why should DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS be singled out for just following suit? Why are these viewers so quick to praise AKIRA for its ultra-violence and then slam DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS for the exact same thing?
I'm saying this because I really don't think that the violence and sex in DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS are much worse than a lot of "mature" anime productions on the market (including the aforementioned ones). I do feel that you could have told this story without a lot of the nasty stuff (just as I feel they could have done a better job with the exposition), but I can understand why the writers did this.
The original novel was a much lighter affair and was very expository by contrast. For example, not a lot goes on in the first book aside from character introductions, mountains of historical infodumping, social interactions, and a few descriptions of monsters. That's not very effective with a visual medium like anime. So the anime had to pump up the imagery and sensational elements. And at that time in the anime industry, lots of violent/nasty adult shows like WICKED CITY, NINJA SCROLL and that dastardly LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND were the ones making money. This was the material DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS was trying to compete with.
Objectionable moments in DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS I can remember off the top of my head include: --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. There's no explicit sex scene ala NINJA SCROLL. There's no "fanged genitalia" ala WICKED CITY. And there's not even half as much gory violence and images of death and killing as in NINJA SCROLL or AKIRA (in fact, throughout the anime, only ONE character is murdered onscreen iirc). Yeah, there is an incest subplot, but that shouldn't really come off to Americans as uncommon subject in "mature" fantasy fiction (see George Martin's GAME OF THRONES and even Tolkien's own SILMARILLION). Granted DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS is a mature title, but this is NOT a hentai; it's a dark fantasy story. If you're able to endure NINJA SCROLL without blinking (I know I'm not), then I don't think you should have much trouble with this show.
I think it's because of the confusing nature of the story that English anime viewers continue to react with extra hostility to the sex and violence in DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS instead of the aforementioned shows. Human beings are naturally hostile toward that which is cryptic, vague, and odd; and DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS will seem like that to viewers with no background in the subject matter.
Besides let's pretend that, by chance, the creators of the anime had dumped all the exploitative stuff and filled up with the narrative with more exposition, enough exposition to make the story and its significance perfectly clear to every viewer out there. Imagine if in every single scene, they had to stop to explain these age-old references ("This man is Eichii Shibusawa...he was the founder of Japanese capitalism, blah blah blah"). What would be the result? The show would be like 75% exposition, be an incredible drag and of little appeal to anime fans both Japanese and American. You would get an animated documentary instead of an entertainment show. And indeed, the problem described above is one of the reasons the novel has never been considered for translation.
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. 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 the references and/or the original story is zip, then you undoubtedly will have a hard time with the narrative...perhaps even joining the ranks of those bitter English critics who complain about how they "wasted their lives" enduring it. The anime was simply not made to stand alone...it was made as an entertaining spectacle to supplement the novel. Thus, the ultimate cure would be to read the original novel. But that's not possible (at the moment) in the West. So why bother?? Why waste your time on something you can't finish?
If you want to continue and watch the show anyway, then I HIGHLY recommend you gain at least a passing familiarity with these concepts and names before you do:
Concepts: onmyodo, shikigami, Seiman (gobousei), kekkai, Feng Shui (especially the concepts of Energy Veins and Dragons), kodoku (Japanese equivalent of "gu magic"), Kimon Tonkou, Stone Sentinel Maze,
Names: Taira no Masakado, Tsuchimikado Family, Abe no Seimei, Eichii Shibusawa, Koda Rohan, Gakutensoku, Torahiko Terada, Kannon, history of the Tokyo Ginza Station, Noritsugu Hayakawa, Izumi Kyoka, Lagrange
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? Of course DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS doesn't reference ALL the stories in there; but it does reference many of the motifs found in this collection such as mediums, angry spirits which are placated into guardian deities, Yin Yang divination (essential), magical insects, the power of bodhisattvas, etc. I can tell you for sure that the story "The Genie" is directly referenced in the climax of the first episode. If you're a frequent consumer of anime anyway, exposure to these classic stories can't hurt. Also make sure you get some familiarity with the basic mythology of Feng Shui and other mythical Chinese practices such as Gu magic, Qimen Dunjia magic, and the Stone Sentinel Maze (from ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS for you ROTK fans out there).
3) Basic overview of late Meiji, Taisho and early Showa era Japanese history. Focus on key events, figures (especially the ones listed above), and social issues during these periods. There was a lot of anxiety running through Japan's social stratum during the early 20th century and that's reflected in the story of DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS.
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 partly for this purpose, and I think they make for some interesting viewing.
5) Going back to the anime, 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) Whatever the case, if you have a morbid curiosity to see the English dubbed version, do so only AFTER you've explored the Japanese version.
A couple more personal recommendations:
Seek out and watch the film ONMYOJI (2001) before you go anywhere near DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS. The film is a much more accessible and very entertaining introduction to a lot of the mythology that DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS references. Although chronologically this film takes place before DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS, the books it was based were actually written 3 years after TEITO MONOGATARI.
Finally you can also seek out and watch the live action version of TEITO MONOGATARI known in the West as TOKYO: THE LAST MEGALOPOLIS. By itself, this adaptation is probably more confusing than the anime. However I've found that it actually discusses some narrative points the anime glosses over, so it's actually a decent supplement. Also this is the most popular version of the story in Japan, and the anime actually borrowed many scenes from it. This is totally dependent upon the strength of your interest though. I wouldn't recommend this other than the fact that last time I checked, the film was uploaded online, meaning that access shouldn't be an issue.
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!!
Before I go off reviewing probably one of the most unfairly hated anime titles in existence, I'd like to share some personal history I've had with this anime. It was Friday afternoon back in September of 2002, and my fascination with anime was still potent since I've only been a fan for two months. I wanted to rent more anime tapes, so me and my brother went to Popeye's Chicken after school for some good eatin', and we went to the now absent Hollywood … more
If I ever seen an anime title that recieved quite a bit of unwarranted negative feedback, then it would have to be Doomed Megalopolis. I don't like to use this term, but this is one of those titles people just don't get. It dabbles heavily in Japanese mythology as well as the supernatural. I remember the story being pretty engrossing, but I will admit that some of the material will not sit well with some. There are traces of hentai and it can be pretty violent. This is not a title I would recommend … more