Happy Halloween, everyone!
Horror is one of my favorite genres, second only to fantasy. Stephen King was a big influence on me when I first began to entertain the idea of becoming a writer, because he put being a storyteller first, and because he recognized that horror is a genre that blends well with every other genre in existence. Be it sci fi, fantasy, western, or anything else, it is just one slight twist away from being a horror story as well.
As a genre, horror is often best when it works in tandem with another genre. Alien is a great example of sci fi horror, while King’s Eye of the Dragon is one of the best fantasy horror novels out there, just to name a couple. Modern horror has fallen into a bit of a rut, with slasher flicks and jump scares taking the place of atmosphere, plot, and characterization, where the best horror work is truly found. As a fan of horror, this is something that bothers me, so I wanted to take a little time this week to focus on where horror is still being done right.
Anime, of course, still gets what horror is all about. Be it the amazing and complex story of Another, the twisted tales of Hell Girl, or the straight up creepy vampires vs villagers take of Shiki, anime delivers on horror the way few other mediums still do. There’s Higurashi, for those who really want to get taken down a dark path, Death Note for those who prefer a solid psychological turn, or Ghost Hunt, for just some straight up creepy moments.
All of those are well known, however, and I prefer to delve into the lesser known anime out there. So, picking a horror anime to talk about ended up actually being pretty hard. Horror anime tend to do really well, after all, so few good ones get overlooked.
Which brings me back to what I was talking about at the top, how well horror blends with other genres. In this weeks offering, we’re going to take a look at a sci-fi horror anime, which also brings in elements of the supernatural, as well as why it is actually one of the most important animes you’ve never heard of.
Welcome to Skull Man.
Skull Man is a thirteen episode series from Bones, probably the only other studio besides Madhouse I’d ever refer to as a powerhouse, and was released in 2007. In general, nobody really paid it much attention, at least in the States. This is most likely because they don’t know the history and significance of Skull Man, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
The story follows a tabloid reporter, Hayato Mikogami, in an alternate universe Japan, during the early 80’s, as he travels to the corporate owned city of Ootomo to investigate rumors of a man with a skull head murdering people by night. Along the way, he is joined by wanna be photojournalist Kirika, and the two soon find themselves plunged into a global conspiracy as they track the infamous Skull Man, and the monsters that seem to follow in his wake.
As a character, Skull Man owes something to the classic figures of the radio era, such as The Shadow, with his mysterious abilities, penchant for going after evil, and willingness to let innocents die to achieve his goals. Much of the story of Skull Man uses film noir stylings, such as nobody being what they claim, secret organizations, and so on. There’s even a powerful religious group at the heart of all the strange going-ons in Ootomo city, with ties to the even more powerful pharmaceutical company that basically owns the entire city.
There’s also werewolves, werecats, werelizards, and cyborgs. All in the same story of a skull masked vigilante in a flowing overcoat. The whole thing is about a half step away from being gothic as hell, in addition to all the other things it has going on. If it sounds like it would be a mess, you’d think so, but it oddly isn’t. Somehow, it all works together to provide a unique story that is the perfect blend of all of these elements.
There’s even a mysterious old man in a fedora and overcoat that always manages to show up at just the right moment. Honestly, that’s one of my favorite parts, and favorite characters, in the whole story. There’s such a strong Sam Spade vibe to him, it’s just wonderful.
Despite being a tabloid journalist, Hayato actually displays a lot of hard nosed journalistic skills, constantly diving into danger, in a similar vein to Lois Lane, except he doesn’t have his own Superman to bail him out, forcing him to rely on his wits and charm to get himself out of near death, accusations of being a murderer, and even suspicion he is the Skull Man.
Kirika serves as his plunky sidekick, though she’d prefer to be called a partner. She occasionally fills a similar role as Kato in the Green Hornet, being possessed of martial arts skill and sharp instincts that always put her in the right place at the right time. She has her own story in all of this, and the slow growth of her relationship with Hayato from antagonistic, to collaborative, to friendship and more, is done with such a skill as to make it almost unnoticeable. It just feels like a natural part of the stories progression.
The eventual reveal of the identity of the Skull Man comes after a skilled red herring, and is genuinely surprising, not just for who it is, but for why. His accomplices have their own stories, as well, and their loyalty to Skull Man is ultimately not just relatable, but admirable, in both what it says of them, and him.
The series only real downside is the massive cast of characters. Many of whom are only in the story for one to two episodes, yet somehow manage to have a significant impact on the other characters, and the story itself. While this is normally a good thing, it can be hard to keep up with them all after a bit, and occasionally, the character designs tend to bleed together, making it hard to remember who is who and why they are important. This is a small complaint, however. Skull Man is a show that demands repeat viewings to see how all the intricate parts of it fit together, so sorting out who is who and why they matter gets easier on successive viewings.
The animation is classic Bones. Beautiful, stylish, but smooth and beautiful, with dynamic action scenes and, for the most part, easily recognizable characters. A few blend together, but most of them are unique enough to make them easy to remember. The direction, done by Takeshi Mori (Vandread), is well handled, with a keen eye for lighting, composition, style and above all else, atmosphere.
Because Skull Man is atmospheric as hell. As I said, much of it is a call back to the great radio serials, and classic film noir. Danger lurks around every corner, even your friends may well be your enemies, and nothing is what it appears. Heroes can become villains, and villains can redeem themselves to be heroes in the end. It is a world where anything, and everything, is possible. It feels like it, too, with every frame just dripping in rich atmosphere, calling back to a different era.
The music is handled by the great Shiro Sagisu, who did the music for Neon Genesis Evangelion, Bleach, and Attack on Titan. It has his fingerprints all over it, too, with majestic, sweeping scores that are just amazing to listen to. Even the simpler pieces of music, the quieter ones, are filled with potential for menace and danger. It is classic Shiro Sagisu, making the soundtrack one worth owning, just for the rich and moody atmosphere he brings to it.
The opening credits set the stage well, using the awesome rock and roll song “Hikari No Machi” from TOKIO. Mixed with stunning and fast paced visuals, the music serves to group you right into the era of ’80’s rock and roll. Which is funny, since TOKIO didn’t come around until the mid ’90’s. They still nailed it, though, and it’s just a great opening. You can see it on Youtube here, if you like.
Now, I’m gonna admit, if you aren’t a big fan of film noir, radio era superheroes, or conspiracy stories, then Skull man probably isn’t going to be for you. I’m old, and most of things have been a big part of my life for a long time. I grew up on Humphrey Bogart movies playing on the Saturday Matinee, and at one point had many of the radio plays of The Shadow on cassette tape, which I listened to frequently. Star Trek was regular viewing, and Star Wars was a big thing in my childhood, as was Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, and my dad read me Edger Allen Poe for bedtime stories. So, all these elements, they are big selling points to me. There’s a certain nostalgia involved that never fails to draw me in. I was born in 1973, as well, so the ’80’s were when I was growing up, and discovering all the things that I loved, even now.
More importantly, I get what Bones was doing with Skull Man. It’s a throwback series, with even the animation having a touch of the ’80’s style. It’s intended viewing, possibly, for people like me, who remember the era of pagers, bulky car phones, and certain fears that the series plays heavily into, such as the oncoming uncertainty of advanced technology, use of nuclear weapons, and a changing world.
Which means that younger viewers may not get a lot of what the show does. If your only knowledge of The Shadow, for instance, is the 1994 Alec Baldwin movie, you aren’t likely to really grasp how well Skull Man recreates the era of pulp fiction, where mad scientists ran amok, and literally anything was possible. The way it brings back that mess of conflicting ideas that somehow worked, with death rays powered by ancient Mayan artifacts, super soldiers, robots, and whatever else they could throw in the blender.
At it’s heart, Skull Man is pulp fiction at it’s finest. However, it’s a great deal more than that. It is, like the mysterious man in the skull mask, very quietly, from the shadows, responsible for at least half of everything that makes Japanese pop culture what it is today. How, you are asking, could a series from 2007 do that?
Because Skull man first appeared in 1970, and was the brain child of legendary manga artist and writer, Shotaro Ishinomori, creator of Kamen Rider, and the man who basically created the Super Sentai concept. If you grew up on Power Rangers, this is the man you need to thank for it existing, and in a very real way, none of it would have happened without Skull Man. You could say he is in the DNA of every henshin (transforming hero) series and Super Sentai series to ever exist.
Yes, even Sailor Moon has a little Skull Man in her.
That came out wrong.
Ishinomori first achieved success in 1963, with his runaway hit manga, Cyborg-009, which was Japan’s first superhero team. Kind of like a cyborg version of The Avengers, for you kids out there that don’t get why that’s a big deal. Their battles with the nefarious Black Ghost organization catapulted Ishinimori to fame.
In 1970, he traded on that to release something very different. A 100 page one shot manga titled, The Skull Man. This short story version revolved around a young man named Tatsuo Kagura, who by day worked as an assistant to private investigator Tachiki, but by night, donned his skull mask and hunted for the people who had killed his parents, with the help of his shape shifting assistant, Garo. Skull Man was one of the first antiheroes to ever appear in manga, and the moral uncertainty of the character resonated with readers, making Skull Man a massive hit. Unfortunately, Ishinomori had ended the story with Skull Man’s apparent death, and so readers were left without any more adventures of the pulp fiction antihero.
The following year, Kamen Rider was born, and Ishinomori borrowed heavily from Skull Man when creating the character. So heavily, that television company Toei Ltd felt the character was far too violent, graphic, and cerebral for the intended audience of children, so they made a lot of changes, giving us the character we all know.
And don’t tell me you aren’t familiar with Kamen Rider. I won’t be angry, just disappointed.
Kamen Rider proved to be a massive success, both as a manga, and a television series, basically revolutionizing the tokusatu sub genre, and in the shadows, Skull Man smiled. This success helped cement Ishinomori’s fame, and in 1975, he would create Himitsu Sentai Gorenger, the first Super Sentai series. Elements of Skull Man and Cyborg-009 can be found even here, as well, and in many respects, Gorenger is a continued outgrowth of Ishinomori’s creation of Skull Man, with the villains of Gorenger all wearing masks, and having names like Volcano Mask, Sun Mask, and utilizing black magic to achieve their goals. The whole thing is basically one big pulp fiction story, with elements tying it back to a character that Ishinomori admitted was one of his favorite creations.
Gorenger would eventually lead to the creation of shows like Power Rangers, so when you go see the new movie, remember, that dark and gritty feel was always in the DNA of the series you watched as a kid. It’s more a return to the roots than anything.
Towards the end of 1997. Ishinomori, now very ill, contacted Kazuhiko Shimamoto, who at the time was an up and coming manga artist, though today, he is fairly legendary in his own right. He had already overseen the revival of Kamen Rider, and Ishinomori has been impressed with his work so much, he asked Shimamoto to help him bring Skull Man back.
A huge fan of Ishinomori, Shimamoto quickly agreed, and was given all the story ideas Ishinomori had developed over 27 years. Soon after, Ishinomori passed away, leaving his legacy in Shimamoto’s hands.
It is worth noting that Ishinomori’s contributions to manga and pop culture were so massive, that in 2001, the Ishinomori Manga Museum was opened, he was credited with being the ‘creator’ of numerous series as a show of love, and he holds the Guiness World Record for most comics published by a single author, totaling over 128,000 pages across 770 titles across 500 volumes. So, that he would leave his final work, the character who had, in many ways, given him so much in return, in the hands of Shimamoto, says a great deal about his respect for the man’s work.
The new Skull Man began running in 1998, and would last until 2001, greatly expanding the story of Tatsuo Kagura, and his adventures as the morally ambiguous Skull Man. This, in turn, lead to the 2007 series, which served as a continuation of the new manga version.
It’s more than that, however. Bones, in creating their Skull Man anime, wrote a love letter to Ishinomori. The villains of Cyborg-009, the Black Ghosts, make an appearance in the anime, as does some hint or reference to virtually all of Ishinomori’s great works. Skull man travels around on a motorcycle, ala Kamen Rider. At one point, there appear to be two Skull Men, calling back to when Kamen Rider 2 joined the original. Shape shifters are everywhere, and many more little touches are thrown in, bringing the entire series to the point where it is a reflection on the life and career of one of the greatest, most influential manga artists and writers to ever live.
If for no other reason than to honor the career of a man who has given not just Japan, but the world, so very much, Skull Man is worth a watch. It is more than a pulp fiction series, it is a memorial to a legacy. It’s more than an anime, it’s a thank you to the late, great, Shotaro Ishinomori.
Thank you, good sir, and may you rest well, knowing that even now, your influence continues to inspire.