Anyone who survived UK anime fandom in the early-to-mid-1990s, can effortlessly list the most prominent hits of the time — Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll, most infamously Urotsukidoji. All released on VHS by Manga Video and marketed to the “beer and curry crowd” who wanted something lurid, noisy and violent to watch with their mates on a Saturday night.
I have great memories of that time — as a (far too) young teenager watching these bizarre animated shows, often on 2nd or 3rd generation copies with my friends. On particular friend had a membership at a video rental store close to his house where they chose not to question these lank-haired, spotty adolescents pretending to be much older than their obvious 13-years-of-age.
18-rated porn anime? “Yeah, lads, sure. Here you go. This one’s got heaving tits and a full tentacle quota.” I’d stay over weekends with this friend and we’d rent everything, and with his dual-VHS-recorder setup, we’d make our own duplicates. With our meagre pocket money there was no way we could afford the £14 per tape it would cost to buy retail copies ourselves.
In summer 1995, UK terrestrial TV Channel 4 broadcast a selection of Manga Video shows (including Tokyo Babylon, Devilman, Doomed Megalopolis) late at night, and I of course set the timer to record them all. This was how I discovered Cyber City Oedo 808, cruelly absent from the video rental store’s shelves, and belatedly shared afterwards with all my friends. I still have those tapes in my attic. Of everything we watched, this was probably one of the best-loved and when I heard Anime Limited were bringing it to Blu-ray with the legendary UK dub and soundtrack, I was beyond thrilled. The show is available on Region 1 DVD in the US, but it’s an vastly inferior product, as I’ll discuss.
So what makes this show so memorable? Firstly — it just looks so freaking cool. Directed and with character designs by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, Demon City Shinjuku, Ninja Scroll) at the absolute top of his game, rather than one single movie this is three distinct 40-minute OAV episodes with a budget somewhere above TV animation, yet not as stratospheric as a premium cinematic anime like Akira. Kawajiri’s Blade Runner-influenced aesthetic still looks fantastic today, with deep blue and black cityscapes, all clean, sharp lines and occasional splashes of neon red. Kawajiri gets how a cyberpunk show should look, and many have tried and failed to capture his deceptively effortless style since.
Second — the characters themselves. Set in the year 2808, Tokyo’s police department is staffed by Suicide Squad-esque convicts given a chance to reduce their 300-year custodial sentences by agreeing to wear explosive collars while tackling violent crime. They’re an expendable workforce. Each episode focuses on one of the central three characters — the first is Sen Goku, a smooth and sarcastic murderer who looks closest to the standard action show archetypal (anti)hero — slim, handsome and wisecracking. Gogol is a mohicaned man-mountain who if he was in any other show you’d think he was a braindead Mad Max extra. However in his first scene he’s shown reading Crime and Punishment in the original Russian, and we learn he is an expert hacker. Finally, Benten has probably the most memorable character design because of his David Bowie-like bouffant haircut and androgynous looks, with his crimson red lipstick and matching nail varnish. I’m sure Benten triggered many confused feelings in the hearts of sheltered 1990s teenage weebs.
Sengoku’s episode is basically Die Hard, but in a futuristic skyscraper run by a malevolent AI out for revenge. Gogul’s is an action piece where he fights an unstoppable cyborg soldier. Benten’s is a horror-tinged space vampire thriller reminiscent of Vampire Hunter D, except set in a technologically advanced rather than feudal world. Each story interestingly explores concepts related to the antagonists’ attempts to extend life or transcend death — either via AI mind replication, cybernetic enhancement of corpses or immortality via DNA manipulation. There’s a strange symmetry in that the “good guys” are always under the threat of imminent death from their neck time bombs, while they try to curtail the life-prolonging schemes of the “bad guys”.
You really don’t see anime that looks like this any more. The two most (notable) recent cyberpunk anime were No Guns Life which really struggled aesthetically with its limited budget and murky CG backgrounds, and Akudama Drive which was more of a hyperactive explosion of colour and fun. Neither of these quite captured the seriously cool vibe that emits from Cyber City’s every pore. Barely a second is wasted, the plot is simple but propulsive (though episodic) and the action scenes are smooth and fantastically well staged and choreographed. These guys knew what they were doing, and the audience they were making it for.
Despite its technical brilliance, Cyber City Oedo 808 wasn’t a big success in Japan, which unfortunately led to the shelving of any future planned animated entries. From the outset it was conceived as a multimedia franchise, so a video game and three novels featuring the same cast were released, none translated into English. This was a shame, because Cyber City was far more successful in the West than it ever was in its country of origin, especially in the UK.
Anime fandom was in its infancy in the early to mid 90s, and was driven mostly by the home video releases of Manga Entertainment, who brought an interesting attitude to the adaptation process. Infamous within fandom for their practice of “fifteening” dialogue, their intention was to make otherwise innocuous anime more “adult” and therefore more alluring to the underage teenage crowd and inebriated post-pub crew they were marketing to. Whereas a show might have only reached the BBFC’s threshold for “PG — Parental Guidance”, ramping up the swearing would ensure the apparently more lucrative rating of “suitable only for 15 and above”. Cyber City in particular is full of hilariously profane language. Seriously, if you drank a shot every time a character used a completely unnecessary “fuck” or “shit” or “goddamned fucking piece of shit” then you’d die of alcohol-induced multi-organ failure within the first 30 minutes.
At the time, many fans hated what they perceived as these thuggish yobs wrecking anime, but in Cyber City’s somewhat special case, Manga Video succeeded against all odds in somehow elevating the source material. Not only did they add swearing, but they added much-needed humour. Not cringeworthy, out of place humour, but snarky insults very in-character for hardened criminals like Goku. Compare with the original (much more literal) Japanese subtitle translation, which seems incredibly dry in comparison.
Perhaps the biggest change they made was to scrap the soundtrack entirely and create it anew. This would turn out to be a genius decision. They hired session musician Rory MacFarlane to provide an instrumental hard rock soundtrack full of buzzing guitars, pensive synths and throbbing energy. His work matched the visuals so seamlessly, they enhanced an already great anime to undisputed classic status. Compare it to the original Japanese score which is more standard J-pop/elevator music — forgettable and inoffensive — and in the case of the opening, song deeply silly with its terrible Engrish lyrics. Manga Video made perhaps one of their best ever decisions with hiring MacFarlane. As Cyber City was only ever released on VHS in the UK, the only way to experience the soundtrack was via the original tapes or the long out-of-print CD.
Sadly the US version was released sans the UK music, as the licensor (US Manga Corps) was willing to pay only for the dub — not the music that they saw as an unnecessary cost. This meant the US VHS and subsequent DVD releases are the most barebones affairs, with the UK dub but the poorer Japanese soundtrack, and lacking any of the translated screen text from the UK release. Without the rocking soundtrack — and indeed without the exposure from a major TV channel broadcasting it — fans in the US did not take Cyber City Oedo 808 to their heart quite as readily as their UK compatriots.
Now, more than 25 years after the original UK home video release, the full package is once again available in the UK on blu-ray — including all 3 audio versions — Japanese with subtitles and original soundtrack, UK dub with new music and US version with original soundtrack. The video quality is likely the absolute best it can be, with an upscale from an SD video master — there was no original HD film master they could re-scan. This means in a few dark appear artifacts in the shadows, but on the whole it looks great — sharp as a pin, and miles better than it ever looked on my recorded-off-broadcast-TV VHS tape.
The instant episode one began and I heard the first few iconic bars of that theme tune, I was instantly transported back to that evening with my friends watching anime, laughing at the terrible dialogue and marveling at the fantastic action. The set comes complete with that long-out-of-print soundtrack (that I ripped to iTunes immediately) and a very nice booklet with some fascinating behind-the-scenes info. The documentary on the blu-ray is also well worth a watch. I hear that Discotek are bringing their own version of this release to the US soon — I urge you to try out one of the very best of 90s anime.
Cyber City Oedo 808 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray
Production Studio: Madhouse
Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Writer: Akinori Endo
UK Soundtrack Composer: Rory McFarlane
Original Japanese Release: Jun-Oct 2001
UK Blu-ray Release Date: January 18th 2021
Age Rating: BBFC: 15
Audio: English, Japanese
Format: Blu-Ray+Audio CD
No. of discs: 2 (Blu-ray, CD)
Runtime: 120 minutes
Publisher: Anime Limited
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