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Originally the creation of legendary artist Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009), The Skull Man finally makes his debut in animated form, but this isn't quite what fans of the manga might expect.
Facts of the Case
The free city of Otomo is a post war dystopia. The governing body rules with stringent policies and an iron fist. Into this hostile tomb of a city steps journalist Minagamai Hayato, on the hunt for an enigmatic figure called 'The Skull Man'. A series of grisly murders have been attributed to the skull-masked urban legend, and Hayato, formally a resident of Otomo himself, wants to find out the truth.
Along for the ride is Kiriko, a young aspiring photographer with a sordid past of her own. Together they must attempt to unravel the conspiracies and corruption that flow waist deep in the streets. Why are there mutants roaming the streets after midnight? What is the mysterious White Bell Society? Who is The Skull Man?
Shotaro Ishinomori is a pretty popular guy in manga circles; he began his career as the understudy of manga and anime legend Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) before he popularized the "live action martial-arts superhero vs. Giant rubber monster" genre in the 70's with Kamen Rider (which made its way to American TV post-Power Rangers as Masked Rider). In 1970 he published the first Skull Man manga, and decades later in 1997, near death, the first full Skull Man series finally saw print.
For fans of the original creator and the '90s incarnation of the character, this series will undoubtedly be a crushing disappointment, but for the rest of us, there's much to like; the script is well handled, giving the show more of a mystery feel than that of a comic book superhero. The titular character barely appears at all in the first handful of episodes as we get to know the personalities and factions at work in Otomo City. The 13 episode series focuses mainly on the 'who' rather than the 'why', and for the majority of the duration we're just as eager to learn who The Skull Man is as the central characters are. Red herrings are thrown our way, and one or two seemingly obvious choices turn out to be false. When that little bit of intrigue is dealt with, the 'why' comes to the forefront in the final episodes, and it's also handled in great fashion. Some elements of the plot may feel a little underdeveloped, but with so many players on the board, it's understandable that a few of the less central pieces get sacrificed in the name of moving the plot forward.
What's great about The Skull Man, is that while it certainly plays a few anime-themed cards, it's never too cheap or contrived when it reveals the answer to one of its mysteries. This is some great material that really impressed me and defied expectations. It's almost reminiscent of Todd MacFarlane's Spawn comics in some respects, as the main character is more of an ancillary force that influences events than an in your face super-hero (until the walloping finale). But I digress.
Sentai Filmworks and Section 23 have done a fine job with the disc from a visual standpoint. Studio Bones (Sword of the Stranger) is quickly becoming one of my favourite outfits, and while this one doesn't quite bridge the gap between series and theatrical feature, the animation quality is still pretty exemplary. The DVD's transfer presents the material perfectly. The audio is kind of a drag, however, as all we get is a 2.0 Stereo track in Japanese. Not having an English dub in this day and age is a bit of a letdown, and tells me that money was clearly an issue. The barely there menu designs and lack of any kind of supplemental features doesn't help matters.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're a diehard Shotaro fan, stay the hell away. There's nothing here that remotely resembles Shotaro's work. No transforming superheroes who ride motorcycles or giant mutant grasshoppers. I really can't see anyone who cherishes the original 1970 oneshot or the Tokyopop series being anything but emotionally crushed by this treatment of the character. Sure a handful of elements remain, but they've changed just about everything, including the character's real identity. You have been warned.
The Skull Man Starts pretty strong and lays all the pieces for a dark and convoluted mystery thriller. There's some great writing, great atmosphere, and wonderful animation on display here. It's a more cerebral series than one might expect, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a good mystery thriller.
The Skull Man is a darkly pleasant surprise. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Section23 Films
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