Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wonders when anime will give us a cheerful, homely chick weilding a rolled up newspaper against hordes of homeless guys asking for change.
Babes, Blood, and Blades!
Yeah, yeah…hot chick, swords, demons…Never seen that before. Whoa! Did she just squish that dude's intestines under her heel? Time to settle in.
Facts of the Case
Ranmaru Shindo and his sister Saya have a flirtatious, even provocative, relationship. They live together in an apartment where Saya teases him with her lingerie, makes meals, and acts like a mother/wife/sister. Meanwhile, Ranmaru is protective and tender towards Saya. Their peculiar intimacy makes sense when we learn that Ranmaru and Saya were orphaned during the Machida massacre, a gory event that decimated an entire apartment complex. Because of this tragedy, both siblings have become police officers.
Saya is a regular beat cop, but Ranmaru joins the ranks of maverick cop Kaoru Kunikida, who is the head of the Tokki division. This elite unit enjoys a certain autonomy and a stash of high-powered weaponry. But Tokki division has a thorn in its side: the even more secretive, even more elite Tokko division. It is rumored that Tokko uses swords to hunt down criminals, which they execute in bloody street fights. Yet these skirmishes are covered up by the media and the higher ups.
When Ranmaru catches a glimpse of Tokko in action, he realizes that the rumors are true. Further, he recognizes young Sakura Rokujo, a Tokko rookie, from fevered dreams that haunt him with flashbacks of the massacre. Kureha and Ryoko, commanders of Tokko, take an interest in Ranmaru. Meanwhile, Ranmaru strikes off on his own to investigate the truth behind the Machida massacre, which is likely supernatural and could be a spawn point for demons that feed on the citizens of the city.
My recent review of Kurau Phantom Memory: Between Two Worlds states that "Anime is curiously incestuous." This isn't a reference to Saya and Ranmaru; rather, an observation that anime continually generates derivative self-clones that sometimes seem fresh rather than routine. To be honest, self-referential anime is usually tedious and can lead to viewer burnout; if I see another story of alien hordes attacking earth who get beaten by a gang of five teenagers who morph into colorful robots, I might piss myself. Fortunately, Tokko: Volume 1's derivative comfort zone is balanced by a convincing undercurrent of menace and horror.
Studio AIC Spirits (of Burn Up Scramble and Gun Sword fame) based Tokko on a popular manga by Tohru Fujisawa, who was in turn responsible for the stellar GTO. Having not seen any of those works I cannot contrast Tokko with the past works of AIC Spirits or Tohru Fujisawa, but the combined solid reputation suggests good things for Tokko. And for the first volume (which includes "Dawn," "Dream," "Bond," "Omen," and "Phantom") the reputation is well founded.
Tokko doesn't display its influences on its sleeve, but clear parallels exist. The most obvious influence is Blood: The Last Vampire, which is an excellent starting point. In Blood: The Last Vampire an ageless vampire named Saya hunts down demons in conjunction with a secretive branch of the government. She must use edged weapons such as swords to defeat the creatures, and though she loathes them she seems somehow bound to them. Tokko also has a main character named Saya and features an elite, secretive force of young women who use swords to hunt demons they seem curiously bound to. There's even a shot taken directly from Blood where a demon climbs to a rooftop, sprouts wings behind a haze of heat and flame, then takes off into the night.
But the second influence provides the true backbone for the series. Manga artist Go Nagai is infamous for his crude combination of infantile sexual humor and gory violence, a combination that has led to a body of enticing, but empty, work. Yet Go Nagai created the popular Devilman and Devil Lady. Unlike his other works, Devil Lady takes a reserved, almost pure tack towards horror and violence. Go Nagai takes great pains to establish his characters and then slowly perverts them, maintaining a subliminal pull into a dark void. Tokko, whether consciously or unconsciously, creates a similar current of tension that pulls its characters into a similar void. There's even the signature shot of a silhoutetted demon flexing his wings against a giant moon.
With a pure horror vibe at its back and a showy display of skin and violence at the fore, Tokko works. Its character development is as compelling as its flashing blades and dismembered bodies. It had enough "holy shit!" moments to keep me looking for more. If Tokko is not wholly original, at least it masters its influences well enough to create an entertaining work.
Even better, Tokko has something original under its bedsheets. Tokko, also known as Special Higher Police, were a branch of Japan's Kempeitai (secret police). Tokko was particularly loathsome. Literally interpreted as Thought Police, Tokko arrested over 50,000 Japanese citizens in Japan and abroad for improper thoughts. They could interrogate arrested citizens in private, and were widely known to use torture and intimidation. This grim history gives Tokko new meaning; it emphasizes secret police action as something to be feared and loathed. There are shadowy demons in the series who seem to be in bed with the police, a reference that would resonate with Japanese (or their descendants) who harbor ill will towards the Special Higher Police. As social commentary, such references increase the horrific—even fatalistic—drive that moves Tokko along.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though I've praised the dark tone and competent synthesis of influences, I haven't said much about the characters or the story. The reason is simple: the characters and story are mere coathangers for mood. From Ranmaru on down, the characters do little to distinguish themselves from characters you've seen in countless anime. Without looking them up in Wikipedia, I wouldn't have been able to recall the character's names (with the exception of Saya).
Part of the lackluster characters stems from slack animation. Even pivotal battle scenes take a powder; they typically consist of an establishing shot, a quick shot of hunter and prey colliding, then a shot of the bloody sidewalk. This minimal frame rate is particularly frustrating in the case of Kureha, who whips out dual blades, kills a beast, and re-sheathes before we even glimpse what happened. Go Nagai did the same thing, if not less, so sparse animation may be part of setting the mood. Even so, the action sequences are underwhelming.
Manga has provided a decent transfer of the show, doubtless made easier by its static nature. There is a slight case of jaggies but overall the colors are strong and detail high. Tokko is dark and that is always a challenge, but the shadow detail was fine. Aside from a great, tone-setting theme song (complete with spoilerish animation) the soundtrack is nothing special. For that matter, neither is the dub, which substitutes lots of colorful profanity for emotion. Fortunately, the original voice cast is competent and imbues the dialogue with emotion.
The highlight of an otherwise straightforward extras package is footage of the three lead female voice actresses on stage of a convention (or press conference, perhaps). They joke around with each other while providing some insights on their characters. It is always interesting to see who is behind the characters.
Though it borrows heavily from past works, has a low frame rate, and employs generic characters, Tokko is still a solid genre entry for fans of fatalistic us-vs-demon stories. There is just enough violence, risque humor, and dire symbolism to keep your pulse up. If future volumes pick up the pace of character development, I can see Tokko pleasing fans of horror anime.
Though our agents are tailing Tokko closely, there have been no definitive signs of improper thought.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
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