I Thought It Was the End, I Thought It Was the Fourth of July: The Skull Man
Lum expert and Go Nogai aficionado Brian Smith not only has one of the best anime blogs in Awesome Engine, but also one of the best podcasts. Co-piloted with amiable anime neophyte Anthony, Dynamite in the Brain talks about the anime most other folks pass on. I guested on their episode about The Skull Man, where I talked about how much I’m enjoying Dear Brother, Smile Pretty Cure and Supernatural, then defend my fairly negative opinion of the show. I ended up learning a lot about The Skull Man and related franchises from the King of Japanese Superheroes Shotaro Ishinomori from Brian, and that ended up informing a lot of this review. I recommend checking it out here, though I should note that, in classic Dynamite in the Brain style, spoilers will come quickly and without warning. Right now, you can pick up the series for six friggin’ bucks at Right Stuf, and despite my mixed feelings about it, it’s worth buying at almost twice that price.
There’s The Skull Man, the concept, and The Skull Man, in practice, and the two of them shall never meet. The first is a dark superhero story that plays off of common tokusatsu conceits in twisted ways, and the second is a tangled mess. The first is an involved, layered story with multiple conspiracies at the highest levels of power, and the second explains nothing and occasionally gets lost in its own complicated story. The first has a bloody, sinister atmosphere, and the second has that atmosphere but with no real teeth because of how hard it is to follow. The second consistently gets the way of my enjoyment of the first, like candy in a glass jar with the lid welded shut. That sure does look like a nice cartoon you have there. Too bad I can’t enjoy it.
Otomo is a tightly controlled city, where only the right papers can get you in and out, and the citizens are forbidden from being out past midnight. It’s the home of a powerful pharmaceutical company, a militant police force who will keep a close eye on strangers, and a cult that has penetrated the highest levels of power. Hayato Mikogami is a journalist for a bit-piece Tokyo tabloid who has come back to his hometown of Otomo after reading about a mysterious serial killer who wears a Skull Mask. Along with a tomboyish tagalong photographer, he tries to dig into the truth of the matter, hoping that this will be his big break that will land him a job with a respectable newspaper. This also lets him reconnect with his adopted father, the head of the pharmaceutical company, and his friends from the orphanage he grew up in. His investigation starts bumping against several conspiracies that are coming to fruition in the city, including one that involves his adopted father. This is making those people in power very, very nervous, and on top that, monsters are roaming of the street at night. Hunting for pictures of the Skull Man while avoiding getting killed by him is just a small part of Hayato’s troubles, and he’s going to have to dig into more than just the Skull Man’s identity to find out what’s really going on.
Despite what the great DVD cover would lead you to think, The Skull Man isn’t so much an action series as it is a story-heavy suspense tale, one where the story unravels poorly. I probably couldn’t have written such a coherent recap if I was writing mid-way through watching the series, because for a good chunk of it, I only had a tenuous grasp of what the hell was going on. It starts off easily enough for the first few episodes, but by episode five, I felt a little lost. In retrospect, this a series that has a fairly obvious conclusion about the identity of the Skull Man, and, as if sensing how that could ruin a lot of the suspense, the series throws a lot of red herrings your way. At about the same time it starts peeling off the layers of conspiracy in the city, and Hayato’s backstory, and how that kind of sort of ties into everything. It’s juggling a lot of balls in its crucial middle section, and it’s hard to keep your eye on all of them at once. There’s not a lot of room for the story to breathe when it has so much to do, busily working in a plot point there, a small hint here, a revelation there, and like a busy lady at a shopping mall with a long list and a short amount of time, it does everything quickly and workmanlike. It has the pacing of the first part of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and if you found that a bit much even if you already knew the series from its first iteration, you probably won’t take kindly to this story. It also makes me think that I would probably enjoy it a lot more the second time around, and probably be able to find neat details I missed the first time around.
That pacing is so central to my frustration because so much of the rest of the series delivers on its promise. The characters are great, and they often have to make difficult choices that illuminates who they really are, which is one of the best ways to develop them. The ending has a lot of really neat twists that tie into the 2001 Cyborg 009 series. The way the story plays with superhero conventions is engaging if a bit conventional for that kind of deconstruction. And the ending itself is appropriately explosive and bloody, delivering on the brutality its dark mood promised. But the build-up is just so key to all of this that I came away entertained but disappointed. It could have been so much better if the story had room to breathe.
I’m not sure if my central hang-up will bother others as much as it did me, though. When podcasting it with Brian, he made the case its two episodes per story arc structure gave it some grounding that helped make it easy to follow and explain itself, though you will certainly need some knowledge of Ishinomori’s other franchises, most of which is probably common knowledge to its Japanese audience but is a bit opaque to ignorant Americans like myself. If it doesn’t bother you like it did me, I could see this being a good series. It might be worth the risk for you to find out yourself. Even though the series is six dollars at the time of writing this, I can’t see it being that much more expensive, since it was a cheap set to begin with, or you could be even cheaper and watch the whole thing on Hulu. This is the ideal kind of series to stream before buying- it’s a troubled, uneven series that can work for just the right people, but would leave the rest wondering what the hell they just watched.