Saturday, 21 May 2011

Dog Soldier: Shadows of the Past

I love Tetsuya Saruwatari, the man has consistently provided some of the most imaginatively violent manga ever with great artwork, and has never succumbed to the ilk of cute art styles, he's very underrated, and I almost like how the standard anime and manga fans don't know of him. The man did the artwork for the manga Violence Hero Riki-Oh, which is most famously known for its Hong Kong movie adaptation, Riki-Oh: Story of Ricky. Saruwatari has a great mastery of surprising the reader simply with how outrageous his depictions are, and if there's ever a moment of bad writing, good god the man can be forgiven for his works being so supremely awesome. The best part is, he still works today.

Perhaps his third most well-known franchise in the west is Dog Soldier/ ドッグソルジャー, and that's only because of the vaguely known 1989 OVA, so yeah, not a lot of people really even know it. It also doesn't help that searching for it online will most likely bring up the horror movie Dog Soldiers, or if you're lucky, another movie called Dog Soldiers about actual soldiers, which is also known as Who'll Stop the Rain. The manga has never been translated but I have been looking through it in its original Japanese; while I can't really decipher the plot, I can tell it's about two elite soldiers known as John Kyosuke Hiba and his friend Masami Fudou being routinely hired by a guy called Takechi to do little dirty jobs all around the world, Takechi regularly gets punched in the face by the two and they usually provide comic relief together when things aren't being serious. The manga is extremely violent and follows a bit of a villain-of-the-week format, and is also quite stupid. It contrasts a bit to the predominant seriousness of Riki-Oh (even though that manga is fucking crazy), it's still highly enjoyable.

The OVA on the other hand? It's a disappointment, and I really wouldn't care for its flaws if it was overly violent, but it really fails to emulate the energy of the manga, and Saruwatari's token extreme violence is nowhere to be seen. In fact, the whole thing is a mess; a cheaply-animated, uncompelling mess that really knows how to make a basic story sound difficult to follow.

The story is about a former green beret called John Kyosuke Hiba and his friend Fudou who are trying to make a living as blue collar workers, but they're called back into action when an American scientist is kidnapped along with her briefcase that contains the cure for AIDS by an arms dealer. The scientist is an old friend of John, a woman called Cathy, but his interest is really sparked when he learns that the arms dealer is a man called Makoto Allen Takamura; in "the slums of LA" when they were just children, these three all stuck together. How Cathy and Makoto ended up in such high positions with this background I'll never know. Makoto, going under the pseudonym of Phantom, sets John and Fudou up on his island while he attempts to auction off the cure for AIDS to all atendees representing third world nations. John and Fudou of course, beat everything Makoto throws at them, but the Americans arrive to start levelling the island, so the representatives attending Makoto's auction all make an escape.

This of course rubs Makoto the wrong way, who makes his own escape with Cathy and the vaccine, only to be halted by John (no Fudou here). Makoto and John engage in a knife duel, but to stop Makoto killing John, Cathy in traditional tragedic character fashion, runs in front of his blade. This leads to her giving a dying monologue on how the two were apparently both the objects of her affection. Being the speech-giving villain, Makoto laughs maniacally and tells them both that the vaccine was a fake all along. Furious, John charges toward Makoto while being fired at, leaps and lands on Makoto's shoulders to thrust his knife into his forehead. It is at this moment Makoto makes a hilarious noise that makes it sound like he's being sick. John pulls out the knife and walks away, only for, Makoto to start talking...

In a dying monologue that's flat-out unbelievable compared to all others, Makoto tells his old friend that he became an arms dealer because Americans killed his Japanese mother and white father, so his plan was to make it look like the Americans have a real vaccine, in hopes that it would turn all other countries against the US. In all honesty, the plot to this is not all that bad, but there's so much going on in the space of 45 minutes it's all been ham-fisted together, and is therefore a bit difficult to all take in at first, especially when it feels like there's just way too many holes in this thing. It's really begging to provide some intrigue and character depth, especially with the history the three central characters all share together, but it just can't. I'm not sure whether to blame this on Saruwatari or the writer of this OVA, Shou Aikawa, as I have not gotten very far into the manga. Aikawa has apparently been accused of being anti-American over this, and I can see why, but still, I'd rather clarify first. The fact that John is meant to be the very best of the best is barely touched upon in some overly unimpressive battle sequences, and Fudou is almost entirely purposeless. Oh yeah, "death merchant" must be a real occupation as Makoto is referred by it ALL THE TIME.

The whole thing is wonderfully dated as it is, what with the whole theme of AIDS being something that will kill us all and Cold War, and how John Hiba is such a blatant copy of John Rambo (as if the name wasn't enough). As well as the richly stereotypical idea of him growing up in America's rougness overlooking the glamour of Beverly Hills. Of course, a lot of this all comes from how Saruwatari used to be in the 80s with a fairly amusing view of America, it should also be noted that stupidity like Makoto's death was also a trademark of Saruwatari, in fact Makoto's body should have just given away if he was holding the full weight of a man on his shoulders. By the way, Fudou's stupid haircut originates from the manga, in which it's sliced down the middle by a bladed boomerang. Clearly, this was aimed strictly at Japanese fans, but due to a possible lack of regulation when things like this were being released overseas by the likes of CPM, background research probably didn't happen, meaning things like this were sold to an uninformed crowd.

The animation is very bad for 1989, recycling several pieces many times over and looking generally lifeless, even the colouring is bad, everything seems to have a pale, blue-ish or washed-out tint to it (notice the running theme in these screenshots already?). Fight scenes are poorly laid out and are not eye-catching, and even though violent things are happening, they just don't feel violent. They lack the gore and 'HOLY SHIT' factor that were both quite abundant in the manga. Much of the music is not memorable, some of it is good but the best piece is the end credits song that kinda fits the solemn mood established at the end. The voice cast of this features some notable stars of the anime business, such as Akira Kamiya and Norio Wakamoto, a dub of this exists and if you are interested enough you can purchase it here, I have never seen it myself but am somewhat interested to do so. Dog Soldier is a title that has been completely swept under the rug and will most likely stay that way, it is an extremely weak OVA, but as a Tetsuya Saruwatari fan, and someone who just loves older anime, I can't bring myself to fully hate this. By all means check out the manga online even if it is untranslated, it's highly recommended for fans of things that draw heavy influence from Rambo.
  • Music: 3/5
  • Knife usage: 3/5
  • Being as good as the manga: 0/5 
-James, 13 November 2009 (original date)

Review source: US Laserdisc
Screenshot source: US Laserdisc

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