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Darkside Blues
Reviewer: Guy Wheatley 01/16/2002

In the world of the future, the mega-corporation Persona Century owns 90% of the world's territory with an iron grip; among the 10% that it hasn't claimed includes the Kabuki-cho district of Shinjuko, otherwise known as the "Darkside of Tokyo". Here, a ragtag group of squatters and degenerates known as the "Messiah" led by a girl named Mai get involved in an Anti-Persona (AP) terrorist organization when they unwittingly save the life of one of their members, Tatsuya. This action earns the wrath of Persona upon the self-sufficient Messiah as they struggle to survive, but Mai finds allies in the most unlikely of places, including a strange boy named Katari who is an AP prodigy, and a mysterious, carriage-travelling stranger who goes by the moniker "Darkside".

I was a bit apprehensive about Darkside Blues. This movie was crafted by the same creative inspiration for "Vampire Hunter D" and "Demon City Shinjuku" -- Hideyuki Kikuchi, whom hadn't curried well to my tastes in the past. I found Vampire Hunter D to be prodigiously overrated, never frightening, and suffering from a significant lack of character appeal. Though I haven't personally seen Demon City Shinjuku, I've read some scathing reviews about it being a by-the-numbers demonic-infestation anime with similarly uninspiring leads. I would have written Kikuchi off as an anime horror hack, but after watching Darkside Blues I have to concede a very notable creative growth in his writing.

When Darkside Blues opens however, we are reminded that Hideyuki Kikuchi hasn't lost his penchant for gore or horror, as we're treated to the basement interrogation chamber at Persona Century headquarters. The sadistic Tamaki, daughter of the PC president, tortures a lone Anti-Persona (AP) captive from a failed terrorist attack. Her brother and fellow Persona operative, Guren, saunters in nonchalantly while Tamaki's session is going on, seemingly out of boredom. Tamaki and Guren are the progeny and face of the Persona Century Corporation, an ultimate mega-conglomerate that owns 90% of the world's territory and resources, maybe something that would be borne out of a merger between AOL-Time Warner, ABC-Disney, and Microsoft in the not-so-distant future. While world domination is all but in their grasp, pockets of resistance still remain -- such as the aforementioned AP terrorists, and various unassimilated communities like Kabuki-cho in Shinjuko, or otherwise known as "The Darkside of the Tokyo".

Perhaps the most significant leap in the texture of Hideyuki Kikuchi's work is the egalitarian treatment of his cast. There is no single reluctant or stoic protagonist like in "Vampire Hunter D" or "Demon City Shinjuku"; the story is shared amid a dozen or so characters. Foremost among these are the self-proclaimed "Messiah", a motley group of aimless degenerates and ex-talents whom spunky young Mai informally leads. The main plot in Darkside Blues focuses on the efforts of Messiah to nurture the AP outlaw Tatsuya back to the health, and eventually aid him in another assault against Persona. But that's merely one thread in a number of intersecting subplots. Besides the Messiah gang, there's an odd boy named Katari roaming around. He leaps around from building to building acting as something of a good luck charm for the citizens of Kabuki-cho -- like a sickly version of Brandon Lee's Eric Draven character from "The Crow". There's also an otherworldly character that goes only by the handle of "Darkside," arriving and departing with supernatural gusto in an ethereal horse-drawn carriage during the oddest of times. Darkside is dressed up in Edwardian attire -- looking like Johnny Depp, brooding cryptically about a "renewal," and acting as a guardian over Mai and her friends. Then there's the genetically enhanced ubermensch Enji, sort of an ex-patriot African hipster who is reminiscent of Tasuki from "Fushigi Yuugi", who has an apparent long-standing rivalry with the stoic "Darkside."

For me, the most appealing aspect of Darkside Blues is the poignant and ultimately humane depiction of the characters -- specifically the Messiah gang. Kanzo, a gruff and burly electrical engineer carries an unrequited torch for Mai. He is basically a well-meaning fellow, if not always open to risks. Selia is Mai's best friend, an ex-nurse who goes through the motions of her past profession with a pained, sullen expression... hiding a secret buried in her past. Tatsuya is the AP freedom fighter whom they rescue and, under Selia's ministrations, recovers and tentatively develops a romantic relationship with Selia. They share more and more of their personal pasts with each other as time passes, trying to reconcile Tatsuya's fiery ideological need to retaliate against Persona and Selia's more pacifistic philosophy. But the most fully developed character is the Messiah priestess Mai herself. Independent and outspoken, but seemingly too young to shoulder responsibility for all them and possessing a vulnerable streak, Mai treats herself and her friends in a self-deprecating manner ("juvenile delinquents") as she organizes Messiah activities. Nonetheless, Mai has her dignity, and isn't one to back down from a fight on her home turf, or personal insults to her clan referring to them as "rats" and "parasites" living off the scraps of Persona Century encroachment. You can tell even though Mai is shamed by the way she and her fellow Messiah squatters live in the burnt out husks of the Kabuki-cho district, she values their freedom as well.

Also a nice development is the inclusion of comic relief. Despite the odds our heroes find themselves up against, humor peppers the grimmer moments. One scene which features a convalescent Tatsuya talking about how he has to leave immediately to join his AP comrades, recovery time be damned, prompts Mai to reproach him: "When you buy the loyalty of the Messiah, you've bought back your life!" Then as an awkward afterthought: "Maybe that was a little corny?" "More than a little," Kanzo offers. Nothing beats the line when Mai is whiling away an evening nursing a drink in a self-pitying funk about the plight of the Messiah and her bartender snorts: "Well, aren't you the suicide-hotline poster child today?" This occasional glibness with the cast penetrating the gloom of their lives is a quality that "Vampire Hunter D" never had.

Not everything is perfect, however. Kikuchi still writes in a few demon bouts in Darkside Blues, but in its post-apocalyptic setting it's replaced with "enhanced humans" wielding energy discharges from their palms, and such. Thankfully, these showdowns are few and fairly tight. Darkside himself seems to be a foregone homage to D from "Vampire Hunter D", possessing the same enigmatic and eternally brooding feel. Darkside's presence is more understated though, so it is mercifully more tolerable. There's no doubt that Darkside is the least developed character of all, and we're not even sure if he's real or not. He does bring a certain portent however, as the old woman from the Mirage Inn eloquently puts in one scene: "I don't know your purpose here, but you'll make things a bit more interesting in this meaningless world of light."

Darkside Blues ends on a somewhat uneven note. The lack of closure had me craving for more, both in the past and present: I wanted to know what becomes of Mai and the Messiah as they continued their lives in Kabuki-cho, and I wanted to know about the years leading up to how they came to be there. I wanted to know the deeper dynamics betwixt Darkside and Enji's conflict, how the Persona Century Corporation came to control so much of the world... even something that would have told me what the hell is up with the boy-genius Katari. Darkside Blues is based on the manga of the same name, so the exposition that I seek is probably found in greater detail there. Still there is tremendous potential for an OVA or TV series with this movie, given the charismatic cast, bleak and engrossing setting, and numerous character conflicts. Alas, that'll never be, but at least we have this testament of Hideyuki Kikuchi's potential away from rote gothic-horror demon slashfests. Definitely recommended for any serious anime fan of dystopian sci-fi and drama.

"Darkside Blues" is also the name of a soulful ballad sung (in English) by a traveling boozer to Kabuki-cho early in the movie. In the context of of the film, it was an AP revolutionary anthem from thirty years back against the encroaching Persona Century. It captures the somberness of the movie very well.

Darkside Blues
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Review Title:
Darkside Blues
85 Minutes
General Rating:
4.5 out of 5 stars
Suitable For:
Young Adults
Horror, Psychological, Sci-Fi
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