For people of a certain age who had a talent for staying up later than they should have, Channel 4 in the 90s had a secret that once uncovered illuminated a whole other world.
This other world was Anime.
Of course to the modern day anime/manga fan the idea that not many people, in the UK at least, knew what anime or manga was will seem incredibly bizarre.
Unlike now with Pixar, Dreamworks and others at that time animation to me was either Disney which was almost exclusively about inexplicably singing dogs and was brightly coloured, overwhelmingly twee and nauseatingly cheerful and more (now cult) fodder such as ‘Thundercats’. Despite some of these cartoons being well written and featuring memorable characters and concepts they were still aimed at kids.
In the mid 90s British broadcaster Channel 4 began a series it dubbed ‘4 later’ essentially a block of programming which started at midnight and ran into the early hours usually on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. It was ostensibly aimed at those that had been out and wanted something ‘a bit different’ to watch in their post pub booze addled state before succumbing to troubled sleep .
4 later was home to a number of programmes including amongst various others, ‘Bits’, a mad cap computer game review show presented by a group of women (which seems quite subversive now) and ‘Vids’ a film review show hosted by a clearly rather insane Welsh man named Nige and his laconic Scottish friend Stef . They would also show anime.
In the TV guide, it would list the title and describe it as ‘animation’. This was way before the era of EPG’s popping up on your TV screen and telling you about everything that was on the twelvety billion channels you could choose from. Back then you had four to choose from unless you were posh and had ‘satellite TV’. So you had no idea what to expect.
Channel 4 went on to show a whole host of anime as part of 4Later, ‘3×3 Eyes’,’Doomed Megalopolis’, ‘The Legend of the Four Kings’ ,’Cyber City Oedo 808′, ‘Devilman’ and probably more that I don’t recall.
Of course as is now common knowledge thanks to the works of Studio Ghibli and many others, anime is just as encompassing and far ranging as film. Back then though Manga Video marketed it squarely at adults.
It didn’t help that the mainstream press (as they are want to do) took a look at this new cultural import and only saw only the most disturbing examples, Urotsukidoji aka Legend of the Overfiend which featured Nazi’s, black magic, rapacious demons, sex magic, brutal violence and disturbing sexual imagery like a checklist for offensive content being the most obvious example. Of course much like the ‘video nasties’ sensationalism of the 80’s this resulted in thinking the end was indeed nigh and this new media was going to corrupt and warp the minds of youngsters everywhere. This completely glossed over the point that it wasn’t aimed at youngsters but rather older viewers.
My introduction to anime was Cyber City Oedo 808, a futuristic cyberpunk story based around three distinctly different criminals who work for the police in order to get time knocked off their sentences in a dystopian future where they face cyber criminals.
The British release was re-written with famously ‘eighteened’ dialogue with more profanity than the original dialogue, especially in the case of the foul mouthed bad boy Sengoku, this was part of its charm though. Along with the dialogue the soundtrack was completely different, with an original soundtrack composed by Rory McFarlane which blended metal, electronica and ambient sounds and would become synonymous with the series to British viewers, especially the music for the opening credits sequence. Its quotable dialogue being permanently etched into my brain along with its memorable characters from the androgynous Benten to the hulking but highly intelligent hacker Gogul sporting a red mohawk and the most outwardly obvious enhancement, cybernetic eyes complete with Cyclops style visor. Cyber City Oedo 808 to me has always been better than Akira, one of the first anime to be released in Britain, which I never really understood the appeal of despite it gaining critical acclaim .
The director Yoshiaki Kowajiri is also responsible for some of my other favourite anime including Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D and it’s follow up Bloodlust, Goku Midnight Eye and Highlander: The search for vengeance. The latter being far better than several films in the Highlander series.
‘Devil man’ was another standout and another imaginative story featuring shy teenager Akira who becomes bonded with the powerful demon Amon to fight off demons which are living amongst and preying on mankind.
Like much of 4 Later’s anime it was brutal, gory and featured sexual imagery, along with memorable and disturbing characters. Completey unlike anything else I’d seen. Whilst Devilman might have been unlike anything else, another classic of the era was ‘Fist of the North Star’ sold with the tag line ‘an epic assault on the senses’ which blended Mad Max’s post apocalyptic dust-bowl aesthetic with the TV series ‘Kung Fu’. Kenshiro ,a master of the Hokuto Shinken martials style, fights mutants, bandits and his former friends from his temple including Jaggi, Shin and Raoh all whilst searching for his missing girlfriend Yuria. Fist of the North Star would become synoymous with brutal ultraviolence, with Kenshiro’s classic catchphrase of ‘You are already dead’ being followed by his opponent’s very messy demise often including their head exploding.
Ironically though as anime became more popular, various series are now available from Netflix and other providers, I found myself not really interested in any of the numerous different series and Manga Video the home of anime in the 90’s had seemingly completely run out of steam. Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex, spun out from the same source material as the anime film Ghost in the Shell is one of the most recent anime I have seen and also one of the best examples of characterisation in animation I’ve seen.
Anime for me, however, will always be associated with the 90s, Channel 4 and insomnia.