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AKA: スカルマン (Skullman)
Genre: Horror / sci-fi / thriller
Length: Television series, 23 episodes, 13 minutes each
Distributor: R1 DVD from Sentai Filmworks
Content Rating: 16+ (violence and gore, brief nudity)
Related Series: N/A
Also Recommended: Boogiepop Phantom
Notes: Skull Man was originally released as a one-volume manga by Shotaro Ishinomori in 1970. Just before the creator's passing in 1998, he gave his blessing for Kazuko Shimamoto to produce a remake / continuation, which ran for 7 volumes between 1999-2001.
Rating: Three StarsThree StarsThree Stars

The Skull Man

Synopsis

In the Japan of an alternate history, a masked man and his two nonhuman assistants are committing a series of apparently senseless killings in a place called Otomo City. Reporter Hayato Mikogami and his self-appointed “partner” Kiriko Mamiya have come to Otomo to investigate, but their personal ties to people in Otomo threaten to draw them into the abyss of evil and corruption that lurks in this supposedly “model” city.


Review

I have to admit, The Skull Man has one of the most wonderful openers I’ve ever seen- threatening minor chords segue into a lively jazz soundtrack, while the visuals are a montage of images, some in black and white, the whole thing suggesting the ambience of a film noir series. And it would be perfectly feasible to do a film noir with a costumed hero (or anti-hero, as here); The Shadow was originally noir, and in its best incarnations even Batman was. But alas, that wasn’t the direction the creators here wanted to go. Instead they chose the genre mix-up noted above.

Besides the opener, another big plus the series does have is Kiriko, a character that over the course of the series goes from brash to vulnerable to fiercely loyal, and manages to be convincing as all three thanks to the voice acting talents of Ayako Kawasumi, who I’d last heard doing a very different kind of character, Hime in Princess Resurrection. Kiriko is the most sympathetic character in the cast, and really deserves better than the show ultimately gives her. I really don’t want to spoil things, but how can I avoid this when much of my problem with this series is with its nihilism? It’s as if the show ultimately sets out to crush the optimism of its own closing song. More on this later…

The show has a few arty touches besides the opener. Things that stuck in my memory are the Skull Man and one of his victims exchanging quotes from Macbeth as he kills her (and the most bizarre thing being what the victim looked like at the time this was going on); and, around Episode 10, a bunch of grotesque mercenaries trying to do in Skull Man. The mercenaries look more like the kind of crudely-drawn caricatures you might see in a manga rather than the more polished character designs of the rest of the series, and here’s a hint about their battle armor: the group is called SIRK (as in “Circus”.) Send in the clowns, indeed. Unfortunately, to my mind Episode 10 is about the last hurrah for any real wit (or joy) in the series.

So we come to the major problems the series has. Problem One is that the writers tried to pack just too much stuff in a series that only runs 13 episodes. To my mind a show should at least address the obvious questions its story might raise, and this one fails miserably. Here are some “for instances”:

1.Our heroes find that the murders are connected to something called the White Bell Society, and we do find out just what this is about. But the question is (since we earlier brought up Shakespeare, let’s paraphrase him, badly): is one born White Bell-ish, or is White Bellish-ness thrust upon one? Is White Bell-ishness a product of science, or of magic, or maybe of both? The White Bell Phenomenon is one of the core ideas of the show, and yet it’s never really explained in even a pseudoscientific fashion. (Nor is the Skull Man’s own attitude toward them, for that matter; he just HAS an attitude.)

2.Toward the end, things go completely to pot in Otomo City (and for the story in general, actually) as at least three different parties go to war against each other in the streets, and far from avoiding collateral damage, all seem to relish it. We’ve got around two episodes of chaos and carnage, but throughout I was frankly unclear about the motives of some of these parties, and for others I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how they intended to achieve their objectives in the manner we were shown.

And of course most of them don’t. The mayhem does simplify the story somewhat (by killing off many of the cast members who the Skull Man hadn’t already done in), but (this is a spoiler, but I can’t help it) I can’t think of anybody in the show who’s better off when they leave this stage than when they came on it, even if they don’t actually die. I mentioned the optimistic closing song the episodes have; a much more appropriate one might have been “Eleanor Rigby.” I don’t generally enjoy nihilism very much; it causes me to knock stars off series, and caused The Skull Man in the end to be (citing the Bard of Avon again) “A tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Just barely three stars: if it lost either Kiriko or the opening clip, I would dock it a star for each.Allen Moody

Recommended Audience: Kiriko is nude at one point, but it’s not graphic at all. The violence is the major problem here, including stabbings, shootings, dismemberments, all with great streams of blood, and this is even BEFORE the wars in the streets up the violence by orders of magnitude. Not for children.



Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Japanese with English subtitles)
Review Status: Partial (13/23)
The Skull Man © 2007 Shotaro Ishinomori / The Skullman Project
 
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