Urban Square: In Pursuit of Amber
Ryou Matsumoto has had his umpteenth screenplay rejected and is told to "write about his own life" ... but no producer would ever believe the misadventure he's roped into, as he uncovers an art-forgery conspiracy that will turn his life upside down. Along with the beautiful art student Yuki and the brash, loose-cannon detective Mochizuki, he must scramble and outwit dangerous criminals to survive and become the very "action hero" of his own screenwriting.
From the outset, Urban Square's dated visuals and overblown saxophone soundtrack just scream 80s kitsch, and when we first meet our protagonist, burnt-out screenwriter Ryou, standing sullenly on the side of a dark alley as he is splashed by a delivery truck driving through a dirty puddle, it seems like a foregone conclusion that we've got another retro nightmare on our hands. Not so: Ryou is suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the sort of ridiculous action movie escapades that should make him glad that he did his calisthenics every day in high school, being chased by assassins, and getting mixed up with the beautiful Yuki Tamura, who is canny enough to call Ryou out on his B-movie pickup lines (but sweet enough to let him get away with them), and a chain-smoking, hard-boiled cowboy-cop detective named Mochizuki who looks nothing so much as an anime Burt Reynolds. What we really have on our hands is half parody / half homage to the standard 80s non-action-guy film, and it's actually a whole lot of fun.
From Ryou barely dodging a rain of submachine gun bullets to facing off against a Bruce Lee wannabe with naught but an umbrella and a vacuum cleaner attachment to protect himself, Urban Square is a kinetic, charming action thriller with immensely likable characters and as many laughs as thrills. Ryou (Kazuhiko Inoue - here giving something of a preview of Dusty Attenborough from Legend of the Galactic Heroes) is a sort of self-referential character from the film industry as a screenwriter suffering writer's block, who, when told to "write what he knows from experience", immediately experiences something that no one would believe really happened, and makes for an unlikely, and likable reluctant action hero. His love interest Yuki (Eiko Yamada - unbelievably, the title character of Legend of Lemnear!) is classy, witty, and brave, armed with a litany of what are essentially Chekhov's Skills, and clearly benefits the most of all the characters from having an Akemi Takada character design; Detective Mochizuki (Dio Brando from Jojo's Bizarre Adventure) is suitably badass at exactly the right times - with a particularly satisfying lock-and-load montage about 3/4 of the way though, featuring weapons that would stretch the limits of the Second Amendment - and remember, this is set in Japan!
A few things keep this from being one of the all-time greats - the plotting is often a bit predictable (though with enough fun twists to keep it reasonably fresh), and the villains fall prey to the same situational stupidity that plagues 80s action movie bad guys. The soundtrack trades in the standard terrible 80s synthesizer for glorified elevator jazz, which is almost as bad. Of course, there are the graphics, which will not impress folks used to standard television fare of the 2010s, but actually look pretty decent for 1986. Finally, for all that the bad guys mention antiques and forgeries, we hilariously practically never see any - the MacGuffin turns out to be possibly kind of the lamest thing to ever result in a murder spree, though to be fair, it's not like bad guys ever need much of an excuse, and it's really no worse than, say, the average episode of Psych.
Much of the credit here should go to the real-life screenwriter, Kazunori Ito, who also scripted much of Mobile Police Patlabor (including the second movie) and Dirty Pair (TV and OAVs). Director Akira Nishimori is much more often credited as a storyboarder and episode director on other works, but he does adequately here - there's little of the pervasive snark that characterizes most parodies these days, which feels refreshing, and the pacing feels appropriate and averts either boredom or excessive camp. Even the self-referential nature of Ryou's character and the shout-outs to action film tropes never truly get in the way of telling a solidly written story - I get the strong feeling that Ito is writing about an idealized version of himself, but the end product is too polished and too charming to fault him for it. I've mentioned the character design work before - Akemi Takada is a personal favorite of mine, and while her style isn't as readily apparent here as in Kimagure Orange Road or her magical girl series, it's clean and generally appealing without feeling overdone or needlessly ugly (like, say, Domain of Murder), with perhaps the (acceptable) exception of blonde baddie Henmi.
Given the normal result of this release format, Urban Square feels like some sort of revelation - given the right group of screenwriters and animators, even a one-shot video release can turn out to be a really good time. It may not quite be anime gold, but with a little polish, even old silver can take on a nice shine.
Urban Square deserves props for successfully crossing action-comedy and detective-noir and giving us an hour of solid entertainment. Newer anime fans may not appreciate the older art and storytelling style and might drop this one or even two stars; this rating may very well best hold up for the old-schoolers among us who won't let a bit of rust and silliness distract us from a fun story. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: There's very little fan service - we see Yuki in a one-piece swimsuit and a nightie, but never anything more than that, and Yuki and Ryou's budding relationship is tastefully handled and never shown to be physical onscreen (Ryou even gets excited over hand-holding, how very quaint). The violent content, however, is fairly strong, with gunshot wounds, blood, several characters killed onscreen during the course of the film, and one extended scene where a character is tied to a chair and beaten. A few explosions (mostly vehicular) and onscreen use of tobacco and alcohol round out the objectionable content warnings - definitely one for older teens and above, and younger teens wouldn't get the plot anyway.
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Urban Square: In Pursuit of Amber © 1986 Emotion
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