25 Jul 2013
Nightwalker isn't a name that's immediately buzzing on the lips of fandom, and you can get a taste of why at the archived version of its original promotional website. With its 'multimedia features' including embedded sound, popup windows and that delightfully quaint curio, a RealMedia trailer, Nightwalker is a supernatural anime resurrected from another time, complementing MVM's earlier re-release of Vampire Princess Miyu (which you can read our thoughts on here) back in April this year. Based on a 1993 eroge video game, Nightwalker was originally broadcast in Japan in 1998 before being released in the USA by the now-defunct Central Park Media in 2001 as a dub-only VHS. A later dual-language DVD release appeared in 2003, and it's slept in the sepulchres of anime licensing for the past decade before being exhumed and brought back into the sun through MVM. Has this re-boxed Nightwalker aged gracefully, matured as a fine wine swelled with a rich crimson like the bloody trails of a vampire's lusts, or has the fresh present-day air caused it to disintegrate into a ragged bag of bones?
Modern-day Tokyo is still afflicted by an ancient evil - the Night Breed, mean and petty demons which for all they lack in stature, more than compensate in spite. Night Breed prey on the weak, dying, ambitious and emotionally troubled by exploiting their greed or vulnerability to possess their bodies, amplify their powers, and so more effectively wreak murder and havoc on hapless humans. In between the white daylight of mankind and the black night stalked by monsters is a grey, shadowy threshold, along which walks Shido - a vampire, someone himself split between light and dark as he is infused with demonic power but struggles to maintain his human empathy above his inhuman urges.
Shido's latest distraction to pass the interminable nights of his centuries-long unlife is to work as a private detective - to help maintain a semblance of normal life he even takes on a schoolgirl named Riho as a secretary and tea-lady, although he can't eat or drink himself. For all the pretensions of conventional life, though, most of Shido's time is spent as a sub-contractor for the NOS, a government agency dedicated to investigating - and liquidating - the Night Breed that are terrorising the city. This becomes more than just yet another hobby to while away a decade or two, for Shido comes to enjoy his work with the NOS as a way to reconfirm his human nature by defending innocent people against the evil forces lurking in their shadows... and he has to admit, the ministrations of his lovely NOS handler Yayoi and her long, smooth neck are quite a nice perk, too.
In his work as a private eye and the odd family that he's built up around himself - even the tiny wisecracking imp Guni who seems to have nested in his bouffant hairdo - Shido has found some solace, a way to look forward beyond the murky depths of his vampiric past. However much he may wish to forget it, though, old associates are reaching up through that dark mud to grab at him once more...
The writing that leads Shido on his journey is uneven. At times, the dialogue is sparking, even scintillating - the opening scene that introduces the principal cast accomplishes the rare feat of establishing their characters, personalities and relationships, all without a single word of exposition. The occasions of flirtatious banter between Shido, Yayoi and Riho is charged with a delectable frisson bubbling with raw attraction. An episode dedicated to a character coming to terms with being vampirised is credibly handled with an emotionally affecting wan smile of regretful resignation and not with twenty minutes of tiresomely maundering mooning repetitive angst. Some of the monsters are genuinely creepy. There is some good visual humour (Yayoi's sports car gets trashed, so the femme fatale has to downgrade to a Morris Minor). However, it seems that these scenes were treated in an isolated capsule - the drama of the main plots around them are simple and didactic to the point of banality, and in quite a few places the crises are really contrived - it takes a weeks-long manhunt to find someone stuck down a well, and Riho hitches a lift with a guy catcalling her from the pavement in order to get somewhere. In a flashback episode, the fateful union between Shido and his long-term companion Guni is that they literally meet each other in the street - yeah, that is all there is to it. The central conflict that Shido is struggling with amounts to repeating "the light" and "the darkness" incessantly.
Although the series is subtitled "The Midnight Detective" there is little actual investigation - Shido is usually chasing down an adversary already exposed in the opening scene, and on occasions where the monster isn't shown up-front it's obviously telegraphed and easy to spot. Nonetheless, the idea that the Night Breed are not powerful city-ravaging demonic armies but crawling, miserable worms growing fat and swollen on the angry fears and toxic jealousies of the city's weak-willed is a strong and meaningful one which does give Nightwalker distinctiveness, maintained well with a new aspect in each episode. That episodic structure does lead to some implausible returns to the status quo, though - in one episode Shido goes rogue and carves a bloody path through NOS operatives and Yayoi is arrested for association with him, but by the end they're both on another NOS job, all sins apparently forgiven.
The artwork of Nightwalker hasn't aged well. While it's a pleasure to see painted backgrounds again, they appear only through a 4:3 window and the haze of a visibly grainy transfer which suggests that the original tapes aren't in great shape. A peculiar feature is that the anime undergoes a significant change in art style in its second and third discs - a consequence of the art director changing between Shigemi Ikeda for episodes 1-4 and Hitoshi Nagao for 5-12; Nightwalker was originally intended to be a self-contained OVA and it was only late in production that the decision was made to extend it to a full television season. The changes are visible and significant, with mid-episode title cards appearing from episode five onwards and most remarkably the main cast undergoing significant modification in their designs to the extent that they might seem different people altogether. It's unusual but not unwelcome - when Yayoi grows long black hair and a slinky, leggy and low-cut white outfit reminiscent of Big Robo's Ginrei, I ain't complain'!
The change in style is also reflected in content - the early episodes betray their more permissive OVA origin with a significant amount of furious limb-lopping gore and ravishing bodice-ripping nudity, but in discs two and three this is toned down significantly for TV broadcast, with strictly no nudity and even the magical solid blood-swords that Shido generates by cutting himself being replaced by glowing pink spears. It's strange that you can see someone being bisected but vomit requires a delicate discretion shot, and when Shido sucks on Yayoi her neck doesn't get so much as a pinprick.
While subtitles are optional for both the English and Japanese language tracks, certain environmental signs are hardsubbed - this is not a problem in and of itself, but there are some odd choices (do we need to know that the sign on the white car with blaring sirens and uniformed men inside reads "POLICE"?). Audio is a mixed bag - at times the music's intrusive; even after all 12 episodes I found the organ that starts blaring to announce the episode name quite jarring. While I said above the dialogue in a well-translated script can be very good, the actual delivery does not always match it, with the dub being largely flat - Shido's voice actor Vincent Hatcher (better known as Richard Cansino, who's done most of his work for various versions of Power Rangers) probably thought he was speaking with a gritty hard-boiled cynical noir edge, but what actually comes out is a toneless drone. Many of the guest voices do put in a good turn, speaking with a lot more emotion than the principals.
This release has no extras of any kind, not even clean opening and endings - probably another result of this release being restored from old tapes, and they are in any case redundant because the closing sequence is just a plain text crawl on a black screen with the same opening theme playing, so there's no actual animation to see anyway.
I can't recommend Nightwalker as an essential purchase, but if you have some cash to spare you might want to consider it. I have to admit, when I first received the Nightwalker assignment I wasn't expecting much from it - when the baddie's called Cain you start to develop certain preconceptions. However, although I've voiced a lot of criticisms in this review, when it comes down to it I must say that I enjoyed watching Nightwalker. It may come across as damning with faint praise, but while it is clumsy and unsophisticated that means that it is also undemanding, and that makes it a comfortable, easy watch with self-contained stories to let you while away some time - I tended to watch it over my dinner. The occasional flashes of good concepts and decent dialogue do make it intermittently endearing. It's still worth having on your shelf - far from a masterpiece to be the pride of the parlour but an ornament on the end of the mantelpiece.