Adapting classics for modern-day audiences is no easy feat, especially with the delicate challenge of balancing existing elements with new details, and the evolution of cultural tastes over time. Where some have withstood the test of time, others are proof that not everything that’s old is gold.
The Tsukasa Hojo-penned manga City Hunter falls more into the former category than the latter, with a host of anime series and film adaptations under its name. Hong Kong’s disappointing live-action take saw Jackie Chan step into the shoes of protagonist Ryo Saeba, while popular singer-actor Lee Min-ho took centrestage in the South Korean iteration, which admittedly utilised quite a fair bit of creative liberty. The cultural impact of City Hunter is undeniably powerful – and it certainly shows.
Fast forward to 2019, and the first animated City Hunter movie in what seems like forever (really, it’s been two decades) sees the return of Ryo (Akira Kamiya) and company as a crime-solving “sweeper” for hire in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. Unlike the seedy, crime-infested city of the past, City Hunter: Shinjuku Private Eyes is set in squeaky-clean Shinjuku that has blossomed into a popular tourist spot.
The overall setup remains the same, and fans of the series would find it comfortably familiar. Writing “XYZ” on a signboard (or smartphones now, with technology and all) at Shinjuku Station is a call to enlist Ryo’s services, who possesses masterful marksmanship, excellent close combat skills, and all-around badassery. His only discomforting penchant for skirt-chasing is a lecherous habit that often sees him being comically (and literally) hammered on the head by his partner Kaori (Kazue Ikura).
This time, the client in question is one Ai Shindo, a model holding the key to a city-wide conspiracy and thus, faces attacks from a bunch of mysterious men. What sets Shinjuku Private Eyes apart from the source material, however, is that the enemies have now evolved beyond mere humans to include military-grade drones, mechs, and droids.
The movie, thus, acts as an original story that can only work in a modern setting, which does allow for some high-octane, intense fighting action, albeit against an awkward, jarring backdrop. Awkward and jarring, because there’s something about the characters not aging in a matured, technologically-advanced world that just seems a little…out of place. In a way, the process is similar to each recast of a new James Bond, and that’s not about the only thing the duo share – let’s talk womanising.
As a result of Ryo’s salacious nature, Shinjuku Private Eyes features plenty of slapstick female-on-male violence, and very often plays these moments up. Having the guerrilla-fighter-turned-investigator hit on and grope the fairer sex is meant to act as comedic material; yet, this brand of humour is awfully dated today. It may have been an effective trope back in the day, but the fact remains that such character dynamics are hard to swallow with the current landscape, and would more than likely become a source of irritation and discomfort than light-hearted humour. At times, the segue between serious and comedic scenes also feels disjointed, especially when the severity of the situation escalates on too fast a scale (seriously, how does Ryo’s attempt to peek into the woman’s bath turn into a shootout almost immediately?).
In spite of this – or perhaps because of it, Ryo’s characterisation makes for a loyal, accurate nod to the original. Beneath his goofy, casanova veneer, he retains his suave, calculative, and collected personality during serious occasions, and appears to be sincerely keen on carrying out the client’s wishes. Umibozu (Tessho Genda), another “sweeper” who happens to fall into Ryo’s circle of friends, gets his chance to bask in the limelight as well, as he fires bazookas after bazookas in the movie’s fight sequences. Meanwhile, Kaoru stays true to her cool canon self, even in a non-action role.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the same courtesy of character development is not extended to the main antagonist. Apart from being a forgettable and bland villain with an extremely cliched backstory, his motive in the grand scheme of things comes across as weak and unconvincing. His reveal as the big bad is nothing short of predictable and underwhelming, too, though that may be an effect of dramatic irony – if anything, at least the voice actor pulled off a commendable job at delivering the sinister vibes.
This lack of thought and in-depth consideration certainly carries over to the movie plot, which is mediocre and flimsy at best. The mastermind’s grand scheme bears some amount of ill logic, and the journey to the conclusion is rather unnecessary (pop quiz: What do you use to finish a fight against robots fast? EMP, not firearms!). There are zero narrative twists, with each step of the way conforming to the Rules of Writing A Straightforward Story. Inconsistency is also an issue, though not quite a major one – despite the ending hinging on Kaori’s and Ryo’s bond, their dynamics weren’t explored much, and did not quite develop in the way that Ryo and Ai’s did.
On some level, that does make sense, especially since Shinjuku Private Eyes works off the impression that audiences are well-acquainted with the original franchise, and relies on the knowledge to deliver its emotional beats. In fact, nostalgia shapes part of the viewing experience: not only were soundtracks from the City Hunter anime played through the film, the credits sequence brought back iconic moments modern-animation style, and even blasted the tunes of original opening theme song “Get Wild” by TM Network.
Taking a trip down the memory lane has relieved memories of one of the core components of classic City Hunter plots – wild gunfights and exhilarating fighting chops. Thankfully, the movie serves plenty of those, and dishes out a reminder of how its action scenes have withstood the passage of time. Ryo is as efficient, deft, and deadly as ever in combat, expeditiously dismantling his opponents with sharp, crisp blows, and rapid, accurate shots from his trusty Magnum. There’s a great deal of gunfire from all sorts of firearms (shotguns, machine guns, bazookas, you name it), with shootouts often involving heart-pounding close calls, smooth choreography sequences, and a hell lot of running. The women of “Cat’s Eye” – another one of Tsukasa Hojo’s property – make a welcome cameo at one point, too.
And while it’s absolutely ridiculous to watch the expert marksman take down armoured machines with nothing but a handgun, “flashy” has always been his middle name, and there’s nothing better than having him back in his element and kicking ass in all ways possible. The animation, of course, helps to convey Ryo’s flair in combat well especially in close-up shots of him spinning the barrel of a shotgun to reload, and the quick snap of the speedloader to his Magnum revolver. In scenes where Umibozu takes centrestage, it’s refreshing to see his straight-cut fighting style painting a contrasting image to the former’s showy approach.
Outside of the artillery and explosive action, however, the animation proves to be inconsistent at times, and leaves much to be desired. There are frames where the character’s facial features appear to be unintentionally skewed, such as having one eye smaller or bigger than the other, and Ryo’s body proportion is more top-heavy than it should be. Between one scene to another, the transition can be rather abrupt as well, from an awkward camera angle to the usual front-facing perspective.
Alas, City Hunter: Shinjuku Private Eyes is everything fans would expect out of the conventional City Hunter formula, with satisfying action thrills and a faithful feel to the original. Longtime enthusiasts will have fun watching Ryo take on missions again after a 20-year hiatus, and newcomers would more than appreciate the well-animated, fast-paced fight sequences. As a standalone cinematic piece, the film is hardly anything to boast about, but having the backing of nostalgia makes it a nice little blast to the past, despite the out-of-touch humour attempts that may have some hunting (hah) for the reason behind its popularity back in the day.
Let’s be honest, though: no fan’s really quite in it for the plot – or anything else, really, apart from reliving the joy of their childhood (or teenagehood, whatever), and that, it has done successfully.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
City Hunter: Shinjuku Private Eyes is a nostalgic pill for fans of the original series, promising plenty of good ol’ fighting goodness, and welcome references to both the anime and manga. It’s unfortunately brought down by dated humour and a weak plot that serve as a stark reminder that not every part of it has aged well, but it does have heart, and excels at what it does best. For some, that’s enough.
Story - 6/10
Direction - 7.5/10
Characterisation - 7/10
Geek Satisfaction - 7.5/10
User Review( votes)
Si Jia is a casual geek at heart – or as casual as someone with Sephiroth’s theme on her Spotify playlist can get. A fan of movies, games, and Japanese culture, Si Jia’s greatest weakness is the Steam Summer Sale. Or any Steam sale, really.