Examining the Work of Anime Director Yoshiaki Kawajiri

From Ninja Scroll to The Animatrix and Highlander, we chart the work of Yoshiaki Kawajiri...

Following the release of the groundbreaking Akira in 1987, there was a renewed surge of interest in that uniquely Japanese art form: anime. From the late ’80s to around the mid ’90s there was a seemingly endless wave of titles released in the west. It was seen as a fresh, bold new format: animation for grownups. Some titles, such as Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop, became acclaimed for both their striking visuals and their intellectual content. Others such as Angel Copor Genocyber… not so much.

For a lot of the films released during this period, time has not been kind. It could be that the animation doesn’t hold up, or outside of the graphic violence there’s not much that’s mature about them. Failing to help is that the vast majority came with poor quality English dubbing, where bad acting, stilted dialogue and excessive profanity join together as one. But it’s an era that’s fondly remembered by some as a vibrant time for the medium.

And one title that’s often cited as a classic, even by people with a dislike of anime itself, is Ninja Scroll. It combined a rollicking adventure tale with likable characters, inventive action and impressive animation. Ninja Scroll was written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and a quick look at his filmography reveals he’s worked in some capacity on an impressive amount of well regarded titles.

In his work as a writer/director particularly, he managed to forge a distinctive style for himself. Common elements reappear again and again, be it a cool anti-hero, a cyberpunk setting, Cronenberg-esque body horror, inventive monsters or fast paced storytelling. Even though much of his work is rooted in B-movie material, he brings a real flair and sense of style to them all.

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His work doesn’t get discussed much these days, so let’s take a (selective) look through his catalogue, as there’s plenty worth re-examining.

Crash Course

Kawajiri worked as an animator and character designer for many years on projects like Barefoot Gen before breaking through as a director. This was achieved with the arresting short film The Running Man (no relation to the Arnie film of the same year). The short made up one third of an animated anthology called Neo Tokyo, and it’s a cyberpunk tale that takes place during a futuristic racing tournament.

The race is a lethal mix of Formula One and the videogame Wipeout, and it has a high mortality rate. A reporter narrates the final race of the sport’s biggest champion, and how his lust for glory combined with his latent psychic abilities made it a race to remember. While the plot takes a back seat to the visuals – something that will reoccur in most of Kawajiri’s work – it does leave the story’s message up to the viewer to decode. Who is the phantom driver, what does the medallion symbolise etc.

Even by today’s standards The Running Man is filled with eye popping animation, vibrant colours and memorable imagery. In a way this early short laid the groundwork for his future films, and many of the elements seen in it would reappear constantly.

A Tale of Three Cities

It was Kawayjiri’s next project that really made his name. 1987’s Wicked City is a dark mash-up of neo-noir and The Thing style body horror. The film is based on a book by Hideyuki Kikuchi, dubbed the Stephen King of Japan in some circles, and it marked the first of many collaborations between the two men.

The project started life as a 35 minute short, but the work Kawajiri and his team were producing was so impressive it was expanded to feature length. The story is set in a world where humanity shares a secret treaty with a hidden demon realm. When the treaty is due to be renewed the delegate tasked with signing it must be protected by the Black Guard, who police the two worlds. A human male and demon female partner up to keep him alive against relentless demon attacks.

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Wicked City showed off Kawajiri’s flair for horror and creature design. Taking his cues from the source novel, the creatures seen here are a grotesque, Lovecraftian bunch. From the Spider Lady to the twin headed monstrosity seen in the climax, Wicked City is a good source of nightmare fuel. The influence of The Thing is particularly strong in these designs, with one demon resembling the famous Spider Head creature from Carpenter’s classic.

The story is set in a dark, neon lit world which soon became a trademark for Kawajiri, as did his use of colour. There are lots of cool blues or bright reds to denote the tone of the scene. And again he displayed his talent for action direction, with several memorable setpieces such as the fight scene in an abandoned warehouse, where the lead character literally punches through a demon’s face.

But sadly some of the pulpy fun is spoiled by the amount of sexual violence. In Wicked City sexuality is used as a weapon, and there’s only one romantic encounter in the whole story. Anime in general has a bad (and often deserved) reputation for how it treats female characters, and the otherwise strong and capable female lead in Wicked City suffers more than one graphic assault. While it might be faithful to the book, these moments feel distracting and exploititive in the final product.

This aside, Wicked City remains an influential title and is worth seeking out for its visuals and creature design alone. Though a strong stomach is advised.

The next year Kawajiri followed Wicked City with another Kikuchi adaptation, Demon City Shinjuku. The Escape from New York style plot sees a young warrior entering Shinjuku, Toyko, which has become a no man’s land filled with monsters and criminals. He has to find and kill the evil sorcerer who murdered his father, before he opens a gateway to hell.

Again the plot is secondary to requirements. Opening on a speculator rooftop battle and featuring more exciting monster clashes, Demon City feels like a spiritual sequel to its predecessor. But it’s lighter hearted in tone, with a young hero finding his strength amidst the apocalyptic ruins. With some trims to the language (no doubt exaggerated for the English dub) and a brief spot of nudity, it could probably get away with a PG rating.

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But it also lacks the intensity of Wicked City. Outside of the action the exposition can be fairly dry and the characters are stock: plucky heroine, cackling villain etc. The quality of the English dub isn’t so hot either. The female love interest is burdened with an atrocious British accent, and a random list of accents is assigned to the supporting cast, from Mexican to Texan.

Overall Demon City Shinjuku is not Kawajiri’s finest hour, but when the action and monsters come along the OVA springs to life.

Capping off Kawajiri’s unofficial City trilogy is probably his most underrated work, 1990’s Cyber City Oedo 808. A three part OVA series, it follows three criminals who are released under the condition that they serve the police department. Every criminal they catch knocks a bit off their sentences, and since they all have sentences in excess of 300 years, they have a lot of work to do. Adding to the stress are the explosive collars around their necks, which will explode if they try to run or fail to complete an objective inside a set timeframe.

The first part, Virtual Death, is a cyberpunk Die Hard, where the team have to infiltrate a gigantic skyscraper and save the people inside from a haywire security system. Psychic Trooper has muscle bound hacker Gogol forced to fight an advanced cyborg as part of a shady military experiment. And Part Three, Blood Lust, is the weirdest of the bunch, as cross-dressing badass Benton has to face off against laser firing panthers and a space vampire.

Yep, you read that right.

The plot is pure hokum, but the series rips along at a quick pace and it plays fast and loose with genre rules. Vampires, psychic cyborgs and vengeful ghosts pop up and the heroes tend to just accept it. The characters are extremely likable and each instalment has its own unique flavour. Part Three goes off the rails with wild tonal shifts and general weirdness, but somehow it still holds together.

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Cyber City is one of the rare cases where the swear-tastic English dub adds to the charm, as the world of the series is already so broad and exaggerated. Another benefit of the English dub is the rocking electronic soundtrack by composer Rory McFarlane, which fits the mood of the series a lot better than the more generic score the Japanese version came with.

Cyber City Oedo is one of those series that was popular in its day, but subsequently seems to have been forgotten. This is a pity, as it’s one of Kawajiri’s most purely enjoyable efforts, a delightful fusion of cyber punk and b-movie pulpiness. How can you not love something that features this amazing NSFW zinger?

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Ninja Scroll, released in 1993, became one of the gateway titles used to introduce people to anime during its heyday. A breathless action adventure, it follows a sardonic lone ninja as he’s forced to defeat a clan of supernatural warriors. Ninja Scroll is the highlight of Kawayjiri’s CV, where he combines all of his favorite themes and concepts into one beautifully animated package.

He also wrote the story, which he saw as an ode to con game style dramas like The Sting or the Mission: Impossible TV show, where characters were always trying to one up each other. He even manages to fit in a tragic love story, which instead of being filler between fights actually emotionally anchors the streamlined plot.

The story is a little more rounded too, with a couple of good twists and a complete arc for the hero. But again it’s the action and creatures that are the real stars. Ninja Scrollis an example of a story where animation is the ideal format. The hyper kinetic battles feature elements like hundreds of creatures on screen at once (swarms of bees and wiggling snakes), a duel on a burning ship that’s also being flooded in melted gold, and clans of ninjas weightlessly leaping around rooftops. It also finds increasingly creative ways to dismember the human body.

Its excessive stylisation looks fluid as animation, but in live action would just look phony. Kawajiri allowed his imagination to run wild, and barely a scene goes by without some eye catching image, be it a face forming in a sea of snakes or a duel in a bamboo forest. Even throwaway shots like a group of ninjas riding on horseback is given panache. Here they ride on a beach at night, lit by lightning flashes as a storm rages nearby. It’s small touches like this that separates Ninja Scroll from its many imitators.

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Jubei, Ninja Scroll’s lead, embodies most of Kawajiri’s heroes. Lantern jawed, sarcastic and cool, but not invincible. They all get beaten up quite a bit and often win through sheer luck as much as skill, which makes them more relatable. Kawajiri was at his creative peak here, but with a firmly established formula in place, a feeling of sameness would creep into some of his later projects.

More Blood Lust

In 2000 Kawajiri released Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, the second anime adaptation of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s popular book character. D is a mystical vampire hunter (and son of Dracula), and he stalks the distant post apocalyptic future squaring off with all manner of beasts. He also has a talking parasite embedded in his left hand, because why not?

In Bloodlust he’s hired to rescue a rich man’s daughter after she’s kidnapped by an ancient vampire. D will have to face the vampire’s demonic crew before he can complete his mission though. Bloodlustis a fun adventure, and possibly the best looking film in Kawajiri’s filmography. The artwork is stunning in places, and every new location is a treat for the eyes. And again there are some great setpieces, with a vampire attack on an armoured car and a final sword fight being the standouts.

But it also feels like he’s recycling himself. The gang of monsters element is too familiar by now, with the shadow creature having already appeared several times in his earlier work. D is a cold – as opposed to a cool – hero and it never feels like he’s in any real danger. But the film does have an emotional core in D’s fellow hunter Laila, and the ending resolves their relationship in a surprisingly sweet way.

In 2003 Kawajiri collaborated on a couple of stories in The Animatrix, an anime spin-off of The Matrix. His inclusion makes sense, as his work was a big influence on The Wachowskis. He directed Program, where a freedom fighter discovers her lover is going to betray the human resistance, and they battle it out in a digital recreation of feudal Japan. It’s an action packed five minute short, with sword fights and people being dismembered into digits.

But the more unique entry is one he wrote instead of directing. World Record was directed by Takeshi Koike, and the story follows a sprinter who discovers during a big race that the world isn’t what he thinks. It is one of the more unique entries in The Animatrix, in both art style and content. There are no action sequences or Neo cameos to speak of, and the story has interesting thematic links to The Running Man: An athlete at the top of his game transcends his physical limits, and it ends up costing him.

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There probably should have only been one, but whatever

Kawajiri’s last work to date as a director was 2007’s Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, which managed that rarest of feats: being a Highlander follow-up that doesn’t suck. It’s an entertaining romp through the Highlandermythology, though it makes the mistake of having a villain who is far more likable and dynamitic than the flat brooding hero. He might be a killer, but at least he can crack a smile and play some mean guitar.

Besides directing Kawajiri has worked as a screenwriter on other animated and live action films. His most interesting script would probably be for The Wind Named Amnesia, another Kikuchi adaptation. It’s a post apocalyptic tale where a mysterious wind has robbed mankind of all its knowledge and brought it back to the Stone Age. Two unaffected people go on a road trip across a ruined America, and discuss what it truly means to be human. Think of it as the closest we’ll get to a Terrence Malick anime. It’s an intriguing concept, but pacing issues and a portentous tone hold it back.

He also scripted the live action Asumi 2 and animated horror tale Biohunter, which immediately lets you know you’re in Kawajiri land by opening on a sex scene that comes to an abrupt end when a pair of breasts turn into flesh eating monsters.

In recent years he’s mainly worked in the storyboarding or animation side of projects like Redlineor Batman: Gotham Knight. As a director he’s been linked to Ninja Scroll 2 for over a decade, but the belated sequel seems stuck in development hell. The original was much more successful in the west than its home country, and has had a rough time finding financing. A teaser trailer was released to drum up interest, but little progress seems to have been made.

There was also talk in 2008 of Leonardo DiCaprio producing a live action remake of Ninja Scroll, which would have been written by Alex Tse (Watchmen), but nothing has been heard since.


Times have changed since Kawajiri’s heyday, and anime has moved away from his darker, grittier vision. Feature length anime has become rarer and rarer and outside of occasional videogame spin-offs like Dead Space: Downfall or Dante’s Inferno, mature titles even more so. But his visions of a dark metropolis where the sun never shines, chain smoking heroes or icky creatures has left its own indelible mark on the action/horror genre.

His work has had a notable influence on others. The Wachowskis adopted a number of his techniques for The Matrix (action editing, use of color). His mark is also strong on The Wachowski produced Ninja Assassin. The story has ninjas acting as borderline supernatural creatures, who leap out of shadow, dodge bullets, spray geysers of blood when killed and, like Ninja Scroll, have bottomless wells of throwing stars to toss around. Todd MacFarlane has stated Wicked City was a huge influence in the design of Spawn. Guillermo del Toro was inspired by him on Blade 2, and Ron Perlman’s bisecting demise was a direct tip of the hat to a similar scene in Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

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It’s a shame Kawajiri doesn’t get celebrated a little more, as his back catalog is filled with gems that are ripe for rediscovery. His worlds are often dark places to visit sure, but they’re also filled with memorable characters and images. And if nothing else, they’re kind of fun to spend some time in.