Review for Cyber City Oedo 808 - Collector's Edition
My first impression of this release is disappointment and annoyance, and the sad thing is that it needn’t have been. I put the disc in, and was confronted by an SD up-scaled image, Cyber City is of that vintage when anime was made with cel and paint, shot on film, and I was expecting a true HD scan of the original film elements, although given how lackadaisically most vintage anime has been archived in Japan, it’s not actually surprising that only an upscale from a video source was possible. The thing is that this is the first digital release of Cyber City in the UK, the first release since the old Manga Video VHS, and the first English language release since then to feature the Manga Video music score. I would have bought it regardless. I just wished that I’d known about the upscale beforehand. Then I wouldn’t have been disappointed. Apparently Anime Limited mentioned this on the preview video they released last year, but really it should have been front and centre in the specifications on the click to buy page on retail sites. I don’t ever want to have to type ‘caveat emptor’ on any reviews for Anime Limited product. Anyway, rant over, back to the review.
It’s right back to the beginning for me with this review. Almost 30 years ago, I happened to be wandering around the late night TV schedules (didn’t take long with only 4 channels), and I happened upon Channel 4’s Late Licence. Among other things, this strand for Thatcher’s youth happened to show a regular hit of anime, and over the few weeks that it ran, I happened across two anime shows that I became determined to own. One was Legend of the 4 Kings, and the other was this, Cyber City Oedo 808, a rather cheesy fantasy show, and a brilliant bit of cyberpunk. And when I wandered into the video section at HMV, I found both on the shelves courtesy of Manga Video. And Cyber City Oedo 808 turned out to be part of the Cyberpunk Collection, and that if you wanted the spines to match up on your shelf and complete a picture, you needed to buy AD Police and Genocyber as well... and so an obsession was born. And now in 2021, Anime Limited are bringing out Cyber City Oedo 808 on Blu-ray, indeed its first UK home video release since that Manga VHS tape. I have been looking forward to this.
In the year 2808, crime is rampant, and the Cyber Police have to take unorthodox measures. Chief Hasegawa recruits criminals to track down criminals. He offers three hardened long term convicts the chance of parole. Sengoku, Benten and Goggles are each serving 300 years sentences in an orbital prison, but if they agree to work for the police, then each criminal caught will knock a few years off their sentences. But to keep them from resuming their former careers, they will have to wear explosive collars. Not only keeping them on the straight and narrow, each mission assigned to them has to be completed by a literal deadline.
Three OVA episodes were completed for Cyber City Oedo 808, and all three are presented on this disc, along with extra features.
1. Time Bomb
There’s trouble at the space-scraper. A mysterious hacker, who wants the building’s chief designer dead, targets this miles high building. Soon computers are compromised, people are being held hostage in an elevator 700 floors up, the security systems are killing anyone trying to attempt a rescue, and someone’s trying to get control of satellite weaponry. Goggles, Benten and Sengoku have 24 hours to find the hacker, rescue the hostages and protect architect Dave Kurokawa from his hidden assailant. Kurokawa is out of touch, having locked himself away, and the first thing that Sengoku has to do is to contact him, but time’s running out, when the gyroscopic system keeping the building upright is shut down. Worst of all, the chief suspect behind the crime has been dead for fifteen years.
2. The Decoy
Goggles is on the trail of another criminal turned Cyber Policeman who has sold classified data. Sengoku investigates the mysterious death of a man, apparently killed by a military robot, while Benten is on the trail of a group trafficking in human body parts. It all ties in to the military. There are certain people who aren’t pleased with letting the criminals police the criminals, and look to depose Hasegawa and the Cyber Police as the city’s main line of defence. To that end, they have created a cyborg policeman with psionic abilities, but to convince the government they need an effective test. Goggles is being set up to become the opponent in a fight to the death.
3. The Vampire
At the same time that Benten is making the acquaintance of a mysterious girl, a series of brutal murders are taking place. In seemingly inaccessible locations, illegal bio-researchers are dying of horrific throat trauma, and an odd code number is scrawled in their blood on the walls. The murders are quickly attributed to a vampire, and the Cyber Police are on the case. As Benten investigates, he finds his way impeded on all sides, including by an old ally. The leads all point to Shuzo Saionji, a wizened old philanthropist who lives in a space station on the top of a space elevator. Saionji is looking for the secret of eternal life, and he doesn’t care how many corpses he leaves in the process. Benten will have to choose between his heart and his duty.
As mentioned, I had a hope that for the Blu-ray, they had found the original film elements for Cyber City Oedo 808, but alas that wasn’t to be. Instead what we have here in the 4:3 pillarboxed 1080p transfer is an SD upscale from a tape source. So the overall softness, the weird mosaic effect over the first text screen, and the occasional bit of rainbowing and stair-stepping on line art is to be expected. Having said all of that, the colours have never been as rich or as vibrant on any previous release, and clarity and detail levels are quite improved, certainly over the old washed out transfer on the Region 4 DVD that I own, and of course the Manga Video VHS tape I have been nursing for a quarter of a century now.
However, there is a far bigger issue with Cyber City Oedo 808’s Blu-ray transfer that has nothing to do with the upscale. Call it macroblocking, call it posterisation, call it bit crush, or call it banding, but there is a seriously distracting issue with the colours in the image, compression artefacts that distract and ruin what would otherwise be an impressive presentation. If there is a dark shade in the image on screen, the chances are high that it will be crushed to a darker uniform shade, but not analogous to the original image. It will appear as a blob of colour with jagged edges, but worse will pulse and shift shape during playback. A whole lot of detail in the image is lost to the blobs of black in shadow, and worse, areas of black are pushed way past through the other end, and instead appear as dark red-brown shades. The appearance of MOLCOS from the sewer tunnel in episode 2 is a particular example of this. At its worst, it does to the image what looking at an old LCD laptop screen from an extreme angle will do, invert the colours. It wouldn’t be as noticeable if it was consistently this bad, but brighter scenes are less impacted. It has the effect of reminding you of this flaw every few seconds, a series of disappointments one after the other, and I found it hard to concentrate on the episode in question. It’s bad in episodes 1 & 2, although not quite as bad in episode 3.
In comparison, the Region 4 DVD is of lesser quality and clarity, with washed out colours, and brightness whacked up too high (there are no genuine blacks left in the show), but it is a consistent viewing experience. I have to say that for me, the Cyber City Oedo 808 Blu-ray disc is next to unwatchable; certainly when I still have the VHS copy and the DVD at hand as alternatives. It wasn’t quite as bad played back on a laptop screen as it was on a television, but it’s a matter of degrees.
This release takes the CPM/Madman release and the Manga release and jams it all together when it comes to the audio. You get DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo soundtracks, the UK English dub which comes with the Rory McFarlane soundtrack, the US English dub (same voices) with the Japanese music with signs and song translations, and the original Japanese audio with full subtitles. For this viewing I chose the Manga version, and was in exploito-heaven for the duration. The English dub sucks, not to put too fine a point on it. You can hear in the documentary just how it was laid down, and why Manga’s dubs of the era were often so monotonous, and if you hear the US version, the one with the original music, it really is unbearable. But take that same sucky dub and couple it with the Rory McFarlane soundtrack, and you get something truly transcendent and brilliant. It might just be nostalgia talking, but I love this version, even more than the original language version which is usually my preference when it comes to anime. Incidentally I did sample the subtitle version, and you get some nice chunky but decent sized subtitles to go with the original language, which is still watchable enough, although reading the subtitles isn’t enough to distract from the flawed image quality.
You get two discs in a digipack that slips in a really nice chipboard slipcase. There is a blurb sheet on the back, held on by the cellophane packaging. Incidentally there are a couple of typos on the sheet. There are no stickers or art cards with this release.
The second disc in the packaging is the CD soundtrack, featuring the Rory McFarlane music recorded for the Manga Video English dub. There are 23 tracks on the disc, including the opening and ending, with just enough dialogue to spark the nostalgia for each piece of music. It lasts 46:51 and is a really nice part of this collection. The track listing for the CD can be found in the included booklet.
This booklet has 48 pages. As well as plenty of stills, you’ll find an essay from Jonathan Clements, and interviews with dub writer John Wolskel and composer Rory McFarlane, as well as the aforementioned CD track listing.
The following extras are on the disc.
There are audio commentaries here for the first two episodes. Yoshiaki Kawajiri, director is joined by Masao Maruyama from Madhouse animation. These were present on the CPM/Madman DVD releases.
You get the UK VHS Trailer (2:22).
The US DVD Trailers (3:53) are here too.
New to this Blu-ray is the Inside Cyber City Oedo Documentary, which lasts 54:37. It’s a retrospective on the old Manga Video release, with a focus on the UK exclusive music soundtrack. This features contributions from Jonathan Clements (co-author of Anime Encyclopaedia), Justin Sevakis (MediaOCD and former CPM video and subtitle editor), Andy Frain (former Manga Video boss), John Wolskel (dub scriptwriter), and Rory McFarlane (composer). This was recorded under Covid safe circumstances, in other words Zoom Conferencing in various home offices and the like. It isn’t ideal for audio visual, and I can’t wait until the world has been vaccinated.
The more you anticipate something, the more it hurts when it fails to deliver, and the Cyber City Oedo 808 Blu-ray hurt me twice. Okay, perhaps I was being a little unrealistic expecting a full HD transfer from the original film source; the anime industry just hasn’t been that diligent in preserving its history, and these OVAs from the early nineties were once seen just as disposable as early episodes of Doctor Who. But what really hurt came once I started watching the episodes with my expectations reset. Sure, the initial blast of bright colours and additional clarity seemed to be a big improvement over the old DVD and video but then the darker colours started being crushed, and crushed in a way that was destroying the detail in the image, and that’s something no resetting of expectations can compensate for. It’s a shame, as this is a classic cyberpunk anime, one of the best of the era, and one which still holds up well today.
We have three main characters and three episodes, and the maths is easy even for me. Each episode is spent on developing one character and telling his story. In effect they are three mini-movies. And regardless of which character you prefer, the standard is consistent throughout. We focus on Sengoku first of all, in an episode that quickly sets up the premise before moving on to the story. It’s a cyberpunk Die Hard, with a skyscraper siege prompted by the sort of thing that you usually expect in Ghost In The Shell. The building is actively seeking to murder one of its inhabitants, and it’s down to Sengoku to solve the case, and his personality comes strongly into play. He’s the sort of rebel anti-authoritarian figure who always looks cool in a red coat, and always takes time to look after his quiff. Reckless and brazen, he insists on doing things his own way, and he makes for an entertaining hero.
The second story sees Goggles take centre stage in a story that riffs heavily on Robocop 2. The military don’t want to see criminals in the police, so have developed a cyborg cop of their own. They need to test it of course, so they choose a target for practice. They use someone from Goggles’ past to set him up, and so he has an extra thirst for revenge. Of course our hero is going to prevail, but the solution he comes up with is interesting, with just enough science in, to make you think about pulling out a textbook. Goggles is big, brawny and mean, just enough of a B.A. Baracus outlook to overcome that ridiculous name. This is probably the best episode on the disc, making use of all the characters well, and telling an engaging if hackneyed story.
The final story is the weakest, not least for the vampire imagery, which seems to be a Kawajiri staple. There’s something incongruous about gothic imagery in a future milieu that doesn’t quite click in this episode, and Benten’s back-story is a little too similar to Goggles’. Still, this is the more romantic of the episodes; suitable as Benten is the most poetic at heart of the characters, always looking for portents in the heavens. He’s an early example of the white-haired androgynous male anime character, a little too fond of the lip-gloss, but making a stand for elegance and gentility in a lethal killer. His weapon of choice is a monofilament wire that he uses to dismember his foes, and oddly it isn’t accompanied by copious sprays of blood.
I love this release for what it wants to be. Effectively combining the Manga Video release and the CPM/Madman release gives you the best of both worlds, when it comes to soundtracks, and the Kawajiri commentaries, plus the new documentary is really well put together, nostalgic and informative. The packaging is awesome, and the booklet is a useful addition too, well worth several reads for the Jonathan Clements piece, even if the interviews repeat much that is said in the documentary. It’s just that the crushed colours on the Blu-ray let it down completely. It’s not the upscale, it’s the colours, and the disc needs to be revisited. I’m lucky in a way. I still have the Manga video, and even though it is VHS quality awful, it is consistent. The same with the Madman DVD, which with its washed out colours and tape resolution make it a poor option, but once again, it’s a consistent pain to watch. Watching this Blu-ray is a little bit of awe at how good it should luck, but then being kicked in the groin every few seconds when the image quality fails again. That kind of intermittent pain is unbearable. God, I hope they fix this!