Forgotten Anime: “Sanctuary”

sanctuaryvhsDistributor: Viz Video (USA)
Original Year of Release: 1995
English Video Release: 1996, Subtitled (dubbed version also released)
Japanese Title: Sanctuary
Runtime: 65 mins

Like a lot of their early manga output, Viz released a lot of anime that you’d think would sell like lead bricks. I often wondered if their game plan was throw whatever was available out there and see what sticks. Shoujo, romantic shonen, ancient anime like “Galaxy Express 999”. Another bizarre genre they stuck their toe in was Yakuza anime. Yep, Yakuza anime. I bet you can’t name five Yakuza anime off the top of your head. The only other one I could immediately think of was “Gokusen”, which is more on the comedy side of things, or “Crying Freeman”, but what else is there? There certainly isn’t many titles in the genre available, let alone in English. First up, the story of this OVA;

Yakuza member Akira Hojo and his underling Tashiro are attempting to blackmail a prominent politician, Shuichi Sakura, with some incriminating photographs showing him making love to woman who isn’t his wife. Before they have time to react, Shuichi’s secretary and right hand man, Asami Chiaki, punches Tashiro. This politician doesn’t take threats from the Yakuza seriously. He tells them that he doesn’t care if anybody sees the pictures. It’s time for the young and clever yakuza Hojo to change tact. Hojo’s boss, the don of the Sagura clan tells him not to mess with politicians. Sagura secretly has dealings with the dirty Shuichi, and he doesn’t want them to mess them up.

sanctuary1Hojo’s main business is running a casino for the clan, but he has higher ambitions. Unbeknownst to all sides in this tangled web of corruption, Hojo and Asami have actually been friends since school. Asami took the path of politics, while Hojo became a Yakuza. Though they’ve chosen radically different career paths, they are working closely with each other for a common goal. Hojo’s men visit Shuichi again. He is taken to a hotel where he sees from a distance Hojo and his daughter frolicking together near the hotel’s pool. Shuichi is told that if he doesn’t retire, something may happen to his daughter. Later Shuichi tells Asami that he doesn’t care about the threats from the yakuza. Things are not going to plan and Hojo is having even greater troubles.

The clan don Sagura is upset with Hojo, but Hojo’s men carry out a plan to appease the don. They pay him off with money from fraudulent loans Shuichi has made with Daito Credit Union. The Secretary General of the Japanese parliament “mysteriously” comes across the photos Hojo was blackmailing Shuichi with and decides the party should withdraw support for him. He doesn’t want a scandal to taint the government. Shuichi vows to run as an independent, but Asami tells him in no uncertain terms that he plans to take over his constituency and run as member of the party with their full support. Hojo and Asami are finally within reach of their goals. Nothing seems to be able to stop them.

sanctuary2However a spanner in the works soon arrives in the form of Tokai. Recently released from prison, he is a yakuza member of the Sagura clan and he likes to do things the old way. This causes friction amongst some members especially Hojo. Tokai built up Sagura’s empire and considering the position he’s currently in, he feels a little short changed. Sagura has seemingly made the situation worse by giving Tokai’s former territory to Hojo. But this is all part of Sagura’s plan. He believes he is far too ambitious, and sets about manipulating Tashiro and Tokai into killing Hojo to get him out of the picture.

As I said before, anime based upon the popular yakuza manga genre is very rare indeed. Having previously seen “Crying Freeman”, one of the very few yakuza anime series commercially released in English, and the fact that I really detested the series, I really wasn’t looking forward to watching “Sanctuary”. Add in the fact that “Fist of the North Star” writer Sho Fumimura (aka Buronson) and “Crying Freeman” writer/artist Ryoichi Ikegami produced the original “Sanctuary” manga, and I the fact I really hated both of those manga and anime, I was even less enthused. I suspected it would be another “Crying Freeman” with naked killers, absurd violence and incredibly implausible storylines, but I was very pleasantly surprised the maturity and realism of this OVA. Unlike the ridiculously unbelievable crime world of “Crying Freeman” and the over the top violence of “Fist of the North Star”, “Sanctuary” has an air of realism about it that is very believable. No naked female killers, no exploding heads. It could almost be a day in the life of a real yakuza clan.

sanctuary3Surprisingly this adaptation of the first arc of the Sanctuary manga is very well done and rarely strays from its source material. The story flows effortlessly, and plot is very engaging and mature. While I really enjoyed the crime aspect to the OVA, the sex scenes felt a bit exploitative to me. But while there are several sex scenes in “Sanctuary”, luckily they are few in number and fairly short. Most of the time I felt they weren’t necessary and cheapened the production. What scared me though is how Ryoichi Ikegami draws the majority of his female characters. Their faces are very similar to his male characters (those damn eyebrows!). As a result it looks quite strange to see all these red-blooded males having sex with women which, quite frankly, look like men. It’s really off putting and makes a lot of the sex scenes a lot less erotic than what they were intended to be.

If the sex wasn’t exploitative enough, another thing which put me off was the way women were treated. There is a short rape scene in the OVA, and one scene has Shuichi saying that he doesn’t care if his daughter gets raped by a yakuza or married off to an idiot husband. To him it’s the same thing. I really found that line to be a little shocking. Another rather cruel scene involves a police woman, Kyoko Ishihara, who is trying to entrap Hojo. She sets out to seduce him, but ends up drugged and finds herself in naked in motel room and what she thinks is blood on the sheets under her body. She thinks she’s been raped, but then notices on the table next to the bed is a can of half empty tomato juice and a letter from Hojo revealing that he knows who she is. It’s a really nasty scene, but at the same it’s a bit humours because it’s a little over the top and quite evil. Due the fact the show is adapted from a seinen manga mostly aimed at businessmen, I really shouldn’t be surprised at the blatant sexism and outright misogyny.

sanctuary4Apart from the very engaging storyline and realistic characters, the other element that impressed me the most was the music. Apart from a couple of minor background music pieces, the music selected for the show is very sophisticated and adult orientated. It makes such a change from the bland pop music soundtrack that most anime have.

Surprisingly “Sanctuary” is a quite cleverly plotted and produced anime. The gratuitous sex scenes and slightly misogynistic tone I could do without, but the story stands up quite well to many American mafia dramas. It’s plays out much like a live action piece, and in fact was also adapted into a live action movie that Viz also released around the same time as the anime. Both the dub and subtitled versions of this anime are fairly easy to come across and are pretty cheap second hand. If you’re after something completely different from a genre not usually seen in anime and want something more mature than your standard anime fare, “Sanctuary” is something you should be checking out.

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