The Skull-faced Phantom
“Skull Man” is a series with an interesting legacy. Created in 1970 by legendary Ishinomori Shotaro, “Skull Man” was Japan’s first anti-hero, a dark crusader who didn’t mind if a few innocents got killed on his quest for vengeance. The one-shot story appeared in Shonen Magazine, and was an instant hit. Ishinomori was asked to re-develop the character in a lighter and less gruesome style for a kid’s television program, and the masked hero Kamen Rider was born. More than thirty years later “Kamen Rider” is still on the air, while character who gave birth to him, “Skull Man,” had faded to obscurity.
In the late 90s, a dying Ishinomori contacted manga artist Shinamoto Kazuhiko with his last wish: Ishinomori wanted Shinamoto to finish the story of “Skull Man” started so many years ago. Ishinomori faxed Shinamoto his plot and story notes, then Shinamoto took it from there. Skull Man was revived in 1998 to great success. In 2007, Studio Bones (Rahxephon, Wolf’s Rain) updated and adapted “Skull Man” for a thirteen-episode Fuji TV series, which has finally been released in the US.
The setting for “Skull Man” is a divided Japan, split into North and South sections which are guarded by an armed border. On the Northern side, there are urban legends of a mysterious skull-faced killer stalking the streets. On the Southern side, newbie reporter Mikogami Hayato thinks that this “Skull Man” might just be the big break he needs to catapult him to fame, and convinces his editor to send him over to the North to find the truth behind the rumors. Hayato was raised in an orphanage in the Northern Otomo city and has contacts on the Northern side in the form of Kuroshiro Gozo, a powerful businessman.
At the border, Hayato meets Mamiya Kiriko, a young girl who dreams of becoming a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist. The two strike up an uneasy partnership, and go on a hunt for leads to the Skull Man. Their path quickly leads them to the White Bell Society, a new and powerful religious sect in Otomo city, and onto the trail of Kagura Tatsuo, a man killed ten years ago in an arson case but who Hayato tags as the leading suspect for the identity of the Skull Man. As the investigation progresses, it seems that everyone, from the innocent Kiriko to Hayato’s powerful ally Gozo, is hiding some secret connecting them to the White Bell Society and the mysterious and dangerous Skull Man.
With the “Skull Man” anime, Studio Bones decided to keep mainly the heart of Ishinomori’s original characters and to re-imagine almost everything else. The series has a 1930s Noir-ish detective feel, juxtaposed with Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera and Wagner’s Tannhauser opera. Ishinomori’s typical futuristic bucket-headed hero has been redesigned as a gothic menace with a close-fitting skull mask and a long black coat wielding a German Luger P08 pistol and a shotgun. By contrast however, Hayato and Kiriko are almost typical old-school anime characters thrust into a darker world than they were prepared for. Instead of the urban legend he was hunting for, Hayato finds himself surrounded with dog-headed monsters and beautiful movie actresses transforming into flying monsters.
The mixture of an updated and modern anime retaining some of the style and flair of its original creator reminded me quite a bit of the Osamu Tezuka adaptation Metropolis. Some of the character designs (especially Hayato and Kiriko’s hairdos) and plot twists might seem dated and in fact they are, but this was a deliberate choice that I think works well. It keeps that “nostalgic but modern” effect that I think is a strength of “The Skull Man.”
The animation is beautiful, with some flawless CGI enhanced scenes. The series ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, either as a set up for a sequel or just as an artistic choice by the director. Either way, the series stands completely on its own. It must also be noted that “The Skull Man” has one of the best covers I have ever seen on an anime DVD.
This set has the entire thirteen-episode series on two DVDs, with six episodes on the first disk and seven on the second disk. There is no dubbed soundtrack, being available only in Japanese with optional English subtitles, and that is just fine with me. The only real extras are some previews for other Section 23 releases. What I feel is really missing from the release is the live-action “The Skull Man Episode Zero” that was released as a prequel to this series, but these live-action anime adaptations almost never make it to the US, which is a shame. They would make excellent bonus features.