This post is part of a collaborative effort with my buddy Ian Harper’s podcast Retro Anime Podcast. Check out Episode 29 in which he and Lewis review the first 3 City Hunter movies!
City Hunter started life as a manga by Tsukasa Hojo that ran from 1985 to 1991. An action/adventure thriller that mixed hard boiled detective noir, action and comedy with fantastic storytelling and a really amazing eye for detail (particularly in the realisation of beautiful women).
The premise concerns Ryo Saeba, an expert marksman and underground private eye working in Shinjuku, Tokyo nicknamed “The Sweeper”. Together with his assistant Kaori they tackle everything from dissappearances to taking on the worst of the criminal underworld. Their “City Hunter” business can be contacted by using the code “XYZ” in certain places around the city including a blackboard at Shinjuku Station. The only problem is Ryo is a huge pervert who loses his mind at the sight of beautiful women (Who, as you might have guessed are frequently involved with the duo’s investigations).
Ryo Saeba: International Icon
With such a simple and easily adaptable premise it’s no wonder that City Hunter became so successful in a huge number of territories around the world. After all the simple mechanics of its “case of the week” structure are universal, allowing the characters to be repurposed easily for different cultures. It’s the only anime/manga property I know of that’s been adapted into live action in France, Korea, China and even the Phillipines.
In fact my introduction to City Hunter came not through the anime itself (though I had heard mention of it in 90’s Anime magazines) but by seeing the madcap Hong Kong adaptation starring none other than Jackie Chan! An entertaining enough film to be sure but far from Jackie’s best and honestly not a particularly good adaptation of the source material in this fan’s humble opinion.
In France the anime was dubbed, edited and localised and Ryo (and the name of the show) became Nicky Larson. I haven’t seen the French version but I’ve seen comments from French anime fans that their version censored quite a bit and also ramped up the comedy even more adding a lot of new jokes by replacing dialogue. Its popularity was such in France that it even got a live action film called Nicky Larson and the cupid’s perfume in 2019.
Interestingly the City Hunter anime differs significantly from the manga in that the anime adaptation has no real overarching plot. Characters like Ryo’s rival and sometimes ally Umibozu and the manipulative Saeko make multiple appearances and give some continuity but the series remains episodic in nature. This proved to be a wise decision on Sunrise’s part as it has allowed them to continue to produce City Hunter material way past the manga’s end including TV films and theatrical films to boot. In 1999 in what many assumed was the end of the Franchise there was a TV movie released called “The Death of the vicious criminal Ryo Saeba” and then no new material for almost two decades (unless you count the various international adaptations). However Ryo and Kaori returned in 2019 with “Shinjuku Private Eyes” a theatrical production that pulls out all the stops to celebrate the enduring legacy of City Hunter. It even features a cameo from the main characters of another one of Hojo’s beloved works, the Kitsuji sisters from Cat’s Eye since they both exist in the same universe and operate in Shinjuku.
Considering American TV is obsessed with prodecurals and police dramas and has always loved detective fiction by all rights City Hunter should probably be more well known in the states and in the west in general than it is however there’s probably two big factors that have blocked that in the past. Number 1 is it’s only recently seen a re-release after many years of western inactivity and two is the amount of content there is to get through.
There are many things to love about City Hunter as a franchise but if I was to focus on one it’s the consistency of it. While I haven’t finished the manga (not all of it is translated sadly at time of writing) it’s always on point and the anime is no different.
Ryo shares more than a few traits with two other iconic manga/anime heroes: Lupin the 3rd and Cobra in that a lot of the time he acts goofy, lazy and even a little stupid but as soon as he’s in work mode he becomes like a different person. The facade drops and he shows who he really is: a sharp professional who can outwit almost any adversary and has shooting and driving skills that would put 007 to shame. Ryo is shown to have a near supernatural level of skill with his colt Python Magnum and is extremely athletic to boot. Interestingly he drives a Mini Cooper, not the most flashy of cars for a badass private eye. Given some of the crazy stunts he pulls while driving it I’m guessing it’s for the lighter weight and smaller frame of the vehicle rather than aesthetics.
Every episode has a really intriguing case for the duo to crack that has laughs, drama and often a real sense of pathos. Despite having comedic elements it doesn’t shy away from dark subject matter. Sex trafficking, mercenaries, gangs, living only for revenge, you name it this show deals with it and often in an interesting manner which both underlines the moral complexities of such situations and also helps the viewer to learn more about the duality of Ryo’s character.
The show is consistently beautiful to look at as well. From the amazingly realised shots of Shinjuku’s neon-drenched nightlife to the fludity of the action and of course the lovely ladies that drive Ryo crazy. Anime studio Sunrise rarely puts a foot wrong with most productions and City Hunter is no exception.
The Mokkori Problem
As mentioned Ryo really has an eye for the ladies which often proves to be his downfall. Especially in the case of Saeko, a devious police detective he can’t resist who keeps on tempting him by offering her body in exchange for his help which of course she invetiably denies him after he’s fulfilled his side of the bargain.
The phrase “Mokkori” is often used by Ryo to describe a woman with an attractive figure. The phrase in Japanese can be thought of much like “Boi-oing” in English as a cartoonish noise to describe an erection. Ryo’s eyes will often bulge out of his head and his face becomes super deformed as he describes something like “Mokkori thighs” or “Mokkori breasts” acting totally crazy all the while. He’s not above copping a feel either! I can’t really think of any other well loved traditional anime action hero that would just straight up grope a woman but yep, Ryo does it and on a fairly regular basis. You might think his behaviour would be more controversial however the show has legions of female fans and I have never seen any serious discussion online of it being deemed “problematic”. To me that’s down to one very simple thing; the way it’s presented. Ryo’s behaviour is so over the top and exaggerated it’s hard to be disturbed by, especially since his partner Kaori often steps in when it gets to be a bit too much to deliver a blow from her famous 100 ton hammer!
If Ryo was to get away with his lecherous behaviour that might be another thing but considering he suffers greatly for his indiscretions in a myriad of ways I don’t honestly think it’s cause for offense.
Another thing to mention is that the character of Kaori is shown to be capable and smart and she’s a great protagonist in her own right. There’s a bit of a “Will they or won’t they?” thing going on in the show as well. The sexual tension between the two of them is much more of a focus in the manga versus the anime where it only seems to crop up now and again and can sometimes be used as a further reason for Kaori to punish Ryo out of jealousy. Kaori is often portrayed as a bit of a tomboy though she’s always drawn in an attractive or cute way. Whenever she dons a dress or anything other than her regular outfit. It seems people can’t stop looking, yet going around in her regular clothes she doesn’t seem to get much attention.
The sounds of City Hunter also play an important role in its status in more ways than one, providing the voice of Ryo Saeba we have voice acting legend Akira Kamiya the man behind Roy Focker, Kenshiro and many super robot protagonists. Also its soundtrack is quite diverse; ranging from ballads like “Love don’t leave me” (the first opening theme) and everything inbetween from rock to acid jazz to the truly iconic J-pop end theme “Get Wild” which always starts up before the credits roll as the final shot turns into a still frame (A simple technique but it never seems to fail to make an impact, particularly during particularly dramatic endings)…..and that’s just the tunes in the first series! Honestly you could probably spend an entire article talking about the music of the show.
City Hunter is an anime that I think everyone should check out to see if it’s for them. Its episodic nature makes it an easy watch and there’s no real wrong place to start. Now that it’s currently getting a re-release on Blu Ray in the US from the saviours of old school anime Discotek Media there’s no excuse not to. Also if you’re in the US the whole thing is streaming on Crunchyroll too (Even the titles that have yet to be released on disc). The entire series is also on RetroCrush in the states, sadly if you’re in the UK your only options are to import the discs (Yayyy for multi region Blu Ray players!)
Availability: Currently the first two seasons of City Hunter are on Blu ray as well as Shinjuku Private Eyes, City Hunter season three and four (City Hunter 91) are coming in 2022. The rest of the specials will follow sometime soon, look out for annoucements from Discotek Media on Twitter.
Note: Screencaps taken from the Discotek Media Blu Rays.