I'd like to apologize once again for the issues with the commenting system over the past week or two. It kind of derailed the last couple of Gankutsuou posts. Hopefully things will run a bit more smoothly now that that's all ironed-out (well, somewhat; I'm still not getting emails, but I'm keeping a close eye on the submitted comments in the backend for now until things can be totally fixed).
I have one "fun fact" to share before we get started. There are a lot of reviewers who have written about the lackluster opening theme this series has. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where the original anime opening theme couldn't be licensed, because the Japanese artist was asking for too much money. The original opening theme is called "Hikari no Machi" by TOKIO, who are known for being difficult when it comes to foreign licensing of their music. The new theme song, cobbled together from various scenes from the series and a selection from the soundtrack, isn't so bad considering those limitations. If you're by chance watching an old fansubbed version of the show, it most likely has the original intro music.
Remember, this series is available streaming. You can find the first episode here on YouTube (you will have to sign in to view it due to an age restriction), here on Hulu, and here on The Anime Network (which I believe is served by Hulu).
Anyway, let's start the first episode, shall we?
Episode 1: City of the Dancing Mask
It begins with the death of a famous actress in Otomo City. Newspaper reporter Hayato Mikogami senses a scoop, and asks his editor to send him there. He's after more information on a masked vigilante who's been dubbed the "Skull Man" due to the costume he wears. On his way to Otomo city, Hayato manages to pick up a "partner," a girl named Kiriko who aims to become a prize-winning photographer. She offers to partner with Hayato, and while he finds her annoying he eventually invites her to stay with him in his childhood home while his investigation is going on. Late that night, while Hayato is out visiting a vending machine, he hears terrified screams and gets tossed through the air by a man who appears to be running from something. Before falling into unconsciousness, he notices a figure standing atop a crumbling building, wearing a skull-shaped mask.
Discussion: I hope you'll all indulge me for a moment as I take some time to make comparisons between this series and our previous book club selection, Gankutsuou. I think that there is some value in doing so, because the two series are ultimately trying to accomplish very different things, and their styles of storytelling really contrast with one-another.
Gankutsuou is a very well-paced story that asks that its audience be more invested in the thematic elements of the story rather than a lot of small details. I can't say for certain, but I'm guessing that many of you who were watching the show were able to infer a lot of what was going to happen, though not to the extent that it tarnished your viewing experience. The Skull Man is very different in that its story really is focused on a lot of small details, many of which aren't obvious right away. I would classify it more as an action-mystery rather than the straightforward action or horror series it may appear to be at first, something which may put off some viewers if they aren't expecting it.
That said, this episode introduces several elements that, as I recall, turn into important pieces of the story later on. Something that's subtly-introduced but interesting to note is that this story takes place in an alternate-universe or alternate-history version of Japan. The military is very much a presence, which should be obvious from the rather violent scene at the train station early in the episode, and travel between areas of the country is restricted. From what I recall, the country isn't entirely unified in this incarnation (there's a brief reference to military ships crossing the Tsugaru Strait, which separates Hokkaido and Honshu). These restrictions and curfews seem to aid the production by making the relative isolation of Otomo City and the emptiness of its streets at night more plausible than they might otherwise be (especially since late-night trips to the convenience store are often common occurrences in other anime).
Another tidbit of information comes as Hayato snoops in Kiriko's belongings and finds a photograph of her and another man. Though her aims might seem simple at first (she claims to be trying to improve her photographic skills), this suggest a hidden agenda and perhaps a future source of conflict. Though this seems unlikely considering her introduction, her role isn't limited to that of a comic relief character. As a side note, she's involved in the one little bit of mild fanservice this series has to offer; if that sort of content bothers you (as it does me), there should be nothing major left to worry about.
It should be emphasized that Hayato is a former resident of this town (as we learn from his trip to the graveyard to visit his father's grave), and his own motivations for returning to the town may be more complicated than just a desire to uncover information about The Skull Man.
Since this is the first discussion entry for this series, I'd like to take a moment to talk about aesthetics, because this series is uncommon-looking, especially for the time in which it was made. For those of you who aren't familiar with the creator, artist Shotaro Ishinomori is probably most remembered for his manga series Cyborg 009 (or perhaps the difficult-to-find Legend of Zelda comic which originally appeared in Nintendo Power - I have a copy that I will never, ever lend to anyone), which ran from the mid-1960's until the early 1980's. A quick glance at some illustrations from that series should tell you most of what you need to know about why this series looks the way it does. The animators did a good job of adapting Ishinomori's more stylized, rounded character designs into versions that, while still unique, most modern anime fans ought to find more appealing. I personally like the looks of them, how about you?
Please share your own reactions in the comments. I'm curious to hear what others consider to be important thus far, and whether or not anyone has any expectations or predictions they're willing to offer. Any discussion of Ishinomori and his body of work is welcome too, if that's something you're particularly familiar with. Just to warn you once again, several more factions will be introduced in upcoming episodes, so it pays to pay very close attention to what's going on, even as early as this episode, so vigilance in discussing the details is a must for getting the most out of the show.