‘City Hunter’: Netflix Whiffs Yet Another Live-Action Manga Adaptation


Mainstream animation from the U.S. and Japan may be far apart in sensibility, style, and intended audience, but cartoons from both countries do share one major piece of common ground: the vast difficulty of translating them into live action. Whether softening the artistry of Disney classics for ill-advised blockbuster remakes or attempting to maintain the quirks of a long-running manga adaptation like One Piece for Netflix, there’s an even-when-they-win-they-lose quality to the most notable successes. The would-be franchise-starter City Hunter, Netflix’s latest crack at fleshing out an animated phenom, shares that quixotic feeling, even if it isn’t an awkward Americanization like the streamer's Cowboy Bebop redo.

Technically, City Hunter—like a lot of famous anime properties—originates from a manga, and the source material seems pretty flexible, having inspired multiple anime series, several animated features, a live-action adaptation from Hong Kong starring Jackie Chan, and a live-action TV drama from Korea, among others. But the movie is, in its soul, a cartoon brought to life, for better or worse.

That’s evident from the jump, as its extended pre-credits opening follows private detective Ryo Saeba (Ryohei Suzuki) and his partner Hideyuki Makimur (Masanobu Andô) chasing a young woman through the streets of Tokyo, attempting to save her. Director Yūichi Satō gives this chase sequence a weightless quality even before the woman’s face bulges with alien-looking veins and she leaps away like a superhuman. None of the action is especially convincing, but it is pleasingly breezy, and the cartooniness extends to the trench-coated characters: Hideyuki is positioned as the straight man, while Ryo maintains nearly wolf-whistling levels of libido.

Shortly thereafter, the movie makes a pivot that’s equally clever and jarring, setting up the source material’s basic premise: Hideyuki is abruptly murdered, and a new odd-couple dynamic is swapped in. Ryo reluctantly takes on Hideyuki’s adopted sister Kaori (Misato Morita) as his partner as they track down the purveyors of a mysterious substance that gives users enhanced strength but denies them their free will, and eventually destroys them.

A photo still from 'City Hunter'

A photo still from City Hunter


The plotting of this conspiracy is so murky that it infects even seemingly straightforward scenes: Hideyuki’s murder, for example, is staged with spatial confusion and strangely protracted action—the kind of off-rhythm editing that animation might have saved through sheer graphic memorability. In live action, it’s harder to salvage a prolonged close-up of an actor’s face where it’s unclear whether she can even see a stabbing happening mere feet away from her. (Later, a one-off cutaway to actual animation underlines this point further.)

City Hunter alternates middling-to-incompetent scenes of sci-fi conspiracy grimness with sequences like the one where Ryo and Kaori stake out a cosplay convention and Ryo keeps bugging his eyes out at all the cleavage on display. This is also the occasion for a winking homage to the original material, where Kaori apparently wields a giant hammer to curb Ryo’s horniest impulses; here, the hammer makes an appearance as an outsized cosplay prop, rather than a fixture of Kaori’s repertoire. (She still manages to hold her own in the action sequences, though chauvinism dictates that Ryo does the heavy lifting, which is to say shooting.)

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Despite or possibly because of Ryo’s throwback mixture of Sam Spade and Benny Hill, the Suzuki/Morita duo makes for an enormously appealing investigative engine, with the kind of knockabout energy that probably helps to justify a live-action remake to begin with. Together, they have a way of humanizing the movie’s most outlandish (and sometimes chintzy-looking) action beats: gun-tossing, impossible marksmanship, overpowered mini-boss henchmen.

It’s the hidden revelations, anguished cries, and ruminations on the possible futility of revenge that give the performers, and especially the movie, a little more trouble. Maybe the melodramatic bits played better in animated form or on the page. Regardless, this version of City Hunter never quite reconciles them with its goofiness, and in its more serious moments, its animation-as-live-action aesthetic starts to look limiting, rather than oddly freeing. The movie wants to somehow wield its giant cartoon hammer and hide it, too.

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