Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 01

「北口スモークタワー」 (Kitaguchi sumoukutawaa)
“North Exit Smoke Tower”

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – almost universally known as IWGP here in Japan – has certainly taken an interesting route to anime. It was a novel series (by Ishida Ira) which ran from 1998-2009. It’s had no less than three distinct manga adaptations. Most famously, though, it was a TV drama in 2000. One season only, 12 episodes – but it made quite an impact, turning IWGP into a pop culture phenomenon. Maybe in the States you’d compare to something like 21 Jump Street – a “water cooler” show that was both popular and hip in the days when network TV ruled the roost (as it still pretty much does in Japan).

Unfortunately, for me the background is more interesting than the anime itself – based on the premiere, anyway. Any series about gangs in Ikebukuro is bound to draw comparisons with Durarara! (usually with IWGP being mistakenly accused of ripping DRRR off when it’s many years older), but the two shows are really very little alike. The problem isn’t that, it’s that the narrative in the first episode is rather ham-fisted and broad. I’m no slavish devotee of irony and snark (which have their place but seem to be omnipresent in anime these days) but I kept waiting for some indication that their was more to what I was seeing than met the eye. It never came.

The core premise is the chronicle of the G-Boys, a gang in West Ikebukuro who seem to be something of a cross between a bishounen yakuza outfit and the Good Samaritans. Their leader is called “King”, though his real name is >Ando Takashi (Uchiyama Kouki, who’s played way more interesting kings in his day). But the main focus seems to be Majima Makoto (Kumagai Kentarou), who calls himself a produce seller but is clearly linked with the G-Boys, though both he and they are quick to assert that he’s not formally a member.

It’s dangerous to judge a series based on the first episode, especially what appears to be a serial drama like IWGP. That said, this first story was a real clunker – humorless and lacking any emotional impact. A girl tries to build down a building where the junkie who hit-and-run her mother gets his fix, and she ends up in Makoto’s care as he and the G-Boys try and shut the “herb shops” in Smoke Tower down. It’s preachy, it’s manipulative, it’s sloppily written – anti-drugs and pro-vigilantism without much thought seemingly being put into it. It does feel like a product of the 90’s – but not in a good way.

There have been plenty of popular TV dramas that were terrible (I didn’t like 21 Jump Street, which survived in perpetual reruns, as it happens) both in America and Japan. Still, I’d like to think there was something to this franchise that made it such a hit – and believe me, it was monstrously popular in its day. That it manifestly wasn’t on-display in the first episode is hardly encouraging, but it’s not definitive – I don’t know where in the lexicon this story came from (it could be manga or anime-original for all I know) and sometimes a series just stumbles coming out of the blocks. This show was fairly high in my expectations list for the fall season, so I’m going to give it considerable time to convince me this disappointing start was an aberration.

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