Revisiting the Transgressive Feminine Power of ‘Wicked City’

Wicked City

Wicked City, a 1987 straight-to-video anime horror, is a strange film. On first viewing, you’re not exactly sure what’s going on, who to root for, why it’s so gratuitous with sex and violence, or why, despite all that, you’re entranced from beginning to end. Its nearly inscrutable plot tells the story of the two demon-hunters, Taki Renzaburō and Makie, and their task of protecting 200-year-old ‘mystic’/sex pest Giuseppe Mayart from demon ‘Radicals’.

While the film is based on a popular series of novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi, its premise often feels like little more than a male chauvinist power fantasy about taming women. In Wicked City, a treaty exists between the demon and human worlds to keep the peace and maintain a status quo in which human men are dominant, and women—either human or demon—are mere sex objects. The Radicals are a group of demons who threaten this balance and are embarking on an assault against this status quo, a move which has them labeled as ‘terrorists’. As a female viewer of Wicked City, I just can’t help but love its demon women and admire their embrace of ‘monstrous’ feminine power.

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The film opens with a hammy monologue by the male lead, Taki (a cardboard cutout stereotype of a cool, macho gunslinger), who works as a tech salaryman by day, and a demon hunter by night. His voice floats atop an aerial shot of dark and cloud-wreathed Tokyo City, waxing lyrical about the world we live in. His primary concern about society appears to be how we “bust our humps to blind ourselves with our desires and pleasures” to the point where we cannot perceive the “strange phenomena, bizarre beyond reason” that occur all around us.

He never makes clear what these phenomena are exactly, and concludes that we simply live in a “world filled with evil that is undeniably real” and that “in that world, there are things that run wild”. It’s a lot of vague moralizing and leaves the viewer wondering, what on earth is he talking about? What are the strange phenomena? What are the evil things? Why do they run wild? What pleasures? 

The very next scene puts the viewer’s confusion to rest: It’s women. It’s all just women. We see Taki taking money from a bartender—he’s just won a bet about whether or not he will be able to go home with his notoriously chaste date, Kanako. He’s been pursuing her for months to no avail, but tonight his fortunes seem to have turned as Kanako’s demeanor changes in an instant.

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From the reserved, timid woman he has known, now Kanako is leaning on his arm in the cab home, kisses him in the elevator of her apartment building, and undresses into her lingerie the moment they enter her room. So far so good. But Taki appears intimidated, saying to her “Isn’t that a little too bold?” She shoots back, critical of his hypocrisy as a known womanizer, “Don’t you like impatient girls?” and performs fellatio on him. Shocked, Taki thinks to himself “This woman has a devil inside” and wonders what she is hiding under her “demure exterior”. Unbeknownst to him, the real Kanako is lying unconscious in the hotel bathroom. The woman he is with now is in fact a nameless demon who has assumed Kanako’s physical form.

Once Taki has finished inside her and falls asleep on her chest, this demon (known only in the credits as Spider-Woman) begins to transform, her arms and legs extending to grotesque lengths, her hands reshaping into sharp, insect-like claws, and she begins to crush him. As panic sets in, Spider-Woman whispers into Taki’s ear: “I have no use for you anymore.” He breaks free at last, but it’s too late: from the ground he looks back at her, sitting with her legs spread open, revealing her vagina dentata with which she has just stolen his manhood.

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Spider-Woman’s transformation scene is like Sailor Moon for adults who are frankly sick of men. Wicked City wants you to be on Taki’s side, to detest women, and see them as secretly being demonic hussies. But for women who are used to being told to make themselves smaller and more palatable in the real world, her monstrous power is just undeniably iconic. She’s like the dark horror version of Samantha Jones we all need.

And aside from Spider-Woman and Makie, who we’ll get to shortly, there are two other nameless demon women in Wicked City to be obsessed with: Soap Girl and Demonic Temptress. Soap Girl, for one, is literally a sex worker in a kind of brothel known as a Soapland—as her human world cover, at least. In reality, she is a demon Radical intent on assassinating Giuseppe Mayart and preventing the human-demon treaty from being signed. Demonic Temptress is a Suspiria (1977) reference all on her own. With flashing red magic all around her, she transforms her entire torso into a pulsating vagina/portal, beckoning Taki into it to his death. Temptress is no mother, she is no baby-making vessel, and her vagina is not one of creation. Hers is a force of destruction. There is no room for subtlety in the themes and visuals of Wicked City.

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When Mayart escapes the safe house where he is being protected to pursue sexual services, he finds himself in Soap Girl’s lair. Like Spider-Woman does to Taki, Soap Girl lulls Mayart into a sense of security by giving him what he came for: her body. Eventually, she gives more of it than he can handle, and takes his entirely.

While he grabs and fondles her breasts, she begins to ooze and melt over his arms. Eventually, his entire body is enveloped in hers like a parasitic fungus, absorbing and consuming him. He was to be the second male victim of demon women in the film. Unfortunately, these Radicals are stopped short every time by Makie and Taki of the Black Guard. And when you watch Makie extending her nails into deadly, glowing razor-like blades to cut Soap Girl’s life short, you do taste bitter betrayal in your mouth. Why does Makie choose the side of the humans in this battle, metaphorically and narratively siding with men who subject her to constant abuse and degradation?

Her motivation is never explained, but her arc of character growth in the film explains her role well enough as a martyr for women’s rights movements. Because as amazing as the demon women are in Wicked City, they were not intended to be seen that way. The movie—as with the original novels—is deeply misogynistic, and features extreme sexual violence doled out onto women’s bodies. 

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Makie is herself a demon woman, her cover in the human world being a fashion model. But she works alongside Taki as a member of the Black Guard, sworn to protect humans at all costs against her own kind. She exists as a powerful figure in the film only when saving the lives of men against demons. In her first appearance, Makie cuts an androgynous figure, donning a slender black suit and short hair, as she descends from the heavens to save Taki’s life from two demons. We are supposed to believe that Makie and Taki are meant to be, and that this film is ultimately their love story.

But Makie is subjected to extreme sexual violence by demons and human men alike. It is constant and is used to portray Taki as the hero in the end who saves her, marries her, and consummates their relationship with her in a literal church building, a process which ‘purifies’ her. After their union, Makie wears a white dress and pearl necklace, the very image of a chaste, virginal bride— she’s a trophy for Taki. Even her demeanor has changed. She is no more the masculine, suave, martial Makie who saves Taki’s life at the start of the film. She is demure, submissive, timid, and may well be whispering “Under his eye” to other women off-screen.

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Frustratingly, Taki, propped up as Makie’s savior, is deeply complicit with the sexual assault of Makie throughout the film. Not only is his first interaction with her peppered with requests for her physical measurements, but he never intervenes when she’s harassed or assaulted in front of him. The closest he gets is telling Mayart, who pesters her for sex, and cannot keep his hands off of her anywhere they go, to be “more discreet”, and that after the job of protecting him is done, he can do “whatever he wants”.

When Taki finds Makie pinned to a bed by a male Radical who has just assaulted her (as retribution for “betraying” demonkind), he kills him, and the first and only thing he says to her before turning to leave is “Where is Mayart?” Taki’s behaviors and attitudes make it abundantly clear that he sees the sexual assault of women as routine and normal, and only ever attempts to intervene when it poses an inconvenience to him personally.

Where Makie has tried in vain to assimilate into patriarchy, the other demon women of Wicked City know that the only chance of true freedom comes from embracing the full extent of their power that men so desperately fear. They make it obvious that the titular wickedness in society is not women, our sexuality, or our power; it is patriarchy. And, perhaps, in some subconscious way, the male creators of Wicked City know this, too.

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In an article in Attitude Magazine titled ‘Why is it so many witches appeal so strongly to queer audiences?’ author Juno Dawson writes “Witches are, almost always, oppressed women. They’re the misfits, the outsiders, the hags and freaks.” In the case of Wicked City, witches are synonymous with demons. Dawson also wrote on female power in a way that resonates strongly with the demonic transformations of women in Wicked City, saying that “Seeing female characters unleash or harness their innate power comes with a universal joy. We exist in a patriarchy, and seeing women tap into their inner strength is inspiring, always.”

Wicked City was released in 1987, a time when women’s rights movements in Japan were increasingly popular and were gaining ground in the social, cultural, and academic spaces. At the same time, the country’s economic boom at the time strongly benefitted men more than women, a status quo embodied by Taki Renzaburō. In a way, the Black Guard and the demonic Radicals are an echo of the power struggle against patriarchy happening in our own world, and while we’re expected to sympathize with the keepers of the balance, ultimately it is the transgressive, powerful demon women who we relate to and become as the unintended female audience. 

What drew me to Wicked City and writing about it as a trans woman was that its combination of body horror and misogyny felt deeply familiar to me, as did the film’s female characters’ struggle against it. In my world, womanhood had always seemed too perfect for me to deserve with my own ‘monstrous’ body. And in Makie’s world, womanhood is also inherently vilified unless it follows strict rules under a patriarchal society. It was a realization that patriarchy always treats women as witches or demons when we do not conform, and as women only when we accept being subordinated.

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The demon women of Wicked City are not chaste, their bodies are not for consumption by men. Their vaginas are not petite, life-giving vessels that exist for men’s sexual and social gratification. They bear teeth, or grow to impossible size, and are forces of destruction. Their true bodies are not graceful, or perfectly proportioned, they possess features considered inhuman, monstrous, and grotesque. The demon women’s bodies do nothing a man would want them to, yet this does not disqualify any of these women from their womanhood. By being so obtusely misogynistic, Wicked City makes more visceral and extreme the extent of the harm patriarchy and misogyny have on women in the real world, whether we are cis or trans.

Society is body horror for women and queer people. If you’re a trans woman, society shames you for your penis, using it as an invalidation of your womanhood. If you receive gender-affirming surgery, your vagina is then mocked as a falsification of the female form. If you’re a cis woman, your body is still subjected to constant scrutiny and you are shamed for falling short of those ever-changing beauty standards. And, if you’re a demon, a witch, or a monster, well, honey, you’re a woman.


Additional reading:

  • Ehara Yumiko, Yanagida Eino and Paula Long, ‘Japanese Feminism in the 1970s and 1980s’ In U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal. English Supplement, 1993. No. 4. (1993), pp. 49 – 69. 
  • Marianne Tarcov and Fareed Ben-Youssef, ‘Bodies in Pain, Pleasure, and Flux: Transgressive Femininity in Japanese Media and Literature’ In Japanese Language and Literature Vol. 53, No. 2 (2019).


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