First Look: Ikebukuro West Gate Park

Novel Adaptation by Doga Kobo
Streaming on Funimation

Premise

Ikebukuro: where you will apparently never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. In this violent and crime-ridden district, where yazkuza and youth street gangs rule the streets, a young man named Makoto protects his friends by mediating disputes among rival groups, while also saving innocent children, defenseless single moms, and frowning very heavily on drugs. Remember kids, drugs are bad!

Artemis’ verdict: Weed Is Eeeeevil

Okay, for the sake of the story, I’ll buy into the frequent declarations of Ikebukuro (in real life known mostly for its enormous department stores and being a major commuter hub in its region of Tokyo, incidentally) being a hotbed of bloody violence and gritty street crime. After all, Durarara!! seemed to manage pulling this off just fine back in the day, and it’s been an entire decade since the first season of that dropped, so I was willing to give Ikebukuro West Gate Park a try despite seemingly way overselling its premise.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem here isn’t that the setting is unrealistic – it’s that the show does absolutely nothing beyond the opening scene to establish Ikebukuro as being much of a dangerous place at all. Sure, everyone keeps talking about what a treacherous town it is, but when all your action scenes are short-lived and laughably undynamic, and when the vast majority of the story happens via narration rather than on-screen action in the first place, something’s clearly gone wrong. IWGP is extremely dialogue-heavy, and the addition of the in-your-face exposition (literally including an “as you know” line just in case it wasn’t awkward enough) was enough to make me cringe. Repeatedly.

The situation goes from bad to worse once it becomes painfully obvious that, for being a supposed breeding ground of violent crime and disaffected street youths, this version of Ikebukuro lacks any kind of ambience whatsoever. The production is downright cheap-looking at times, with somewhat limited animation, a bit of badly-integrated CG, precious few background details, and character designs that look okay in some frames and sloppy as hell in others. Even the background music, such as it is, sounds like something you’d hear in a chain hotel lobby or elevator. By the time I watched the end credits roll, I realized that the main character, who lacks much of a personality beyond ‘happy to do the right thing to save a kid while preaching about drugs’, is just the icing on the cake compared to everything else going on with IWGP.

I’m not even gonna touch that weed scene.

Jel’s verdict: The Opposite of Cool

I want to beat up this show and take its lunch money. I felt more threatened watching the Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear trailer than watching this. It feels like someone asked a sheltered 8 year old child to describe what they think street gangs do, then decided to animate it. It’s one of the least cool things I’ve ever watched.

The thing is, whoever made this thinks Ikebukuro West Gate Park is very cool, and on paper it should be. Street gang stories like this should be an easy slam dunks for cool factor, but this is the exact opposite. It’s so uncool that the main characters are basically cops. The only thing close to cool in the episode is the choice of music for the OP and ED, but only the music, they couldn’t even get the visuals right for those.

While I found watching this first episode amusing just to see how lame they could really be (they will never top the “Smoking kills” t-shirt), I can’t take any more second hand embarrassment watching this. Instead, I’m going to go do some hardcore criminal activity, like walk outside of a crosswalk or share my Netflix password, and maybe someone will make an anime about it.

Gee’s verdict: Toothless

I don’t think I’ve watched a piece of urban fiction so devoid of personality as Ikebukuro West Gate Park. Despite its framework of supposedly portraying the hard streets of Tokyo, it’s an anime with none of the tension, menace, or personality of its better peers. In fact, there’s a lot of great works that do a great job of capturing this, whether its the long tradition of Yakuza media to the more modern school delinquents genre. IWGP is clearly taking more after Western gang culture and flubs it at every possible turn. In these kind of stories, the city itself is as much a member of the cast. You mess that up, and it becomes that much harder to care about the characters struggling in said city. One of the most prevalent themes of urban fiction is that the city is a constant pressure cooker. It pushes people to their best and worst moments, all in a concentrated microcosm of society. The city creates culture, a loose sense of identity, and even a sense of rueful camaraderie shared with your fellow inhabitants, who on some level, have an intrinsic understanding of your struggles.

IWGP has none of this. Even being charitable, it feels like a theme park version of urban life. One written by middle aged men whose only understanding of the streets is having watched 10 minutes of Boyz n the Hood and seeing the cover of a Busta Rhymes album. This extends from its completely forgettable soundtrack to its narrative themes. Look, I’m not going to get into the drug problem of the inner city, it’s a complex issue and one I’m not remotely equipped to tackle in a Japanese anime blogpost. However, I can say that it is laughable for a piece of fiction to portray the feds as losing the war on drugs in two-thousand-fucking-twenty. A gang of well meaning delinquent youths taking a strong stance against something as pedestrian as marijuana is so naive to an American viewer that it’s impossible to take seriously. It’s maybe the singular thing in this whole anime that really reveals Japan’s hilariously archaic drug culture.

Japan has made some great works about crime. The Yakuza series, Holyland, hell, even Durarara! does a better job of capturing the unique essence of life in the city. IWGP does not.

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