A retrospective on The Skull Man (2007)

…now that Henshin History’s coverage of it is complete.

Van here! I don’t know if I’ll do this for every series we cover, but! I wanted to sit down one last time and try and piece the plot together, given how disjointed the anime ended up being.

Because, seriously: Who is Tatsuo Kagura?

Tatsuo Kagura in the 1970 manga was an amoral, gleeful killer. In the 1998 followup, he’s a more penitent antihero (though still an arrogant brat). In the 2007 anime reboot, he’s gone. Tatsuo’s face and his deeds from the original manga play through the opening animation; a blink-and-you-miss-it flashback shows a young boy with a concealed face escaping the destruction of his home — and that’s it, your only on-screen confirmation that Tatsuo ever really existed. At the very end, Maya calls out for her brother, but at that point, both Maya and the man she’s calling to are so distorted and confused that you can’t trust what either of them are saying.

Yet Tatsuo’s presence haunts the show. The city officials either scoff at the legends of his ghost, or they fear his reprisal. The head of Ootomo Pharmaceuticals, Gozo Kuroshio, uses Tatsuo’s legacy as a cover for his hired assassin.  The foundations of Ootomo City are built on the Kagura family’s works — literally. Various buildings and business bear the Kagura name, or they used to. The cult that has Ootomo City in its grip originates from an artifact that Tatsuo’s father, Tatsuyuki Kagura unearthed; the Gagou, the monster-forms that the cultists take, all originate from the skull mask.

(It might have been Ootomo’s treachery that turned Tatsuo into the original Skull Man and inspired his desire for revenge, but it was the Skull’s power that turned Ootomo into what it is.)

So where did that little boy go?

The anime starts out with this mystery: Who is the Skull Man, if he’s not Tatsuo? And in that case, where is Tatsuo Kagura?

The show eventually answers the first question (discarding candidates like Masaki, Akira, Jin, even Tatsuo’s actual ghost) with Father Yoshio Kanzaki, a priest traumatized by his experiences as a wartime chaplain. This reveal comes with… very little fanfare, almost overshadowed by the military coup and the introduction of Van Vogt and his killer clownbots.

As for the second question…

Maya’s stepfather Gozo tells her that “Tatsuo died when you were very young […] he’s not your brother anymore.” This tells us nothing — Gozo is either lying or mistaken about the former, and as for the latter, Gozo thinks the Skull Man is his illegitimate son. Maya is becoming more detached from reality at this point, and Gozo may just be trying to gently bring her back to earth.

Akira Usami claims for a hot second that he is Tatsuo Kagura, but (I suspect) Akira has been driven mad by the Voice of God (something that ends up a bit glossed over, but it appears to be an audio waveform based on the sound created by the White Bell pendants, which is beyond human hearing and affects the minds of people who have been turned into Gagou). Akira also dies basically immediately.

The boy in the flashback was taken in by a priest, who was Kanzaki’s predecessor at the church. Kanzaki was raised in the church orphanage and given guardianship of the Skull mask by his predecessor, and took up the mask to kill the Gagou created by the White Bell cult. He also has a close friendship with Maya. So, obvious, right?

Except there’s Hayato. Hayato’s memories are inexplicably blurry, but he was also raised in the church orphanage. From the eavesdropped conversation, Hayato’s adopted father was also working for the pharmaceutical company, and also secretly assassinated… just like Tatsuyuki. Gozo goes out of his way to protect Hayato, and — looking back… why is Hayato so obsessed with the Skull Man legend, really? The other two people who appeared to be seeking the legend (Kiriko and Tachigi) both had additional agendas; could Hayato have subconscious reasons of his own?

(And if Hayato is not an amnesiac Tatsuo, then why is he amnesiac at all?)

And there’s the Skull itself. The Skull has a will and personality of its own — the moment Hayato takes up the mantle, he begins to experience flashbacks and memories that don’t belong to him, and to say things that an illiterate thug like Hayato Mikogami would never say. The Skull has an iron grip on its wielders — Kanzaki wanted the curse to die with him, but how much of that was Kanzaki wanting to bear this burden so nobody else would have to, or because the Skull wouldn’t let Kanzaki be free?

Could Tatsuo have been consumed by the Skull, several years ago, and his ghost is now haunting the mask and its wielders?

The show gives no definite answer.

Our problem with the show is not that it doesn’t have an answer. Our problem is that it shoots for subtlety — and misses the mark completely and lands right in “completely obtuse.” The anime cuts abruptly from scene to scene, setting up the city politics and the behind-the-curtain scheming and some truly baffling alternate-history details, while the main characters and their own development fall by the wayside.

You’re expected to be able to follow multiple different threads running at once, yet you rarely get solid introductions for half the cast — people aren’t clearly namedropped, several male characters look like each other to set them up as candidates for Skull Man’s alter ego. You aren’t allowed to get a sense of knowing who the major players are.

The most prominent villain of the show, the one who gets the big might-makes-right speech and turns into the big muscle monsterman at the end? We never know for sure what his deal is. On my first watch, I barely knew who he was even into the final episode. Was Masaki legit once, and learning about the Skull’s power seduced him into evil? Did his resentment over being the unrecognized son turn him against Gozo, and his involvement with the military was meant to ruin Ootomo City and topple Gozo’s house of cards? The answer is, “Yes, probably — but the show refuses to connect these dots.”

Then the show makes the jarring transition from “supernatural murder mystery” into “military political thriller” in the last quarter, leaving the initial overarching mysteries in the dust. It falls into the trap of using cameos as prominent characters: Suddenly, the references overtake the work, and if you don’t pick up on every easter egg, good luck trying to follow what’s going on. And it’s not even that easy to follow even if you do recognize these characters! You really should not need to watch a show frame-by-frame to get any understanding of its basic plot.

The thing is: The show could have made all of these elements work. Its failing was trying to pack all of them into a 13-episode-long can of sardines. Hayato’s downfall, and his alienation from Kiriko and Shinjou, doesn’t hit as hard as it ought to, because everything is so incredibly rushed. Part of the reason I flipped my lid over the Akira Usami episodes was because, if given enough space to breathe, they could have been fantastic at foreshadowing the events of the finale and drip-feeding more hints about Tatsuo Kagura’s true fate. Instead, once Akira was killed, all you got was a sense of wasted time.

And there’s more things that could have been fixed, like Kiriko’s characterization. Kiriko’s history as a resistance member could have been interesting — if only it ever came up in any capacity whatsoever aside from as leverage to use against her brother Jin.

And Kiriko’s status as Joe’s mother is… just silly? And super gross because she’s so young? If you really needed a cameo, a better reveal would have been for one of the younger church orphans, perhaps a little boy who always lurked in the background and revealed at the epilogue to be tiny kiddo Joe. Or if he has to be Hayato’s son, how about have Nami survive and escape the city? Anyway…

The question, “Who is Tatsuo Kagura?” goes unanswered, because the show’s intent was for his fate to remain murky.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story is just as opaque.

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