At first the setting of Strait Jacket appears to be somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century. There are steam trains, industrial factories and lots of quaint architecture. But despite this homeliness, in the world of Strait Jacket magic is a common but vital technology that has been harnessed by humans and is used in everything from agriculture to medicine. It’s a potentially great concept and visually the world is well developed, seamlessly blending the technology and look of several decades from the twentieth century with the bulky metal of Japanese science fiction technology. But there’s a grave danger to using magic. It requires the use of a body shell called a ‘mold’ to prevent a magic user from mutating. If the mold fails, the sorcerer transforms into a monster called a demon. These demons are giant nightmarish creatures that kill everyone they encounter. On top of that, they aren’t harmed by conventional weaponry – but can only be killed by magic. Despite this risk, magic remains an important technology. In order to quickly destroy any demons who appear, there exists a combat squad of magic users known as Strait Jackets.
Note that none of the above story details are plot spoilers. Most of this information is explained in a voice over in the first few minutes of the film. Indeed, the first twenty minutes of the film is all about explaining the concept in the most exciting way possible: by showing a demon attack. Demons are truly monstrous things full of too many eyes and teeth. Each demon takes on a different form but they’re all grotesque, powerful and able to dismember a person in seconds. Some flaws aside, the first twenty minutes contains some pretty good filmmaking. It begins as a routine workday and ends with tension, horror and action – all while thoroughly introducing us to the world of Strait Jacket.
Sadly, once the film has explained its premise it doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself and the next hour of storytelling becomes aimless. There are three main characters in the film: Nerin Simmons (voice by Ai Maeda) from the Magic Administration Office, an expert Strait Jacket called Issac Hammond (voiced by Akira Sasanuma) and Rayotte Steinberg, an illegally-operating freelance Strait Jacket (voiced by Sinichiro Miki). One of the big problems is that the film doesn’t know which character to focus on and spends uneven amounts of time with each while forgetting to develop the story. On top of that there are storytelling problems all over the place in Ichiro Sakai’s script. For instance there’s a terrorist organisation called Ottoman that is purposely sabotaging molds to create demons. But just why Ottoman does what they do is explained offhand with vague references to some kind of “revolution” and “ideals” without ever giving us a proper explanation that makes sense. On top of that the ring-leader of Ottoman is actually one of the main characters – but their identity as the Ottoman ring-leader is revealed long before they’re introduced as a character, thus missing a prime opportunity for surprise or mystery. In addition the film relies too heavily on having characters tell you what the story is meant to be instead of actually showing us the story. Confusingly, what the characters explain the story to be doesn’t seem to be the case from an audience perspective. We’re told that Rayotte is a tormented sinner who seems to be seeking self destruction – but we don’t see the character act like that at all. Instead Rayotte seems to just be an indifferent cool-guy type of character. Worse still is when the characters go into monologue-mode and attempt to preach about what everything means.
But despite what characters may say, this is not a meaningful film. From its promising concept, Strait Jacket becomes an average, generic anime. Even the animation is generic. There’s no sense that the animators have invested themselves into creating unique characters and there is barely an attempt at a performance. Where there should be a personality and life the animation consists only of familiar stock poses and stock gestures. On top of that there’s plenty of bland dialogue sequences of still characters with flickering mouths. The voice acting too is similarly lacking character – both in the original Japanese and in the English dub. On a curious side note there’s a surround sound English soundtrack and a stereo Japanese soundtrack – so either way you’re either missing out on something; either the original language or surround sound. There are no DVD extras either, aside from a handful of trailers for other anime.
On the one hand, Strait Jacket has monster hunting and magic combat going for it. But it also lacks character performances, narrative direction and an ending that isn’t full of several, easy-to-spot plot holes. Despite what potential the film had, Strait Jacket is average. If it weren’t for the grating monologue about what it’s all suppose to mean, it could be called unoffensively average.
Strait Jacket is available now on DVD.