JudgeMore old school manga madness from Japan. This film is too short and rather cheesy, but it’s also interesting and imaginative, with an otherworldly judge doting out gruesome punishments to evildoers.

JUDGE (YAMI NO SHIHOKAN: JUDGE), released on VHS and DVD in the U.S. by Central Park Media, emanated from 1991. At just 50 minutes it’s extremely short, and may have been intended as the start of a series that never got underway. I’m unaware of JUDGE’S standing among anime buffs, but with me it ranks pretty high.

Murakami is a hunky corporate lackey embezzling millions of dollars from his company. Ohma is a nerdy employee of said company who’s banging Miss Yamamoto, who is herself involved in the embezzlement scheme. In order to keep her quiet Murakami kills Miss Yamamoto and makes the murder look like a suicide.

But then Murakami dies in a car accident and winds up on an otherworldly plain, standing before a man who identifies himself as the Judge of Darkness—or simply Judge—but who is actually Ohma in another guise. Judge, who has a demonic bird companion and a law book made of human skin, decrees that Murakmi’s body be wrapped up and suffocated.

Shortly after this the company CEO Yamanobe dies during a tropical vacation, shot by guerillas funded by the slimy Kawamata, his longtime “best friend.” Kawamata is visited by an otherworldly attorney who offers to defend his soul…for a fee, of course! Judge is nonplussed by this attorney’s existence, but the latter takes Judge on in a supernatural showdown and bests him.

In order to appear before the Judge of Darkness and his ten kings of the underworld, Kawamata will have to be killed. This he is, and appears before a court in which Yamanobe’s soul is called up to defend himself and Kawamata is forced to stare into a mirror that reflects back his true self. This mirror image not only admits to planning Yamanobe’s death but also strangles Kawamata to death! Back in the here-and-now Kawamata’s corpse is found with his hands clamped to his neck.

In true old school anime fashion, the animation is choppy and perfunctory, particularly in comparison to today’s far slicker models. The lame-assed synthesizer score is another unfortunate mainstay of old school anime, as are the constant explosions, martial arts duels, copious gore and soft-core sex (this is, keep in mind, very much an example of adult anime). The storytelling isn’t particularly erudite or coherent, with an extremely complicated, dialogue-heavy narrative and quite a few distracting viewpoint shifts.

Yet it can’t be said that director Hiroshi Negishi doesn’t make the most of his limited running time, or the wildly imaginative script. The concept of an otherworldly Judge of Darkness is a compelling one, and the 10 kings of the underworld who turn up near the end are arresting creations (although they get precious little screen time). An entire series could be made from this material, and indeed should have, as this 50-minute film plays like a promising warm-up to bigger and better things.

Vital Statistics

Fujihiko Hosono/Futaba-sha/Central Park Media

Director: Hiroshi Negishi
Screenplay: Fujihiko Hosono
Cinematography: Akihiko Takahashi
Cast: Kaneto Shiozawa, Miki Ito, Tomomichi Nishimura, Issei Futamata