Project Mayhem

Detective Yosuke Kobayashi is losing his mind. A malicious killer has been mailing him dismembered parts of his murdered girlfriend. The shock drives Yosuke over the edge – he tracks the criminal down and slays him himself. On trial for the revenge killing, his personality cracks up and he claims to be a psychological profiler called Kazuhiko Amamiya. Released after years in prison, the disgraced and still troubled man finds a job doing the only work he knows: as a freelance private eye where his conflicting identities can at least do what they do best. That’s right, he teams up with himself. Until one fateful day, when Yosuke begins to suspect the unthinkable, that there is yet another personality in his shattered psyche, a brash, violent identity that calls itself Shinji Nishizono, and which may be responsible for the very murder case that the other identities are trying to solve.

In the late 1990s, as The X-Files made spooky forensic procedurals the new TV cool, and David Fincher’s Se7en did likewise in the cinemas, Japanese writers responded with their own variants. 1997’s Gift starred Takuya Kimura as an amnesiac courier. 1998’s Sleeping Forest starred Miho Nakayama as a girl whose true self has been buried beneath a false personality since a childhood trauma. 1999’s Unsolved Cases featured Mulder-and-Scully lookalikes trailing the perpetrators of gory crimes. And then, in 2000, the WOWOW channel screened MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) Psycho.

The story had been around for a while, first premiering in manga form some three years earlier in Shonen Ace magazine. MPD Psycho the manga was written by Eiji Otsuka, but drawn by Sho-u Tajima, an artist best known for the anime and manga Madara, and for the distinctive character designs in Production IG’s Kai Doh Maru. The manga didn’t pull any of its punches, with infamously graphic depictions of violence and torture. It was hardly the kind of thing likely to be picked up for Japanese terrestrial TV. However, the more forgiving satellite networks found a home for it.

In a tip of the hat to Fight Club, Takashi Miike’s TV version begins inside its protagonist’s brain, riding along his sparking synapses as he duels with his mental problems. Credited with adapting Otsuka’s treatment himself, Miike rearranges some elements of the original story. The above synopsis is taken from the manga, whereas the TV variant keeps the girlfriend around for a while after Yosuke’s personality starts to fall apart.

Despite this major change, many of Otsuka’s grotesque crimes remain: a massacre at a Catholic girls’ school, a woman who kidnaps foetuses from their doomed mothers, and a victim found with a missing brain replaced by flowers. Needless to say, such twists forever confine MPD Psycho to the late-night slot, where its six episodes played to an audience of shocked channel-surfers.

Fresh from directing the infamous movie Audition, Miike continues to play with the notion that everything might be a surreal hallucination, shooting one scene in MPD Psycho on a beach littered with half-buried iMac computers, and deliberately lighting his actors to suffuse them with bright, unreal colors.

In the leading role of Yosuke (and Kazuhiko, and Shinji), Miike cast Naoki Hosaka, an actor who was no stranger to living manga. Other comic adaptations in which Hosaka has starred include the sorcerous Master of Yin and Yang, and four seasons of Miike’s long-running Salaryman Kintaro series. But playing Yosuke and his other identities creates triple the demand for an actor – what’s the betting that Hosaka was still only paid for one role…?

The sleuthing finally pays off when Yosuke, his other personality, and his fellow investigators find a university under siege. The students give the Nazi salute to their principal, and spend their lunch breaks marching in the school yard – someone has been tampering with their brains, and it turns out to be the same individual who is behind other incidents in Tokyo. It’s only with the case of the students that Yosuke realises greater forces are at work. What first appeared to be isolated incidents are all part of a larger plan, steered by Lucy Monostone (Tetsuo’s Tomorowo Taniguchi), a religious cult leader who recruits killers from his followers, replacing one eye in each recruit with nifty a barcode crystal that allows him to control them remotely.

MPD Psycho’s run on TV was surprisingly short, and the story continued in print form, albeit no longer as a manga, and in a different publication to the one that birthed it. In later years, after the TV version brought in an audience with weaker stomachs, the series continued in serial novel form in the Japanese edition of Newtype. Creator Otsuka worked on the principle that pictures really weren’t necessary, not when the readers could use their imaginations to produce images scarier than anything an artist could imagine. Or at least, that’s what Eiji Otsuka claimed. Some say he was in two minds about it.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA, September 2004)

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