Channel 4’s late night Manga mania

Channel 4 was the coolest station back when only four channels were available. Sky didn’t count because we couldn’t afford it. So four channels were our entire world of television, but really, did we need anything more than Channel 4? The Big Breakfast, The Priory, The Divine David Presents, Eurotrash, The Ricki Lake Show, the various American imports, and better still, the Japanese imports. A lifeline of hyper-frenzied animation, lines, and motion so quick you could almost feel the whoosh of it. Late nights were given over to ultra-violent cartoons blasting fast at the speed of gasp. Their soundtracks were loud, their characters willing to kill, and each death was rendered in slick, hot, gory beauty. The first of these TV shows was Cyber City Oedo 808. I’d never seen anything like it: three criminals in a futuristic city are made to work for the government with the promise of freedom if they complete their missions. They are Sengoku, the cool one. Gogou, the hacker. Benten, an androgynous weapons expert. I watched each week, obsessed, loving this new thing that would lead to other new things. That’s the best part, isn’t it? When you have a whole new world to find and the means to look into it.

Cyber City lasted three episodes and Channel Four decided to show more Manga in the same slot. Next up came Legend of the Four Kings. The original title is Sohryuden: Legend of the Dragon Kings, but somehow Channel Four decided that didn’t sound exciting enough. Not that I knew this until years later. For me, it’ll always be Legend of the Four Kings. The soundtrack is different in the UK edition too. There’s no such thing as an anime with a bad soundtrack. If there is, I’ve never seen it. Legend of the Four Kings tells the story of four brothers in modern-day Japan, each one the Earthly reincarnation of four dragons who ruled the world. They have powers normal humans don’t, but all they want to do is live in peace. Hajime, Tsusuku, Owaru and Amaru spend each episode fighting off villains as evil and complex as Gozen of Kamakura, the diabolical Dr. Tamozawa, the seductive and brilliant Lady L, and her masters The Four Sisters. Lore overload! But I thrived on all the little details, the glossy action, and ridiculous setpieces. When that theme music started, I vanished into the television.

Eventually, the next step is to go out and discover more of the same. I bought some VHS cassettes from Our Price and Tower Records, which gave me the trailers for other Manga I didn’t know. How many times did I sit through the Cowboy Bebop advert? “Now with a happening soundtrack by Yello!” Patlabor? Fist of the North Star? Ghost in the Shell? Guyver? I wrote them all down, stuck the piece of paper next to my new Manga magazine, and departed into town the next morning. Obviously, I couldn’t afford them all. I had to buy what was the cheapest. I ran to sales like a runner on his final race. Videos cost thirteen pounds, sometimes twenty if you bought out of Forbidden Planet. I never did. My goodness, my mum would have killed me for spending that on a tape.

Eventually, I fell away from Manga. Like Channel Four, I had moved on to other things. College, mostly. Sitting around libraries or cafes listening to CDs on my player, reading books, chatting with friends, and laughing about stuff I didn’t really find funny. Years later, I’ve started watching Legend of the Four Kings again, mostly enjoying it even though the animation is definitely a little dated. Manga is no longer a little cult thing but a huge industry. Entire platforms hold dedicated content for lovers of hyper-real Japanese animation. Masterpieces have been made from the genre, with Akira and Perfect Blue slowly finding their way to the west in the form as yet unmade remakes. Ghost in the Shell got the big screen treatment. Cowboy Bebop was recently adapted for Netflix. None of these have worked for me like the original animated movies, but I love the thought of new generations finding them online the way I did when I pressed a button on my remote control and stumbled onto a late-night cartoon. It isn’t how we find something we love that matters because we all get there in different ways. It’s where that love takes us, how it leads to other movies, music, books, and magazines. Better still, you can find fans everywhere, mostly online, which feels really apt for Manga. Sadly, you don’t get these cartoons on terrestrial television anymore. TV now feels slightly hegemonic alongside hundreds of dedicated channels. I think ultimately, that’s where my recent newfound sentimentality for Legend of the Four Kings and Cyber City Oedo 808 come from… a sense that as I get older, new things aren’t as easy to discover, certainly not the way I did with Manga or, say, Doctor Who. They’re elsewhere, scattered in different apps. These apps have tremendous advantages and power over old tech. Bandcamp, for example, is essential to me as a fan of music – but the romance of pressing a button, modulating a signal, boosting it through a crappy antenna outside the house on a wall, and suddenly finding yourself something really cool and exciting still stays with me now. Every time I type Legend of the Four Kings into YouTube, I’m doing it because back in the mid-nineties, I found it all on Channel 4’s Late Licence, a tribute to the power of television, one of the greatest powers in the world.

3 responses to “Channel 4’s late night Manga mania”

  1. I swear they showed Akira, but I must have missed it. Years later, friends have said as much. Channel 4 definitely isn’t as counterculture as it was back then, sadly.

  2. This is so great. And so true. Channel 4 felt so transgressive back in the day. Did they screen Akira too? Pretty sure they did. I know it was a milder anime but I liked it so much. Also, Oriental cinema like The Heroic Trio and Chungking Express. Wonderful.

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