The world of mid-’80s to early ’90s anime OVAs was a wild time, to say the least. Whereas OVAs are now usually supplementary material for an existing series, studios used to produce two- to four-episode direct-to-video releases of any relatively popular manga, video game, or novel during the height of the bubble economy. Such was the case with Mad Bull 34, a manga by Inoue Noriyoshi and the prolific Koike Kazuo, which received a four-episode OVA series in 1990. This OVA is easily one of my favorite pieces of Japanese animation.
Mad Bull 34 tells the story of two police officers who fight crime in a fictionalized 34th precinct of New York City. They are the fresh-out-the-academy, strait-laced Daizaburo “Eddie” Ban and his seasoned partner, John “Sleepy” Estes, known as “Mad Bull” to his enemies. Sleepy is a towering hulk of an officer who feels more like myth than man and appears to only be fueled by a desire to kill and have sex. From that description, it’s easy to see how Daizaburo and Sleepy fit the relationship dynamics found in the sub-genre of buddy-cop action movies.
Buddy-cop movies are probably my favorite flavor of action movies, featuring classic titles such as Bad Boys, Rush Hour, and Lethal Weapon. The formula follows a straight man character who follows the rules partnering up with a rad dude who tossed his rulebook down a sewer grate the day he got it. The two thwart bad guys through a combination of car chases, explosions and, occasionally, martial arts.
These tropes are so satisfying to me, probably because I’ve always been interested in polarizing character dynamics, and so much of the common buddy-cop formula involves throwing our dual protagonists into situations that really flesh out their opposing viewpoints and forces them to come to a sometimes hilarious compromise. Also, who doesn’t love seeing things blow up? An area where Mad Bull 34 does not disappoint in the least. Mad Bull 34 cranks up the absurd action of buddy-cop movies in a way only the animated medium can.
Mad Bull is high octane ultra-violence and crass humor sharpened to a fine point. Similar to the action movies it borrows its aesthetic and setting from, it’s less of a narrative and more of a showcase of all the wild things Sleepy does in pursuit of the law. Throughout the three-hour OVA series, we witness Sleepy decapitate a mob boss with a table, flip over a tank with his bare hands, pull down his pants to reveal he’s tied grenades to his pubes, and absolutely slay it in high heels and a slit dress.
Conversely, Sleepy’s partner Daizaburo really doesn’t do much in terms of action set pieces. He spends most of the first episode looking shocked whenever Sleepy turns a criminal into a red mist with shotgun shells and, from there, aside from some short character moments in later episodes, such as getting viciously beaten by a group of mobsters to save the woman he loves, he’s relegated to just exclaiming “SLEEPY!” whenever his partner goes off the rails.
As much as I love Mad Bull, however, the show and its genre are not free of serious criticism. The main issue is something that I’ve started to notice in not just Mad Bull 34 but buddy-cop movies as a whole: the glorification of police officers who circumvent the rules, as well as police brutality in general. It’s a formula we see very often: a cop who “doesn’t play by the rules” causes property damage, maims civilians, and murders criminals with impunity. All they ever face is a quick slap on the wrist from their superior officer if they’re reprimanded at all.
Loose cannon cops make for a delightfully fun addition to action movies; however, that is not the kind of law enforcement officer you want roaming the streets in reality. It also doesn’t help that Mad Bull takes place in New York City, an area that has a noteworthy history of police abusing their authority, particularly amongst marginalized communities. These communities are often painted as lawless wastelands in media both domestically and abroad. Anime with stories based in the U.S., such as Mad Bull, fully buy into this depiction.
New York City did have its fair share of crime in the 1980s. Reports from 1980 clocked in around 700,000 crimes in that year alone, with many criminologists and even the police commissioner at the time citing it as one of the city’s worst years in terms of crime. That reputation has often been used by law enforcement, politicians, and citizens as reasoning to argue for a tough stance on crime.
But “tough on crime” too often means police being allowed to abuse their authority. This leads to certain communities facing harsher enforcement, unnecessary incarceration, and even murder, while those in the police force responsible for these injustices get away with little or any punishment.
Mad Bull 34 justifies Sleepy’s “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude from episode one when he is introduced to his partner. Daizaburo is initially quick to chastise Sleepy over killing robbers and rapists without even considering the idea of arresting them. But that all quickly goes out the window, because Sleepy always miraculously has a justification for everything he does.
The most noticeable of these events is when Sleepy and Daizaburo investigate a series of rapes involving a ladies-only shooting range. After the pair infiltrate the range disguised as women, they come across an undercover journalist about to be assaulted by the proprietors of the shooting range. Sleepy proceeds to mow down the assailants with zero warning, even after his partner explicitly tells him not to beforehand.
When both Daizaburo and the victim, who planned to expose the criminals with the aid of the film crew hiding nearby, ask why Sleepy chose to immediately go for execution instead of arrest, Sleepy explains he deduced through his finely tuned police instincts that they were planning to kill the journalist and the crew hiding in the bushes with the machine guns they were hiding in their jackets (machine guns that Sleepy had no way of knowing they had, unless he had X-ray vision).
The episode ends with Daizaburo being interviewed by internal investigations, asking if Sleepy is fit to be a police officer considering his penchant for straight-up murder. Daizaburo uses the same justifications Sleepy initially gave to him when he criticized his partner. His testimony ultimately saves Sleepy’s job.
Later episodes further justify Sleepy’s actions by pitting him against adversaries where proper police procedure is not an option. He goes up against diabetic assassins who put C4 in coffee cans, Chinese death cults, and a copyright-lawsuit-safe knockoff of the Predator.
Just like how crime in marginalized communities is used to excuse police taking an excessively harsh approach to law enforcement in the real world, Mad Bull takes a similar approach. Much like how Sleepy’s actions seem fine when he needs to stop the cyborg mob boss, people will argue that police violence is necessary to prevent crime.
Fear-mongering is historically an effective tool when it comes to letting law enforcement get away with whatever they want. An example of this is the increased presence of police officers in New York City subway stations. This has become a cause for concern in recent years, as there has been an increase of officers using excessive physical force on citizens for the simple offense of jumping turnstiles to avoid the subway fare. Many New Yorkers are citing this as reason to reduce police presence at subway stops, with others arguing that we need police in those areas for protection from gang violence, terrorism, and sexual assault.
Violent criminals aside, Sleepy is also guilty of harassing and abusing sex workers. He regularly exploits sex workers as a pimp who controls all prostitution in the 34th precinct. He’ll visit prostitutes, have sex with them, and then steal their money. The women in question are powerless to do anything about it since he’s not only a police officer but a 10-foot-tall beast-man who shakes off gunfire and explosions as minor inconveniences. Even when Daizaburo insists that a woman report Sleepy, she quickly recoils and refuses to go to the authorities.
Even this is quickly justified when it’s revealed that Sleepy donates that money to a women’s shelter and a sexually transmitted diseases clinic. See kids, it’s fine that Sleepy steals money from marginalized sex workers who have no way to oppose him, because he uses an unspecified amount of that money for philanthropy. It’s all good!
The reality is that sex workers do face abuse from the police. In two separate studies conducted by the Urban Justice League of New York City, 17% of the sex workers interviewed admitted to being sexually harassed or abused by a police officer. Additionally, Metropolitan cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. regularly engage in excessive policing operations to keep sex workers and the homeless away from public view, further silencing their plight and makes them even more vulnerable to abuses of power.
Mad Bull 34 and the buddy-cop action movies it borrows from are certainly not the only stories that paint those who skirt the rules as heroes and those who adhere to rules and procedure as big old dorks. Tons of movies and TV shows have characters who don’t give a damn, but still come out on top. That can work when we talk about people who work in relatively low-stakes jobs with minimal power, such as supermarket employees, servers in restaurants, or clerks at video stores, but not so much for police officers.
I seriously wish I had deeper reasoning for why I love Mad Bull 34, despite its problematic nature. Unfortunately, all I can say is that it’s awesome. Mad Bull 34 is one of the finest examples of the wild ‘90s OVAs that got many US fans into anime. It still stands as one of my favorites, so much so that I immediately pre-ordered it when I learned Discotek was putting it on DVD.
At the end of the day, I feel like all you can really do is acknowledge the problems present in your favorite media while you scream: “Fuck yeah! Grenade Jockstrap!”