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"Yugo the Negotiator": The Man with the Golden Tongue

by on August 9, 2005

Although there are a number of anime with very original execution, most can comfortably be pigeonholed in one of the popular genres like sci-fi, comedy, romance, or horror. Which is to say, genres that are easily digestible for the core teen audience. So it is both a treat and a shock to encounter an anime as thoroughly different as Yugo the Negotiator. Part cultural odyssey, part human drama, and part political thriller, it stubbornly resists neat categorization.

The series began as a highly popular manga in 1994 that continues today. The title character, Yugo Beppu, is an ace hostage negotiator in Japan, where apparently it’s not a very lucrative profession. Based on real-life freelancers and set very firmly in reality, it jumps from hot spot to hot spot as Yugo uses his skills to defuse tense conflicts. The storyline, which is sufficiently adult and sophisticated that it might be more at home on HBO than Cartoon Network, is carried by excellent writing that sidesteps most anime conventions. Frequently unpredictable, the show gradually ratchets up the suspense until the viewer is engrossed both in Yugo’s world and how he will survive it.

All that being said, the release of this series by ADV Films is a very ambitious move. This is certainly not the sort of title the market is used to. It’s deadly serious; it so far has a primarily Muslim cast; and it begins with two episodes that are primarily a long string of conversations. Will consumers be willing to take the plunge? Perhaps ADV is gambling that they will be intrigued by the similarity to current events. Whatever the result, I commend ADV on making this sort of unusual title available, and I hope others follow.

Our story begins in episode 1, “Negotiator,” when a young woman, Mayuko Iwase, recruits Yugo to rescue her kidnapped father from insurgents in Pakistan after negotiations break down. Yugo stresses to her that it is critical that he act independently so as not to be colored by an association with the local military. He is also haunted by a failed hostage negotiation that ended in a friend’s death, and he is determined to make this one a success.

“Resolve” finds Yugo in Karachi, Pakistan, where he hunts down Haji Rahmani, the only sheik in the province not killed by the vicious kidnapper Yusuf Ali Mesa. He learns that Ali made off with one of Haji’s subordinates’ wives, compelling him to protect her and fight for his honor. Ali spared Haji’s life only because he had made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca and branded him a coward instead. Yugo reasons that this gives him the right to face Ali for Mayuko’s sake and try to reclaim Haji’s lost honor.

In “Contact,” as Yugo and a mute peasant girl named Laila travel by a merchant’s camel-drawn cart toward Ali’s hideout, a nearby military base intercepts his radio transmission to Mayuko. At night a patrol stops them on suspicion of being rebels, but they manage to appease them with the merchant’s cargo. Once safe, the enraged merchant tells Yugo to walk, and despite Yugo’s protests Laila joins him. They stagger through the scorching desert dodging army patrols.

It’s well known that the Japanese government is much more disposed to negotiate over hostage situations than most western nations, particularly the U.S. Most recently they were engaged in endless negotiations with North Korea for the release of Japanese citizens kidnapped years ago. So Yugo’s determination to resolve crises without force is an apt expression of the national character. I wonder if this 2004 anime is not in some way a response to the aggressive tactics of the “coalition of the willing” that have generally soured Japanese public opinion. Not that it is actually connected to the current “war on terror,” but the similarities are unmistakable.

Yugo is definitely an interesting character, cool and collected on the surface but deeper than most anime heroes. Although his compassionate, non-violent approach to conflict resolution and reverence for other cultures are typical enough, he is not one of those self-righteous blowhards prone to lecturing. In addition, his slight imperfections make him a refreshingly human hero. In a scene where his hands are tied he uses his mouth MacGyver style to cram a rock into his captor’s gun barrel to cause a misfire, only to find this effort completely ineffective. In another he notices Laila following him through the blazing sun and on the point of collapse from heat exhaustion, but he keeps going and deliberates for some time before deciding to share his water with her.

At this point Yugo is really a one-man show. Certainly there is a healthy cast of colorful supporting characters, but so far they are limited to glorified cameos. Among them are his cocky tech wizard pal Kogure, the helpful, knowledgeable journalist Rashid, and the beautiful, demure Laila, but they’re more like a pit crew than fellow drivers. Across the board the dialogue is very solid and mature and usually avoids the obvious. The English dub is quite solid outside of Yugo himself, whose low-key, lethargic delivery seems more appropriate for Dirty Harry.

Although it does contain a few tense action scenes, one of Yugo‘s most compelling aspects is its rich attention to detail. It feels as if a lot of research went into the background design, clothing, customs, religion, and so on. Indeed, manga creator Shinji Makari and artist Shu Akana made several visits to Pakistan for research. It’s often easy to forget you’re watching animation, and I found it fascinating to observe the various aspects of daily life in this country I know so shamefully little about.

The highly realistic 2D animation is excellent all around. The characters faithfully represent their nationalities, with Yugo one of the most Japanese-looking characters I’ve ever seen in anime. The score is appropriately full of Asian sounds which I will assume in my ignorance are at home in Pakistan.

Although the special features look superb on paper, the reality is considerably less impressive. There are interviews with Makari and Akana, directors Seiji Kishi and Shinya Hanai (Initial D), and Yugo’s voice Takashi Hagino, but they are all extremely brief and reveal very little. They are followed by a tortuously long commentary on the accuracy of Yugo‘s depiction of Pakistan from ADR director Scott McClennen and “cultural advisor” Nawaz Charania. Although this sounds like a fascinating feature, McClennen’s questions are endlessly repetitive and trivial, and Charania doesn’t have much detail to give anyway. Instead of examining the prevailing political climate we get speculation on what sort of fruit might be in that basket in the corner. The best feature proves to be the insert, which contains a helpful glossary and map and another brief interview with Makari.

Yugo the Negotiator is not the same old anime, and I’m not sure whether it will appeal to the same old anime fans. I can strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys intelligent suspense and drama. If films like Seven Years in Tibet and, well, The Negotiator are your cup of tea, then you won’t want to miss Yugo. And don’t worry. No card games are involved.

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