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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ayakashi ~Japanese Classic Horror~: Goblin Cat: Riddle Me This, Riddle Me That... Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Cat?

Two-thirds of Ayakashi out of the way, and only three episodes to go. Even though this final story in the anthology horror series is the shortest, it's also become the most well known & beloved part of the entire series, so much so that I'm sure most anime fans who know of this last story don't even know the names of the other two stories. Part of the reason for this notoriety is because of the extremely distinct visual style these three episodes utilize, and the other part is because this story is the major directorial debut of a man who has quickly come to be known as one of the most visually entrancing anime directors of the present day. Finishing up Ayakashi is the sole original creation of the series: Bakeneko/Goblin Cat.

It's the arranged marriage day for Mao Sakai, whose marriage will help with her family's financial troubles. While the last bits of preparations are finishing up, a nameless Medicine Seller comes to the house & tries to sell some medicines that will help with Mao's (gocha gocha gocha). He's denied, but shortly afterwards Mao falls dead upon exiting the house, in front of her family. It looks as if she was stabbed by something, and while everyone panics the Medicine Seller senses supernatural danger. He's tied up for being suspicious, but when a servant who was sent out to get a doctor for Mao crashes through the ceiling in a bloody mess, the Seller removes the ropes & sets up barrier seals. He tells the family that a mononoke, a bakeneko specifically, has invaded their home & that he'll help remove it, but first must find out the shape, truth, & reason for its existence. Finding out these three things will require digging into the Sakai family's dark & shameful past.

Normally, I would save such a sentence for the end, but I have to say it immediately: This is not simply the best part of Ayakashi, it's one of the best anime short stories I have ever seen. There is so much to talk about, from the overall production to the little minutiae held within, but I don't want to spoil too much of it; it must be seen to be believed in the absolute best way possible. Still, I have to review this & explain why Goblin Cat is just that damn good. The only question is where to start? The story? The visual style? The characters? Well, since this is the last part of a horror anthology I guess I should start with the horror aspect, because this absolutely nails it the best out of the three Ayakashi stories.

First of all, there's the basic concept of a demonic force that's haunting a group of people, but the very existence of said force is because of said people, with only a couple of true innocents. This idea was also present in Yotsuya Ghost Story, but while that was a ghastly curse haunting people psychologically, the bakeneko is an actual, semi-physical being. Combining with the story concept is the execution of it all, with the Medicine Seller having to force everyone to stay in a handful of connected rooms that he was able to erect his barrier around; anything outside of these rooms is the bakeneko's territory, dangerous to even step out into. Plenty of horror stories have used this idea before, but while Goblin Cat may feel familiar in utilizing some of what's expected in this style of horror story, it works because it uses them well. Also, it does have it's own twists on these ideas, helping make it feel slightly fresh. Most of all, though, it just simply feels like a true horror story, complete with an honest feeling of the unknown that stays in the back of your head throughout.

What also pushes the horror aspect even more so is the reason behind the bakeneko's existence. Without going into spoilers, I can say that the Sakai family's past is not just dark, but sick, horrifying, & terrible, making you actually cheer for the bakeneko itself slightly; it's the perfect horror cocktail. The story itself is told superbly, relying almost solely on mood & the slow reveal. While this story is only three episodes compared to the other two stories' four, each episode is so meticulously paced that it feels like this story is longer than the others. The first episode alone felt like it was at least an episode & a half on its own, but it's only because I was so entranced with what was happening... And this was before the Medicine Seller was even throwing out barrier seals! If it was simply an awesome horror story told with impeccable timing that would be cool enough, but there's even more to it that's awesome.

A good horror story can still work with average characters that you might not remember all that well, but a great horror story is exactly that because the characters are ones that you will remember. The backstory of the Sakai family wouldn't mean much if the present family wasn't memorable, and they definitely are. There are the brothers Yoshikuni & Yoshiaki, with one being disgruntled since all he'll be getting from the marriage is the old house. Mizue is Mao's mother, the real person in charge of the immediate family & the easiest one to get flustered. Sasaoka is a friend of the family who's memorable simply because of the nigh-psychotic faces he makes at almost every single moment. Yoshiyuki is the "elder master" of the family, quiet & unnerved at the craziest of moments. Then there's Odajima, another friend of the family, & Kayo, a female servant, who come out more like people who were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. It relies on some of the "usual suspects", but utilizes them in really fun & entertaining ways.

Finally, there's the Medicine Seller, a mysterious character who makes even the word "enigmatic" seem nondescriptive enough. As if the face paint wasn't enough of an oddity, he carries around a giant box filled with all sorts of "nonpoisonous" medicine, "children toys" that are actually scales used to track bakeneko movement, & at the top is the Taima Sword, with which he can kill the bakeneko. The idea of having to find out the shape, truth, & reason of the bakeneko is really how the story advances & the backstory gets slowly revealed, and it's a really neat twist on tackling a monster. Until he's able to confront it physically, the Seller has to rely on defensive tactics like the seals, the scales, and even making a salt line around the rooms, mixing together old superstitions & mysticism with neat variations. The Medicine Seller absolutely sells this story and simply adds to the quality of these episodes. What puts this part of Ayakashi far above & beyond the other two stories, though, is the magnificent visual style.

If I had to describe the visual style of Goblin Cat in one word, it would be gorgeous. The staff behind this show had an exact image in their minds when they designed the visual style of this story, and they delivered completely on it. Essentially, the entire thing has a visual filter to it that makes it looks like everything had been animated on rice paper, right down to the various creases, folds, & crumples that come with that kind of paper. Not only that, but they even went with giving the entire environment a slapdash color. From the outfits that everyone wears to the walls, floors, & ceiling of the Sakai home, the entire production is shown through a magnificent array of brighter color. Usually, one wouldn't equate horror with bright colors & the like, but here it works; it just simply works. The bakeneko, when finally revealed, purposefully clashes somewhat by being darker compared to the world around it. It's the closest one could probably ever get to seeing anime done in the old style of ukiyo-e, and it looks amazing. Apparently, the minds behind this style were Takashi Hashimoto, Takashi Kurahashi, & Yumi Hosaka, and I'll get back to them a little later.

Now, admittedly, this visual style maybe does astonish enough to make most people not notice that this isn't exactly the most animated thing you'll watch. Essentially, what animation budget this part of Ayakashi was given was reserved mostly for the moments where lots of movement was needed, usually the ends of each episode, because outside of those scenes there isn't a lot of movement. Episode 10 (the second Goblin Cat episode) in particular utilizes a lot of non-moving slides & sequential images to advance the story, with little bits of animation to accommodate for things like lip movement, walking, & general body shifting. One could argue that this likely fits the ukiyo-e-esque style, but I'm simply pointing out something that's obvious; I'm not calling it bad by any means.

Goblin Cat marks the "series director" debut of Kenji Nakamura, a man who has gone on to become a bit of a modern-day cult classic anime director, having gone on to direct shows like C - Control, Gatchaman Crowds, & tsuritama. Prior to this Nakamura was an episode director on titles like The Big O, The SoulTaker, & Karas, as well as being assistant director for the Digimon: Diaboromon Strikes Back movie. One could argue that Toei was still holding back a bit by giving newcomer Nakamura only three episodes, but he took full advantage of what he was given. As I mentioned, these episodes look gorgeous, and it's because of not just Hashimoto, Kurahashi, & Hosaka's art design & direction but also Nakamura's absolutely perfect pacing & purposeful awkwardness. Camera angles can literally be at any angle at any given moment, framing is absolutely planned out meticulously, and it truly is nothing more than a fully realized idea. Nakamura would go on to work with all three on tsuritama & Gatchaman Crowds, as well as the next title I'll be reviewing, with Hashimoto (who's also character & conceptual designer, animation director, & a key animator on all three of these episodes) also working with Nakamura on C - Control.

Hashimoto's designs in particular are very much non-traditional among anime, giving most of the characters a very unsettling look to them, especially Sasaoka. The Medicine Seller's design in general is absolutely amazing in its overall simplicity, complete with pointed ears that keep him a little unsettling as well. These three episodes were written by Michiko Yokote (Air Master, Genshiken), who handles the mystery & suspense excellently. Yasuharu Takanashi again is back for the music, relying on a "less is more" concept, like with Goddess of the Dark Tower. When the music isn't being played, all your hear in the background are cricket's chirping & other sounds of nature, which simply adds to the uncomfortable feel throughout. The ending, "Haru no Katami", works well for these episodes as well, but just not quite as fitting as it was for the prior two stories. The opening theme, however, probably fits this story the most. In concept, the idea of using a hip hop song for a horror anthology sounds pretty ill-fitting, but in reality "HEAT ISLAND" by Rhymester fits this series perfectly. It's constantly hitting beat, mixed with traditional Japanese instruments, is infectious while also feeling just unnerving enough to get your blood boiling in a cautious fashion. While it worked well for the prior two stories, "HEAT ISLAND" just works best with Goblin Cat. The suspenseful nature of the story fits the harsh beat & the animation used is just full of color & motion, helping make the Medicine Seller both mysterious yet trustworthy. To talk any more from a production standpoint would just be repeating myself at this point.

Both the Japanese & English casts work very well, but they are equally carried by one performance each, that of the Medicine Seller. Voiced in Japanese by Takahiro Sakurai & in English by Andrew Francis (Haseo in .hack//Roots, Dilandau in Escaflowne), both actors do a superb job in keeping the Seller calm, enigmatic, & generally in control, though both carry the character in stress excellently. Odajima is voiced by Tetsu Inada & Trevor Devall (Mu La Flaga in Gundam SEED, Shuichi Aizawa in Death Note), and both likewise offer a great counterpart to the Seller, sarcastic & questioning in comparison to the Seller's seriousness & confidence (though the Seller has his share of attitude as well). Kayo is performed by Yukana [Nogami] (Akiko in Time of Eve, Tessa in Full Metal Panic!) & Kelly Sheridan (Sango in InuYasha, Hitomi in Escaflowne), both of which give the young servant a great sense of fear & innocence. The dub actually does something interesting by maintaining the original Japanese terms for the shape (katachi), truth (makoto), & reason (kotowari) that the Taima Sword needs, with the Seller explaining them to everyone. If anything, it gives the dub a little something extra that works out excellently. The Japanese cast is rounded by the likes of Chikao Ohtsuka (Yoshiyuki), Naoki Tatsuta (Yoshikuni), Yoko Soumi (Mizue) & Eiji Takemoto (Sasaoka), while the English dub also features Allison Matthews (Mizue), Andrew Kavadas (Sasaoka), & Scott McNeil (Yoshiyuki & the Goblin Cat).

Sometimes the general consensus is the absolutely correct, and that's the case here: When it comes to Ayakashi ~Japanese Classic Horror~, the best story of the three is Goblin Cat, hands down. While the other two stories aren't slouches by any means, there is just so much to enjoy with this last story. The plot is interesting, the characters memorable, the horror & suspense intense, & visually these three episodes showcase so much to love. These three episodes were even shown on their own in early 2007 at the Future Film Festival in Italy, proof of how special it was. This was essentially the proving ground for Kenji Nakamura, and he absolutely knocked it out of the park. Goblin Cat was far & away the breakout part of Ayakashi, so the following year (while this original series was airing on imaginAsian TV, no less) Toei & noitaminA created a continuation of Goblin Cat, detailing the Medicine Seller's other battles against demonic spirits. It took seven years, but this continuation finally came over the North America this year, and now I really want to see what happens when you give this crew 12 whole episodes to work with.

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