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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ayakashi ~Japanese Classic Horror~: Yotsuya Ghost Story: It's Always Sunny in Edo-Era Japan

The Halloween post on this blog has been a constant thing every year, but this time I want to celebrate the holiday even more. Therefore, this entire month will be all about horror anime! (Don't worry, I'm sure some people consider Rowdy Sumo Wrestler Matsutaro "horrific", right? Heathens.) Specifically, this month I'll be taking a look at a series of productions by Toei Animation from 2006-2008 that all had a horror theme to them, but first let's talk noitaminA.

I mentioned it briefly in my overview of early late-night anime back in July of 2012 (Part 2, specifically), but Fuji TV originally wasn't exactly kind to the concept when it started becoming big. They joined the movement relatively early in 1998, but they apparently never kept any real sense of consistency, resulting in some shows having multiple new episodes aired in one day because of delays. In 2004 the network took a break from this & in Spring 2005 they debuted noitaminA ("Animation" spelled backwards), a half-hour time slot every Thursday night from 24:45-25:15 (a.k.a. 12:45-1:15 A.M. Friday morning). The concept of noitaminA was to expand the audience of anime by airing titles that were purposefully not the usual fare, and the first two titles to air, Honey & Clover and Paradise Kiss (both based on josei manga), definitely fit that concept.

The third show to air was yet another interesting idea: Across 11 episodes in early 2006, Toei would animate three different stories, two based on classic Japanese horror tales & one original creation. The result was Ayakashi ~ Japanese Classic Horror~, not to be confused with the 2007 anime also named Ayakashi or 2006-2007's Ayakashi Ayashi (known as Ghost Slayers Ayashi outside of Japan). In 2007 Geneon Entertainment released the show under the slightly altered name Ayakashi - Samurai Horror Tales, which admittedly doesn't sound quite as cool, across three DVDs, one for each story, though they oddly started with the second tale. Due to the fact that each story features its own director, writer, musician, & cast, only Toei doing the animation & the man behind the music is shared, not to mention the fact that they're three completely different stories with their own animation styles, I'm going to copy what I did with Yugo the Negotiator last year & split this show up across multiple reviews. So let's get the introductions out of the way & start with Yostsuya Ghost Story, based on the 1825 Japanese ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan (which is completely redundant for me to point out, as "kaidan" translates as "ghost story").

[NOTE: I tend to use Western naming style, but since this takes place in pre-modern Japan I'll be using Eastern style, so last names come first]

Tokaidou Yotsuya Kaidan, a kabuki play by Tsuruya Nanboku IV, real name Katsu Hyouzou, told the tale of Yotsuya Oiwa, the daughter of a samurai who is planned to marry the warrior Tamiya Iemon. After the Yotsuya family loses grace & the samurai become ronin, though, Oiwa & Iemon's marriage is called off & accusations of theft get Iemon excommunicated from the family, even though Oiwa is carrying a child. Not content with the situation, Iemon secretly kills Oiwa's father, while fellow ronin Naosuke kills former friend Yomoshichi, who still planned on marrying Oiwa's sister Osode, just so he could have Osode for himself. Iemon & Naosuke make it look like bandits killed their victims & take their respective women by promising to one day catch the killers. After Oiwa has her child, though, Iemon starts caring less for his wife & even agrees to marry Oume, the granddaughter of the Itou family, for financial gain & improved status. This marks the beginning of Oiwa's curse on the Tamiya & Itou families, which will continue on after her death.

Yotsuya Ghost Story is very interesting from a storytelling perspective because it isn't simply a straight adaptation of the original story. Yes, these four episodes do tell the tale in a traditional way, but it's book-ended by the author himself. Each episode begins with Tsuruya Nanboku introducing himself and explaining, bit by bit, how his story is different from later interpretations & even the historical happenings & rumors that spawned the story, while ending with Nanboku teasing the next part of the story that the next episode will tell. In fact, the entire last third of the final episode is about the history of Yotsuya Kaidan's existence as a story that has been adapted into plays, movies, and whatnot. It's a really cool execution, because you not only get to see the story itself play out but you also learn a good amount about the story's life as a part of Japanese culture. Admittedly, the last part of the final episode may come off a little like an educational program, or at least a documentary, but after seeing the story play out you'll be very welcoming of learning more about Yotsuya Kaidan itself.

As for the ghost story itself, it sure is considered a "classic" for good reason. Essentially, it's a dark spiral into self-destruction, with horrible people doing horrible things to each other & very few who are truly innocent. At first you kind of feel for Iemon, as Oiwa's father comes off as very unreasonable in regards to the original marriage plans being shut down, but in the next episode you start to see how much of a jerk & asshole Iemon truly is. Oddly enough, Naosuke is kind of the opposite, coming off as an irredeemable asshole in episode 1 before having his part of the story come back in episode 3 & making him out as a unfortunate victim of irony & inescapable destiny. Almost everything bad that happens to someone is either a sort of karmic retribution, for the horrible people, or self-inflicted, for the few innocents. It's a very dark tale & showcases a sense of horror that's more psychological than visual. It's definitely Japanese-style horror, which might make it a bit jarring for those used to more American-style horror.

That's not to say that there's no visual horror to be found, though. The Itou family gives Iemon a poison for Oiwa, though he thought it was medicine, but instead of killing her it instead disfigures the right side of her face, giving Oiwa physical pain alongside the already-existing emotional pain she was starting to have. The curse put upon the Tamiya & Itou clans also brings about a sense of slow madness setting in, especially for Iemon. After Oiwa's death he's continually haunted by her ghost, though whether it's actually her or just his mind playing tricks on him is purposefully left vague; outside of two deaths in the last episode, anyone killed is done so by non-ghostly ways. It shows a slowly-encroaching insanity within Iemon, and it works really well. Also, if you have a hatred of rats then you might be freaked out by the rats that seemingly act under the presence of Oiwa's curse, as they are scarily deadly. The horror here is a mix of subtle & blatant, which is really nice, but it's the overall story, from beginning to end, that really makes this excellent.

What's probably the scariest thing of all, though, is the history of the Yotsuya Kaidan story that's revealed at the end. From the very first performance to recent day almost any performance of this story has had some sort of tragedy or, at least, trouble behind it. From relatively minor things like people injuring themselves while involved in a production to fatal things like actors performing suicide later on in life or even the final fates of the original play performers (Nanboku reveals that he & his family, who all played roles in the original production, died within five years of the end of their play's run), it's as if the very ghost story itself is cursed by Oiwa herself. The anime actually makes this a bit of an epilogue to everything, having Nanboku admit regret & sadness over creating a fictional character who has nothing but sadness & death always near her (the real life Oiwa survived smallpox as a child). As freaky & horrifying the tale itself could be at times, it was that last portion of the final episode, detailing the real life history of the story, that was the scariest thing of all.

The staff behind this Ayakashi story was a mix of big & small name people, but all of them had plenty of experience in anime. Tetsuo Imazawa (Candy Candy, Rokushin Gattai God Mars) was the director, and if nothing else the story felt very true to the era it originated from. Imazawa's end result comes off as a story that could have been made in live-action, and in fact uses some live-action for the educational portions about the story's origins & history, but still utilized moments where it could only truly be done as an anime in this case (the image above is a perfect example of beautiful simplicity that only animation can do). Adapting the story for anime was left in the hands of Chiaki J. Konaka (Serial Experiments Lain, Digimon Tamers), who is no stranger to dark & psychological stories; without a doubt he nailed the adaptation excellently. The character designs were originally drawn by the legendary Yoshitaka Amano & then adapted by animation director Hideki Ito, and it really gives the entire story even more of a chilling & dark feel to it; Amano's drawing style simply works like a charm with horror-infused stories (just look at Vampire Hunter D). All of the music in Ayakashi was done by Yasuharu Takanashi (Hell Girl, Log Horizon), and in Yotsuya Ghost Story he goes for a very subdued execution, relying on the lone instruments like the biwa, shamisen, & flute in very creepy ways; sometimes he mixes in an underlying beat with them, too. I'll cover the opening & ending themes in the successive reviews, as they are used throughout the entire show.

The Japanese voice cast is filled with notable seiyuu that do a great job overall. Leading the group is Hiroaki Hirata, who performs Iemon with a nice sense of selfishness, pride, & (at the end) madness. Mami Koyama voices Oiwa, and it's actually really interesting to hear her do the role because I've generally known her voice in the form of Shaina from Saint Seiya, and her usual pitch & cadence is almost nowhere to be found here; she's appropriately chilling, though. Naosuke is voiced by Keiichi Sonobe (Silvers Rayleigh in One Piece), who sounds appropriately sleazy & vile. Yomoshichi is performed by Wataru Takagi, who doesn't hide his usual voice style like Koyama does, but it works very well for the former samurai. Finally, Osamu Saka does a nice, calm performance for Tsuruya Nanboku IV, delivering a superb job as the experienced narrator. The rest of the cast includes Yuko Nagashima (Osode), Ryou Hirohashi (Itou Oume), & Minoru Inaba (Takuetsu, another Yotsuya ronin).

The English dub by Ocean Studios, directed by Keith A. Goddard (Sword of the Stranger, .hack//Roots, Hunter X Hunter [1999]), is a very classy affair that impresses almost immediately; there is also a dub made for Animax Asia, but it's likely to be unimpressive. The classiness starts with Ron Halder (Watari in the live-action Death Note movies, Shane Caxton in Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail), who delivers a Nanboku that sounds just as wise & weary as Saka's performance. Brian Dobson (Garma Zabi in Mobile Suit Gundam, General Kross in Oban Star-Racers) voices Iemon, who gives the character a mix of honor & easy agitation. Samuel Vincent (Tieria in Gundam 00, Hikaru in Hikaru no Go) is similar to Sonobe in that his performance simply oozes sliminess & lies, which works extremely well. Nicole Oliver (Katsumi in Silent Mobius, Emeraldas in Adieu Galaxy Express 999) is the voice of Oiwa, giving the woman behind the curse both a sense of respect & terror. The rest of the cast includes Michael Adamthwaite (Yomoshichi), Brian Drummond (Takuetsu), & Lalainia Lindbjerg (Oume).

The first story in Ayakashi ~Japanese Classic Horror~, Yotsuya Ghost Story, is a superb start to this anthology series. Very quickly it becomes easy to see why this tale has become a classic in Japanese horror, and the anime adaptation of it is very nicely done. Either in Japanese or in English, it's a very respectful production to the original material, complete with a good amount of educational material to make absolute neophytes to the story feel like they fully understand the history behind it. Unfortunately, out of the three DVDs Geneon released this series on, this story is least available of them all to people. While the latter two stories can be had within ~$15 each (at most), Yotsuya Ghost Story goes for at least $40 on the secondhand market. It's sad, simply because it's a really cool bit of animation to watch, but that's usually what happens with singles, especially since this one was technically the second one Geneon released for the series, for whatever reason (it's all the more odd because the last episode previews the next story, which Geneon released first). Anyway, up next is a story based on another play, but one slightly more recent & mystical in execution.

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