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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ayakashi ~Japanese Classic Horror~: Goddess of the Dark Tower: A Love Story for the Ages, Yet Not Even a Century Old

Above is the title splash that every episode of Ayakashi ~Japanese Classic Horror~ features during the opening sequence. I include it now for two main reasons: First, I like to showcase title splashes with my reviews, but each story in this show features it's own title splash after the opening plays; second, Geneon started their DVD release of this anime with the second story, so it's only fitting to show the general title splash now. While I have no idea why Geneon's releases started with the middle story instead of the beginning, I can say that this second tale is one that I saw with a friend years ago, not long after the DVDs had all come out. Unfortunately, I don't recall much of it nowadays, so is this story a flub in the grand scheme of Ayakashi, or am I fool for forgetting what it was about? This is Goddess of the Dark Tower, based on the 1917 play Tenshu Monogatari/The Castle Tower Story by Kyoka Izumi.

Himekawa Zushonosuke is the falconer for Lord Takeda Harima-no-Kami, but when his falcon Kojiro flies away, after being shot at, Zushunosuke is commanded to retrieve the bird or commit seppuku. While searching he comes across a naked woman swimming & feels as if he was dreaming. He ends up going to Shirasagi Castle, an abandoned tower that houses supposed mononoke/evil spirits. Inside he finds Kojiro as well as the woman he saw earlier. Her name is Tomihime & is in fact a forgotten god, one who came to Earth & feeds on human souls for energy. Instead of killing Zushonosuke, though, Tomihime instead falls in love with him. Unfortunately, the leader of her cadre of handmaidens, Uba, strongly opposes this love & when the human Oshizu, who is in love with Zushonosuke, finds out about this relationship she encourages Harima-no-Kami to storm the castle & kill everyone there to retrieve his falcon.

One of the admittedly cool things about anthologies is that each story can differ from the other in execution wildly, and Goddess of the Dark Tower is very much a different yokai than Yotsuya Ghost Story. Whereas the first story in this show was a tale of eternal damnation & revenge, the second is actually a tragic love story. In fact, it share some similarities with Romeo & Juliet: Both feature the concept of star-crossed lovers separated by different groups who look down on the couple's relationship & end up going to war against each other. Luckily, the Tenshu Monogatari play doesn't copy Shakespeare's play exactly, but rather utilizes the similar concept to tell it's own take on the idea. Rather than being completely devoted to each other to the point of insanity, Zushonosuke & Tomihime are respectful to each other's origins & when they feel that their love interferes with both of their livelihoods they do try to live life without each other. It really helps make the two come off as more understandable & logical, though their feelings for each other mainly come about more or less like how Romeo & Juliet first met... Except with more nudity.

Still, even with a well done love story it's pretty obvious that there isn't really much "horror" in these next four episodes of Ayakashi. Sure, there are horror-themed elements & creatures used, like two mononoke thieves who befriend Zushonosuke, but it's easy to see from the first episode that this isn't a tale meant to frighten viewers or even give them chills. In fact, the two mononoke I just mentioned, Kikimaru & Kaikaimaru, are more or less comic relief here; they can hold their own in battle in the one scene they fight in, but overall are more or less there to be silly thieves. In fact, they are never referred to by their names in the entire story (I had to rely on the credits); their names are simply references to the sounds each one tends to make before talking. Now, giving credit where its due, they are entertaining characters, but they are in no way terrifying. In fact, the closest this tale gets to fulfilling the horror theme of the show is in the last episode, where Tomihime & her maidens showcase their god-like powers. It is certainly a different way of utilizing the theme of a horror story, and it is fair to call the original story a "classic", but it's just simply such a major shift in tone & execution that it could very well disappoint those who were looking for something creepier.

The change in execution also applies to how the story is actually told. Whereas Yotsuya Ghost Story was a mix of the original author telling the "true story" behind his work & detailing the history of what he wrote, Goddess of the Dark Tower is a traditional serial production. There is no introduction before the major part of each episode nor is there a send-off before the credits; each episode is doing nothing more than adapting the original play. In fact, if you removed all the repeated portions of each episode (OP, ED, eyecatch, etc.), it would actually work very well as feature-length movie. This would actually have worked very well with that "marathon mode" that FUNimation includes in some of their longer anime releases, like Dragon Ball Z & One Piece, since that removes all OPs & EDs instead of the very first OP & very last ED. This is definitely a production that's meant to be watched all at once, though it still technically works just fine as four individual episodes.

The two biggest roles in the staff for this story are actually not going to sound familiar to just about any anime fan, and that's because they are J-Drama veterans. While a couple of episodes were directed by Hidehiko Kadota (a key animator), it's actually a misconception that he was the "series director"; Geneon's translated credits didn't help, either. In reality, the main director was Kouzou Nagayama, who is apparently known for his work directing J-Drama love stories (especially in the 90s). Backing him up for the writing was Yuuji Sakamoto, who worked with Nagayama on many of said 90s J-Dramas. If that's the case then Toei certainly chose the right duo to lead this production, because (as I said earlier) the love story is easily the best part of this tale. Unfortunately, the animation itself is a bit of a low point for these episodes. While it's not horrific it's not hard to spot moments where shortcuts are used to save on budget. Yotsuya Ghost Story was likely the same way, but that at least relied on slower movements & had a style that helped obscure moments like that. Goddess of the Dark Tower, from a visual standpoint, is much more traditional in that respect, though it still looks nice. Character designer/chief animation director Yasuhiro Nakura (Angel's Egg) gives the show a good look, but I guess it's just tough when you're following Yoshitaka Amano doing the original designs. Yasuharu Takanashi is back for the music, but these episodes are actually relatively barren in that regard; also, the music sounded to reuse some of what was made for the previous story. Luckily, the lack of music works, mainly in the same way a live-action production handles it, no doubt due to the director. The ending theme across the entire anime series is "Haru no Katami" by Chitose Hajime, an superbly beautiful ballad that has so far fit both stories in different ways. In Yotsuya Ghost Story Hajime's voice somehow fit the chilling nature of Oiwa's curse, while here it's the instruments that seem to strengthen the feeling of love between Zushonosuke & Tomihime.

The Japanese cast is once again a strong group of seiyuu, continuing off of the first story's lead. Hikaru Midorikawa is the voice of Zushonosuke, delivering a generally calm & respectful performance, with only the very end having him showcase a large change in emotion. Tomihime is performed by Houko Kuwashima (Satsuki in X TV, Flay in Gundam SEED), who delivers a similarly calm performance, usually only going into major emotion when the character is either experiencing something new or is angered. Kappei Yamaguchi & Masaya Onosaka voice Kaikaimaru & Kikimaru, respectively, pulling out very good performances. Saeko Chiba (Birdy in Birdy the Mighty Decode, Mio in Strike Witches) voices Oshizu, bringing a good amount of worry & jealousy to the character. Kozo Shioya, in a cool bit of breaking his typecasting, voices Harima-no-Kami, a downright emaciated character compared to the plump & fat ones he usually voices; his performance style remains the same, though.

The English dub is another solid production. Leading the cast is Kirby Morrow (Van in Escaflowne, Miroku in InuYasha), who does an equally good job with the character, lending a strong sense of respect; Morrow's voice really fits noble warriors in general. Willow Johnson (Kikyo in InuYasha, Lalah in Mobile Suit Gundam) is Tomihime, delivering a very mature yet distant performance, much like her notable role as Kikyo. Samuel Vincent pulls a second role here as Kikimaru, while Alec Willows (Oolong in the 90s dub of Dragon Ball) voices Kaikaimaru, with both doing good jobs with the mononoke thieves; they even maintain the pre-speech sounds the characters make. The dub is rounded out for the major cast by Lee Tockar (Harima-no-Kami), Cathy Weseluck (Uba), & Tracy Power (Oshizu), all of which do good jobs as well. With the focus being on the love between our leads, it's nice to see Morrow & Johnson be the strongest actors in this dub.

Goddess of the Dark Tower is a mixed bag, depending largely on what way you look at it. In terms of love stories Tenshu Monogatari is a great example of the tragic variety, and the anime adaptation is really enjoyable. In terms of being a horror story & part of the larger Ayakashi series, though, it falters. I'll give it credit for using the horror concept in a different way than Yotsuya Ghost Story, but it may just be too wild of a change; it really is more a love story featuring a horror motif than an actual horror story. I don't hate or even dislike these four episodes, but I can see why I ended up forgetting most of it all these years later. Still, for those who like darker tales of forbidden love, this will do the trick just fine. With two adaptations out of the way, the last three episodes of Ayakashi go into original content territory and mark the major directorial debut of a man who has already become a favorite of anime fans today.

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