Friday, October 31, 2014

Hakaba Kitaro: Trick or Treat, Smell Nezumi Otoko's Feet...

Greetings & salutations, denizens of the dark! It's Halloween, and what better way to finish off a month of horror anime than to take a look at a show based on the work of the living cultural icon himself, Shigeru Mizuki.

At 92 years old this year, Mizuki may very well be the oldest person ever to still draw comics. And with him being as old as he is, it's impossible to detail the important parts of his life, but here's a (very) basic primer: He was the hopeless black sheep of his family, was drafted into World War II, continually survived when he should have died in battle, lost his arm while sick in the war, came back to Japan when he was marked as dead, & went on to reteach Japan the yokai stories that the government tried suppressing before the war. Really, if you want more info on his life then simply read some of his manga; Drawn & Quarterly has brought over a good amount of them already. What I want to focus on his most iconic work: a young boy named Kitaro. In Japan there are few manga as iconic as GeGeGe no Kitaro, the tales of a young yokai boy who tries to help humanity coexist with his kind. It's so celebrated that, ever since the 60s, Toei Animation has made a new Kitaro anime every decade, and I'm positive that a new one will be made by the end of this decade. But Mizuki didn't start with GeGeGe, actually. Instead, Kitaro's tales were originally a little darker & not as kid friendly, and in early 2008 Toei celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the original GeGeGe anime, while the newest version of that was still airing, by making a slightly more accurate adaptation of the original manga. Bringing in some influence from Mononoke, noitaminA's 10th series was a call back to the early days of Mizuki's beloved boy, the days of Hakaba Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro).

A man named Mizuki is brought in by the hospital he works with to see a medically impossible sight: A dead man who is still moving around in his bed, just as if he never died. Mizuki is told to investigate how this happened & his only lead ends up being the abandoned house next to where he lives. Sneaking into the house he's welcomed by a disfigured woman & a giant mummy, who greet Mizuki. They explain that they're the last living members of the Ghost Tribe, who existed before humanity but were forced to live underground once humans became the dominant species. The woman is pregnant & she and her husband came to the surface for help; she saw a man in pain & gave him some of her power, resulting in the hospital issue. The next day the dead man turns to dust, and when Mizuki checks on the couple they're both dead as well. Mizuki buries the wife, but out from the grave comes a newborn child. Mizuki is understandably freaked out, but eventually takes in the baby named Kitaro & raises him into a young boy. Meanwhile, though, Kitaro is taught about his origins on the side by Medama Oyaji, an eyeball (& sole remaining part of his father). Kitaro is now a yokai who lives with humans, continually getting involved in one weird situation after another.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mononoke: Arrive. Raze Hell. Leave.

Ayakashi ~Japanese Classic Horror~ was definitely an interesting series, an anthology of three horror stories produced by three fairly different staffs, with help from Toei Animation. While it was definitely different from the previous two shows that started off Fuji TV's noitaminA, which were both josei manga adaptations, Ayakashi still fulfilled the block's theme of being different from your usual anime. It was also a fruitful change of pace, with the Goblin Cat episodes apparently being the highest-rated production Fuji TV had on that time block at the time. Obviously, Fuji TV & Toei weren't going to let a successful production like that be forgotten, so in mid-2007, after Jyu-Oh-Sei, Honey & Clover II, Hataraki Man, & Nodame Cantabile had their noitaminA runs, the Medicine Seller came back to Japanese television with a series all his own, Mononoke (not to be confused with Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke). Was the glory of Goblin Cat simply a once-in-a-lifetime case of the stars aligning, or did lightning strike a second time here?

Mononoke tells five stories about the Medicine Seller's travels, each one utilizing a different monster from Japanee myth. Zashiki Warashi (episode 1 & 2) is about a pregnant woman named Shino who is on the run & begs a full inn the Seller is at to let her stay the night. The innkeeper allows her in & has her stay in the storeroom located in the attic, which is haunted by baby-like beings that come from daruma dolls. Sea Bishop (eps 3-5) has the Medicine Seller traveling to Edo on a boat along with Kayo (the servant from Goblin Cat), Genyosai Yanagi (an ascetic exorcist), Hyoue Sasaki (an unrepentant swordsman), & some others. The boat, however, winds up in the Dragon's Triangle, a literal "Sea of Ayakashi", where all of those on the boat will be tested against their greatest fears. In The Faceless Monster (eps 6 & 7), the Seller winds up in jail with Ocho, a woman who is accused of killing her husband & his family while they were home. The truth behind Ocho's actions, however, is clouded in mystery, made all the tougher for the Seller to crack when a fox masked mononoke tries to save Ocho.

For Nue - The Japanese Chimera (eps 8 & 9), the Medicine Seller visits the home of Princess Ruri, who had invited four potential suitors for a game of Kumiko, a.k.a. incense smelling. The reason why the suitors are actually there, though, are more selfish than altruistic. Finally, the Seller's journey bookends itself by ending with what it started with back in Ayakashi in The Goblin Cat (episodes 10-12). Taking place on a train in what seems like the 1920s, a sharp contrast from Edo-era Japan, the Seller is in a car with people that look similar to the cast of the original Goblin Cat, having to take on another bakenenko, this time brought about by the apparent suicide of a young woman.

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.

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.

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").

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Rowdy Sumo Wrestler Matsutaro: Whatever, I Do What I Want!

Sometimes a product is made to not follow the crowd. Sometimes a product is made precisely to be different from what's around it. And when that product is released into the wild it gets ravaged & hated because it's so different from the norm. Oddly enough, I've enjoyed some of these products that are generally considered "horrible" or even "one of the worst". One of my favorite RPGs is UNLIMTED SaGa on the PlayStation 2, a game that has collectively been ravaged horribly & has even been called one of "the worst RPGs ever". Granted, I can understand why people hate that game, but at the same time some of the complaints (like the Reel System being completely "random") are downright incorrect. The subject of this review is much like that game, because to most people it's one of the worst anime of recent memory... Yet I've enjoyed it from episode 1. Not in an ironic, "so bad it's good", way, mind you; I honestly really enjoyed Rowdy Sumo Wrestler Matsutaro & feel it's been unfairly ridiculed.

Notari Matsutaro debuted back in mid-1973 in Big Comic Magazine & was created by Tetsuya Chiba, the artist behind the iconic Ashita no Joe. Though it told a similar story in some ways, it wound up running longer than it's boxing cousin, lasting 36 volumes & running until 2000 (there were two multi-year breaks, though). In 1991 the manga was adapted into a 10-episode OVA series by Mushi Production, or at least the company that came to be after the death of Osamu Tezuka's original studio in the early 70s. In fact, I think Notari was the last anime Mushi ever made on their own; they now only do assistance work & rights licensing. This OVA series was apparently only available via rental, which meant that it was VHS only, & has never seen a re-release since, so it's really damn rare. This past Spring, with Saint Seiya Omega coming to an end, Toei decided to fill in their 6:30 A.M. Sunday morning slot with a new adaptation of Chiba's manga, renaming it Abarenbou Rikiishi!! Matsutaro. CrunchyRoll got the simulcasting rights to the show, with their translated title being accurate to the new name, and when it debuted it got torn apart by just about anyone who saw the first episode; it notably was one of the two lowest-rated shows on ANN's Spring 2014 Preview Guide by both writers & viewers (the other was Kenzen Robo Daimidaler). Yet why did I enjoy it? Did this early hatred have any merit? Let's find out...

It's the Showa Era & life is generally simple for most Japanese citizens. This is especially true for Matsutaro Sakaguchi: He lives with his mother & younger siblings, is built like a tank, & gets to do whatever he wants. Unfortunately, this means that he's in his late-teens yet hasn't passed Middle School, is absolutely self-centered & egotistical, and there's really no one that can stop him due to his sheer strength. Unfortunately for him, one night he gets drunk, commandeers a truck, & steals away Reiko Minami, a teacher he has a crush on, only to crash into a public bath & gets arrested. He's given a special "graduation" from school (i.e. he gets kicked out) & is forced to find a job, but even with his homeroom teacher helping him out no job matches his impossible requirements. After a rough encounter with a sumo wrestler ends up with him taking out the sumo in an actual ring in front of tons of people, though, every stable in the region wants to have Matsutaro join them. After some thought Matsutaro decides on Raijin Stable... Simply because it's literally around the block from where Reiko now lives with her parents. Matsutaro's dream is to marry Reiko & become a made man by becoming yokozuna, and with his freakish strength it's going to be hard to find many who can stop him.