The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror

Title: Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror aka Samurai Horror Tales
Genre: Horror
Company: Toei Animation
Format: 11 episodes
Dates: 13 Jan 2006 – 24 Mar 2006

Synopsis: Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror is a collection of three short stories set in historical samurai periods. “Yotsuya Ghost Story” recalls the tale of a pair of brutish and deceitful men who betrayed many, but did not count on the vengeance of one woman from beyond the grave. “Goddess of the Dark Tower” recounts the forbidden love between a royal falconer and a man-eating demon princess hidden away for eons in a haunted castle. Lastly, “Goblin Cat” is a about an enigmatic medicine seller who happens by a wedding party that is attended by one unexpectedly ghoulish guest.

The Highlights
Dull animation: The first two arcs look barely passable.
Japanese mythology: Folklore set in historical periods serves as the hook.
The medicine seller: His story is the lone highlight that redeems the entire series.

Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror debuted as only the third anime in Fuji Television‘s then new and experimental late night timeslot, Noitamina. The series recounts three distinct short stories loosely tied together by the subject of vintage Japanese supernatural folklore, providing three opportunities for different production staffs to showcase their particular styles and creative mettle. Two of the tales turned in mediocre play adaptations hamstrung by obvious animation shortcomings and unimaginative presentation. The third team combined a suspenseful story, acute attention to detail, and unmatched aesthetic flourish that, in this critic’s eyes, saved the entire project.

The opening bid, “Yotsuya Ghost Story”, is adapted from a famous Japanese play from 1825, the same play that inspired The Ring. The story is about two men who gain wealth and status through unsavory methods, but a curse by a poisoned woman haunts their every step. Despite being a ghost story, the way the events are conveyed carries absolutely no fear or suspense. For one, the dodgy animation poorly distinguished between similar looking characters, and scenes like swarms of rats attacking people or bloody stabbings are muddled by sloppy drawings and flat camera work. Another major problem is that we’re told events are scary instead of being made to believe they are. Segments break the 4th wall when a playwright informs us viewers of “creepy” circumstances surrounding live action productions of the play, but these segments add little in the way of suspense and instead confuse us because they’re unconnected to the main story. In general, the presentation of this arc is terribly disappointing.

Next is “Goddess of the Dark Tower”. Also an adaptation of a classic play, it tells the tried and true story of forbidden love; one between a well-meaning everyman who serves a buffoonish noble, and a powerful man-eating goddess who lives in a castle with her spirit retainers. The animation is scarcely improved from the previous arc, but is better overall simply because the characters have more charisma than a cardboard box. Everything plays out predictably, and the big battles between the lord’s men and the castle guardians lack visual oomph, but in the end I did nominally care about the fate of the star-crossed lovers.

It’s just as well that both preceding arcs are best forgotten since “Goblin Cat” is far and away the best story of the three. In contrast to the previous stories, this one displays the strengths of an animated screenplay not tied down by live stage conventions, delivering one of the most stylistically inventive and sensory engaging animated TV arcs I’ve ever seen. It’s about a wandering medicine seller who happens across a wedding ruined by seriously bad mojo, but in exorcising the spirit he uncovers more than one demon in the process. Playing out like a supernatural murder mystery, the star of the case is the unnamed medicine seller. He looks like a gypsy, but carries a quiet, composed confidence that is immediately attractive. The art direction in this segment takes several leaps forward, featuring spectacular collages of textures and colors, yet the nuanced screenplay understands when to tone down the picture and when to crank it up. It builds anticipation for most of the story by making the goblin cat invisible, but when it finally attacks it practically leaps off of the screen. Terrific utilization of music and sound effects add big punch to each twist of the script as it slowly peels back layers of secrets. All these elements together create a delightfully playful, grotesque, and at last, truly horrifying experience.

I count Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror as a successful experiment. While “Yotsuya Ghost Story” and “Goddess of the Dark Tower” are chores to watch, “Goblin Cat is special” with a capital “S”. It impressed audiences and producers in Japan enough to earn a full series spinoff, Mononoke, featuring more riveting cases of the medicine seller. Beyond spawning one of the finest works of animated television to grace Noitamina, the concept behind Ayakashi is novel enough to warrant a viewing.

The Rating: 6

Reviewed by: kadian1364

Top of page