Monday, October 6, 2008

Horror stories in old Japan



Masterful horror anime Ayakashi premieres on Animax, just in time for Halloween at the end of the month.

AT a glance, Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror seems like a horror story that is meant to simply shock and awe. However, like its hip-hop opening theme, there’s more to this anime than meets the eye.

Ayakashi is a collection of three horror stories set in feudal Japan, each told in three or four episodes (or chapters) in its own unique art style, and steeped in Japanese culture and mythology.

The first story, Yotsuya Kaiden (The Ghost Story of Yotsuya), spans four episodes. It is based on an 18th century kabuki play by Tsuruya Nanboku, which is an adaptation of a classic Japanese ghost story. Undoubtedly the most complex of the three stories, Yotsuya Kaiden is a very tragic tale of evil that begets evil. It centres on a curse uttered by a woman named Oiwa whose fate is dreadful beyond words.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, in Ayakashi’s opening tale, Yotsuya Kaiden.

Oiwa is married under false pretences to a poor ronin (samurai without a lord) named Tamiya Iemon. Despite her love for her husband, Iemon starts loathing Oiwa after she gives birth to their child and falls ill.

When a rich neighbour’s niece is attracted to Iemon, the woman’s family poisons Oiwa so that she can marry Iemon. Disfigured by the poison, Oiwa learns of their nefarious plan to get her killed. Weak and disheartened, she takes her own life. From then on, Oiwa’s vengeful spirit haunts those who had wronged her to a horrendous death.

Of the three stories, I found Yotsuya Kaiden to be the most profound and true to the series’ horror theme. Heavily laden with references to Japanese culture and legends, the story may be too complex for a casual anime fan. But given a little patience and maybe a little research, you will find that this is one of the best tales there is.

Yotsuya Kaiden’s story unfolds like a play. Each episode is an act with a short documentary at the end to help explain the deep story, which is rooted in Japanese lore and history, further. Even the characters are drawn with facial features that resemble those found in old Japanese paintings.

Tenshu Monogatari (The Castle Tower), the second story of Ayakashi, takes up four episodes in the series. The story is very different from what I expect to find in a horror-themed anime. It is a romantic tale of forbidden love and jealousy based on a play by Kyoka Izumi.

Zushonosuke the falconer is forced by his cruel master to retrieve a falcon that flew towards the castle of the Forgotten Gods. There, he meets a girl who falls in love with him. However, he is unaware that the girl is actually Tomihime, Princess of the Forgotten Gods, a race of beings once worshipped but now feeds on humans.

The second story Tenshu Monogatari, which is about a castle full of dangerous creatures, looks like a conventional anime.

Tenshu Monogatari is the sort of show you’d watch with your significant other. Its plot is in stark contrast to Yotsuya Kaiden’s: it has clear-cut heroes and villains, and it is about love. The art has a more modern feel to it; it looks like Ghost in the Shell fusing with classic Japanese art €“ not surprising, considering that Yasuhiro Nakura, who was involved in the key animation of Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence, has had a hand in this anime.

In the final story, Bakeneko (Monster Cat), a samurai family plans to marry off their daughter to free them of debt. Unfortunately, the daughter dies under mysterious circumstances. Eventually, a medicine seller becomes involved in the affair; he begins to hunt down the creature that killed her and in the process, uncovers the family’s dark secret.

The three-episode Bakeneko (Monster Cat) evokes extreme feelings from both sides of the spectrum. I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud at what is supposed to be a horrific and sad tale. Then I realised just how masterful the story really is.

Bakeneko’s art, reminiscent of Samurai Champloo, is comical but with texture added to make it appear as if it is painted on canvas.

Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror is truly a roller-coaster ride of tales and emotions. Every story is different yet all three work together in harmony like the instruments in an orchestra.

Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror’ premieres on Animax (Astro Channel 715) today at 11.30pm. It will air every Sunday at 11pm.

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