Monday, 11 June 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 36

Apparently I've been watching a lot of supernatural horror anime lately, which might seem odd on the face of it, since I'm not always that enthusiastic about the stuff.  But there's just so damn much!  How do you avoid it?  And also, in fairness, for someone who'd not a massive horror fan these days, I've actually found a fair number of titles that I'm fond of.  Which makes it less surprising, I guess, that here we are with four releases that on the face of things are pretty similar and yet I've good words to say about all of them.

Plus, it's an excuse for another theme post!  This time around: Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma, Ninja ResurrectionSpirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion and Guardian of Darkness...

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma, 1989, dir: Takashi Annô

Horror!  Ninjas!  Demons!  Medieval Japan!  At first glance, Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma is nothing if not familiar.  Coming six years after the classic Ninja Scroll, the feature-length, two part OVA is definitely mining similar territory, with its shinobi protagonist tracking the childhood friend who betrayed him through a landscape infested with war, occult monstrosities, and general malaise.  Chances are, if you've seen any vintage anime, you've seen something a bit like this.

However, if Blood Reign has a most valuable player, it's certainly director Annô, who treats his none-too-fresh material with far more gravitas than it probably deserves.  He doesn't pull back from the pulpier elements: it's extraordinarily gory in places, all the more so because of the unflinchingly clinical manner in which the blood and guts are displayed.  But whenever Blood Reign isn't being flat-out horror, or action, or a meld of the two, it's up to greatly more interesting things.  For something so unrestrainedly violent, it's surprising not only how much Annô is invested in building atmosphere but how often he succeeds.  There's genuine creepiness here, and it makes the horror elements a good deal more satisfying.  You suspect that in his heart Annô was more interested in making a straight-up period drama, and one film I was frequently reminded of was Mizoguchi's masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari.

Now, Blood Reign ain't that.  But in its better moments, it's at least exploring similar territory.  And though the animation isn't top-notch, with a noticeable reliance on stills, its above par on a frequent basis, rising to the challenges of its material; likewise, the artwork is generally superb, and the intricate backgrounds are a big part of that above-mentioned creepiness.  There's a real sense of a world gone fundamentally wrong that seeps into every crack and corner, and Annô's stubborn insistence that this is all terribly important pushes elements that could be campy close to being genuinely nightmarish in places.  Really, the only production element that wildly drops the ball is the score, which is every bit as incongruous as you'd expect eighties synthesisers to be.  That said, though it could hardly be a worse fit, I did kind of adore the ending theme.

Blood Reign was released as part of ADV's Essential Anime series, and they were fibbing: it's by no means essential.  But it's not that far off; I just wish there was a little more meat on its bones.  Annô's flourishes and certain elements of the narrative, including some disorientating time skips and the presence of two characters who appear to be the same person despite the fact that they can't possibly be, hint at a deeper narrative than the straightforward tale of good versus evil on offer.  Nonetheless, let's not get too sniffy.  A mediocre story told well - sometimes exceptionally well - is still better than being kicked in the head by a giant aquatic demon horse.

Because, oh right, that's a thing that happens in Blood Reign.

Ninja Resurrection, 1997, dir: Yasunori Urata

There's a lot of hatred out there for Ninja Resurrection, for what at first glance seems a highly unfair reason: essentially, the established logic is that publisher ADV purposefully misled fans into believing this was a sequel to Ninja Scroll, by giving it a title with the word Ninja in and not taking sufficient care to establish that the protagonist isn't precisely the same as the one in the earlier work (though that Jubei was in fact a deliberate reference to the historical figure presented here.)  Am I the only person who finds this tenuous?  I mean, I don't doubt that ADV - or for that matter, the original creators - were eager to emphasise similarities with a film that had proved to be one of the biggest breakthrough anime in the West, but I've seen vastly more shameful attempts to cash-in.

None of which is to say that there aren't reasons to hate on Ninja Resurrection.  And the biggest is one we've seen around these parts far too often before: it doesn't end.  I mean, there isn't the faintest shadow of closure, and the second of the two OVA episodes presented here is effectively all setup, with no hint of the self-contained narrative that the first manages to offer.  And this I found more annoying than usual because I really quite liked what there is.

Heck, by the end of that first part, I was willing to go further.  It's an appealingly grotesque slice of warped history, centered around the real-life Shimabara rebellion, which saw peasants and ronin turning against the Tokugawa government in resistance to tax hikes and religious persecution of the local Catholic population.  The latter is the focus here, though as with a lot of anime, Christianity ends up being portrayed in a manner bound to rub a few Western viewers up the wrong way.  Personally I was entirely down with its bewildering central conceit, whereby Jesus returns in seventeenth-century Japan, with the caveat that if his plans go awry he's doomed to turn into the Antichrist instead.  I don't know if I was just in the right mood, but the fact that this story was presented with some genuinely outrageous gore didn't bother me either.  It helped that the character designs are appealingly different, with a style that put me in mind of Mike (Hellboy) Mignola's work.  Really, it felt less like a rip-off of Ninja Scroll and more like a sleazy Italian-style bit of eighties Grand Guignol, à la Demons or The Church, only with Mignola's art style and a truly outrageous ninja battle climax.  Again, maybe I was in the right mindset for such madness, but that sat fine with me.

However, the second part is more of a mixed proposition.  For a start, the character designs get very weird indeed, with a more traditional, big-eyed anime aesthetic rubbing up against the stark angularity of what's been established.  Moreover, in two set piece sequences, the violence is directed at women in a fashion that recalls some of anime's nastier corners.  In fairness, the second of those scenes, while gobsmackingly unpleasant, is a genuinely inspired bit of horror; but the first is unnecessary and crass on practically a Legend of the Overfiend level.  And as I said, there's no real narrative, only odds and sods of story clearly setting up a larger plot.  It's fine, and the gore is effective if that's your bag, but it lacks the impact of part one.

With all of that said, and even with the severe lack of a conclusion, I'm inclined to call out those contemporary reviews for their bad practice - review what something is, not what you thought it might be, dumbass! - and suggest that, if you want some nineties horror anime and have a strong stomach, you could do worse than Ninja Resurrection.  It pulls no punches, it has style to spare, and at one point a guy transforms into an armoured missile to try and take down a giant stone dragon summoned by Christ, which I'll warrant you're not likely to see anywhere else.  Sure, it's not Ninja Scroll, and if I'm honest it's not a patch on that seminal work, but you can grab it cheaply and there's nothing else quite like it.

Spirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion, 1988, dir: Ichirô Itano

Having been underwhelmed by the first of these Spirit Warrior releases, Festival of Ogres' Revival, I decided to give the franchise - which spans a further three volumes after this one - a last try before condemning it to the lowest ranks of the slew of supernatural horror anime that came out of Japan in the eighties and nineties.  The good news is, I'm glad I did.  The bad news is, I now really want to track down the remainder, which are absurdly hard to find.

Still, Spirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion (which has nothing to do with the Mickey Mouse game of the same name, that I can tell!) is satisfying enough in its own right.  It's more or less the same thing as the first release, with heroic Buddhists teaming up to fire off what amount to magic spells in an action-heavy quest to quell an ancient evil, which this time turns out to be Oda Nobunaga, who's popped up in so much damn anime by this point that I envy him his agent.  Only, every element works better this time through.  The plot is busier, the action is more exciting, and the horror is a good deal freakier.  One monster in particular, apparently designed by special effects genius Screaming Mad George, is legitimately fantastic, and gets the best of some frequently strong animation.  The titular castle is another standout, a horror of organic architecture that we first see rising from a lake of blood and never stops being weird and wrong.  Even the running time is a touch longer, scraping past the mark where it feels like a proper film with a real beginning, middle, and end.

Needless to say, it's not perfect.  The U. S. Manga Corps release has a tendency to look like crap in the talky sequences, which may or may not be a fault with the original print, but in any case is hard to ignore.  And there's next to none of the sorts of thing you'd generally expect from a film, even a dumb one that basically wants to showcase monks fighting icky monsters: seek for meaningful characterization or plot development and you'll come away empty-handed.  Still, within its narrow niche, Spirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion manages a solid hour of entertainment, with enough excellent scenes and genuine bizarreness to stand out from the crowded pack.  It's a keeper and it turned me around on the whole series, so I guess that's a definite recommendation.

Guardian of Darkness, 1990, dir: Osamu Yamasaki

Guardian of Darkness is full of surprises.  Which is not to say it's full of originality.  Its visible influences are many and obvious, and at times it feels like a patchwork quilt of popular Japanese properties and subgenres.  There's a bit of Ultraman, a hefty dollop of The Guyver, for a while it looks like it plans to be a high school drama, and all of that's built upon a spine of horror-tinged dark fantasy that recalls a whole heck of a lot of shows from the nineties in which events out of history or mythology threaten the present.  There's nothing truly novel in a story that finds two teens possessed into fighting on opposite sides of an ancient conflict, with on the one hand shy, bullied Terumi being empowered by wrathful dragons and on the other the boy she has a huge crush on, Susanoo, learning that he possesses the power and cool, size-changing bio-mechanical armour to stop them.

All of this rattles along merrily for the first of three lengthy episodes, but the first sign that something more interesting might be going on comes when those forty-five minutes wrap up a good chunk of what looked as if it was going to be the plot.  Sure enough, by part two we have a radically changed status quo and a renewed focus on character over action, as well as a widening cast and scope.  The elements remain familiar, but none are used in quite the fashion you might expect.  And as the show progresses, the more apparent it becomes that it's at least trying to carve out a distinctive corner for itself, even if it's not mustering any brand-new ingredients.

To some extent, that's Guardian of Darkness all over.  It does nothing amazingly well, nor is there any aspect that lets it down significantly.  The characters are interesting, even if Susanoo threatens to be the sort of overly moody teenage male that populates so much of anime; Terumi gets to grow considerably and in satisfying ways, taking over the story in a manner I wouldn't have dared hope for based on her early scenes.  The design work and animation is solid without being great, though there are some lovely backgrounds and Yamasaki uses his budget to good effect.  Seikou Nagaoka's score has some terrifically minimalistic pieces for the slower, more atmospheric scenes, but grows generic when the action kicks off.  The only real letdown is another dire print from U. S. Manga Corps, which is so dark and muddy that it's often an active effort to keep track of what's going on.  Nevertheless, Guardian of Darkness gets a solid thumbs up: it may not be original or terribly outstanding, but it hits enough unexpected notes, develops in intriguing enough ways, and combines its elements differently enough that it ends up feeling unexpectedly fresh.


I guess the standout here was Blood Reign, which perhaps was the only release not getting props for being better than I expected; it's genuinely a bit special, if frustratingly imperfect, and I'm still listening to that awesome, utterly inappropriate closing track.  As for the rest, it's well worth keeping an eye out for and diving on a reasonably priced copy - or in the case of Ninja Resurrection, grabbing for a pound or two and watching the first episode when there's nothing that takes your fancy on Netflix.

Next time, perhaps we'll get the post that Blogger decided to delete and autosave over, if I can bring myself to rewrite it!  Or if not, one of the seven or so others I seem to have on the go!  Honestly, this whole thing has got a bit out of hand, he says, about three years too late...

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

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