Japanese folklore and Shintō beliefs have always been populated with the most various multitude of spirits, which in turn populated Japanese horror tales. This anime series is an anthology of three such stories set in Edo-period Japan: two adapted from classical Kabuki theatre plays, and an original one.
The first, adapted from the influential Yotsuya Kaidan play, is the tale of a young woman named Oiwa, who, abandoned and betrayed by the one she loved, becomes an Onryō (vengeful spirit) and casts an everlasting course on all who wronged her. This part of the anime was written by Konaka Chiaki of Digimon Tamers and Lain fame, so it’s not surprising that, while never terrifying, this story manages to be very disturbing in some scenes, and quite involving throughout thanks to its characters. The plot is never complex, but some of its developments and the way it’s told actually have the “feel” of a theatre play, of a Greek tragedy even, so it can be enjoyable and interesting as such. A through-the-fourth-wall finale adds another touch by explaining real-life folk tales about Oiwa’s story, for example that it’s "Japan’s Macbeth" (the play itself is considered cursed as many people died during the production of stage performances and film adaptations of it and….well, I think it’s interesting!).
The second, an adaptation of the Tenshu monogatari, is the story of two star-crossed lovers (a human and the princess of a castle of forgotten gods) which evolves into something of a Shakespearean tragedy. I consider this one to be the weakest of the lot, because it provides nothing that could be considered horror and is the most unoriginal and seen-it-all-before, even for Edo-period standards. Still, I'm not saying it’s BAD: it’s actually decently interesting for what it has to offer, and the feel of a theatre play I described before is still there, but lacking as strong characters as the first it doesn’t manage to move the viewer, and being quite predictable it fails to leave a strong impression. I don’t deny that I might be saying this also out of my deep-rooted dislike for star-crossed lovers stories à la Romeo and Juliet, though.
The third, an original written for this anime by Nakamura Kenji and Yokote Michiko, is the tale of a malicious cat-demon (Bakeneko) who is haunting and murdering a family for unknown reasons, while a “medicine seller” tries to help them by discovering the spirit's story to exorcise it. This part is arguably the best of the series: the disturbing elements are present and mixed with a “detective story” feel, a lot of exciting action scenes, and a well-crafted and emotionally involving backstory for the origin of the bakeneko.
One recurring aspect of all three stories is that the real evil always comes from the human heart: it’s Oiwa’s spirit that causes all those terrifying deaths, but the horrible way she’s been betrayed by absurdly hateful people for nothing but greed makes the viewer actually feel sympathetic and even root for her; in Tenshu monogatari, it’s the jealousy of a woman and the arrogance of a daimyō that cause the tragedy; similarly, the most disturbing part of the Bakeneko story is actually the origin of the mononoke, to the point where such cruelty could make you think “Screw it, let it kill those bastards.” What must be really feared are men and their evil ways dictated by greed. As you can probably guess from this, most of the characters here are either flawed (in the Shakespearean sense of the term, yes I want to make people think I’m learned thank you very much) or plain evil.
We get characters like a greedy and arrogant samurai, a selfish and spoiled brat, a filthy lustful man, a falconer who abandons his wife (who’s gentle and good-spirited, but flawed by her jealousy), a princess with barely any consistent personality, the spiteful daimyō I described earlier, comedy relief characters, a varied family of samurai with a dark secret, and the medicine seller/demon hunter who’s simply plain freaking awesome and even quite original. As you can see, there’s no character of particular depth or originality, each is kind of “stock”, but the mix is well-balanced and well-orchestrated and genuinely “old-school tragedy" enough to work.
The first two arcs sport a standard but still decent art style, not shining in any aspect but a bit stiff and sloppy during the action sequences; in the third arc, though, it shifts to a very original style, characterised by a constant “filter” on the picture, seamless CGI in some shots, a more “cartoonish” and over-the-top character design, good action scenes and, I’ll add, beautifully designed interiors for the house of the samurai family. I realise, though, that this style can be disliked (I, for one, found the design of the secondary characters to be too “parodic”), but still its originality must be recognised and praised.
The soundtrack is the most lacking aspect of the series: it’s not bad mind you, I liked the fact that it sometimes uses Japanese instruments used in Kabuki theatre, and during the third arc it punctuates effectively the action scenes, but it doesn’t work as well during the other two arcs, failing, for example, to push the most disturbing scenes up the last step to “horrifying”. I wouldn’t have minded if the entire soundtrack to the first two arcs was made by a Kabuki orchestra! Plus it loses point for the opening credits song: it starts with shamisen melodies, only to turn into a freakin’ samurai rap. Now, I hate rap music, but even if I loved gansta stuff I would have found this song terribly out of place in a Edo-period ghost story, especially with such random lyrics. The ending song is a lot better, with a nice “folk” and almost Disney-ish atmosphere to it and a beautifully melancholic melody.
The voice acting, on the other hand, is really good. Each of the large cast of characters is portrayed pretty solidly; only a few of them, though, really stand out. The first one to name would be Sakurai Takahiro (of Code Geass, Final Fantasy, Digimon Adventure and others fame) as the medicine seller, pulling off a calm, cool, witty and intense hero, and actually playing a big part in the character's charm; I was also surprised by the stunning performance of Koyama Mami as Oiwa, especially during the scene right before her death where she seriously gave me the creeps; Onosaka Masaya proves once more after his work in “Baccano!” as Isaac that he’s got what it takes to be a perfectly funny but never annoying comedy relief character; Shioya Kōzō’s voice as the daimyō Harima-no-kami Takeda is as disgustingly obnoxious as his character is (this means that he's good, of course!); finally, I’d give special mention also to Hirata Hiroaki (of One Piece fame) as the resident asshole of the first story, Iemon.
While never truly scare-me-shitless terrifying or blow-me-off-my-chair awesome, Ayakashi provides a trio of decently fun stories, backed up by great voice acting, an interesting art style during the third arc, and the trigger of some reflection on what we should really consider “horrifying”. If you’re into Japanese literature and theatre I suggest you have a go at this, as the feeling of an actual theatre play is nicely kept; if you’re into the horror genre, again I suggest you watch this, even if you’re not going to need a spare pair of pants. Otherwise, it’s your call: it’s quite standard, but competently so, and even if it doesn’t leave a very strong impression it is in no way bad.
I stepped into this series with the false expectation that it should be similar to the off-shoot series derived from it, Mononoke. Oh, how two-thirds wrong I was! Er, a better explanation is that only the last story of three separate stories is related to the Mononoke counterpart. If you are a fan of Mononoke, I suggest starting at that story arc and going backwards after finishing each arc, or perhaps only watching the last arc, simply because most reviewers, including myself, agree that the stories are arranged worst to best.
The first story sets the bar pretty damn high (or low), with one of the opening lines being, "There has yet to be a movie so horrible, the audience regrets going to see it." If I can take that out of context for a second, I have seen many horrible movies which I regret seeing, but obviously this was hinting towards things like Hostel or Human Centipede, right? This somewhat pretentious phrase, coupled with other reviews and comments that were saying how disturbing this series was (or gave them nightmares), couldn't have possibly hyped up this series any more for me. I was ready to have my pants scared off.
Yotsuya Kaidan (ep 1-4)
However, this mindset was especially wrong for the first arc. The story is super slow in its pacing, not because nothing was happening, but because the narrator, who is the writer of a Kabuki play(this story), is presented at the introduction and end of every episode- in effect, killing any inertia created from the last episode. This equates to watching one episode of the Twilight Zone broken up into multiple episodes, with a narrator giving his pseudo-philosophical musings after every commercial break. There is even an epilogue, which our narrator expounds upon how every showing of this play is cursed, because the performers are hurt in strange accidents and such. While I found this very interesting, it felt like it was tacked on to the end of the first arc.
The major problem here is that it's just not scary. It's spooky, creepy, or slightly unnerving. If you think campfire stories are scary, you might enjoy this a lot- if you have the patience. The thing is it is a good story. It's just really dated. It could have used a major update or overhaul, but instead feels like a traditional retelling of an old folk tale.
The characters themselves are nothing special. This is based on a play after all. They fulfill their various roles, in a bland Shakespearian style. Unfortunately, it also fails to draw the audience in, because there is little to no emotion in even the most evil character. This, coupled with the fact that there are hardly any real motives going on here, make watching this an unnecessary alienating experience. Why was the husband so evil? How did he self-justify his terrible actions? Why does he have no guilt? Answering these questions would have brought some life into this flat, dated, Kabuki drama. Especially, since he is the character you see in most of the story (aside from that pesky narrator).
Just like the story: spooky not scary. The music is done well enough. Nothing gave me "the chills". Nothing outstanding or particularly deplorable here. (I'm not talking about the awesome openings).
It's not bad, but as I said earlier, I was expecting Mononoke-esque. It's fairly well done, but I just have one beef. The main ghost of the series face is supposed to be deformed(=ugly), and characters react to it like it's the most disturbing thing ever, but it looks like a flat-2d purple bokeh/watercolor piece super imposed onto the ghost's face.
Tenshu Monogatari (ep 5-8)
The second story was a nice surprise after the lackluster first. While nothing groundbreaking was happening, fortunately there was no stodgy narrator to break up the flow of the episodes. It is basically a love story of forbidden love mixed with the tale of sirens or "women" who feed on the flesh of men. More specifically, this is also not a scary story, but I do feel like what it sets out to do, it accomplishes very well.
What does it set out to do? It's definitely creepy at first, but in the end you'll see that this is a romantic love story. As I said, it's about forbidden love, but also how much is sacrificed for it. I can honestly say that this has A LOT of Shakespearian quality to the story, but the flavor is definitely Japanese. I would also like to add the main characters probably won't die in the end.
All of the main characters, seem to have a moment where they weigh their options for some reason or another, and we really feel like they are propelling the story along when they actually choose to act. We also know their motives, and that they don't necessarily hurt the one they love on purpose, and some actions like love, for instance, can also be quite destructive. You will believe that they did not intend the worst to happen, and at the same time realize and empathize with the selfish acts of love that have caused it to happen.
I would have liked to see more inner struggle in the male lead, because he seems that he doesn't love his wife that much. Or does he? I feel like this could have been touched upon and wasn't. He just leaves her. No conflict. Just an inkling of regret that was washed away eventually would have been enough.
Fairly subdued but like the first. There are no more cheesy ghost howls this time around, though.
This time the animation is slightly different from the first story. There are more wild and creative character designs. Again, nothing like Mononoke, but I would say this rates somewhere between the first and the third story for the much needed reaction shots that weren't in the first. For example, there is a corrupt official who kills a female servant and then we immediately see his two generals grimace at each other in fear and disapproval. This kind of characterization in the animation was missing in the first.
Bake Neko (ep 9-11)
This is Mononoke! The story of this arc is much more moody, mysterious, and violent. Our main character, the medicine seller, is an enigmatic exorcist who monitors a family and waits for the demon to show its Form, Truth, and Regret, by which it can be slain. The Form, Truth, and Regret is revealed usually by the characters or perpetrators themselves after they've had enough torture from the demon's constant barrage of hallucinations, flashbacks, and intimidation.
There is definitely enough dank and blackness in the story to disturb you a little. Once it comes to its true, ugly conclusion, you will be questioning how humans can do such horrible things. And that is exactly what I want in a horror tale. The monsters surrounding us are much more scarier than a demon.
The medicine seller himself is quite aloof and nonchalant compared to the other characters who go about screaming and running from visions and haunts. In short, he is our anchor to reality, while the other characters go about insanely accusing each other or not revealing some terrible reality until the end. You can definitely see and hear the characters anguish; there is some very deep characterization in the animation of the characters and the voice actors.
Creaks. Groans. Sliding door shuts. All of these effects is used to upmost effect because of the mutation of audio through high quality warping and tweaking. That and the abruptness of these sound effects creates an uncertainty of what will happen next. A lot of the cat sounds, work as a very effective allusion to the demon while serving as a foreshadowing device as well. The characters voices seem to be modeled after the caricature design of the characters faces, giving each a distinctive and colorful feel.
The first thing that comes to mind when having to describe the animation in this story is Katamari Damacy. A very devilish Katamari Damacy. The colors are vibrant and allude very strongly to watercolor. If this wasn't arty enough, they are overlaid with a watercolor or "wet" paper effect, making each scene look as if it was taken from someone's easel. As I mentioned before, the characters themselves have a caricature-esque look to them (also reminding me of Katamari Damacy) and juxtapose well with the high use of color. It also makes it very bearable to sit though the more disturbing parts without feeling too sickened, and quite pleasant to look at- if in a twisted way. It looks to be very high quality behind the paper filter, but I can't say whether it's technically impressive. It is very well colored, original, and fresh.
I think it's quite odd to organize a collection from worst to best, and I would recommend only the last two, if your short on time. An important point is that even though the last story is not in the Mononoke series, it is the most disturbing compared to the entire Mononoke series. it's the also the only one (including Mononoke) that made me cry from how sad it was as well. The last story just really digs into your emotions and doesn't let go and wrenches all of them out at the end with some good storytelling.
Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror/Samurai Horror Tales is a horror anthology of three unrelated stories: Yotsuya Kaidan, Tenshu Monogatari, and Bakeneko, the third of which received a far more successful spinoff in the form of Mononoke. Each arc was done by a different, and then-unknown director, though the director of the third, Kenji Nakamura, went on to make the critically acclaimed series "Mononoke" and "Trapeze" (He also made [C], though that fails to fall into the previous category). This review will mostly be split up into the three arcs. (NOTE: The R1 release of this series switched the first and second arcs around. This will be listed in the original order).
Arc 1 - Yotsuya Kaidan (episodes 1-4)
Yotsuya Kaidan (Yotsuya Ghost Story) is a story based on someone who died in horrific circumstances, due to being wronged by pretty much everybody around her, and manifests as a vengeful spirit, laying a curse on all those responsible. This tale is actually told as a story within a story, as narrated by a scriptwriter adapting it into a play.
This arc happens to be the only one based on an actual Japanese tale, but that doesn't lend it many favours. It begins on very bad footing, the key reason for it being this: The characters actions make insanely little sense. Every character is a stunningly terrible person with absolutely no train. of reasoning to follow. They could not be more one-dimensional if they tried. This was obviously an attempt to make us hate them more, and make the inevitable ramifications of the curse more cathartic, but it's done so ham-fistedly that it simply becomes stupid rather than cathartic.
Unfortunately, the horror elements that could have made this halfway entertaining are botched as well, as a result of a limited animation budget and some really bad directing causing major corners to be cut, making large chunks of the arc funny instead of horrific. The art isn't terrible, but it's not impressive either, and it makes itself quite clear on how low-budget it was. There are also frequent live-action sequences as well, which would probably have seemed more impressive if it wasn't so obviously yet another corner-cutting method. At the end of it all, we have a poor-quality story with poor quality directing and terrible characters, giving Ayakashi a very bad start. The only redeeming feature of this arc is an excellent monologue in the final episode, detailing the aspects of this as a story in the real world, and how it transcends its existence as a story to be something much more real.
Arc 2 - Tenshu Monogatari (episodes 5-8)
Tenshu Monogatari (Goddess of the Castle), in spite of being in a horror anthology, is less a horror story and more a tale of forbidden love. While there are horror elements, courtesy of the Forgotten Gods the arc focuses on, it mainly focuses on one of the Forgotten Gods falling in love with a human rather than, say, the Forgotten Gods eating people as the arc starts off with. However, this change of style is somewhat welcomed after the overblown style of the previous arc.
But unfortunately it's not very good either.
While this arc does fare better than the first, it succumbs to a major pitfall quite common of romance series: We have to actually give a crap about the main characters for it to work. And in the course of a mere four episodes, which are far more plot-focused than they are on characters, this becomes an impossible task. This is a shame, because unlike the last arc, there is actually a halfway decent story to be told here.
However, just like the previous arc, this story is damaged by blatant directing issues, corner-cutting, and a low animation budget. And wow, the animation budget really doesn't get much lower than this. The animation is amazingly cheap. While this doesn't make it funny like it did in the previous arc, it completely nullifies anything the action in this had going for it. Which is sad, because there were obviously some good ideas at hand here. With a decent budget and more episodes to develop the characters in, this could have been good, but sadly this isn't the case. So while Tenshu Monogatari manages to be better than the first arc, it still produces nothing of worth and is generally a waste of time.
Arc 3 - Bakeneko (episodes 9-11)
Wow. Talk about saving the best for last.
The Bakeneko (Goblin Cat) arc is an enourmous departure from the last two arcs in every sense. The first, and most obvious, is that everything in it looks beautiful. Corner-cutting is obviously at hand here, but it is used to the arc's benefit in every single way. Its method of corner-cutting is to use an unmoving plaid style similar to that of Gankutsuou. However, it far out-performs Gankutsuou in that sense. The way that the Bakeneko arc is animated makes everything look as though it is a moving Edo-period painting, and is executed flawlessly. But the budget they saved on animation, rather than simply going unspent, is used to create absolutely mind-blowing action sequences.
That isn't the only aspect of the production that is leaps and bounds ahead of the previous two arcs, however. The directing in the Bakeneko arc is absolutely mind-blowing. The transition in directing quality from one arc to the next is effectively the difference between Tommy Wiseau and Stanley Kubrick. Toei probably weren't even trying with the first two, and merely saving their resources for this arc. The amazing directing in this is responsible for the key factor in this arc: It's the only one in this horror anthology that is genuinely scary. This is as a direct result of Nakamura handling the tension in this arc amazingly. Every moment of fending off the titular monster is incredibly intense. This is also probably the best example of Monster Delay (not revealing your monster's appearance for a long time) that I've ever seen. And as mentioned before, every action sequence is brilliant. This includes what is easily the most beautifully-animated rendition of people being torn to shreds and having their remains splattered across a wall that I've ever seen, to name just one moment.
Another aspect of this arc's excellence is our main character, The Medicine Peddler/Kusuri-Uri. This arc has taken a lesson from the previous arc in not trying to develop characters in too short a space of time. Instead, Kusuriuri relies on how little we know about him to be an interesting character. His otherworldly appearance, his strange mannerisms, and his charisma all make Kusuriuri an excellent character. But moreso, it is the method with which he needs to slay demons that makes him stand out. For him to be able to unsheathe his sword, he must know three things: The form the demon takes, the truth of how it came into existence, and the reasoning behind the demon's actions. Only once he truly understands the demon is he able to exorcise it. This, I believe, adds an excellent layer of depth to this arc.
But while the directing behind this arc is certainly its most stunning aspect, it is carried by an excellent story as well. The aforementioned requirements behind unsheathing the sword cause the backstory behind the demon to unfurl, creating a stunning, tragic tale that I daren't spoil the details of.
The music in Ayakashi is shared between the arcs, and is the only aspect that is consistently excellent between them. The background music is always fitting, is rather excellent, and in the Bakeneko arc's case, the absence of outside noise is used to more amazing effect than any of the music is. The only letdown in the case of the music is the opening theme, and even that is only hit and miss. The melody and beat to it is actually extremely good, and is a disturbingly apt mixture of classical Shamisen music and hip-hop, but is unfortunately let down by a terrible vocalist.
The acting in the original Japanese is adequate, but mostly unmemorable. But it is still significantly preferable to the dub, which you may recognize as sharing the entire cast of Vision of Escaflowne. And if you ever saw the Escaflowne dub, you should know to stay away. The only character whose performance really matters is that of Kusuriuri, who is given an excellent, otherworldly charm by Takahiro Sakurai in the original track, and is given a terribly normal-sounding performance by Andrew Francis in the dub. In case you didn't get the point already, don't go anywhere near the dub.
Overall, Ayakashi is two thirds poor quality and one third stunning. However, the last third is told in different format in the spinoff series Mononoke, and while I don't yet know which version of this arc is preferable, it's probably not worth watching the first two arcs of Ayakashi just for this arc as a result.
Final Words: The first two arcs are very bad, but the third is amazing. If all of Mononoke is as good as the third arc it may well be one of the best anime ever made.
Also Recommended: Aoi Bungaku, Mononoke
Japanese track: 6/10.
Dub track: 2/10.
Genuinely creepy and entertaining. A very beautiful anime with interesting stories and themes, I especially anjoyed the story of the forgotten gods and Oiwa. I find the last one lost its touch a tiny wenie bit with the comdy bits put in, but still was very entertaining, I would recommend it to anyone. Lovin it