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.