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.