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.