Twilight Q is an interesting albeit largely forgotten OVA produced back in 1987. Originally, it was supposed to be a showcase for young talents in the industry; alas, only 2 episodes were made before the project was abandoned due to low sales, and the anime ultimately sunk into oblivion. Well, I guess it's high time to do the show some justice and bring it back to the surface.
As the title clearly suggests, the OVA is a sort of Twilight Zone anthology, which means the episodes don't bear any connection plotwise, yet they have similar mysterious atmosphere and employ the same mix of genres that may be roughly described as mystery + sci-fi + mindf*ck. A very good mix, if you ask me.
The first episode called Reflection is based on a story by Kazunori Ito (the scriptwriter for Ghost in the Shell & Patlabor movies), directed by Tomomi Mochizuki (known for his work on studio Ghibli's Ocean Waves and studio Manglobe's House of the Five Leaves). One day, a girl named Mayumi dives into the ocean and finds a camera stuck on a coral riff; later, she discovers a film inside the camera and, much to her surprise, the film contains a picture where she poses with some guy she doesn't even know. Obviously, she decides to find out the truth about the picture's origins, and so the sequence of enigmatic events begins.
Without spoiling anything, the episode is simultaneously interesting and easy to follow, moving at a fine pace, providing enough twists to keep you intrigued, and offering a conclusive ending while leaving some of the mystery to the viewer's interpretation. That being said, the story does have a certain problem, as it ends up lacking any distinctive central theme or well-defined message; and even though the episode is tagged as "romance", it appears to be almost non-existent in the show. Besides, the story incorporates a certain ecological disaster and a certain historical event that, while interesting on their own, remain unexpanded and contribute very little to the main plotline. Eventually, the story turns out well-written and intriguing yet somewhat empty at the core.
The second episode called File 538 is cut from an entirely different cloth. Directed by Mamoru Oshii and based on his own story, it tells about a private detective spying on a father - daughter pair living next door (well, not entirely like that, but I won't go into detail to avoid spoilers). One summer night, the main character enters the apartment and finds a sleeping girl, a fish, and what seems to be a letter from another detective previously working on the same case. As he sits there reading the message, the mystery unravels before his eyes.
This episode turns out very multifaceted and surreal, as the story seamlessly blends real and dreamy events to show how we are often unable to distinguish illusion from reality and end up getting trapped into dreams; also, it provides an ironic commentary on human existence, full of dark humor and Kafka-esque transformations; and some Christian symbolism may be found here as well, although only a bit of it. In general, the story is very original, multilayered and thought-provoking, with plenty of ideas to infer and a couple of amazing revelations that I won't spell out to avoid spoilers.
That all being said, the anime also has a very dry & demanding presentation, as the whole story is narrated very slowly by the protagonist while he sits in the room, doing nothing else at all. Thus, the show ends up way too static, not to mention a radical violation of the "show, don't tell" rule. Thankfully, the story makes sense overall, with the protagonist factually explaining everything in the ending; the problem is, many viewers may have trouble following 20 minutes of ultra-slow & rather complex narration that precedes it.
To sum everything up, the two stories of Twilight Q turn out diametrically opposed in their strengths & weaknesses, as the first is well-presented yet has fairly little substance in it, while the second has plenty of substance and the presentation arguably too challenging for its own good. The only thing they have in common, besides the overall mysterious tone, is that both are far from perfect yet unusual & interesting, each in its own way.
If you look at the staff credits, you will see two very big names in the credits for the 1st episode: the character designs were made by Akemi Takada, who also worked on Mobile Police Patlabor, Kimagure Orange Road, Urusei Yatsura and some other classic shows; and the art director was Shichiro Kobayashi, known for working on Lupin III Castle of Cagliostro, Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer, Berserk, Revolutionary Girl Utena and Nodame Cantabile, among other things. Plus, there're some great animators in there, such as Takayuki Goto, a co-founder of studio I.G Tatsunoko, which was later renamed as Production I.G (the G in the studio's name comes from his surname, by the way). So, no wonder that the animation in this episode is very nice: it's very colorful, neat and detailed, with both artwork and motion done right. However, the overall style is just realistic with few unique features, and while Takada's character designs are nice, as they always are, Kobayashi's backgrounds don't stand out as much as they normally do for some reason (that may be only my personal impression though). As a result, it makes the animation pleasant to watch yet rather unmemorable in the long run.
The animation in the 2nd episode is no worse although it appears much more limited at first, showing only the room where the protagonist dwells or some stills & abstract imagery going along with his speech, like airplanes in the sky; view of the city streets with clouds flying above; and other stuff like that. It all may look boring on paper, yet the visuals turn out quite impressive in their own way, which is no wonder when the art director is Hiromasa Ogura - the same man who later worked on Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh and FLCL among other famous anime; and the animation director is Shinji Ootsuka - a longtime Studio Ghibli animator who also assisted with key animation for Angel's Egg, Jin-Roh, FLCL, Millenium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers. In general, the main strength here is the artistic composition that makes some clever use of stills & abstract imagery; and when things actually move, the animation is quite smooth & detailed. Also, the colors are rich, dark and pleasant to the eye, and the overall quality is very good considering the show's age. The one and only aspect I strongly dislike is the character design of the male protagonist: while it may be a matter of subjective taste more than anything, I think it is way too grotesque, giving him a fairly ugly appearance. Perhaps, Oshii wanted him to look unusual in some way, but that remains beyond my understanding.
Overall, the animation in both episodes reflects their nature and differs the same way as the stories: the animation in the 1st episode is nice to look at yet rather forgettable; the animation in the 2nd episode is quite original & well-done, yet some questionable artistic decisions make it hardly tolerable for some viewers. Nevertheless, both display some genuine quality only hand-drawn anime can offer.
The soundtrack for both episodes by maestro Kenji Kawai consists mostly of keyboard music that isn't really memorable, and you probably won't even notice it if you don't pay specific attention. However, if you do, you'll realize that the tracks are nicely composed and they do a great job at creating the enigmatic atmosphere of the OVA. I only wish the melodies were more diverse and employed more instruments, but even this way they're still good & fitting for the show.
The voice-acting in the first episode is fine, with nothing particularly standing out. The protagonist's voice in the second episode is really weird, and exactly like with the character designs I have no clue why Oshii wanted him to talk that way: maybe, to make him sound mysterious? I don't know. Well, at least I wasn't annoyed with his voice although it did sound very strange to me.
The characters in both episodes have no remarkable personalities and few distinctive features in general: in fact, they are just gears used to keep the plot going. However, while the lack of outstanding characters is never a good thing, it may be not too bad in this case, considering the anime's relatively short length & the very story-driven nature of the mystery genre it belongs to. Taking that into account, I believe the cast is more or less ok for this kind of show... and that's pretty much it. I wish I could tell you more about them, but there really isn't much else to say aside from a couple of spoilers.
While far from flawless, Twilight Q is certainly an interesting & innovative anime that may be recommended if you're into mystery, sci-fi & mindf*ck genres or if you particularly like any of the creators involved in the project. I hope this review helps you set the right expectations before going into the show, and perhaps, you'll enjoy it more than I did.