The anthology series is certainly an interesting creature. Relying on smaller, bite-sized stories, usually with little or no connection, this type of show relies on writing more than possibly any other type of series. In anime, the problem is exacerbated by the smaller episode counts (usually 12-24) and smaller budgets than most TV shows. Because of this, several shows of this type (most recently for me, “Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales”) tend to be decent, but not amazing. Some of them are downright awful.
But Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s “Requiem From the Darkness” is a unique gem even in this unique category. It is, ostensibly, an anthology of horror stories, each connected by a central cast of four characters and each one focusing on the myriad of awful things people are capable of doing. But unlike most of its ilk, Requiem carries itself with an interesting sense of style (and, dare I say it, a bit of swagger) that elevates it from “a solid horror series” to an altogether unusual experience all its own.
What We Are in The Dark
Let us begin by establishing our central cast. Yamaoka Momosuke is a meek but intelligent young man in Edo-period Japan, who works as an author writing riddle books for kids. But Momosuke is bored with this type of writing, and wants to sink his teeth into something a little more meaty. He wants to write ghost stories, based on the fables he always hears, and so he sets out to experience some horror of his own. During his travels, he comes across the “Ongyou”, a team of spiritual beings whose job it is to punish sinners whose evil deeds have come to their attention.
The group consists of Mataichi, the “trickster” who acts as a charm salesman and seems to be the de facto leader of the band, usually being the one to seal the fates of their targets. Ogin, the “Puppetmaster”, whose cunning, feminine wiles and usage of puppets for obfuscation makes her indispensible to their cause. And finally, Nagamimi, the “Bird Caller”, who is implied to be the oldest of the three (by FAR) and has a whole host of talents, including shapeshifting and the ability to communicate with and command animals.
But this is no childrens story. Those the Ongyou deal with run the gammut from being unfortunate, corrupted souls whose deeds have damned them, to the absolute scum of the earth, people of such vileness and evil that they deserve nothing but death as swift as possible. Still, Momosuke finds himself drawn into their world, despite their repeated warnings to get out while he can. Will Momosuke find the knowledge he has been searching for, or will the ugliness of humanity claim him as well as the Ongyou?
This is Your Horror Story on Acid
The most jarring thing one will encounter when starting up Requiem from The Darkness is its sense of style. The show opens with what can only be described as a jazz-lite groove as it’s opening, and it only gets stranger from there. Visually, the show has a style that borders on psychedelic some times, with characters seeming to pop off the backgrounds, which by comparison tend to be darker in tone. This makes it almost look like characters are walking on a plain seperate from the backgrounds, something off-putting at first but easy to get used to.
Much more distracting is the designs for the ancillary characters. To put it mildly, the background characters seemed to have been designed with a “whatever the hell we can come up with” mentality. Facially, they run the gamut from “featureless blobs” to “wooden planks”. No, I am not joking. It’s like the gags you would see in “Pani Poni Dash”, except minus the comedic aspect. It’s not a bad style it’s just…odd.
The main character designs tend to be a little more uniform, with most of them being well drawn and proportioned. Mataichi looks suitably mysterious, Momosuke suitably mousey, and Ogin has possibly the most magnificently drawn ass I have ever seen in an anime. I don’t care if that makes me a deviant, you take a look and tell me that it isn’t true. Nagamimi is a little bit on the weird side, design-wise, with a big upper body, long legs, and a tremendous mouth, but he’s also the most blatantly supernatural of the three, so it can be forgiven. Actually, the art style sometimes makes the story move a little quicker, as you can immediately tell who is going to be a main character just by looking at them and seeing that they have actual facial features.
The music, on the other hand, is uniformly strange. A good amount of it consists of jazzy works like the opening, while others use a combination of synthesizer droning and traditional Japanese instruments to give a more unsettling feel to the action. Sound effects deserve a mention, as they are among the best I have heard. Every dark, disturbing action taken by the villains or even the heroes sounds exactly like you would think it would. This includes the sound of bashing a little boy’s skull in with a rock, and a needle piercing the eyeball of a five year old girl.
“Evil and Ambition Scatter in the Darkness…”
What I have described here all sounds very goofy, and taken purely by the aesthetic, it is. But make no mistake; Requiem from the Darkness is a very dark show, touching on all the nastiest things human beings do away from the prying eyes of society, and the restraining voices of their morality. Infanticide, cannibalism, slave trading, necrophilia, psychosis, mans endless desire to use power when they have it, rape, murder, and incest are just a few of the story themes you get in this show. And let me tell you, if you have a problem with seeing horrible, eyeball-related violence, then you best brace yourself when you watch this show.
Admittedly, the story falls prey to many of the problems that plague most anthology shows, namely the formulaic progression of most of the stories. The episode starts with a scene usually alluding to (or directly showing) the crime commited. Then the Ongyou come in and try to figure out who committed the sin, and why, and then mete out punishment based on the severity of the sin committed. Usually Momosuke will try to help/investigate in his own way, but more often than not will simply end up interfering. Rinse. Repeat.
However, the strength of the stories and their willingness to show every nasty detail works to curb this issue. Most episodes feature a sort of “who done it” to get past, or asks a question about the morality of its subject. In addition, this show is not afraid to show you all the nastiness it’s characters inflict upon eachother, something usually shyed away from by other shows. Even in the first episode, it breaks your expectations from the very start by not simply cutting away and talking about the death of a child; they actually show the grisly image of the poor kid getting his skull caved at the episode’s opening. It is this plain portrayal of it’s subject matter that makes every episode a weird combination of campy scary story and outright unsettling horror tale.
The show’s one weakness is that it’s overarching story is basically there as an excuse to wrap things up. It’s all related to the Ongyou’s boss, the mysterious Kyogoku-Tei, who sends them orders through the White and Black Hermits, two little troll creatures who act as the boss’s messengers. This storyline does come to an end, but the whole thing feels kind of tacked on, and the story itself seems even campier than the usual business. Not that it’s terrible, mind you, but there is definitely a notable lack of forethought in it.
“…Leaving Behind Dubious Rumors to Fly in Public…”
Luckily, the camp doesn’t affect the voice acting in either language, as each one has a wonderful voice cast. In the english dub, the main foursome of Momosuke, Mataichi, Ogin and Nagamimi are voiced respectively by Grant George, Steve Kramer, Karen Strassman and Michael McConnohie. George and Kramer own their roles, while Strassman does her job, but sounds kind of awkward sometimes. McConnohie, as usual, plays Nagamimi with all the gloriously booming enthusiasm we have come to expect from him. The cast changes from episode to episode, and therefore we get a huge cast of recognizable voices from David Lodge to Tom Wyner, Kirk Thornton, Dorothy Elias-Phan, Philece Sampler, Mona Marshal and numerous others, with all of them doing their jobs competently for their limited engagements.
Unfortunately, they had to compete against what is a truly startling cast of actors for the Japanese version. The Japanese cast for the main foursome (in the same order as above) is Toshihiko Seki, Ryusei Nakao, Sanae Kobayashi, and Norio Wakamoto. All four of them are known for their absurdly prolific credits and for voicing some of the most epic characters in existence.
To put it in perspective for the voice actor layman, the main foursome is Duo Maxwell from Gundam Wing, Frieza from Dragonball Z, Lucy from Elfen Lied, and Emperor Charles from Code Geass (not to mention Cell from Dragonball Z). This, as you may expect, makes for one of the most joyous listening experiences imaginable. Particularly, Nakao and Wakamoto seem to be having a grand old time playing their morally ambiguous and overly-theatrical characters, and it’s good to hear them enjoying themselves as something other than overt villains. The extended cast is just as prolific, but listen for the two old hermits who act as recurring characters in the show. They are both voiced by none other than Masako Nozawa, the voice of Goku in Dragonball.
The opener, “The Flame”, is a sort of jazzy little number that sounds like it would work equally well in a jazz club or at the beginning of a porno, but fits the style of the show perfectly, and is actually really catchy. The ender “The Moment of Love” is a melancholy piano tune with somber yet romantic lyrics that is of course just as jarring as it’s counterpart. It’s a little less memorable than the opener, but still good, sounding like it should be playing in a 1950’s bar somewhere. Both songs are performed in perfect english by Keiko Lee.
“To the Next World, We Commit Thee!”
It’s not very often that one finds a show that truly has no others to compare it to, but that’s exactly what we have here. There is literally nothing else like this show out there, both thematically and in terms of it’s execution. Requiem From the Darkness is simultaneously an entertaining, occasionally campy set of tales set in old Japan, and a thoroughly unsettling look into the grotesque nature of the human soul.
Occasional story hiccups aside, if you’re in the market for something dark and unsettling, with occasional silliness, then pick this one up. After all, the worst story is not the one involving monsters and people, it’s the ones involving people and people.
Grisly Yet Fun: 9/10