Director: Akiyuki Simbo
Screenplay: Tatsuhiko Urahata
Based on a manga by Saki Okuse
Voice Actors: Toshihiko Seki (as Shijo Tsunami); Emi Shinohara (as Tachibana Shizuka); Hiroya Ishimaru (as Tenku); Akira Kamiya (as Huang Long); Urara Takano (as Chen Long)
Viewed in Japanese with English subtitles
The month is October, and Halloween is on the horizon, so its apt to cover horror or supernatural themed anime. What's surprising is that in comparison to manga and live action cinema in Japan, there's not as much in anime in the genre as you'd presume there to be. There's still a bit to dig through, but not a lot, and only some of it is known well and less than that has high regards to it. Even with the issues of censorship on television placed aside, as supernatural horror could be done without gore or adult content, there's not a lot in comparison to other genres. This means the existing horror anime is an eclectic bunch from various decades and formats.
The first starting off this month is an early entry by director Akiyuki Simbo, who's had an interesting career trajectory since this straight-to-video OVA, his later work very well regarded and popular such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011-2013), certainly the kind of work that'll be covered in the future. Twilight of the Dark Master is from an entirely different era than today, a short less than fifty minutes long, a snapshot left open with only tantalising details to digest. Set within a futuristic metropolis, there's no qualms as in other anime of mixing genres, mixing dystopian sci-fi with demons and magic not that far a stretch for the medium. The stereotypically debonair and bidanshi male hero Shijo Tsunami is the protagonist, a white haired magical being who hunts down monsters whenever they appear, blowing them up with ease with his supernatural powers. Alongside his more human buddy Tenku, they are requested by a traumatised woman named Tachibana Shizuka to locate her fiancée for her, a man who transformed into a demon causing her to lose an arm and suffering further mutilation, wanting to put his out of his mystery with Tsunami and Tenku's help. The search leads to sinister activities around a sex club and pharmaceutical company owned by the same organisation, making illegal steroids that turn people into monsters and have the fiancée locked up in the club's secret rooms for nefarious purposes.
The result is a nightmare of gory, sex filled plotting in a grimy setting where there's no daylight, only night-time atmosphere and bright lights, a place a skyscraper can be cut in half with magical powers but no one seems to care about the possible destruction and large body count that is caused by it. What appeals about these pre-Millennial OVAs is that even terrible ones show an unpredictability and style to them. Speaking of this in the context of the Halloween season, they managed due to whatever trends were taking precedent at the time to blend genres into dark, moody pieces. Moments are so blatantly lurid but in a serious way that it's quite shocking to see some of the content in this, even if it's far from the annuals of sleaziest and bloodiest anime ever made, the sincerity of say, the Chinese brother and sister combo on the villain's side with their incestuous, sadistic personalities more pronounced when it's clear the anime is doing it more deliberately and to purposely get a jolt from the viewers. The areas of body horror and transgression in Japanese storytelling have always been an art form in itself, a league of its own where even the most tasteless examples are still stupefying inventive in how they distort the human body or mix mythology, pop culture and plain nonsensical ideas together into images.
The bloodier, sexually explicit anime made for video showed this immensely, this example willing to throw up images briefly onscreen that distort human anatomy into various startling ways. From the melding of flesh and machinery, Tachibana Shizuka gaining a metal arm and steel plates on her mid torso since the traumatic incident with her fiancée, to a brief moment of two sets and legs and arms caressing someone like they were almost a phallic figurine, there are the sorts of visceral images and ideas here that are distinct to Japanese pop culture, that which you don't seen in other countries' takes on these genres. There's a uniqueness to the level of distortion and manipulation, of symmetry against lack of it, the notions of beauty and ugliness, sexuality to violence, man against beast or demons, that are only found in Japanese movies, animation, comic books and literature.
What's also interesting, as seen with Twilight of the Dark Master, is that for every horrifying one in terms of their politics, they're a lot more (perversely) palatable in depicting transgression than a lot of the anime past the Millennium I've seen. Even when there's stuff that's just titillation, a surprising amount of sexuality and nudity in this anime than I remember, it still feels more considered and beyond purely fan service even when the plot is slight.
A problem now, especially with sex comedies that try to have serious tonal shifts or don't plot their scenes out well, is that there's a shocking amount of moments I've encountered in more modern anime that are not transgressive but just uncomfortable and tasteless, wherever they include badly presented content or just make ill-advised decision prioritised by titillation the audience. That a lot of it is in the treatment of female characters makes it worse, and while this might sound insane to read, at least for how shocking and disgusting Urotsukidoji: The Legend of the Overfiend (1989) is, it was as much a work of shock value as well as an elaborate narrative. There's something far worse even then Overfiend in moments of innocuous and dumb shows like High School DxD (2012), (entry #6 of the blog), where they go into transgressive content briefly but in context of abrupt tonal shifts and in the context of shows where they feel badly out of place. Something like Twilight of the Dark Master, even if it's still a lurid, esoteric sci-fi fantasy, feels like it's using the moments of gore and sex to more thoughtful reasons rather than merely planting it repeatedly through scene after scene.
That the short anime takes itself seriously helps. The atmosphere you find here has been lost in a lot of anime now as well. That its hand drawn animation is as much part of it, the great moody anime of now of a different type of style. Here there's a tone to the story which saves the short anime from its derivative aspects, the sight of a cyber metropolis skyscrapers looming above the streets potent, imaging and seeing the grotty urban streets below and the demons lurking there, saturating the scenes like decoration. The visuals for the anime help, exceptional anime and memorable character designs, an atmospheric score by Keishi Urata evocative and adding to the tone.
Brief moments of arcane imagery stand out against bio-horror imagery of machines and medical tubes, moments of Cronenbergian imagery with a Japanese twist here, such as what takes place in the sex club, not a single bared breast seen but enough to see to shock a viewer, naked flesh covered in living technology, of semi-transparent multicoloured claws and tendrils wrapping around people, as a soundtrack of pained orgasms fill the viewers' ears. That this is back in an era where OVAs had a lot of adult characters, rather than now when you seem to trip over high school set anime, adds to this, feeling as if on a different perspective in its content. For the lack of an overreaching plot, little time to cover a great deal, Twilight of the Dark Master has an ominous tone even when set in bright rooms, a mood palatable in the animated frames that makes up for the plot's lack of content. The mix of the horrible and beautiful stands out far more than the utterly hockey bits, making it an anime that I cannot help but find enjoyable despite the flaws.