Thursday, 30 March 2017

#40: Dark Myth (1990)


Director: Takashi Anno
Screenplay: Takashi Anno and Tomomi Mochizuki
Voice Cast: Alan Myers (as Takeshi); Jay Harper (as Kikuchihiko); Peter Marinker (as Takeuchi); Blair Fairman (as the Narrator); Daniel Flynn (as Brahman); John Baddeley (as Hayato); John Bennet (as Jiku); Larissa Murray (as Miya)
Viewed in English Dub

Covering Dark Myth opens up an odd tangent Manga Entertainment, a British anime distribution company who worked both in the UK and USA, would probably like to forget but also manages to be a time capsule to a type of anime for Western viewers that's drastically changed in only a decade and a bit, involving a sub label only known as The Collection1 that I caught at its tail end on DVD and was meant to clearly take advantage of VHS era acquisitions they still had the licence to. With a preview burnt into my memory, from constantly viewing it as an extra on the DVDs, a sizzle reel built around The Mad Capsule Market songs, almost all the titles released in this series, English dubs only, are infamously bad or the obscure of the obscure. That most of them were dubbed in 1996 into English onwards informs a history of, after helping to fund Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell (1995), Manga Entertainment having to tighten their belts by scraping the barrel. The term "beer and curry anime" particularly comes to mind with The Collection too, informative a dead breed of Western anime viewing where it was mainly a young male audience who'd watch new releases in the UK on a Friday night with beers and takeaway curry; whether this actually happened or not, its definitely a time stamp to a medium that's (thankfully) changed so drastically in terms of gender balance in the titles released and the audience for the medium being both male and female, the type of stories we see now drastically away from this. Viewing this though, while the generation we have now is for the better, even something as flawed and maligned as this anime reminds me of something admittedly lost, which I barely caught in the early 2000s and was too young for anyway, in how I wish more of these stranger, rawer type of anime from the late eighties and early nineties were still being made but with modern sensibilities.

Like a lot of the Collection, Dark Myth aka Ankoku Shinwa has in inherently interesting premise, combining ancient Japanese folklore with horror, but like most of them is a failed work, as much to blame on the English dub its only available with as it is the flaws inherently in the production. The young protagonist Takeshi finds himself on a journey to become the Atman, the personification of human energy and connected to the Hindu personification of cosmic reality Brahman, the Atman a messiah figure will either bring enlightenment or destruction depending on whether Takeshi who's forced into this position against his will, chooses either side. An elderly man with a surprising amount of knowledge on the subject represents the former choice, whilst the leader of the Kikuchi Clan (descendants of Japans first inhabitants) pushes Takeshi to the later as he hates the fact Takeshi has been chosen and not himself. The issue immediately, and this is as much culpability on the English dub's lack of quality, is that beyond this basic plot, the two part OVA is expanded with such elaborate mythology that, based on real mythology and spirituality or partially made up, the narration and exposition is so vast and constant, with pronunciations in the English dub which vary in utterance and sound, that it gets convoluted and maddening to catch up with. Half the difficulty with Dark Myth, and why it's likely looked down upon if the Manga Entertainment version is the only one available, is just having so much audio information to follow that eventually drowns your grasp of the plotting.


This denseness causes such a lot of problems as, whilst perfunctory in a lot of places, Dark Myth does pull out moments of real interest. The narrative, if it didn't make such a simple plot so convoluted, has a type of mythology on display that is unique and fascinating in terms of horror and fantasy. Stone eggs as a method for people to preserve themselves over centuries (unless they sleep for too long and fall to pieces like literal dolls). Armless snake headed demons and a horse head god. Or the reoccurring monsters the hungry ghosts, the dead who've escaped hell who're represented as chimp-mammal like hybrids with old man hair, packs of them who lead to a few moments of extreme splatter in how they can shred people to pieces in spite of being the size of a pug dog each. It's a testament to anime as a vastly different cultural item compared to Western horror and fantasy, where it can draw on a rich reservoir of myths and inspirations for even a significantly lesser work like Dark Myth, allowing it to be rewarding even if the plot, leading to a form hanging over Earth as an evil miasma for a convoluted reason, becomes too garbled to follow eventually.

There's also a surprising sense of technical quality for an anime packaged with the likes of Violence Jack (1986-1990) and Psychic Wars (1991) in The Collection, which could be easy to forget. The most blatant is the surprise appearance of composer Kenji Kawai, Mamoru Oshii's regular composer, creating the score, here creating a late eighties synth score that reinterprets traditional Japanese folk music with a nostalgic sheen to it. The other aspect of worthy mention is when the work does take a few risks with its aesthetic and animation, managing to succeed in the few cases. Imagining, while Takeshi is in a trance, wandering between shrines across Japan to get the marks needed to be the Atman being depicted in a genius way where everything is entirely white and not even pencil outline is visible, literal blank whiteness like a cel from an animation sequence, with only sound and monologue around him informing us of where he is.


The other are the tripper moments such as eight armed, horse head gods and Brahman 's world being depicted by way of Salvador Dali creating a space rock album cover. It's a shame that such detail and invention is wrapped around such a convoluted narrative, when it could have cut three thirds of the exposition out and still succeeded. If anything the lesson to learn from The Collection in general is that, my fondness for it in its ineptitude aside, that the style of these hand drawn animated works, even the grottier ones, is something that we could still have now, their tones and moods something that would be a breath of fresh air next to the more modern anime of now when it fails, as long as you don't forget that particularly with the likes of Dark Myth, there's a reason why "guilty pleasure" might be a justifiable term to use to describe it.


1 For those interested, barring two unofficial entries (Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 (1987) and Tokyo Revelation (1994)) and two South Korean animations (Red Hawk: Weapon of Death (1995) and Armageddon (1996)), The Collection consisted of: Dark Myth, Vampire Wars (1990), the maligned sequel to Bubblegum Crisis (1987-1991) called Bubblegum Crash (1991), Landlock (1995), Psychic Wars, candidate for many as one of the worst anime ever made, Sword for Truth (1990), one of the great director Osamu Dezaki's less than stellar efforts, Amon Saga (1986), New Gall Force (1989-1990), a sequel in the Gall Force series which is actually a good entry in The Collection, and most infamously Violence Jack, until recently when Discotek in the US decided to traumatise people with the uncut Japanese language version was enough to suffer through badly dubbed in English and butchered.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Bonus #2: Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991)


Director: Lam Nai-choi
Screenplay: Lam Nai-choi
Based on a manga by Tetsuya Saruwatari
Cast: Fan Siu-Wong (as Ricky Ho); Fan Mei-Sheng (as Assistant Warden Dan/Cyclops); Ho Ka-Kui (as The Warden); Yukari Oshima (as Rogan); Tamba Tetsuro (as Master Zhang); Gloria Yip (as Anne); Kwok Chun-Fung (as Lin Hung/Andrew); Frankie Chin (as Oscar); Koichi Sugisaki (as Tarzan); Wong Kwai-Hung (as Brandon)

My review of the live action adaptation of Tetsuya Saruwatari's manga is going to be drastically effected by having been able to read said manga, an issue that can entirely effect someone's opinion on the adaptation depending on the context, and definitely is the case for me here. Never officially released in English, fans have translated it and quite a few years ago I read the entirety in full. Trained by Kazuo Koike, the legendary manga writer of Crying Freeman, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Lady Snowblood, Saruwatari has developed his own success through series like Tough, Riki-Oh and Dog Soldier. He also learnt from Koike, whilst also the artist of his own work, a frantic style of storytelling that, whilst Koike is critically acclaimed, has made his teacher also notorious for his almost insane plot twists, complete disregard for tastefulness and the sense of having had his work, just seeing some of the anime adaptations like Mad Bull 34 (1990-2), spun out as it was from the hellishly short deadlines of manga publication and the need to constantly keep a reader turning pages constantly. Riki-Oh, a live action Hong Kong film, is exceptionally faithful to this lunacy, even close to panels and details from the original manga, but it's also only the first few chapters following the introduction of the titular character (Fan Siu-Wong), a noble man sent to jail in a privatised prison whose martial arts ability allows him to withstand pain and mutilation that would kill a regular human being, and in turn transform opponents into meat pate with a single blow.

A large part of the weight the film adaptation suffers from is that it only covers the beginning, where the stakes are simply the evil prison warden (Ho Ka-Kui), his underling Cyclops (Fan Mei-Sheng), and the four prisoners that lead each ward - North, South, East, West - with incredible power, such as the beautifully androgynous and dangerous Rogan (legendary Japanese actress/stunt woman/martial artist Yukari Oshima playing a man) to the giant Tarzan (Koichi Sugisaki) whose ability to rush a man's head with a single clap gave the film a clip that could be used in American media to help it live on in infamy. The full manga in comparison however is so mind-bogglingly stranger and mad  after these initial chapters that, not only would this adaptation seen far tamer in comparison, but I was likely permanently effected after reading said manga after all these years. A story where Riki-Oh is actually a Jewish-Japanese superhero whose bullet wounds in his chest, with the bullets still left within them, are actually shaped like a Star of David in the pages, and is fighting on the side of atheist, Japanese-Jewish heroes fighting for goodness and atomic energy against the forces of evil, including Chinese Nazis and a twin brother who became evil after a game of tag as a child, who believe in religion. Against this and such sights as Riki-Oh punching out an elephant, fighting grunts on miniature AT-ATs, a minor villain whose similarity to M. Bison/Vega from the Street Fighter games is so close its likely Capcom tipped their hat to him, another a sadist who uses his ceiling fan death blades just on a servant who gets a hair in his tea, and it's a one-off whose list of events I've barely scratched the surface of. Alongside dialogue so strange it actually starts to make sense in its randomness and the extreme gore, and the live action film has a mountain to scale in comparison.

What I have to admire with the adaptation though is that it does manage to adapt it well, right down to the obsession with the violent splatter being intercut with its naive emotional core, where crying of manly tears is common place from Ricky, lamenting all those who die violently in spite of his own responsibility for knocking half a person's face off or splitting a giant fat man's stomach open like a balloon full of red paint. It's also feels like one of the more off-beat films that came over from Hong Kong cinema, making the decision to adapt a Japanese manga like it with incredible faithfulness a rare case of material so perfectly fitting its new home, fitting the tone of many Hong Kong films as eccentric as it equally. The one difference to a lot of the more lurid martial arts films however is that, whilst there's plenty of actors in the cast who are exceptionally talented in this area, the combat ability depicted in the film is significantly more simplistic, so that rather than the spectacle that is the common benchmark of Hong Kong cinema of exceptional and athletic fight scenes, the result is actually a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter film on a higher budget with more elaborate production design. A punch doesn't just hit flesh but take a huge chunk off a person, half their hand if they are throwing one back, or the whole jaw. This is the film where, straight from the manga, someone losing a fight cuts open their own stomach and attempts to strangle their opponent with their own exposed intestines. This gore, in elaborate cheery prophetic glory, is ridiculous and without concept of real life physics, possible to heal a severed tendon by tying up again, not how tendons work in real life but part of the crazed logic the manga gained from Kazuo Koike's teachings to the author.

A lot of what you get from the film since the plot is without the usual level of martial arts, baring these gore effects, is the eccentricities particularly in its cast of characters to latch onto. Fan Siu-Wong is playing a cipher with an oddly schizophrenic attitude to morality, blaming another for a prisoner dying when he finds their family photo but only minutes earlier punching half his face off, and a knack for blazers in the flashback explaining his current situation when dealing with the happiness he used to have. Anyone who becomes his character's friend is the same, all of them dying in nasty ways in a way that could become a morbid drinking game. The side characters in terms of the villains are the real interest, from Cyclops, the most valuable thing of the film who has a hook hand, a glass eye he keeps breath mints in, and Mei-Sheng playing him as a bumbling yet sinister figure perfectly, or Ka-Kui as the warden, his chubby man-child nephew already memorable, but by himself in his sadistic glee of what he does or being chosen to run the prison, and all its evil shenanigans, because he's the best at martial arts, one of the most memorable lines of dialogue. It's this broadness which compensates for the simplicity of the story if you can appreciate it. For me it's more difficult in spite of these great aspects. Much of this review is based on the problem of comparing it to the original source material, not only in terms of the madness in the original but Saruwatari's art managing to make such silliness and gore actually artistically awe inspiring in how realistic and detailed it is, the grey and muted palette of the prison setting and style of the film only awakened when someone bursts a blood vessel. Still deserving of its reputation as a one-off gore kung-fu fest, but for me personally it falls behind other films like it especially from the Shaw Brothers which didn't sacrifice the martial arts and elaborate stories for the gore.