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.