[12 July 2002]
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Horror tales come in infinite permutations, with menageries of beasties and wide spectrums of paranoid fantasies. Still, by and large, they can be reduced to two types: the explained and the unexplained. Stephen King likes the explained sort, where at the end of one of his meat-locker-sized tomes, he tells you what the horrible thing was and where it came from (furious readers of It know of which I speak). And Anne Rice will not only explain the creature’s origin, she’ll wring two or three more books out of that story.
Personally, I prefer the inexplicable imaginings of Poe and Lovecraft, and early Clive Barker, the crawling, chittering things that defy categorization and only seem amused by our whole top-of-the-food-chain conceit, while they’re in line at the mouth of Hell for human smorgasbord. So utterly beyond human ken are these monsters that attempting to understand them will drive you mad, and reasoning with them only gets you killed. The universe is full, as my Aunt Louise used to say, of “ha’nts and critters,” and the most you can do is to accept that they exist and pray you don’t look like you’d be tasty with hollandaise.
This principle of constant, even routine, interplay between the earthly and unearthly planes is standard fare in the literature of many cultures, from the “magic realism” tales of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the Appalachian fables of Manly Wade Wellman (to name two examples outside the well-traveled and much-maligned genre of “fantasy”). Among these are the popular entertainments of Japan, whose manga and anime have always been rife with creatures and spirits from Nippon’s mythology. Even in the non-horror genres ghosts, demons, and vampires abound, often as heroes but unquestioned in any case. While the Western horror tale, of either aforementioned stripe, slowly builds its momentum around a thick protagonist who repeatedly denies the existence of the monster despite a mounting body count (“But Jason/Freddy/Michael Myers died years ago!” THUNK!), the protagonists of the Japanese spookfest accept the boogeyman at face value and get right down to business. It’s incredibly refreshing. Efficient, too.
Manga Entertainment now offers on DVD a trio of horror anime featuring larger-than-life heroes battling monstrous evil while the rest of us slumber; and though two of these films are regrettably lacking in substance, none hinges on disbelief and poor peripheral vision.
Fans of lurid men’s adventure pulp like the Destroyer or Death Merchant series should respond to Vampire Wars, based on a novel by Kiyoshi Kasia. Like pulp, this film is bloody, loaded with testosterone, and ultimately disposable. After a CIA agent is found floating in the Seine with his throat ripped out, the seedy head of the French secret service recruits Kousaburo Kuki, a freelance spy with a chip on his shoulder and a weakness for hookers and chest-pounding declaratives, to find out why American agents are gathering in Paris.
By sheer dumb luck, Kuki intuits a connection between the Agency and a beautiful movie star named Lamia Vindaw. Lamia—whose given name is also that of a bloodsucking creature from Greek folklore, hint, hint—is soon revealed as the target of a group of expatriate Transylvanian vampires. Kuki becomes Lamia’s protector, lumbering Mike Hammer-style through a crossfire involving the CIA, French agents, and the vampires, all of whom have designs on a unique factor in her blood that is never really explained but seems really important to everyone. Somehow, all of this ties in to a terrorist attack on a SETI-like radio-telescope station in Arizona, but the end of the film, it’s difficult to care how, numbed as you are by all the tough-guy dialogue (if you always wanted to hear the word “cock-sucker” in a cartoon, here you go) and Lamia’s constant fragile-flower bit, which is fairly typical for a female character in anime if she doesn’t happen to have superpowers.
After seeing Vampire Wars, you’ll be glad that Psychic Wars isn’t quite such a knuckle-dragger. Still, while its protagonist is a brilliant and dedicated surgeon, he is possessed of biceps like basketballs and a tendency to lose his shirt while killing things, which happens a lot. After Dr. Ukyo Retsu removes a malignant tumor from a mysterious old woman, he finds himself drawn to a long-abandoned shrine in a forest outside Osaka, where he encounters a statue that resembles his patient and confers amazing powers to him.
Now possessed of great strength, clairvoyance, the ability to pull weapons out of thin air, and that business of jumping three stories into the air that everyone in anime seems to acquire, Ukyo returns to the hospital just in time to save his coworkers from the now very malignant tumor: it is, in fact, a demon. Ukyo realizes he has been chosen to defend the Earth from an entire race of demons that lived 5000 years ago. Blithe acceptance again—it took Tobey Maguire 45 minutes and a couple of montages to become Spider-Man; Ukyo acknowledges the demons, his powers, and his purpose, and gets to work within 10 minutes.
With his faithful and adoring nurse Ryoko at his side, Ukyo goes in search of the demons, only to get sucked into a time portal and dumped five millennia in the past. Ryoko disappears and as Ukyo hunts for her, he becomes the champion of Japan’s aboriginal race against the slavering hordes of Hell. The rest of the film is a mélange of stock sword-and-sorcery stuff, including a gratuitous nude bondage scene and Ukyo’s ever-expanding pecs. Director Tetsuo Imazawa tries to inject some artful touches—sudden jump-cuts, flashback narratives, multi-layered backgrounds, and the like—but these are frequently confusing. Likewise, the end comes straight out of nowhere and will leave you blinking. Given the current anime boom, it’s unrealistic to expect everything that comes from Japan to be Princess Mononoke, but neither should the titanic struggle between humanity and insensate ee-vill require this much effort to sort out.
It’s a great deal easier to get into Ghost Sweeper Mikami, which is actually an hour-long episode of a popular Japanese TV series from the early ‘90s. Mikami will appeal to fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, the two shows are remarkably similar. Reiko Mikami is a mini-skirted exorcist who commands huge fees for kicking supernatural ass with the help of her staff, including a girl-happy, bumbling assistant whose primary function is as monster-bait; a patient and sisterly magic-wielding ghost; a scholarly priest who acts as the group’s father-figure (no pun intended); and a good-guy vampire—Buffy aficionados can match up the characters and decide for themselves whether or not the correlations are merely coincidental.
There is, however, one huge difference between Mikami and Buffy—Mikami is strictly in it for the cash, possessed of an all-consuming greed that makes for real comedy in the midst of her battles with horrific beasties. In this installment, Mikami is contacted by the ghost of a feudal-era samurai, who talks her into combating the newly risen nosferatu he was unable to kill in his own time. The ghost sweepers find the vampire’s resting place and are attacked, during which scuffle Mikami is scratched, her potent blood awakening the vampire. Before long, said creature is filling Tokyo’s streets with zombies, indulging his acquired taste for exorcist blood with Mikami’s competitors, and preparing to conquer the world.
Mikami is our last hope for salvation, if she can tap into the Love and Goodness within her. The problem is, she has absolutely zero of either. As Mikami was made for TV, the animation is a bit pedestrian—on a par with your average episode of Sailor Moon, say—and the comedy is somewhat broad. But the balance between the funny stuff and the scary stuff is handled so breezily that Manga would do well to acquire and release the rest of the series for Western consumption.
Given Manga’s trio of ghostbusters to choose from, who ya gonna call? Not the humorless, granite-jawed heroes of Vampire Wars and Psychic Wars, unless you’re such an anime completist that you just have to have them. But make a point to seek out Reiko Mikami and her crew as often as possible for your ha’nt and critter needs. You’ll be glad you did.