The use of darkness and shadows are the essence of horror. One of the most effective ways to create tension in a viewing experience is to use these elements to heighten the sense of dread and obscure the shapes in which horror manifests itself. This is what makes the “Bakeneko” storyline of Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (sometimes referred to as Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror) so unique: there are no shadows.
Classic Horror Meets Modern Technique
Ayakashi is an anthology series based on classic Japanese ghost stories as well as demon myths and legends. Its 12-episodes are broken into three story arcs. The first two are relatively well-done, traditionally made horror in both storytelling and visual composition. The last is what elevates this series into something artistic and disturbing.
The visual style of this story arc replicates ukiyo-e or Edo-era scrolls, traditional Japanese paintings of the time. “Bakeneko” uses bright, primary colors and lots of geometric symmetry. Shadows are never implemented, not even to conceal monsters or heighten the sense of dread. In fact, when the show chooses to do these things, it instead incorporates one-point perspective or the aforementioned symmetrical shots. It gives whole new meaning to the phrase “fearful symmetry.”
Story wise, “Bakeneko” follows a medicine seller as he arrives at a rich Japanese family’s estate on the eve of the daughter’s marriage. Just as the young woman leaves the threshold of the mansion’s front entrance, she is murdered. Though initially the medicine seller is suspected of foul play, it becomes clear that the true killer is of a more supernatural persuasion.
What follows is a locked room scenario where the family, a few servants, and the mysterious medicine seller are trapped inside the mansion. Claustrophobia sets in quickly as the medicine seller sets up barriers around only a few rooms to keep the evil force at bay. The barriers will not hold for long, though. They are running out of time, and if the creature’s form, intent, and reason for being are not uncovered, there will be no way of defeating it.
The set-up is deceptively simple, and allows for plenty of mysteries to develop and unravel as the medicine seller attempts to protect the group and himself from the supernatural force, all the while working to discover why the creature bears a grudge against the family.
Style and substance combined
Stylistically, the story arc makes use of sparse music, relying instead on heavy ambience and strange sound effects. Jump cuts are used quite often, mainly within the same shot frame, creating erratic and unnerving character movements. Combining all of that with the ukiyo-e inspired art direction, Stanley Kubrick-esque cinematography, wonderful character design, and lack of shadows, leaves you with a unique and disturbing horror experience.
The lack of shadows is what really gets to you. There’s something incredibly off-putting about the primary color scheme and uniform patterns used throughout. The show smothers with a heavy atmosphere that manages to constantly assault the senses and alter your perception.
It’s incredibly beautiful to look at, and an experience that is easy to get sucked into. This is thanks to its visuals being matched by its storytelling. The story is full of interesting characters and the reveal of the truth about what caused the curse to fall upon this family is both horrific and heartbreaking.
[“Bakeneko”] gives whole new meaning to the phrase “fearful symmetry.”
The series was dubbed into English and released in North America on DVD several years ago. Unfortunately, these DVDs are long out of print and prices, especially for the “Bakeneko” story arc are exorbitantly high (running in the $80 USD range on Amazon).
Skip the first two arcs and watch only the last three episodes that make up the “Bakeneko” storyline. If you’re interested in the art style or the character of the medicine seller, then good news because they created a full 12-episode spinoff series focused on him. Check back soon for a review of that series, titled Mononoke.