Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Humans believe that they have forever banished the monsters of old along with the night, pushed back into the far reaches by the shining brilliance of the city. But in the absence of real shadows, monsters have simply moved into other shadows. They lurk, not in the blackness of night, but in the darkness of human hearts. Enma, a fire-wielding demon, roams the earth exploring these internal shadows. For it is his job, along with his childhood companion, snow-woman Yuki, to ferret out the monsters who have escaped Hell and either send them back or burn them to ashes with its flames. Murderous dolls or viscious blood-suckers, as Enma gets closer to the demons and the humans possessed by them, others in the city—a police officer and a lady reporter—grow closer to him, and to the truth of his Hell-born mission.
Throw together veteran creator Go Nagai and Elfen Lied director Mamoru Kanbe, and what do you get? For lack of a better example, you get Demon Prince Enma; a solid horror OVA that does interesting things with both, without redefining either.
Springing as it does from the same visual sensibility, there are many similarities between Enma and Elfen Lied—most noticeably in Kanbe's skill with composing grotesque-yet-beautiful images, the use of stunning background art, and a knack for racking up tension. But where Elfen Lied's horror lay in its clinical depiction of hideous acts of violence and the dichotomy between tender normality and the unspeakable insanity that threatens it from the shadows, Enma's is a creeping dread stemming from alienation, indirect violence and narrative misdirection. Where Elfen Lied set its stage with a graphic demonstration of its willingness to butcher traditionally unkillable characters, Enma kicks off with a grueling chase that immediately casts doubt on who it is that is the monster and who it is that is the victim. Of course, pulling bad-guy/victim switcheroos could easily become shallow trickery, but Nagai and Kanbe have the good sense to root their horror in their characters' psychology. Each revelation uncovers the workings of one character's mind, and the most frightening thing about each episode—as creepy as the monsters get, and things don't get much creepier than living dolls—are the ugly little psychological openings that the monsters use to worm their way into their hosts' souls.
It isn't all winding tension and psychological elaboration of course. Go Nagai is attached after all, and given his fame, it'd be a surprise if the end product came away free of his greasy fingerprints. Even if the guys in the cast don't have funky eyebrows and zig-zag sideburns, there're still healthy doses of broad humor (Enma ogling Yuki's stripped bust, Enma peeking at Yuki in the bath, Enma frolicking in a cosplay cabaret club), plenty of nubile female flesh, and a definite sexual edge to the violence. All told though, none of those additions are necessarily negative—Enma is adept at traversing that line between silly and menacing, and Yuki's unapologetic sensuality is tempered by her fierce personality—and indeed the series' other failings clearly overshadow them. The short-story structure, despite some unexpected—and welcome—continuity between chapters, leaves precious little time for the characters and audience to bond, making it hard to care much about what happens to them. And the execution of much of the violence (A shadow looms! A character screams! Blood splashes on a wall!) quickly gets irksome, regardless of its (or its lead-up's) smooth, expert animation or the crimson-spattered beauty of its aftermath.
Music is traditionally an important part of horror, but luckily Kanbe doesn't make the mistake of using musical manipulation in an attempt to beef up the scares. From an audio standpoint, the series' crawling sense of dread owes everything to careful sound design—echoing growls and grunts, incidental noises, background dialogue, and good ol' sound effects—rather than to music. If fact, there's hardly any music whatsoever; what little there is leans heavily towards pointedly dissonant Japanese flutes and drums, and is used almost exclusively when Enma is on the hunt. The ending theme is appropriately jarring guitar-based rock.
Bandai Visual's treatment of this series is in keeping with their previous titles. It's packaged with a nice thick booklet full of supplementary information (including a pair of four-panel gag mangas by Nagai that speak volumes for just how crude the humor could have been, were it not for some tempering force). On-disc, there are video interviews with four of the principal actors. The subtitles are a tad more typo-prone than is normal, and are victim sometimes to unwieldy writing. There is also no English dub, which is not good given the potential appeal of the title. And while the eighty minutes of content makes it less egregious than some of their other releases, the price is still too high.
Enjoyable, supported by fluid OVA-quality animation, filled with memorable imagery, and occasionally quite unsettling, Enma is the definition of solid horror. It marks an interesting collaboration between a creator renowned for his horror and a director that has proven he has a knack for it, but Enma hasn't the pulpy appeal of Nagai's best work nor the punishing addictiveness of Kanbe's work in Elfen Lied. Entertaining, hard-edged horror it may be, but it does lack the intensity, insight, invention, or sheer scare factor needed to truly excel.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Good-looking, well-executed horror.
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