Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Apr 5th 2009
Ghost Slayers Ayashi
DVD - Part 1
Yukiatsu is a forty-some-odd year old vagrant living in Edo. He helps out poor widows when he can and works as a waterboy in the local bathhouse, despite the oppression heaped upon him for being a non-citizen. Altogether an unremarkable existence. This being anime, that inevitably means he is hiding a monster-sized secret. In Yukiatsu's case it is more a monster-slaying secret, but it's still a big one: Yukiatsu once crossed over to the “Other World” and returned endowed with the power to divine and transform into a weapon any object or being's name. A group of monster-slayers known as the Ayashi, spearheaded by a burly mountain man, a girly firearms expert and a dancing priestess/tomboy, want him to use his power over words to fight giant monsters known as youi. His reward? All the monster meat he can eat. Who could resist?
New tweaks on old genres are hard to come by. But somehow Ghost Slayers Ayashi manages. In taking the age-old anime convention of monster-busting teams of super-powered misfits and combining it with a protagonist who transforms names into weapons, Ayashi arrives at a novel hybrid of adventure and education: call it a monster-bashing kanji lesson. So much for the vaunted genius of screenwriter Shou Aikawa.
It isn't just the scenes of fight-side spectators discussing kanji history like commentators at a football game that betray the series' weirdly educational intent. There's also an unusual focus on Japanese history (replete with on-screen text describing historical context) and some heavy dabbling in social science. Vagrants, repression of artistic expression, the treatment of foreigners, ancient myths, even Mexican history—the series is so busy discussing various issues that before long it begins to seriously drag. Each arc takes about three episodes to play out—that's a long, boring run for stories that follow the same basic pattern each time: Youi arrives. Yukiatsu refuses to fight it. Yukiatsu agonizes over whether to fight it. Yukiatsu fights it. Yukiatsu wins. Drag that out to an hour, fill the gaps with interminable discussions of kanji strokes, and you get a series with a fatal entertainment shortage.
The pacing wouldn't be such an issue if the junk inserted between the fights was in some way involving, but it just isn't. Aikawa is experienced enough to know the importance of maintaining a human foundation. He's careful to connect the series' contemplations of social marginalization to characters like Yukiatsu and Atl, and the youi emerge always from some uncontrolled human passion, be it nostalgia, repressed artistic ambition, or in the most memorable (and not coincidentally, first) story, from a guilty taste for human flesh. But every dramatic, intimate impulse that Aikawa has inevitably splatters itself spectacularly (but uninterestingly) against the brick wall of the series' immensely dull cast. Alienation, yearning, denial—all of them are recurrent themes and none survive their application to the blandly uninteresting cast. Even if you marathon the set in its ten-episode entirety, it's still possible not to remember a single character or pertinent emotion. Take a hiatus, even a brief one, and you may as well have drunk half of the River Lethe. The pointless politicking only makes things worse, adding yet another layer of content to forget and then subsequently get confused about.
But then there are the fights. If there is one mitigating factor, it's the fights. They can't honestly be called intense—the only real reaction they provoke is relief at the lifting of boredom—but they are spectacular and occasionally kind of fun. Director Hiroshi Nishikiori and the animators at Bones stage the youi fights as a mixture of martial-arts showcase and Godzilla-styled destruction. The monsters may be a tad stupid (the headless brontosaur of the first arc being downright laughable) and Yukiatsu's fighting style oddly erotic, but the result is slick, splashy and periodically cool nonetheless. Occasionally other throwaway images alleviate the overall dullness—the blood-red paisley nightmare of the “Other World” being primary among them—and the period detail has a gritty authenticity, but only the action ever overpowers the series' doldrums on a consistent basis. Unless you count the unintentional hilarity born of Nishikiori's strange timing (one escape is so badly cobbled together that it resembles a dressed-up Bugs Bunny pratfall), or the unsettling looks of gluttonous lust as the protagonists feast on gobs of jellied monster flesh. In an unusual move, the burden of the series' sex appeal is placed upon the male designs, which makes it that much easier to mock the show whenever men shoot flames from their manly pectorals.
Kou Ootani continues his quest to prove that his transcendental score for Haibane Renmei was some kind of godlike fluke by churning out yet another appropriate, pleasing, but ultimately undistinguished score. It is usually quite robust, providing solid backing for the series' epic moments—such as they are—but can also be sensitive, usually in hilariously obvious ways.
Bandai provides one of their usual no-nonsense dubs. Straight translation with a minimum of interpretation and solid acting—no frills, no fancy writing, no bullshit. The casting is a bit more variable. Steven Blum's straightforward Yukiatsu easily bests Keiji Fujiwara's, who always sounds like he's making slightly congested pillow talk. On the other hand Steve Kramer's Torii is but a pale shadow of Norio Wakamoto's camped-up monster. The result is perfectly serviceable but incapable of winning over those without a dub predisposition.
At first it may seem odd that Aikawa, the same guy who scripted series like The Twelve Kingdoms, Fullmetal Alchemist and RahXephon, could write a stilted, talky stinker like Ayashi. But survey his oeuvre and you'll find that Aikawa, while an extraordinarily gifted adaptor, is a terrible creator. His original creations are all insufferably obsessed with teaching viewers about something, whether it's Japanese politics (Neo Ranga), Japanese history (Clockwork Fighters Hiwou's War), or Japanese mythology (Ayashi). All subtlety is lost in his educational crusade, and all too often so is basic entertainment value. So if you need someone to blame for four hours of your life being drained like a virgin at a vampire potluck, look no further. Or you could just not watch.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Some slickly animated monster-chopping fun; solid production values and score.
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