This Week: Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma (Yōma)
Oxygenated hemoglobin, in more ways than one.
Blood Reign is a two episode OVA released in 1989, based on a reasonably short serialized manga series Kei Kusunoki (birth name Mayumi Ōhashi) ran in Shueisha’s Ribon Original magazine. The source material running from 1985 – 1986, and later receiving a two volume collected release.
Now as this post date is still within October, and if the title did not already tip its hand, this is a horror production.
So far of this year’s crop there have been a number of prominent names and quirks popping up: anime slapstick director Shinichi Watanabe helming the tentacle action comedy violence fest Sex Demon Metropolis (Inma Daitoshi: Beast City). Living horror legend Kazuo Umezu lending a hand and name to, well, what is arguable to be the aptly named The Curse of Kazuo Umezu (Umezu Kazuo no Noroi) given how many of the involved drifted out of anime workplace roles. One of Daijiro Morohoshi’s early professional manga works getting an anime adaptation years later via Dark Myth (Ankoku Shinwa), seemingly in a cynical too late off the starting block attempt to chase the pop culture occult and cryptohistory interests Teito Monogatari set off through the 1980’s.
Kusunoki likely does not share an immediate industry name brand stature on the level of most of those aforementioned players, especially from a western standpoint (though a select few of her manga series have made the jump overseas). That said, her original work on Yōma here was during what was becoming a slowly growing 1980’s boom period in horror manga driven by young women. This is around the same period even Rumiko Takahashi was steering towards more brutal matters. Her Mermaid Saga was kicking off after her successes with the far more light hearted pretty freeloader antics of Urusei Yatsura and the seinen targeted romantic comedy of Maison Ikkoku. Kusunoki herself also had a romantic comedy debut interestingly enough, by way of Yagami-kun’s Family Affairs (Yagami-kun no Katei no Jijō) and the Oedipus Complex condition of its lead character and their attempts to overcome it.
I mention all of this to set not only some of the general industry moves at the time, but to also emphasize Yōma’s serialization pickup by Ribon Original and it being aimed squarely at teenage girls.
To compare apples more appropriately to apples (as Takahashi’s aforementioned work is in male oriented source publications), CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, the X/1999 feature film, and the X television show have mystery, violent combat, and gore in their own ways. They share the same marketing demographics as Yōma and its Blood Reign direct to video form. While they had plenty of other influences, I am not sure CLAMP gets away with some of the visual and narrative content stunts they pulled in those 1990’s manga works and their anime counterparts without what Kusunoki and her peers were pushing the boundaries at in the 1980’s.
Particularly in the department of how visually brutal and horrific Blood Reign is in places.
Blood Reign takes places in a nameless period, though in scattered lines it can be thought to be set around the Sengoku era of the mid 1400’s through very early 1600’s.
The story itself is simple enough. Our lead character is a young ninja named Hikage. He has a best friend, Marou, who he grew up with and considers like a brother to him. After a particularly devastating battle between warring clans, Hikage and Marou are part of the aftermath overseeing, cleanup, and weapon recovery crew. Marou begins to act strangely at the scene, and attacks Hikage. Marou settles down, and they return to camp. The clan leader dies that night, and Marou is nowhere to be found. Hikage must track down and find Marou, ideally before information of the clan leader’s death spreads. There are ominous things afoot which will make matters far from easy, and horrifically vicious.
This is all established within three minutes of screen time. It is a round and durable thing, though potentially also dull in the wrong hands.
Screenplay adaptation duties fell to Shou Aikawa, one of the most widely varied professionals in that area still working today. Spin the revolver one way, and you get the writer who spilled the most ink on adapting the first Fullmetal Alchemist television show, its Conqueror of Shamballa film, and handled screenplays and story editing oversights for other popular fare like Martian Successor Nadesico. Give it another go, and one lands on the script writer for some of the most notorious gore fests of the direct to video anime days: Genocyber, the first Violence Jack episode, the manga of Angel Cop and its first episode, and multiple Urotsukidōji entries, among others. And as the years of Blood Reign’s release should tell you, it is very much during the era of his most indulgent writing of how to set words and scenes around destruction of the human body.
The first episode in particular is the real standout here, and would function well even on its own. Aikawa understands how to script horror and gore of varying types, especially when it can be as explicit as possible, but adapting from Kusunoki’s shōjo work changes his gears a fair amount. Namely, with its traditional respects to focusing on emotional mood, atmosphere, and teasing elements ones mind comes to fill in themselves. In this case, just with a horror focus rather than, say, a high school romance.
Which is a dastardly combination when done correctly, and Aikawa rises to the occasion.
The primary big bad enemy type of that first episode is a slow burn and a long reveal.
You get something of a creepy imagery in one scene. Another, because that prior scene it set well, is one of ninja who are hopping and scrambling through the woods, and… they are not alarmed, but is there something deep in the background following, or is that just another ninja with them? A scene with an appendage flailing. And so on and so forth. One only ever sees bits and pieces, but if one has been consciously watching their mind is filling in every possible detail on what the primary enemy is. It becomes so clear, ever increasing in its clarity. Yet one does not truly know the full picture of it yet, waiting for if not dreading the full reveal and how on earth Hikage is going to have to deal with such matters.
It is the kind of horror which is allowing the atmosphere is seep into the viewer, knowing such a thing as this enemy is out there and doing things. All of its nastiness, its fearsome qualities, extrapolated from information a viewer would already have cooked up in some of their worst nightmares.
It is such a critical trick for many a horror production, as ones imagination is such a powerful tool to turn against the viewer during the ride. Numerous works fail at it, but this first episode I feel is spot on with the mechanics. That the production looks great, with fluid animation and some ethereal color choices in parts arms it all the more. Matsuri Okuda served to adapt the character designs as well as performing as animation director, dual roles he would pick up perhaps most famously throughout parts the vast and epic animated release of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Hand to hand (or otherwise) combat is frenetic and chaotic, and yet has impact and weight, while the quieter moments that make up more Blood Reign’s overall running time are emphasized in their wear and weariness.
Which brings me to the director. Itself a reveal, in a way, as I consciously avoided doing so last week. Takashi Anno, director of what I found to be the rather dire experience of Dark Myth, is in charge here in one of his only other horror dominated anime work. Blood Reign, however, allows him the space to focus on this one role. He is not also doing the script, nor also juggling storyboard duties, a triple hitter as he would have to deal with in Dark Myth only months later. And he had, as hopefully proven at least in part above, some folks at his disposal in Blood Reign who were soon to become bigger names in their own right in the industry.
One does get the sense they were able to have the time to stretch themselves, and so for it better maintain the tonal qualities which make the first episode in particular as crunchy as it is.
On the more negative end, it is not as if I feel Blood Reign is without problems.
The romantic threads it tries to float for Hikage with the mysterious lady Aya are passable enough in the first episode, but then really become more straining of its narrative capabilities given developments in the second. While the manga may have received a two volume release, in animated story form it probably would have needed a third episode to adequately bring that in for a landing. So it comes of at first as kind of merely cursory to the package, and then later feeling rushed. The majority of the second episode in general actual loses out a lot when compared directly to episode one. Its creature features, while fun and interesting confrontations for bloodshed in their own right (to float one: a bloodlust driven horse, as one could surmise from the North American box cover), they are not quite on the same horrific scale of the nastiness confronted in episode one. The first episode is the sort of thing one may genuinely yelp at, from its enemy focus to general atmosphere and manipulation of the viewers mood. While the second, in its attempt to simultaneously up the stakes and end the story, turns out like many a horror film sequel: the suspension of disbelief factor begins to break down, and its shocks can come off more silly than scary.
It is not the most damning sentence in the world, as many a horror movie marathon of particular franchises around the Halloween season would meet a similar fate. There is also a two year time skip, between that first and second episode, so they become easier to compartmentalize individually. But, it is still disheartening on a certain level, as taken on the whole the second episode knocks the experience down a few pegs. It is not even particularly awful, just not as streamlined or attentive to atmosphere as the first, lurching as it does more towards spectacle.
Blood Reign may have a seemingly short lineage, being as small as it is as a direct to video product. In a modern collective anime fandom memory, I do not feel it out of place to say it tends to fall to the wayside or otherwise be forgotten against far gorier or spectacularly ruthless violence fests. But even so, it has some genuinely swell atmospheric spooks in places more notorious works do not always manage to muster. Solid action and tension to be found for sure, even if that does become more shaky by the second half.
Taken then also as the in many places lushly animated version of a shōjo directed horror publication from a time when that was starting to become a developing trend for both manga readers and young women creatives, it stands out all the more. It warrants further viewing from audiences today to see more of what was being played around with here during this time, what would come to influence and be a part of a growing area. A whole graveyard exists listing dedicated shōjo horror manga magazines, all of which were established no earlier than the mid-1980’s (incidentally, Girls’ Horror Comics as a website is in general a great resource when crawling for particular authorial listings). As a manga this places Kusunoki’s Yōma right near the forefront, and the later anime adaption being part of an even more elite group to make the jump to home video.
That the resulting product still found some select ways to command surprise and entertain me, even decades after its release? Well, then all the more ways it does indeed still have some of a reign to hold on to.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.