It's an anthology of three horror stories set in samurai times, of which two are classic adaptations. I watched it because the first one's Yostuya Kaidan, but they're all good.
1. YOTSUYA KAIDAN (episodes 1-4, or 5-8 on the American DVDs)
It's fascinating for its fidelity. (One gets that more with TV adaptations, which suffer less from the movie urge to change stuff for the sake of changing it.) Yotsuya Kaidan has been rewritten so much over the years that it's surprising to see someone doing Tsuruya Nanboku IV's 1825 original, but that's not the half of it. Nanboku himself is the narrator. This isn't just adapting his kabuki play, but giving its historical context and talking us through the differences between it and the sources he'd drawn on. It talks about the real Oiwa (far older than 1825) and takes us to her shrine. It even discusses the way in which her curse has appeared to strike anyone putting on a production of this play, naming some of the people who died.
It's like theatrical archeology. It ends with a meeting of Nanboku and Oiwa, as he steps into his own story to meet the woman he borrowed without permission. I loved it.
However that aside, of course, the real meat is the story itself. It has its eccentricities in its original form, but it's still great. For starters, it makes sense! The poison and the planned infidelity don't belong together and never did. There's also equal story time given to both Naosuke and Iemon, which is refreshing even if you can see why later rewriters moved the emphasis more towards Iemon. Naosuke's a strong character, though. He can carry the story just fine. We get everything Nanboku wrote for him, including the incest revelation, even if it's a bit ridiculous in the way it lurches out of nowhere.
There's one big peculiarity in Iemon not hogging the limelight, though... the story never gets around to letting anyone know that Iemon killed Oiwa's father! The dirty secret is kept. We get the build-up, but not the pay-off. Oiwa still becomes a vengeance-crazed ghost who annihilates two families, but for marital reasons.
So, let's take that all as read. It's Yotsuya Kaidan, but more faithful than usual. (It's interesting to see how much they've managed to do in a relatively short running time, incidentally, since four anime episodes only adds up to eighty minutes if you don't count the opening and closing credits.) What else is it bringing to the story? Answer: lots of evil. Wow, these bastards are cold-blooded. This adaptation is bending over backwards to paint every human being as a stone cold son of a bitch. Even the wronged women are sadists who'll smile at the killing of animals and think themselves too good to be touched by a (gasp) servant. (This is true even for prostitutes.) When Iemon starts torturing a man for laughs (e.g. breaking all his fingers), Oiwa is sitting serenely a few feet away and doesn't bother looking up.
You might be wondering if this reduces one's ability to care. It doesn't, oddly, because what's going to happen is so appalling. Oiwa is the least inhuman of the main characters, since she cares about her baby, but even so her very cruelty is what makes it so scary to see her become an agent of supernatural wrath.
It's chilling. If these people don't give you the willies, stay the hell away from me. It's creepy. It's also giving us an Oiwa for a post-Ringu, post-Ju-on world, which makes this the most badass, violent Oiwa I've seen, by a long way. I really liked it and I'm delighted I hunted it down.
2. TENSHU MONOGATARI (episodes 5-8, or 1-4 on the American DVDs)
It's based on a play by Kyoka Izumi (1873-1939). He's the dude who wrote Demon Pond
It involves a castle of forgotten gods who are beautiful immortal women and eat humans. However if they fall in love with one instead of eating him, they lose their immortality. The story also involves a man, his wife, reincarnation and a falcon.
Firstly, it's a tragedy that ends in a bloodbath as an army attacks the castle. Secondly, its central love triangle feels unusual to modern eyes, in that all three characters in it are sympathetic, noble and trying to do the right thing... and yet that poor wife is getting cast aside like a used condom. That's powerful, but it also feels peculiar to watch. You see, Izumi wrote his play around 1910, using its 17th century setting to comment on pre-WWI Japan and the status of Japanese women. They were hardly allowed to do anything. They were expected not to complain if their men cheated on them, for instance.
This story's immortal men, though, are all-powerful. They see men as food and can tear one into a kebab with a flick of an eyelash. There's a bit of (nipple-less) nudity, but it's sinister rather than exploitative. Conversely men are a source of greed, stupidity and treachery. They abuse power. They send armies to their deaths in an attempt to destroy anything they can't dominate. The shogun in particular is pure evil, with his habit of raping and killing sex slaves. Wow, he's a bastard.
It's a strong story, but I couldn't imagine it being written today. It's so far from modern cultural assumptions that you might find it mildly disorientating, even if in fact Izumi had written the original play as commentary on exactly that. Definitely a classical adaptation.
However at the same time, it's also a gory fantasy with man-eating immortals, violent battle scenes and goofy Japanese demons that say "ke ke ke". There's plenty to keep a lowbrow audience entertained. You can see why they moved this story to come first on the English-language DVDs. Izumi's reputation was for the grotesque and fantastic. The anime also occasionally looks cheap, as in for instance the horribly drawn bandits at the start of episode one who try to loot the castle (bad move) and the terrible animation of two birds flying down to a window. Yotsuya Kaidan didn't have that problem.
3. BAKENEKO (episodes 9-11)
"Bake-neko" means "ghost cat" or "monster cat". This is the only original story of the three and it was so successful that its main character, the Medicine Seller, got a spin-off series (Mononoke
You can imagine the Medicine Seller as a samurai-era John Constantine. He fights supernatural menaces. However he's also in the lowest social class according to feudal Japan's Confucian-inspired system (1st: samurai, 2nd: farmers/peasants, 3rd: artisans, 4th: merchants). Footnote: there were also people outside this four-tier system, e.g. ethnic minorities, actors, prostitutes, butchers, convicted criminals, etc. Anyway, on the face of it our Medicine Seller is just a softly spoken peddler, getting shouted at by more important people (i.e. everyone).
He's pretty cool, actually. As the danger level increases, he gets increasingly disrespectful towards his idiot betters. He also has elf ears, paper-throwing powers (no, really) and a sword that can only be unsheathed when it's learned its enemy's shape, truth and reasoning. In other words, he's got to find out what the humans did to create the bake-neko. He needs to know their backstory. Warning: they're bastards. The truth won't be pretty.
Visually it's fascinating, by the way. The line art is even cruder-looking than the worst of Tenshu Monogatari, deliberately approaching Beavis and Butthead levels with some of the character designs. However at the same time it's beautiful in its use of composition, colour and traditional Japanese designs. It's like an animated collage. If Mick McMahon did anime, it might look like this.
Make sure you stick around after the closing credits of the last episode, by the way.
Well worth a look and I hear good things about Mononoke
too. The opening theme has rap (shudder) along with traditional instruments like the koto, presumably to reassure the cool kids that they don't have to turn off their TVs just because it's a classical adaptation. However that's a minor blemish. The stories themselves are powerful and going places you just wouldn't get from a modern writer. Thumbs up from me.