‘Urotsukidōji’ is the latest in a continuing series of essays that will focus on outstanding and overlooked animation, as well as Blind Spots.
Every 3,000 years the Overfiend reappears to destroy the realms of Men, Man-Beasts, and Demons, and then unite them into an eternal kingdom. The problem is, the Overfiend will first appear as a human—one who may not even know he is to be the harbinger of the new age. One of the principle factors in any dark fantasy/horror franchise is the underlying mythology; Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend begins with a voiceover explaining the premise, thus sidestepping awkward exposition within the film itself. ‘O arrogant humanity! Not all that exists is visible to your mortal eyes!’ Well, it all becomes visible very quickly…
Caution: Nothing in this essay is strictly NSFW, but you may be more comfortable reading it in an environment where no one can look over your shoulder.
Is animated horror a thing? A quick, lazy search on Wikipedia turns up forty titles, most of them flicks like Corpse Bride, ParaNorman, and Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman. So safe, tame movies using horror tropes with no intention of being an actual horror movie. It didn’t occur to me until some time after watching Urotsukidōji that it was probably the first animated horror film I’d seen with the actual intention of horrifying the viewer. Boy, does it succeed.
And, honestly, how many horror films manage to horrify? Even though it is the name of an entire genre of movies, one of that hardest things for a horror film to do is produce a genuine feeling of horror. Most go for cheap shocks: loud noises, things bursting suddenly into the frame, suchlike. Others, like A Serbian Film or The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), just try to make you sick by displaying what is basically contextless depravity. (Don’t ask about Slaughtered Vomit Dolls. Please.) Even horror films I like—It Follows, The Witch, The Babadook, to name three recent ones—are not horrifying, if I apply a strict definition of the word. They are disconcerting, creating feelings of deep unease, which is laudable. But the list of truly horrifying horror movies is quite small—and Urotsukidōji is now unquestionably on the list.
Director Hideki Takayama manages this feat by linking sex and death, in a manner I’ve not seen since the horror writings of Clive Barker. Those familiar with Barker’s The Books of Blood or Imajica will have some idea what lies in store. Honestly, a close cinematic parallel may be in David Cronenberg’s Crash which, while completely different in tone and style (and story), accomplishes a similar uneasy mixture.
Actually, Urotsukidōji, shares, to a certain degree, the structure of Crash. Cronenberg’s film begins with a series of sex scenes: Deborah Kara Unger bending over for a stranger in an airplane hanger, James Spader banging a production assistant in a closet, and then the two of them fucking while describing their sexual escapades to each other. The film begins with the promise of titillation, before linking sexual activity with ‘sickeningly real’ car crashes, thus undercutting the promise of the opening scenes. Of this structure, Roger Ebert said ‘Cronenberg has made a movie that is pornographic in form, but not in result. …The result is challenging, courageous and original—a dissection of the mechanics of pornography.’
While I don’t think Urotsukidōji is a similar intellectual dissection, it does undercut titillation in a similar way. The first clear images we see are of an orgy in the demon realm. We immediately cut to schoolboy Tatsuo Nagumo of the human realm, masturbating while peeping into the girls’ locker room. These sexual situations threaten to become Skinemax-style soft-core smut, until the scene where an attractive teacher seduces Tatsuo’s crush, Akemi Ito. The teacher undresses her and begins to pleasure her, before suddenly revealing herself as a demon and raping Akemi with a diabolical tongue-penis. The sudden free-fall into monster rape is genuinely, well, horrifying—all the more given the deceptive proceedings preceding it.
There is an awful lot of rape in Urotsukidōji, I won’t lie—more than many viewers will be able to handle. But like in Crash, and perhaps Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador, the offending elements are included to further a threatening and tense tone, not simply for their own sake. It leads to many more forms of violence as well; there is no shortage of blood and viscera, mainly as monsters find new and interesting ways of tearing each others’ flesh, vacuuming each other up through various appendages, or penetrating and ripping each other apart from the inside. Is there such a thing as a hard NC-17? ’Cause I’m pretty sure there are things in Urotsukidōji that shouldn’t be seen by anyone.
Ah, yes, about that rating… I also won’t lie that one of the things that caused me to seek this film out was its MPAA rating. I’m always fascinated by what the CARA deems unsuitable for children, so an MPAA rating of NC-17 usually raises my eyebrows; this eyebrow raising is often upgraded to an eyeroll once I’ve seen the movie, as most films don’t deserve the stigma. (If you haven’t guessed by now, Urotsukidōji absolutely does. To compare, the BBFC only allowed the film an 18 certificate after cuts were made.) Honestly, it was very difficult to confirm that the film had even been rated by the MPAA; it doesn’t seem to exist in their database. I accepted it as truth upon finding a laserdisc and DVD case bearing the trademarked rating logo, and one lonely contemporaneous review from the Washington Post.
I believe one of the reasons that Urotsukidōji is so successful as a horror film is the fact that it is animated. A story like this would require visual effects far too expensive for such graphic subject matter. In 2016 USD, I’d estimate about $130-180 million at least; and even at that price, VFX can be a bit spotty because more often than not they still look like effects. (What on earth looks real in Suicide Squad?) Animation liberates the creators from such considerations: when everything appears unreal, it is easier to suspend your disbelief and accept it all as the film’s reality. I mean, how many people cried at Inside Out?
Plus, far too often, sexually explicit live-action films cannot get over the novelty of two naked actors fucking. Consider Winterbottom’s 9 Songs and Mitchell’s Shortbus—two exhaustingly boring, borderline unwatchable films. Maybe if those movies had been animated, the directors could have focussed more on their themes and ideas, instead of, er, mechanics. (Although, in the case of both of those films, I think the directors used sex to make up for the fact that they had no themes or ideas, but that’s a topic for a different essay…)
There are some narrative elements of Urotsukidōji that I was never able to pin down. As I mentioned, every 3,000 years the Overfiend appears to unite the three realms into an eternal kingdom. But… if the kingdom is eternal, then how can it happen every 3,000 years? It’s true, I did not major in maths at university, but a quick internet search reveals that 3,000 < ∞ . No mention is made of quantum mechanics or parallel universes, so let’s just chalk this up to a subtitle mis-translation. (Well, there are parallel realms, three to be exact, but they are all in the same universe. I think. You know, don’t hold me too much to any of this.)
I understand completely if, given the subject matter I’ve been talking about, Urotsukidōji doesn’t sound like your cup of tea. It can be a tough sit (lots of those ‘Thematic Elements’ the MPAA finds troublesome), the animation is a bit crude in parts, and the narrative is occasionally spotty. But it’s also a film of considerable inventiveness; it’s never long before a new creature or landscape comes onscreen to wow you. It is a film that, after all, made Channel 4’s list of the 100 Greatest Cartoons. That says something, right?
So I am recommending Urotsukidōji? Well, let me put it this way: it’s a movie you should probably see before you die. Does that help? ‘Animation beyond imagination!’ an advert for the film reads. Yes; beyond taste, too. But that’s half the fun.