With the obvious exception of Ozamu Tezuka, no single person has created more classic anime characters than Go Nagai, the father of super robots (Mazinger Z) and perverted comedy (Harenchi Gakuen). So it makes sense that his characters get the reboot treatment a lot. Demon Prince Enma is the most ambitious interpretation of his work I’ve seen to date, taking characters from a comedy featuring demons with butts for heads, aging them 10 years, and thrusting them smack in the middle of a dark, shrimp and grits horror story.
Point of order before I begin, there is a certain flavor of story arc that only the best of creators can play. I call it the “dice in a cup” arc. It’s the term I use to describe what happens when characters in a scenario feel like dice spinning around in a heavily-shaken cup, slamming against each other and changing trajectories in way that feel at the same time natural and totally unpredictable. This is one of those things that’s very eye-testy; it’s very hard to quantify, but you know it when you see it. Demon Prince Enma has one such arc, a testimony to its general excellence.
Character Designs: Keeps traces of the original characters, but realistically ages them [Toshiyuki Komaru]
New-look Enma is a mix of stylish Dracula and Roger Smith. He’s still got the mantle from his childhood days, but it’s longer and more flowing, and he rocks a snazzy penguin suit underneath it. Yukiko’s character design is more similar to the original, though she’s definitely added in some dangerous sex appeal, something that fits very well with he characterization in the second half. Kapperu has grown from a loveable mascot character into a definite swamp-thing lookalike, posessing an ugliness that well suits his role and an information broker. Humans in the series have less unique designs, but it’s still fairly easy to tell them apart, and the art never feels off-model (thanks at least in part, I’m sure, to a healthy ova budget).
1/1 (Redesigning classic characters is a tricky exercise that this ova handles with ease.)
Soundtrack: Always keeps the audience on edge [Kayo Konishi, Yukio Kondoo, SD-Katsunori Shimizu]
As people are being menaced by all manner of demons throughout the show, the soundtrack accentuates the sense of their fear by relying on a combination of boss-battle esque pipe organs and nails-on-a-chalkboard crazy strings. In a further acknowledgement of the horror genre the series has chosen to delve into, Enma himself generally does battle not to actiony rock beats, but instead fights against a background of Japanese festival music, flutes and slow, mournful drumbeats. While these tracks do give the feeling of a battlefield under control, they don’t glorify the fights so much as make them more somber in tone.
2/2 (Perfect for a gritty reboot.)
Writing: Changes up characters twice, but you won’t care [Takao Yoshioka]
The premise of Demon Prince Enma is similar to the Anki Kitan ova of the Zenki series – the characters are a couple years older, and things have gotten quite a bit darker over the years. Rather than the children comically dispatching gag villains that use their genitals as a weapon, we see them facing more immediate types of body horror with a more professional tone. It might as well not be Enma-kun, but the script is wonderfully rich in terms of dialogue that adds personality and character depth, including one clever exchange over the use of air conditioning during a heat wave between Enma (a fire demon) and Yukiko (an ice demon).
Nothing says “lazy Sunday” like Chappeau on a TV antenna
Also, a significant portion of this ova doesn’t feature Enma at all. Instead, the final 2 episodes focus on a group of 5 people, each with their own set of closet skeletons, trapped inside a killer demonic mansion that’s gradually shaving their sanity away. I don’t know where a writer gets the balls to spend almost half of a 4-episode ova on a survival horror story in which the classic title character is nowhere to be seen, but wherever it is is a place that all writers should be making a pilgrimage to. It’s a gutsy decision that absolutely works on every level, playing the characters and their dark pasts off of each other to build a complex, multi-tiered, and riveting narrative. Trust me, you’ll have no idea how this one will end until it does.
3/3 (Captures both classic and new characters while molding them to suit its ends.)
Direction: A horror that actually puts you in the shoes of the ones being scared [Mamoru Kanbe]
The handling of Enma’s part of the story is shot not unlike a 70s-style detective movie, with minimalist-leaning use of fixed camera being peppered with occasional moments of selective focus. This is perhaps most obvious when Kapperu and Enma visit a brothel and it cuts away from Enma just long enough for him to change his appearance in an effort to get more second base.
As for the survival horror arc I mentioned earlier, it was the writer’s job to lock these 5 characters in a horror scenario, but it’s the director’s job to deliver that horror. Does he succeed? Hold on, gut check time…
Gonna go with yes
Beyond the morbid deaths and gore that seem to go with horror these days, there’s very poignant use of first-person camera. Between scenes of the cast exploring the corridors of the mansion they find themselves in and running like heck away from bloodied but relentless rapists, the show makes persistent use of first-person camera, build a sense first of unease and then of rantic fear. (Dusk Maiden of Amnesia’s flashback episode also utilized this technique to great effect.) Nothing like shakycam effects to drive that sense of “two steps slower and there’s a knife in my back” into the skulls of the audience. And that’s without even mentioning the show’s use of pure darkness, where only the whites of a character’s eyes are visible, to rachet up the tension still further.
Also notable is Kanbei’s use of smash cutting, cycling through the narratives of characters separated by space and time to give a sense of simultaneity to a number of plotlines happening at once. Y’know, the proverbial “dice in a cup” effect. Reminds me of a certain other Brains Base director.
I guess I should care more that the mansion in which this arc took place was made of very low-budget CG models, but what the show does when its climax is in motion is enough to win back all the marbles it loses there.
4/4 (Understands both the gritty reboot and the horror genre, inside and out.)
Overall: 10/10 (It does so many things just right, and is probably one of the 3 most effective horror anime I’ve seen.)