For a change of pace this time around (and because the visual aid I need for my next otaku vignette is proving surprisingly elusive) I would like to offer up a review. Rather than rehashing reviews of things readily available elsewhere in the world, I intend to dip into the hefty backlog of things that I feel have long been unduly neglected and unappreciated. In this installment: Lesbian Witches of the 1970s (kind of).
Long before the moe boom, in an age when horror manga roamed the earth, the good people at Shounen Champion Comics published the ongoing adventures of a young woman named Kuroi Misa (“Black Mass”. Yes, that’s really her name). From these humble beginnings would sprout an epic tale of magic, violence, and gratuitous nudity that defies genre barriers and spans media of all types for more than 30 years.Titled エコエコアザラク(Eko Eko Azarak), the manga itself is fairly straightforward. Drawn in a typical horror style (if you have ever read any of the horror manga available in English then you have seen this art style), each chapter follows a simple formula. Our beloved hero Misa crosses paths with some kind of supernatural evil, defeats it handily (whilst invariably losing some or all of her clothing in the process) then grimly walks into the distance repeating her trademark chant of “Eko Eko Azarak…Eko Eko Zamelak…”. A considerably amount of time passes in this fashion without the manga offering any kind of explanation for Misa’s origins or motivations. Misa’s high school is host to an ongoing chain of increasingly disturbing and bizarre events, yet no one except Misa ever seems to really care. There’s little in the way of story arc, and few if any recurring characters save Misa herself.
It’s clear that the plot, such as it is, is really just a flimsy excuse for Misa to shed some clothing and then shed some blood. Furthermore, although she is nominally on the side of justice, Misa (particularly in the early stories) is a perpetually cold and essentially amoral character with little to no regard for human life (and considerably less regard for animal life). This is unapologetic exploitation manga at its finest. In one fairly typical chapter, Misa decides to cheat on a test by developing some sort of acute abdominal lycanthropy. How exactly this helps her pass the test is never terribly clear, but it’s pretty good evidence that there is something Not Right about her. Upon discovering this, one of her classmates attempts to rape her, and another confesses longstanding feelings for her and does his best to rescue her from her tormentors. Thinking quickly, she turns her would-be rapist into some sort of gibbering troll creature, then blatantly seduces her would-be savior before finally disemboweling him with a canine mouth protruding from her solar plexus. In another story, Misa gets bored one day and decides to teach some of her classmates how to use a tiny doll and a spare monkey that she happens to have lying around to make their teacher vomit out all of his vital organs. After each of these incidents, Misa calmly walks away, chanting to herself without any kind of visible emotion. In this day and age, even the most hard-boiled of antiheroes would be hard pressed to get away with this kind of behavior.
Some 20 years after the manga debuted, it gave birth to a feature film, The Wizard of Darkness. Featuring Kimika Yoshino as Misa, the film follows the basic theme of the manga, if not much of the established storyline. Misa comes to town, badness follows her, and a large number of high school students die in impressively bizarre ways. For what it is, this film is actually surprisingly good. The production values are clearly quite low, but the film does a lot with the resources available to it. Due in large part to the underlying darkness of the characters and the plot, along with the film’s pull-no-punches attitude, the movie ends up feeling a lot more like an exceptionally high-quality amateur film than a disappointing studio piece. It doesn’t hurt that it also contains one of the most wonderfully gratuitous lesbian love scenes ever captured on film. However, although core backstory and the underlying dark and nihilistic outlook from the manga survived the transition to the big screen, the character of Misa has been fundamentally changed. In the manga, she represents an amoral force for darkness and chaos, who may serve forces of goodness and purity in the abstract, but who is every bit as likely to brutally murder any given innocent bystander as the forces of darkness are. More of a plot function than an actual character, she comes across as being borderline human at best. All this changes in the movie, where Misa is portrayed as a sympathetic, almost naive girl caught up in circumstances beyond her control.
She appears to be genuinely upset by the horrific deaths of the people around her. Furthermore, she actually seems concerned by the possibility that they might think ill of her and attempts to make amends after a misunderstanding. In her original form, Misa was concerned about other people’s opinion of her the same way that most people are concerned about getting enough niacin. All other things being equal, she would probably prefer that people like her, but she definitely isn’t going to actually do anything about it.
This movie was followed by a prequel of sorts a year later. Serving as an origin story for young Misa, this installment dials down the over-the-top horror elements of the previous film in favor of a more personal, low-key story. There is still a respectable body count, and a few token moments of extreme supernatural violence, but the overall tone and pacing are completely different. There’s nothing really wrong with the film, but it undeniably lacks the kind of energy that made the first movie so enjoyable. What’s more, it continues the ongoing trend of humanizing Misa, casting her in the role of an almost helpless damsel in distress for the majority of the plotline. In place of her mysterious and awesome powers, Misa now relies on a strong (male) protector for her survival. Only at the climax of the movie does she finally come into her own as a legitimate hero.
These are followed by a third movie, and a fourth, and a TV series or two, but these are overall of such poor quality that they are barely worth mentioning. In the case of the third movie, if you were to change Misa’s name and omit the customary chant, there would be absolutely no indication that it had ever been an Eko Eko movie at all. What’s more, in each of the new incarnations Misa gets recast, generally with a lower-tier actress each time. None of them manage to live up to Kimika’s interpretation of the character, and ultimately each one is just terribly forgettable. Apparently there is also a freshly released anime OVA which I am sadly yet to see.
The first two movies are also particularly notable for serving as an excellent allegory for the shifting attitudes of otaku culture as a whole. In adapting and updating the franchise from the 70s to the 90s, it was somehow deemed necessary to forego the hard-edged, brutal nature of the heroine in favor of a softer, more approachable girl. Misa has been fundamentally moe-ified, before our very eyes. If the cultural tide were ever to turn in a new and different direction, it’s almost scary to imagine what might become of the characters we know and love now.
Several of the movies are available as Media Blasters DVDs, although I am still waiting for someone to start translating the manga *cough, cough*. So if you think that this might be right up your alley, I can recommend it with the highest praise possible. Which is to say, I guarantee that this is exactly the sort of thing that people who like this sort of thing will like.
Seiya is an anime fan from Boston who is neither a lesbian nor a witch. He is, however, becoming more of a hikikomori every day.