Wanderers in the Darkness
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DIRECTED BY: Shigeyoshi Tsukahara
FEATURING: Voices of Hakuzan Kanda, Tomoyo Kurosawa, Raikou Sakamoto
PLOT: Ne’er-do-well detective Sotaro is hired to investigate a series of disappearances coinciding with a touring carnival, and descends into “the Dark,” an undercity plagued by gangs and, it is rumored, supernatural concerns.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Jazzy steampunk, circus evil, and eldritch mystery shroud this animated action/noir gurgling with easy-going humor, and its big top finale makes for a wild ride of Caligari-style wonderment.
COMMENTS: There is a lot that makes sense about our protagonist, Sotaro. He’s a detective because his father was one, he’s disheveled because business is slow, and he’s got something of a sidekick in the form of a scrappy street urchin named Saki—because, frankly, a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic detective would. He also has two qualities to his credit, at least in the eyes of a newspaper man who wants an investigator: he’s broke, and takes a relaxed view of his own well being. This makes Sotaro (after some booze and cajoling) the perfect candidate to take a dive into “the Dark”, an underground labyrinth and cave system teaming with ancient shrines, modern hoodlums, renegade law enforcement aganets, and ghostly, carnivalistic evil.
Kurayukaba‘s visual style is reminiscent of a dog-eared, old comic: watercoloring bleeds, and a papery quality renders the image tactile at times. The hero’s world-weariness does a dance with his deep-seated vivacity: while he’s only shown drunk or hung-over, his quick wits and powers of observation make him the ideal “reactive protagonist” (contradiction in terms that may be). As he explores the glorious, cluttered mess of “the Dark,” the pastel-steampunk world below the surface comes alive in a confusing maze of train cars, gears, bridges, and colorful characters. The case concerns the recurring disappearance of random victims, with a chaotic muddle of black markings the only trace of evidence. Conspiracy is in the air, as these events are typically hushed by the powers-that-be. And Sotaro is on the case because—well, he’s on the case because he needs the money; he was hired because he has a long history with “the Dark.”
Rarely, if ever, before have I had the pleasure to witness this particular visual fusion found amongst the mysteries of Kurayukaba. Among the oddities to enjoy are an armored demon train reputed to haunt the labyrinth; a Greek chorus of clockwork birds on a merchant’s display stage (which reminds me of the strange behavior of our dear detective’s office parrot…); and Sotaro’s various flashbacks. His explorations continue his father’s work, culminating across the generations in a fantastical centerpiece. Kurayukaba is inspired by ’20s-era visuals and sound, with a particular bent toward German, and the film meanders along its tracks with an ongoing rota of eccentric characters and phenomena, de-layering an age old conspiracy until a vibrant, hallucinatory climax that ties the case together while resolving Sotaro’s difficulties with his father. After the explosion of light, sound, and spectacle, our tired hero can finally go top-side and have himself a well-earned drink.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There’s never a dull moment in this animation from Shigeyoshi Tsukahara, which mixes a detective story with an exuberant tale of a city’s mysterious underbelly all presented with steampunk verve.”–Amber Wilkinson, Eye for Film