Content Warning: animal death, mild gore, torture
What’s it about? It’s turn of the century Tokyo in an alternate timeline. In this world, yokai are being exterminated as part of a Westernization effort, and Shinuchi is a performer in a circus where he murders the remaining ones for the entertainment of the masses–but his participation in this circus is anything but free. After one of his performances, a mysterious maid carrying a bird cage comes to visit him, offering him a deal. Will he accept it?
Undead Murder Farce’s first episode hits right in what I might call the Monogatari zone. Stylish and innovative direction to almost the point of being distracting? Check. Explicit critiques of how trauma is commodified and sold back to us as entertainment? Check. Supernatural elements as metaphor for societal issues? Check. All of this being conveyed almost entirely through witty repartee between two wildly self-destructive messes paired with flashbacks to a mysterious past? Check.
In other words, it’s my shit. And how I’ve needed that, after this mess of a premiere season.
It’s really no surprise, given the credentials behind this. Director Hatakeyama Mamoru of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu has been let loose on another period piece, and he brings all of the visual flair that made Kaguya-sama: Love is War a hit to create a visual feast. Lapin Track, the force behind AniFem team favorite Sarazanmai, is more than up to the task of animating Hatakeyama’s signature style, which blends nuanced character animation with unconventional backgrounds and innovative shot compositions. The fight sequences alone are breathtaking, full of dynamic shots that manage not to be dizzying from sheer clarity of execution.
Speaking of which, within a minute, the series had grabbed me with its depictions of the violent spectacle of de-yokaization as juxtaposed with onscreen text describing this alternate world’s form of “Westernization.” While such use of onscreen text so early could be at risk of telling rather than showing, I found the text to be instructive, framing the visuals we are seeing in a specific historical and ideological context. As we watched Shinuchi fight the yokai, dead-eyed, caged in, and over the sound of a screaming crowd, we were witnessing the purging of Japanese social life of its soul, its culture. It is not a coincidence that the villain of this show is a foreign aristocrat, likely profiteering from all this.
Being forced to engage in this spectacle is Shinuchi’s predicament, which we come to understand has led him to relish the idea of going berserk and murdering all the people who watch, hoping they will then understand how he feels. Such a thought is extremely bleak, and would be at risk of alienating us from the protagonist in a lesser show. However, Undead Murder Farce effortlessly makes Shinuchi such a likable character and his perspective on the would-be gladiator matches so deeply contextualized both in history and in his traumatic backstory that what he says feels almost like a logical conclusion–all somehow without devolving into trauma porn. It also makes clear the stakes of his relationship with Asa–this dark path is the one he likely would have gone down if he hadn’t met her.
While the female lead Asa remains largely mysterious over the course of the episode, aside from her grisly backstory of the rest of her body being stolen, the catty yet supportive dynamic between her and Shinuchi is what keeps this show fun. Let it be said, this is the only show that has ever made me root for a romance between a living person and a severed head, Salome be damned. The series composer’s history on In/spectre shines through here, as our couple gently bicker in just such a way to keep the atmosphere light even as the pain of their backstories could swallow the show whole. What unites them is a shared self-destructiveness held in tension with how it will be their understanding of the others’ experience and shared history of violence that allows them to imagine a future for each other.
Undead Murder Farce is my shit. I hope that it will be yours too.