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Twilight of the Dark Master (1997)

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 46 minutes

UK Certificate: 18


At the dawn of humanity, the great Mother created two tribes – demons to teach humans to fight fear, and 'Guardians' to protect humans from demons. Demons and Guardians have been implacable enemies ever since, engaged in an elemental conflict which occasionally has catastrophic consequences for humanity. In a dystopian city of the future, one of these ancient demons is manipulating human advances in genetic medicine and virology to bring about its own mutation, aided by a corrupt human sex-club owner and a perverse pair of sibling Guardians who have come over to its side. All that opposes the demon's bid for supremacy over humankind is a powerful Guardian named Shinjyo Tsunami – and his surname should give some hint of the cataclysmic events to come.

'Twilight of the Dark Master', Akiyuki Shimbo's feature animé based on Saki Osuke's graphic novel, may sound short at a mere 46 minutes, but its densely packed narrative leaps (not unlike '2001: A Space Odyssey') from the beginning of creation itself to a technology-driven future (where most of the film's action takes place), and then back again, encompassing the whole of human history in one grandly economic loop – and although it has enough freaky sex and arm-ripping violence to satisfy any fan of hard manga, 'Twilight of the Dark Master' also has an ambitious philosophical heft far exceeding anything to be found in your average demonrape cartoon. For the film takes on issues as thorny as the problem of evil, and the indivisibility of light and darkness, and by the time Tsunami and the demon have brought their dispute to its explosive conclusion, it is no longer entirely clear which of the two is supposed to be the 'dark master' of the film's title.

All this is delivered in an exquisitely mannered visual style. In one scene, Tsunami is shown as a dark silhouette captured in the yellow triangle formed by a streetlamp – a clear visual reference to the poster image from the 'Exorcist' in which Max von Sydow similarly arrives to do battle with the devil. For the most part, however, 'Twilight of the Dark Master' take its visual cues from film noir, and in particular the sci-fi noir of Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner'. The play of light and shadow on the mean streets of Neo-Shinjuku is simply stunning to look at – but it also creates a world of twilit ambiguities which underscores the fluid identities of the film's characters and the moral enigma posed by the ending.

It is however worth noting that where the original Japanese version of the film (provided here with optional English subtitles) often relies on the images to weave their own tale and leaves much open to the viewer's imagination, the wordier English redub leaves little in silence and makes everything far more explicit – yet unfortunately its gain in clarity is also a definite loss in subtlety and nuance. The long final scene in particular, in which Tsunami and the demon face off, has a radically different script in the two versions – in the English, Tsunami is an unequivocal Christ figure, whereas in the Japanese he is far more ambivalent, and his ultimate act less obviously salvationist. For my money, I'd go for the Japanese version any day, even if it lacks the 5.1 surround mix of the English – but of course this DVD offers the possibility of watching either version, or indeed both.

It's Got: A woman (Shizuka) out for revenge after being violently severed from her fiancé, a hybrid demon who is a bit too fond of the ladies, an incestuous pair of sibling demigods, an epicene hero who might just hate demons more than he loves humanity, and some of the most exquisitely stylish noir-toned artwork ever seen in Japanese animé.

It Needs: To be watched first in its (subtitled) Japanese version if you like to be left to do some thinking for yourself.

DVD Extras Choice between Japanese 2.0 (with optional English subtitles) or English 5.1 - note that the scripts for these have significant differences, with the Japanese version the more intellectually demanding, enigmatic, and open-ended of the two; Creating the cover art by Hisashi Abe, fifteen and a half minutes (!) of animation director Hisashi Abe sketching Tsunami - even though the footage has been greatly sped up, only the most patient of viewers will be able to sit through more than a minute of this; art gallery of 7 stills showing the main characters; propaganda, i.e. trailers for other MVM titles (Vampire Princess, Ninja Scroll, Bio Hunter, Psycho Diver). DVD Extras Rating: 3/10


Economic, enigmatic and visually stunning, this apocalyptic sci-fi noir will rock your world.