Mirage of Blaze began as a series of boys’ love novels by Mizuna Kuwabara, later adapted to manga with art by Shoko Hamada, finally becoming an anime television series. Rebels of the River’s Edge, also included in this set, came from the same series of novels and was released as an OVA (original video animation). It’s a dark and twisted tale of ancient feuds, possession, obsession, and love gone bad.
Takaya Ougi, a seventeen-year-old high schooler and something of a bad boy, is worried about his best friend and polar opposite, Yuzuru Narita, who has been acting strangely. Yuzuru has now missed three days of school, and when Takaya finds him, he’s just demolished a trio of delinquents from another school — not something that is ordinarily part of Yuzuru’s repertoire. He confesses to Takaya that he has no memory of what he’s been doing — he gets ready to leave for school and then later wakes to discover himself in the park or sitting in the street.
Things start to come clearer when Takaya encounters Nobutsuna Naoe, a mysterious and attractive older man who tells him he, Takaya, is the reincarnation of Lord Kagetora Uesugi, who died in the civil wars that led to the establishment of the shogunate four hundred years before. Those wars continue, fought by the spirits of the dead warriors, known now as the Feudal Underground. Naoe is a “Possessor,” one who comes back again and again, taking over a new body to continue the fight by sending the vengeful spirits to their rest — an exorcist. Takaya is another, and the designated commander of the Uesugi spirit army. But Takaya remembers nothing of his past life and refuses to accept what Naoe tells him. Meanwhile, it seems that Yuzuru’s problem is that he is being groomed as the new vessel for the warlord Shingen Takeda, who is planning a comeback.
The story is dense, complex, and elliptical, and that’s just the “historical drama” part. The love story is even more so. There is a wealth of exposition that at least gives us the background on the supernatural conflict, which makes it a somewhat talky series. (In this case, I’ll forgive the talkiness because the Japanese voice actors are superb.) And it keeps getting more and more complicated as clan after clan finds itself drawn into the conflict. The history of the relationship is left to chance remarks and unguarded faces — which, to hand the animators their due, are sometimes masterfully done and very revealing.
The strength of this series lies in the characters and the way the relationship between Takaya and Naoe is developed. Takaya is stubbornly resistant to the idea that he is the reincarnation of Kagetora, although he uses Kagetora’s powers of exorcism and combat without trouble. Takaya is strongly drawn to Naoe and doesn’t understand why, nor does he understand why Naoe is so intent on protecting him. Takaya’s a kid, confused, innocent in affairs of the heart, who doesn’t understand his own feelings, much less Naoe’s. Naoe’s desire for Kagetora has, after four hundred years, become an obsession; despair has almost become his home. The history between the two is not all that positive, to the extent that Takaya has deliberately buried his memories of their previous lives. The relationship and its history develop as a series of small pieces, hints, chance remarks, unguarded expressions, although we are given a couple of intense, very revealing scenes that open up what has only been hinted. (It’s instructive that the “confession,” which as often as not in boys’ love sparks the action, here occurs in the last scene.)
The animation is rather uneven. Some sequences are fluid and quite seamless, particularly the supernatural battle scenes, but these are offset by the kind of static scenes that give TV animation a bad name. The graphic style is what I’ve taken to calling “high manga,” especially evident in the bishounen designs for the major characters: tall, slender, long-legged figures, somewhat elfin features for the most part, eyes that dominate the faces, and great hair. The acting struck me as not always believable, but I suspect, just from the degree of stylization that I can pick up, we’re seeing influences from Japanese acting traditions, which aren’t necessarily a good match for Western sensibilities. There are scenes, however, that become riveting — credit the voices on that. Show Hayami as Naoe is particularly engaging, almost hypnotic, while Toshihiko Seki as Takaya is an impressive actor, running the full range from teenage wise-guy to lost child to decisive commander. (I watched with Japanese dialogue, English subtitles; I sampled the English dialogue version briefly, and went back to the Japanese. I lost patience when the English-language actors started mispronouncing character names.)
When all is said and done, Mirage of Blaze is flawed but still compelling, due in large measure to the combination of milieu, relationship, voices, and music, and in that regard, this is a film that underscores the sometimes crucial role of the soundtrack in setting mood and building context — except for the opening title song, it’s excellent. But nothing is resolved: the battle is won, the war continues, and the relationship between Naoe and Takaya is just reaching a new beginning when the series ends.
It begs for a continuation, but I can’t put Rebels of the River’s Edge in that place. Call it a side story with some of the same characters, occurring after the main story line — Naoe has been keeping his distance from Takaya, but they are thrown together to face a new threat. There’s overt hostility between them at times, and deep-seated anger, overlying a deep emotional bond. Haruie Kakizaki, another of the Uesugi Possessors, shares focus with Takaya and Naoe — she believes Murashige Araki, the character on whom the action hinges, is her lover from two hundred years before, finally reincarnated. This story is much more romantic in concept, and the graphic elements are less bold in execution. The character designs, while recognizable, don’t have the strength or incisive quality that mark those in the main series — in fact, both Takaya and Naoe look relatively bland. It actually works better as a stand-alone than as a continuation of the original series, at least in part because the relationship between Naoe and Takaya as shown in the OVA completely undercuts what was established earlier.
In spite of my reservations, Mirage of Blaze has taken a place among my favorites. The pieces come together a little slowly, but once they’re there and things start moving, the story generates some real excitement.
But I really want a sequel.
The set includes the complete TV series, Mirage of Blaze, and the Rebels of the River’s Edge OVA.
(Media Blasters/Anime Works, 2008; orig. Shueisha/Cobalt Series [Japan], 2002).