High culture collides with low in this anime, a spin-off from the imminent computer game from EA. Whether or not you take to it will depend on your view of Dante, Japanese animation, and video game tie-ins, as well as more generally on the cross-fertilisation between different cultural artifacts - always a contentious subject. Most of those in the target market for Dante's Inferno: An Animated Epic will not be over-familiar with the original source, but there's no need to climb on any literary high-horses, though general observations are worthwhile. Purists, however, may wish to stay clear of it.
Dante's original, one of the great epics of world literature, has been the inspiration of much work by writers and artists down the centuries. IMDb lists four or five screen works with the title. Animated versions have been rare, although no doubt there's a comic book version lurking somewhere. Such is the nature of things that this present version appears in a year along with a rival animated production titled more succinctly 'Dante's Inferno' - one shorter in length, but apparently superior to this in its fidelity to the original. The most notable live-action version has always been that of 1935 with Spencer Tracy, an even freer adaptation than the one we have here, in which the horrendous visions are compressed into 10 minutes of a much longer narrative.
By contrast, the present version spends most of its running time on these elements, depicting at length Dante's journey through the nine circles of hell to reach his beloved Beatrice. Perhaps sensing a need for variety between the titanic battles that this progress involves, Dante's Inferno: An Animated Epic breaks up the hero's progress with several flashbacks, not in the original, during which the true state of affairs and Dante's real moral stature becomes more and more explained.
The character of Beatrice has been changed as part of this new narrative device, giving her a more dynamic role in the narrative as well as providing the romantic core. Whether or not Dante would have appreciated his ideal love appearing briefly as the bride of Lucifer, or his reflective protagonist-self metamorphosing into an axe-wielding warrior figure more Conan than Christian, one can only conjecture; but a target audience will respond to the changes. Only Dante's guide, the poet Virgil, keeps some of his original quiet dignity.
Given the EA game standing behind the release, it's no surprise that Dante's Inferno: An Animated Epic has action and a plot structure more reflective of that more commercial source than Dante's leisurely writing. Much of the moral depth and complexity of the book has been jettisoned thereby in favour of arcs of swift movement. The original contained a more sophisticated and extended version of damnation than the mere nine circles of doom rather simplistically imagined here, each becoming just another test for our hero to reach, then duly pass through. The original's spiritual shock and awe has been replaced by a gamer's inevitable level-creep, where it is never really in doubt that Hell is likely to be overcome. It's a considerable reduction of the medieval original's salutary purpose, even if the ending of the film attempts to have it both ways.
The original Inferno, one part of the three-part Divine Comedy, makes particular use of allegory throughout, in ways an educated medieval reader would be expected to follow. Understandably feeling that allegory is not something that modern audiences will sit through at great length without growing restless, and with the imperatives of a game franchise to support, one imagines Dante's Inferno: An Animated Epic was always going to be obliged to substitute breathless action for contemplation, sketched in typical anime style.
Suffice to say that the animation on offer here is certainly vivid even if, by comparison to the Shrek-like pictorial quality of the game (a trailer for which is helpfully included as an extra on the disc), the line-drawn work seems dated in style. Some, incidentally, have noticed a lack of continuity in the rendering of Dante's features. At first I thought each of the nine circles cleverly had its own subtle visual identity, but no: it's just because eight studios and directors from America, North Korea and Japan all had input. It's an inconsistency that's a little distracting; one indication perhaps of a rushed production, tied to release dates elsewhere.
Japanese fantasy anime and manga have a tradition of dealing with the matter of monsters and shadow worlds, often with their own original mythologies and shock tactics - so much so that they sometimes give censors pause for thought. It was one reason why they acquired such a cult following. But there's no tentacle horror intruding here; no stomach-churning changes of form, no real depravity, while the sexual content is reduced to occasional titillation.
Hell, one would hope, ought to be the most alarming and appalling spectacle of all, an updated warning to all who behold it, a moral imperative to reform, a presentation of the most terrible of terrors. But the horrors of Dante's Inferno: An Animated Epic leave us frankly un-aghast and un-chastened. Whether or not the creators have been constrained by deference to the august original or just the mass-market demands of their sponsors is hard to say; but for a real walk on the dark side you would be better off with something like the now elderly Devil Man (aka: Debiruman) or, most memorably, the notorious Urotsukidôji.