Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ghost Hunt (anime TV series), via Hulu

Synopsis:

Sixteen-year-old Mai loves telling and listening to ghost stories. When Shibuya Kazuya (or Kazuya Shibuya, if you want to go with a Western name order) comes to investigate reports of ghosts and mysterious accidents in an abandoned building near her school, Mai ends up becoming one of his assistants. This would be a 100% awesome thing if Kazuya weren't so coldly arrogant and narcissistic (to the point that Mai nicknames him "Naru," which is what I'll refer to him as from this point on). However, the work is interesting and Naru grows on her, so, when she's offered a longer-term job with Shibuya Psychic Research (of which Naru is the manager), Mai accepts.

Although technically Shibuya Psychic Research is composed of Naru, Lin (Naru's mysterious assistant, who seems to take an instant dislike to Mai), and Mai, the group is almost always joined by several others: Hosho, a handsome Buddhist monk who develops a brotherly affection for Mai; Ayako, a Shinto priestess who seems almost useless during most of the 25-episode series; John Brown (I know he's the only one whose last name I'm giving, but his name is just so bland I have to include the whole thing), a cute Australian Catholic priest; and Masako, a 16-year-old spirit medium who has her own TV show and who, to Mai's annoyance, is obviously attracted to Naru. The group is later joined by Yasuhara Osamu ("Yasuhara," from this point on).

The group investigates supposed hauntings. The series is composed of several arcs, each of which deals with a single case. In the first arc, Naru, Mai, and the others investigate the possible haunting of the building by Mai's school. The second arc deals with a possessed doll. The third arc deals with a school that seems to be having a large number of supernatural problems, which may be due to an ostracized spoon-bending girl's curse. Then there's a one-shot in which couples who walk through a particular park together are mysteriously dowsed in water. The fourth arc deals with the spirit of a child who was left at an orphanage (or whatever it's called - the children who are left there aren't always without family). The fifth arc deals with a very strict school that's being overwhelmed by spirits apparently drawn in by widespread student Ouji boarding. The sixth arc deals with a strange, labyrinthine house. The seventh and final arc deals with something that is causing the members of a particular family to die and/or kill.

Commentary:

This series wasn't originally on my radar at all. FUNimation has these ugly S.A.V.E. editions that were on sale, and, to top my order off, I was debating between a couple different series. Tokyo Majin seemed pretty and had some snappy one-liners, but, after watching the first episode, I decided that the plot looked like a mess. Various reviews agreed with me. Jyu Oh Sei had potential, but then I looked at how long it was and started wondering how such a complex-looking series could fit into such a small number of episodes. After reading a few reviews, I concluded that the answer is, "It can't." Ghost Hunt was decently reviewed by several people, but I couldn't pinpoint why. Everything I read made it sound just like a bunch of other shows.

I decided to put off buying the show, at least until after I'd seen the whole thing on Hulu. FUNimation was going through a Hulu video yanking spree, but I still had about a week to go before Ghost Hunt was going to go away. I ended up finishing the whole 25-episode series with several days to spare.

I expected Ghost Hunt's various arcs to be interesting in and of themselves, but in the end fairly forgettable. At first, this seemed to be true. The first arc established that Naru wasn't the sort of guy who just believed every supernatural sighting he was told about - his approach tends to be heavy on technology (video cameras, temperature gauges) and carefully constructed tests. Although the first arc did have me on the edge of my seat at times, it wasn't really all that great overall. I stuck with the show because I wanted to see what at least one other arc was like and because I wanted to see if the show was going to go anywhere with the hints of romance between Mai and Naru. I was at least impressed with the show's excellent and extremely effective use of music and sound effects to heighten the tension during the scarier moments.

The second arc got me hooked. It was genuinely creepy (you'll probably think so, too, if you're the sort of person who can't stand to be around porcelain dolls). While I thought aspects of the third arc were a little hokey (spoon bending? really?), by that time I was more than willing to see where the series would go.

Early on in the series, Mai started showing signs of being able to have dreams that are actually more like visions. At first, I assumed that Mai's dreams were the show's cheesy way of ramping up the tension and providing Mai and Naru with convenient clues (similar to Eve Dallas's dreams in some of the latest books by J.D. Robb), and it kind of annoyed me. Then I realized that Mai actually had special abilities, something I think Naru suspected by the end of the very first arc. I was glad, because it gave her an opportunity to be more than "that girl who gets tea for all the important characters."

While the arcs each deal with fairly stand-alone stories, there are definitely aspects that help make the arcs feel like part of a coherent whole. The supernatural threats become progressively more dangerous and menacing, to the point where I actually did worry, at times, about several of the main characters. I thought the arc dealing with the labyrinthine house was particularly effective in this regard. One episode in that arc ends in such a cliffhanger that I ended up staying up longer than I had originally intended, just so that I could see the next episode and make sure everyone was really okay. It's such a horrific, terrifying arc that I actually found the final arc to be a little disappointing in comparison (although the final arc's creepy children helped make up for that a bit).

Although I thought the second to last arc was the highest point of the series' horror, the final arc had other aspects that compelled me to keep watching. Throughout most of the series, Naru seems fairly in control, calm, and knowledgeable. He may not be able to figure out the case right away, but you don't doubt he'll figure things out soon enough. He is the brains of the group - everyone else does most of the interacting with and exorcising of the spirits. In the final arc, Naru is incapacitated early on. He can't help the group. In fact, he's more likely to harm them all than help them. For once, they all have to figure things out for themselves. Although I missed Naru (and therefore liked seeing his more outwardly nice dream version in Mai's visions), this really gave everyone else a chance to shine.

This show isn't perfect by any means, but it is much, much better than I expected. Several of the things I don't like about this show could easily be fixed by the addition of a second season - although, unfortunately, I haven't seen any indication that a second season is in the works. The anime is based on a manga series by Fuyumi Ono (the same Fuyumi Ono who is the author of the Twelve Kingdoms books!), so I might take a look at those sometime.

I'm sure this comes as no surprise to anyone who's been reading my blog for a while, but I would really have liked it if the romance between Mai and Naru had gone somewhere. The two of them have some really terrific moments. Naru is so tightly controlled and hard to read that even the slightest show of emotion seems significant. I loved the scene where Mai has just woken up from a nightmare and Naru brings her a cup of tea to soothe her nerves. I also loved the scene with Naru's "pet" coin - it's incredibly cute, completely out of the blue, and felt almost like the Naru of Mai's dreams had suddenly been switched with the waking world Naru.

I actually kind of thought that Yasuhara's reappearance after the arc in which he was first introduced was a sign that the writers were going to do more with the hints of romance in the series. Although Yasuhara had said he wasn't interested in Mai (absolutely hilarious scene, particularly when he then messes with Hosho's head), and Mai didn't seem interested in him, there was a potential for some romantic jealousy. Nothing ever came of that potential, however. Still, Yasuhara is one of my favorite minor characters in the series. I absolutely love his cheerfully deadpan humor, and I wish he had been introduced a little earlier in the series.

Overall, my favorite arcs were the one with the labyrinthine house and the one with the ghost of the mute child (even though that arc was a bit cliched, it still had me blinking back tears). Although the various supernatural stories can be seen as standalone stories, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this is not the kind of series where you could watch the arcs out of order and that this wasn't the kind of series where it was the ghost stories alone that were important. I loved getting to find out more about the characters, including some surprising details that answered some of the questions I'd had when I first started the series. If I had bought this series, I wouldn't have regretted it. As it stands, I have added the series to my "To Buy" list and will probably get it the next time there's a good sale and I've got enough money. I really enjoyed the Japanese language track - I've read that the English track could be better, but I at least like several of the voice actors (Eric Vale as Yasuhara!).

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (book) by Arthur Conan Doyle - Naru may be hunting ghosts and not human criminals, but his manner makes me think of Holmes. He appears coldly intellectual and regularly insults Mai, his less brilliant but warmer and more outgoing "sidekick," although I'm sure he'd be upset if his insults actually hurt her rather than just outraged her. Last time I put Doyle on a read-alikes/watch-alikes list, the specific work I listed was A Study in Scarlet. This time around, I'm listing a collection of short stories, because I thought they might appeal more to someone who liked the arc-based storytelling in Ghost Hunt.
  • The Beekeeper's Apprentice (book) by Laurie R. King - Another suggestion based on the "Naru is like Sherlock Holmes" aspect. An intelligent, stifled, and recently orphaned girl meets and befriends a mostly-retired Sherlock Holmes. As time passes, he acts as her mentor and lets her take part in a few cases. Eventually, she becomes an integral part of their most dangerous case together yet.
  • Descendants of Darkness (manga) by Yoko Matsushita; Descendants of Darkness (anime TV series) - If you'd like another supernatural-focused arc-based series, you might like this. A word of warning, though: the anime basically just ends (much like Ghost Hunt), and the manga was on hiatus for 8 years (and may still be - I read that the 12th volume finally came out in Japan in January 2010, but I don't know if that's true). Anyway, the series stars a couple shinigami, death gods, whose job is to make sure the dead stay dead and in their proper realms.
  • Xxxholic (manga) by CLAMP; Xxxholic (anime TV series) - If you'd like another series with supernatural aspects and fairly stand-alone stories, you might try this. Watanuki is plagued by spirits and would like nothing more than to have a normal life. He meets a mysterious woman named Yuko who can grant his wish, but only if he pays an appropriate price - in this case, working for her for an unspecified amount of time, until the debt he would amass is paid off. The series is composed primarily of stories featuring Yuko's various clients, but there is an overarching storyline that has to do with various mysteries surrounding Watanuki.
  • Tactics (anime TV series) - Again, a series with supernatural aspects and some fairly stand-alone stories. Kantaro, a writer and folklorist, has had the ability to see demons and spirits for as long as he can remember. Over the years he has befriended several and made some into his servants. With his exorcism abilities and the help of his servants/friends, he helps those with problems of a supernatural nature.

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