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Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

Review: Ghost Hunt

Ghost Hunt: Full Cast

This was one of the first anime I watched seriously after starting college. I talk about Digimon, Escaflowne, and Outlaw Star when I talk about my “gateway drugs” into anime, but in a sense Ghost Hunt was actually the anime to really get me involved. Ghost Hunt showed me an entirely different genre of anime from anything I had experienced: something dark, but not gory; something mysterious, without being overbearing or remaining unexplained forever. There’s a lot to like in Ghost Hunt, and it still holds up as one of the best series I’ve had the opportunity to watch.

Synopsis

Mai Taniyama is a high school student with a penchant for ghost stories. She and her friends spend afternoons trying to scare each other with their twisted stories. When Kazuya Shibuya stumbles in upon one such gathering, Mai’s friends admire him almost instantly. It turns out that Kazuya is a ghost hunter, tackling the very kind of stories Mai tells. Mai accidentally damages some of Kazuya’s equipment the next day, and she suddenly finds herself forced into indentured servitude – she has to help Kazuya solve his investigations!

Genre

While not strictly horror, there are definitely terrifying stories and startling scenes scattered throughout this mystery-and-thriller combo.

Age Rating

Conservatively, PG 13. There’s some violence, and plenty of creepy moments, but nothing graphic or disturbing enough for me to shun away the teenage audience.

Review

Plot Quality: 6

The primary plot of Ghost Hunt is divided into eight arcs, each of which spans a handful of episodes. Each arc is quite distinct in design and feel, ranging from light and almost heartwarming to dark, heavy, and downright scary. Connections between the arcs are consistent, yet minimal – each arc could almost be viewed in a vacuum without losing anything. This means we don’t get a whole lot of back-story on the characters, nor do they change too dramatically over the course of the anime – outside of Mai, that is. Her growth over the course of the anime is marked, and perhaps the lone counter to viewing arcs out-of-order. Either way, perhaps it’s comforting to know that the primary events of a given arc aren’t going to linger and mess with the plot down the road.

While not uniformly amazing, each arc has its own charm. Many of the arcs grip the audience strongly, and many contain surprising twists and turns. These arcs really work an amatuer sleuth’s brain for the duration of the mystery, and only occasionally would I predict the solution to a problem before the characters grasped it. A small part of this likely comes about because the problems are paranormal in nature, so the range of possibilities is quite vast (and hard for someone not versed in the lingo to predict). Nevertheless, the characters do a great job of interpreting their experiences so that the audience can follow along without a degree in parapsychology.

As for the fear factor, I think that my more hardcore friends would probably find this to be lukewarm in intensity. The stories are never terribly graphic, it’s true, but I still feel that the presentation style still carries a good sense of thriller timing. More than once I found myself gasping for breath, especially in the later arcs. While there’s nothing here that would make me declare, “Brown Trousers Time,” I felt the suspense and danger were expertly presented. As such, I still have a hard time recommending this anime to my sister despite knowing how well she could relate to Mai.

Character Quality: 6

Ghost Hunt: Mai Taniyama

For mystery and horror genres to really work, the characters need to feel both familiar and vulnerable. Distant characters won’t earn the audience’s empathy, so whatever horrors they experience won’t touch us. Overly durable characters never leave us worrying too much: “they’ll get out of it,” we say with a roll of our eyes, because we know they’re strong. Ghost Hunt knows both of these traits are paramount to good character design in its genre, and Mai has them in spades.

Mai makes a wonderful protagonist for Ghost Hunt, and this is in large part because of her emotions. Mai brings the much-needed empathetic lynchpin to each of the arcs. As we don’t have time enough to really meet and sympathize with the victims Kazuya sets out to help, we learn to feel for them through Mai. She weeps for the lost souls they encounter, and despairs for those left alive and how they have to suffer on without their loved ones. She adamantly defends the rights of everyone, her sense of justice steadfastly refusing some of the harsher truths that seem inevitable. All of these emotions make the world around her feel like a world worth caring about. Just as she can’t abandon her friends or those in trouble, the audience quickly finds that they can’t abandon Mai – she’s pure, dedicated, and endlessly caring. Thanks to her, the audience genuinely cares about Kazuya’s cases as more than cold, aloof searches for the truth.

Beyond her empathy, Mai also brings familiarity and vulnerability to the table. She really is a teenager, and this fact serves as both asset and hindrance as she works with Kazuya. But at the same time, she’s not the traditional screaming girl from a Hollywood slasher flick; Mai has some serious grit, making her more than helpless while still less than perfect. It’s hard to find fault with such an honest character, especially when her growing maturity over the course of the show demonstrates how she’s getting stronger because of her experiences. In all, Mai brings an unwavering heart to the entire series, from her childish fighting to her heart-felt sorrow to her growing strength and self-confidence. She is presented excellently.

Kazuya, the apparently stoic and brilliant counterpart to Mai, is also strongly performed. He’s no spectacle, but he delivers exactly the kind of personality you expect: he’s cold, he’s efficient, he puts solving the case above just about everything else, and he always seems to get the job done in the end. He doesn’t do much to win the audience’s sympathy, but he is nonetheless well portrayed. I wish he had been a little less reticent, as he seems to have a lot of character that we never get to see. But, as he would say, the case is all that matters – his background is inconsequential. He also consistently demonstrates that he does, in fact, have what it takes to be the leader of his research team. Despite what the other adults say, Kazuya does a great job with his work, and his determination and decisiveness really shine through when he’s at the helm.

The supporting cast is something of a mixed bag, though the performances are generally strong. The weakest performance, I feel, is from Ayako the shrine maiden. As the theoretically strongest of the female characters, Ayako does little to impress with her training (and is ridiculed for it). Comic relief aside, I was disappointed that Ayako wasn’t built to be more empowering. Masako the seer is likewise underwhelming: aside from providing a rival for Mai in certain situations, Masako usually plays the role of guide to the rest of the staff. Thank goodness for Mai’s strength as a character – these girls would not be able to carry their gender in Ghost Hunt without her.

The supporting boys, meanwhile, are uniformly strong. Houshou the monk comes out of the gate with a smirk, offering a strong counterpoint to Naru’s clinical approach, as well as a certain father-type figure for Mai while she’s at work. John the priest, while initially teased for his age and inexperience, is probably the strongest of Naru’s assistants when it comes to combating the forces of the paranormal – his role is often cut out, coincidentally, to remove that powerful “security blanket” from the cases. And Lin, Naru’s only full-time assistant before Mai enters the picture, often occupies the background. He comes across as even more emotionless than Naru, and while we do get a few encouraging glimpses into his personality, he spends most of his time quietly assisting Naru, making sure everything in the investigation goes ahead smoothly.

Visual Quality: 5

The art style here is fairly uniform throughout the anime, and while sometimes very detailed and beautiful, it is best described as “matte.” There’s not a lot of gloss, and the muted colors bring a certain eeriness to the scenery that other, prettier anime would lose. Mai’s cute style is one of the few exceptions, but even she has a certain roughness around her edges that makes her appear as though she genuinely belongs: her heavier clothes and heavy sneakers accentuate her inner tomboy. The rest of the cast is likewise resolute in design, everyone looking like they’re ready to solve a mystery professionally, rather than showcase themselves as eye candy for the audience.

Ghost Hunt: Ghouls

The concept of drawing fear-inspiring images is a tricky one, and I find that Ghost Hunt actually does pretty admirably with this. From creepy ghouls and spirits to the rooms themselves that are possessed, everything is accurately yet tastefully presented. The characters’ suffering in these terrifying sequences is also believable, without resorting to either over-the-top screaming or eye-rolling lack of commitment to the emotion. Being paralyzed by fear is a very real experience, and it’s comforting to see these subtleties brought to life in the characters.

This anime also contains a fair bit of chibi-styled filler. It’s not exactly at home alongside the ghouls, or even the other dramatic revelations at the end of each arc, but it does exactly what it’s intended to do: break up the seriousness of the mood and instead inject a bit of light, entertaining conversation or fighting.

Audio Quality: 6 (5 in English)

The opening and ending themes are almost instantly skippable. They’re both instrumental performances, and neither showcases any animation from the actual show – no character models, locations, or even spirits. That isn’t to say that the music isn’t good; on the contrary, it fits the eerie, suspenseful mood of Ghost Hunt perfectly. But then, I had a hard time convincing myself that I needed to set the mood when I was in the middle of an arc; they just felt like they were slowing down the experience.

The insert music is likewise well-selected. It won’t catch in your head or anything, but it’s expertly timed and adds another layer to the experience on-screen, be it cute, suspenseful, or horrifying.

The original voice acting, by and large, is great too. Mai’s seiyuu is excellent – the softness of her voice really allows for her to match Mai’s drawn emotions to a T. She can be vehemently angry when it’s called for, but the sorrow and compassion that is so much more common to her experience is something I feel only her voice can accurately capture. Kazuya’s sharp, hard-line seiyuu likewise keeps the character uniformly crisp and robotic throughout the series. The supporting cast is also voiced very well, despite the weaknesses inherent in some of them. Fast-paced bickering matches feel particularly tight, far more real than some dragging conversations I’ve seen in other anime.

The English voice actors, meanwhile, lose a lot of what I find makes these characters so powerful. Mai’s voice actor focuses far more on the tomboy aspects of Mai, bringing an edginess and power to her voice that just sounds a bit out of place. Conversely, Kazuya’s English voice is actually soft; it sounds like he’s really struggling to argue back against anyone. Given the proclivity that Mai and Kazuya have for arguing with one another, this shift in vocal power disconnects from the direction of both the script and the art style. While the supporting cast is respectable in English, the confusion of the dynamic between Mai and Kazuya in English is a little frustrating.

Bottom Line: 6.2

Ghost Hunt was and, after a second viewing, continues to be one of my favorite anime regardless of genre. It doesn’t take any truly dangerous risks (Because, as I said before, every arc is fairly isolated, so the main characters won’t be dead at the end of an arc, nor will anyone be dramatically changed by certain events), but I was never bothered by this. Ghost Hunt is a mystery first, with horror as a secondary concern. The mysteries are solved in their entirety, which demonstrates a true grasp of screenwriting – there’s no plot holes or gaps left behind that leave the conclusions feeling hollow, faked, or rushed for the sake of time.

The horror in Ghost Hunt doesn’t claim lives permanently, but saying “Don’t worry, no one’s gonna die” has been used as a false comfort against fear for as long as I can remember. I was definitely scared by lots of events in the various arcs of Ghost Hunt. After all, only the main cast has any guarantee of surviving through to the end – the terrors befalling the supporting cast are very real, sometimes lethal, terrors.

And what would those secondary characters’ plights be without a reason to care for them? Mai performs brilliantly throughout this anime, connecting the audience to the many victims she and Kazuya endeavor to save. Thanks to her consistent, heart-felt performance, the triumphs of her team feel real and valuable, while the moments when they are too late feel genuinely sad and terrifying.

Strong mysteries. Some scary scenes, getting steadily more intense as the series progresses. A brilliant, familiar and vulnerable leading lady, with a supporting cast that is mostly strong. And a few asides that range from comedic to romantic. Ghost Hunt isn’t exactly anime nirvana, but I find that it’s pretty close. From beginning to end, I was entranced – sometimes terrified, sometimes sighing with relief, and sometimes laughing at my own silliness – but always entranced.

 

Coming Soon

Look for reviews of Ef – a Tale of Memories, Darker Than Black, sola, and maybe even Kanon (2006) in the near future!

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