Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In Review: Mouryou no Hako

In Fall 2008, I picked up this series called Mouryou no Hako. At first, I wasn't going to pick it up because the character designs are by CLAMP, whose extreme style I'm not too fond of. However, when I learned that it was going to be animated by Madhouse, I decided to give it a go anyway.

The series did not disappoint. As a matter of fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the first episode, not only because CLAMP who is known for its stick-thin figures and impossibly pretty bishounens, downplayed the shiny a little bit (although one character still managed to look amazingly like Fei from Tsubasa Chronicles), but also because the story turns out to be a rich fusion of detective-mystery and folk religion/occultism. The result is an unusual anime series that is as mind-boggling as it is revelatory, as absurd as it is procedural, and as sinister as it is dreamy.
TITLE: Mouryou no Hako (lit. "The Box of Goblins")
GENRE: detective-mystery, occult, crime, horror
DIRECTOR: Nakamura Ryosuke
ORIGINAL CREATOR: Kyogoku Natsuhiko
ORIGINAL RUN: October 2008 - December 2008
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 13 + special

The series begins with Detective Kiba of the Tokyo Police called in to investigate a very strange case involving a girl hit by a train. In the course of his investigation, he finds an eerie box-shaped hospital in the middle of nowhere, meets the victim's beautiful and mysterious former actress sister and her besotted companion, the family lawyer who says that the victim was set to inherit a large fortune, and the brilliant but taciturn doctor hired to restore the victim's health. As Kiba becomes more and more involved in the case, police begin finding young girls' limbs strewn around the countryside just as a brand new religion gains an escalating number of followers. Shortly after this series of bizarre incidents, the victim in Kiba's case disappears and a ransom note is found, leading the police to fear the worst: that the victim has been taken by the serial murderer. But are the two cases related? What sinister things are the victim's family hiding? And does the leader of this new religion in fact have more to do with these preternatural occurrences than anybody is willing to consider?
Mouryou no Hako is a mixture of old-school detective work and the occult.

Mouryou no Hako OP Clip [YouTube]
Mouryou no Hako ED Clip [YouTube]
Mouryou no Hako PV [YouTube]

I mentioned earlier that I picked up Mouryou no Hako back when it first aired, but what I didn't say is that I actually put the series on-hold after only three episodes. The series was just so confusing that I decided to leave it for a while to allow myself to gain some clarity. It's now 2010 and I just finished watching the entire Mouryou no Hako anime series yesterday. As it turns out, clarity took me more than a year to acquire. :) In hindsight, I should have at least given Mouryou no Hako a seven-episode viewing because that is actually when things start to make sense.

That said, the series could be neatly divided into two segments: episodes 1-6 is the part where all the players and plot devices are introduced and episodes 7-13 is where you can make sense out of all the darkly sinister tangles created in the previous episodes. While the first part is a bizarre mixture of old-school detective work and a crash course in Japan's folkloric spiritualism, the second is purely revelatory and nearly dispenses of all the religious connotations heavily used in the former.

Mouryou no Hako opens with a shock: a girl's head in a box.

The most striking thing about Mouryou no Hako is its no-nonsense introduction. From the very beginning, the series dispels you of the notion that this anime is going to be anything BUT dark, macabre and absolutely strange.

The opening scene is that of a man carrying a box containing a girl's head. This is then followed by a completely mundane scene about two young girls who develop an unusually close friendship. Enter an entirely different set of characters -- a fantasy novelist who may be suffering from depression, a newspaper editor checking for anomalies in a new religion that is sweeping the countryside, a private eye hired to look for the missing heir of a rich tycoon, and a female private investigator working on a bizarre murder case involving young girls' severed limbs. What do these have to do with anything? Everything, as it turns out but you don't know that until the final episode. Just when you think you have a fairly good grasp of what's going on and of everybody's hidden motives, think again because you are most likely wrong. The anime keeps you guessing right to the very end. In that regard, it is absolutely successful as a mystery.

True that after the first six episodes, Mouryou no Hako pretty much dissolves into nothing more than expository dialogue, I feel that this was necessary. Otherwise, nothing would make sense and we'd all be left with half a brain, or none at all. So, despite this very obvious handicap, the series still manages to keep its audiences riveted by doing what all good mysteries do: save the best for last.

Compared to the other deviant relationship portrayed in the series, the yuri in Mouryou no Hako is mild.

Mouryou no Hako DVDs @
Mouryou no Hako DVDs @

As an anime that borrows even its title from Japan's folkloric past and occultism, Mouryou no Hako is strangely not about occults. I might even go on to say that the series is actually a straightforward detective-mystery with only splashes of spiritualism to make the story more flavorful. And yet, if you take out the religious aspect, the effect would be a lot like lobotomy. The series just won't be the same. That is how integral and intricately connected the spiritual part of Mouryou no Hako is to the overall story even as it really has nothing to do with anything.

"The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse." ~ Devendra Varma from The Gothic Flame

As a horror, Mouryou no Hako does not rely on a terrifying build-up. Sure, there is a lot of building up going on but that is more for the benefit of heightening the mystery rather than heightening your terror. What it does, and it does it very well, is to shock and disturb you with each new revelation. The horror does not end with the discovery of the head in the box or the images of severed limbs strewn across the countryside. The biggest horror of all is how the show portrays the extent of the characters' depravity. If you think it's bad, believe when I say that it's actually much worse than you previously suspect.

In the end, you can't help but feel relieved that Madhouse decided to end the series with a special episode, told from the perspective of a character who after her initial introduction virtually disappeared from the storyline, and who simultaneously recaps and concludes the story with a thought-provoking question, realization and new-found determination. This at least makes you feel like the anime ended in a lighter note, even as this note is by far darker than the conclusion of any other anime series out there.

Mouryou no Hako is replete with visual cues and symbols

Aside from its disturbing yet absorbing mystery, Mouryou no Hako also offers a lot on the aesthetics side. The visuals are astounding -- they're beautiful, colorful, gorgeous, animated, symbolic. Especially looking at the first few episodes, you can't help but be lured in by the mere visuals alone the way Yoriko was likewise seduced by the image of Kanako dancing under the moonlight. While the production values are not anywhere near perfect, you can feel that the message behind that beautiful splash of color on your screen is perfection hand in hand with insanity. And what could be more alluring than the image of beauty freed from the confines of reality?

Not only that, Mouryou no Hako is anime replete with visual cues and symbols. Just as the gorgeous visuals are deceptive, hiding as they are a sinister secret or some deep psychological illness, the symbols may fool you. Each episode begins with an excerpt from a novel written by one of two fictional novelists in the series. While they don't seem to have anything to do with the plot, these excerpts have more to do with the overall scheme of the story than you initially believe. In that, I have only one piece of advice: never miss an episode, watch each one closely. In short, blink and you'll miss it.

Technology during Japan's bubble economy adds further dimension into the mythology of Mouryou no Hako

Speaking about the visuals, I always thought that CLAMP is mostly responsible for the general look of Mouryou no Hako. This despite my knowing that CLAMP's only real credit is doing some of the character designs. After 2009's highly acclaimed Aoi Bungaku, I know now that much of the visual impact of this series definitely bears the handprint of one newbie director Nakamura Ryosuke.

Amazingly, Mouryou no Hako is Nakamura's directorial debut and yet he has such a deft hand at it that I found it hard to believe. Then, of course, I saw Run, Melos!, one of the masterpiece arcs from Aoi Bungaku, and I knew then that Nakamura has more to offer as a director. The latter is even set in the same period of Japan's history as Mouryou no Hako so that watching it, you almost expect to see the characters from one series interact with those from the other.

One of the more disturbing scenes from Mouryou no Hako consist of a battalion of Japanese soldiers getting run over by a military tank and falling to pieces

Nakamura must hold a certain fascination for Japan's Showa Era, a time which coincides with Japanese ultranationalism, World War II, American Occupation and the bubble economy. The pervading sentiment from that period is nostalgia. That was around the time when Japan opened its doors to other economies, experienced a boom in industrialization and technology, a time when everything is new and fresh and exciting. But the downside to all that technological progress is a sense of loss in terms of culture and tradition. In other words, we get so caught up with all these new gadgets that we lose sight of the world around us.

I think that's what Nakamura is concerned about and this he attempts to show in Mouryou no Hako and to some extent in Run, Melos! As one German playwright and novelist Max Frisch aptly puts it: "Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it," the doctor Mimasaka Koushirou in Mouryou no Hako failed to simply experience the unconditional love of his family by pursuing the impossible dream of creating a perfect human being. And it's not only Mimasaka Koushirou who suffers from this malady. Nearly everyone of the characters from Mouryou no Hako are going through some kind of existential malaise as though it were the effects of the virtual tug-of-war happening between progress and tradition, the present and the past. The anime refer to this feeling as "mouryou" -- a spirit that is said to devour corpses and dwell on the space between the shadow and the light, the in-between. In other words, "mouryou" is a representation of human weakness and that is as real as you or me.


Mouryou no Hako is a ground-breaking anime that mystifies as well as de-mystifies, builds up as well as takes down, hides as well as reveals, seduces as well as repels, and overall entertains your heart out while at the same time blows your mind away with shock after shock and horror after horror only to end with a sense of hope that as dark as things are, you, as a person, have the choice whether to tread your path or go to the other side.

This show is recommended for those who like a taste of what anime can be when done right.


Mouryou no Hako @ Wikipedia
Mouryou no Hako @ ANN


Lily said...

This is absolutely the best review I've ever read! You've intelligently -- sometimes poetically -- given me the absolute most information you could to tease me without giving anything away at all! I'm in awe over the effect of reading your review! Though I had paused on watching this series -- my heart not being in the mood for such darkness -- I now simply must finish it or the suspense will surely devour me!

Seth said...

I must agree with Lily that this is an excellently written review. I haven't seen the show so I don't know if your glowing opinions will prove true, but my interest is now so piqued I am compelled to seek out and watch the whole thing.