Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 3rd 2008
Ghost Hunt DVD
Season 1 Part 1
First-year high school student Mai Taniyama loves to tell ghost stories with her friends after classes, but she soon finds herself involved with some real ghost stories when an accident results in her gaining a job first as a temporary, and later permanent, assistant to handsome young Kazuya Shibuya, owner/operator of Shibuya Psychic Research. Though wowed by his looks, Mai is so put off by Kazuya's acerbic attitude that she nicknames him “Naru” (in reference to his narcissism), a nickname which sticks as others involved in the psychic field - including aging shrine maiden Ayoko, Buddhist monk/rock bassist Housho, Australian Catholic exorcist John Brown, and famous kimono-wearing spirit-seeker Masako - assemble for various jobs requiring spiritual services. Amongst their tasks are a haunted abandoned school, a haunted not-so-abandoned school, a haunted house, a case of serial possession at a church orphanage, and a spirit who dumps water on lovers in a park.
Adapted from a manga that was based on an original novel series by Fuyumi Ono (who also wrote the Twelve Kingdoms novels), Ghost Hunt plays out as a supernatural mystery series rather than an anime variation on the similarly-named Sci Fi Network series. It actually more resembles the anime series Ghost Stories, though only peripherally; this one focuses on teens and adults, the story arcs do not necessarily involve actual ghosts (though the involvement of spirits is always at least suspected), only one of the five cases investigated in the first half of the series requires only a single episode to resolve, and the production values and writing are quite a bit better. Like Ghost Stories, though, it mixes up suspenseful, sometimes intense tales of the supernatural with occasional bits of humor.
The keys to the series' success lie in two places, and one of them is in its plotting. Each case, which varies between one and four episodes in length, is well-paced, but more importantly, each case offers a fresh supernatural story rife with complicating factors. Only the more light-hearted fourth case (episode 11), about the ghost in the park, is at all straightforward. The rest require the peeling away of multiple layers of story and misdirection to get at the essence of the (in some cases supposed) haunting, and often that requires navigating numerous twists and turns. Some cases are more successful than others at obfuscating the truth until near the end of the case; the true culprit in the third case should be clear early on, for instance, though exactly why he/she is doing it will not be apparent until the resolution. On the whole, though, these are not cases that can be thought through with your brain turned off. The series also offers a nice mix of both technical and supernatural means for approaching haunting problems.
The other key is its lead characters. “Naru” takes on the serious, businesslike but also conceited role, practically radiating the kind of calm, intelligent confidence one would expect in a professional. By contrast, Mai is a more lively and personable soul; to call her both the heart and the true star of the series would not be an exaggeration, as she gets more screen time than anyone else. Though excitable, and though her reactions to Naru info-dumping under the guise of “explaining it in a way even Mai can understand” are consistently amusing, the writing does not overplay that aspect of her character, instead allowing her to be a fairly typical-seeming, if remarkably intuitive, high school girl. The pairing of the two gives the series equally attractive male and female leads, which combines with an even gender balance amongst all recurring characters and a lack of fan service to provide a strong appeal to viewers of both genders despite its shojo origins.
The series is not without its problems, however. Although the writing tries to paint the supporting cast as a colorful bunch, they rarely get a chance to step beyond one-note portrayals, and some are simply not credible; Masako does not give off even the faintest vibe of being a TV celebrity, for instance, and one would think her repeated trips to the hospital (itself an overused plot device) would attract attention. Other issues with logic also pop up from time to time, such as how Mai can be doing the time-intensive job she's doing and still be in school and how a long-missing kid in the season's final case could be where he is and not be noticed for 30 years. The solutions to the cases also all too commonly come down to Naru leaving the scene for a while to do some research and then coming back with a solution in hand, and the format way overuses dramatic cut scenes showing the shocked reactions of characters.
The musical score is another weak point. The utterly generic spooky orchestrated sound of an opener paired with unambitious visuals presages musical themes that are hit-or-miss in their ability to enhance the mood or edginess of a scene, though they work more consistently in lighter and more poignant moments. The melodic, orchestrated closer is a better number but still not remarkable and still uses dull visuals.
Nothing is dull about J.C. Staff's animation effort in the main episodes, however. They deliver appealing character designs, well-designed and integrated background art, and an especially eye-pleasing color scheme which includes use of black-and-white or sepia hues to differentiate flashback scenes. Also notable is Mai's ever-shifting wardrobe, which might change multiple times within a single episode, and the variety of different kimonos Masako wears. (These might not seem all that special, but consider how rarely characters in anime undergo regular wardrobe changes and how much extra character design work is required to pull something like this off.) A lack of true action scenes prevents the animation from showing off, and it takes shortcuts just like any other TV series, but what is animated is done relatively well. These episodes may not quite rank amongst the visual elite for series animation but fall only a little short.
Funimation adopts some interesting translation standards for its English dub and subtitle productions, including leaving “onmyoji” untranslated in the dub but translating it as “ying yang master” in the subtitles. The “Naru = narcissist” explanation survives mostly intact, and the dub merely glosses over cases where the Japanese performance of Mai has her being confused about Japanified versions of English technical terms, which are shown in the subtitles. The English script otherwise sticks truer to the original than most Funimation dubs do. Amongst potential voice acting issues, the Kansai accent John Brown apparently picked up while learning Japanese is replaced by an attempt at a mild Australian accent by Jason Liebrecht, but otherwise the casting does a good job of matching English performers to the original roles. The stand-out performance is Cherami Leigh's rendition of Mai, as she hits just the right tone and sound for the character without resorting to exaggeration, but Todd Haberkorn also does quite a respectable job as Naru. Buddhist and shrine maiden exorcisms sound better and more natural in Japanese, while the Catholic exorcism sounds much too placid in Japanese.
Despite cramming 13 episodes onto two thinpacked disks, the first season boxed set still finds room for a handful of Extras. On the second disk can be found a clean opener, Character Case Files (i.e. very brief bio blurbs), Ghost Sightings (i.e. screen shots), and a manga preview, which offers several pages from one of the translated manga volumes for viewers to flip through.
Overall, the first season shows a lot of potential despite some weak points. It spins good enough, and elaborate enough, stories to hold a viewer's interest, offers a highly likeable female lead, and looks sharp. It may not be a “cream of the crop” series, but you could certainly find far worse ways to whittle away your anime-viewing time.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : C
+ Sharp look, appealing female lead, elaborately-crafted (if sometimes predictable) cases.
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