Reviewby Theron Martin,
Satsuki and her Scooby crew are back for twelve more rounds of ghostly encounters! Ghosts just seem to be a problem wherever they go, whether it's home, school, or even a trip to a vacation ski resort, and most of the time the cat-embodied ghost Amanojaku is there to make snide comments and occasionally even help. Amongst the foes the kids must face off against are demonic rabbits, a possessed doll, a ghostly nurse, a spirit of dark magic, place-bound spirits, a possessed housing project, a ghostly painter, a snow ghost, a headless motorcyclist, and the return of the anatomical man ghost before a final showdown with a “boss” ghost.
Reviewer's Note: The last three volumes are being reviewed together because the same review comments apply to all three.
By now you're probably familiar with ADV's big gimmick for this series: take a banal family-oriented series about traditional Japanese ghosts and give it a bawdy English dub which keeps the plot more or less intact but totally changes the characterizations and most of the dialogue. The result is a split identity: the Japanese subtitled version offers up a “horror lite” story about children dealing with ghosts, while the English dubbed version is a dirty-minded topical comedy with horror overtones. Which you'll prefer depends heavily on the value you place on the artistic integrity of anime and how much you're bothered by elementary school children spouting more off-color content than you'd hear in South Park. It also depends a bit on how much you're a fan of Christian Slater.
And what is up with the Christian Slater-bashing, anyway? The principle English voice actors were allowed to free-form their roles within the bounds of the plot (although they did coordinate things enough to be able to play off each other beautifully), and hence all of them share writing credits for these episodes. For all the topical humor they put in, though, not more than a couple of episodes go by without some snide reference to Christian Slater. Granted, he's hardly alone in getting bashed; the VAs crack jokes about each other, do a fair amount of Bush-bashing, and make fun of innumerable other media personages, but he seems to be a favorite target.
While always laden with sexual references, the dub content of these volumes spans a very wide breadth, from movies and TV shows to politics to current-world events, such as Hurricane Katrina references. Even without all the sex talk its content is squarely aimed at older audiences; although even teenage viewers might catch references to Scooby-Doo and the movie Aliens, how many people younger than their late 20s would recognize a sequence of references to the hit early-'80s American action series The A-Team? (It's in the episode about the headless biker.) The VAs are also merciless at poking fun at stereotypes, whether it's Jews, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, white trash, or evangelical Christians, making the dub an equal opportunity offender.
As with earlier volumes, the main recurring fault of the English dub in this span is that it's sometimes too topical to be funny. If you can catch even 75% of all the references thrown out then you're doing well. Most episodes have at least a few laugh-out-loud moments in them, though, with some of the best humor involving self-referential comments. (“This plot makes no sense, but let's do this anyway!”) Certainly enough of the humor works to make the dub worth recommending. Watching the English dub with the “hearing impaired” subtitles turned on is also recommended, as there are not only additional jokes in the subtitles but it can help catch jokes that sometimes come too rapid-fire in the vocals.
The only episode where the humor falls completely flat is episode 12, the one which nominally concerns a ghostly nurse but is really about Satsuki and Keiichiro's mother, how she died, and how Momoko fits into that picture. This is not only the best-written episode in the original Japanese script but the one episode in the whole series which feels genuine and emotional. ADV would have been better off saying, “hey, we actually need to play this one straight,” but instead the VAs try to crack all the usual jokes, especially the recurring ones about how the mother is a reformed lesbian. The result is an enormously crass dub which so badly fails to be funny that it can be uncomfortable to watch if one has also seen the original Japanese version. My advice is to either watch that episode subbed-only or never watch the sub so you won't fully appreciate how inappropriate a lot of the “humor” feels.
The original Japanese storytelling has its own problems. Granted, it's aimed at family audiences, with a cast of kids designed to appeal to younger viewers and stories about classic ghosts designed to appeal to their parents. Even so, the plotting is about as logical as a typical episode of Scooby-Doo and depends too heavily on the inconsistently-portrayed Amanojaku as a bail-out device when it's written itself into a corner. Its scarier elements also may be too intense for the youngest viewers and once in a great while there is a panty shot. The characterizations of the main cast are neither inspired nor interesting, but that's not such a big negative given that the ghosts are the real stars here and the kids are mostly just an excuse to bring them into the picture. Although a few are generic enough in nature to apply to other countries, too (is the headless biker really anything more than an update of the American legends about the Headless Horseman?), most of the ghosts are specific to Japanese culture in general and Japanese school culture in particular, so non-Japanese viewers are unlikely to fully appreciate the portrayals of spirits that, in most cases, have been commonly-known in Japan for decades.
The technical and artistic merits of the series actually aren't bad, with good backgrounds and some respectable CG work used in some of the “running down the hall” scenes. It's hardly an upper-tier title in any artistic or technical aspect, though, and does not do well on integrating animated and background art. The musical score continues to sound a lot like the more dramatic music from Scooby-Doo, with an opener and lyrically inappropriate closer that remain unchanged from the beginning of the series.
Each of these three volumes offers up the same set of extras: clean opener and closer, company previews, and the Ghost Profiles. The latter provide contextual details on the ghosts portrayed in each volume which should be highly informative to any non-Japanese viewer. As before, separate subtitles are provided for both dubs. The cover for the fourth volume prominently features a ghost that appears in volume 3 instead, but the only other ADV-related production quibble is a PG age rating given for the series, which is appropriate to the Japanese content but most certainly is not appropriate for the R-rated dialogue in the English dub.
If you've seen the first two volumes of Ghost Stories, whether subbed or dubbed, then these remaining three are just more of the same. If you haven't, then be prepared for an English dub that's a parody romp on the original story. Despite bombing mightily in one episode, the comedic dub is still more entertaining overall than the original.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : C+
+ English dub is generally much more entertaining than the original.
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