Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 10th 2014
Hozuki no Reitetsu
Episodes 1-7 Streaming
Hozuki is King Enma's right-hand man in Hell. It's his job to make sure that good-natured, dim-witted Enma's realm runs efficiently—processing and punishing sinners as Hell should. As you'd expect with a bureaucrat from Hell, Hozuki is cold-blooded, sadistic, and inflexible. He also loves cute and fluffy things and is a dedicated gardener. In his job he meets a great many mythical characters, and intimidates most of them.
We all like new things. Why wouldn't we? Who wants to be doing, wearing, watching, or dating the same thing for years on end? That being said, novelty doesn't guarantee our interest. Put another way, just because an anime is doing something fairly unique doesn't mean it can't bore you straight into your grave. Exhibit one: Hozuki no Reitetsu.
There are precedents for Hozuki of course. Bumbling King Enma, ruler of the afterlife, has his roots in Dragon Ball Z's version of Enma—a big bluffer seated perpetually behind his desk. Hell as a harried bureaucracy drowning in paperwork was an invention of Yu Yu Hakusho. Black comedy about the lives of demons reared its head in Yondemasu yo, Azazel-san. And the show's humor and structure, in which vignettes are built around mundane chores, meandering conversations, and snapshots of everyday life, are firmly rooted in anime's rich tradition of mind-numbing slice-of-life comedy.
Still, the show is genuinely apart from the herd. At the very least, its premise doesn't yet have a subgenre built around it, which counts as a kind of uniqueness in anime. At its best Hozuki is a surreal parody of working life, turning familiar workaday situations utterly absurd by transplanting them into Hell. Thus we get Hozuki resolving a hiring shortage by poaching Momotaro's animal sidekicks (more on them later). Or Hozuki giving a factory tour (of Hell) to a foreign dignitary (Satan). Or Satan's lieutenant Beelzebub navigating security at an infernal airport (his poisonous stomach secretions are considered a "dangerous liquid" and have to be purged).
The problem is that the show has no idea how to parlay any of that into actual comedy. Its vignettes are simply odd and surreal, not funny. They don't build to jokes, escalate cleverly, or do anything that might elicit an actual laugh. They can't even deliver a memorable sight gag. They expect to be found funny simply because they're treating objectively bizarre things as ordinary (or, conversely, doing ordinary things in objectively bizarre circumstances). That kinda works at first, but it wears thin quickly, leaving the show's parade of incongruities and generalized weirdness feeling as humdrum as its characters treat it.
There might be a sneaky lesson in that—something about how even the tortures of hell can become rote after enough time—but the show isn't interested in that. Instead it tries mixing things up by introducing a parade of humorously re-interpreted mythological characters. There's Momotaro and his entourage, various traditional Japanese monsters and occupants of Hell, a mythical Chinese beast of some sort, and many more. None of them are amusing, except in passing (Momotaro's dog, pheasant, and monkey take to torture with disturbingly happy enthusiasm), and some are downright awful (the man-crazy, bodybuilding horse and cow women who guard Hell's gates).
It's possible they'd be funnier if we were more familiar with their original myths, but the treatment of mythical figures we are familiar with argues against that. Satan is a cruelly unfunny parody of the blustering American and Beelzebub is equally devoid of laughs as a parody of European aristocrats.
None of this would be quite as patience-trying if Hozuki was able to hold us in thrall, but again, no such luck. He's a logically consistent kind of character, but that just means he's consistently frosty, distant, and unfeeling. He is a singularly uninvolving lead. Not once do we root for him, feel for him, or identify with him. He's the motivating force behind the vignettes, but not a draw unto himself.
Even taking into account its novel premise, Hozuki is definitely most unique in its look. Specifically in the design of the show's world. Hiro Kaburaki is a director who pays a lot of attention to his art, and he doesn't change his stripes here. He designs Hozuki's settings as if they were sumi-e ink paintings, giving Hell an antique and distinctly Japanese look. The effect is startlingly beautiful at times, and utterly distinctive at all times. Characters are more conventionally drawn, their main distinguishing characteristics being the various monsters' cartoonishness and the way the lean good looks of Hozuki (and others) betrays Kaburaki's shojo-anime roots.
In terms of motion, the show is entirely generic, with Kaburaki favoring a perfectly ordinary mixture of unremarkable animation and various road-tested short-cuts. It isn't a terrible burden on the show, since often very little actually happens in a given vignette. Kaburaki does occasionally try to build up a head of hectic comedic steam, notably during an antic sports-festival vignette, but it generally ends up being more hyperactive than comedic, and more energetic than polished. Which is just part of a greater pattern of comedic incompetence—a pattern that includes the score, whose appropriately traditional instrumentation is wasted on its hokey comedy themes, as well as the OP and ED themes, which try to be fun and funny but are mostly just earsores.
Not that the show is an total comedic failure. It has its moments, especially when the character byplay can elevate a gag or two. The train ride Hozuki takes with adorable demon idol Peach Maki, for instance, actually has two out-loud laughs within mere minutes of each other. So it's not all dull. Still, it is telling that Hozuki's most memorable moment comes thanks to a different Kaburaki series altogether, when a pair of Hozuki's child underlings run across My Little Monster's Shizuku and Haru in Hell. (So that's why Little Monster hasn't gotten a sequel.) The rush of warm memories that brief encounter unleashes dwarfs any reaction that Hozuki itself elicits. Unless, of course, gargantuan indifference counts as a reaction.
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : C-
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : C+
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