Reviewby Theron Martin,
Dusk maiden of Amnesia
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
Nearly every Japanese school has its share of ghost stories, but as first-year student Teichi Niiya discovers, some of Seikyou Academy's “mysteries” are actually true. While investigating such rumors in a room of the school's old, unused wing, he encounters Yuuko Kanoe, a sexy teenage girl who also happens to be the ghost either directly or indirectly at the source of many of the school's supernatural tales. Yuuko is a friendly, playful, and mostly shameless soul who delights in Teichi actually being able to see and touch her, but she cannot remember her life or the circumstances of her death, including why her skeletal remains lie in a sealed store room beneath the room in which Teichi first encounters her. To help investigate the rumors about her, the two form the Paranormal Investigation Club with Yuuko as the “ghost” (in the pun-laden sense of apparently never being there) president. Soon this draws in two other students: Momoe Okonogi, a girl enthusiastic about ghost stories but clueless about Yuuko's presence; and Kirie Kanoe, the granddaughter of Yuuko's younger sister, who can also see Yuuko and regards her as a threat, first because she sees Yuuko as an evil spirit and later because she sees Yuuko as a romantic rival. A far darker and more hateful spirit is also afoot at Seikyou Academy, however. It and what else Yuuko is missing provide two of the key clues to the terrible secrets behind how Yuuko ended up as the eponymous “dusk maiden” and why she can't (or won't) remember any of it.
This manga-based series could technically be classified as a harem series, as the central quartet consists of three girls gathering around, and having some degree of romantic interest in, a kind-hearted male lead who is also the series' sole recurring male character. However, doing so feels like a disservice to a series which accomplishes so much more than what one typically expects of a harem series. It is, instead, an eclectic mix of comedy, romance, drama, and genuine horror elements, and that it succeeds at all four is just one of the reasons why Dusk maiden was one of 2012's best anime series.
Successfully mixing comedy, romance, and psychological-leaning drama may not be a common feat for anime titles but it is hardly rare. Mixing in the horror aspect without detracting from anything else is quite the feat, though; Sankarea, which ran concurrently with this series in the spring 2012 season, came close but ended up favoring its comedy side more and could never generate quite a dark enough vibe. And, in fact, that is precisely where such attempts usually fail. Here, though, the attempt succeeds because the writing and pacing have an excellent sense of timing. The first episode, which chronologically takes place at some point after episode 3, is a mostly comical affair which plays out first from the perspective of someone who cannot see Yuuko's presence and then replays from the perspective of someone who can, a situation which has some highly amusing moments once the audience can see what the unseen Yuuko was actually up to. It waits out the jokes before dropping in a much more serious reference, however, and shows this degree of patience at many later points, too; this is not a series where you will see comedy moments thrown in just to break tension, as the writers and directors clearly understand that the tension is necessary for the horror elements to be effective. And they are effective, too, because of that tension and the foundation lain to support them. (The series also seems to suggest that some of the most horrifying situations are when desperate, terrified people are driven to do things that they would otherwise find unthinkable.) The comedy is also surprisingly effective, with one of the best jokes being a late gag involving a salt shaker and other jokes commonly involving Yuuko's behaviors, how some incidents have to be radically reinterpreted once Yuuko's true role in them is known, and/or Momoe's brash enthusiasm.
The drama and especially romantic elements should not be underestimated, either. The series is, at heart, a love story between Teiichi and Yuuko, and that aspect becomes not only critically important in the final third but also somewhat emotionally impactful. Although the development of the romance could use a little more time and Teiichi may be annoyingly averse to seeing a bit of skin, when push comes to shove Teiichi shows a strength of resolve certain to endear him to romantics. There are different ways to fight for love, and Teiichi shows here, action scenes are not necessarily required to do it. The drama aspect fills in the gaps between the other elements by exploring the nature, behavior, and backstory of Yuuko and how the shadowy second ghost fits into the picture. In particular, it delves into some interesting psychological and supernatural aspects, such as the notion that one's perception of a ghost can be heavily driven by expectations; expect to see something horrible and that is what you will see, while those who accept the ghost will see her as the person she was. (This is, in fact, the focal point of episode 3, and in a more comical sense episode 5, too.)
The drama, romance, and horror elements come together most effectively in episode 10, a flashback episode told mostly from first-person perspective which shows Teiichi (and the audience) what happened 60 years ago to bring Yuuko to her current state. Even though viewers will have the basic gist of what happened by that point, watching it play out is a still a harrowing experience. Yuuko's death scene, which takes four minutes, is itself a masterpiece of execution in portraying loneliness, despair, and the struggle to keep one's heart from being poisoned by the unjust laying of blame. Watching it play out can be intensely uncomfortable, especially with the sad but very effective way that Teiichi's unsensable presence is integrated in, but the precise way that it happens makes it an indispensable final support for setting up the series' climax in episode 11.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the storytelling is the series' artistic flair. The production effort by SILVER LINK (Baka and Test, Kokoro Connect, OniAi) is not necessarily among the finest, as the character rendering sometimes stumbles in minor ways and rough edges can be seen here and there, but that does not detract at all from how much of a visual feast this series is. Co-director (senior director?) Shin Oonuma reuses many of the visual stunts that he used in the ef series, including creative perspectives, dramatic effects with shadows, screen divisions and narrowing, picture distortions to imply meaning, blatant symbolism, and so forth. The ghostly characters sometimes fade in or out, and hidden details sometimes lurk in shots if one looks for them; carefully watch the depiction of Yuuko's legs throughout the series, for instance, and you may notice some interesting inconsistencies. The use of color is especially striking, with some incredible views of multihued clouds at sunsets, images of vibrantly-colored autumn leaves, and other effects. Characters are attractively-designed, too, with each of the girls having her own distinct appeal: Yuuko has the best figure, Tomoe has the cutest face, and Kirie has the best legs and an odd propensity for striking dramatic poses. The shadowy ghost, with all of the coruscating black energy roiling off of her and the creepy face, is also quite appropriate. CG renditions of leaves, bells, and some scenery are distinct but used well, and occasional silly versions of the regular character designs pepper the more light-hearted content. Although the series does have some fan service, it is not a major regular component, and even the handful of breast grab moments are less gratuitous than the norm, as they usually carry meaning here that they do not have in other series. Graphic violence is limited, but the intensity of some imagery more than makes up for that.
The importance of the musical score is easy to underestimate, as it is rarely obtrusive, but the mix of orchestrated and piano-based numbers do a great job of setting the mood for individual scenes, whether frightening, haunting, dramatic, light-hearted, or beautifully melancholy, such as with the insert song "Requiem" in the last regular episode. Rock-themed “Choir Jail,” despite its atrocious name, is a catchy winner used as the closer for episodes 1 and 12 and the opener for the rest. “Calendar,” a more soulful number, closes out the rest of the episodes; watch for a meaningful visual variation in episode 8 and an audio one (it's sung by Yuuko's seiyuu instead of the regular performer) in episode 11. Both also feature sharp visuals and some degree of lip-synching by Yuuko.
Although the Japanese dub for the series is mostly very solid, relative newcomer (this is her first starring role) Yumi Hara, whose lightly-pitched voice works well for Yuuko most of the time, struggles a bit in certain situations which require her to use a much deeper pitch. Contrarily, her English counterpart Emily Neves handles those scenes better (although it sounds like a bit of electronic dissonance was mixed in for creepy effect) but isn't quite as strong when Yuuko is being playful. Voice actors for other roles generally fit their parts well, including some nice screaming work, and Clint Bickham acquits himself impressively in Teiichi's more emotional scenes. The script stays tight but varies a little more than recent Sentai Filmworks dubs, which may contribute to a more fluid dialogue flow. One might quibble that the little girl Asa-chan in the flashback episode sounds a little too old, but even including that this is still a solid dub job.
Sentai definitely went the extra mile on the production end. The Blu-Ray production has no noticeable visual flaws and beautifully brings out the vivid colors in the series, while the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix on both language tracks is also strong. The second of the two Blu-Ray disks also includes the extended version of episode 12, which adds back a little more than a minute which had to be cut out from one scene for the episode to conform to the TV broadcast time frame. To help find this extra minute, Sentai has put a chapter break at its beginning point which does not exist in the regular version of the episode. Other on-disk Extras are clean opener and closer and the full-length OVA episode “Ghost Girl,” which is a purely comedic extension of the series set after the final episode. (Some sources list this as episode 13, but Sentai does not classify it that way on the disk.) Each episode except for the extended version have a third audio and subtitle option which are for a Japanese voice commentary apparently by Yumi Hara (she never actually introduces herself); these commentaries were apparently recorded as viewers watched online, as references are made to timely Twitter posts at various points. They are not particularly meaty content but do offer some amusing details, such as how the whole cast and crew went out to be formally spiritually purified before beginning the voice work. Included on two separate disks is the soundtrack for the series, which contains every piece of music the series uses except, disappointingly, for a regular version or extended version of “Choir Jail,” and included in the case is a liner providing a run-down of the pieces used and the lyrics for “Calendar” and “Requiem” in both English and Japanese.
In all, the anime adaptation of Dusk maiden of Amnesia is a good example of economy of action. The only regularly-recurring character beyond the quartet of Paranormal Investigation Club members is the more evil-looking ghost, and in some of the episodes no character beyond these five appears – not even in background shots. The setting only leaves the school grounds during the flashback episode, in only one case does the focus ever dwell on a character not amongst the primary four, and even when being funny the series never strays from its main story. The downside to this economy is the occasional sense that the story is moving a little too fast or could stand to develop things a little more. Some viewers also may take issue with a gimmick used at the end which cheapens the dramatic impact of the final regular episode. However, those are comparatively minor flaws in a series that otherwise does most everything else right, and the hidden details make the rewatch value for this one greater than most.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Successfully integrates multiple genres, artistic flair, musical score, powerful death scene, substantial Blu-Ray extras.
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