Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
Pleasant, thoughtful Taro Komori has turned out about as well as a victim of kidnapping can. He's well-adjusted and well-liked, and if memories of watching his sister starve to death before his eyes still haunt his dreams, well, you can't really blame him. His creepy new psychotherapist seems to think he's suffering from PTSD, but it doesn't really show. When Taro begins having disturbingly authentic out of body experiences, though, he has reason to think that maybe he's screwier than he thought. Until two of his classmates—local sociopath Makoto and happy-on-the-outside newcomer Masayuki—join him in shucking their physical bodies. The experience opens a world of possibilities to the three boys; quite literally, as they explore what Makoto dubs the Hidden Realm. Taro begins thinking that perhaps his newfound powers are a way of reuniting with his sister. Other concerns—about the changes affecting the Hidden Realm and his attraction to child shamaness Miyako—may soon preclude his quest, however.
Like the works of Japanese horror maestros Hideo Nakata and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, among others, Ghost Hound is an ambitious attempt to meld technology and the supernatural. But unlike the Rings and Pulses of the world, Ghost Hound isn't strictly horror. Though certainly indebted to the creeping unease of Nakata and especially Kurosawa, Ghost Hound is more a tale of life in the eye of a supernatural storm than a genuine fright-fest. It ultimately has more in common with Tomomi Mochizuki's magical-realist Zettai Shonen than the intellectual chills of turn-of-the-millennium Japanese horror, or even the techno-paranoia of its own spiritual predecessor Lain.
Though screenwriter Chiaki J. Konaka and original creator Masamune Shirow fill the spaces between leisurely plot points with fringe psychology, theoretical physics and reality-warping happenings, what matters in Ghost Hound isn't so much what happens or why, but what effect it has on the town of Suiten and its people, particularly Taro and his companions. The reason the series eventually favors the supernatural side of its technology/spirituality equation isn't because it prefers it—given the attachment of Konaka and Shirow, it's probably the opposite—but because that's the side of the equation Taro, Masayuki and Makoto are on. As the series moves on it progressively neglects Konaka's scripting pyrotechnics and Shirow's chunky stew of biotech conspiracies, unsettled spirits and religious politics in favor of the trio's growth as they face traumas and build friendships amidst deeply weird happenings. Eventually Konaka's mind-trip obfuscation retreats into a kind of intellectual background noise, prompting one to curse the perverse urge that made him layer it on in the first place, while Shirow's plot proves more a series of unrelated threads than an actual web (everything is eventually chalked up to synchronicity).
By the end, the show is firmly in the thrall of the boys' personal conflicts. With the town's confluence of spiritual and physical crises essentially dismissed as coincidence, it comes to serve mainly as a device to bring the characters together and resolve their lingering issues. The final episodes are a tense winding together of Makoto's mother issues, Taro's search for his sister, and Masayuki's family problems, climaxing in the rescue of Miyako from her insecurities and emotional isolation...and the cult that is exploiting them. It's all very conventional, and occasionally rather corny (friendship conquers all? bah humbug!)—which is a disappointment after the series' adventurous start. But it's a well-executed conventionality; warm and satisfying without flinching away from what's dark, selfish, or downright disturbing in the characters or their town. One need only wince as Taro unwittingly wounds Miyako with his sister-complex, or bask in the fulfilling warmth of their reconciliation to appreciate the quality of Hound's conventional core.
If Ghost Hound is ultimately rather conventional in content, it is consistently unconventional in execution. Director Ryutaro Nakamura's mastery of stillness, emptiness and silence is in full force; creating a hanging sense of dread, a portentous quiet that threatens more than any maelstrom could. His true brilliance, however, lies in his sound design. There's little—outside of the beautiful opener, delicate closer and some diegetic guitar and jazz—that could be honestly called music in Ghost Hound. What you might consider its score is composed almost entirely of distorted sound and ominous noise. Nakamura will haunt a voice-over with cassette-tape pop and hiss, blow up the scraping of a fly's wings into a crescendo of white noise, bury a transition in FM static, filter dialogue through layers of echo and watery murk, or undercut the silence with an omnipresent rumbling buzz.
The effect is startling. While the painterly visuals are establishing Suiten as a very concrete bastion of backwater normalcy, the unnatural sound is attuning us to the spiritual and moral disorder that festers under its bucolic surface. Sound adds veracity to the holes the script pokes in reality, and later hides its orthodox heart. Sound makes the supernatural real and the real supernatural. Sound, as well as Nakamura's fondness for subjective visuals, puts us inside the heads and behind the eyes of Suiten's citizens. Perhaps Ghost Hound's biggest achievement is Nakamura's use of warped animation and details of sound and sight to force us to live trauma through the eyes of the traumatized. There's nary of drop of blood shed, but the awful veracity of Taro's dream remembrances of his kidnapping—the roaring fly on his sister's dead lips, the futile kicking of her kid's legs in the grip of the monster his memory has turned the kidnapper into—make them among the most horrifying scenes in recent years.
Owners of Sentai Filmworks' original releases will want to know what this set has to offer that their DVDs don't. In terms of extras: nothing. The bump up in video and sound quality on the other hand is, if not revelatory, at least noticeable. The Blu-Ray transfer presents the clean designs, lush backgrounds, inventive (if spotty when too ambitious) animation, and complex sound in all their glory.
The real addition, however, is the dub. Though frankly, given the sparse dialogue (sidebars about neurophysiology and quantum mechanics aside) and non-existent emoting, the show didn't really need one. You could get the full effect of the Japanese version without even reading the subtitles. Conversely, it does make dubbing pretty easy. Monotone delivery isn't just a non-issue, it's actually a necessity. Basically, so long as you don't botch the casting, stick close to the translation, and don't trip over the names or terminology, you're home free. And the dub manages that handily—a few stumbles in the names/terminology sector excepted. It even throws in some needlessly fine acting. Nakamura's meticulous engineering presents a more serious hurdle. The dub monkeys with some of the effects applied to voices—whether out of necessity or artistic license, it's hard to say—and while the ultimate effect is hard to tag as positive or negative, the interference with Nakamura's directorial vision is anathema to auterists like myself.
Even with the conventional core that claws its way to ascendancy towards the end, Ghost Hound is a sharp deviation from the anime norm. Perhaps it isn't the revolutionary masterpiece Lain was, and maybe it doesn't live up to its pedigree (was there ever a more intellectually loaded crew of creators?), but that doesn't stop its incidental brains and ingenious direction from thrusting it head and shoulders above the crowd.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A+
+ Brilliant sound design, innovative visuals and a glut of brain food elevate what is essentially a standard coming-of-age-tale to something unsettling and thought-provoking.
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