Review

by Rose Bridges,

Gugure! Kokkuri-san Episodes 1-12 Streaming

Synopsis:
Kohina is a lonely elementary-schooler living all alone, subsisting on Cup Noodles while insisting that she's really a doll. One day, she plays the spirit-summoning game "Kokkuri-san" and the titular fox spirit actually appears! He's a lot less spooky than he is a nervous neat freak, and Kokkuri decides to stick around because he thinks Kohina needs a guardian. He is slowly joined by other animal spirits, some of whom have a less-than-parental interest in Kohina. With the perverted dog spirit Inugami and tanuki moocher Shigaraki, they form a strange family. The series follows their misadventures through their supernatural-tinged version of modern Japan.
Review:

Between Gugure! Kokkuri-san and Hozuki's Coolheadedness, 2014 was a good year for shows rooted in Japanese mythology. These series can do decently in Japan, but often struggle to find an audience stateside because of the knowledge base required to get the jokes. Most American viewers simply don't know much about Shinto folklore. Luckily, Gugure! Kokkuri-san requires little advance study. Knowing what a tengu is helps, but it's not required. The show's humor is sophomoric and surreal, the kind that knows no national boundaries.

It's the raunchiness that might struggle to win some people over—but not because of where they live. If anything, Kokkuri-san's particular brand of this has more precedent in American cartoons like South Park than in other anime. There's plenty of anime that pushes the comedy envelope, but usually in one specific way that appeals to their audience (like sex jokes in a harem comedy). Gugure! Kokkuri-san is of the "anything goes" school of things, and keeps the jokes constantly flying. Nothing is sacred.

It will appear completely tasteless to some, and it often did even for me, that the show expects us to laugh at gender-bending dog spirit Inugami for perving on a little girl. However, Gugure! Kokkuri-san (mostly) avoids becoming a creepy show, and that's because of Kohina's reactions. Making the little girl the stoic straight man is the series' stroke of genius. She never seems to be "enjoying" Inugami's fawning over her, but the show doesn't revel in her discomfort, either. Kohina doesn't react at all, a completely blank slate like the doll she wants to be. (When she is unnerved, she might call the police, but never breaks her deadpan manner.) That puts the focus back on Inugami, so the joke is that he is ridiculous and creepy. Gugure! Kokkuri-san shows that even when you've abandoned all sense of propriety and taste, framing still matters. This show knows how to frame. Mostly.

Again, this all depends on the viewers and how much they can take. For me, the inhumanity of everyone involved makes it a much easier pill to swallow. It's hard to get offended when everyone in the show is so out of this world: a tiny, emotionless doll-girl with vacant eyes, and bishie boys who transform into adorably chibi animal spirits. There's no parallel to all this in real-life, so what actual power dynamics could it possibly be making light of here? That's the framing that keeps this under control. Gugure! Kokkuri-san is clearly set in some alternate dimension, neither quite historical nor contemporary. It's hard to apply anything that happens in it to our world.

That's helped by the show's outright absurd humor as well. The whole premise itself is bizarre: even the most "normal" character aspires to be a doll and eats nothing but instant ramen. In episode 4, she admits to a crush (or at least, fascination) with a boy in school, who turns out to be a big-eyed, grey space alien. Another school friend introduced in the following episode tries to bully Kohina…by placing anonymous flowers on her desk. Another episode revolves around Kohina adopting a cuddly-looking, but malevolent Cyclops spirit. "Anything goes" applies to everything about this series, not just its jokes. That extends to even the OP animation, which ranges from Kohina as a magical girl to everybody disco dancing.

The series' visual and sound accents reflect this. The character designs are all over the map, both in human and cuddly-animal form. The most jarring of all is Kohina herself, who looks… like a literal doll, with her rectangular eyes, and shiny, rounded hair and skin. The cartoony characters contrast with the lush backgrounds, evoking idyllic images of historical Japan. The music also reflects this duality, with traditional Japanese instruments to connect it with the mythological characters, but also more typical bouncy comedy music. Gugure! Kokkuri-san is like nothing else out there, and it shows that with its art and music. They're not exceptional, but they fit this weird little show like a charm.

The characters themselves are a ton of fun to play around with, though who you'll prefer will depend on the viewer. They're all very archetypal: Kokkuri-san is a tightly-wound perfectionist, and the most parental toward and protective of Kohina. Shigaraki is the typical "drunk dirty old man" anime character, the lone non-bishonen among the male spirits. Inugami tries to be stylish and classy but is constantly called out by the others for his shameless creeping on Kohina. In all these strong, wacky personalities, Kohina herself is the star, even as unassuming as she tries to be. Her stoic delivery for every last line makes it hard to tell if she believes anything she says, or just repeats it because she knows she should. Kohina insists on her doll-like nature even when it gets her into trouble, like with the "doll collector" cat spirit Tama (the most obnoxious of the animal spirits). It's made out to be ridiculous, but perhaps she's not wrong. The art style and Kohina's behavior certainly convey her as one. She's so serious she wraps right around back to weird, making Kohina the perfect emotional core (or lack thereof?) to this gang of goofballs.

Gugure! Kokkuri-san really feels at times like it should be a short, focused as it is on zany comedy moments. Its full-length allows for some surprising drama, like two different episodes about ghosts making peace with their former lives. This adds to the multi-faceted nature of the show, and even if you're here purely for the comedy, it's hard not to be moved by those stories. Anime comedies rarely do well at suddenly shifting to drama, but Gugure! Kokkuri-san works by not staying there, and making sure its main characters are still silly and fun through it all.

I enjoyed Gugure! Kokkuri-san quite a bit, but it's difficult to know who to recommend it to at the end of the day. The show is working with so many different types of comedy that it's hard to tell who it will appeal to all or even most of the time. It could have you cackling one minute, and then so offended or confused you nearly drop the show. The only way to know is to dive right in. One thing Gugure! Kokkuri-san luckily never is is boring, and with how it rewards episodic, casual viewing, it's definitely worth a spin.

Grade:
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B

+ Hilarious if it's to your tastes; great, unusual protagonist; makes good use of Japanese mythology without losing Western viewers.
Its boundary-pushing humor isn't for everyone; characters are archetypal and some wear out their welcome quickly.

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Production Info:
Director: Yoshimasa Hiraike
Script: Yoshimasa Hiraike
Storyboard:
Yoshimasa Hiraike
Narumi Kakinouchi
Yumi Kamakura
Takaomi Kanasaki
Susumu Nishizawa
Hiroyuki Shimazu
Toshiya Shinohara
Episode Director:
Tsuyoshi Hida
Kazuomi Koga
Kiyoshi Matsuda
Yoshitaka Nagaoka
Hiroyuki Okuno
Sumito Sasaki
Daisuke Takashima
Unit Director:
Yoshimasa Hiraike
Yorihisa Koyada
Music: Hajime Hyakkoku
Original creator: Midori Endō
Character Design: Miwa Oshima
Art Director: Hiroki Matsumoto
Art:
Yuka Hirama
Akiko Kikuchi
Hiroki Matsumoto
Risa Wakabayashi
Chief Animation Director: Miwa Oshima
Animation Director:
Kaori
Shinsuke Ishikawa
Mariko Ito
Shin'ya Kitamura
Mariko Komatsu
Yuka Kudo
Shuji Maruyama
Miwa Oshima
Masaaki Sakurai
Ken Shintani
Makoto Takahoko
Seiki Tanaka
Asuka Tsubuki
Toshiya Washida
Katsuyuki Yamazaki
Miyako Yatsu
Sound Director: Yota Tsuruoka
Director of Photography: Tomoyuki Shiokawa
Producer:
Yurie Arai
Kazuhiro Asou
Yoshikazu Beniya
Masatoshi Ishizuka
Sachi Kawamoto
Tetsu Kojima
Manami Watanabe

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Gugure! Kokkuri-san (TV)

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