Saturday, January 14, 2017

[Anime] Mouryou no Hako Review

Mouryou no Hako - 8/10

Having just finished this series recently I am still perplexed by this show.  The MAL synopsis fails to do it justice:

"The story follows a series of bizarre murders of schoolgirls who have been dismembered and stuffed into boxes. The private investigator hired by a missing daughter's mother joins forces with an antique book seller and others to unravel the murder spree."

While technically correct, that summary falls painfully short of capturing its real essence.  Mouryou no Hako is an intensely psychological series, one that is driven by a perspective-warping injection of emotion and elements of the supernatural.  It is hard to describe, but as a viewer I found myself coaxed into a state of uncertainty.  The series begins on a surreal note, its first scene planting crucial seeds of doubt into your mind.  Afterward, despite the more mundane unfolding of the plot, I could not shake the sense that something was amiss with this common depiction of their world.

The brilliance, though, is that despite the "hints" otherwise there is no supernatural.  As Kyougokudou says of his own "profession" as mystic: it is both real and not real.  Mouryou (evil spirits) don't exist in an objective sense, they are only a disease of the mind.  But when people enter into that gray realm their rationality crumbles and they are driven by forces they themselves create and then perceive.  In this sense they are real; real enough to affect our world.  This element of the mind affecting the world was handled in a way that was far more subtle, nuanced, and compelling than I have seen in an anime.

The second stand-out element is the organic way in which the show unpacks itself.  Usually in a work the characters are clearly introduced and identified early, and the plot is simply a result of their interplay.  Instead, Mouryou gives a sense of this story simply coming together on its own as more people become involved in the drama.  That is, the plot doesn't exist for the characters to fill.  The characters come together to create the plot.  It is the result of chance and circumstance, not fate.  Unfortunately for the show, this idea is very un-subtly reinforced in the final monologue along with several of the other primary ideas.

The drawback of this haphazard approach to character introduction was, for myself at least, a great deal of confusion.  As you're not sure who's important and who's not, and with a steadily expanding cast of characters, it made it difficult to follow at times (doubly so for somebody like myself who has a poor memory for Japanese names).  I can't say this is truly a weakness of the anime, but it definitely impacted my overall enjoyment as I struggled to follow what was going on in several scenes and conversations.

The resolution was also a mixed affair.  While I appreciate the many threads they wove together in a convoluted tale to explain all that had gone on, the fact that it was so twisted made it impossible for the viewer to figure it out on their own.  The last few episodes are essentially the audience being force-fed an explanation that only Sherlock Holmes on his best day would figure out.  I don't want to say that it's poorly done, and it does a great job of tying together several different events throughout the series, but there wasn't the "ah ha!" that comes with the best mystery resolutions.  In that way it is a better psychological piece than mystery.

Finally, deep down, this show was really quite disturbing without being graphic.  While it has a few shocking scenes, they are very few and far between.  What drives it really is when you realize what has happened.  By the end several young girls have been dismembered while still alive, their consciousness left to wander as they are paralyzed helpless in their boxes.  The fate of Kanako in particular is unsettling - having been stolen away from her support, all that remained for her was to exist in a state of hell, trapped as a body-less head in a box until she withered to "blackened rotted food".  I'm not entirely sure I'm done processing it.

Ultimately, I'm not sure how to judge this series.  It was exceptional in its atmosphere, binding its method of plot construction to its message in a way I have seen few series do as expertly.  But at the same time, I felt just...lost a lot of the time, jarred from one scene to another, disoriented by the swift changes in scenery.  It feels like a series I would have to watch more than once to get a complete feel for, but I am unsure whether I will be doing so anytime soon.  I leave it for now with a generous "8" on the good faith that some of its flaws may simply be covered upon further review.