Ghost Stories Part 1

I’m going to try something new here, I’m going to review two anime back to back – anime which share some conceptual relationship – and do a compare-and contrast. To start off with, here’s two anime ghost stories, each with its own special frisson. Dusk Maiden of Amnesia is a happy story on top of a dark story on top of a happy ending. Another is a dark story with an unhappy ending, or maybe just an intermission. As with all horror stories, there will be sudden and unexpected spoilers.

Japanese horror appears to be all about atmosphere, and about the horrors of being alone. Japanese population is shrinking, local governments are merging, people are leaving the countryside for the big cities. Many schools are abandoned, and others are only half occupied. Both these anime are set in run-down schools — Dusk Maiden‘s more than Another ‘s — so presumably many Japanese can resonate with the atmosphere. From what I can tell, most Japanese ghosts are like the one in Another , a disembodied, unidentified bundle of hate and discontent. They can’t be set to rest, only momentarily appeased, or exorcised — think of The Ring.

Think of these two essays as a pub crawl: we’ll start with Another, and end with Amnesia.

Which of these will still be alive when the end credits roll?
For that matter, which of these is alive right now?

The Japanese are a sickly race. Scarcely an anime goes by without someone hospitalized with Anime Wasting Disease or some lesser, more transient illness. Another  (アナーザ — the katakana spelling of the loan word) starts out in a hospital, where our protagonist Sakakibara Kōichi has ended up even before school started. Something to do with a collapsed lung – the chances of which are about 0.003% in any given year. He is visited in hospital by three class officers from North High, including the girl responsible for ‘countermeasures’, whatever they are. They interrogate him as to whether or not he’s lived in Yomiyama before.

The name of the town is interesting. The kanji on the highway signs are 夜見山 => dusk view mountain. Except that 夜見 can also refer to Hades, or the Realm of the Dead. So, Hell Mountain. Not big on subtlety in this anime.

The backstory, as it comes out over three or four episodes, is that there was a girl who died years and years ago, who the class pretended hadn’t died, and who showed up in the graduation picture. For some reason, understandable only in the world of ghosts and anime logic, this placed a curse on the class, that kills one person associated with the class (student, teacher, parent, sibling) every month during the school year, once the curse is activated. What activates the curse is the presence of someone who shouldn’t be there — a ghost. Unfortunately, when the ghost appears, they don’t know they’re a ghost and records and memories get changed so that no-one can prove they are a ghost. The job of the person in charge of countermeasures is to make sure the curse isn’t activated, and to try to fight it if it is. One way they’ve come up with is to pick a class member who they all agree doesn’t exist — that student, in this case Mei Misaki, is totally ignored by both students and teachers (although they do let her take the tests). That way the ghost gets confused. Or something.

Mei Misaki is a strange person in her own right. She wears an eyepatch to cover an artificial eye, actually a doll’s eye, and lives with her distant mother above the family shop/museum/atelier, in a building that looks like an AT&T switching center, and which is devoted to dolls. Creepy dolls. Dolls that appear in subliminal cutaways, and in the opening song. Dolls that…have no other connection with the plot. Ignore the dolls.

Koichi meets Misaki in the run-down hospital before he returns to school. When he does return, on the day he does, the chief of countermeasures is out sick, and nobody wants to clue him in. Clueless, he tries to befriend Misaki. By the time he finds out he should have ignored her — there’s a great amount of non-communication going on — it’s too late, the curse has been activated, and people are dying.

You don’t want to look too closely at the deaths, because they are a little contrived. In the first death, a girl slips on the stairs when her heel drops off a step. Normally, this would cause her to fall backwards, and slide the rest of the way on her butt (bouncing her head on each step, like Winnie the Pooh, and dragging up her skirt to show her Pokemon Panties). With a little help from anime physics, however, she falls forwards. The furled umbrella she’s carrying, point down in the usual way, flies out, flips over, lands braced on the curved handle, and impales her.

In the second death, the nurse who is trying to help Koichi is in an elevator that suffers at least three systems failures (including the 150 year old feature that prevents one from free-falling to the basement even if the cable breaks), free falls into the basement, and ends up leaking out from under a pile of rubble. Must not have been an Otis.

The class gets desperate, and decides to make Koichi an unperson, along with Miasaki. No one looks at them. No one speaks to them. No one reacts to them, not even the teachers. This gives them a certain freedom of action, especially during tests.

Don’t all HS students just love that big band sound?

After much travail, and more deaths, the students figure out they have to decide who among them is the embodiment of the curse, and kill them. This leads to more deaths, including a crescendo of blood and fire at the mountain inn where the class goes on a field trip for the last two episodes. Koichi, with Miasaki’s help, finally figures out who it really is, and that person’s death ends the curse. For this school year.

Another  is a good horror flick, if you squint a little, and it was probably in the top five of anime the season it came out. The pacing is good, the animation is good, the music is OK. Like all horror flicks it requires a certain suspension of disbelief, not only about the source of the horror but also about the somewhat dumb responses of the people involved. The final two episodes are particularly horrific, and dumb. (I get the feeling that the writers set up all the deaths in one big beer session: “…and then…and then…stop laughing…and then he runs back in…”).

It certainly is worth watching at least once, but before I watched it a second time I’d like to let some time go by.

For the rest of my anime reviews, click on the Anime tag, below


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