First Look Fair: Mouryou no Hako

It's my head in a box
It's my head in a box

Headcases, literally, in postwar Japan? Quite possibly this season’s most original show, with gorgeous animation and atmosphere to match. Just don’t be thrown by the lushness of episode 1.

Dance with me / I want to be your partner
Dance with me / I want to be your partner

Those of you who follow our Twitter (see the sidebar) know that my very first initial impression was decidedly less positive. There was a very specific reason why: the lines, those melodramatic, lush, quasi-goth lines spoken by Kanako and Yoriko to each other. It’s not the lesbian overtones; it’s not even the atmosphere filled with sakura petals and the gigantic moon that surrounded it. All that can work in context. It’s stuff like

Kanako: Receiving daylight would mean that one is slowly moving towards death. Only under the moonlight can all living things flee from being bound to life.

Yoriko: Fleeing from the bindings of life?

Kanako: It’s like living as a cat. Your eyes should see well in the darkness.

Yoriko: Seeing well in darkness–how?

Kanako: It’s simple. You just have to put your heart to sleep while it’s day. We cats will have the night instead.

Yoriko: You’re right! We still have the night! (music swells, and they dance under the moon as sakura petals fly)

Reading these lines on text, in retrospect, they don’t seem nearly as hokey. In fact, they may even contain valuable plot information. But my probably unfair first reaction was to roll my eyes at such…lushness. At such teenage pseudo-gothness (though that category doesn’t quite apply in this context). It’s like something out of, I dunno, Cats the musical or something. I understand that this scene and all the ones involving Yoriko and Kanako are crucial for developing their character, and for furthering the supernatural plot. I wouldn’t advocate getting rid of it. I just…couldn’t get it at the time.

I was wrong to let that ruin my impression of the show overall, of course. The first episode contains plenty beyond this particular scene, like the hook that grabbed me to begin with: the girl’s semi-living head in the box. The horror scenes where a doll seems to come to life, and the stellar animation combined with surreal scenes in trains. I noticed all those things in the first episode, and it was with pleasure (and relief) that those aspects were continued into the second episode, which sealed the deal for me that this was a remarkable piece of anime. It is both a supernatural tale of horror as well as a mystery, the latter aspect being much more prominent in episode 2 with the detective Kiba taking a lead role. Some more traditional elements, such as the secretive rich family to which Kanako belongs doing sinister things, begin to appear as well. (I knew right off the bat that the “transfer to another hospital” was a cover for something more horrible, probably related to those head boxes. There are almost even shades of Higurashi in the role of the rich family here.)

The past isn't even past --William Faulkner
The past isn't dead. It isn't even past. --William Faulkner

I knew from the moment the vocals started that the OP and ED had to be done by the same band that did the OP for Death Note–and indeed, I was right. While the premises of the two shows are different, I have the distinct sense that what they have in common is not only a supernatural element but, for once, intelligence. I’m not expecting the tit for tat, cat and mouse routine that Death Note did so well, but so far we have a story that deftly handles many different characters, is slowly building up a complicated backstory as well as mystery, and creates a deeply evocative mood with its background art, restrained music, and the sepia-hued depiction of postwar Japan. (A setting that is rarely explored in anime, it seems; the most prominent examples I can think of are My Neighbor Totoro and Gatekeepers, but the latter is set more in the 1960s than the 50s like this one.) There is potential to bring the larger socio-political implications of the postwar period into the story, which would be even rarer for anime, and we see one hint of this when the detective Kiba sees a flashback of his time as a Sergeant during the war on the train, which is besieged by the bloody handprints of Japanese soldiers.

My personal prejudices on the first episode can’t hide the fact that this is one of the strongest contenders in a season full of promising material–the most I’ve seen since 2006, in fact. I will now add this to my regular blogging schedule alongside ef, Clannad, and Chaos; Head, and I think that will be the last one–four is a lot more than usual. Which is a good thing. There’s a lot to talk about this time around, for once.

5 thoughts on “First Look Fair: Mouryou no Hako”

  1. I’ve watched the movie that was based on a fast selling novel.  At first, I thought it was more detective story… but as it moves on, it feels more uncanny.

    I’m looking forward to the animation, especially it is the same producer for Death Note.

  2. I was totally sucked in by the atmospherics alone in the first ep…the second is very different but it has a murder-mystery aspect that will keep my interest from here on in.

    One series where you hit the fullscreen function and turn out the lights.

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