The show is finally starting to pick up the pace, as of episodes 4 and 5. What’s taking it so long?
Ookami Kakushi, the third work by Ryukishi07 to be adapted into an anime after Higurashi and Umineko, seems in some ways like the offspring of those two earlier works. It has the same 1983 rural setting as the former and the mystery trappings of the latter, and the plot aims to reveal the dark, knotty secrets behind its placid setting.
What made the anime of especially Higurashi successful, however–despite its middling animation quality by Studio DEEN–was its superb atmospherics. Was it histrionic at times? Yes, but the emotions matched the extreme cruelty or horror of the situation being presented. (Pulling out fingernails, human sacrifice, child abuse…calm and subdued does not describe such situations.) The build-up to many of the arc endings was steady and unrelenting, even when the outcome was not in question. The viewer was often shown the ending in the very first scenes, but somehow, the suspense and terror was barely lessened.
Ookami Kakushi uses much the same formula at its start: from its opening scene, we know that there will be a showdown between Isuzu (who has the red, wolf eyes), the scythe girl/exorcist of wolf spirits, and that Hiro will be caught in between. This seems to give too much away compared to the opening scenes of Higurashi–where we see Keiichi murder Shion and Rena with a baseball bat. We don’t know why, or what led to the insane gleam in his eye–whereas the essential problem and relationships in Ookami Kakushi are obvious from the start: Isuzu is some kind of supernatural being, as is the scythe girl, and they are opposed. The secret is largely out, because as soon as we find out more about the red eyes and the wolf spirits, we know just what is wrong with Isuzu and where all of her annoying cute advances are going to end, and we know who is going to fight her.
Hence, the subsequent scenes where we see the brigade of hunters chasing after possessed people seem devoid of fright or surprise. They feel tacked on, especially since they are usually placed at the end of a relatively unrelated episode. Only when one encounter is elaborated in episode 4 does it begin to deliver the chills that are supposed to happen, and only in episode 5 does the shouta-molesting Issei show the full extent of how awful the wolf-spirit powers can be. (They were telegraphed earlier a bit thickly with his overtly sexualized advances toward Hiro, which provided the first “creepy” moments in the show.) Finally, in episodes 4 and 5, we get some well-done chase scenes and a real atmosphere of menace. Nothing along the lines of the utterly bone-chilling close of Higurashi episode 3, but a significant improvement over before.
I’ve struggled to figure out why the pacing and the feel of the show seems so limp at times, and I think it’s because these kinds of scenes are not very well integrated into the more typical school life, semi-romantic scenes at first. It may be a function of time–it seems this series will only tell one story as opposed to multiple arcs, and thus things feel a bit more stretched out–or it may be an issue with the directing/writing of the anime itself. Has anyone played the PSP game and felt similarly with the source material?
Ryukishi07 stories thrive on a rich layer of backstory, and those elements are beginning to gel by the most recent episodes. The wolf spirits and their relation to the hassaku fruits are of course just the tip of the iceberg: the division between the old and new towns, Nemuru’s rich old family having a hand in things, the secret committees taking away possessed people before they do damage, Kaori Mana and her suspiciously kind demeanor–Higurashi taught us to watch out especially for those people….The conspiratorial mode works because it presumes a depth of secrets, which the protagonist (and the viewer) is expected to slowly discover to keep him or her going through the narrative. As the mood finally begins to shift toward something a bit more taut and suspenseful as of episode 5, the show may have much more to reveal about the Kushinada family, for instance, or just who the exorcists are, since they seem to be an independent group. Secrets make you want to know more.
I ultimately stuck with this show in part because I trusted Ryukishi07 to deliver, and after a slow start, the payoff seems to be happening. The above-average soundtrack, led by the excellent Yuki Kajiura-penned OP, also shines and makes things more than watchable. (Kajiura seems to be the perennial composer of shows that aren’t as good as their soundtracks, with the Kara no Kyoukai films being a glorious exception: at last, animes that match the Gothic vision of their music!.) In a way, the series is a test as to whether this kind of story can be told effectively in a single cour as opposed to the spiraling, interconnected mini-arcs of Higurashi. It often plays as a minor variation of the formula that that great show established, but even those can be enjoyable, especially in a typically lackluster season like winter.