Face Off: Ray and Mike Battle Over ‘Mouryou no Hako’

Ray: [Mouryou no Hako is] too slow paced and by the 10 minute mark I got bored. No, it’s not yaoi, I get that, but I honestly don’t see it as a great show. It’s just dressed up with surealism and bizzaro-ness.

Mike: It’s definitely slower paced, sure. But I don’t really have a problem with the pacing; the show has a lot of elements to it and they are slowly being put together. And I find those elements very intriguing.

Ray: To me, the weirder it is, the more I see it as allegorical or rather, imaginary images come true. It’s set in the post war world and a lot of “demons” must be exorcised. That’s what the hard boiled detective needs.

Mike: You bring up a good point about the postwar demons needing exorcism. That’s a good way of talking about the show’s subtext. It’s explicit of course in the way Kiba flashes back to visions of his time in the war but the strange experiments and such are also reminiscent of Unit 731, which also performed all kinds of horrible human experiments during the war.

Ray: Here’s the question though, why use women?

Mike: Actually, I think this is where it kind of bows to horror movie convention. I was actually somewhat reminded of a classic 1960s French horror movie called “Eyes Without a Face.” It’s about a mad scientist whose daughter is disfigured, so he goes and kidnaps other women and grafts their body parts onto his daughter so she can be beautiful again.

Ray: What, the daughter’s own parts were destroyed or something?

Mike: It was disfigured in a car accident.

Ray: Well you know, that’s what Sekiguchi wants, and Amamiya wants something similar. Sekiguchi wants to have some girl in his past back, so he goes out and cuts women apart, but he can’t do it right so he goes to meet Mimasaka.

In any event, Amamiya says that “we shall be together forever.” So here is the scenario: Sekiguchi cuts off parts and tries to assemble them, Amamiya tries to make Kanako to be immortal. Sekiguchi gets the parts from her, and Amamiya gives away her human parts, but grafts her with machine parts. Both are seeking the perfect woman, in different ways.

Mike: You know I wasn’t entirely sure whether the machine parts was a delusion/vision or the literal truth, though it would make sense, given the scenario that’s happening.

Ray: The weirder a plot is, the easier it is to guess what’s going on.

In any event, cutting people apart to make a perfect individual is obvious here especially because the director said that a Mimasaka tried to do it. So besides an experiment on perfection, someone wants immortality, right? Within this show’s context (little Sci-Fi, maybe), it seems rather clear to me.

Mike: Hmm. So you think all the supernatural stuff–the reincarnation, the demons, etc., are mostly metaphors in this case, and what is literally happening is the sci-fi element?

Ray: I believe so. So far there isn’t any real evidence of supernatural, unless you count the exorcism that the Shinto priest tries to do; I just thought it was obvious hocus pocus. Especially when he said that “material wealth builds walls with your heart, which traps the evil spirit and I take the material wealth away to aid you” or something like that. Ha.

Mike: Right. He definitely said things that were definitely supposed to be resonant and metaphorical. I didn’t think that particular scene was a literal exorcism.

Actually, then, to me that makes the show even more interesting.

Ray: What? Why?

Mike: I really like it when stories use metaphor and analogy effectively. It’s very literary (which is no surprise, since this series is based on a novel). And actually it was what you said early on–that it could be seen as a reflection of the postwar struggle to reconcile their guilt—which makes that even more true. That makes the setting very appropriate. I always wondered for a bit why they chose that particular setting. It’s not a common setting for anime, moreso when it explicitly addresses the war.

Ray: Yeah.

Look, Youriko has her own demons (not real spirits) because she hates how her mother is dating some guy. She wants to escape. Kanako is the perfect girl that she worships, but even Kanako has flaws. Youriko can’t really accept the fact that she’s not perfect, but concocts ways out of it. “Kanako must have ascended!”
Because when she’s not perfect, she dies and ascend, right? Well, Kanako has her own demons to cleanse. So does, very obviously, Detective Kiba. So does everyone. Plot-wise it’s not very complicated.

Mike: Sounds like you have a good grasp of what’s going on. The funny thing is that I’m not sure I got all that when I was watching this only one episode at a time. You watched it all in a big batch right?

Ray: I watched 2 last night, 2 more today. Sure, it’s confusing episodically, but as a whole series it really seems clear to me. Which is why I’m not that impressed.

Mike: That’s interesting, because the way you just clearly explained it makes me even more impressed with the show. I see now it has a consistent vision and consistent meaning, and it’s carrying it out in ways that I think aren’t too simplistic. And it’s potentially quite meaningful if it continues to develop in that direction; I can now better see what the layers of the show are.

Ray: Huh. Well I thought it was going to “Wow” me, but it just seems…so…plain. I guess the only part that has me puzzled is where Kanako went, or how did the culprit take her from practically under everyone’s noses. A little Lupin element in there, eh?

Mike: And of course the central mystery that we are introduced to in the very first scene–how the heck did those heads in boxes still move? Mechnically? The show is definitely taking its sweet time getting to the heads in the boxes.

Ray: Well, OK, I guess that’s interesting. But you know, I just keep on thinking, get over it and get on with your lives. Don’t let the demons fester. It was so obvious why Youriko’s mom would be afraid and acting weird – because you’re a freak that told her she should die! You ungrateful young bitch!

This show manages to unimpress me by the following:
–Yoriko’s attitude toward her mom.
–Seemingly complicated plot (too many of that makes everything simple to guess).
–Slow pace.

Mike: The funny thing is that if Yoriko was the main character who we would spend most of our time with, I’d probably also like the show considerably less too. You might recall I found the drama in episode 1 a bit much.

Ray: Ah.

Mike: It’s very teenage girl. I was much more intrigued by the mystery/supernatural/sci fi elements and the detective aspect of things. And the slow pace doesn’t bother me; I actually want to see more animes like that. Of course it’s not Mushi-shi which uses its slow pace to great emotional effect. But I think the slower pace really adds to a depth of atmosphere. (Especially when accompanied by its stellar soundtrack.)

Ray: I feel that a lit major will like it a lot more than I do. It doesn’t seem all that mysterious to me; unless they decide, yeah, we’ll make the supernatural stuff real. But that’ll make it really hokey. It’s more like a novel, right? So keep it that way. With imageries and symbolisms.

Mike: I was also watching ef just before I finally got around to episode 4 of Mouryou no Hako, and I find the parallels and differences rather instructive.

Both trade in symbolic imagery and metaphor a lot. In ef, though, a lot of that is much more obvious and even on the surface, usually told in the images themselves and the strange, filtered shots. The dialogue is abstract, discussions of ideas rather than realistic-sounding speech. This works for the most part because it’s done consistently. It’s what makes ef ef.

Here in MnH, it seems the metaphors are embedded into the story to a degree it isn’t in ef. It does use surreal imagery at times, but not all the time. There’s a bit more info/exposition too. (I think that partly accounts for its slow pace–a lot of episode 4 was like this.)

I’m not saying one approach is better than another. They both work very well for what they do. MnH is definitely showing its more novelistic roots though, while ef is more purely visual.

Ray: Well, oddly I found ef season 1 impressive enough. My bottom line is, I’m not impressed by this one. Maybe it’s out of my league; I can see that it’s a good and mature show. The dancer’s animation is great. But for some reason it doesn’t tickle my fancy.

Mike: Well, different strokes and all. That’s fine. I noticed MnH isn’t getting much attention on the blogosphere, so it’s probably a niche show in a way. Even more niche than ef, which itself was too “arty” for many people. Though I wouldn’t put MnH in the ‘arty’ category actually; the storytelling is done relatively conventionally

Ray: I came in looking for thrills and real, complicated mystery, but I found none. I will continue to watch it, but I can only give it 85/100. Recommended if you like literary novels.

Mike: That’s pretty high, buddy. I gave last year’s season of ef 89% and I declared it best show of the year!

Ray: Our standards are different. Adding the fact that I’m not thrilled by it and if I’m not being fair, I’d give it 71.

Mike: (Correction: I gave ef 93% overall. I gave its story 89% because I wasn’t totally happy with the ending.)

Ray: But on its merits, despite the fact that everything is very simple if you just look at it plainly, I think everything else is actually well done! I meant the plot and mystery/supernatural elements are OK.

Mike: I think, so far, I’d give it a solid 85%. It’s very good at what it does, it goes beyond a lot of anime, and is right up my alley. I don’t award 90% or above until I’ve seen the ending and the total impression this gives.

Ray: Bottom line? You want lit stuff with imageries, this is for you. But for some real thrills, look somewhere else.

Extra: Are the Characters Really THAT Stupid?

Ray: It was so obvious that the “black box” was an experimental facility; at least it was obvious it wasn’t a hospital. How stupid could these people in the show be?

Mike: I guess it was pretty clear by episode 3 at any rate–all those machines and wires being hooked into Kanako.

Ray: But even when it was nighttime, to me, it was unmistakable that this was NOT a hospital. Telling me that it’s the Japanese 50’s doesn’t cut it. You got admit, how can they not realize it was NOT a hospital at ALL?

Mike: Well, I’m fairly sure they knew it wasn’t any ordinary hospital, but I think we’re only told in episode 4 that it’s a place of human experimentation. And I think I remember very early on too that there was a rumor that people who went into that “hospital” never came out.

Ray: Oh, come on. First time I saw it I was like, that is NOT a hospital.

Mike: I’d have to go back to episode 3 again to see how the police react to it again, but you’re probably right. It’s probably characters being stupid, which isn’t the best writing.

Ray: Well, they were sitting in a jeep and they ram into a military truck that parked out front. The place looked so out of place and stark that nobody would mistake it for a hospital.

Mike: I don’t recall, do the police still actually treat it as if it were? Like “where are the nurses? Where’s the doctors?”

Ray: Well you know, the strict answer is no. Detective just said that there was one doctor besides Mimasaka. He mentioned no nurses. Also, an engineer came to greet him once he went there to visit Kanako. That was before the machines we saw.

Mike: I mean it was pretty obvious to me too that this was no ordinary “hospital.” I even put “hospital” in quotation marks in my review of episode 3.

Ray: OK. Well to me, it was NOT a hospital at all. The feeling was entirely different. If I saw it in real life I would just turn around and drive away.

Mike: So you felt that the detective guy acted in a clueless way when he first encountered the hospital?

Ray: He didn’t even bother think about it. It’s the fact nobody ever wondered about its setting that bugs me. Nobody said: “What, you call this a hospital?” Nobody questioned the setting AT ALL. They weren’t even bothered by it. The local residents did, but these characters never questioned why the hell a black box of a structure is a hospital.

I suppose this is part of the imagery of the “demon in a box” things.

Mike: Yeah. I said as much in my review too–they’re definitely playing with the box idea. But you’re probably right, since you just saw the episode today; that would be an example of a writer taking his setting for granted, forgetting how a normal person would react to such a sight. It happens a lot in fantasy and sci-fi writing.

Ray: But do keep in mind that having a living, severed head in a box is out of ordinary anyway. So much so that perhaps the hospital isn’t that weird after all. Also keep in mind that I don’t know this show, nor the novel behind it. It could still surprise me. But its fundamental slowness will prevent me from thinking of watching it again (or buying the DVDs).

Author: gendomike

Michael lives in the Los Angeles area, and has been into anime since he saw Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1999. Some of his favorite shows include Full Metal Alchemist, Honey and Clover, and Welcome to the NHK!. Since 2003 he has gone to at least one anime convention every year. A public radio junkie, which naturally led to podcasting, he now holds a seminary degree and is looking to become Dr. Rev. Otaku Bible Man any day now. Michael can be reached at mike.huang@animediet.net. You can also find his Twitter account at @gendomike.

2 thoughts on “Face Off: Ray and Mike Battle Over ‘Mouryou no Hako’

  1. I have to comment on this since nobody seems to be paying much attention to this show. I agree with pretty much everything Mike says here (sorry Ray, I just think I’m enjoying it more than you are) but it’s a real shame that it’s a bit of a sleeper title. Series that are atmospheric, mature and have an unusual premise and setting are quite rare so it really deserves more blog posts like this one to make the point. Keep up the good work, guys!

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