Review: Ghost Stories

Honestly, just never let these guys make up their own dialogue. Things just get…strange.

Background

So…Ghost Stories.  The franchise has one of the strangest trajectories of any anime I’ve ever seen.  It comes from an older book series from Toru Tsunemitsu and recapped, well, stories about ghosts.  Simple as that.  Then the franchise spun into movies.  Family friendly horror movies.  I…don’t know what they were thinking there.  Fast forward to 2000.  The series continued into an anime aimed at children and came from fairly strong pedigree under the flag of both Pierrot and Aniplex.  Both have large franchises to their name with the former producing well-known shonen demographic anime such as Naruto and Bleach and the latter producing the Full Metal Alchemist franchise.  So we have the stage set for another franchise to come in.  But it never did.  The reasoning appears lost in time but production ended after 20 episodes.  I’d hesitate a guess that there was intention for a franchise given the episodic nature but I have no proof of that.

This is where things take a turn for the weird.  Most series just die at this point but not Ghost Stories.  2005 rolls around and ADV Films, against all expectations, announces they’ll translate and release Ghost Stories.  That isn’t strange enough for this story and they basically received full artistic licence to do whatever they felt with the anime, barring a few exceptions (thanks for the link Wikipedia.  It’s a good listen.).

And with that in mind…the anime becomes a pure and raw “abridged” series.   My writing isn’t entirely clear, but abridged series are a complete parody of their original material.  All officially produced through a dub.  Experiments in this field exist previously, most famously in Samurai Pizza Cats, but I can’t think of an instance where the company licensing out basically signed off on all the changes made by the dubbing organization; most translations go the other way.

As the video link above notes, this anime became a strange mix of ad-lib dialogue, anime tropes, and black humour.  All the major voice actors received writing credit for this anime primarily because the script basically didn’t exist until recording.

The basic framework of my reviews kind of fail at covering the basic concepts for reviewing Ghost Stories and I’m only reviewing the dubbed version.  Let’s try anyways though.

Story

The dubbed narrative retains the same framework as the original version of Ghost Stories.

Ten-year old Satsuki Miyanoshita is moving into a new town.  Her father, for whatever reason, decided to move back to the his wife’s home town.  Well, ex-wife I guess seeing as she died.  Anyways, the Satsuki and her younger brother Keiichirou meet the next door neighbour, a ten-year old boy.  He’s Hajime Aoyama and it turns out he attends the same school (and is in the same class) as Satsuki.  Due to a very strange and awkward occurrence with Satsuki’s family cat (Kaya), Satsuki, Keiichirou, Hajime, and his friend Leo end up heading into an abandoned schoolhouse before their first day of school.  There they meet an older student from the same school, Momoko Koigakubo, and the five proceed to explore the abandoned school.  That’s when they find ghosts.

Turns out Satsuki’s mother spent far too much time of her childhood fighting ghosts and trapping them in…things.  And these things are now getting destroyed as the town undergoes renovations.  But hope isn’t lost as she left behind a diary full of pretty pictures and a description of how she captured each ghost.  It’s through this book that they defeat their first enemy, Amanojaku, and capture him…in the body of Kaya.   Now it’s up to this intrepid group of five, and occasionally Amanojaku, to save the town from the other ghosts roaming the city as they are slowly awoken by the loss of whatever was holding them down.

I’m not sure how many cliches there are in that above paragraph but I’m far too lazy to count.

It’s quite obvious based on the open-ended nature of the narrative above but the entire nature of this series is entirely episodic; every adventure pretty much opens and closes within the span of 25 minutes and you know every villain (well, ghost) will appear and defeated within the same length of time.  You could view episodes 2 through 19 without any clue to proceed and not get confused in the narrative.  This gives the distinct impression that Ghost Stories originally came in as a filler based franchise: that they could produce an endless stream of Ghost Stories episodes with no conceivable end.

There’s not much else to discuss in narrative…so I’ll leave of this section for dialogue choices.

It’s pretty much like this.

The dialogue…well, like the image above describes, it’s dark humour.  It lives and dies off cross the concept of comment decency.  A good number of punch lines purely run off the idea that these are ten-year old children.  That piece of dialogue?  It’s actually in the dub and is certainly on the tamer side of things Hajime says.  Let’s put it this way: Mel Gibson had an infamous rant about Jewish people.  Greg Ayres, who voices Leo, expressed displeasure that production wrapped up a couple of weeks before the dubbing sessions ended since they could have referenced it during that last episode.

Not only is the humour dark but it targets everybody.  Racial humour, homosexual humour, sexual humour, religion…all it’s acceptable and utilized in the series.  And they cross the line on it several times.  It should go without saying that anybody offended by any type of humour probably wants out right away.  Ayres in that other link that there were some topics they weren’t touching…but those are pretty limited.  Almost everything’s a target.  This aspect begins taking over more and more as the series progresses.  The final 5 episodes don’t bother with a censor for swears and the script has a tonne of fun with that.

A lot of humour also exists from references to then current American culture; the dub occurred in the summer of 2005 and the anime will routinely show this.  The 2002 Hollywood movie Signs gets routine mention and references as does the Bush administration (US president in that time period) at the time.  You might be hard pressed to catch every joke if you are not acutely aware of American culture at the time.  Signs, for example, might be difficult to understand since not everyone is aware of the movie’s existence of the often mocked nature of the aliens in the movie.

There’s also a segment of the dialogue which exists to poke fun at Ghost Stories‘ cliche filled narrative.  Characters routinely point out similarities between ghosts they are facing and more common and well-known media pieces.  For example, they draw connections to The Ring and The Grudge several times.  This anime actually utilizes fourth wall breaking a great deal and characters routinely reference episodes (and at one point even their two-dimensional nature by claiming they are breaking the third wall).

I must also express a little softness to some general humour.  The concept of lull destruction exists and they utilize it often when the dubbing team adds in dialogue to screw around with the seriousness of a scene.  One scene has a ghost levitating up some stairs.  The original version treats is completely serious with nothing but music and sound effects.  The dub instead has the ghost shout “Wheeee!” as it climbs.  It’s absolutely unexpected but a great piece of humour and adds to the overall fun of the anime.

Characters

This is even harder to write that the above.  The characters are intentionally flat and they even reference any time a character actually changes in any way.  It goes along with the entire package of parodying the typical Saturday morning series.  Every character also plays off a specific quirk and exaggerate it to no end.  Hajime being perverted, Leo being Jewish, Keiichirou being completely dumb, and Momoko having an absolutely unshakable faith in anything Christian…the script throws them all together into some strange concoction of character iteration with humour spitting out the sides of it as they attempt to navigate the episode.  Satsuki is the closest thing there is in this anime to a “straight man”…the character others play their insanity off of to highlight their insanity.  She also has her eccentricities and limits to her own sanity but the most common jokes with regards to her either highlight the other characters’ nature or play off the shock factor of her being a ten-year old girl saying fairly…adult things.

Animation

The animation is…not good for lack of a better term.  It keeps fairly standard practice for the early 2000’s era but also utilized a lower budget than other anime and the effects are quite obvious.  I would have guessed the series as around 1996 to 1998 based on the animation alone.  The style is very consistent with mid-to-late 90’s animation in terms of shading and it uses a lot of distance shots and faces turning away from the screen in order to reduce the animation load.  It’s also quite obvious that they used a great deal of model work while animating as character end up in completely awkward positions throughout the anime.  The dub naturally lampshades this.

There are some good moments despite the above commentary.  Later episodes got higher attention to animation and there were some moments when it even exceeded my expectations for the era.  Not only do the monsters begin taking on more horror-based appearances but they become more fluid and uncanny.  This is certainly another reason to hold out for the later episodes while watching this anime…the jokes get looser and the animation better.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

There’s very little sound.  Very little.  You got me?  I counted probably 7 or 8 pieces that they recycle throughout the anime and one of them is a simple copy of the Psycho “scare” chords.  The pieces feel very reminiscent of 90’s anime and might even remind you a bit of how other Saturday morning series utilize music.  It’s not a great mix and it wears itself thin while you walk through 20 episodes.  There’s nothing groundbreaking and honestly doesn’t assist the anime in any way.  Though it does benefit the anime a bit since the dialogue does point to the sound.

The opening is another one of those many fairly staple and cliche openings.  Grow Up by Hysterical Blue.  It’s a light pop piece which follows many traditions of younger target anime and focus on the same topics we frequent in such pieces: optimism, hope, change…simple topics and easy ones to relate to at that.

I can’t tell if it was intentional but the closing actually get better with the comedic dub.  Seriously.  It’s literally titled Sexy Sexy and it would be silly of me to not point out that the lyrics do not disappoint in the least.  I can think of few reasons for its original usage and it fits the dubbed version way better as some kind of slight shock value as a completely out-of-place piece of music.  It’s kind of catchy though and the distorted guitar chords remind me of Boney M‘s Rasputin for reasons the completely escape me.  That’s probably a good thing all things considered since it does just add to all the insanity in this song.  I wouldn’t try to dissect why this is…it makes no sense to me either.

Neither the opening nor closing use any good quality of animation.  The closing in particular shows the 90’s level of closing animation laziness and just pan slowly through a larger image.

Honestly…I can’t say anything about the subbed version of this anime; my entire reasoning for watching Ghost Stories is its parody dub.  But expect a completely different anime (not necessarily better) with the subbed version.  I’ve heard another company did a serious dub of this anime so that might be worth comparing…and I might watch this anime in a serious form some day…but the viewing I had can only be completed through the dubbed version.

The voice actors themselves are very much the standard cast for ADV translations of that era: Hilary Haag, Chris Patton, Greg Ayres, Monica Rial, Luci Christian, Christine Auten…it’s very much a tour of the cast they had at the time.  The length of different voice actors for this series is immense though and it’s almost worth a tour just to see who was likely on staff in ADV at the time.  I swear all the available staff at ADV were eager to get in on the project because of the loose production style…the list of recognizable names goes on for a while.

The quality of the dub is fairly standard but shows a lot of life and enthusiasm; it’s very clear that a great deal of dialogue game through ad-lib performance and the voice actors appear to appreciate this aspect greatly.  Namely, they appear to enjoy mocking many of the tropes they as anime fans recognize through their typical assignments.  You can almost hear a small feeling of joy as they spit out a funny line they would never otherwise be allowed to say during production.  Hearing Vic Mignogna say (and I’m quoting here) “Let’s see…purple for your hair.  Can’t tell that this is a goddamn anime” is perfectly delivered and it’s very clear Mignogna really wanted to use the line.  I almost feel it’s worth the price of admission just to hear the voice actors have fun with the project.

Synergy

Everything lives and dies off the dialogue.  This is the aspect ADV could adjust and therefore the entire nature of this dub works through it.  None of the original series actually mixes well and this doesn’t change in any variety for the dub.  So the dialogue happily creates jokes out of the different parts it’s given to create a humourous experience.  The original script (and therefore the animation) creates some visual jokes but most of it still comes from the updated script.

Why Watch

There’s a very clear and obvious reason you’d want to watch Ghost Stories: you want to watch humour based anime which parodies cliche anime and doesn’t take itself seriously for more than three consecutive seconds.  You also aren’t offended easily (or can tolerate jokes similar to the western animation South Park) and laugh at such humour.  Or maybe you just want to learn about 2005 American culture.

Really, that’s the only reason to watch.

Why Not Watch

It’s actually quite simple to list reasons why you wouldn’t want to watch Ghost Stories as well since the entire series is very simple in premise: you don’t like offensive humour.  Simple as that.  If you don’t like the idea that there are jokes about Jewish people, Japanese people, sexual humour…the list goes on.  Anyways, you’re probably better off skipping if you don’t like any of the above in an offensive manner to the point where its inclusion would destroy any fun experience.

Additionally, you might not want to watch if you’re the type who insists on catching each joke and aren’t entirely familiar with USA in 2005.  I’d also then recommend you never watch Airplane! in that case.

Personal Enjoyment

This anime fell up my alley quite well.  I grew up on the dubbed version of Duel Masters.  This anime straddled the line between a serious anime about cards and a parody like Ghost Stories.  I loved this series as a child and I’ve been looking for a similar series for a long time.  Ghost Stories satisfied that itch quite well.

Summary

Ghost Stories is…well…Ghost Stories.   It’s basically a series which turns it from a bog standard light hearted series into a comedy series with a very long line of black humour comments.  Each episode becomes an attempt to out-gag the last one.  It’s sometimes crude and offensive…while certainly a bit dated in the humour.  It’s a novelty, simple as that.

Overall Rating

Ghost Stories ended with a 5.10/10 on my spreadsheet.  Given I use 5 as average, this ranks as average.  But I think this is an example of where marking schemes fail; many of my categories failed to even qualify as relevant aspects of the series.  Character depth, effective plot, engaging villains…none of this is relevant when the entire series aims to make its viewers laugh. I feel it’s absolutely pointless to discuss ratings much as a results and instead just consider it for what it is: a series with fairly offensive humour that will be incredibly funny to some and less so to others for all the reasons listed previously.

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