Monday, September 27, 2010

Ghost Hound

Imagine that there's a parallel world where spirits exist and that it's possible to enter it by having an out of body experience. Okay, now imagine what sort of havoc could be wreaked on such a world when humanity starts considering ways to create artificial life, in a controlled environment, a la Dr. Frankenstein, if he had himself a factory. There's more. Imagine you are seeing this from the point of view of a teenager suffering from Post Traumatic Stress from being kidnapped at a young age and his two friends, all three of whom can have questions asked about their sanity. Now add an evil cult to that... and organ traffickers...  and the yakuza...   and well, are you creeped out yet? Break out your tinfoil hats, we're about to enter the whacked out weirdness that is Ghost Hound.

Unlike much of the other anime I've covered so far, Ghost Hound was an original idea that went directly to animation, based on an idea by Ghost in the Shell creator Shirow Masamune. It ran on the Japanese WOWOW network from 2007 to 2008 and contains 22 episodes. It was produced by Production I.G. and if you have any interest in finding it in the USA, Sentai Filmworks currently holds the licensing rights. Even though the art style is visually very different from Masamune's more iconic series, you can definitely tell his fingerprints are all over it, from the philosophical questions about why the brain does what it does and how it relates to having a soul to the clinical specificity of discussing scientific knowledge of how it works. That specificity is more than helpful too, because without it, this anime would be way more confusing.

From left to right, Masayuki, Makoto, and Taro
The story starts in a remote mountain village called Suiten with the main character, Taro Komori, who has been having out-of-body experiences and nightmares resulting from Post Traumatic Stress (PTS for short). The cause appears to be residual memories from a kidnapping when he was three years old, which resulted in the death of his older sister. Due to concerns by the school, he is introduced to Atsushi HIrata, a psychiatrist from Tokyo, who at first has strictly grounded all of his beliefs in the basis of science and thinks that he can cure Taro based on his theories. Later, after being prodded into it by Masayuki Nakajima, a transfer student recently come from Tokyo, he is convinced to go take a look at the abandoned hospital where he and his late sister were found following the kidnapping. The two are joined reluctantly by Makoto Ogami, Taro's distant cousin, whose father committed suicide when Makoto's grandmother, a noted medium of the area, predicted where the two children would be found. In a classic "dumb kids" maneuver, they go into the hospital while the water has been drained out of the riverbed where it sits in order to see if that will help Taro move beyond his issues. Instead, things get incredibly weird as, upon finding the room in which Taro had been held with his sister, all three of them start seeing strange apparitions resulting in a mass waking OBE where they see a whole bunch of weird spirits wandering around the hospital. 

The three, who initially look like little translucent blobs of goo with eyes, ears, and butt-cheeks, while in astral form, at first panic and then start experimenting with this new state of consciousness before going back into their bodies. After getting told off by the local shinto priest and his daughter Miyako upon coming back to the shrine where Taro left his bike, they get the hell out of dodge. However, this is not the end of the story by a long shot. They plan a couple more joint expiditions into the Unseen World as they call it, as well as going in on their own on occasion, over time, hoping to seek their own answers as the people around them attempt to understand what's going on. Some worry more than others as I would be the first to say that none of these kids are without problems.

This is an anime that really excelled in characterization in the main cast as well as in the minor characters that are running around. Everyone has their own motives for doing what they do and their own issues which makes you tempted to suspect everything even if some of their actions are totally mundane. Masayuki for instance, starts off with a crushing fear of heights due to an accident in Tokyo where a student he had bullied threw himself off the roof and blamed him for it. Because of this, he sees himself as a murderer at the beginning and his instigation of the abandoned hospital trip seems to be more than just boyish adventurism for him. Makoto on the other hand is withdrawn and moody. He claims it's because his mother dropped him when he was an infant and that he might be driven to kill someone one day from the brain damage. Guided by this statement, and the suggestion that he was totally serious, I spent most of the series worried that he actually would do something, which definitely had me on the edge of my seat. Then there is the psychiatrist. Because of Hirata Sensei's internal monologues and various things he does prove empirically that he has an ulterior motive for treating Taro, even if he doesn't admit that to him until near the end. But because of the way he is portrayed, he seemed like the scariest one in the bunch until I got past the halfway mark and the story started moving towards the end-game. Then he get's a little more sympathetic as he also starts having some strange experiences of his own. Miyako is also a pretty interesting character, a young girl who is struggling with what is officially being called a dissociative disorder, but many of the villagers are interpreting it as being routinely possessed. It's a little depressing in a way, but just about all of the families involved in this seemed to have some sort of looming psychological issue. Taro's mom is still depressed from losing her daughter, Masayuki's parents no longer communicate and his mom's closed herself in to the point where all she does anymore is play video games. Don't even think about Makoto's folks, his dad's dead and his mom's run off so we don't see her until later in the story. All he's got is his psycho cult-leader grandmother and her evil assistant (we'll talk about her next paragraph). I really felt the worst for Miyako's dad though. Out of all the other parental figures, aside from Taro's folks trying to help him get through his PTS, you see her father working the hardest to care for his little girl and yet he has to watch her suffer through the possessions/psychological issues without being able to really do anything about it that she doesn't refuse.

As for the number of adversaries and challenges the main characters face, there are many. The brewery Taro's family owns is threatened by the local bio-tech facility that just opened up the river, which happens to be the place where Masayuki's father is working. Makoto's family had a falling out with Taro's family following Makoto's father's suicide. But the problems are not limited to the mundane, there's also some higher issues to deal with, such as facing down the unknown, which they often do when exploring the unseen realm. There are a couple of points where they have to not only face it, but overcome their fears of it. Masayuki gets over his fear of heights pretty early in the show, but the others have deeper issues that take up a huge part of the series, such as Taro's issues relating to the kidnapping. At one point, this is brought especially into focus when they find a spirit-echo of the man who kidnapped him at the abandoned pachinko parlor where where he had been hit by a car before the children were discovered. Through Taro's being overcome with anger and rage which leads him to attack the figure, before realizing he's still terrified of it, the others learn that it's possible to change their astral shape in the Unseen World after which, Makoto learns to turn his astral form into a powerful wolf-like figure. Makoto's issues with his family also play a major role in the story as his reconciliation with his mother and subsequently helping to bring down his grandmother's cult is a crucial point in the endgame. But first he must learn the truth behind Taro's kidnapping which not only brings some amazing revelations about the activities of the cult to light but also their connections to less reputable organizations like organ smugglers, and even a group that's disturbingly similar to the yakuza. It's actually the cult that turns this anime into an all out clash between the concepts of science versus spirituality. This is because of the activity at the bio-tech facility, which is directed at creating brainless bodies from which to farm organs, has birthed these man-made spirits that have thrown the whole local climate in the Unseen World out of whack. After the death of Makoto's grandmother, her assistant takes advantage of this perceived imbalance to attack Miyako's father and then trick her distant mother into taking custody of Miyako so she can use the girl's spiritual powers to regain the cult's lost acclaim. It eventually requires the aid of the entire main cast, plus some of the parents, and a little help from a scientist at the bio-tech facility to rescue Miyako and make things right again.

It was probably a product of the fact that this was an anime before it was anything else, but one thing that struck me about this story was just how full it was. I can't possibly go over every single thing that happened in this one review because even when the characters weren't doing anything, the unexpected could still happen. This left me on the edge of my seat even when perfectly normal everyday stuff was going on. Most days at school, Taro could drift off and start doing his OBE thing at any minute, you never knew when Makoto might actually show up to class, or if Masayuki was actually going to take initiative and stop the poor kid with glasses from being bullied (he does eventually, which leads to Michio Hoshino becoming a fourth addition to the regular astral travelers). Then there are the crazier things that happen on a regular basis. After the first few episodes, Taro falls down the stairs at the shinto shrine, hitting his head and causing him to have the strange experience of looking inside his own head. Then there's the instance where the group meets a spirit of the Mothman from a sighting in Virginia, USA, that took place in 1966, in the unseen world. Taro gets attacked by the spirit of a Pterodactyl at one point. Later in the story Masayuki is out flying around and freaks out this one guy who can also see the spirits without going into the unseen realm. And if that wasn't crazy enough for you, the psychiatrist himself starts having strange things happening to him as well. Like there's one night when he's coming home and sees a UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) off in the distance right after a missing time phenomena occurs (that's not even the most exciting thing that happens to him either.) 

There's a philosophical/pseudo scientific element to all of this as well, One thing that's really interesting is that whenever the episode ends and there is a preview for the next episode, the narrator won't talk about the episode but will instead introduce a new psychological concept or disorder, which also happens to be the title of the next episode or is related to it in some way. At a couple of points characters even talk about these terms and disorders in the context of the story. Such as when the psychiatrist is discussing Miyako and Taro's cases with their parents. Although they occasionally do riff on these discussions and which can be entertaining. For instance, at one point while Taro's in the hospital, Masayuki comes to visit him and after talking to the doctors the two boys get on the subject of whether or not their adventures exist only in their own minds and have a laugh over it by arguing over which one of them only exists in the mind of the other. Taro's adventures in the Unseen World also get him in contact with another soul traveler who calls himself Snark and claims he is a Boojum (in reference to a nonsensical poem by Lewis Carrol), but in reality is actually the current husband/boyfriend of Makoto's mother, and also an amateur physicist who tries to insert his scientific understanding into things which adds a unique perspective on the stuff that's happening.

Normally I don't do a separate paragraph for things like presentation, but here I think the visual and auditory imagery really bear mentioning. While the overall level of visual detail is not quite as high as with Masamune's other works, the images more than makes up for it in having quite a bit of character of their own, and the ambiance of the neighborhood in which Taro lives is still very nice. It actually does feel like you are seeing somewhere that you could go, aside from the stuff we let slide for suspension of disbelief. Some of the dream sequences are also very interesting, but very, very creepy, such as Taro's recurring dream where he's tied up in the hospital with his sister's corpse and there's a fly wandering around it that the camera zeros in on every single time. It's creepy before you know what it is, but it gets worse after you figure it out. But I especially liked the musical score and ambient sounds for this one. While the music itself is sparse and often limited to a slowly beating taiko drum with an occasional rise in the sound track at dramatically appropriate points, its designed not to be noticed unless it really needs to be, but at the same time, build tension in all the right places, leaving the viewers biting their nails at every new development. The only points where it becomes anywhere near being obnoxious, is during the sessions where Dr. Hirata is attempting a couple of types of therapy for Taro and later Miyako. His method of choice is to move his finger, or a light, back and forth in front of his patient of choice to the time of a clock. However, when this occurs...   how do I describe this? Pretend that the clock's ticking got sound-mixed with that ominous booming sound that happens every time Frodo drops the ring in the Lord of the Rings movies but the second sound is heavily muffled so the clock is louder. It's something like that and it's one of the creepiest sounds I think I've ever heard. There are also a couple of incredibly good tracks that are utilized for the opening and intro. The opening, Poltergeist, is jazzy and stands out with some nice chords that leave you with the assurance that something strange and mysterious is afoot. The outro, Call My Name is equally memorable though it lends itself more to reflection, and has a softer, more soothing quality to it which helps ease the punch of being on your way out.

Overall, I really enjoyed this anime, with its dark and yet hopeful themes, its exploration into the human consciousness, and its willingness to allow the viewer to question what's going on. I just hope I did this one justice because there's only so much I was able to talk about in such a small space. This anime is definitely worth checking out. And that's the tiger's two cents.

Images taken from Ghost Hound.

1 comment:

  1. Finally, someone who enjoyed the sound score and creepy ambiance that was done with this anime. I enjoyed the hell out of it, too. There's a few places to get a lot of the bebop shrieking jazz, but none of what was used in a majority of the project, that I'm aware of. :(