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"Ghost Hunt" Bags a Trophy

by on January 21, 2009

I am, I’ll forthrightly declare, a sucker for a good ghost story. The operative word, of course, is “good.” Anyone can stick a phantom or spirit into any old yarn, and come up with something as crass and incompetent as xxxHOLIC. (cough cough). But it takes a deft hand to fashion a spook story that can set the reader’s or viewer’s nerves twitching, like spiders under the skin, and convince him that tonight, at least, it might be a good idea to sleep with the lights on.

Ghost Hunt probably won’t rob any but impressionable youngsters of rest—I watched most of its episodes after midnight, and slept like a lamb afterwards—and it is far from perfect. But anyone who enjoys a good, old-fashioned ghost tale will find themselves grinning like a ghoul over the pleasures it serves up.

The series chronicles the case files of the Shibuya Psychic Research Center, which is run by the precociously talented, seventeen-year-old Kazuya Shibuya. Known semi-affectionately by his colleagues as Naru (or “Naru the Narcissist”), he is a cool-headed, humorless, emotionally aloof professional whose guesses and speculations, even when they miss the truth, are still invariably closer to the mark than those of anyone else. He is, in short, the kind of personage that long-time viewers of anime will instantly recognize: the unattainably attractive man of mystery that everyone is supposed to admire for his effortless mastery of occult skills, even though he is also the sort of guy who, if you met him in real life, you’d like to punch in the face.

Fortunately, he is surrounded by other archetypes who, if no less familiar, are at least easier to take. There’s Houshou Takigawa, the rock star/Buddhist priest; Ayako Matsuzaki, the proud, tempestuous, just-past-her-prime shrine maiden; John Brown, a kind-hearted Australian priest who’s barely older than Naru himself; Masako Hara, a quiet, sensitive, sixteen-year-old celebrity medium; and the main character, Mai Taniyama, a high school freshman who joins Shibuya as an assistant in order to repay a financial debt. Mai, with her na├»ve enthusiasm and burgeoning love for Naru, is the audience surrogate: the person who has to have everything explained to her and who invariably opens the doors that everyone else wisely thinks ought to stay shut. She is cute enough and smart enough that one can generally forgive her occasional lapses into low folly; still, as with Naru, how well you can take her probably depends upon how tired you are of this stock character.

But it’s a good idea to try liking and enjoying them, because viewers of Ghost Hunt are going to be spending a lot of time with them, in scenes and sequences that don’t have a lot to do with actual ghost hunting. So even though the show isn’t really about these characters or their individual stories (even though we learn quite a bit about their backgrounds as the series unfolds), it does spend a lot of time with them as they just hang out, bickering and arguing about what has happened or what is going to happen, not all of which will have anything to do with the ghost du jour.

This may sound like a criticism, but it’s not. That’s because Ghost Hunt understands the most important rule about ghost stories: They get their power by drawing an explicit contrast between the natural and the supernatural. Thus, Ghost Hunt sets up scenes of light comedy and trivial emotional drama as a backdrop to make the scenes of horror and terror all the more stark and unsettling. In this regard it closely hews to most of the rules laid down by M. R. James, the English author who almost single-handedly invented the modern literary ghost story.

The first rule is that the ghost story should be placed in a familiar, modern setting, the better to create a sense of violation when the spooks erupt. Ghost Hunt sets its stories in contemporary high schools and houses; even in ancient locations, they play out in modern buildings that have been erected over the ruins of older ones. So even when we get the usual kind of poltergeist activity—rattling furniture or faces peering through windows—it’s happening in the kinds of places that most of us live in or visit every day. This is just the thing to make you look over your own shoulder nervously when your own electric lights start flickering.

James’s second rule was that ghosts should be malevolent, and Ghost Hunt features some pretty ooky specters: a well-dwelling matron who catches small children; a would-be vampire who rises from a bathtub brimming with blood; a clutch of drowned zombies. Only two ghosts are treated sympathetically, one in the thoroughly comedic “Ghost Story in the Park!?” and the other in “Silent Christmas,” and even in the latter the point is made that the restless spirit of a small child might be turning bad.

Ghost Hunt doesn’t have the same respect for James’s third rule—avoid the “technical” language of occultism and pseudo-science—possibly because this Japanese series can’t shake off some culturally specific beliefs about the way spirits work. But it’s more likely that the makers recognized that any “mystery” that has a solution needs machinery to make the solutions plausible. Naru and his friends would be a pretty poor set of exorcists if they failed to solve all their cases, and for their victories to feel non-arbitrary there have to be some rules in play. So most of the stories tend to collapse into a lot of spirituo-babble toward the end, when Naru will explain what’s going on, why it’s happening, and how to solve it.

Luckily, with one exception all the stories are multi-parters, running between forty and ninety minutes in length. This means that the stories spend a lot more time freaking us out with occult happenings than with reassuring us that they can be handled. It also gives the makers lots of time to slowly ramp up the intensity, so that we can be gradually unnerved by small things before the really big and nasty stuff starts. Especially effective in this regard is the three-part “Doll House,” which gives us lots of time to contemplate a really creepy-looking doll before it even starts twitching.

Though there isn’t a bad story in this 25-episode series, some are better than others. “Doll House,” “Cursed House,” and “Bloodstained Labyrinth” (the last of which neatly mixes the imagery of the “haunted hospital” sub-genre with the mad, quasi-Victorian styling of the Winchester Mystery House) are easily the best of the bunch. Three of the stories (“Evil Spirits All Over?!”, “The After School Hexer” and “Forbidden Pastime”) are set in high schools, which is at least one story too many, especially as the last-named starts with the intensity dial at 9.5 and then stalls out for an hour as it tries goosing it up to a perfect 10. Oddities in the set include “Silent Christmas,” which eschews fear for a rather maudlin tale about the ghost of a mute orphan, and “Ghost Story in the Park?!”, a one-part comedy episode about the ghost of a jilted girl who douses romantic couples with water. That’s the one story where you really do need to like the series’ main characters, since the ghost story itself is so thin. I will say this for it, though: It takes a certain amount of nerve to play a girl’s botched suicide attempts for laughs before killing her with a pratfall.

Character designs are somewhat generic, even on the spooks, and the animation is only functional, but this isn’t really a handicap. Ghost Hunt is not an action series, and it relies on imagery, editing, and ordinary objects doing extraordinary things to create its air of menace. Though it isn’t especially intense, caution should be exercised before exposing younger viewers to its contents. There is quite a bit of gore, and impressionable viewers may find nightmare fuel in the way it peels back the ordinary to disclose the uncanny. Older viewers will not be shocked, though, unless it’s with surprise at its skill at being able to balance the mundane and the genuinely spooky.

FUNimation has recently released the series in a pair of two-disc, thin-pak boxed sets. Extras themselves are almost spectral: a handful of manga pages; character bios that are each only a few sentences long; image galleries of the “ghost sightings”; textless openings; and trailers. This lack is disappointing on many levels, not least of which is the missed opportunity to delve into the real-life inspirations behind many of these stories. Ghost Hunt, directly or obliquely, references many real-life and literary forerunners, from the Hound of the Baskervilles to Elizabeth Bathory, and a set of extras that detailed these references would have been a fascinating read.

I’ve only seen a handful of movies as deft as Ghost Hunt at making one feel pleasantly nervous: The Shining, The Sixth Sense, The Uninvited, and the 1963 version of The Haunting are the only ones that come to mind. Ghost Hunt shares with these the conviction that what we see is less important than what we feel, and that not showing things is one of the most effective ways of raising goose bumps in an audience. If you know and admire these films, then you will find Ghost Hunt an excellent addition to your DVD library.

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