Mouryou no Hako
The story follows a series of bizarre murders of schoolgirls who have been dismembered and stuffed into boxes. The private investigator hired by a missing daughter's mother joins forces with an antique book seller and others to unravel the murder spree.
Made by the same people as Aoi Bungaku and also very much in the tradition of Osamu Dazai and his contemporaries, Mouryou no Hako is definitely something beyond an ordinary animé experience. The ramblings of impressionistic writers and the mumbles of eastern mythos colour the air blue between the cramped traditional buildings of a poor lost country in flux and the painful, elongated death throes of imperial Japanese culture. Not that MnH is about that, of course. It just bleeds it. From the get go there is something very painful about this show. From the darkened wistfulness of its moonlit opening episode to the permanent twilight of its subsequent mystery, we are bombarded with images and ideas at a lightning pace, depicting a world where happiness is fleeting and melancholy is something as regular as a morning coffee.
To me that is a very good thing. While my preference does lie with the more pleasant and more uplifting, to see a show handle such an oppressive atmosphere so well (unlike, say, Katanagatari) is a joy to behold. Some shows are style over substance but in this case things have been turned on their head. The style is substance.
If aesthetic was the sole factor of greatness then few shows would be better. It looks and feels rustic and cold. The bleakness and viciousness of the content is counterbalanced so excellently by how clinical the delivery is that even the stranger leaps of logic amidst the content are held in a detached sense of abhorrence. Horror has always and always will be one of my favourite genres and MnH captures that sense of fascinated disgust that pervades the very best of that genre down to a tee. It does it without much blood or explicit gore either, relying on its imagery and often oddly elegant presentation (CLAMP character designs are magical as always) to convey its disturbing undercurrent - in fact murder and love are the two things this show delivers with any amount of conscious flair and feeling and I can't help feel that might lie at the core of its themes.
Horror is not really this shows true aim though, MnH is a mystery but not a mystery of 'what' and 'how' but a mystery of 'why'. While the 'how' and 'what' facts are carefully hidden and parcelled like a regular mystery, key facts such as the culprits identity are not really concealed but more paraded to draw out the questions you are meant to ask. The series is not afraid to confuse, it is not afraid to throw vital details out amidst the torrents of red herrings that even I (as a mystery junkie and as someone acquainted with every trick in the book) found it hard to sift through. For all that, the series never lacks for interest though be prepared for a lot of dialogue. One particular conversation lasts for over an episode (a bit like a shounen fight scene but without the occasional pauses to fight) but I never found myself bored. I'll admit, though, that it is very Japanese and a little dense at times for my poor occidental mind to follow to my satisfaction. Students of eastern mythos will probably appreciate those subtleties a little more and understand its content a little better than me but they never distract from the core themes of which (like any good show of this serious type) there are many or detract from any of the sense of wonder or enjoyment that series invokes.
As you'd expect from of a mystery of 'why' the characters play an important role. While there are too many of them to break down each of them, the dialogue that weighs heavily on this series is used in this case to great effect. The people here aren't machines for delivering exposition but act and interact like real living, breathing and (most importantly it seems) hurting people in the bleak world that MnH has created. You won't find placeholder characters, simplistic motivations or a whiff of the animé clichés that permeate the medium here. Problem is though, like people in real life, some of the characters can be either a bit annoying or a little boring - the story is the star of this show even with its surprisingly large volume of relatable characters. No-one here is going to be on your favourite characters lists; no-one is cool, incredible or particularly interesting on a personal level; but they work well together to display an understanding of human psychology that is fascinating to say the least. For once the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In terms of music the show is disappointing. The OP and ED are instantly forgettable and even all the best animation has been saved for the show itself. Not that there is too much animation there either. The word static probably sums up this show better than most - sitting and talking, standing and talking - dynamism isn't something you're going to get from this show except at its more expressive moments and even then in only the smallest bursts. No-one is going to mistake this for a thriller.
Comment also has to be made about how heavy this show is. Personally I don't view that as too much of a drawback but I know some of you out there will. Don't put this on looking for easy answers or light entertainment because you will be sorely disappointed. It takes until the fifth episode before you can really grasp what's going on in any sensible form and by then you have been inundated with so much information of varying worth that those not really looking to work hard for their entertainment are going to be left far behind. Don't expect the show to try and hook you either - this show is made for those who really want to watch it and it's not going to give an inch to those who are on the fence about it. While this doesn't bother me too much I can't help but feel that part of its inaccessibility was by choice and not by necessity - it emulates the style of those early twentieth century writers that obviously inspired it to its detriment as well as to its praise.
Overall I definitely have to say that I liked it. The writing is tight if long-winded, the imagery gripping and the characters are entrancing in the most monstrous kind of way - you might not like them but you can definitely feel for them which is often far more important in many ways. It also has all the things that I want from a serious show; a tangible atmosphere, a thought provoking story and a subtle but disquieting edge to its proceedings. I found this show disturbing, which is something I like. It helped me make a real connection with it.
In truth it is a five star show for people like me but its lack of accessibility means it isn't something I can universally recommend or even moderately recommend except on a niche basis. It's for those who want a mental workout and it isn't to be viewed lightly, you'll only get out as much as you put in. I will not declare any kind of perfection for it, it gets lost a little up itself paying tribute to the great writers whose poignant environment inspired it, but it's definitely worth investing in. Plus one star if you read textbooks for fun or really like to work for your entertainment. Minus two stars if you just want light entertainment since only the visuals are a source of that. — Aiden Foote
Recommended Audience: Adults and older teens. Dismemberment is core to this shows themes and it's a pretty dark and depressing world these characters live in at the best of times. You need to be of a certain age to appreciate it in any case.
Version(s) Viewed: Pre-license digital source
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Mouryou no Hako © 2008 VAP / NTV / DN Dream Partners / Madhouse / Natsuhiko Kyogoku / CLAMP
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