16 year old Mai Taniyama is a happy-go-lucky orphan who loves to hang out with her friends in creepy places and trade ghost stories with them. One evening, as they’re doing this in an empty classroom, they’re interrupted by Kazuya Shibuya, a paranormal researcher who’s been hired to investigate the old, abandoned school house next door. Well, prompted by this, Mai decides to explore the building herself, upon which she accidentily damages both Kazuya’s camera as well as his camera-man. In lieu of a proper monetary compensation, Mai agrees to work with Kazuya as his assistant, and after one case, she gets hired full time! Now, as a member of Shibuya Psychic Research, she’ll have to face off against cruel curses, petty poltergeists, and dastardly demons for the sake of her handsome… But extremely difficult… New employer.
For the most part, Ghost Hunt looks like it was animated on a bare bones budget. There are static images, key frames, and some stiff, jerky movements. This is nothing new from JC Staff, a production company who normally only “makes it rain” on a few select titles, like Index, Railgun and Toradora. Ghost Hunt is not one of these titles, but luckily, where JC Staff normally shines is using its inspired art direction to cover up the blandness of their animation. In Ghost Hunt’s case, this is achieved with clever and well-thought out camera angles, distortions wherever they’re needed, and a series of perfectly timed panning shots. The character designs are also very memorable, despite being a little on the generic side.
Remember, I said “For the most part.” In addition to the cheap looking human side of the coin, you also have the hauntings themselves, most of which will take your breath away with their flawless CG design. There are moments in this show that look like they could have been taken right out of Mushishi, and that’s one of the many comparisons I don’t make lightly. In a lot of cases, it would bother me when a series was this inconsistent with it’s animation quality, but in Ghost Hunt, it kind of works… Rather than a difference in budget sizes, it seems to represent a difference in plains of reality, and while that may or may not have been intentional, it’s exactly how the difference between the human world and the spiritual world SHOULD feel.
The characters, despite their somewhat bland design, are distinct and very likeable. Mai is a normal girl… And I mean normal by actual human standards, not normal by Nami Hito standards. There’s nothing moe or Mary-Suish about her, and that’s a pretty easy pit to sink into. She’s brave, but also naive and prone to making mistakes. She’s aware of when she’s in danger, but often needs help getting out of it, and never seems to make any head-slappingly stupid decisions. She never makes a habit of denying her feelings, either… Which is another unfortunate pit that a lot of anime heroines inhabit.
Kazuya, on the other hand, can be a bit of a problem sometimes. I won’t say he’s a poorly written character… Not completely, anyway… But his flaws seem to overshadow his more positive attributes. He’s silent, he’s cold, and while he needs help dealing with any situation that’s out of the range of his particular skill set, he’s remarkably competent. On his own, he’s not very interesting, and as such, his likeability stems almost exclusively from his interactions with other characters. His prideful and prickly demeanor are only ever palatable when he’s bouncing off of the more charming and open people he associates with, particularly in his reactions with Mai and the famous medium Masako. I mean, would he be nearly as enjoyable a character if Mai hadn’t decided to start calling him Naru the Narcissist?
Oh, and while we’re at it, I should probably address this… Yes, I took my name from this anime. I was originally calling myself Narcy as a quick nickname, but my friends/video producers said it was too girly, so I decided to adopt the infamous moniker from this anime instead. Moving on.
If you’ve seen this show in English, then you may be asking “Wait, if Kazuya isn’t that great of a character, then why did I love him so much?” The answer is simple; Todd Haberkorn. The dub was produced by Funimation, and the staff somehow made the far-left-field decision to put a grumpy, mono-toned character in the hands of one of the loudest, most over the top performers in their stable. The result is nothing short of pure gold. Todd’s rubber voice is famous for such ridiculous yet still perfectly pegged roles such as Death the Kidd, Italy, Natsu Dragnheel and Sergeant Frog, but he’s also able to go very low and serious with it, as he did with Ling Yao from FMA Brotherhood. But even in THAT performance, he never went AS low and serious as he did in this one. He sounds every bit the socially inept genius with a chip on his shoulder, and he manages to outshine the original seiyuu by adding an air of superiority and some great sarcastic wit without ever breaking character or changing pitch.
Cherami Leigh is also quite a bit better than her seiyuu, thanks to a set of acting chops that have carried her very far in her career since this show. She has complete control over Mai’s voice, and hits every single note… Whether dramatic, comedic, upbeat or downbeat… Perfectly. It’s a very sincere performance, and while it may not have been the one that made her a star, it makes it very clear why she became one. The rest of the main cast is also spot-on, with Travis Willingham as the laid back, reliable Monk, Colleen Clinkenbeard as the hoity toity yet somewhat maternal Ayako, and J Michael Tatum getting surprisingly scarce lines as Naru’s even more silent bodyguard, Lin, yet still knocking each line out of the park. Cherami’s fellow Strike Witches alumnus Jad Saxton joins her here, and once again, they’re rivals for love!
The only real sour note in the dub is Jason Leibricht’s phony sounding australian accent, but give it a few episodes, and you’ll get used to it. Several other well known names are sprinkled around the cast, including recurring roles from Caitlin Glass, Brina Palencia, and Eric Vale. The writing in the dub is very naturalistic and straightforward, which is odd when you consider the fact that the credited writer keeps changing… Sonny Straight’s episodes can sound a little off, but everybody else did a fine job, especially when Luci Christian and Monica Rial are at the helm. The subbed version is great on it’s own, and perfectly listenable, but in my opinion, the dub is still quite a bit better, and has my easy recommendation.
Unfortunately, the writing is a bit of a mixed bag. The characters do gradually develop from a group of bickering strangers into a tightly-knit family by the end of the series, but the only one who gets any good individual development is Mai. The other researchers, representing the spiritual perspectives of their respective religions, seem like they’re only present in every single arc so they can pad out the run time and occasionally become useful to the plot… Which, to be fair, every single one of them does, at least at some point or another. But for the most part, it’s really hard to justify their presence beyond their assorted talents. There are a lot of interactions between them that serve to develop their family dynamic, and while most of them are executed nicely, there are a few that do feel forced or out of place, with one example being a highly emotional discussion of Hong Kong history between Mai and Lin.
As far as the development of the two central characters goes, Mai and Naru go through an interesting parallel… Throughout the series, we slowly become exposed to the true nature of each character, as well as to the supernatural powers that each one possesses. This works very well in Mai’s case, because she’s learning everything while we’re learning it… Her new discoveries and developments are shared with us on the same level. But unlike Mai, Naru already knows what he’s capable of, and yet his abilities develop at a slower pace. Yes, there’s an excuse made for it at the end, but even with that given, it still feels like a deus ex machina whenever he pulls a spell or piece of information out of his ass at just the right time.
Yes, there are issues with the writing and character development, and while they’re not serious issues, they are very noticeable. Luckily, there are two specific things this show does so brilliantly that all other transgressions can be all but ignored. The first one, as you may notice early on, is the music. Toshio Masuda’s compositions are by far the best aspect of this series, as he matches the tone of any given situation with not only tense orchestral tunes, with stings and percussions blaring, but with an electronic track that, in it’s creepiest moments, seems to have been heavily inspired by the undisputed king of horror music, the theremin. Toshio’s the same man who composed Mushishi, and to say it shows would be an understatement. I could honestly say that Ghost Hunt wouldn’t be even half as creepy or heartpounding in it’s terror if it wasn’t for his work.
The other saving grace is the pacing of the series, and there are two sides to this. The first is with the individual story arcs, which are built up very well from beginning to end, if not a little repetitive. You’ll start off with a light hearted summary of where the cast is in their development, and it won’t take too long for a new case to be introduced. You’ll get a brief summary of what the case is, but the devil is in the details, which will be revealed piece by piece throughout. The tension builds, as do the stakes, and Masuda’s music keeps perfectly in tune with this, right up until the climactic conclusion… Which fails to be climactic only once or twice due to Naru’s exposition dumps. There’s foreshadowing throughout each arc, and it can take the form of anything… An odd piece of dialogue, a suspicious camera angle, or even a cleverly placed set piece. The astute viewer will have no problem noticing these, and while it does bring an element of predictability to the show, it never gives away more than it wants to.
The other side is with the structure of the series itself, and the order of the story arcs resting within it. Yes, there are a few arcs in the first half that feel tame compared to what comes later, but that’s the beauty of it… Every single arc, with the exception of one filler episode, just gets better and better. They progressively become more creepy, more tense, less predictable, more disturbing, and with ever-increasing stakes, leading up to what most viewers consider the crowning jewel of the series… the penultimate arc, The Bloodstained Labyrinth, which takes a lot of acknowledged inspiration from the real life legends of Vlad Tepesh, Countess Bathory and the Winchester manor. It’s easy to see why this arc is as popular as it is, considering how hardcore and well-established the enemy is, but I’d have to confess a strong preference to the final arc, The Cursed House. The consequences are similar, but the stakes are much higher, and it carries a much heavier lean towards eastern mythology than it’s predecessor.
Unfortunately, this arc has the bad luck of being the final one, so it carries a substantial amount of the blame for one of Ghost Hunt’s biggest problems, which would be it’s lack of a satisfying conclusion. Or, you know, any kind of conclusion. Several plot threads are just left dangling there, with the relationship between Mai and Naru… as well as the true nature of their respective powers… being no small part of it. It doesn’t necessarily end on a bad note, but it leaves you hungry for a sequel that hasn’t yet been confirmed after seven years of waiting. It’s a ‘read the manga’ type of ending, but since the translated manga’s out of print and I hate streaming them, that’s a problem for me.
Ghost Hunt offers a very unique experience for horror fans… It contains all the thrill and suspense of a normal paranormal investigation show, but since it actually ADMITS that it’s scripted, it’s able to offer solid scares and a solid story without ever feeling like it’s wasting your time. It has several weak points, particularly in it’s writing and character development, but the execution and art direction are strong enough to make up for it many times over. It’s positive aspects far outweigh the negative ones, and for the most part, you can watch this series with your brain on or off and still have a great time with it. I give Ghost Hunt an 8/10, and a strong recommendation to pick it up if you’re looking for an outstanding horror title to entertain you throughout the spookiest time of year.