We all love telling tales of the past,
Be they epic, romantic or scary
Stories of people long since dead
though levels of truth may vary
For such is the tale of Sachiko,
A simple chant will bind you as friends,
When wandering these decrepit halls
Sorry about that… I’m no poet, and that was probably terrible, but I couldn’t resist. For a proper plot summary, Corpse Party is the story of seven high school students, their teacher and a little girl who get together one night to tell a juicy urban legend that one of them heard online… One that comes not only with thrills, chills and intrigue, but with a cute little charm that’s supposed to link all of them as friends forever. But suddenly, and with no explanation, the charm backfires, and sucks them screaming and horrified into a twisted, disturbing world that wastes no time in splitting them up and running them through the meat grinder… Almost literally in a few cases.
In order to escape from this world that Silent Hill has screaming nightmares about, the dwindling students will have to solve the mystery behind the Heavenly Host massacre, examining the blurry lines between the truth of what happened and the story that became public knowledge. And if that doesn’t seem hard enough, they’ll have to do this while avoiding the demons and ghosts who want nothing more than to spread their eternal suffering to others. With the odds stacked against them, and no horrors being spared on their behalf, can any of these forsaken friends overcome their fate and live to see the real world? Or are their tortured souls doomed to hell for eternity?
The Corpse Party OVA was produced by a studio called Asread, a small time production company that originated as an off-shoot of Studio Xebec. They’ve released a surprisingly small amount of titles, ranging from the misogynistic Shuffle to the plot-hole pin-cushion known as Future Diary. By all means, you’d expect them to shaft a four episode OVA that nobody wanted to see with as little effort and money and possible… In other words, this anime should look like ass.
In spite of this, I was pleasantly surprised by the over-all look of this OVA. Okay, it’s no visual wonder… The budget was clearly a small one, and this fact is betrayed to the viewer in several scenes, most notably of which occurs right at the very beginning when the nine are saying their chant. For most of the series, however, the visuals are executed nicely, teasing your eye with suspicious framing and backgrounds full of gritty, unsettling details. Everything in Heavenly Host looks appropriately ancient, with the corpses scattered throughout the building in varying states of decay, and mold and grime covering every inch of the building’s walls.
The character designs, while somewhat distinctive, are disappointingly generic. You could argue that there’s a point to this, as there’s no real main character in this series(the protagonist from the game has been brought down to everyone else’s level), and everybody looks like they could be a secondary or stock character in any other show. You could make this excuse, and there is some logic behind it, but it doesn’t make the cast look any less dull or any more memorable. The animation shines through in some scenes… Where there’s suspense or gut-wrenching horror to portray, the animation becomes solid enough to make up for the over-all cheapness. The visual effects of the ghosts alone justifies the unevenly allocated budget. The music is just as spooky as it needs to be, and while there are no real stand-out tracks, it does it’s job well enough to amp up the tension and shock whenever needed.
Before we go any further, I should probably mention that this OVA was based on a video game series that’s developed a strong cult following since it’s release back in 1996, despite not getting a sequel until 2008. The series then took off, spawning countless new games and manga adaptations, as well as an eleven minute OVA that’s completely worthless and the four episode OVA that I’m discussing today. Having said that, adapting video games into the visual medium is a notoriously hard thing to do, so how did this iteration of the story hold up?
Well, I’ve always held onto the belief that an adaptation doesn’t need to be accurate… It can change as much as it likes, as long as it manages to put forth a good stand-alone story. The problem with applying that belief to Corpse Party is that, as far as I’ve seen from the handful of let’s play videos that I’ve seen, this anime only tells a fraction of the story. Most video game movies will find ways to work around the gameplay aspect of their source material or just omit it completely, and that’s kind of a necessity in terms of keeping the story from getting repetitive… But there’s a lot of story and character development in Corpse Party’s gameplay, and it’s sorely missing from the OVA.
The first episode is executed decently enough, as it goes through the prologue and then spends the rest of it’s time focusing on two specific characters. They interact with each other and explore the haunted school for a bit, allowing the horror to set in with a very effective slow burn, leading to the first of many shocking death scenes. However, the pacing issues become immediately apparent when the second episode starts, and the story suddenly shifts to cover the rest of the characters and their situations, as well as expositing about many of the rules and properties of Heavenly Host.
I haven’t played the game, which is why I can say with complete sincerity that you don’t have to have any behind-the-controls experience to know that tons of material was left behind for the sake of adaptation. This is most apparent from one particular scene where two characters figure out what they’ll have to do to put the ghost children to rest. We switch focus to other characters, and by the time we get back to these two, they’ve already completed the bulk of the task. The entire anime is like this, jumping from important plot point to important plot point, throwing away almost all of the mood and complexity of the source material to get through the story as quickly as possible.
The mystery element of the story, which gave the game it’s celebrated sense of intrigue, isn’t slowly revealed as each piece is discovered… Which I do believe they could have accomplished with an extra episode and a clever rewrite. Instead, the entire backstory is dumped on you through exposition towards the end, and it grinds the story to a halt faster than the third act of the first Silent Hill movie. It tells the backstory completely… Or at least I think it does… And they do kind of manage to tell it organically through the characters and their discoveries, and while I have to give them some credit for that, it doesn’t stop the sequence from feeling like I’m reading it out of a text book, and it spoils any feeling of immersion it may have had because of this.
The characters also suffer, and not just in the literal sense. With all of their development and background information glossed over, they’re simplified down to the barest of possible tropes… You’ve got the class rep, the gropy lesbian, the genki girl, the obsessive fanboy, the blonde punk, the overly-attached idealized loli, the blank slate protagonist, etc. It’s very difficult to become attached to any of these characters, which causes their occasional demises to lose a lot of the emotional impact that they should have had. There are so many details I didn’t hear until after the fact that would have made so much more sense had I heard them in the show. Apparently, two of the female character were competitively in love with the male protagonist. Apparently, one of them was his childhood friend. Apparently, this whole ritual was performed to strengthen this group’s friendship because one of them was about to move away. I should have known these things!
Hell, as little as I know of the game, maybe some of the obvious plot holes make more sense in it. It’s stated that when you die in Heavenly Host, your existence is completely erased from the real world, which makes no sense, because the entire reason they tried this ritual is because of the blog entries of a girl who was already killed and trapped there. Her blog should have never existed, right? And I’m not going to throw out any serious spoilers, but what was up with that twist at the end? What’s the logic behind that one? Is any of this explained in the actual game?
Now after all that bitching, you’re probably expecting me to say that this show is awful, and that it’s a poorly executed gore fest that doesn’t deserve any of your time or attention. And in some ways, I guess that’s true… So why do I like this show so much? Why do I derive so much guilty pleasure out of what is so obviously a trainwreck? To explain what Corpse Party does right, I’m going to have to compare it to another horror anime that I reviewed last week, Another.
These two shows have very similar plots. They both take place in haunted schools where a bunch of unfortunate students are being ruthlessly killed off by a curse. The differences, however, are vast. The ghost in Another feels more like a sadistic mob boss than a vengeful spirit, while in Corpse Party, the ghosts are far more firmly defined and straightforward. In Another, it’s hard to ignore the many ways that the curse could have possibly been broken, while in Corpse Party, the situation really does feel hopeless. In Another, one of the characters has a power that she refuses to take advantage of until at least eight more people have died, but in Corpse Party, you can tell the characters are doing whatever they can to get home. Also, unlike Another, Corpse Party doesn’t try too hard to look spookier than it is by arbitrarily making one of it’s characters obsessed with Gothic things.
In Another, the body count seems to have an ulterior motive running contrary to the established tone of the series. There’s a huge body count, but none of the deaths feel scary, as they’re either plot related, included for spectacle, or… Well, I didn’t really talk about this in my review of the series, but a lot of the female deaths are sexually suggestive in nature, as most of the girls are killed through penetration, strangulation, and one of them lands in a sexual position after falling from a window. It feels more like a sexually repressed revenge fantasy, with the ghost serving as a self-insert character, rather than a genuine horror title.
Corpse Party doesn’t have that problem. It’s difficult to get attached to the characters, so their deaths aren’t going to break your heart, but they’re still framed and executed in terrifying ways, feeling exactly as horrifying and nauseating as they were meant to. Even if you don’t care whether or not the characters live, you still feel the pain and terror that they feel. The deaths aren’t played over-the-top for spectacle, neither are they sexualized, save for one or two incidental panty shots. Yes, there’s stabbings and strangulation, but the way they’re presented is so gruesome and gritty that even the most hardcore gore-porn addicts wouldn’t be aroused by them. In this way, Corpse Party succeeds in the most basic of ways… It’s genuinely scary. The pacing, while bad, still allows for suspense, which makes the inevitable splatters all the more crushing, even though it feels kind of cathartic to see so many annoying archetypes killed. Either way, no death ever feels hollow or pointless to the narrative.
But I think the main reason I like it so much is because it’s the perfect Japanese equivalent of a slasher film. The vast majority of those kinds of movies aren’t good by any means, but they’re still so fun, gory and cheesy with no pretensions of being anything more that they’re a blast to watch on a dark and stormy night, whether you’re alone or with friends. At only two hours long, it doesn’t waste any time between scares, making it the absolute best anime to watch on Halloween. I’ve always loved gory horror films that are perfectly fine with people seeing them for exactly what they are, and Corpse Party makes me nostalgic for the days when I was a teenager, watching grindhouse horror movies at my friends houses while my over-protective parents didn’t know about it. I get that it won’t have that value with most viewers, but it has it with me, and that’s what counts.
Corpse Party: Tortured Souls is not yet available from Discotek Media, but it will be released in both blu-ray and DVD format in January of next year. The mangas and light novels have not been officially translated, although it is possible to play a subbed version of the original game online. Neither this OVA series nor the abysmal eleven minute one that preceded it have been picked up for US distribution, although it is possible to watch both of them for free on youtube. Malayasian bootlegs exist on Ebay, but… Well, you know how those things are. Proceed with caution.
I normally wouldn’t like the fact that a show was as unavailable as this one is, but in all honesty, that scarcity actually works in it’s favor, making it feel even more like a back-alley bootleg of a show that you’re not supposed to be watching. That appeal is limited, however, and I can’t justify giving it credit just on the merit of my own guilty pleasure… It’s a train wreck, frankly, and while the many things it does wrong do prevent me from giving it any kind of firm recommendation, the few things it does right are important enough to save it from being completely unwatchable. I give Corpse Party: Tortured Souls a 4/10.