My Review of Ghost Stories

Satsuki Miyanoshita has just moved with her father and little brother to a new town in order to deal with the death of her beloved mother. She’s a very strong little girl who has taken over many of her mother’s chores and provides endless emotional support for her much more frail little brother, Keiichiro. On her first day at her new school, she catches Keiichiro trying to sneak their cat into class with him. Little Kaya bolts from them, leading them all the way to the campus’s abandoned old school house, where they, two of her classmates, and an older girl looking for her hat get locked in together.

In their struggle to escape the haunted halls of this eerie Elementary School, they’re attacked by several spirits, including an angry rampaging demon named Omanujaku. But before he’s able to lay a satanic smackdown on them, Satsuki finds an old notebook that was written by her deceased mother, and it tells her how to bind Omanujaku’s spirit for good… Inside of their cat! Thus their new school life begins with a possessed talking cat, a menagerie of monsters who’ve just had their resting place disturbed, and a notebook that mysteriously ties their late mother to the recently released spirits that are now haunting the town. Can Satsuki, Keiichiro and their new friends finish what her mother started… Or will they be joining her sooner than they think?

I’ve already spoken in detail about Studio Pierrot back in my Twelve Kingdoms review, so I won’t bore you with those details again… I did mention that they’ve done some impressive looking work, but sadly, Ghost Stories is not one of them. It’s not the most poorly animated show I’ve ever seen, but it’s by far one of the cheapest. This is more evident in the characters than it is in the often impressive backgrounds, but the date it came out is showcased in painfully blatant ways. The dawn of the new millennium was an awkward time for a lot of animation studios, and Pierrot is no exception.

Movement in this series is minimal, and what movement it does feature is often stiff and jumpy. That’s not to say it never impresses, because there are several moments that clearly had more money poured into them than others, and a lot of those moments involve the ghosts and demons that keep coming back for each episode. But it’s biggest enemy by far is the pause button. The characters aren’t very well drawn, and there are far too many moments that a single freeze-frame will result in an image that’s far below what you might call professional standards. It’s not as noticeable when they’re moving, but the derpy faces, weird outlines, constant still frames, and awkward jerky movements make Ghost Stories look less like an actual anime and more like a cheap bootleg of said anime.

The music is better, to be sure, but it’s still about average fair for this kind of series. It does it’s job well, hitting whatever notes it needs to between standard slice of life whimsy, creepy strings underlying tension and suspense, and big dramatic stings for the bigger payoffs. It’s pretty good in general, but there’s nothing about it that’s really standout or memorable. Which is kind of the point, anyway. The opening is a lot more fun, and while I wouldn’t insist upon watching it all the way through every time, as it’s plagued by the show’s animation woes, Grow Up is still a pretty damn catchy song by Hysteric Blue, and the video at least manages to keep pace with it. The ending theme, on the other hand… Well, it’s not bad, and it fits the show tonally, I still find it really odd that a song called Sexy Sexy would be attached to a show who’s cast is dominated by elementary school children.

So, when this show was airing in Japan, it was released to an underwhelming, mediocre reception. In short, it was a huge flop, to the point that they weren’t even able to go 26 episodes… They had to cut off early, officially ending the series with episode 20. They lost so much money on it than when ADV Films showed an interest in dubbing it for the states… Because, let’s face it, ADV in it’s prime would dub pretty much anything… Aniplex gave them a simple mandate; Do whatever the hell you want with it. They gave ADV complete creative control, with the only limits being that they couldn’t change the character’s names too much and the ghost’s backstories(Most of which were tied directly to Japanese mythology) had to remain intact. They had already given up on making a profit off of this series, and wanted nothing more than to minimize the damage it had caused to them, and they had hopes that a popular American release could help to recoup their losses.

ADV handed this project to Steven Foster, who’s recently become notorious for his awful writing and complete lack of respect for a lot of the material he’s been given. In particular, the rampant backlash that emerged from his nigh-unlistenable Clannad dub has followed him like an angry spirit all the way to his sour grape flavored exit from the dub directing business. While he’s always had a penchant for writing characters unfaithfully and making them as hateful and offensive as possible, with no understanding whatsoever about how real humans talk to each other, and that certainly sounds like a description of the Ghost stories dub… You really can’t blame him for this one. He may have laid down a few guidelines, but for the most part, he told the actors in his cast to ad-lib their lines and make it as funny and offensive as possible. How’d they do?

Well, as this is intended to be a comedic dub, I guess I should judge it from that perspective. There are generally three categories that the humor in this show falls into. The first category is called Pop Culture References. There are tons of them in this dub, and the names they drop range from high profile Hollywood celebrities to political figures to… Well, even the voice actors themselves, in some cases. Unfortunately, very few of these references are actually funny, and they’re pretty much thrown out at random without any regard for whether or not it’s called for or makes any sense. It’s kind of like watching a version of Family Guy, except that instead of using the references to set up cut-away gags, the references just sort of linger there, leaving the viewer to wonder what the point of them was. They can also be incredibly dated, as they throw out several references to Christian Slater’s career being dead, and they even make a joke about Supermarket Sweep at one point… Which was a dated reference even then!

The second category is the offensive humor, and no, nothing is sacred here. Every race is insulted in some way throughout the twenty episode run, and every religion takes just as hard a shot. Racial stereotypes are the norm here, and to make matters worse, they’re the same tired stereotypes you’ve heard before. Black people are violent rapists, Latinos are lazy, Asian people all look the same… It’s like they all took a class called “Intro to racism” before going to work. And yeah, it’s oddly nonsensical for this cast of Asian characters to insult the Asian race, but you could say it was done for the sake of irony… If it wasn’t for the fact that an anti-Asian joke also appeared in Foster’s High School of the Dead dub, and also for the fact that white people are troublingly untouched in this series, celebrity references aside. Homosexuality is also viciously mocked, and while the racism and homophobia wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it was funny… It’s not, it just sounds forced, on a note of ‘let’s see what we can get away with!’

The final category is bit more difficult to define, but it’s basically all of the plot and character relevant material, and thank God, this part of the show is much more funny than the other two categories. Most of the characters were rewritten for this dub, and the interactions between them and their retooled personalities are where the most effective humor is truly derived. The strong and supportive Satuski has been turned into a spunky, manipulative girl who’s obsessed with her physical appearance and constantly mocks her younger brother, who’s been transformed into a mentally challenged mush-mouth. Hajime has been transformed into a smart-ass ladies man, his best friend Leo has been turned into a penny-pinching Jewish boy with an inferiority complex, and Momoko… The psychic of the group who was only there to look pretty and occasionally channel the soul of Satsuki’s mother… Has been transformed into a bible-thumping extremist christian. The dynamic that these characters have, and the jokes that flow between them, are what really makes this dub as hilarious as it’s been hyped up to be.

So if the humor in this show is only funny about a third of the time, then why am I recommending it over the sub? Because the acting is fan-freaking-tastic. You can say whatever you want about Steven Foster’s writing abilities… And you totally should, because he deserves every word of criticism he gets… But when it comes to casting, the man was a genius. He’s always had a talented pool of actors working under him, and even in his most poorly written projects, you could always count on the dub being, at the very least, well acted. The voice actors attached to this show were clearly refreshed and inspired by the rare opportunity to go nuts and make up their own dialogue, because the energy and enthusiasm that went into their performances is astounding.

The main cast is great, but of course they are… When you have a cast consisting of Hilary Haag, Monica Rial, Greg Ayres, Chris Patton, and Christine Auten, OF COURSE you’re going to have a great sounding dub. Throw in professional comedian Rob Mungle, and it becomes painfully obvious how Aniplex was able to make their money back. All six of these people, on their own, are used to being the stars of their dubs, and they’re all together here. And it’s not just them, every single supporting actor that shows up, no matter, how much screen time they get, is just as good… With the exception of Blake Shepherd, of course, but his role is so blissfully ironic that it’s more than excusable.

Even in a dub that’s universally well-acted, I still have to give special props to possible human Mimic Brittney Karbowski, who brings a quiet animal-loving girl from Satsuki’s class and turns her into a creepy weirdo with bizarre, terrifying mood swings. I’ve raved about her before, and it’s easy to see why she’s currently one of the most in-demand voice actresses. Oh, and before move on, one more note about the dub… It’s really weird about it’s use of foul language. In the first few volumes, there was barely any F-bombs or S-bombs, and they relied on silly phrases like “fizzity-uck” instead. Then they spent a few volumes bleep-swearing, before finally moving on to actual cursing in the final volume. I mean, the change-over literally took place in the space of a single episode, which contained a censored shit and an uncensored fuck. Which is really weird. Either way, fizzity-uck is now one of my favorite words.

Now, you may be wondering… Why did I spend so much time talking about the dub? Well, it’s because the dub is really the only interesting thing about this series. And I’m not exaggerating, either. There’s a good reason this show was such a huge disappointment for the company that put it out, and if it wasn’t for the English dub, it probably would have been forgotten by everyone within a year of it’s final episode. I’ve seen plenty of ‘monster/ghost of the week’ type anime, and with the dub turned off, this is by far the most generic, uninspired one I’ve come across yet. The characters have little to no personality and absolutely no development, aside from the abrupt development that Omanujaku goes through towards the end. Every episode follows the same pacing and structure, even in the case of the episodes that DON’T involve the old school house.

Does that mean it was awful? No… At least, I don’t think so. It’s coherent, consistent, and it’s not the worst waste of time if you like the genre. But even then, it really doesn’t do anything that more successful titles haven’t done a lot better. you’d have to be really patient with it in order to not consider it boring, which would be fine if it was deep or profound enough to deserve that patience. Sadly, it isn’t. And it doesn’t even really make a good children’s show, what with the occasional blood and frequent panty shots that it features… At least not for American children.

Ghost Stories was originally available from ADV Films, who were releasing it on individual four-episode DVDs, but following it’s crash a few years ago, the title was picked up by Discotek media, who released it on a much cheaper thin-pack format. You can find it on their website for 34.95, or on amazon.com for just 29.99. You can also watch the entire series for free on youtube, but then again, there’s no telling when a sudden copyright claim will result in it being taken down. The original novels by Toru Tsunemitsu are not available stateside.

Ghost Stories has a really strange production history, which is mostly due to some very unique circumstances that have never happened before and will probably never happen again. An all-around underachiever in it’s original context, the only really interesting thing about it is it’s English dub, which is the only reason that it still retains any hint of relevancy in today’s market. Unfortunately, that dub is remarkably immature, sporting the lowest of the lowbrow, and while it may be worth a few good chuckles now and then, it can only truly win the hearts of that lowest-common-denominator fanbase that’s been keeping Family Guy alive since it’s season 4 revival. Yes, I know it was almost entirely ad-libbed, and there’s a certain novelty to hearing our favorite voice actors cut loose and leave it all on the table, but the end result is hit-or-miss at best. I don’t usually take the English dub into account when deciding on a final score for a review, but in this case, I don’t think I really have a choice in the matter. I give Ghost Stories a 5/10.  

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