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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Haunted Junction: There's a Review on the Grounds! All Readers on the Double!! WELCOME!!!

Two years ago, I decided to make the entire month of October all about horror, minus the first post (which was conceptually a carryover from September). Well, this year I'm in the same situation, where the first post was originally planned for the month prior, but wound up being an early October piece. Therefore, let's just do a repeat of 2014 & make the rest of this month all about the eerie & mystic. Unlike usual, though, we'll be starting things off with the mirror image of what one assume when things like monsters, ghosts, & things that go "bump" in the night is thought of. Instead, let's start with some levity.

The hiragana used for "Junction" actually looks
a little like the word would in English. Nice touch.

Back in 2012, I did an overview of the early days of modern late-night anime (i.e. treating TV anime like infomercials for the upcoming home video release), and one of the earliest proponents of this method of producing & airing anime was Studio DEEN. The studio's first Eat-Man anime from 1997 was the second-ever modern-day late-night anime, following Group TAC's Those Who Hunt Elves, and DEEN would follow that up with a bunch of early anime made for those wee hours of the night, with Next Senki Ehrgeiz, Don't Leave Me Alone, Daisy, Shadow Skill, AWOL -Absent WithOut Leave-, Eat-Man '98, & the studio's various output for TBS' Wonderful time slot (Iketeru Futari, Let's Dance With Papa, Nippon-ichi no Otoko no Tamashii, Momoiru Sisters); one could even count 1996-1997's Violinist of Hameln, which felt like a late-night anime. In fact, minus Rurouni Kenshin (which DEEN took over from Studio Gallop for the much-maligned final third), some assistance work & two OVAs, Studio DEEN's entire 1997 & 1998 output was put towards late-night anime. I did leave one anime out of this list, though, & that's where this review comes in...

When it came to where the material for a lot of this early late-night anime came from, one of the sources was MediaWorks' now-defunct Monthly Dengeki Comic GAO!. This is the same for Nemu Mukudori's Haunted Junction, which ran for 13 volumes from 1996-2001. This manga is generally considered Mukudori's most iconic, so its no surprise that it received a late-night TV anime adaptation during the Spring of 1997 by Studio DEEN. Interestingly enough, the anime still remains without a DVD release in Japan (VHS & LD only over there), but when it was picked up by for North American release, it not only received a full VHS release in 1999 (half of which was positively reviewed by ANN way back when), but also found itself a sub-only DVD boxset when the company was renamed Bandai Entertainment in 2000. Nowadays, Haunted Junction is a highly forgotten anime from a time when DVD was just starting to gain prominence (hence why we got a DVD, while Japan has yet), but the few who do remember it seem to look back on it fondly. That's why, as someone who got into anime years after its last release, I want to see if this is a lost gem that should be given a new release over here (or even in Japan), or if it's been forgotten for good reason.

Saito High in Tokyo is like most schools, except for one little difference: It's filled to the brim with all manner of spirits & the occult. In fact, even Chairman Tatsugoro Saito himself is a ghost! In order to keep these spirits in line & not interfere too much with the school's everyday operations, Saito High has the Holy Student Council, which is made up of three students who all come from a different spiritual belief. Unfortunately, the current Holy Student Council isn't exactly the most ideal. The President, Haruto Houjo, is the son of a minister who wants nothing but a normal, boring school life & would easily resign & transfer to a different school if it wasn't for the fact that Saito High is so looked down upon that no other school would take him in. Kazumi Ryudo is a monk-in-training who has a bad habit of being possessed by any nearby spirit, & has an extreme love & fixation on any & all Hanako, i.e. toilet spirits. Finally, Mutsuki Asahina is a shinto priestess who can exorcise anyone, though it's usually violent & for a fee, but is also a massive shotacon, i.e. she loves little boys (especially if she can get one into a pair of shorts).

Haunted Junction is not an anime that's meant to be scary in the very least, but rather has fun with the various ghosts, myths, & legends Japan has accumulated in its history. This is most evident via the main school spirits that Haruto can summon for help via the seven badges he wears at all times. There's the previously mentioned Toilet Hanako, the similar Red Manto/Mantle, a living, child-like Ninomiya Santoku statue called Nino, a nameless "Mirror Girl" (i.e. a little girl who lives in a floating mirror), a proclaimed "Dancing Giant" (though we only ever see his feet & lower legs), the useless pair of Haruo Sato & Bones Suzuki (a living anatomical model with removable organs & a skeleton, respectively), & finally the Chairman himself. Unlike most anime & manga that deal with the Japanese occult, these are all school-related, which helps give the series a relatively identifiable look & feel compared to most others. Being a comedy, though, these spirits are also poked fun at, but let's get to the main characters first.

Before Boku no Pico... There was Mutsuki Asahina.

The Holy Student Council is obviously the main focus of the anime, and the main source of a lot of the comedy. While not always proclaiming it out loud, Haruto makes it obvious in most episodes that he really doesn't want to be the President that has to deal with all of the crazy things that keep happening to him & his friends. At the same time, though, his good nature keeps him in the club, since he's always ready & willing to help & keeps things safe in & around the school; not really having any real way out is another reason, though. Oddly enough, both Haruto & Kazumi are more or less treated as the butt monkeys of the group, though Kazumi is definitely the bigger victim in this regard. His knack for being possessed winds up with him being taken over by random animals on occasion, usually rendering him useless (& often beaten up by Asahina), while his libido is often the very bane of his existence, especially when Hanako is in front of him. At least he's always happy & chipper, not to mention the quickest to react to whatever's happening.

Probably the most interesting & nontraditional of the trio, though, would be Asahina, mainly due to her status as a shotacon. While Kazumi definitely is helpless to Hanako & other pretty girls, the real horndog of the anime is Asahina. Anytime a little boy is in front of her, she completely falls apart in order to keep the child happy, and just the thought of little boys being potentially in front of her can make her drool feverishly. This ends up making Nino the common victim of Asahina's obsession, even making him into her whipping boy as early as episode 2, when she winds up taking a photo of Nino's "package" & holds it as blackmail. Considering how rarely the "Shotaro complex" is used in anime, this makes Haunted Junction's portrayal of it one that will likely bring about a mixed reaction, depending on the viewer. Some may find the almost predatory Asahina to be somewhat uncomfortable, to say the least, while others will find it amusing in how it's a female who's taking up a mantle almost exclusively reserved for males in anime. Personally, while it is pretty awkward that she's only about little boys, which means that she'll likely never have a permanent mate (barring Nino, but then would that be necrophilia?), I do find her crazed antics intensely amusing in how different it is from the usual; even today, she's kind of a breath of (odd) fresh air.

As for the story itself, the anime does apparently change slightly in execution when compared to the manga, though I can only go off of hearsay due to a lack of translation for the manga (only three chapters were scanlated over half a decade ago). In particular, aside from removing some characters (like a living painting of Beethoven that cried tears of blood), the overarching plotline that slowly developed was ignored, making this an episodic series rather than a serialized one. Some of the Holy Student Council's escapades include dealing with a potential demon invasion after an earthquake messes with the seal that kept them at bay, rescuing Nino from a mad onmyoji who wants to gather 1,000 Santoku statues in order to gain absolute knowledge, helping a recently deceased girl who only wanted to spend one last night with her local rockstar boyfriend, having to protect the school from the come-to-life manga characters of an aspiring mangaka Saito student who died, & dealing with a Teke Teke who's causing trouble at a local elementary school (yes, Asahina tries to have a field day at that school), all of which mix together comedy with just enough seriousness to give everything a sense of importance. There are even a couple of episodes that deal with the backstories of the helpful school spirits, like Hanako's (forgotten) rivalry with Yamiko over who's the more attractive toilet spirit, or Red Mantle's little sister Blue Hanten wanting to see what her big brother is hiding behind his mask. While there was apparently some removal from the manga, I'm sure the stories told in the anime itself are adaptations for the most part, minus probably the finale, which is a two-part story involving the Board of Education's personal exorcist, Nanjo. Considering how "deadly" serious episode 11 goes in the second half, I doubt it was a story that was in Mukudori's manga.

As for the comedy itself, Haunted Junction isn't above using some toilet humor (& not just because of Hanako or Red Mantle), but also isn't above poking fun at itself & its characters. The main characters often point out each other's flaws & weaknesses, Haruto's general meekness makes him fall prey to (usually accidental) physical abuse at many points, Asahina is constantly ready & willing to beat up her friends at almost any moment if deemed necessary, & the Chairman usually points out vital information on a situation after its usefulness has passed, to give some examples. It also has no qualms at taking jabs at its very genre, like explaining in the first episode that Holy Student Council members get school credit without ever having to attend classes, instantly explaining away why Haruto, Kazumi, & Asahina are almost never shown learning (all to Haruto's sadness) & also poking fun at how many anime starring students almost never show them actually learning anything. At the same time, though, the series is very consistent with its own lore & previous jokes. For example, I started questioning why something happened in the last story, especially after episode 1 made a joke about a similar situation, but the final episode does give an bye to it; even better is that the episode doesn't actually state it, but instead you realize it yourself. In the end, the anime is mostly comedy above anything else, but doesn't sacrifice anything else because of that.

For such an oddball show, it gets legit freaky at points.

This show was an early directorial effort from Yuji Mutoh, a man who would go on to direct a very mixed catalog, including Corrector Yui (generally liked), Green Green (generally hated), Arcade Gamer Fubuki (generally abhorred), & Tonari no Seki-kun (generally beloved). Haunted Junction, luckily, is on Mutoh's good side, and though the limited animation is obvious & expected for an early late-night anime, the show still looks & executes very well to this day. In fact, even Bandai's DVD set holds up rather technically. It might be because I watched this on my PS4 (which likely upscales), and maybe Bandai had access to at least the LD masters, but the video quality on these DVDs are still really damn good for an anime that's never been remastered. The writing was essentially only done by the show's two head writers, Satoru Nishizono (Digimon Adventure, Welcome to the NHK) & Kazuhisa Sakaguchi (Midori Days), minus one episode (the one with Teke Teke) that was written by Hiroshi Hashimoto (Ninku, Ghost Stories), which likely is what helped keep the show as consistent in tone & wit. The character designs by Atsuko Nakajima (Ranma 1/2, Violinist of Hameln) are overall excellent, being both good adaptations of Nemu Mukudori's original drawing style & really appealing in general, making the show not age quite as much as you'd think it would; there's good reason why Bandai really pushed Nakajima's involvement in advertisements back then.

The music by Hayato Matsuo (JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood [TV], Keijo!!!!!!!!) only makes the occasional appearance, but fits the mood well every time, whether it's a more subdued & ghastly track or a more exciting & upbeat song. The opening & ending themes are both performed by Yukie Nakama, who was 18 at the time & obviously needed the promotion; luckily, her songs are great. Opener "Kokoro ni Watashi ga Futari Iru" is an outstanding pop/rock song that fits the show better from a sound perspective, but the lyrics about being unsure about love kind of fit Haruto's feelings about Saito High & the school spirits to an extent, too. Closer "Tremolo" is your more standard pop fare, but works just fine as a way to wind down after an episode ends, and the original artwork by Mukudori that scrolls along on the side is cool. Finally, there are two neat bits of trivia hidden within the staff, too. Episodes 2 & 6 were storyboarded by comedy anime great Akitaro Daichi, & you can actually tell if you watch them while knowing this, and the anime itself is one of the few that featured legendary voice actor Shigeru Chiba (Pilaf in Dragon Ball, Buggy in One Piece) as sound director; yes, Chiba does more than just act! Oddly enough, just a year prior to Haunted Junction, Daichi had directed the anime movie Toilet no Hanako-san, which is an amusing coincidence.

Haruto will do anything to attend class....

Finally, the cast in Haunted Junction is also top-notch. Haruto is voiced by Katsuaki Arima (Ichijou in Hareluya II BØY, Ken Ando in Cybuster), with this being his first lead role in anime; he now goes by the name Yusei Oda (Kengo Miyazawa in Little Busters!). Arima takes full command as the main character, delivering a wide range of emotions that fit Haruto to the (sometimes) overemotional character he is. It's kind of a shame that Arima/Oda never really became a bigger name in the industry, because I've generally enjoyed any role I can identify him in. Kazumi is performed by Shinnosuke Furumoto (Carrot in Sorcerer Hunters, Hiro Kunimi in H2), who handles the character with a madcap vocal insanity that honestly fits Kazumi extremely well. Asahina is one of the extremely few anime roles that Yukie Nakama (Lapis Lazuli in Nadesico: Prince of Darkness, Sawako in Giovanni's Island) has had in her career, and the only one that she also did songs for. Being young & inexperienced (at the time), not to mention mainly a live-action actor, Nakama's performance has that different cadence that I've always brought up whenever a non-voice actor is used in an anime, but at the same time she manages to deliver a great performance, and she finds a nice groove after a couple of episodes. Chairman Saito was voiced by the late Takeshi Aono (Kami in Dragon Ball, Osman in The Familiar of Zero), who delivers another madcap & energetic performance, similar to Furumoto, only slightly more sane. The rest of the major cast features the likes of Yuri Shiratori (Nino), Mariko Kouda (Hanako), & Ryotaro Okiayu (Red Mantle), with guest performances by the likes of Ikue Ohtani (Teke Teke), Toshihiko Seki (Haruto's Father), & Kyoko Hikami (Blue Hanten).

The early days of modern late-night anime were a true test bed for what kind of stories could be told via animation on Japanese television. You could make a mech anime that didn't have any sort of toy tie-in, tell the story of people who literally strip elves down to their underwear for plot reasons, be as inaccurate to a source manga as possible, regale the tale of a love-blinded stalker (I'll get to this one one day...), or even feature a downright demanding shotacon as one of your main characters. Obviously, Haunted Junction is the one that features the very last one I listed, but while that may be one of its most infamous aspects, the anime itself is an always entertaining comedy series that has just enough to be completely different from the crowd, even today. The mix of three different beliefs (Christianity, Buddhism, & Shinto) for the main characters is neat (though likely played up more in the manga), & the use of more Japanese urban legends instead of the usual yokai is an interesting change of pace, but what really makes this show so great are the instantly memorable characters, the varied antics that they get into each episode, the comedy that's always on-point & sometimes wild, and simply really good writing; having an excellent OP is just the cherry on top, personally. I can see why, though few in number, the people who remember Haunted Junction from the time when it came out in North America do so fondly, and it's yet just another instance where I'm just dumbfounded why a quality anime like this doesn't even have a remastered release in Japan. Ideally, all anime ever made should have some sort of DVD or Blu-Ray release in its home country, but even realistically there are just too many that remain VHS & LD-exclusive; hell, some don't even have the luxury of laserdisc.

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