The experience of watching Hoozuki no Reitetsu is quite unlike any other anime comedy – or anime – I can remember. In a way I’m reminded of the old adage that 75% of communication is nonverbal, except that in the case of Hoozuki the missing 25% is context. I lack it, not having grown up immersed in Japanese culture, yet I still find the series funny and enormously pleasing even when I don’t get the specifics of the reference. Just how the heck is that possible?
I think we have to start with the subbing, the doing of which is also unlike any other anime I’ve blogged. CR is doing an amazing job here, not least because that job is so difficult. How do you try and get an English audience to understand a joke that’s dependent on cultural awareness and Japanese wordplay? I think the way they chose to translate the “Kachi-kachi Yama” story is a good example of how they’re walking the tightrope between faithfulness and conextualizing – normally I loathe it when subbers do something like translate “tanuki” as “badger”. But it totally works here, because badger represents something of the same anthropomorphic imagery in English that tanuki does in Japanese – and it even allows them to slip in the brutal but admirable “we don’t need no stinking badgers” pun.
The other reason I think this series works as well as it does is that it offers elements that are so universal (like Shirou chasing his tail) along with the Ph.D level Japanese mythology, and that it masters the art of atmosphere. The dialogue has a great rhythm to it, the seiyuu cast is excellent and cute is cute in any language. Every episode (the premiere less than the following three) has offered a kind of pincer-attack approach, with high and lowbrow comedy working hand-in-hand to achieve the common goal. This also happens to be one of the best-looking series of the season, which makes a big difference in creating that atmosphere.
It so happens that I do possess a bit of knowledge about both legends that were referenced this week. The first is that of Minamoto Yoshitsune, one of the more beloved figures in Japanese folklore. He hails from a critical point in Japanese history, the great Genpei war between the Taira and Minamoto clans, and was one of the main characters in Tale of the Heike. Eventually his brother Yoritomo – with whom he fought the Taira after having been separated from each other in exile since Yoshitsune’s birth – turned against him and he was forced to commit seppuku along with his wife and child. Here’s he’s shown as a delicate bishounen and played by Kaji Yuuki (I guess this really is Hell), who’s an officer in the Tengu Police Force. There are some great moments in this sketch, like the two ghost carriage-taxis, one of whom compares himself to the Catbus (this series has a big Ghibli fetish) and the ghost lantern inside one of them who’s still “carrying a torch for an old flame” (again – great work here with the translation).
The other tale at the center of the episode is the aforementioned “Kachi-kachi Yama“, which I believe I first learned about through the anime “Folktales From Japan” – which I admit I haven’t watched in at least a year (believe it or not, that show would be a good primer for this one). I also think it was a lesson in one of my Japanese classes, of I’m not mistaken. This is one grim tale – a tanuki kills an old woman and feeds her to her husband (while shapeshifted into her form), and a rabbit takes grisly and brutal revenge against him.
As I mentioned, I think the decision to go with “badger” here was a very good one. And it makes perfect sense that Hoozuki should use the rabbit (Tanezaki Atsumi, so great as Natsume in Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) as an example for the demons in Hell, some of them are a bit lax in their pummelling of the damned. This whole chapter was pure genius for me, from the notion of oni continuing education to the background scenes of torture to the depictions of the various types of Hell, but especially that psychotic bunny. She gets distracted from her lecture about morals and discipline by a leaf, and then invites the audience to dine on her poo. She also carries a little notebook with “Damn you, Badger!” written in it hundreds of times, The Shining-style. It ends with the class handing in reports about their day, one of them (I’m betting on Nasubi) offering up a paper animation of the rabbit transforming into a rage-consumed beast – but stopping before she gets to the good stuff. “He needs to work on doing his job”, Hoozuki opines, “and his punchlines.”