A funny thing happened on the way to this series being hopelessly obscure – “so far under the radar it might end up on a milk carton”, as I put it in my First Impressions post. Turns out in Japan at least, Hoozuki no Reitetsu is pretty popular. The latest manga volume is at about 200,000 after two weeks, and the first jumped back onto the list after the premiere at is at almost 400,000. Even more surprising, it isn’t doing half badly on the early stalker points chart – indicating that surprising numbers of Japanese may buy this show on disc.
Make no mistake, I still expect this show to have almost no following in English. It’s streamed but the manga isn’t licensed (though Sentai Filmworks did license the anime, oddly enough), and it’s hardly an easy sell for a Western viewer. But it’s interesting to speculate on who the Japanese audience for this series is. Perhaps fujoshi? This lists as a Seinen but then, so did the series I suspect might be its closest commercial analog – Shirokuma Cafe. And in terms of hard genre classifications there really isn’t a “Fujoshi” category – popular titles here tend to be either shounen like Kurobas or Free! and seinen shows like Shirokuma. Nasubi and Karauri are cute, it has kawaii animals like Shirou and maybe Hoozuki himself has his share of fans. Either that, or it’s just literary types and such – and historically, while this group sometimes buys manga they very rarely buy anime (though they do watch it).
I’m completely caught up in the atmosphere of the series, but there’s a frustration factor in realizing just how much context I’m missing out on with some of the humor. It was far less true in last week’s more mainstream effort, but this ep was more like the premiere – heavy on the Buddhism and folklore references and extremely esoteric. That said it manages to work in some lowbrow gags and pop culture references – like Rurio the Rooster (Matsuyama Takashi) comparing Shirou to an American sitcom dog and Hakutaku (Yusa Kouji) repeatedly calling Hoozuki a “Ghibli freak”. This high-low comedy combo is a powerhouse when it’s in the right hands, and I suspect it’s in the right hands here (even if some of the highbrow stuff goes over my head).
Much of the episode focuses on Hakutaku – the Chinese mythical beast Bai Ze, here reimagined as a bishounen who runs the apothecary business in Shangri La. Turns out there’s a long history of Enma-ty (sorry) between these two, dating back to a bet made when both were judges in the “Friendship Games” between Japan and China a thousand years ago. The bet itself hinged on the bust size of the next woman to emerge from the bathroom – the dispute over whether the big-bosomed youkai who appeared first was male or female (turns out the correct answer was transgendered). Hakutaku is a real player, a womanizing sweet talker, and being told he looks just like him (in truth, I don’t see that much resemblance) is the one thing that can make Mr. Cool (Reitetsu literally means “cool-headedness”) Hoozuki lose his cool.
That’s all told in flashback, but we also get a chapter where Shirou (who really is pretty damn cute, and Kobayashi Yumiko is one of the best at playing cute whether it be girls, boys or animals) needs to go to Shangri-La to get a Peach of Immortality for his boss’ wedding present. That means waking up Hoozuki, who doesn’t take kindly to being woken up (but also doesn’t hurt animals). He’s just pulled an all-nighter – turns out he was digging a pit trap for Hakutaku – and Enma has given him the day off, though he thinks nothing of giving Shirou and his animal pals the OK to barge into his room and wake him. It’s here here we get the sitcom dog reference (“Hey John, please!”) and Shirou’s outraged protestations that he’d never drink out of a toilet like those canine idiots. When they arrive in Shangri-La – which mythically exists where Japan and China come together – Shirou’s first question is “Do they have shoronpo tabihoudai (all-you-can-eat steamed buns)?” This is also where we catch up to Momotarou, who really seems to have taken to his peaceful new existence picking peaches for Bai Ze.
I’m not always pleased with the job translators for the big streaming sites do with anime, but I really think Crunchyroll is doing yeoman’s work here – this can’t be an easy series to subtitle, and I’m amazed at how well they’re managing to convey the essence of what’s being said while maintaining the integrity of the original dialogue. Hoozuki no Reitetsu almost feels like a survey course in Japanese culture and comedy sometimes, and while I know the knee-jerk reaction to that is negative – it is for me too – somehow I’m really enjoying it with this series. And the fact is, Hoozuki is genuinely very funny indeed when I actually get the jokes. I think watching this show really gives one a better sense of the Japanese sense of humor while being very entertaining and visually interesting at the same time, and for me at least that’s definitely a winning combination.