The last series review post of the Winter is for arguably its best series. For me it was pretty much a photo-finish between Space Dandy and Hoozuki no Reitetsu as the outstanding new series of the season, close enough to effectively be a draw. Neither one was what I would call a truly great show – a testament to the overall weakness of the season – though at their best they were both inspired and brilliant. If there was one genre that thrived in Winter 2014, it was comedy – and these two series were right at the head of the pack.
Comedies are usually among the more difficult anime to blog, and Hoozuki no Reitetsu was certainly no exception. What does set it apart it its huge dose of very culture-specific Japanese humor, which makes the show both easier and harder to write about, for different reasons. To pigeonhole Hoozuki as a literary satire would be selling it short, though, because like all the great highbrow comedies it had the ability to hit home runs with lowbrow material. Puns, sight gags, dirty jokes, you name it and Hoozuki mastered it – one of the true measures of a great comedy is the ability to make you laugh in many different ways.
If screencaps taken are a measure, too, then Hoozuki was certainly the best series of the Winter for me. I start out with more every week (117 this episode) than with any other show I’m following, simply because Hoozuki no Reitetsu is such a visually inventive and beautiful series. We’re used to high standards with Production I.G. (here labeled as Wit Studio, as with Shingeki no Kyoujin) and this show delivers – it’s a first-rate adaptation in every way. They’ve taken a very funny manga and made it even better with superb casting, a fabulous soundtrack and gorgeous and funny imaginings on Buddhist art. Director Kaburaki Hiro also helmed the similarly jouzu Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun (he even gave it a cameo here) and is really stamping himself as a serious force in anime. Whenever his name it attached I’m going to be paying attention.
As with Space Dandy this series has been a bit up-and-down in terms of sheer comedic punch (though its weakest eps were better than that show’s) but the finale was filled with examples of the irreverent genius that makes Hoozuki such a blast to watch. The first chapter was focused on Obon, the hugely important summer festival in which the Japanese believe the deceased return to spend time with their loved ones. Indeed, as depicted in the episode it’s said that they quickly ride back home on cucumber (kyuri, here depicted as Karauri) horses and slowly back to the afterlife on eggplant (nasu, here shown as Nasubi) cows – traditionally, families make horses and cows from these vegetables as part of the observances.
Momotarou’s animal menagerie is entranced by the festivities and amazed at the labor code in Hell (“This isn’t a sweatshop!” Hoozuki indignantly observes). There’s a great in-joke where Shirou buys an Inagawa Junji mask – Inagawa-san being the fantastic narrator of Hoozuki no Reitetsu, and a famous teller of ghost stories (yes, the mask looks just like him. Getting Inagawa-san was another example of the stellar choices in this adaptation). The grand finale of the Hell festival is a Bon Odori – the traditional Obon dance – led by an Azuki-arai DJ with turntables and Hoozuki banging a taiko with a face, and yet another superb insert song (this is going to be one killer OST) followed by all the minions mounting cucumbers to round up the straggling deceased on their eggplants. It’s quite simply a spectacular, perfect set piece – funny, beautiful, and musically stellar.
The second chapter concludes the episode much as the premiere ended, with a long, strange and funny conversation between Hoozuki and Enma. Yasumoto Hiroki and Nagasako Takashi are beyond perfect in these roles (the whole cast is unassailable) and their banter is always a delight. Hoozuki teases Enma mercilessly about his grandson fetish, and tortures him by preparing three beverages for his parched throat. The first is boiled pine bark and needles, the second a “practical joke” item from Lilith that makes Enma’s beard go crazy. Finally there’s a pleasant, fruity drink with a terrible aftertaste – and aftereffect, both of which are caused by the fact that it was made by boiling down two of Hoozuki’s goldfish-flowers that tried to escape. The aftereffect? It turns Enma-sama into a fish-face.
The true genius of this joke isn’t revealed until the ED – which is now missing its two goldfish and features a camera lens spattered in blood. That’s just so smart, so hilarious, so classic – it’s great stuff, really what we’ve come to expect from this exceptionally clever series (that this was foreshadowed by the ED theme being played on the flute as Enma drank only makes it that much better). There’s also a highly obscure joke here as Hoozuki bakes a giant donut to replace the “beyond rare” one Enma had smuggled in – the “Pon-de-Lion” from Japan’s eponymous Mister Donut chain. Things come to a close with an almost earnest and affectionate talk between Enma and Hoozuki, where Enma calls out his assistant for his constant teasing and bullying, and Hoozuki expresses appreciation for his boss’s talents and dedication – and for the fact that his job allows him to torture his boss. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you express yourself like this!” Enma says. “I sort of wish I’d never heard it.”
Like I said, as finales go this one had pretty much everything – laughs, feels, music, production values. It was a classic, and in fact there was only one thing I wanted that I didn’t get – a sequel announcement. Hoozuki’s first Blu-ray/DVD volume was delayed and now comes out later this month, but if the Stalker numbers were right it stands a chance – and this is no small miracle which truly astounds me – to be the top-selling series of the season. If indeed it is it’s hard to imagine there won’t be another season soon – there’s enough source material for it, and the manga (which was already quite popular) saw a large jump in sales after the anime began airing.
I’ll be anxiously awaiting those numbers, because it’s rare to see excellence commercially rewarded in anime, and Hoozuki no Reitetsu definitely deserves to be rewarded. It’s just a first-class anime comedy in every aspect of the production – the writing, the music, the visuals, the cast. Wit and Kaburaki-sensei haven’t been content to rely strictly on the brilliance of the source manga – they’ve used the advantages their medium offers to make Hoozuki even better, which is what studios and directors should always try and do. This is a show that can be funny talking about ancient myths and obscure folk tales from Japan, about pop culture, and the cultural gaps between Japan and the West. It can go deep into its huge cast and find comic gold and well as genuine emotion there. It has cute shotas and animals and hot girls and the most eye-catching visuals of any show this season. Really, what’s not to like? Hoozuki no Reitetsu is a unique and thoroughly enjoyable experience, and I hope we get to experience it again very soon.