Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Muuryou no Hako, vol. 1

(All rights belong to their respective owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Muuryou no Hako started out as a novel by Natsuhiko Kyogoku in 1995, and has since been turned into a manga (2007, Kwai magazine), an anime and a live action drama. Kyogoku has quite a few mystery novels published, and two of them have been turned into movies. "Mouryou" translates to "all kinds of spirits and ghosts", and "hako" is "box". So, the simplest English version of the title is "Box of Ghosts" (although I have seen one site calling it "Box of Goblins"). This is actually the second in the 9-volume Kyogokudo series, featuring the spirit exorcist/bookstore owner/amateur detective Akihiko Chuuzenji. The first volume, The Summer of the Ubume has been translated into English by Vertical, but it's got a number of bad reviews for being too long, talky and convoluted. In essence, you can think of Akihiko Chuuzenji as kind of a stay-at-home Sherlock Holmes, battling against the Japanese tendency to cling to superstitions and folktales. Natsuhiko also wrote "Requiem for the Darkness", which is one of my favorite anime.

The manga was drawn by Aki Shimizu, who doesn't look anything like her self-portrait.
She may be best known in the U.S. for her manga Qwan, published by TokyoPop.

The artwork on Hako is surprisingly good, if you're looking for atmospheric effect. Each of the oddball characters look indeed oddball, from the jealous students to the rural hospital nurse, creepy entourage to the strange doctors. The backgrounds are all clean and highly detailed, and while a lot of the story takes place in the dark, it's not murky or hard to distinguish what's happening. The story starts out slow, and gradually unfolds. It's not action-driven, but it is compelling.

Yoriko Kusumoto is a quiet, mousy 14-year-old girl in junior high. There are at least three ugly classmates that enjoy bullying her from the shadows and spreading rumors. The classmates are shocked one day to see the perfectly beautiful Kanoko Yuzuki approaching Kusumoto and inviting her to go home together. They quickly become friends, spending late hours out dancing in the train yards, but Kusumoto is concerned about why Kanoko wants to hang out with her. The pretty one declares that they are actually one and the same, when one dies, she reincarnates as the other and vice versa, in a kind of simultaneous fixed-in-time loop. As a symbol of their one-ness, Kanoko ties a thread around Kusumoto's wrist. At home, Kusumoto's ugly, twisted mother complains about her daughter's staying out late and demands that she stay away from the troublemaker. Kusumoto goes berserk and claims that Kanoko is the only friend she'll ever need. Soon after, Kusumoto meets up with Kanoko outside of a remote train station at the Tokyo outskirts (Musashi Koganei station), and notices that the other girl has been crying. Kanoko talks about ending it all, and Kusumoto notices what the reason for her distress may be - the perfect Kanoko has a pimple at the base of her neck. As the last train for the night approaches, Kanoko steps in front of it.

(Kusumoto's image of a reincarnated life with Kanoko (left).)

On the train, the big, stocky Detective Kiba is sleeping on a bench. He's jolted awake by the sudden braking, and then finds himself having to interrogate a small 14-year-old school girl in order to determine if it was an accident, or a suicide attempt. The girl, Kusumoto, just keeps repeating that the beautiful victim had been upset over having a pimple.

(Kusumoto and Kiba.)

The victim is pulled out from under the train, and only her head remains undamaged. Kiba objects to this disturbance of a potential crime scene, but the girl is still just barely alive and is taken to the closest hospital (Mori no Mitaka). Kusumoto learns that her friend is still alive and begs Kiba to take her to the hospital. The detective ropes a local patrol cop into driving them out several miles into the woods. It's a big, rundown, rusty building. Inside, the desk nurse is a grotesque ratty-looking woman that initially tries to turn them away for not being part of the victim's family.

The rural patrol cop tries to impress the big-city detective by starting up a conversation, but is brushed off. He tries again by talking about an actress that had performed a version of Natsume Soseki's "Sanshiro" in the area some years ago. Kiba used to carry a photo of the actress in his wallet, and is startled to realize that the victim and the actress look a lot a like. A few minutes later, a tall guy in a white suit comes up and tries to chase the police off, saying that only family is wanted here. He's followed by a wimpy little guy in a white shirt and tie, who identifies the suit as Masuoka, and himself as Noritada Amemiya. The two newcomers wait apart on the chairs in the waiting room. Eventually a tall, attractive woman arrives and apologizes to Kiba for the inconvenience. He blurts out that she's the actress, Minami Kinuko, and she replies that she no longer goes by that name. She's now just Youko Yuzuki (Youko is written with the kanji for Youshi, "proton"), Kanoko's older sister. She adds that Kanoko isn't going to die.

(Toriguchi, Atsuko and Tatsumi, on stumbling into the police cordon of the square building.)

The scene switches to an editor's office, where a meek-looking novelist, Sekiguchi Tatsumi, is sitting as his editor tries asking a strangely elegant slit-eyed man, Kubo Shunko, to fact-check Tatsumi's latest manuscript. Kubo agrees, saying that he's going on a trip but will be able to easily go through the 100 pages in 10 days. Kubo whispers something into Tatsumi's ear and then leaves. Despondently, the writer returns home, commenting that he supplements his income by writing for a true-crime magazine for Kasutori Publishing. Inside, his Kasutori editor is sitting at the dining table happily eating the dinner that Tatsumi's wife is setting out. Toriguchi Morihiku had been there, waiting, for 3 hours for the writer to come back. He says that the dismemberment murder that had been written up in the morning newspaper, with one arm being found, now has both legs turning up in an iron box. Toriguchi wants to scoop the newspapers, with a story written by "Itsumi Soki", Tatsumi's penname for work for Kasutori. Tatsumi remembers Kubo's whispered words - "Soki should be careful with what he writes for Kasutori", implying that his cover's been blown. The two go out to the lake in Mitaka where the legs were found, but the detective that Tatsumi knows there that he could talk to, Kiba, had been acting strangely recently and hasn't been seen for several days. Unable to pump the other officers for information, the two get ready to leave when they bump into Atsuko Chuuzenji, a writer and sister of one of Tatsumi's friends. The three of them get into Toriguchi's car to return to Tokyo and get to talking about a different dismemberment case that had occurred earlier in the year, (the current year being 1952) and get lost. Looking at the map they realize they're almost in Yokohama, and take a dirt road to turn around, when suddenly they're surrounded by police demanding to know why they're at a restricted area. Kiba comes marching up and interrogates Tatsumi, who notices a famous actress, Kinuko Minami, standing on the stairs of a big square building (maybe a hospital) in the distance. And thus ends Tatsumi's bad day, of Aug. 30.


Half a month goes by and Yoriko is trying to decide what happened to Kanoko, if she went to heaven or something else. She decides that the only good option is if she's still alive. She remembers what the actress woman had said, but right after that her mother had burst into the hospital and tried to attack her, demanding to know what she'd done wrong this time. Kiba steps in to protect the girl, reprimands the mother and sends them both home. The next morning, a beat cop drops by to take a statement, but Yoriko has nothing to add, and is disgusted by how her mother fawns in front of authority. She says it would be best if her mother were dead, and the woman accuses her of being possessed by Mouryou. Three days later, a Shinto priest arrives and attempts to exorcise the building, claiming that he can sense the spirit of the woman's husband, a yakuza who'd disappeared a while ago. The priest announces that he's captured the spirit in the cabinet he carries on his back, but the woman wants him to remove Yoriko instead.

This fails and her mother becomes a complete wreck, just sitting in the middle of the floor. Yoriko notices that it's now Aug. 31 and she uses this as an excuse to demand money for school supplies. Her mother woodenly complies, and recoils when the girl grabs the bills from her. Outside, Yoriko attempts to have a civilized moment at a tea shop, but it's just not the same without Kanoko. Suddenly, she decides that Kanoko must have been pushed from the platform, and goes to a police box to say so to the beat cop that had driven her to the Mori no Mitaka hospital. He questions her memory now, since 2 weeks have gone by, but he takes her statement anyway, about a guy in black, his face hidden. She suddenly asks if Kanoko is still alive, and the cop remembers what had happened after the girl's mother had dragged her from the hospital. Kanoko was brought out on a stretcher and loaded into a car. The actress, Youko, had asked the cop and Detective Kiba to drive her in the second car. They get to the main road, and take a little dirt path turnoff into the woods. A few minutes later they came out in a clearing in front of a giant square building. The little cop is so surprised he drives into the first car. But, Kanoko has already been taken inside.

(The hunchback and the actress.)

As he was looking at the damaged truck, a hunchback followed the stretcher through the doors, and a dour-looking older man closed the steel doors and locked them, leaving the cop outside. Suddenly, the chimney stacks belched out smoke and the cop suspected that the girl was being cremated. Back in the present, Yoriko asks if Kanoko is still alive, and he prevaricates, saying that he hadn't heard that the surgery had failed. Yoriko goes crazy, crying and demanding to see her friend. The cop tries calling headquarters but is rebuffed. He then tells the girl to track down Kiba and ask him for help. The cop states that Kanoko apparently is in danger from someone and is now under police protection, and Kiba is part of the detail. Out at the square building, Kiba is sleeping on a bench. He gets harassed by Ishii, a senior officer from the Kanagawa HQ, who then tells him he has a visitor. Kiba meets the patrol cop who has Yoriko in tow. The three of them go inside the building, where all the doors are made of iron, and barred shut. They go to the third floor where Youko is standing in a room in front of a table covered with papers. She's looking at a note that demands money in exchange for Kanoko's safety. Yoriko repeats her story of Kanoko being pushed. Kiba notices the hunchback, Suzaki, in a corner and asks him to leave. The hunchback grins evilly at the actress on his way out.

(Kusumoto doesn't handle reality well.)

The Yuzuki's are rich, and Masuoka, the rude guy from the Mori no Mitaka hospital is probably their lawyer. Yoriko elaborates on the supposed "guy in black", giving him slanted eyes, like Kubo Shunko's. Amemiya, in trying to calm the girl down, tells her that Kanoko often talked about her as a dear friend. He adds that she was shunned as a child, and only seems to have been attracted to Yoriko. All along in this story up to this point, Yoriko has been subject to great waves of anger or hatred, and right now, she goes bugged eyed and whispers "it's a lie". but only Kiba notices, and he looks away fast out of shock. The group goes to a makeshift oxygen tent in a store room in the basement and there's Kanoko hooked up to lots of machines. Yuzuki seems to look up and mouth the letter "yo", and Yoriko has to be restrained from grabbing the patient.

The head of the hospital, Koushiro Mimasaka, arrives and has the hunchback prepare for the surgery, but there's a clattering noise and then silence. Mimasaka yells for the hunchback, then tears the tent wall away - the bed is empty, the tubes and wires are scattered around and Kanoko is missing. Yoriko takes this as a sign of good things to come.

The scene changes again to a shady figure digging up a corpse in a graveyard and putting the scraps in a box. The figure wakes up, and wonders if the dream is warning him that his treasures are about to be found. The scene switches once more, to a rundown set of buildings on a hill, where one rustic place has "Kyougoku Residence" on the front. Inside, manuscripts are piled along the walls up to the ceiling, and a very serious man sits at a table and drinks tea while reading a book.

Summary: In 1952, a series of body parts start showing up around Tokyo. Meanwhile, two strange girls form a pact that is tested when one of them either jumps or is pushed in front of a train. Detective Kiba has to determine if there is a crime, and is strangely disturbed by a buried memory regarding a former actress. Fun stuff and interesting character designs. Recommended.

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