Judge Brett Cullum wants to beat the stuffing out of Hello Kitty.
From a dead Da Vinci to a haunted 'hood…
Anime usually isn't funny. All its boobs and bombs are presented with desperate gravity worthy of the geeky otakus who follow the genre religiously. Anime houses produce titles with clunky, stilted lines translated directly from the Japanese originals. Forget the days of Robotech, when companies would jettison the script and make any story they wanted to out of an imported cartoon from across the Pacific. Now we are subjected to literal translations of everything from Cowboy Bebop to Hello Kitty. The latest volume of Ghost Stories says "screw all that reverent original language crap," and lets voice actors run rampant behind the microphone. The cast gets the basic plot in there somehow, but they pepper everything with their own unique brand of ad libs that skewer pop culture, anime, movies, race, religion, and anything else their sick little minds can fixate on.
Ghost Stories is a blast of freshly improvised, politically incorrect humor, and Ghost Stories Semester 4: Senior Screams (Volume 4) continues the dishonorable tradition of the series. The approach taken by the vocal cast would never work with a true classic of the genre. But because the original Japanese version of Ghost Stories wouldn't do much for American audiences, the whole experiment works like gangbusters. The source show is about school ghosts that would be common urban legends to Japanese viewers, but it doesn't translate well. I've watched every episode in the Japanese form; it offers little explanation for Western viewers, and turns out to be surprisingly dry and baffling. I have come to prefer the English track for its irreverent juvenile humor and improvised riffs.
The plot so far…
Satsuki and her crybaby brother Keichiro move to a house their dead mother used to live in, and find themselves enrolled in a new school. Their new institution of learning stands next to a decrepit, abandoned structure, where it used to hold classes before the shiny new school was built. Turns out the pair's mother was the school principal, and has left behind a guide on which ghosts haunt the old school and how to fight them. In the first volume, Satsuki and Keichiro teamed up with their cocky, hormone-crazed neighbor Hajime; his nerdy, Jewish (in the American dub only) friend Leo; and a snobby, born-again Christian (in the dub only), upper-class girl named Momoko. Also, their family cat became a talking rude sidekick after the first demon they fought possessed him. A recent community development has disturbed most of the spirits from the resting place their mom sent them to, so now it's up to Satsuki and her new friends (with the demonic kitty) to become real-life Ghostbusters. In every episode they face a new ghostly figure out of Japanese folk legend, and must find some way to stop them from taking over the school and the village.
Here are summaries from this volume as fleshed out by the English dub:
• Episode 13—Satsuki wins a painting contest, but frees a Da Vinci ghost (who thinks he's Maria Schriver) determined on escaping from her picture for good.
• Episode 14—The Ring and The Grudge get satirized together in a story about the angry ghost of a girl who was killed at an intersection, and has taken over Momoko—who may get to meet her Lord and Savior before it's all over.
• Episode 15—The Craft gets spoofed as Satsuki joins a coven of teen witches who are not all they seem.
• Episode 16—The gang enters the set of Good Times and find themselves in a haunted housing project where the residents steal cable and souls.
In this volume the American cast was up against several stories with strong visuals, and not as much time to cut loose. It's reserved on the comedy material, but if you've enjoyed previous volumes this one is just as entertaining. We get the usual English dub, the Japanese track, and English subtitles for both versions. Extras are limited to a clean opening and closing, along with a nice text feature describing the cultural significance of the ghosts from this batch of mysteries. The transfers are bright and clean with just a slight hint of edge enhancement in daylight scenes, but exceptional black levels for the darker portions of the program. Stereo audio fits the small in scope show just fine.
Ghost Stories is one of the most controversial releases of the year, polarizing critics and audiences alike with the improvised comedic lines. Some people are baffled by the humor, but I find it laugh-out-loud (and snort milk out of your nose) funny. It's a series I suggest renting the first volume of to figure out if you'll be tickled by or immune to its charms. I'll be the first to admit when a joke falls flat it can be painful, but when they hit it's a riot. Tthese guys and gals hit regularly, and some are out of the park. This volume has a peculiar obsession with Night Ranger's "Sister Christian," Jennifer Lopez's bad taste in husbands, and Hurricane Katrina. I wonder how well the current event references are going to play years from now, but that's my only fear for the series. So my best advice is grab this one while everything is painfully current, and you'll have a ball.
Ghost Stories represents ADV's commitment to delivering more than what you expect from anime. It's a ballsy move by a company who often throws caution to the wind in providing consumers more than just a simple, cute, ghost hunting series. I'd like to see them branch out with this concept on future releases by providing multiple tracks such as a straight English dub and an improvised one for kicks. That way people who want to hear a more conventional approach would be satisfied, and we could also see the comedic skills of their voice actors grow over time. Anime deserves to have the serious stuffing knocked out of it on a routine basis, and this group of voice actors seem to be the ones capable of doing just that.
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