Mouryou no Hako, Episode #02 – The Tanuki's Trick

The tanuki‘s magic at work.

What a gem…! It’s fortunate that I’ve been immersed in literature driven by time-divergent narratives lately, because as exquisite as Mouryou no Hako‘s animation is, its narrative is the centerpiece and demands a nimble eye. It is based, after all, on an award-winning mystery/horror novel written by the youkai-obsessed Kyougoku Natsuhiko, so any effort that falls short of granting the storyline its due process would be a grave injustice.

If an episode or two cannot secure our unconditional trust that the animation renders a meaningful interpretation of the original, then the mere mention of the names ‘Madhouse’ and ‘CLAMP’, at least, should be enough to dispel any fears that this series will fail to be a worthwhile indulgence. Mouryou no Hako is a priceless opportunity for the said animation dream-team to run rampant in its metier; and run rampant, it does – every possible detail has been lavished and arranged with meticulous care. This is a confection to be savored slowly. Deconstruct and reconstruct its component flavors diligently, and enjoy it as it should be enjoyed.

Impz described this series as confusing in his first post, and I don’t think that’s an unfair assessment. However, MnH is no Gordian knot awaiting a final episode’s conclusive blade; it really is a tangle of lives that are all somehow connected to a mysterious box containing a dead woman’s head, a tangle that must be untangled in order to fully appreciate the circumstances. Whereas episode one led us gently by the hand, dancing to the motions of Yoriko and Kanako’s moonlit love story (after greeting us on a train with a head in a box), episode two leaves us groping in the dark for answers, as it probes two past timelines that explain the beginnings of Sekiguchi’s case.

Probing thus, MnH continues to introduce its rich landscape of unique personalities: for instance, Kanako’s elder sister Youko Yuzuki is a former star-actress; the ill-tempered Mr. Masuoka, her confidant. Kyougoku Chuzenji is an exorcist; and protagonist Mr. Sekiguchi is revealed to be an esteemed detective that has become dangerously fascinated with the girl in the box for reasons we are only beginning to understand. What manner of mystery will unfold? One thing is certain. Kanako’s supposed attempt at suicide brings to light the other characters’ relationships to her, which her actual death is tied to more, perhaps, than her mystical musings could foretell.

A graveyard. Way to start with a bone-chilling ‘bang’.

Is a week’s wait capable of erasing our dread at the possibility that Kanako’s collision with the train was fatal? Apparently not mine. Peering between stalks of sunflowers at gravediggers stabbing the earth during the very first scene sent shivers down my spine; I remembered vividly, and immediately assumed the worst. But it was a feint. A foreshadowing feint, yes, but a feint nonetheless. Sekiguchi’s memory of his grandmother’s burial is used as a jumping off point to explore and discuss themes of death; the strangeness of women; boxes and their otherworldly contents.

Sekiguchi, the very picture of cool composure, is inwardly on the brink of insanity.

The opening is also used to render a creative explanation of his obsession with the woman in the box. I say “obsession” because it is strange enough that a person (even a detective) should take such a passionate interest in case, strange enough that he shouldn’t flinch, but rather react with jealousy upon hearing the girl’s first words, and yet a bit too strange that he should be hallucinating boxes and heads at every turn.

Out of her head with shock, as expected.

The episode rewinds to the train incident. Despite Yoriko’s wretched state, war-torn Detective Kiba remains unresponsive and unsympathetic. He is not a bad person or even a cruel person, but his compassion is buried beneath layer upon layer of toughness and manly decisiveness. His inner state is a tug-of-war between sentiment and duty, the latter of which usually seems to take command. Kiba strikes me as a man drawn to hidden truths like a moth to fire, making for an aggressive detective, one who would involve himself in Kanako’s situation, unsolicited, and gain interest as mysteries peek from between the facts. The negative side is that this unyielding interest in obscurities may eventually drive him to extreme measures.

What murder mystery would be complete without a sultry, seductive actress?

One after another, symbols appear that draw Detective Kiba closer and closer into the case. First, it was the familiar image of Kanako’s face, tugging at memory. Kiba drives Yoriko to the hospital where Kanako is being treated. Mr. Masuoka awaits him inside and rudely demands his identity on first sight. The two lock horns briefly. It is not long before Kanako’s sister (the starlet) appears; her unexpected appearance sends Kiba into an emotional tizzy. A fond memory of one her movies reveals that a passionate heart throbs beneath his gruff exterior, bringing a softness in him that softens his behavior toward Yoriko, at least temporarily. Either by means of intriguing fact, or sentiment, or sometimes both, Kiba is roped into the case by a cascade of coincidences and soon finds himself among Kanako’s inner sanctum, peering suspiciously at the adults.

How could he resist those eyes, the eyes of his goddess?

What I find most interesting about this sequence is that while Yoriko broods in a corner, Youko, Mr. Mazuoka, Mr. Amemiya and Detective Kiba continue to analyze the possibility of foul play. No one has tried to force an explanation out of Yoriko, despite the fact that she was on the scene at the time of the incident. No. They continue to chisel away at the possibility of murder as though it were the only feasible explanation and the only explanation they could bear to accept. Suicide, somehow, is unacceptable.

Irrelevant, you say?

And then there are those cryptic allusions to “Kanako not being able to die before [someone]”, or her early demise being a convenience for Mr. Masuoka, or “irrelevance”. Forget their wildly varying displays of emotion; when they have unscrupulous discussions such as these, as though she were some kind of mutual business investment, we need to separate the teary-eyed hullabaloo from the evils, and see which one effervesces first.

We must approach this mystery as a detective would. MnH only tells us the tidbits we need to know — while that may imply that there will not be much divulged at once in the way of backstory or conspiracies, by the same token, it also implies that just enough loose threads will be exposed for us to begin picking away at the tapestry whole. Kanako is not dead yet, but will she be murdered before she has the chance to die in a fashion she would have liked? What do they want with her? More intriguingly, is it possible that her “suicide” would have violated an agreement she made with them?

The protective familial instincts have kicked in.

I’ll reserve my judgments for Kanako’s questionable next-of-kin. A jarring collision with the cold, hard fact that she will die unless transferred to another hospital is what it takes to shake them out of their ponderous complacency and build the tension appropriately. They are all holding their breath when the surgeon steps out of the operating room to deliver a status update: she will live.

“…I heard about it half a month later,” interjects the narrator, referring to a murder.

Sunflowers and graves. A drive under the country sunset and a conversation about murder.

Now here’s the confusing part: the segue is narrated by Sekiguchi. Meaning that even though he was not present at the previous chain of events, the train incident still ties into *his* story. Although his meaning in the segue is obscure, one interpretation could be as follows: the anime shifts forward roughly half a month (from August 15th to August 30th). The dismembered body of a girl has been found. The implication is that it is either Kanako’s body, or the body of the girl whose head is in the box, which may or may not be one and the same. Nothing is explicitly stated. The authorities have located the limbs of the body (in a box, no less), but not the head — this would make sense if in the present time, Sekiguchi is still chasing after her head.

In this interpretation, the important point to keep in mind is that Sekiguchi gets involved after the train incident. My kneejerk reaction is to assume that the girl is Kanako, but we cannot rule out Yoriko, and above all, we cannot make assumptions about facts that are not supported by evidence. To our knowledge, Sekiguchi has never met either of them alive, and it is unclear what went on in the fifteen days that transpired. Considering how careful the series is about what it lets escape and what it does not, I would prefer to err on the side of caution and keep my eyes open.

And guess whose haunting figures await…

Mr. Sekiguichi is joined in his investigation by a Mr. Toriguchi (the driver and an informant of sorts), and Atsuko, Kyougoku Chuzenji’s younger sister. Their pleasant cruise in the sunset abruptly turns sinister (notice how fast the sun sets here) as Toriguchi’s proclivity for getting lost leads them swiftly away from their destination and forces a U-turn onto an unknown road. Well, whether lucky or unlucky, one can be sure that some kind of luck is at work. Wrong turn, indeed. Toriguchi is SO skilled at getting lost, in fact, that he manages to lead the trio to a secret research facility patrolled by men in uniform. Surprise! Detective Kiba is there (if Kiba-danna has been away for a stretch of time, you can be sure that somewhere, something juicy is going on!) And guess who else appears? A ominously large box looms in the background like a monolithic ghost.

Next Episode:

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  1. Posted October 21, 2008 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Glad that you are blogging it because it is apparent that I was unable to write this entry even though I understood the dialogue. There are many undercurrents and hints all around. The most intruging issue is the strange relationship between the famous retired actress and Kanako.

    Why does Kanako consider her sister to be a curse? Why did Kanako jump off the railway? Is it simply a fear of getting old? Those questions, seemingly redundant, points to a deeper sense of reincarnation and the fear of approaching death.

    The time skip of sorts is also very confusing because I was like jerked away from the tension of Kanako close to death soon. What is exactly happening? I am too lost to comment coherently.

  2. Posted October 21, 2008 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I’m more confused than anyone, but wasn’t the sub’s translation wrong in saying the girl died “half a year later”? I think I hear sore kara hantsukigo ato de kiita: “I heard later that it happened half a month afterwards.” I’m even not entirely sure that what happened was the girl’s death, although that’s probably it. Good Japanese tends to imply things rather than stating them clearly, and I for one get lost easily.

    Thanks for blogging this.

  3. Maipeisu
    Posted October 21, 2008 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    @Impz: Who knows if I’ll understand better than anyone else! @_@ This is one anime that will definitely require good quality translations. Looks like I’ll have to start paying attention to the Japanese more, too, to check for inconsistencies and liberal interpretation.

    @hashihime: Good call. I am still a novice at Japanese, but hantsuki is definitely ‘half a month’ and not ‘half a year’. This would also make things less confusing, as the date reads first, “August 15″, and then “August 30″. Also, I was concerned that the actress was *still* wearing that purple kimono half a year later (eww). I will proceed to make changes. Thanks for the heads up. ^_^

  4. Posted October 21, 2008 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Certainly is confusing right now, but I think all will be explained soon. I’m especially really curious about what transpired the second half of episode 2. What was with the giant box? Were they trying to keep outsiders out, or insiders in…

    And who knows? Maybe Toriguchi says he’s a bad driver, but in fact he was leading them there with a purpose… :] I feel like this series is just unpredictable and mystical.

  5. hitomi
    Posted October 23, 2008 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    I was looking for some review on MnH and I luckily stumbled this post. I must say it helped me a lot since I got so confused with the twists and turns of this anime, but I’m so hooked up I need to understand more.

    Thanks for quite a detailed review on the first 2 episodes. I’ll come back for more. ^_^

  6. Maipeisu
    Posted October 23, 2008 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    @hitomi: It is a dauntingly confusing series, and I’m glad that its confusion is not stopping people from watching it altogether. I’m happy that I have been of some use!

  7. Cheeks
    Posted October 23, 2008 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Arrgh…the confusion! I’m glad I’m not the only one :) – I think I said ‘what the hell’ at least ten times throughout both episodes. However, that might just be me overthinking the content and getting ahead of myself. Reading your review definitely helped clear the traffic congestion my head’s experiencing. This series is thought-provoking for sure. I can’t help but think of ‘Ergo Proxy’ in times like these – while no doubt thought-provoking, that anime left me with so many unanswered questions and so many fried brain cells. I hope it’s not the case here, lol.

    Thanks for the GREAT review!

  8. scherzo
    Posted October 24, 2008 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the blogging! I like how you tied your thoughts and impressions of what was happening into the summary. It’s not easy. Excellent work and I hope you continue delving into the threads of the story!

    I’m wondering about the significance of the doll-heads that have been flashed on the screen, like the doll that Yoriko thought came alive in her hands .. and if anything will happen between Kiba and the actress.. and who was it whose body parts were found… good stuff. :D

  9. Posted October 24, 2008 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Great mentioning the relavence of the tanuki, that completely flew over my head. I found the U-turn way too smooth to be anything but intentional, putting my spotlight on Toriguchi and why he led Sekiguchi and Atsuko to that site.

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