I was thinking recently about how, other than exceptions for fare like Game of Thrones or Mad Men (or watching my box set of Gossip Girl for the 5th time), my television watching is exclusively anime. “Does this make me close-minded?” I wondered. A few years ago I casually told a friend I needed a new anime to watch after once again entering the emptiness stage of the cycle after finishing one. “Why does it have to be anime?” he asked. Why does it have to be anime? Sure, there are answers like twenty-minute episodes being convenient, (usually) tighter stories, and the chance to improve my Japanese. Or, I’m just a filthy otaku. But really, the reason why it usually has to be anime is that anime can take the liberties to explore. Non-linear? No problem. Anime is generally better at exploring states of mind, the line between reality and fantasy, atmospheres, and things that lie more in the conceptual realm. Now I’m not saying “real TV” can’t do this. It just usually takes an insane budget, a ballsy creative team, and even then the ratings can still let you down (hi, Hannibal). I’m also not saying all, or even most, anime is great. A ton of it is absolutely stupid and terrible. But once in a while there’s a show that reminds me of the sheer possibilities for intelligent storytelling and psychological depth-plumbing in anime. Mōryō no Hako (Box of Spirits) is one of those.

From left: Sekiguchi, Chuuzenji “Kyougokudou”, Enokizo, and Detective Kiba

The anime is based on the novel of the same name by Natsuhiko Kyogoku. The story is built around a series of bizarre crimes, both a serial case of schoolgirls being kidnapped and dismembered and a web of related incidents. Two lonely teenage girls form a close and troubling bond until one is mysteriously pushed in front of a train, nearly killing her. Was it an accident, or a plan to harm an heiress to a great fortune? The limbs of missing victims are found displayed neatly in wooden boxes. An imposing, square structure is hidden on a backwoods road. Is it a hospital, or the site of unscrupulous experiments? A cult-like religious craze centered on trapping evil spirits away is sweeping the rural countryside. What does a man in a black coat and white gloves have to do with any of it? We see these events not through the lens of a standard crime drama (though there is a detective) but through the investigative efforts of an introspective fiction writer, a magazine editor, a private detective who may or may not be clairvoyant, and a brilliant bookstore owner and onmyouj*. It may sound disjointed, but these threads swirl around each other and come together in an intoxicating story about the human desire for and limits of control. What’s more, it pulls off a complex, literary, and often abstract story, some which does not even take place in the reality of the show’s world.

Mōryō no Hako is a mystery-horror that keeps most of its graphic details hidden. The rare shocking image or gory scene punctuates an atmosphere that is disturbing on a subtler yet more pervasive level. The melancholy that shrouds the setting, story, and characters begins to seep into you after only a few episodes. This mood is aided by CLAMP’s willowy and evocative art. The setting and time - late summer and early fall in 1952 rural Japan - has an air of emptiness and stagnation. What is it about Japanese summers and horror? Watching Mōryō no Hako, I was reminded of my other favorite horror anime, Shiki. Though the latter is much less ... tasteful ... with its content, the two shows share a wonderful sense of place, compounded by the oppressive air and stillness of summer.

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The War does factor directly into the story in some instances, but it is mostly a shadow that looms on the show’s entire world. There is the distinct feeling of watching a society with widespread disillusionment and anxiety. This specific place in time makes the show’s central motif - the box - a much more effective symbol. Most of the characters face problems and obsessions that drive them to make their worlds smaller.

Yoriko, a plain teenage girl who is infatuated with her classmate, Kanako, is the troubled outcast daughter of an equally troubled mother. In her friendship with Kanako, she finds purpose, but that purpose becomes single-minded obsession. This relationship was one of the first things that sold me on Mōryō no Hako. The schoolgirl love that lies somewhere on the spectrum between friendship, love, and co-dependence has quite the historical precedence in earlier shoujo literature dating back to the Taisho era. From Yoriko’s perspective, Kanako is a goddess or angel, all beauty and moonlight and falling flower petals. They speak of being tied together by the threads of fate and they have heady conversations in Western-style cafes. This is a pretty blatant throwback to “Class S” literature of the 1910s and 20s. Yoriko even references Junichi Nakahara at one point. For Yoriko, her relationship with Kanako is the box she doesn’t want to leave.

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Kiba, a gruff detective from Tokyo who gets involved in the case of the injured Kanako by coincidence, is limited by the memories of his past in the military that still haunt him. He is also drawn to Kanako’s older sister Youko, a mysterious beauty and one-time actress. His myopic interest in her runs the risk of him jumping to conclusions about the case. Mimasaka, the doctor in charge of the mysterious, box-shaped medical research lab has reduced his world to the quest to perfect the human mind and body. Everywhere you look in Mōryō no Hako, characters are shrinking themselves into boxes, whether willfully, out of a sense of self-preservation, or not. One of the most striking examples of this continuity of theme is found in the characters Tatsumi Sekiguchi and Shunko Kubo.

Sekiguchi is, for most of the story, the character whose point of view we see things from and whose mind we most fully explore. An established short fiction writer whose crime and mystery stories appear in popular magazines, he reads The Girl in the Box, the most recent novel of Gothic fiction writer Shunko Kubo. The younger writer’s manuscript makes Sekiguchi uneasy, not only because of its parallels to the dismemberment case but because as a dark fiction writer himself, he knows the uglier parts of the mind and human nature all too well. Sekiguchi’s imaginative internal dialogue regarding the story’s events adds a rich layer to the external goings-on. Being a man whose own brain toes the line between light and dark, seeing things through Sekiguchi’s eyes allows us to fully grasp the motivations of all involved, even the “bad” guys.

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Beyond pulling off literary depth on screen, Mōryō no Hako is simply a unique gem in the mystery genre in any medium. The tone and story are at once one of the most Japanese things I’ve ever watched and and a worthy successor to the Gothic tradition. On the Japanese side, you get hit with a ton of traditional folklore and occult knowledge. There are in fact two full episodes made up entirely of exposition on the etymology and meaning of the word mōryō. Amazingly, it isn’t dull. Akihiko “Kyougokudou” Chuuzenji, the bookstore owner and onmyouji, is also an excellent addition to the global lineup of brilliant and astute mystery solvers. He’s not quite the Japanese Sherlock Holmes, but his mental and spiritual prowess make for a memorable character. Chuuzenji acts both as an outsider and intermediary to the story’s events, and cuts to the straight to the heart of the casts’ dysfunction. “Becoming happy is easy,” he remarks, “as long as you give up being human.”

Ultimately, Mōryō no Hako is one of my personal best mystery shows, but more than that, it’s a showpiece for the possibilities of anime. A deep and dense novel is allowed to fully stretch itself and its rich world and cloud of musings on human nature out. This is definitely one I’ll be pointing people to if I’m ever asked “Why does it have to be anime?” again.

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* a civil servant and occult figure tasked with matters such as divination and wrangling evil spirits, often thought to be a type of medium; modern day onmyouji are classified as a type of Shinto priest but the word still carries a sense of mysticism about it.