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DVD Review: Ghost Stories (2000)

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This is a welcome release of the animated Japanese TV series Gakko no Kaidan, which literally translates as 'School Ghost Stories'. Although it's set around a haunted school, this anime isn't connected to the four live-action films called Haunted School (1996 to 1999).

The series takes its inspiration from Japanese urban legends and scary stories that are told about schools. It features a likeable gang of young ghostbusters, centred around Satsuki, a young schoolgirl, and her little brother. Satsuki's mother has recently passed away, but the mother bequeathed her a notebook with descriptions of neighbourhood hauntings and how to calm them down.

Satsuki and her friends like to investigate hauntings and ghostly occurences. These either take place at the school, directly affect schoolchildren, or just happen locally. Thankfully, the action in the series doesn't spend too much time in ordinary schoolrooms, like so many anime series seem to. However, it also doesn't spend as much time in the old haunted school building as I would have liked.

The troubled spirits are all pretty spectacular, ranging from murderous dolls and giant killer rabbits, to the more traditional snow ghosts and vengeful demons (one of whom possesses the family cat!). If they're not big, they're usually creepy, many of them with murder in mind.

The series is intended as family viewing, but would be too much for younger viewers. It's like a Japanese Scooby Doo, but with actual ghosts. When it wants to be scary, it even verges on the intensity found in current Japanese horror films!

The interplay within the gang is played for laughs, but they often end up terrified, with Satsuki's little brother spending a lot of the time crying, like a real toddler would in the same situation. The storylines touching on Satsuki's late mother also add a poignant depth to some of the episodes.

The animation isn't as carefully detailed as most recent anime, evidently being produced using electronic animation (as opposed to painted hand-drawn cels). It also uses many electronic effects and backgrounds instead of animated ones. This works well for the most part, and there's some interesting point-of-view computer-generated animation too.

The director of the series was Noriyuki Abe, who is now working hard on the very successful anime Bleach, which has topped 100 episodes and just spawned an animated feature film. Bleach is also about schoolkids fighting unseen demons — but this time it's teenagers, and they use samurai swords and magic powers to save lost souls. It's action-packed, but again has well-designed characters and plenty of humour. Coincidentally, the central family is also missing its mother.

Ghost Stories is one of the few anime productions I've enjoyed that has an uncut subtitled release — all 20 episodes are on DVD, released over five volumes, with optional Japanese audio and English subtitles.

There's been controversy over the English language track on the DVDs, due to the dialogue being pepped up with inappropriate sexual references and American in-jokes. This is, of course, at odds with the young ages of the characters and the obviously Japanese setting.

If that's not a problem, or you can cope with reading subtitles, I'd recommend this to anime fans and students of Japanese yokai spirits.

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