“Mouryou” is often translated to mean Goblin, but the creature it describes is not like little green goblins or monstrously ugly Tolkien goblins of western tradition. It’s better to think of it as “evil being” or “evil spirit.” As for “Hako,” it simply means box. So the title could be translated several ways, such as “Box of the Evil Spirit,” “The Evil Spirit’s Box,” “Box of the Goblin,” or “The Goblin’s Box.” I chose the latter for the review title, so I’ll call it Goblin’s Box herein. (For your reference, in episode 7, the characters discuss the word origins and different kanji readings of “Mouryou,” as well as discussing various versions of a Mouryou’s nature and form.)
All that aside, Mouryou no Hako is an anime series based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Natsuhiko Kyogoku. The TV series was animated by studio Madhouse, directed by Ryousuke Nakamaura, and aired in Fall 2008. All character designs were created by CLAMP. The show’s intended audience is the Seinen age group, and its genres include mystery, thriller, psychological, sci-fi, and supernatural. Goblin’s Box is an obscure and underrated anime, probably one you’ve never seen or even heard about. I highly recommend it. In this post, I’ll review the main elements of the show in my typical review style, and also briefly mention a few of the themes.
For 2008, the artwork is astounding. That’s my opinion anyway. The first episode is particularly breathtaking, but the high quality remains throughout the series. I think, though, you may not appreciate the style or character designs unless you like CLAMP and their works. They did all the character designs for Goblin’s Box. I’m a huge fan of CLAMP, so of course I love it. While there are a lot of scenes where characters sit around talking, even those are made visually bearable by the incorporation of objects in the room, such as the tea cup, plate, petite four, and utensil in episode 6, representing 4 categories Akihito speaks about.
The animation for movement looks amazing to me because of the unique way it’s done– see the dance under the moon in episode 1— but I guess it might be what everyone would call “smooth.” I like the decision to use a more realistic color pallet, one is similar to shows like Psycho-Pass. The realism helps communicate the maturity and gravity of the series, and also fits with the 1950s theme. Backgrounds often look hand-painted, and I like that. CGI is used for vehicles, but it’s well done and doesn’t feel out of place.
The way the story is structured is unusual in several ways, and that may throw people off. First, there’s the way they change between character perspectives on some episodes, so that you’re not really sure there is a consistent “main character.” In addition, there are the stories within the story. At the start of each episode, we see Sekiguchi experiencing the events of bizarre stories written by him or by fictional author Kubo. It’s crucial to be aware that those beginning sequences have no importance to the main story, other than sharing some of its major themes, and telling us a bit about the psyche of Sekiguchi.
The story can be hard to understand. For one thing, some events are told out of order, in a way that makes one think of series like Baccano. There’s a mystery aspect, but some people don’t come anywhere close to the right answers the first time around. That’s ok. This show has immense rewatch value. Also, I like it when stories require you to stop, think, and maybe research. The other potential problem with the story is that way that several episodes (5-7) turn away from the main mystery and spend time instead discussing spiritualism and developing the characters of Sekiguchi and Akihiko through their conversations. Only after 3 or 4 episodes do we finally get back to progressing the actual story. I don’t mind this kind of diversion, though.
Other than those shortcomings, which really aren’t bothersome at all if you are used to complex stories, the plot in Goblin’s Box is great. It’s an anime with a unique story to tell, and it does a great job telling it. The narrative style reminds me of other heavily psychological anime series such as Serial Experiments Lain, Boogiepop wa Warawanai, and Ergo Proxy.
Here’s a quick note on the “horror” aspects of Goblin’s Box. Part of how I rate the story category depends on if it delivered as a sample of its supposed genres. A comedy anime should be funny. If not, my appreciation of the story suffers. As a psychological thriller with hints of horror, Mouryou no Hako needs to be creepy. It’s an understatement to say that the show succeeds in that. While not (usually) horrifying, it is unsettling and quietly creepy. That’s some of the best kind of horror in my opinion. I never once got the feeling, either, that any of what was shown was excessive, or there for shock value.
The instrumental music is beautiful, full of calming and mysterious-sounding piano, string, and music box melodies. But there are only a handful of tracks, so if you get tired of music easily, or don’t like the quiet, haunting scores, you’re still stuck listening to them for 13 episodes. I love the tracks, though I don’t know what any of them are called because I can’t find information on the OST. The OP and ED are cut out of most videos of Goblin’s Box on streaming websites, so unless you have the DVD, or look up the songs on YouTube, you may not hear them in videos. They’re worth going out of your way to hear, in my opinion. They’re both unusual and memorable.
There are so many talented seiyuu in this cast! Hiroaki Hirata voices Kyougokudou, the same seiyuu who played Sanji in One Piece, Kotetsu Kaburagi in Tiger and Bunny, and Kiroumaru in Shinsekai Yori. I love the sound of Takaaki Seki’s voice (he plays Detective Kiba), but I don’t recognize him from anywhere else. Daisuke Namikawa, voice of Hisoka from Hunter x Hunter and Bertholdt from Attack on Titan, plays Toriguchi, the magazine editor. Haruka Tomatsu’s many roles include Asuna from SOA and Zero Two from Darling in the Franxx. In Mouryou no Hako, she plays Kanako Yuzui. Other well-known seiyuu in this series are Toshiyuki Morikawa (Reijiro) and Aya Hisakawa (Yoko). Also, whoever did the voice of Kubo is the same one who played Casshern in Casshern sins.
The characters were fine overall, but a bit easy to forget because the complexity of the plot is often the viewer’s main focus. It can also be a little confusing the first time around to understand who everybody is and try to keep their names straight. I think the anime could have been a little more straightforward with the way they present characters. This problem also comes up in episode 2, when Chuuzenji, Toriguchi, and Sekiguchi are all introduced at the same time, and we don’t know anything about them or how they’re connected to characters we do know. Rather than ever being told straight-up, you have to gather information about them by listening to their dialogue.
I love the characters, personally. While they are not always well-developed and certainly not original in concept, they are still well-written, which is what I think matters. Atsuko, the younger sister of Akihito, was a cute and charming character. I wish we got to see a little more of her. And of course, “main character” Kyougokudou, or Akihito, is not just fascinating and charismatic in personality, but also extremely well-written. Sekiguchi is a great neurally atypical character. If you read between the lines and listen carefully, it seems that he has OCD and Schizotypal Disorder, and sees a pyschiatrist. As far as characters, I’m especially fond of Kiba, the grumpy but good-hearted Detective with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
-Personal Enjoyment: 9/10-
This is always an important category for me when writing reviews. Especially on the third watch, when I understood everything without any questions, my enjoyment was through the roof. I love every second of this show. I liked Kanako and Yoriko even though they’re both pretty crazy kids, and I was sad things went south for them, but honestly, I saw it coming. I relished the many themes explored in Goblin’s Box. The character of Detective Kiba amused and impressed me to no end. The haunting music, the stunning artwork, the voices of many talented seiyuu– some of whom I’m not familiar with yet– I mean, what’s not to love? The mystery aspect was thrilling, and the mix of supernatural and sci-fi works surprisingly well.
Themes in The Goblin’s Box
There are so many interesting recurring messages and topics in this anime that I’m going to have to post a thematic analysis of it soon. The themes include mental illness, the strangeness of the era (1950s Japan), spiritualism and realism, immortality, human consciousness, demons as metaphors for technology, the true nature of the Mouryou demon, and the four-walled box as a metaphor for various things, including houses, dolls, the human heart, vessels of the dead, vessels of emptiness, and ultimately, the human body. I guarantee this show will get you thinking.
Overall = 8.2/10
My ratings operate on a scale of 1.0 (apalling/ should not exist) to 10.0 (masterpiece / perfect). Most of the anime I watch ends up in the range of 5-point-something to 8-point-something, with especially bad anime in the 4s and 3s, and especially good anime in the 9s. Anything in the 7s is solidly enjoyable and anything in the 8s is amazing. I arrive at my overall score by taking the average of the five numbers I gave for story, art, sound, characters, and enjoyment. With an overall rating of 8.2/10, Mouryou no Hako is amazing. Check it out and spread the word!