Goblin’s Box (Mouryou no Hako) Thematic Analysis

Mouryou no Hako is a 2008 anime based on the 1995 novel by Natushiko Kyogoku. It was produced by studio madhouse with all character designs done by CLAMP. It’s a psychological and sci-fi mystery with some supernatural elements. The story is about the different characters as they are caught up in solving two mysteries: the disappearance of 14-year-old Kanako Yuzui, and the three serial killings and dismemberment cases. Main characters are Kiba, Sekigucki, Toriguchi, Reijiro, Yoko, and Chuuzenji, who everyone calls Kyougokudou. I’ve written a review of Mouryou no Hako or Goblin’s Box if you’re interested. This post will serve as an analysis of the themes.

Do spirits and gods exist? What is the nature of the evil spirit known as the Mouryou? What are the true forms of demons? If you could live forever, or make a loved one live forever, would you? How can one stay stable living in a troubled era and/or dealing with mental illness? What is the metaphorical signficance of boxes? All these questions are present in Mouryou no Hako (Goblin’s Box) in the form of recurring themes. I’ll analyze each in turn. Let me tell you some interesting things about this underrated anime series.

(L to R: Kiba, Sekiguchi, Reijiro, and Kyougokudou)

One recurring element in Mouryou no Hako is mental illness and psychological disorders. This is best exemplified by the characters of Yoriko, her mother, Kiba, and Sekiguchi. The first episode shows how the beauty of youth and young romance can turn tragic if the adolescents are mentally unstable. This isn’t a case of mental illness as much as mental instability due to poor family lives and upbringings. Yoriko and Kanako were two girls deeply in love, and both were the romantic, fanciful type. They talk of whimsical things like angels, goddesses, and each other’s reincarnations; they play and dance under the moonlight, and Kanako ties a thread– of “love and destiny”– around Yoriko’s wrist.

Like a surprising number of love-addled young couples, Yoriko and Kanako think dying together or killing each other might be romantic. That’s where things start to get out of hand. It becomes a tragedy. If not for Kanako saying things about killing Yoriko, it’s possible that the latter would have been less likely to push the former in front of the train that night. And if not for her mother (or grandmother, in actuality) telling her die all the time, Kanako wouldn’t have fooled around with the ideas of death and killing.

There is another interesting case of Yoriko’s psyche being troubled and disordered after the train incident. Unable to cope with the shock and guilt of causing Kanako’s near death, she forgets that she was indeed the one who pushed Kanako. When a stranger in town pushes her roughly, it triggers Yoriko’s mind to generate a detailed false memory of a man pushing Kanako onto the tracks. Her mind made up the description of the man with black clothes and white gloves because she read about a character like that in Sekiguchi’s haunting stories. This “lie” of Yoriko’s is interesting because it touches on the real topics of false memories and selective amnesia.

For cases like this in reality, it’s the Devil’s Proof. There’s no way to prove the person with false memories is lying, and there’s no way to prove that she’s not, because it’s very possible– and common, even– for the mind to deceive itself. Look up false memories in psychology if you don’t believe me. In the anime, it’s safe to say Yoriko isn’t lying, or rather, that she believes what she says is true. Shock made her develop amnesia of the details of the incident. Then it made her experience dissociative symptoms and false memories related to topics she fears. I’ve been in her shoes. We believe it’s true, sometimes for years. Then we just realize one day, like we’re suddenly waking up from a dream, that it didn’t really happen in that way.

(Yoriko is appalled by her own actions)

Yoriko’s mother had always been emotionally insecure and sensitive due to the way her family broke apart as a child, and the way her husband disappeared on her. She has the makings of a truly great mother, because she raised Yoriko on her own, worked hard for her education expenses, and strove to keep ownership of the house so that Yoriko could inherit it.

However, Mrs. Kusumoto also tended to be superstitious. After Yoriko told her she should just die, the mother believed that her daughter had been possessed by and/or replaced with an evil spirit. She gave Yoriko hell over that one childish remark, bringing in a quack priest and getting involved with a cult, all to help banish the evil spirit in her house. Over time, Mrs. Kusumoto despaired because of her debt and the fear that her daughter wanted her dead. She attempted suicide, but was talked out of it by Reijiro.

As for Kiba, he is a veteran of WWII in addition to being a detectice. Episode 1 gives a quick but stunning view into what it’s like for him. When he can’t sleep on the train alone at night, and when he does doze off, he only sees terrible nightmares reminiscent of his experiences in the war. Apparently, it was seeing comrades die that scarred him. Episode 4 also gives a horrifying vision from Kiba’s brain, wherein a monstrous tank crushes soldiers to pieces under its wheels. Kiba seems to be able to cope with his PTSD and live a normal detective’s life without help, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for him. He’s probably grumpy most of the time from lack of sleep. Sometimes he doesn’t think clearly at all, either.

Sekiguchi is deifnitely mentally ill. It’s impossible to give a real psych diagnosis to an anime character, but if I had to name some, I’d say OCD and Schizoaffective Disorder with depressive symptoms. The first condition is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which Sekiguchi describes well. He says things like a grain of rice out of place in his bento lunch would upset him so much he skipped his meal. He felt rage whenever something was out of place, or in an order or position he didn’t like. When ordering things himself, like his creepy novels, Sekiguchi obsesses about how to best organize them and often can’t make up his mind at all. Nothing seems right.

Schizoaffective disorder is basically symptoms of Schizophrenia combined with symptoms of a mood disorder. In Mouryou no Hako, we see many scenes in Sekiguchi’s imagination. These can be interpreted as dissociative visions, waking dreams, or delusions associated with schizophrenia. Other things shown, like the demons dancing around the table while Kyougoku talks, might be hallucinations seen by Sekiguchi. It’s the same with the way he sees Byakko the white tiger when Kyougokudou confronts Onbako-sama. In general, it’s very difficult for Sekiguchi to draw the line between reality and the delusions of his mind, which is how he writes such bizarre or creepy stories without even trying, and sometimes becomes obsessed with strange ideas. In two cases, Sekiguchi’s mental monologue reveals that he is depressed and is a “patient.”

Mental instability or psych disorders are hard to deal with for anyone in any age, but the era of this story didn’t help things for the characters. Sekiguchi is the only one who hints once that he sees a psychiatrist. Psych care wasn’t always helpful in those days, and it was also an expense that most could not afford. Plus, those with mental illnesses were extremely stigmatized by society. It wasn’t just psychiatry. The late 1940s to mid 1950s in Japan (Showa years 20-30) was a strange time. One of the themes in Mouryou no Hako is the decade in which it was set.

It was the recovery period after the war, and it showed a trend of steady improvement in economy, technology, and the overall country’s health. But that doesn’t mean it was a good time for everyone. Some resisted change– there were riots and there was also a resurgence of spiritualism and anti-materialism. All the increasingly available technology was a lot to take in even for moderates and the younger generation. Violent crime also started to become troublesome and disturbing as cities grew and prospered. We can see examples of this in Mouryou no Hako.

(Kiba laments the violent crime in Tokyo)

Detective Kiba was surprised, unsettled, and frustrated when he heard the details of the dismemberment case in his area. He blames the era. The resurgence of religion and spiritualism is evidenced by the way Yoriko’s mother and many others were caught up in a cult led by a false priest. Also, Despite being a rationalist and being able to explain most supernatural phenomena, Chuuzenji or Kyougokudou chooses to keep to his family’s ancient profession of exorcists and onmyouji. Everyone is shocked in episode 10 when Toriguchi brings an early version of a tape recorder to their casual meeting. In the last episode, Toriguchi remarks about how televisions are strange and a bit frightening.

Episode 3 gives a chilling view into what it’s like to have your family “taken in” by the teachings of a cult or the superstitions of certain religious leaders. This happened a lot with the religious resurgence in those days. Yoriko’s called over a monk for an exorcism, and he was downright crazy, ranting and raving about nonsense, like how the southeast corner of the house was spiritually unclean and welcoming to demons. Yoriko was terrified, and rightfully so. She spent most of her time away from her home. Sometimes, her mother wouldn’t let her in the house, believing she was a Mouryou.

Speaking of Yoriko, let’s go back to her for a bit. She is one of several characters who demonstrate the theme of the human wish for immortality. She loved Kananko as her best friend and maybe as something more, but any physical adoration was of a very superficial kind. Yoriko only loved Kanako as she percieved her in the present: young and practically flawless. The worst thing that could happen would be Kanako showing signs of getting older or “uglier.” That’s because Yoriko herself is terrified of growing up. She didn’t like it all that her beautiful mother aged so much and became, in her mind, “ugly.” It made her begin to despise her mother because it didn’t feel the same as her “beautiful” mother from early childhood.

Yoriko deluded herself into believing that Kanako would never age and never die. She never wanted her own body to age, either. What she wished for was immortality for herself and Kanako. Yoko, the older sister figure and also the biological mother of Kanako, had a similar story. She also couldn’t stand to see her mother growing sick, old, and “ugly.” She wanted to be young forever, and she wanted to be loved, which is part of why she seduced her father. In general, people of the time might have had immortality on their minds after the massive loss of life in WWII. Some scientists during the war, like Dr. Mimasaka, experimented to see if was possible to create immortal soldiers or mechanical humans.

(Kyougokudou confronts Mimasaka)

On that note, episode 13 uses Dr. Mimasaka to show the theme of the fear and hatred of aging, and the obsession with immortality. The director of the mysterious box-shaped lab had always been interested in researching ways to prolong life, no matter how twisted he became or what unethical experiments he conducted. He deceived himself into thinking he was searching for a cure for his wife, but really, he had already given up on her and was disgusted with her. It may have been Yoko who initiated the seduction, but it was Mimasaka who went all the way with her and got her pregnant. That’s because he was more in love with his young daughter than his middle-aged, sickly wife.

In the present, after the horrible experiments during the war, Mimasaka tried to be a good doctor, but couldn’t shake his obsession with immortality. Kyougokudou says that Mimasaka holds a deep hatred for the physical body, which turns out to be true. Mimasaka spent who-knows-how long creating the box-shaped lab and all its functions so it could serve as a body for a detached head or brain kept alive with life-preserving medical technology. Well discuss that more at a later point. For now, let’s move on to a more minor but still very present theme in Mouryou no Hako: demons and spirits as metaphors or symbols for technology.

Spiritualism, and especially demons and spirits, are discussed all throughout the anime series. whilen not completely ruling out the reality of some supernatural phenomenon, the show explains most spirits and demons as symbols. It forces viewers to ask the question, “what is the true form of a demon?”

One answer is that technology, especially war technology, is the real demon. After the dismembement cases begin, a rumor goes around that a Kasha is responsible. A kasha is a demon that dismembers victims after death if they committed great evil in their lives. In Kiba’s mind, a real Kasha is a tank, with wheels that grind people to pieces. (Kasha is read as “flaming wheel,” by the way.) In episode 8, Sekiguchi reacted with shock to the tape recorder, saying to himself there is a demon (voice) inside the box (machine).

Technology as demons is only a minor theme in Mouryou no Hako. Let’s move onto the theme of demons in general as well as spiritualism and mythology. There’s no shortage of any of those in this anime. In episode 2, Atsuko says that according to her brother, murder happens when the aggressor is possessed by a Toori-mono. A youkai whose soul fuses with the souls of those are uncertain or unstable, the Toori-mono brings misfortune to whomever it possesses. In several other cases in the series, Toori-mono are brought up as the spirits who drive people to murder. Another example of a demon or spirit is mentioned in episode 4, when a rumor circulates that a Kasha is causing the dismemberment murders.

Episode 5 begins asking the question “Are spiritual gifts and spirits real?” The universe and characters of Mouryou no Hako seem “respectfully agnostic,” meaning that they don’t dismiss the possiblity of real spirits and supernatural powers, but they carefully explain most spirit-powers in a rational way without spirits. This is the attitude that Kyougokudou or Akihiko Chuuzenji takes in episode 6. Much of this sixth episode is spent explaining how Kyougokudou’s “clairvoyance” worked, and his classification system for espers, fortune tellers, mediums, and priests. Rather than giving a solid answer to the question of whether spiritual phenomenon are real, Kyougokudou and Mouryou no Hako encourage both critical and creative thinking.

Episodes 7 and 10 focus most of their time on the characters discussing the Japanese (and Chinese) mythology of Mouryou, spirits, demons, onmyouji, and ancient religious rituals. These episodes are very educational. In episode 7, it’s decided that Mouryou are goblin-like creatures that steal, eat, or dismember corpses, and who personify the border of life and death. They were adapted from Chinese spirits of wells and borders, but Japanaese mythology “degraded” them into little demons, much like child-sized Oni ogres. In the tenth episode, the mythology of said oni, plus that of Chinese sorcery and Onmyouji are discussed, as Kyougokudou reveals Onbako-sama to be a false medium.

Finally, we come to the theme of “demons and boxes.” In episode 2, the limbs of Kanako and of bodies of other victims were found in steel or wooden boxes crammed into houses, shrines, and walls in residential areas. Also, Dr. Mimasaka’s facility, first appearing at the end of ep 2, is like a giant box about three stories tall. Also in the second episode, Atsuko reports a rumor that there’s an exorcist who seals evil spirits into boxes in a religion called Onbako-sama. Appearing in ep 3, the Priest of Onbaka-sama says that creating walls in one’s heart forms a box, which draws in evil spirits. He also says a house is much like a box, and that no matter how fancy it looks outside, it’s meaningless if there is a mouryou within. He believes evil spirits are attracted to boxes.

On several occasions in episodes 2 and 3, Kiba compares himself to an empty box. He feels like he has no real purpose. When it became clear that Yoko was troubled, and after seeing the message from “the demon” in episode 3, Kiba thinks his box has been filled because he has people to protect (Yoko and Kanako) and an enemy to hunt down. In episode 4, after being called off the case of the vanishing Kananko, Kiba remarks that he is now a broken box. There are many other examples as the series progresses. We see more of the Onbaka-sama Priest in eps 6 and 10, and his religion fears and worships boxes. Toriguchi in episod 6 tells the story of “the man possessed by boxes,” who turned out to be Suzuki from Dr. Mimasaka’s facility.

In the very first episode, Amemiya says dolls are empty boxes in which spirits can be stored. This upsets Yoriko. The dolls her father made, which are still being assembled and sold by her mother, are all modeled after Yoriko. So the girl probably got upset because she wondered if she herself was like a mere doll. When her mother called her a mouryou, Yoriko was terrified. Mrs. Kusumoto believed her daughter was like a doll, and her body, had been filled with an evil spirit. The mother didn’t wake from her delusion till it was too late, and Yoriko was dead. Dolls are compared to humans, and also to boxes. So why is there so much about boxes in Mouryou no Hako?

What it’s all leading up to is the reveal and discussions in episodes 12 and 13. Dr. Mimasaka’s lab facility can house a human consciousness. The head and brain of a person can be kept alive on life support, and hooked up by wires and hoses to a numerous machines that make up the body parts. So in short, the lab symbolizes a box and the human consciousness within is the goblin or demon. Episode 13 is called “Mouryou no Hako no Koto, Aruiwa Hito.” This means, “Of The Goblin’s Box, or Perhaps People.” It features the theme that maybe all humans are mouryou no hako, goblins or spirits in a box. The mind is the evil spirit, and the body is the box.

There are so many interesting meanings and interpretations for this theme. What is the significance of boxes? They are our human bodies, which house our consciousness (minds/ souls). What is the true form of demons? Perhaps human minds. When our minds break down, we do “evil” things like lie (Yoriko), reject our families (Mrs. Kusumoto), try to kill others (Kiba), or actually kill others (Kubo). That’s the theme of mental illnesss. Even with healthy minds, look what humanity does: we create terrible weapons for war, or conduct unethical experiments (Dr. Mimasaka), deceive and rob others (Onbako-sama), become perverted (Yoko), become envious of others (Sekiguchi), and often wish not to age. These tie into the themes of spiritual cults, the post-war era in Japan, and immortality. It all comes together brilliantly.

Mouryou no Hako is a complex, profound story full to the brim of compelling subjects for examination and discussion. I highly recommend the anime. Please let me know what you think of this series if you’ve seen it, and/or what you thought of this post! I’d love to hear from you!

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