I think, therefore I Doo: Critical reviews of “Scooby-Doo! And the Curse of the 13th Ghost” and “Scooby-Doo! Return to Zombie Island” (2019)

The two finest products in the Scooby-Doo franchise are probably the movie “Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island” and the TV show “The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo,” the former having arguably the most complex plot and animation of any Scooby product and the latter exploiting the franchise’s campy horror atmosphere by tossing in the voice talent of Vincent Price. So imagine this blog’s surprise when both entries in the Scooby canon got direct-to-video sequels last year: “Scooby-Doo! And the Curse of the 13th Ghost” and “Scooby-Doo! Return to Zombie Island.”

Actually, imagine this blog’s surprise when we realized there were about a billion direct-to-video Scooby Doo movies. I think about 37 are in production right now.

Surprise aside, it seemed obvious that these movies were must see for a fan like me, if only to check how they’d stack up to the originals. They didn’t come close, but not necessarily for the reason you’d expect.

“Curse of the 13th Ghost” begins at an ending, with the Mysteries Inc. gang being ordered by the local sheriff to close up shop and quit bothering all those criminals in ghost costumes. But their forced retirement ends suddenly when Shaggy, Daphne and Scooby are contacted by their old friend Vincent Van Ghoul. The warlock is seeking their help in tracking down the final, and most powerful, ghost that was trapped in the Chest of Demons.

A little while later, in “Return to Zombie Island,” the kids are again trying to get away from solving mysteries. Escape presents itself in the form of contest Shaggy wins–he, three friends and one pet are granted a free trip to an island getaway. However, upon arrival, they find the environment a little too familiar, the locals a little too offbeat. Is it a blast from the past? Or a new mystery to solve?

I did not realize the two films were intimately connected until partway through my viewing experience, and I wondered why the sheriff from the first film appeared suddenly in the center of the second. Nevertheless, it explains a lot of the vibe. There is a “Brady Bunch” kind of vibe–the film version with Gary Cole, not the TV series–that is set from the opening sequence, particularly in “Curse of the 13th Ghost.” The Mystery Inc. gang appears to be unstuck in time, floating about and confused by a modern world that fears teenagers in malls and is populated with escalators.

Both films sport animation that mirrors the mood perfectly well. It’s definitely retro, with no real surprises either way (aside from a couple of obviously CGI backgrounds, and that’s only if that bothers purists).

The voice acting is fine as well. Grey Griffin, Kate Micucci and vocal vet Frank Welker all do good work, and Maurice LaMarche does a surprisingly solid Vincent Price impersonation–although maybe not that surprising, since he’s the go-to guy for Orson Welles. In “Return to Zombie Island,” comedian John Michael Higgins has fun as the suspicious Alan Smithee. However, Cassandra Peterson is given disappointingly little to do. Scooby-Doo netted Elvira to play Elvira, and all she has is a cameo. That’s a combination that’s begging for expansion.

Of the two films, “Curse of the 13th Ghost” is probably better in a holistic way. The dialogue is not bad, witty in an accessible, family-friendly way. Van Ghoul gets tons of creepy, creaky puns. Combined with LaMarche’s delivery, whenever he’s on screen it’s a treat.

There’s also a kind of moral about finding purpose, for anyone who turns to animated movies for life lessons, something that’s more or less missing in the second film. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just a little more meandering.

In truth, both films have their issues with lag. Mod mood aside, they both rely on extended chase scenes, Monkees-esque music videos and Abbot and Costello sight gags in their centers. While that worked in the original series, where episodes wrapped in less than half an hour, in feature length films it will probably bore all but the most loyal fans.

However, the biggest letdown for me not a return to the aesthetics of the original series but a return to its metaphysics. In the original series it was always a guy in a mask, but both “13 Ghosts” and “Zombie Island” allowed room for the supernatural, the straight supernatural of “Zombie Island” and the outright mystical of “13 Ghosts.” The two 2019 sequels attempt to straddle the middle of mysticism and skepticism, with a definite err on the side of skepticism.

In “13 Ghosts,” this is achieved by making the believer Vincent Van Ghoul character seem potentially deluded, and in “Return to Zombie Island,” it’s done by including a couple of permanently unexplained elements in a “for later” kind of way. Neither effort is entirely satisfactory, and I’m not sure how to take it. The film fan in me is confounded by the non-twists that attempt to keep things balanced. The metaphysical philosopher in me is frustrated by the excessive hand-waving of the supernatural and lack of contemplation on the unknown. The Vincent Price fan in me is just disappointed.

In the end, the grown man in me asks why I’m watching children’s cartoons and expecting philosophical discourse to begin with. Oh well. I think I’m done with the franchise for a while now–at least until they decide to do movie sequels of “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo” or “Scooby-Doo Meets the Boo Brothers,” possibly “Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School.” Yeah. Betcha didn’t think anyone remembered those…

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 3: A critical analysis of “Life Can Be So Nice

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the cult anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging and the uncanny. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the second episode: “Life Can Be So Nice.”

At first glance, the title appears to be something affirming, that life can always be understood as something nice. This is a simple version of the philosophy of Panuru, a student seen only in flashback. In the present, a student named Misuzu Arito has taken up her philosophy and her name–as a nickname–and strives to accept the world as it is. However, she has confused acceptance with ignorance.

The fact that Misuzu ignores the world is clear from the way it is composed around her. When she talks to groups of friends, often their faces are cut off, with only featureless mouths in the screen. When Misuzu takes the train, the windows are blotted out by harsh white light, revealing nothing of the environment she passes. This is, admittedly, easier to animate, but it fits Misuzu’s view perfectly. She is willfully locked inside, and the details of the world are obscured outside.

Elsewhere in the episode, false images abound. Characters are introduced to each other in hallucinations or while masked in shadow. Cars are reflected in distorted mirrors. Even a rainbow, something that can be so nice, isn’t immune. When asked if she can see a rainbow, Nagi Kirima, a character who takes things more directly than Misuzu, states, “That’s not a rainbow.” She’s right. It’s not a rainbow. It’s a distorted and dirty brown sky.

In a more meta example, the opening scene features newspapers written in Japanese script, which are not translated into English in either the dub or the sub. Another obscured world, at least for ignorant English speaking viewers.

The greatest ignorance of all is how Misuzu ignores the reality of Panuru’s death. She feels guilt, having planned to meet her at the park where she was murdered five years ago by a serial killer. This guilt is repressed, surfacing in the form of blood-soaked specters that appear and accuse Misuzu of an unspecified crime (“LIAR!”). She is quick to run from these bloody relics from the past and replace them with images of Panuru she prefers to remember. Instead, she could be exploring her guilt and recognizing that she didn’t kill Panuru. But that would require introspection and acceptance of the self, and Misuzu is far more comfortable ignoring herself and her past, and living in a present that has been constructed by false, albeit pretty, memories.

This extends to taking on Panuru’s nickname as her own. She thinks that it’s enough to just call herself Panuru and she’ll have Panuru’s Daoist-like philosophy of acceptance. Instead, it’s a mask she wears that covers herself up as neatly as her memory masks the reality of who Panuru was.

If there is any doubt, Boogiepop itself delivers this speech to Misuzu at the end of the episode: “What you accepted was not the world. It was simply her death. You didn’t take over anything from Panuru. You’re just pretending to love this world in order to protect yourself from it.”

Upon delivering this declaration, Boogiepop retreats into shadow, leaving Misuzu to stumbled dazed into the arms of a police officer. At least, it’s easy to see him as a police officer, to rely on him to save you when you don’t feel like saving yourself. He can be a police officer…but he’s not. What he truly is has not been revealed by the series yet, but one of the last images of this episode is Misuzu’s twisted body stuffed into the back of his car.

Boogiepop another: A critical review of “Boogiepop and Others” (2019)

The defining moment of the winter 2019 series “Boogiepop and Others” probably comes at the beginning of its third narrative arc, “Boogiepop at Dawn.” That’s where Boogiepop, apparently an embodiment of death inhabiting a high school girl, and Echoes, apparently a member of a humanoid alien race with really bad posture, are chatting in a landscape that resembles the ruined surface of Mars. It’s strange and mysterious and glassy and pretty all at once.

Then Echoes asks Boogiepop how it got its name. If we’ve been following at home, we already know, and it’s kind of a disappointing story. And that is “Boogiepop and Others.” It’s not a bad show. In fact, it has a few cool touches that make it worth viewing. But it is a disappointing show, and not only because it has to be compared to the cult classic “Boogiepop Phantom.”

In a nutshell, the show is four narrative arcs, all based on light novels from the Boogiepop series: “Bogiepop and Others,” “VS Imaginator,” “at Dawn” and “Overdrive: the King of Destruction.” All of them span a handful of episodes, and all of them cover the interactions between regular humans, usually students at a local high school, with the Towa Organization, a mysterious group that is observing, influencing and keeping in check humans who have evolved and are exhibiting abilities beyond normal.

Found somewhere in the middle is usually Boogiepop, an enigmatic character who claims to combat threats to the world. Despite this grand, noble purpose, Boogiepop often appears to people at the brink of death as it possesses the body of a high school girl…

At the time, the main complaints about the show seemed to be that it had boring animation and it attempted to cram too much plot in too short a sequence of episodes, leading to a stilted and confused story. I never understood the animation complaint. It doesn’t have the most original design, but it’s fine in an occasionally minimalist way, and when it moves (as it does in a couple of fight scenes), it can really shine.

I am a little more understanding of the plot complaint. I have never read the light novels, so I can’t say how closely the series follows them or how much it removes to make them fit into the format of half-hour episodes. I can say that it often feels rushed, like we’re either missing chunks of context, or tons of information is being dumped onto the audience to make up for lost time.

In one way, this doesn’t have to be a big deal. The show usually has an interesting subject to discuss, like free will, individual determination, the definition of humanity or the fallout of regret. But those topics are often saved for dialogue, and the dialogue frequently comes in lengthy speeches, while the other mechanics of storytelling are relegated to moving the admittedly convoluted plot along or to keep up the high school drama (much of those speeches are delivered via the vehicle of “is X gonna stay with Y despite the unrequited love of Z?”).

Sometimes it works. I find the character of the shitty private detective to be pretty cool. It makes sense that a creepy group like the Towa Organization would have a staff shitty private detective to handle some of their dirty work, and it’s a nice touch to have him be a world-weary romantic who gets sussed out by a particularly bright high schooler.

The show also nails it with the characterization of Boogiepop. She’s animated fluidly and voiced warmly by Aoi Yuki, whose voice matches her slight smile perfectly. She’s nothing like the “Phantom’s” version of Boogiepop, and it’s not the only thing the new show does notably different-but-good. The soundtrack is also fantastic. Composer Kensuke Ushio’s mix of electronic and orchestral stings is engaging, and the opening and closing themes balance each episode well. But while it’s nice to see the show is doing something good and original, I fear it’s all connected to a bigger issue.

“Boogiepop and Others” is not scary. Sure, it’s about an evil company doing human experimentation and a shadowy embodiment of death, but it doesn’t feel scary. The series builds no tension. In fact, it doesn’t build any particular mood, except maybe for soap opera confusion. While “Phantom” tied itself together almost exclusively with mood, rewarding repeated viewings, “Others” makes due with scattered vignettes. and it accordingly demands you binge watch it (although the vignettes get better as they go along, due to familiarity if nothing else).

The whole thing ends up feeling like a high school drama. A weird high school drama perhaps, a high minded high school drama, but not a horror story. It’s telling that “Boogiepop Phantom” never revealed why Boogiepop was called Boogiepop, leaving it obscure, allowing it to be goofy and menacing at the same time. “Others” spoils that by attempting to explain everything in a haphazard way. It’s still goofy, but it’s far less menacing.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 2: A critical analysis of “Light in Darkness”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the cult anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging and the uncanny. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the second episode: “Light in Darkness.”

The title of the episode almost immediately comes into play. We open on a scene very much in the thriller vibe. It is a chase, although we have no context of who is chasing who. We’re confused, not only by the lack of context, but also by the tense, pulsing music and the overpowering darkness.

The first patch of light appears when the character we’re focused on, Jounouchi Hisashi, holds a large insect that is practically glowing white. After a moment, he messily devours it, something that probably surprises first-time viewers and places us directly in the horror genre (yes, this is the infamous “that guy who eats gross bugs” episode; it’s also the episode where I knew I was going to like this series).

The rest of the episode will be about putting that image into context, not only why Jounouchi was running in the dark but why he was eating bugs. That’s what a light in darkness does. It illuminates.

Jounouchi’s past is literally brighter than his present. He remembers himself awash in light as an ambitious boy whose future as a top student and star athlete was cut short by a crippling bone disease. Once he returns to school, the scene is notably still brighter than the opening, but Jounouchi is dressed in drab black compared to the sparkling white of his peers.

That’s not light in darkness; it’s darkness in light. But the image is flipped when Jounouchi is struck by the beam of light that illuminated the darkness at the beginning of the first episode. That’s when he’s able to finally live up to his past ambitions–or so he thinks. Jounouchi discovers he can see giant bugs that have latched onto the chests of some of the people around him. The insects are associated with melancholy, and by removing them–and instinctively devouring them–he can improve of the mood of the afflicted.

Informed by a conversation he overhears at the hospital about becoming a “hero of justice” (a nod to a later episode), Jounouchi decides to become a hero in the modern sense, someone admired for great feats of strength or courage. At first, that’s where it looks like he’s going. The bugs seem to be parasites formed from bad emotions–guilt, regret, sadness–that feed on unhappy hosts. By devouring the bugs, Jounouchi seems to be removing the darkness from the hosts’ lives. “I am a savior to these women,” Jounouchi thinks to himself. The fact that he saves women by groping them is an irony lost on him.

In truth, Jounouchi is becoming the parasite. He finds himself addicted to eating the bugs, and he becomes reliant on “saving” victims for a fix. The symbiotic relationship between hero and victim, savior and saved, is illuminated in the title. A light dispels darkness, but in doing so the darkness gives it shape, like the cone of a flashlight that only has purpose at night. Symbiotically, light and darkness need each other as they destroy each other. Likewise, a savior is given identity–shape–by the action of saving victims. Saviors and saved are equally reliant on each other.

They’re not the only symbiotic pairing in the episode. After Jounouchi eats a bug attached to his father, he realizes he hasn’t been eating bad feelings but bad memories. “Isn’t it better for bad memories to simply be forgotten?” he asks. But, like lights or saviors without darkness or victims, people without bad memories lose some of their shape. His father’s bad memory of his dead wife gave him purpose and direction in the form of a regular ritual designed to honor and remember her; without the bug gnawing at his chest, his father can only stare at the photo of his wife.

“Who… who’s this?” he asks with a lack of affect before getting up and heading to the kitchen, trance-like, to make dinner.

Jounouchi’s path eventually leads him to Boogiepop. Initially he calls Boogiepop a “black shadow,” a darkness in light, but then he calls it “death.” The word that’s being translated is “shinigami,” a little god of death from Japanese mythology, akin to the grim reaper in the West, or perhaps more aptly Hermes as psychopomp, the Greek god that guided souls to the realm of the dead.

Myth is important because Jounouchi wanted to be a hero in the modern sense, but he’s more like a hero in Greek myth, someone touched by the divine and brought low by a fatal flaw. He wanted to be a heroic light in a troubling darkness, but instead, he was touched by light and fell. At the episode’s end, he’s become another missing person, a character in an urban myth, but a myth all the same.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 1: A critical analysis of “Portraits from Memory”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the cult anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging and the uncanny. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the first episode: “Portraits from Memory.”

Traditionally, a portrait is a depiction of a human figure (as opposed to a landscape), and a memory is understood as a kind of archive, typically of an individual’s knowledge–everything that has been experienced or learned. To create a portrait from memory would mean to create a representation of a person by drawing on that archive. However, that representation would be inexact. Human memory is a fickle thing, and memories can be influenced by the environment where they’re made or where they’re recalled.

The first image of “Boogiepop Phantom” is a brilliant light shooting into the night sky. This event is the environment where the portraits from memory will be drawn, and it will shape the characters that will be depicted. The key word is “portraits,” since every episode will follow a different character.

The episode introduces many of the quirks that are singular to this show: the repeated pulse sound effect; the skips back and forth through time and narrative; the muted color palette and the vignetting, the black around the edges of the screen.

The last two are the most tied to this title. The muted colors will be removed for the final episode, which will take place in a “present” as opposed to the “past” of the earlier episodes, suggesting the dimness of memory compared to the clarity of present. For now, the muted colors will also add to the atmosphere of the series. The characters are a sickly pale, and the environment is dirty brown or shadowy black.

These characters look like ghosts wandering through the unnamed city, which itself is a kind of memory, an archive or storage place for lost and missing people. The theme of missing people serves as the start of much of the mystery in this series–in this episode it’s student Saotome Masami–and other characters hunt for them like forgetful people trying to recall slippery memories.

Saotome is sought by fellow student Moto Tonomura, who harbors a crush on him. But Moto is shy, and her habits grow increasingly obsessive–hand washing is the most noticeable–as the episode progresses and she struggles to cope with her own emotions and unrequited affection.

Memory is tied to identity; we recognize other people because we remember them, and everyone is both who they are and who we remember them to be. Moto comments that a friend of hers isn’t who she once was. In other words, she is not who Moto remembers her to be, as if she is a different person.

In “Boogiepop,” memory is tied to life and forgetting is tied to death. To be remembered is a kind of immortality, but it’s also a mask. If we are remembered, we can live on after we depart, from view or from life. But if we live on in the environment of fickle human memory, we live on as we are remembered, not as we were.

In a flashback, Saotome asks Moto, “Why do they even bother to live? They all die anyway.” He’s talking about rabbits, but the human sting returns when Moto appears to find Saotome while wandering the city. It’s not really him. It’s something that looks like him. Moto confesses her love to it, but the Saotome-thing does not recognize her. In fact, it wants to kill her.

“You don’t remember me?” she asks. He does not.

“It doesn’t really matter though, does it?” he replies.

“No, not really,” Moto says. “It doesn’t matter.” She falls to her knees. Forgotten by the object of her affection, she is prepared to die.

But she does not. Another thing that looks like Boogiepop, an urban legend and personification of death, appears and kills the Saotome-thing. Moto later reflects on the episode, unsure if she should trust her memories: “I’m still not sure if that was Boogiepop or not. I could have simply imagined it.”

“I’m still alive. Maybe,” she concludes, the the words that close the episode. If she can’t trust her own memories, how can she trust her very existence?

In another show, light might serve as an intimating presence, but it doesn’t here. A flash of light is what leads Moto to the false Saotome, and her confrontation with the Saotome-thing is punctuated by flashes of light from a passing train. Neither light source fully illuminates the screen or the situation, instead only offering poor glimpses of identity and reality. Fuzzy memories indeed.

The final quirk we mentioned was the vignetting effect. Vignetting is a technique that darkens the corners of an image and uses extra light to illuminate and draw attention to the center, and it is frequently done in portrait painting and photography. In this series, the burst of light seen in this episode will draw attention to the characters in the center, illuminating the environment where they’ll form their memories and where we’ll watch them. Light is supposed to illuminate the environment and the characters, but in this series, it’s up to us as viewers to figure out how lucid that illumination will be.

Boogiepop you down: January 2020 news

Believe it or not, Tonstant Weader, this blog actually does listen to you. Using the tools that allow us to see what pages are the most popular, we concluded that one of our most popular endeavors was the episode-by-episode analysis of the anime “Serial Experiments Lain.” Why it was so popular is not in the data. “Lain” has a cult following, so we may have picked up the fandom. It was also an anniversary year, and our approach to analysis was novel, so those might have been factors.

(There’s also always the chance that our insight was valuable or our analyses were well-written, but who knows?)

Because we are nothing if not optimistic, or perhaps a little foolish, we believe that lightning can strike twice in the same spot, and we can all have a bit of fun if it does. That’s why we’re attempting the same thing this year with a different show. We wanted something that had interesting things to say and an intriguing way to say it, and we wanted something that had a limited number of episodes, so as to be manageable. We also wanted to stay with cult anime for the moment–although there are a couple of live action shows we might do in the future.

The list was not long, but it did have a few titles. However, only one of them had an anniversary coming up: “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging and the uncanny. It debuted 20 years ago tomorrow, which is when we’ll post the first analysis. It also has a connection to “Lain,” with the shows sharing designer/key animator Shigeyuki Suga and voice actress Kaori Shimizu in the titular role, as well as a downbeat, offbeat and introspective atmosphere.

For the next three moths, we’ll analyze an episode of “Boogiepop Phantom” every week, using its title as an entry point to analysis for the episode and the series as a whole. For an added bonus, the related series “Boogiepop and Others” came out last January, so we’ll review it this month while we’re in a Boogiepop kind of mood. If you’re not in a Boogiepop kind of mood, we’ll have some other upcoming posts as well.

And what were the other titles on the list? Feel free to speculate in the comments section, if you’re in a speculating kind of mood. Otherwise, you can always stick around for another year or so. Those anniversaries have a habit of coming due.