Wednesday, October 16, 2013

cowCase Reviews: Dusk Maiden of Amnesia

Seikyou Academy is a school whose history is steeped in myth and folktales, so much so that it even has a club dedicated to the investigation of the paranormal. Its members include Teiichi, a humble and unassuming boy; Kirie, a curt tomboy; Momoe, a ditsy and childish girl; and Yuuko, a flirtatious young woman. Oh, and Yuuko is actually a ghost who died in the basement of the school fifty years ago and the entire club is just a front put in place by Teiichi so that he can investigate the circumstances surrounding Yuuko's mysterious death. Yep. Anime.

In pure technicalities, Dusk Maiden is a pretty good-looking series. Productions which feature an element of horror or mystery can sometimes be guilty of straying too far to the “dark” side, but this show's color palette is all about contrast, with the high oranges and yellows of the titular dusk splendidly highlighting the deep purples, greens, and reds of the gloomy setting, as well as the pale features of key characters. The designs are pleasant, if leaning a little towards generic, the backgrounds are solidly detailed, and with the exception of a few off-model moments the art is of above-average quality. Some interesting choices in direction add heartily to the show, and they merit special mention. Many shots are angled to make rooms and hallways appear either smaller or larger than they are, adding an aura of claustrophobia or ominous openness to the setting. During moments of exposition, cuts to a brief black-and-white flashback or a series of still images illustrating a story are sometimes made—these are animation budget saving tactics, sure, but they're creatively used and mesh well with the folklore/legend motif that persists throughout much of the series, so I say “bravo.” The end result is that this show is almost never boring to look at. Quite the opposite; its visuals add greatly to the overall experience.

As impressive, though seldom as noticeable, is the musical score. It tends toward atmospheric noise, often relying on the eerie, echoic notes of a piano to gain the desired effect. Older, more traditional-sounding drums and chimes, slow and foreboding, sound right at home in the remnants of the decaying school building. Drama is sometimes accompanied by more complex orchestral compositions, but even these are usually integrated with a fair amount of subtlety. The most standout piece, a haunting vocal ballad, is used sparingly but effectively. The score can also be goofy, as the show can, but even the more lighthearted tracks usually have a thin coat of creepy applied to them, as if to present a playfully demented take on the school comedy soundtrack. That's a nice touch. Overall, the music does a lot while still feeling relatively minimal and unobtrusive, and I see no problem with that.

If there’s a recurring theme in Dusk Maiden, it’s the thought that unpleasant feelings cannot simply be shied away from; whether consciously or unconsciously, people will be affected by their fears and insecurities. This is most evident in the form of Yuuko, who is literally torn in two by denial. She’s able to maintain her jovial and lighthearted demeanor only because she has dissociated herself from her anger, jealousy, and the memories of her unjust death, which manifest themselves as a malevolent black entity termed Shadow Yuuko. Like the repressed doubts she represents, Shadow Yuuko always lingers in the background, waiting for a moment of weakness to exploit. Moreover, the series uses interesting internal logic to explain the appearances of ghosts. When the students look at a spirit, it takes a shape that is reminiscent of their own emotions. Those who are calm and have no preconceived notions about terrible things lurking about might see something benevolent, like Yuuko. But those who walk the dark halls of the school with anxieties eating away at them might see something altogether more sinister in her place. This is a theme of reasonable weight, and it’s both conveyed consistently throughout the duration of the show and interwoven with the show's audiovisuals to create an atmosphere that can be rather entrancing.

Yuuko as a character is an interesting concept; a decent amount of thought is given to what it would really be like to be a ghost, weird as that may sound. She is starved for human contact, and understandably so—most people can't see her, and those who can usually see her as something to run from, the Yuuko of urban legends. The series is good at conveying the feeling that most of what we're seeing isn't Yuuko as she was in life, but a Yuuko who is a product of her stale environment and the cruel way that her life ended—a teenaged girl trying a little too hard to be a teenaged girl, her carefree and bubbly nature concealing all kinds of resentment, anger, and bitter desires which are all the more frightening because they're understandable.

Ultimately, though, the series struggles to break away from the traditional trappings of high-school romances: despite the good showing of tantalizing ideas and the fair amount of effective artistry, it still desperately strives to be, above all else, a show about a guy with all the verve of a dried-up sponge who is inexplicably loved by three girls. Teiichi himself is poorly characterized, and while he's often described by the rest of the cast as “gentle,” “earnest,” and “dependable,” these traits are perhaps more of a ghost story than anything in the series, discussed in whispers but never truly shown or elaborated on. A more accurate description of him would read along the lines of “he is there” and “he is the main character.” To be sure, he performs what the show dictates are the proper actions, never taking advantage of the loneliness and vulnerability of his female friends, helping Yuuko track down information about herself. Yet, there's no indication that it's because of his personality (and, for that matter, there's no indication that he has a personality). Rather, he's the male protagonist in a romance, and that's just what the male protagonists in romances are expected to do. He's a nice person because he helps people and he helps people because he's a nice person; forgive me for thinking that's far from compelling writing. The result is that most generic of characters, someone who is difficult to dislike but also difficult to notice or care about in the first place.

Equally damaging are the show’s shifts in tone, which are as frequent as they are jarring. Sharp interjections of half-witted slapstick, usually centering on comedic relief character Momoe, sometimes abruptly decapitate more serious moments. Fanservice and boob humor are plentiful and unsubtle, inserted at all of the wrong instances, often overstaying whatever welcome they might have originally had. There’s no avoiding that much of what goes on is fluff unrelated to what could loosely be referred to as the story, an observation epitomized by the fact that they somehow managed to cram a swimsuit episode in here somewhere. And, worst of all, the show’s appreciable atmosphere of somber, reflective melancholy can often give way to a soapy melodrama of poorly thought out and repetitive dialogue (“I’m so lonely…so sad…in so much pain…”) that is downright difficult to listen to, much less take seriously. Drama, romance and mystery seem closer to the real heart of the series, but its peripheral elements end up distracting from, rather than enhancing, its strengths, and some of its strengths aren't that strong to begin with. The series looks good, sounds good, and knows how to get the viewer caught up in the moment—qualities, make no mistake, that I appreciate. However, it's also the kind of show that's very vulnerable to hindsight, and looking back it's clear that there are plenty of issues with pacing, characterization, and tone.

But when it comes down to it, I don’t think it’s unfair to let this series scrape by with a pass. It does a decent amount of things well, and the things it doesn’t do well are frequently irritating but arguably not deal-breaking. Be warned, though, that Dusk Maiden is one show likely to split audiences down the middle; if you don’t mind the sound of some of the attributes I’ve labeled as weaknesses, you’ll probably appreciate the show a lot more than I've indicated, and if you do mind the sound of same, you might not choose to give it the benefit of the doubt, as I have.

Score: 6/10; cautious recommendation.

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