How does Wit Studio follow up a massive smash-hit like the TV anime Attack on Titan and its amusing OVAs? They make an office comedy. “Office comedy? What’s with all the demons?” you might ask. Hoozuki no Reitetsu is an office comedy set in the Japanese afterlife. The office just happens to be a functioning government that runs Japanese Hell. “The Eight Greater Hells” and “The Eight Cold Hells” have 272 subdivisions that are all dedicated to reforming the souls of wicked people through various punishments meted out by Great King Enma, the guy who passes judgement on the souls of the dead. When I say punishments, I mean things like being getting ground up into paste over and over for sneezing in peoples’ food and acting like an ass in restaurants to being mauled by animals for the crime of being cruel to animals in life. There’s a hell for philanders which amusingly brings up gender equality over the discussion about whether sexy female demons should dole out pain because some guys might like that. With so many bad humans and lots of involved office politics, Enma needs someone reliable to maintain order: enter the demon administrator named Hoozuki, a sort of middle-manager dealing with the endless chaos. Hoozuki is chief aide to the Great King Emna and has to keep the whole show running which usually means getting involved in the local politics of the various subdivisions which are like little fiefdoms each of which is run by some mythological creature or legend from Japanese history. Not only that but he works as a foreign minister as he deals with relations with Heaven/Shangri-La and European Hell and the tourism as people from Hell visit Heaven/Shangri-La to indulge in the hot springs and food while people from Heaven/Shangri-La visit Hell to go on almighty drinking sessions and see some smoking women.
This is a simplification of a rather amusing and thoroughly Japanese anime based on Natsumi Eguchi’s popular seinen manga. The show eschews building a grand plot and each episode is split into two stories that go into detail about the different places in hell and the different characters that populate the place, from religious figures like Great King Enma and the Ten divine kings to mythical legends like the Inch High Samurai and Momotaro and his animal companions. What Natsumi Eguchi does with these characters is to place them in the framework of a large government running the afterlife with analogous posts and office politics. Roles are an amusing mix of the mundane and exotic: section chiefs, torture device creators, janitors, chemists and actual torturers – Momotaro’s co-horts become the newest recruits in Animal Cruelty Hell and take to it with alarming ease.
The audience gets to visit each of these places in the company of Hoozuki who ensures that the wicked are being disciplined, usually through being boiled in vats of grease, being turned into a living tree for adultery or just plain being bashed around by Hoozuki who quite likes getting his hands dirty and lugs a cruel looking mace around to enforce the rules.
That there are references to real and mythical figures who each have jobs, such as the eight-headed demon snake Yamata no Orochi who is the drunken janitor in Screaming Hell (a place for those who committed sins when drunk), to the very real Hokusai (who turns out to be a bit of a decorator who left murals around the place) should give some indication to the extent of its originality and the quality of its comedy as it aims to be high-brow and cultured and subversive. It utilises and references the deep and rich supernatural elements of Japan (Obon and the “Night Parade of a Hundred Demons”) and turns them into a series of administrative problems and field trips. It’s ambitious and intelligent and something rarely seen, it is also very well-written, which is occasionally seen on other shows like Space Dandy.
The show’s comedic content is very dry and low-key at times and it can come off as non-existent especially when an episode feels like a literary and cultural test and (and it does feel like it at times because only the most hard-core of Japanophiles will get EVERY single reference. There were many Japanese cultural references that I just did not get and I relied a lot on the translator’s notes to make sense of situations but for the most part I was still enjoying it. Even when I wasn’t laughing, I knew that the show would take a turn because the humour is generally a mix of high and low brow, smut and sight gags and many puns and references to classical figures, sex and violence and all done with intelligence and all good natured. It is very earthy at times and always irreverent. There are many office gags that people who have worked in organisations big and small will recognise like the mess-hall banter and the unrequited feelings that one has for colleagues, the way people carry out orders no matter how ridiculous (and the ensuing whispered comments questioning their bosses leadership) and the way the public have to be handled. There are also many fourth-wall breaking gags about Hoozuki going on holiday and meeting fans of Japanimation in Australia and endless references to other anime (Ghibli being a favourite). The animation and direction are solid but it’s the artwork that defines a lot of things because seeing everything in anime form is amusing and there are so many surreal and weird images to be seen from the various layers of hell and the characters to things like Hoozuki having a collection of Goldfish flowers – literally, a fish at the end of a stalk – which, when one sees the final episode, turns into one of the cruellest and slyest gags in the whole show. Seeing the classical Japanese art and the Buddhist scrolls rendered into a modern medium is not unique (see Kyousogiga) but the characters are adorable and cute. Minamoto Yoshitsune from “Heike Monogatari” is not like his fearsome real life character but a bishounen who wishes to transfer to another job. An insanely cute and just plain insane rabbit turns out to be from the grisly tale of “Kachi-kachi Yama” which is a crazy and cruel story and another reminder that myths and fairy-tales are full of nutters. Seeing these transposed into an anime makes them even weirder and funnier. The women are also WOMEN, well-written characters and sexy and interesting, alluring but never objectified or reduced to fan-service dolls maybe because a woman wrote this. The gags around the women aren’t using them as the punchline but the emotions of lust and sin that all humans feel, which fits in nicely with the themes and locale of the show.
Talking about characters… My favourite characters are the low-ranking but enthusiastic minions Karauri and Nasubi and the adventures they get into as they try and climb the corporate ladder and chase after food/oppai in a good-natured way. Hoozuki is also very badass. He is the type of boss you respect because he gets things done. He is so competent that if you worked for him you would feel confident that he can help solve any and all of your problems. Hoozuki is also a mystery which makes hanging around with him fun since he has so many different aspects, all of them slightly weird. Hanging with him is fun. “Hoozuki no Reitetsu” was an oddity in the Winter 2013/14 season because it was adult and dared to be intelligent and low-key. The makers count on the audience being intelligent enough to keep paying attention. There’s very little in the way of plot and the humour is very dry but the makers know that a committed audience will follow. The anime does require some knowledge of Japanese history and mythology but it also relies on a greater part of the maturity, experience and intelligence gained by the audience from being in those situations to make the most of it and there is a lot to enjoy.
Here’s a cool production video to give you a taste: