Gakkou no Kaidan (学校の怪談)
ADV Films (Original)
Discotek Media (License Rescue)
The original Japanese anime release of Ghost Stories
Horror, Comedy, Supernatural
English (for Japanese Dub)
Available via RightStuf.com on DVD
In a western anime market which now frequently acquires simulcast, online streaming and home video distribution rights simultaneously, there is a risk that a series could potentially underwhelm its target audience and potentially not stand to do well in the market. While a company could choose not to allocate as many resources to the series, take a risk or potentially drop plans for a home video release, back in 2005, ADV Films decided to do something completely different which has not been replicated since on such a grand scale.
The company acquired the rights to a basic and uninspired horror series titled Ghost Stories (Gakkou no Kaidan | 学校の怪談). In a market where English dubs were almost obligatory, ADR Director Steven Foster chose to give the series a joke dub and allowed the voice actors / actresses to ad-lib their lines. It was a controversial decision even post-launch, that in my opinion paid off. With the downfall of ADV Films in 2009, there were many titles dropped which have never been seen again in the English market. While it vanished for a few years, the series had enough attention to be license rescued by Discotek Media earlier this year, and is now available on DVD.
The overarching storyline of Ghost Stories is fairly simple. A female elementary school student by the name of Satsuki Manshita moves into the hometown of her now deceased mother, alongside her brother (Keiichirou), father and pet cat. On their first day of school, Keiichirou sneaks the cat in his schoolbag which escapes into the old school building. With the assistance of fellow students Hajime Aoyama, Leo Kakinoki and upperclassman Momoko Koigakubo, the siblings enter the school only to find that it is haunted by spirits. With construction work around the town undoing the seals on ghosts that Satsuki’s mother placed during her youth, these five students tackle a “ghost of the week” scenario as they attempt to put them back to sleep – alongside the assistance/antagonism of Amanojaku, a spirit that now possesses the cat’s body.
In the original Japanese release, the plots are decently constructed but lack any personality and interesting character development that would hold the attention of older viewers or help it stand out from even the other disappointing anime from the early 2000’s. If you really want to watch the original Japanese dub however, it is still included on-disc with English subtitles. What you should buy the series for is the English dub for all 20-episodes, which maintained the basic structure of the Japanese script (Which would be hard to avoid given the animation) however allowed the rest to be fused with an amalgamation of pop culture references, pointing out issues in the storytelling, fourth wall breaking, complete character rewrites, risqué comedy and much more. Some of the references made may not have aged well after a decade, but it is impressive how a voice cast that was pretty much ad-libbing the entire script managed to have everything come together so well.
More than just a part of Ghost Stories’ success would be due to the English voice cast, who lend their voices beautifully to the script despite some of the more absurd moments present throughout it. The highlight of the dub is Rob Mungle who voices Amanojaku, suiting the darker humour presented by his character very well. However the other five core members of the English voice cast – Monica Rial, Chris Patton, Hilary Haag, Greg Ayres and Christine M. Auten also deserve a pat on the back for their roles as well. Even if you don’t usually choose to watch English dubs, this might be the one exception you are looking for.
It honestly surprises me that the English voice cast didn’t decide to do a parody opening for Ghost Stories as well, given that the opening theme Grow Up by Hysteric Blue doesn’t really offer much in terms of song or animation. Fortunately the ending theme Sexy Sexy by Cascade is genuinely enjoyable despite the animation consisting of static images. The remainder of the musical backing across the 20-episodes was fairly bland, but gave the English dub room to shine at the very least.
For an anime series produced in 2000 the visual quality of Ghost Stories isn’t half bad, with decent character and environment designs. Especially notable was that animation studio Pierrot (Tegami Bachi, Polar Bear Cafe) managed to produce some decently designed new spirits each week that were not just “Generic Blob A” or “Uninspired Shadowy Creature 32″. With the English Dub poking fun at production values whenever possible, the characters will often comment and try to justify any errors or illogical movements during the episodes.
While there may have been content originally produced by ADV Films for their release of Ghost Stories, the new Discotek Media release features all 20-episodes over three discs but absolutely no bonus content. This is a pity, as it would have been great to have seen a compilation of commentaries that ADV Films liked to throw into some of their series (Princess Tutu in particular comes to mind).
Not all the comedy may have aged well and some would have been hit-or-miss even a decade ago, Ghost Stories’ English dub resulted in a series which may have sold very poorly at launch being one that is still worth having available for purchase today. While known to have worked on some questionable English dubs before, this is one of the highlights from Foster’s career in ADR Directing, and shines as an entertaining and very original anime series. The question is… will we ever see something like this again, where a failed anime series is given new life through comedy? Unfortunately no Australian anime publisher has licensed this title, and as with many older titles it is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be a release outside of the US.