Go to hell, and punch your time card on the way down so we do not end up with unbalanced books.
(Part two of a six post series featuring my favorite anime productions of 2014; consider reading the others!)
Workplace comedies are a seemingly inexhaustible entertainment staple over numerous decades of film and television, and for good reason.
Change the profession or location, and a whole whole of new opportunities open up. Switch around different kinds of personality types and character roles, and areas explored in one peice of such media are blown wide open all over again. They can be high and low effort, across the spectrum, and unless one is in such a position of privilege they have never needed to work a day in their life the ability of a viewer to relate to a general idea of “weird / annoying / terrible / funny things happening in a workplace environment” is not entirely foreign to them.
Most of us tend to acquire a set of our own little tales that end up being told to friends and family at get togethers.
Assume then, if but for a moment, that the religious systems of the world do function as laid out in texts and scriptures. As in, all of them, at once. In turn, all the visions of the afterlife they bring to the table. Imagine the bureaucracy in keeping such engines running on a day to day level. An administrative machine that needs to operate for all eternity.
It would, in a manner of speaking, be hell.
Hōzuki no Reitetsu has been a bestselling manga since its debut in 2011, on track to breach the ten million mark in due time on its current course, and it brings us into that kind of world.
The titular ogre Hōzuki, cool headed to the point of deadpanning his way through afterlife (both knowingly or not) in the most dire of circumstances, acting as the right hand man and executive aid to King Enma. As such, his duties spread far and wide, effectively making him everything from internal corporate troubleshooter to event planner to resource acquisition to site beautification overseer. And everything in-between, outside, and around that. A brutally efficient professional with the spiked club to match, as a result of his larger standing orders to keep things running smoothly most residents of this form of Japanese Buddhist hell tend to fear him a lot more than the generally jolly Yama himself. And there are a lot of divisions and subdivisions that need to be maintained, given the religious traditions this series draws from.
As one would hope, the series does delight in rolling out a complete cast with all kind of figures from lore and religion. This does extend to ones outside of more specific Japanese tales as well, as mentioned; a character like Satan, who runs a form of Christian hell, is as likely to wander in seeing if he can scope out a corporate takeover just as much as arriving for giving business seminars. He is fundamentally the highest level executive of his own punishment operation with unique administrative needs as well, after all.
A keen element which has assisted this series so much with its popular rise as a weekly comic however, and which led into it being well received to the point of it being one of the bestselling anime titles of the year, is it strikes such a swell balance regarding its flow for the mythology gags. The characters and dialogue choices avoid the pitfall of ponderous “As you know…” style exposition and explanations, while at the same time it does not merely throw audience members to the wolves to figure things out regarding who is who for themselves. A few sentences to a character who never heard of a certain individual, a highlight or two of their notable achievements or infamy, and given in a manner where it eases the uninitiated in while not dragging on or killing the jokes. In many respects, the way someone introduce a friend or colleague to another peer in their own lives. Enough to break the ice, get things going, and the interactions that follow making for engagement and exchange.
Few people particularly like either being shoved into a room with someone and expected to have an immediate rolocking good time, and giant walls of pre-introduction speeches come off more intimidating than not in most social circumstances. Hōzuki no Reitetsu is thoughtful and mindful of this, despite the subject matter being hell itself. I feel its approach works swell for those unfamiliar with the characters and concepts in play to get a good handle on them, and then move on to experience and interaction, and at the same time there are great jokes balanced for those who do already have that outside information as well.
It is sharp, especially as the series goes on, but not to the point where it cuts off one group to spite or favor the other.
The visual style and artistic direction employed by the series is something which makes it an immediate standout, both on the shelves and your screen of choice.
Naturally inspired in large part by the art of Japanese hell scrolls (among other artistic traditions), which now make for grand and treasured museum set pieces and the like, Hōzuki no Reitetsu’s backgrounds in particular are geared for emphasizing an old, worn, painted look. The ethereal, wispy result is the kind of execution that would have been on the spectrum to impossible to almost assuredly disastrous to attempt to employ on a live action production, similar to how the outlandish cartoon gothic underworld look of something like Hells (Hell’s Angels) is better suited to drawing than physical sets. In this case, with the presence of so many mythological, religious, or what have you figures in play, the visual look reinforces their surroundings as a place they should be.
Characters fit in because this is the kind of atmosphere and landscape woven for them over hundreds of years by great artists centuries ago, and retaining that to the best of its ability. So in adapting the source material to animation it is able to showcase a kind of world with motion and sound we may have never been able to see realized in other film and television media. The animated series takes advantage of this opportunity, and for all the jokes relating to administrative duties and trying to ensure various corporate fires are put out it never looks drab, dull, or boring either.
It is a place of radically diverse sets and imagery, and characters have their free time activities as well such as Hōzuki penchant for cultivating award winning goldfish flowers with the contorted warbling screams to match.
An important takeaway from Hōzuki no Reitetsu is it never devolves into a series about the lead outright hating their work.
Hōzuki is the kind of character who, with his matter of fact disposition and imposing manner, one could see being easily transformed into someone whose entire character was built around complaining about incompetent fools below him and oblivious management above him. A being of frustration, contempt, and bile. Of which there are definitely equivalents in other workplace comedy shows, live action or animation alike. It is not an unfamiliar feeling at times in our own employment to be sure, so that such archetypes are employed in other productions has a line of reasoning behind it. I also find that approach to be something of a gimmick that can rapidly wear thin however, same as with various caustic internet video personalities of recent years who base their entire brand on being angry.
Hōzuki, by contrast, does genuinely enjoy his line of work.
He both has and picks up friends on the job. He eats in the employee cafeteria while watching television with his coworkers. He has a desire for efficiency that can scare some, but the gig itself he finds quite fulfilling and he is well suited to trying to ensure operates like a well oiled machine. The kind of situation where if he is not getting calls, then that means it has been a good day. Hōzuki considers his work important, since it directly impacts the effective punishment of souls so that they can appropriately face retribution within this theological structure and to then in turn be able to move on to their next phase of existence after hell. All of this fleshes his character and his interactions with others out a lot more than a one note archetype, and it makes him a strong central presence to carry the series with. It lends matters well to a more heartfelt and nuanced comedy when he is making a grand speech to a group, or giving his boss an antagonistic glare. He is not just being a jerk in such a moment, but having an entire conversation unto itself regarding policy and past histories regarding what they do for an afterliving and why they do it.
All this makes for much for effective long term viewing for me, even if the series is only thirteen episodes long (with each containing two stories apiece). I become much more interested in how Hōzuki goes through his day, the problems that arise, and how he will consider resolving them.
It also adds much more gravitas when he does demonstrate acts of whimsy, subtle as they may seem or even his attempts to hide them from others. He has his own little set of interests and quirks, and they speak more toward reinforcing his character than any amount of base level angry unfiltered reactionary verbal hellstorm would have done for him. When characters say they respect or admire Hōzuki, or the series even tries to float something of a possible love interest for him (complete with potential underworld tabloid coverage) it does not come across as an absolutely insane and unthinkable act.
Hōzuki may be cool headed in all manner of situations, but he is not a sheer piece of flat ice. There is a texture to him, granular qualities as he gets through the day with those around him for what may as well be eternity.
He would not last very long in hell otherwise, I imagine.