Animating Halloween: Kowabon Review

Plot: An episodic series of horror shorts animated with a cel-shaded rotoscoping technique.

Breakdown: Being the sucker for short horror stories that I am, I decided to look up similar series to Yami Shibai and came upon Kowabon.

And even though I didn’t really dislike it, I can’t say it’s really all that good either.

Kowabon is animated using rotoscoping, which is a technique that is, has been and will likely always be controversial and seen as a lazy form of animating. Rotoscoping involves filming live actors like you would with any film then tracing over the footage frame by frame to make the animation. It has been used since practically the dawn of animation and even though it’s not as common today (MoCap is basically its successor), it still gets used.

I’ve always been of two minds when it comes to rotoscoping. On one hand, I can definitely see the argument that it’s lazy given that it is literal tracing, but on the other hand you still have to have a good deal of artistic talent to truly make it work without making it look janky or uncanny valley.

The art style they use to go with the rotoscoping is alright. It’s cel-shaded with thick lineart, which allows it to feel more strongly like an anime, but it also maintains the exact actors’ faces, which contributes to the added feeling of realism. I wouldn’t say it’s entirely unique, but it’s uncommon and definitely works in this series’ favor.

It’s a bit difficult to talk about Kowabon outside of that because there are no real stories or characters. I wanted to check out Kowabon because it was another series of really really short episodes, and considering Animating Halloween was coming up I thought it’d make for some great episode-by-episode reviews to help fill up the month, but I didn’t quite realize how much of a hindrance that short run time would be. Their episodes are even shorter than Yami Shibai, clocking in at barely three minutes and that’s with an ending theme song and credits.

Still, it wouldn’t be impossible for me to review each episode on its own….if there were actual stories to talk about.

Kowabon’s strength lies in its creative visuals and fairly good ambiance. It does not lie in its story or characters because they simply don’t have any.

The people in the stories have names, but they’re mostly just bodies to put on screen to be victims.

Another issue with reviewing this series episode-by-episode is in the fact that basically every ‘story’ is the same.

There are two threads that hold every episode of Kowabon together.

The first is cameras. 99% of this series is seen through the lens of a camera, whether it be smartphone cameras, webcams, security cams, even doorbell cams and, here’s something I’ve never seen before, backup cameras – the ones you have on your car to help you reverse.

What’s that, you say? A heavy theme on cameras probably means an overreliance on distortion effects to help deliver scares? Why you’re absolutely right, reader!

Which brings us to the second thread – the girl.

Design-wise, the girl is basically an amalgamation of the ghost from The Ring and a warped version of Manny from Grim Fandango. The girl is given no name, backstory, MO, or even a location where she’s supposed to frequent. She’s just kinda everywhere. Maybe not even limited to Japan. The only consistent thing with her is that she appears wherever someone is being filmed. I was going to say she can also only be seen with a camera but there’s evidence to the contrary on that front.

Each episode is exactly the same. Normal people doing very normal things. Then the video distortion starts. It gradually gets worse. Either the character given focus will notice weird stuff happening or the person on the other end of the call or watching the feed will notice, which frequently leads to ‘There look behind you! There!’ ‘What?….Quit fooling around, I don’t see anything.’ More distortion, the girl appears, more horror elements then boom, the girl gets the victim.

Sometimes they’ll add on a little bit after, like in one of the episodes they have the girl pretend to be the victim to her friend then send her a flood of texts demanding she open the door, which I thought was surprisingly effective, but they’re all the exact same story.

Even though there are little things that add to the scare factor, it becomes very formulaic very fast.

The ‘stories’ also have absolutely nothing to do with each other outside of the last two. Episode twelve, which is arguably the silliest episode, but I still found amusing, has a pop idol making a video of herself at some park dancing. The girl gets her, then episode thirteen has a fan of hers going to the spot where she disappeared to investigate what happened. Surprise of all surprises, the girl gets him there too.

The series is half and half when it comes to jump scares. They tend to rely on the creepy vibe they’re creating, but they sometimes can’t help themselves but go for the obvious jump.

Even the music is a bit off. There isn’t a lot of actual music, which is nice to add ambiance, but what is there is typical horror music. Then you have the ending theme song, which, while being very catchy, is a sharp contrast to the theme of the show. It has bouncy little cartoons, the song itself is very bubbly and fun, and it feels so weird being in a horror show.

To take you out of the experience even more, each episode has a behind-the-scenes clipshow of the episode in question playing in the corner as the credits roll. I really like watching behind-the-scenes stuff, and it’s nice to see the cast and crew enjoying what they’re doing, but it really yanks you out of whatever horror mood you were in. And there’s no dialogue so you don’t even get cool little behind-the-scenes tidbits outside of what you can gather from the video footage.

All of this culminates in a bit of a mess of a series. I like some of the stylistic choices, and some of the creative horror elements were really neat to watch. I also like how it’s insanely easy to binge watch it. I never had a difficult time going through any of the episodes because they were so short. I really think if they were much longer it would become a chore to sit through, given the formula they use.

However, I can’t deny that there’s no structure, no story, no characters, uneven tones and a boring repetitive baddie that is so close to The Ring (Hey, she does come out of video screens sometimes) ghost I almost want to call copyright infringement.

Additional Information and Notes: Kowabon was directed by Kazuma Taketani. This is Taketani’s directorial debut, but, to date, he doesn’t have any additional crew credits to his name, which is disappointing. Interestingly, it was written by Hiromu Kumamoto, who did the scripts for every iteration of Yami Shibai to date except the fifth entry. It’s kinda strange that I keep trying to find things similar to Yami Shibai and I continue to end up back with the crew of Yami Shibai. Is it really that niche of a market?

And just to keep that circle going, it was produced by ILCA, who also produced not only every Yami Shibai to date but also Sekai no Yami Zukan.

There is no English version available nor is it currently licensed in the US.

Episodes: 13

Year: 2015

Recommended Audience: No sex, swearing, or anything really bad. There’s some bloody handprints in one episode, but that’s about it. Given the horror themes, we’re probably already slightly up there in age range, but it’s okay for 10+ probably.


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Animating Halloween: Yami Shibai 7 Episodes 1 & 2 Review

Episode 1: Delivery

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Plot: A man housesits for a friend and stays a few more days than initially promised to accept some packages for him. What exactly keeps getting sent to his house?

Breakdown: WHOO!! Another round of Yami Shibai goodness for Animating Halloween! And since the season finale has finally dropped, I can binge watch it. Yay!

The series opener this time around is creepy but also rather confusing. Why is the viewer in a creepy rundown building, and why is the narrator putting on a kamishibai show in the middle of this rundown building?

Anyhoo, if this episode’s plot sounds boring to you….that’s because it is. I would say it’s a lot of buildup for a big scare, but it’s not. I feel like spoiling this one for ya, so here goes.

This guy is housesitting for his friend. However, on the day he was meant to come home, he asks the guy if he can stay another day and accept a package for him. The guy accepts, but the package doesn’t get there until very late and the delivery man acts kinda creepy, but he moreso came off as tired, which is understandable if he’s still delivering packages at 9:00PM.

The friend asks him to do it for him again the next day, and the same thing happens. He decides to call his friend, and hears the phone inside one of the boxes. When his friend picks up the phone, the guy asks when he’s coming home, and the friend responds that he’s already home as the packages start kinda turning red I think. The delivery guy bangs on the door outside saying he has the rest of his packages.

The end.

Well, that was certainly was a heartstopper to start the show with.

I admit that it was an interesting twist, but I also have a ton of questions. How did the first package neither smell nor leak when he got it if it was filled with friend parts? Is this implying that the delivery man killed the friend while he was away on vacation or business or what have you, brought his body back to where he lived, chopped up his body, put it into convenient packages, tricked the guy into waiting all day, twice, taking one of the packages one night and keep up the farce until the guy figured it out? For what purpose? Why would you do that? It doesn’t make any sense.

There’s no indication that the delivery man is anything supernatural, so this just comes off as a psycho murderer dicking around with some random dude for two days.

Episode 2: The Sleepless Child

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Plot: Left alone in the house overnight with her husband working late at work, Sawako gets her young son, Takeru, ready for bed. Sawako is very nervous when he has to be alone at night…and she should be. The night has a habit of bringing old, bad memories up to the surface. But one of those memories won’t be forgotten.

Breakdown: Well, at least I can say that this episode certainly made up for the first one.

This episode does a great job at both building up atmosphere and delivering scares. It also added a twist I certainly didn’t see coming. It was a mostly unique concept that went in a different direction than you’d normally think. I thought for sure the kid would be a demon or possessed or something.

I will mark them off a tiny bit for the jump scare at the end. Come on, Yami Shibai. I thought you were usually above jump scares.


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Episode One-Derland: Bartender

Plot: A secluded warm bar called Eden Hall welcomes its guests with a mysterious drink they call The Glass of the Gods, a drink that is perfect for your particular troubles. The master bartender and owner of Eden Hall, Sasakura, uses his keen observations, insight and gentleness to help customer’s through their problems.

Breakdown: We all know the bartender trope. Bartenders are kind and friendly people who offer solutions to problems or just to lend an ear while pouring you a nice drink. Well, what if there was a show about that?

I don’t think Bartender is the greatest candidate for Episode-Oneland since it seems pretty episodic to me at first glance, but the main focus of the whole series is indeed the Bartender.

Ryuu Sasakura, one of the best bartenders in the world, tends bar at Eden Hall. He makes spot-on observations and analyses on completely minor things like Detective Conan and makes perfect drinks to sate the worries of the customer. And yes, in this episode anyway, the customer’s problems were seemingly solved just by making the guy a really nice drink.

The customer in this episode is a man who has been contracted out to renovate a hotel bar. However, he despises bars and especially has a poor view of bartenders as pretentious people with no real skills and even refers to them by the ‘slur’ of ‘barten.’ Despite this, he seems to have a vast knowledge of drinks and liqueur as a whole. He enters Eden Hall through chance and has a complete 180 on his opinion of bars and bartenders after meeting and getting a Glass of the Gods from Sasakura.

That’s the whole story. No, I’m not kidding.

Also, the reason behind this man’s hatred of bars and bartenders is kinda dumb. When he was a college student, he went to his first bar. He chose one of those fancy-ish bars and went alone, so he’s already making all sorts of mistakes for a first-time run.

He feels really uncomfortable right as he enters the door, noting the door’s heaviness as feeling like the bar is actively trying to keep people out. He’s appalled at the high cost of a bowl of nuts and feels like an outsider for not being there on a recommendation.

He orders a beer and feels like a cheapskate for doing so. He orders a whiskey in order to feel more proper, all the while believing everyone in the room is either silently judging him or laughing at him. He reaches for his wallet and finds that it fell out of a gigantic hole in his pocket that I can’t believe he’s just now noticing, and then believes everyone in the bar is staring at him, laughing at him, judging him and whatnot. The bartender then gently touches his hand and tells him that they can settle the bill some other time.

So, yeah, he hates bars and bartenders because he’s a paranoid crazy person and had a slightly embarrassing experience with a bartender who was actually really nice about the whole situation.

This show puts a lot of focus on the, for lack of a better term, ‘psychology’ behind drinks and bars. Drinks are highlighted and explored, we’re told when a drink is appropriate for certain situations, and we even get a legitimate recipe at the end of the episode.

More importantly, though, as Sasakura explains, why you drink what and when and when you’d be better suited for what drink over another depends on both you as a person and your current state of mind. A drink can be a soothing experience, a getaway, something fun, nostalgic etc. Most of all, the bartender’s job is to create an openness and gentleness to the patron’s experience, creating a safe and warm atmosphere for everyone who wants a place to go just to feel like they belong or when they want a hideaway.

The art is alright for the characters themselves and not much animation is needed with the people, but a lot of detail and fluidity is put on drink preparation and presentation, which is pretty nice. Plus, the environments are nicely detailed. The direction is also fairly stylized and pleasantly arranged.

The music is reminiscent of lounge music to a degree. I enjoyed it. It was very relaxing.

While the story is definitely different and, admittedly, a little on the odd side, I will say that I never lost interest and I did feel relaxed through the whole thing, which may be one of the main points of this anime – to emulate the bar experience.

Verdict:

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If anything, it’s a short and relaxing series and really makes you wish more bars were like Eden Hall.

Edit: I have completed Bartender and will upload the full review soon.


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