Ghost Stories Vol. 1

Is any art form sacrosanct? Is any work so sacred that one cannot comment upon it, critique it, criticize it, even lampoon it? Conservative theologians regard scripture as the Word of God, yet they write massive tomes discussing what its text means. The most revered art in the world is often ripe for parody -- how many funny variations on the Sistine Chapel can you find being sold at flea markets? If even the most hallowed work is open for satire, surely so can material that is purely commercial in nature.

This goes to the heart of the debate on a show like Ghost Stories. The program, a 19-episode series being released by ADV Films, has only one dub -- a dub that takes the central plot and then adds numerous humorous riffs. And why not? A faithful subtitled version is being included with the release as well, so connoisseurs can see what the show's creators originally intended. But bringing a show to the US is not always simple, especially when it's a show like Ghost Stories. Intended for younger audiences but inappropriate due to US standards of content for children, it simply wouldn't be a top seller with a straight translation. ADV has made the controversial decision to spice it up so that older audiences will buy the series. Because there's an authentic version also attached, it's a moot point to me. (I know some people argue that dub fans should have a faithful version too, but don't fill my email about it. It's just not my point of view.) Although I think ADV is nuts for deliberately disparaging the original form of the show (as dub creator Stephen Foster did in the most recent issue of Newtype Magazine), they own the US rights to the show. They can advertise it any way they want.

The question then changes. Rather than ask if ADV should have changed the show, we have to ask whether Ghost Stories is any good either way? My answer after the first three episodes is a qualified yes. This is not a major anime any way you look at it, but the dub is sporadically entertaining. It's also mostly just amusing and occasionally offensive. It covers the full bell curve of comedy in its attempt to make an insignificant show something you might consider watching -- and your view of comedy is really what will determine your attitude towards Ghost Stories.

Satsuki and her younger brother are headed to their new school when all hell literally breaks loose. They've made a few friends in their new town -- the lecherous neighbor kid, the local Jewish "psychic" kid, the born-again Christian kid who's just wandered in from the set of SAVED! -- but their cat goes into the old abandoned school building. It's haunted, of course, and the five get into a mess of trouble with a phantom who winds up possessing the feline. But Satsuki's dearly departed mom used to work at the school, and apparently she had magical ways of dealing with the ghoulies that popped up. Satsuki finds her mom's book of incantations, and they work! However, the construction near the school is stirring up the supernatural world, and this odd bunch of middle school brats is going to have to stop the influx before their town resembles something out of the pages of Dante.

Ghost Stories is in many ways reminiscent of a show released several years ago called Haunted Junction. Although Ghost Stories has better animation, the plotlines are surprisingly similar. Both involve a bunch of kids dealing with spirits in their school, and both rely on some lowest-common-denominator jokes. Whether you watch the sub or dub, you're still going to have bathroom humor, which was characteristic of Haunted Junction. And surprisingly enough, in the dub version, the characters become more like those from the other series too! Nevertheless, there are many differences overall, enough so that one can't be seen as truly derivative of the other. Perhaps it's just proof that patterns repeat themselves every so many years.

Since the dub of Ghost Stories is what's making waves, it's what I watched, and though it has many flaws, it's probably the best way to see the show. It doesn't mean that the original version is bad; I think ADV is downplaying the original to justify their wacky dub. But if it weren't for the dub, I wouldn't have watched the show at all, frankly. It just doesn't strike me as anything particularly unique.

The dub version, which is a gigantic riff on the original's plot, is all over the map. The style of the humor changes almost from episode to episode, and part of that change appears to be the voice actors getting comfortable with their parts and taking more risks with the material and with improvisation. Thus, the first episode feels stiff, the second less so, and the third much more polished. By the second episode, though, you can tell the voice actors are really getting into the wackiness that Stephen Foster is trying to create. I really have to hand it to the dub crew for sounding like they really enjoyed what they were doing. It's clear that it's much easier to do a great voice job when your lines sound like something you might actually say in English.

But is it funny? Yes, maybe, and no. It's very dependent on what you consider funny and what you consider bad form. Now there's little here that's patently offensive, just things that could have been handled better. For example, the dub creates religiously stereotyped characters that grate on you after a while. Momoko, the Christian character, is given nothing to do but spout religious catchphrases, and she's not respected in any way -- not only does she get possessed, she's as likely to make a profane reference to God as a sacred one. But lest we offend just the Christians in the audience, Leo the Jew is a self-centered tool...oh, and did I mention he's a Jew? Not only that, but when his parents show up, they have Yiddish accents that would make someone from Queens shiver. Between this show and Yugo the Negotiator, ADV Films seems poised to insult every major religion before the year's up. If that doesn't bother you, you might find the show's sexual humor out of place, especially when you consider that the main characters are barely 13. Neither problem was bad enough that I'd turn the show off, but enough that I was honestly annoyed.

But to be fair, the distasteful material in Ghost Stories is limited. What I found was that most of it was smirk-worthy. Many of the jokes come from taking cultural references and inserting them at various moments. For example, a possession becomes a "Linda Blair" (referencing The Exorcist). Yes, ha ha, very funny, very 1973. Most of these are OK, but they feel a little forced, not bad but not brilliant. And anybody who thinks that industry insider jokes about voice actors are funny really needs to get out more. But I also admit there are also a few outright howlers. Some references caught me off-guard, such as one about the recent controversy about Harvard's will be out of date in a couple of months, but it showed a certain level of intelligence. It's very scattershot, but the good laughs and the generous little gags give the show almost enough momentum to get through the rough patches and the jokes that fall flat.

It really seems that Stephen Foster is trying to make Ghost Stories into a less foul version of South Park, right down to its caricaturing of religion through Cartman and Kyle, but it misses that mark. South Park may have something to offend everyone, but it can also be hysterically funny, and even its bits with religion in the crosshairs usually make a point. Ghost Stories needs to be a lot funnier, a lot more pointed, and a lot less stereotypical if it's going to reach that level. Does that make it bad? Actually, no! Considering they are working with an already finished show without any editing, they've done a decent job. It's nowhere near Cromartie High School, but it's not bad.

ADV Films has sent me the final version of the first DVD with the fourth episode, and I admit I'm looking forward to seeing how the program continues. My hope is that Foster's crew gets better with each episode and goes for the truly funny versus just whatever jokes they can plug in. As such, it gets a cautious recommendation. If you're aware of what you're getting into, you might enjoy yourself. Ghost Stories is not a great show by any means, but it's entertaining enough to try.

Ghost Stories Vol. 1 -- mild profanity, bathroom/sexual humor, occult references -- B