Play a game with Animefringe as we look at the horror anime Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek.
Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek premiered earlier this year in March at the Tokyo International Anime Fair, where it quietly picked up an award for Notable Entry in the General Category. In Korea, it received a Best Film Nomination at the Seoul Comics and Animation Festival. Later, it went on to win Best Short film at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.
The critical acclaim is well deserved, although this isn't the kind of anime that you would picture when thinking of an award-winning small studio's short film. It's not a thought-provoking drama, like Voices of a Distant Star, but it still manages to resonate with its viewers on a visceral level. In a time when anime seems to have yielded the horror genre over to live action films and TV, Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek is a refreshingly scary anime.
The world of Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek is a grungy, dilapidated city that is a mix of old and new. Masses of wires connect broken-down yet towering traditional Japanese style buildings. The city is often grey and smoggy, but even on sunny days, the buildings are so tall that they block out the sunlight. Rumors spread about this town. They say that kids go there to play a strange game of hide-and-seek. The rumors also say that the children who go to play don't come back. It's said that the demons who live in the city take them away.
This extra layer of danger only makes it more attractive to kids. All you have to do to join the game is to don a fox mask and follow the directions in the city's neon lights to a certain gateway in the city. Once seven kids have arrived, the gateway opens and the game begins.
Noshiga and his posse, Suku and Tachiji, play the game to prove how tough they are. Noshiga doesn't believe in demons, and he wants to disprove their existence by playing the game. Once the trio starts playing, however, it soon becomes apparent that Noshiga is all talk.
Twin brothers also join the game. They don't say much, but over the course of the game, they show that they can handle themselves pretty well against the dark forces of the city. Why they want to pit themselves against such powerful forces is a mystery.
Hiroka has the most at stake in the game. His sister, Sorincha disappeared after she went to play the game. By playing kakurenbo himself, he hopes to find out what happened to her. Hiroka's best friend, Yaimao is also there to help him out and to find the missing children.
In an odd twist, an eighth child shows up to play as well. She's quiet, and her motives for playing are unclear. Hiroka can't help but notice that she looks a lot like his missing sister.
Once the eight pass through the gates, they are pursued by four different demons: Kimo-Tori (liver taker), Chi-Tori (blood taker), Abura-Tori (oil taker) and Ko-Tori (child taker). The oni (which means not only 'demon,' but the person who is 'it' in the Japanese version of the children’s game Tag) are a mix of old and new, just like the town. It's hard to tell if they are made from wires and electricity, or muscle and sinew. Their appearance as living mechanical creatures is chilling and an interesting updated take on the whole oni mythology.
The children's designs are remarkable as well. Everything about each character, whether it's their kitsune (fox) mask or clothes gives them character. The animal masks give the characters an almost Walt Disney look to them. This and the young cast may mislead some people into thinking that this is an anime aimed at children. However, unless you want to have a creeped out, sleepless kid on your hands, think twice about showing Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek to any young children. Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek has no gore, but the tension throughout (not mention the monsters) may be too much for anyone under eight years old.
Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek is eerie throughout, but at the end, the true nature of the game is revealed, making the earlier parts even more unsettling upon re-viewing. Even small things, such as the flicker of a neon sign seem that much more sinister once you know the reason behind it.
Many things go into making this a scary anime besides the story. The music is beautiful, although it usually consists of only two instruments and some chanting. Whenever it plays, it ratchets up the tension and gloomy atmosphere of the city. It will be interesting to see what Reji Kitazato, the composer for Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek works on in the future.
The voice acting is great for every character. Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek is a short film, but through the script and the voice talent, every character gets a chance to shine when they are onscreen. The cast includes Junko Takeuchi, best known as the voice actress for Naruto in Naruto, playing the lead once again with the role of Hiroka.
One thing that doesn't get much notice in anime, but it is especially prevalent in Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek is the sound quality. Sound is a huge part of horror, and Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek upholds this tradition. Things creep around and go bump in the night, lights flicker on and off, and people gasp and scream in horror. Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek is still scary, perhaps even more so, when you are merely listening to it.
Although if you only listened to Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek, you would missing out on the spellbinding graphics. Combining 2-D animation with CGI isn't much of a novelty anymore, but few films have been able to do it as well as Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek. The entire city has an amazing amount of detail, whether it's a dingy alleyway or a shot overlooking the whole town. With each viewing, new visual clues and details become apparent.
The quality of the animation would be amazing from a big studio like Mad House or Gonzo, but this is a work of a four member production team called YAMATOWORKS. Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek is an excellent example of how far independent anime has come, that such an overall superb anime can come from such a small group of animators.
Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek came from the director Shuei Morita's desire to reconcile old Japanese folk legends with modern urban dwellings. In an interview, he explains how Japanese folklore legends concentrate much on fog and night, but in modern times, children play at night in the glow of neon lights without any fear of the dark. Because of the merging of old superstitions with modern trappings, Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek is especially scary for the urban dweller. The maze-like city, with its close alleyways and mysterious noises would be very familiar to anyone who lives or has ever lived in a big city. After viewing Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek, walking down a deserted street at night seems a little bit more surreal. It's hard not to imagine that there is an oni is following right behind you.