NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION HERE'S SHINBI'S GODDANG HAUNTED HOUSE.
More than one person, over the past couple of years, actually asked me if I knew about this Korean anime (and let's not get uppity about whether that qualifies as "anime") but with my attention span and short-term memory in a non-stop race to see who's the worst, it still slipped my mind for over a year. It was only while browsing the "horror" tag on Netflix that I stumbled on the first season's English dub, and finally gave it a try.
The first thing that grabbed my attention in this intro sequence was probably the split second glimpse of Mothman. The next thing I noticed was that this looked like Korea's answer to Yo-Kai Watch, but maybe just a little dash...edgier? Granted, it's only the intro sequence, but the series mascot - Shinbi, the green "goblin" - seemed to be the only monster present with any of your usual, market-driven cuteness. It at least looked darker than Pokemon, obviously, so perhaps more on the level of Digimon or Yokai Watch: Shadowside, right? It certainly couldn't be any more serious, could it?
I actually had no idea what I was getting into, but rather than spoil too much, too soon, let's pretend you didn't already see Slenderman wring the demonic sludge from a gang of child corpses as I review the very first episode I watched, so you can take almost the same emotional journey that I did a few weeks ago.
Episode One: "Dreadful Descent of the Drowned Ghosts."
This first episode begins on our main human characters: Hari is a 12 year old girl, and actually the only girl I've seen as the lead monster-catcher in this type of series. Doori is her 10 year old brother who can also see dead people, Jimi is their adorable hard-working mom and Rico is their adorable, hard-working stay-at-home dad, who can cook a Ghibli-quality cartoon dinner.
Before we continue with the story, one thing that really strikes me about this anime family is just how close it is and how much we see of the parents, at least in early episodes. I didn't even realize that was anything unusual until I saw this mom and dad doting on their children so much more than the parents of most Japanese anime, let alone other monster-catching series.
We're then introduced to the series mascot, Shinbi the green "goblin." We're brought up to speed with some quick flashbacks to what I think is a movie special that kicked off the series, and it's clarified that while Shinbi is a supernatural being, he is not a "ghost." In fact, he's afraid of ghosts, and he'll only use his magical powers to help the children if they're willing to help him out by ridding the apartments of their various curses and hauntings, which is a pretty fun way to rationalize their adventures.
In this case, Shinbi can't quite pinpoint the source of the ghostly activity he's sensing, but the apartments are "coincidentally" warned that the water will have to be shut off for an unspecified plumbing problem, and the kids begin to catch glimpses of a dark aura surrounding faucets, drains and even a humidifier.
That night, Hari is awoken by a leaky ceiling, and finds the whole apartment soaked. What's more, her father is still standing where she last saw him in the kitchen - where the humidifier was running - as though he's entranced by the water filling the sink. Mom, meanwhile, is found gazing into their overflowing bathtub, and her own children suddenly have to stop her from drowning as she tries to climb head-first into the water.
The kids do their best to snap both parents out of their mysterious stupor, but as soon as Doori's back is turned, the cursed black fluid springs to life and drags him into the tub - where he finds a seemingly infinite aquatic void that continues to pull him down, and I believe this was the first moment I realized would never have been played as straight for horror in Yo-Kai Watch. There are no last-minute wise-cracks, no comedic facial reactions, none of what usually butts in to "lighten the mood" when the competition gingerly dips a toe into scenarios this morbid.
Hari pulls her brother back out, but she's too late to save him from the water's curse. Her whole family is now under the unknown spirit's possession, and the tension is as thick as any offered by mature, live-action supernatural mystery. We usually know, in a kid's series with any degree of adventure, that the characters are facing a possibility of death. It does not, however, feel quite as tangible as it does here. This girl's mother, father and kid brother are uncontrollably trying to drown themselves.
We're only reminded again that this is a kid show when Hari seeks the help of the goblin again, but as soon as she opens the door to her apartment, she finds her neighbors roaming the halls in the same zombie-like state. They're all curiously flocking to the elevators and stairs, too, bent on ascending the building by any means necessary, and Hari's family soon joins them.
Hari follows the possessed crowd all the way to the roof, and we're met with the disturbing sight of whole families mindlessly piling themselves into the building's water tank, more like parasitized insects than human beings. These water tanks are already death traps in our own reality, responsible world-wide for multiple drowning deaths a year.
Climbing the column of bodies, Hari finds people flailing in the water and begging for help...but still clearly under the spell. One man, eyes still solid pools of black water, even reaches out and cooperates as Hari attempts to pull him to safety, as if there's still a part of him fighting back against the curse...but a pair of ghoulish, childlike figures soon emerge from the depths, and pull their victim back with amorphous, watery tentacles.
When Hari looks these spirits in the eyes, she suddenly experiences a rush of memories that aren't her own: two little boys on a hot summer day, envious that another family is leaving to go swimming while they're stuck playing ball in the narrow deck of the apartment complex.
When another neighbor berates the kids for getting in his way (and accidentally hitting him with their ball), they decide to go to the roof where they can play in peace, and we already know what they find there, and the idea that they get into their heads. The audience doesn't need to see what happens next to know what happens next, and I've never seen this kind of series really go that far, so it's understandable that this one...what?
Oh. I see. They go there. They show us two carefree, excited little boys climb what they think they can use as their own personal, secret swimming hole, we see them secure a rope that they're sure they can use to climb back out, and we see the rope predictably give out under their weight. It's only then that the sequence is over, leaving us with the knowledge that nobody heard them or found them until their bodies must have hurt too much to keep treading water.
Many kid's series feature ghosts. Many even feature ghosts that are explicitly the spirits of dead people. I can think of very few, however, that walked us so soberly through a death so brutally senseless and so terribly, terribly realistic.
Hari realizes she's the only one whose mind is clear enough to do something, and figures out that there's a release valve at the bottom of the tank. She dives in, pursued by the two ghosts, and nearly drowns as well by the time she finally turns the valve and releases the water.
With the tank empty, the ghost brothers come to their own senses and apologize for what they've done, stating that they were simply that alone and that cold - that they did what they did because all they could think about or care about was the warmth of being with people again. They're the logical final feelings of a scared child fading away in cold, dark water, and those feelings have only kept festering for years as their disappearances remained unsolved.
The ghosts revert to looking human as they thank Hari for freeing them, and together the two boys finally ascend to heaven...but in their place, Hari receives a small, glowing orb, and this harrowing roller coaster ends with another reminder of the type of show we're actually watching here.
The "Drowned Twins of the Water" become the first ghost Hari has officially added to her "Ghost Ball;" a marketable looking wrist-mounted gadget with which she can call upon the powers of any ghost she's laid to rest. The episode ends soon after, but even while we're still processing what just happened, we're also introduced to a comical wrap-up sequence included in every episode:
...But speaking of processing what just happened, it actually took me a moment to really appreciate the places this story went, and I wondered if it was one of those series that just poured a little extra passion into its debut episode. They couldn't all be this grim, could they?
To think, I wasn't even sure this series would have creature designs as good as Digimon.
Most episodes share the same basic formula as "Dreadful Descent of the Drowned Ghosts," but it's a solid formula. Terrifying and impossible things begin to happen, children get involved whether they want to or not, we usually learn the spirit's emotionally brutal origins, their souls ascend to the beyond and the kids expand their collection of vengeful poltergeists.
This is NOT to say that the dead are repeatedly yanked from Heaven to beat up a Mewtwo or an Etemon, mind you; there are many spiritual traditions in which the same soul can be split into different aspects. Part of you can pass on to the next realm or even reincarnate, while an entirely different part of you may remain on Earth or even bound to your corpse. This is usually understood to represent your impurities, vices and worldly desires, and in some mythology can indeed manifest as a restless spirit or even take that corpse of yours for a little joy ride.
What we did not know, apparently, is that the dark side of your soul is also a kind of pokeball.
Most unusual for this monster collecting slant, Haunted House seemingly took at least two or three years to exceed a hundred unique ghosts, but admittedly with such quality over quantity that the selection still covers more bases than many longer-running franchises, at least from what I've seen so far. I've actually watched only a handful of episodes by the time of this writing, because I haven't really wanted to burn through what little I'm even able to watch. While the first season has been available dubbed on Netflix since 2017, the three entire seasons that have aired up to 2021 are much more elusive.
An official youtube channel offers all of season 2, but the third and fourth are condensed into "recap" clips, unless you can find their third party, much poorer quality uploads, and R.I.P. if you don't speak Korean, because you don't have many options outside youtube's auto-translated captioning:
I wish I could say that this lack of Western presence makes no sense, but a Netflix dump with so little promotion was never going to kick off a hot new craze, and you can't expect the superficial eyes of the marketing business to look farther past its surface resemblance to Yo-Kai Watch - a franchise whose localization was finally written off as a failure by the time Pokemon: Sun and Moon landed the very same year. Worse yet, Haunted House only ties in with a limited selection of app games, lacking the major console presence that monster-catchers typically depend upon.
The final nail in the coffin? As unfair as it is, that would be the simple fact that this is a South Korean media brand. Korean animation doesn't even come close to the global demand of Japanese anime, lacks the same degree of corporate backing, and hasn't anywhere near as many dedicated translation teams. As much media as this one has put out for several years running, there isn't even a fansub project anywhere in sight.
If there's any solace we can take here, however, it's that these grisly ghouls still have a home where they're loved and appreciated. There are app games, yes, and a trading card game, multiple figure lines, plushes, snack foods, movies, and hundreds of officially licensed youtube videos that vary from live action comedy skits to these crudely animated horror tales. These, by the way, are coherently subtitled, so you can at least enjoy some horrid little urban legends "hosted" by Shinbi's dead friends.
Hell, these characters are SO popular in their native Korea, there are even these officially authorized youtube baby songs. While Americans still fear that a Disney cartoon can turn their children into gay Satanists, South Korean toddlers are apparently learning letters and numbers from the demon Belphegor and a decomposing nurse. Childhood goals.
I actually spent the entirety of 2021's last Friday the 13th putting together this overview, and we're not nearly done with Shinbi yet. Stay tuned for at least one more episode review and one or more dedicated monster design reviews, possibly season by season, while I daydream about a better world in which anything we've just looked at was already as household a name as Bulbasaur.