Anime and manga fans know better than to judge a series by its title, whether it’s one of those overly-literal mouthfuls like the fake-dating manga I Married My Best Friend Just to Shut My Parents Up or the “I swear it’s not what it sounds like” type, like a series about exploring oppressive expectations placed on women’s sexuality that’s saddled with the straight-out-of-a-porno title Maria the Virgin Witch. Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun, the stunning sleeper hit of the 2020 winter season, absolutely falls into the latter camp, at least for English-speaking viewers.
Hanako-san is a common urban legend in Japan. The somewhat awkward-sounding English title comes from the fact that Hanako is generally a location-bound spirit, a young girl who haunts school bathrooms and, depending on the version, is often either a victim of abusive parents or suicide. “Bathroom Ghost Hanako-kun” (the suffix denotes this is a male take on a usually female ghost) or something similar might’ve conjured up a few less eyebrow-raising images in translation, but those decisions are often outside of localizers’ hands. So here we are, facing the possibility that a gorgeous, melancholy ghost story is slipping right under people’s radars because it sounds like a story about a character with gastrointestinal issues.
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The series’ protagonist is Nene, a determined girl who becomes Hanako’s assistant after an impulsive wish leaves her with an unfortunate curse. Hanako is far from the only ghost haunting Nene’s school, and she’s often tasked with solving unusual hauntings. Ghosts, you see, are affected by the stories people spread about them; a quiet or even friendly spirit might be warped into something dangerous against its will if that’s the perception of it. From a striking visual design that uses thick lines, paper cutout-like interludes, and deeply saturated colors to writing that touches on fairly dark subjects with a light touch, Hanako-kun makes smart use of the concept of “appearance versus reality,” and plays with how fluid those definitions can be.
That’s not to say this is a grim sort of tale, though. The energetic dynamic between determined but guileless Nene, mischievous and melancholy Hanako, and hotheaded but soft exorcist Kou is the true beating heart of the series; the gut-punching moments land precisely because the show knows how to crack a joke and reward its protagonists’ efforts. Its horror taps into the insecurities that are particularly potent during adolescence — the uncertainty of the future, loneliness, being ignored or misunderstood, being vulnerable around others — and its ghosts meditate on their role as wasted stories. Even if their last wishes are granted, that won’t give them back the ability to age, grow, and change. But, the show quietly insists at the same time, the pursuit is worthwhile anyway. Hanako-kun‘s dedication to human connection is its greatest strength, and anyone able to look past the odd title will be rewarded with a beautiful story told with plenty of flair.