4 out of 5
Directed by: Hiro Kaburaki (season 1), Kazuhiro Yoneda (season 2)
covers seasons 1 and 2
I have no idea what, like, 80% of Hozuki’s Coolheadedness is on about. It riffs heavily on Japanese folklore and pop culture, relentlessly, building up characters and their antics based on such things, then populating a lot of spaces in between with sight gags and references. And yet, it’s all delivered so exuberantly that… I’m laughing anyway. That I don’t care that I’m not getting the “real” joke and likely embarrassing myself by laughing at something that’s undoubtedly going over my head. It’s just so giddy; so well paced and visually expressive. It’s that friend who tells the same joke you just told, but infinitely better. It’s the friend who can tell a joke that’s maybe not funny, but it comes across as hilarious anyway.
Hozuki is the advisor to King Enma – the head judge of Japanese Hell – and his titular coolheadedness has him overseeing all of the daily antics that pass by his boss, and through the countless specific hells he oversees, with a nigh-unchanging seriousness. Each episode is split into 15-ish minute sections (generally unconnected in the first season; linked by a character or concept in the second) which proposes some problem that needs solving, and Hozuki issues some type of dry, taciturn ruling – sometimes by manipulating Enma to his side on the matter; sometimes bypassing the king altogether – and then we follow that to its conclusion. However, it’s not that simple really – it’s not just hijinks, juxtaposed against Hozuki’s solemnity; rather, the show revels in the complexities of Hell, and Hozuki’s personality is poked and prodded at throughout, hinting at the sources of his particular proclivities, as well as attributes that his more severe exterior betrays. The massive wealth of folklore from which the show can draw – and the elasticness of its premise – means we get a constant stream of hilariously bizarre and expressive characters, which can be any type of anthropomorph you can imagine, or personifications of mythological figures / creatures, and constant updates to the world of Hell (and heaven), which is represented as a sort of attemptedly bureaucratic setup where X sin goes to Y realm of punishment, attended to by an ever-widening cast.
It’s definitely overwhelming at first, especially without any inherent knowledge of the lore on which this is structured, but the way the show builds on its characters’ personalities and its repeated jokes is incredibly rewarding – while still maintaining its standalone episode format – and, as mentioned, the constant steamrolling of quirky attitude and imagery is entertaining on its own, grounded by having Hozuki as its central character, preventing the tone from slipping in to being too scattershot and ADD; he always keeps us on task for whatever the main issue is, and makes sure we have at least one “sane” character to focus on. The vignette format does mean there are inevitably some topics we wish we could stick with for longer, and inevitably makes things somewhat disposable feeling, but the show at least maintains linear consistency with these topics – if something appears ten episodes back, when we revisit it, it’s with memory intact of that previous appearance.
Wit Studios, handling the first season, sets an incredibly high bar for the look of the show, with incredibly fluid animations and a stylistic affectation on the backgrounds to make them look like classical artwork. I was a bit worried that Studio Deen, on season 2, would be a big step down, and while it’s true that the background work is no longer as flourished or stylized, their somewhat more minimal style and juttery character work might be a better fit for the rapid-fire humor, as it allows the eye and ear to better track all the jokes.
I’d like to say I’ve learned something from Hozuki’s Coolheadedness – like I now have familiarity with the stories and folklore it pings off of – but… I can’t. It’s not the show’s intention, of course, and it flits by too quickly to really sink in. However, the show’s quirky attitude is so infectious, and the animation and humor writing so fluid and sharp, that this has never bothered me: I’m too entertained by that episode’s particular nonsense to care too much that I have no idea what’s being talked about.