Hide and seek is a game with a long history throughout the world, in part because of its simple premise: hide and hope you're not found, or, if you're "the seeker," use your skills to track down the others. Kakurenbo's version of hide and seek, Otokoyo, changes up the rules. Players have an entire abandoned city at their disposal, you have to wear fox masks, and no one ever comes back alive.
Our main character, Hiroka, loses his sister to this twisted game and makes it his priority to find her by taking part in the game himself. Upon starting the game, he happens upon some unsettling information and a girl that reminds him very closely of his sister.
Kakurenbo's story is a flimsy one. Its priority is not to make you care much about the characters or think too heavily about the logistics of things, but to present a message about childhood and industrialization. The problem is, in order to understand this message outside of the short, you have to hunt down and watch the staff commentaries, which means that if you don't have access to them, you lose what little depth there is available. This isn't to say that Kakurenbo's story is bad, per se, only that it doesn't provide anything beyond what's written on the tin.
With a city design that seems to take its inspiration from Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City, the scenery is what creates the most of Kakurenbo's ambience. The flickering lights of neon shop signs, the overwhelmingly low color saturation, and the decrepit buildings all provide the claustrophobic, crushing sensation that makes it a decent work of atmosphere.
Kakurenbo's other focus is its monster designs. Each one is distinctively drawn and animated, and modeled after different creatures or beings in Asian religion and mythology. This is where the best of the character design comes in.
As the entire short is animated using CGI, this presented some difficulties for human character design. Kakurenbo makes its way around this issue by giving everyone unmoving fox masks, meaning there's no need for fine-detail movements required by facial expression. Characters look like a bizarre hybrid of clay models and a ten-year-old's original Pokemon trainer, which makes them less relatable and more like tiny humanoid creatures in a bizarre sort of ecosystem. Instead of relating to them as people, you're watching monster lions hunt people-shaped gazelles.
Both the dub and the original Japanese versions have fairly average production values. The voices are mostly vehicles to move the plot forward and explain the game of Otokoyo. Some characters have no lines, while others have a scant handful, and only the two main characters really get more than a minute of dialogue apiece. The monster sounds are basic as well, with low-pitched growls, clacking teeth, and ominous rumbles to give them an air of fearsomeness.
Where Kakurenbo really shines in the audio department is with its sound effects and music. With a 1980s Nine Inch Nails industrial sound, it never overpowers the dialogue or sound effects. At times, the soundtrack is reduced to ambient echos and groans that blend in seamlessly with the noises of the monsters and environment. There are also sudden taiko drums or shrill string chords to hightlight the more intense scenes, the presence of monsters, or the unveiling of major plot points.
Characters are by no means Kakurenbo's strong point. They're an assorted group of kids with limited speaking roles, there to fill out the bodycount. There's a trio of tough-guy wannabes, a set of twins, our main character Hiroka, his buddy Yaimao, and a mysterious girl dressed as a miko. Beyond the story outlined above, none of the characters have any defining traits or development, because Kakurenbo's twenty-minute run time is focused on setting up its premise.
Kakurenbo is a nice distraction if you're wanting something slightly spooky that you can watch with your ten-year-old cousin on Halloween or just want something mindless to watch after a busy night. Beyond that, there's not much reason to recommend it. Given more time to flesh out the characters and the history behind Otokoyo and the abandoned city, Kakurenbo could have easily been a six or a seven. As it is now, however, it only just musters a five out of ten.