So, you might have noticed we're a little divided on the subject of Akiyuki Shinbo. I'm generally in the "hate him" camp; I've always been fond of Tenamonya Voyagers, but SoulTaker's unrelenting visual noise made me angry and Le Portrait de Petite Cossette actually gave me a headache and I had to turn it off after five minutes, so I avoided everything else he did until Bakemonogatari. But I did genuinely enjoy that, and it seemed much less pointlessly difficult to parse than his earlier work, so I figured I should look back at the early stuff and see if Shinbo really has calmed down since I last checked, or if I've just gotten used to his style.
Turns out I was right the first time.
Cossette is a pretty simple story at its base; guy who works in an antique store falls for a ghost, then discovers why those romances tend to end badly. It probably could have been condensed from three episodes to one without losing any actual story, but this gives Shinbo and crew an opportunity to go mad with the visuals... to the overall detriment of the show, I'd argue.
Case in point; the opening of the very first episode was like the director sticking his finger into my eye. The show basically dares you to make sense of a very uncomplicated scene among friends in a diner, by opening cold into the middle of a conversation in progress, constantly cutting between extreme close-ups of four different speakers, only one of whom gets named. The direction is less chaotic after that scene, but front-loading the most aggressive visual editing right when the viewer most needs to be eased into and sold on your world is a questionable decision; it certainly didn't add any information or texture to the scene.
The rest of the show alternates curiously between gothic lolita moetry and B-movie grotesquerie; the lead spends a lot of time hallucinating idle conversations with his dream lover, who occasionally transfers him to an alternate dimension of heavy-metal-album-cover torment where he gets tortured, shoots out hilariously excessive blood geysers, and turns into Devilman, a visual metaphor that is only explained, like, halfway through the third episode.
There are seeds of an interesting plot in Petite Cossette, but the relentless visual chrome actively prevents me from spending enough time with one idea or image to really engage with it. It's to the point where I can't even appreciate the visual composition, it's all so anarchically busy. It seems like half the time this stuff doesn't even signify anything, so it literally only exists to clutter up the shot. I mean, can anyone explain why there are a bunch of laser tripwires here?
Still, there are a couple small bits that even I enjoyed; I really liked the local psychic consulting with a doctor to figure out if the lead's malaise was physical or spiritual, and I can't bring myself to entirely hate any show gonzo enough to reduce a fight scene between an exorcist and an evil lightning-shooting grandfather clock to background color. This is also a pretty distinctively Japanese ghost story, despite the French-loli trappings; the whole Shinto-animism-Buddhist-doll-burnings thing is key to later goings-on, and I can't actually recall any Japanese myths or traditional stories about a beloved dead person coming back as anything other than a monster.
On the other hand, the show kind of lost me at the very end, for reasons I will heavily spoil, so anyone who cares should stop reading until they see little fluffy clouds.
Maybe it's just me, but I fail to perceive a real difference between falling in love with a ghost (by definition, a pale imitation of the living original), and loving the embodied spirit of a portrait depicting that same person. The lead does justify his preference for one over the other as rejecting the art of an evil man, but it still seems like a pointlessly fine philosophical point to quibble over if we're going to accept the premise at all.
So I was right: it's not that I've gotten used to Shinbo's directorial style, but that he's calmed the hell down over the years and actually cares about conveying information to his viewers. Or maybe there are some external factors; I can't help but note that he no longer works with the screenwriter that did Cossette and his other early eyesore, SoulTaker.