In concept, Dr. Ramune: Mysterious Disease Specialist exists somewhere between Phantom Tales of the Night and Hell Girl. It’s about a young doctor who specializes in curing what he calls “mysterious diseases,” a phrase that carries a double meaning. In the obvious sense, any disease that causes you to vomit sand or grow food from parts of your body can hardly be termed anything but “mysterious” (unless you hop right over to “weird”). But the word also refers to a phenomenon that manifests as glowing particles to those who can see it, like supernatural amoebas floating through the air. The implication is that these can interact with human insecurities or behaviors and cause the aforementioned symptoms, and when modern medicine can’t turn your body parts back into flesh instead of food, it’s time to seek out a Mysterious Disease Specialist.
As far as a horror plot goes, it’s very effective. There’s definitely something alarming about food where food shouldn’t be, and the idea of manifesting emotional insecurities as food is nicely unsettling. It plays on the way we sometimes use eating as a comfort mechanism while also triggering the old gag reflex when you think about suddenly crying mayonnaise instead of tears. The problem arises in the show’s treatment of each of the cases: while they all start out well, giving us a clear understanding of the problems the characters are facing that cause them to develop mysterious diseases, the resolution typically comes far too easily, depriving most of the earlier cases of their oomph and just sort of wobbling pathetically towards their endings.
This is notably more of an issue in the first half of the series, when each disease takes up just one episode. In most cases, the endings suffer mostly from the feeling that the series doesn’t trust its intended audience of younger viewers to be able to handle a less than perfectly happy ending. For example, the first episode follows a young girl whose overbearing stage mother has been bullying her into taking on weepy roles. As a manifestation of her emotional distress, the girl has begun crying not tears, but condiments – soy sauce, mayonnaise, etc. At the end of the episode, the mother learns her lesson fully and vows never to abuse her daughter again, something she is not only in earnest about, but also manages to pull off. While it feels wrong to argue against that as an ending – after all, it’s certainly what we’d hope would happen – in terms of telling an effective story, resolving things so cleanly and clearly makes everything that came before feel like it carried no weight at all. If the situation was so easily resolved, why did the daughter need to go to Dr. Ramune to begin with? If her mother cared so much, why didn’t she notice that her child was in distress and leaking condiments from her tear ducts or listen when she talked to her? It’s less a case of how things ought to end and more one of how they needed to be told in the first place to make the story feel worthwhile.
Although this does resolve somewhat when the series begins employing two-episode arcs for the patients who visit Dr. Ramune, it still always feels afraid to stick the landing. The story about the doctor’s assistant/apprentice (they can’t seem to decide what he is) Toru and his friend Aona is a good example of this. In this plotline, Toru notices that his classmate Aona, an incredibly creative and talented artist, has started to have popcorn bounce from his head, presumably in some sort of dandruff analogy. He quickly discovers that Aona’s mother is hospitalized and that Aona believes it to be his fault, something his father, who wants Aona to be a more traditionally serious person, has told him. As it turns out, that’s absolutely not what’s going on, and Aona’s dad is using his mother’s hospitalization as an excuse to force his son to be the person he wants him to be rather than the creative soul Aona actually is. The popcorn, then, is Aona’s creativity breaking free in the only way it can. Once again, we have a story about a parent emotionally punishing a child for being their own person with the mysterious taking advantage of this to give the child a bizarre food-based disease, and sadly once again things are resolved entirely too neatly and quickly by the end. Having the storyline take up two episodes mitigates the issue somewhat, but it still ends up falling flat at the end, with the need to wrap things up neatly destroying the plot’s trajectory and tension.
It’s a shame, because there’s a lot that’s interesting about this series. By the time we get to Toru’s first meeting with Dr. Ramune things are operating better, with more of a sense of things taking the time they need to resolve, because while things do iron out with his family, Toru doesn’t immediately become close with them and happy once the doctor points out the way he feels lost as the middle of five children and pressured to not talk about his ability to see the mysterious; instead he continues to spend most of his time with Dr. Ramune and clearly is taking a different path than the one laid out for him by his martial arts enthusiast parents and siblings. Likewise, the final episode, which demonstrates that Ramune needs to follow his own methods of treating his patients rather than those determined by his mentor, does a better job of bringing things to a place where it feels like there’s room for the characters to continue growing and living, something that is lacking in most of the other storylines.
Dr. Ramune: Mysterious Disease Specialist isn’t for the viewer who doesn’t want to see food where it doesn’t belong, because it can be gross (although the association of food with emotional upset is nice), and it suffers from never really trusting its viewers to be able to handle the tougher stuff. But it does even itself out enough to end on a much stronger note than it began and it has some neat supernatural and visual elements. Its greatest failing is probably the fact that we can see how it could have been an even better series, although what we got is, at the end of the day, still an interesting show that manages to pull itself together in the end.