If Horror Movies Reflect Societal Anxieties What do Horror Anime Say About What Otakus are Afraid of?

I fail at blogging and I overshot my Halloween posts… But I really liked this one so you guys get a bonus Countdown to Halloween post! Get ready to learn nothing about what Horror Anime can teach us about ourselves!

There’s been a long-running belief that horror fiction is a way to explore and ultimately process the collective fears of the society which created it. In a way, it is both representative of that society and completely anathema to it. I’m sure you’ve heard this theory before. It’s pretty much accepted now. In fact, a few seconds of google searching got me all these articles:

I’m sure you can easily find another half a dozen right now, without any effort. In fact, it’s something I’ve been reading about for years. How European horror is largely urban whereas American horror is much more rural to this day, reflecting the histories of both continents. Stuff like that.

However, in all the articles I’ve read, I’ve never seen the principle applied to anime. To western and European cartoons, YES. Often in fact. But never to anime. And that seems a bit odd.

You known what else is weird? We can apply this easily to Japanese movies. There are some heavily recurring themes of technophobia and of parasitical intrusion (i.e. the enemy within). But I haven’t really noticed a prevalence of these in anime which is supposedly produced by the same society.

One thing to keep in mind is that the theories talk about thematic prevalence. A single anime or movie doesn’t mark a trend. If we talk about isolated cases then every country is scared of everything. But there does seem to be trends and tropes that are more prevalent in the horrors of one society vs another.

Since I couldn’t find this exercise done with anime (maybe it has been, I didn’t look that hard, I’m sorry) I figured it would be fun for us to do it together in the spirit of Halloween times. So what will anime reveal about our biggest fears?

First I needed to identify current horror anime: https://anilist.co/search/anime?genres=Horror&year=2020

As you can see, horror being one of (if not the) least popular genres in anime, even with cross-genre allowances we end up with 9 titles for the entire year, and three of them are holdouts from last year. Ok so let’s winded the net a little and include 2019: https://anilist.co/search/anime?genres=Horror&year=2019

Wow, a whole other 9 titles. (For comparison there were 35 ecchi titles and that is supposedly an underserved genre: https://anilist.co/search/anime?genres=Ecchi&year=2019)

Admittedly I’m going by AniList’s definition of horror that might not match everyone’s. However, I figure they have a much better grasp on anime genres than I do and are easiest to search.

This isn’t going to be highly scientific but let’s see what our 18 titles can tell us. Well, the first three 2019 titles also appear in 2020 so it’s really 15 titles. Second, both 2019’s BoogiePop Phantom and 2020’s Higurashi are remakes so don’t really count for determining contemporary fears. Also, BoogiePop made a real mess of its themes and I don’t want the headache of trying to analyze that.

tell me about it

I haven’t seen all of these but I did read up on them and here are my sample group of Horror anime: The Promise Wonderland, Magical-Girl Spec OPs Asuka, 7 Seeds, BEM, The Island of Giant Insects, Yamishabai, Ling Long, Dorohedoro, Gibiate, Talentless Nana, Ninja Collection and Beauty Water. I’m still debating whether to throw the Kabaneri movie in there. Ninja collection and Yamishabai are anthologies so I’m going to count them out as well. I’m not saying that anthologies are irrelevant but since I haven’t seen them I can’t properly figure out a thematic link between the stories from the summary of just one. So we are down to 10. There will be spoilers for these anime.

In a way, Asuka and Nana should count as their own thing since they are the yearly “dark” magical girl offering. There is one every year. However, we can keep them in and see if it still fits.

I’ve actually been thinking about these titles for a minute. These are the common threads I picked up. The Promise Wonderland, Magical-Girl Spec OPs Asuka, 7 Seeds, Talentless Nana and The Island of Giant Insects have primarily young casts. As in their youth does have narrative importance. That’s 5 out of the 10. But the thing is, a lot of the BEM characters are also under 18 and I have no idea how old the Dorohedoro cast is, you could arguably tell the same story starring teenagers, but you can’t have Promised Neverland with an adult cast. So the shows are definitely youth-centric in my opinion.

That in itself doesn’t tell us much. Anime in general, and arguably all entertainment is youth-centric.

I can’t wait for the next season

Interestingly none of these anime (none of the ones I have seen and from what I have read of the plot of the others, it applies as well) have a singular monster or villain. A Big Bad thing to defeat and then everything is going to be o.k. Like a Jason or Freddy Kruger characters. There are antagonists, like the amazingly frightening Isabella, but defeating these antagonists doesn’t really mean that everything is going to be o.k. now. There’s a strong chance that nothing will change and perhaps things could even become worse.

The “evil” or “horror” lies in the condition of the world. Promise Neverland shows us a world much like ours and slowly reveals that it is in fact a living nightmare inhabited by demons. It’s unclear whether it’s a completely different world or something that happened to ours. Asuka shows an Earth which suddenly gets infested by horrible undead creatures that spread death and destruction. 7 seeds is survival horror on a post-apocalyptic Earth. BEM is our world in which Yokai have started to run havoc. The Island of Giant Insects has a bunch of students dropped on an island where nature has become monstrous, Ling Long is set in a world that is now unbearably overpopulated and Dorohedoro is either our world or a parallel which humans wrecked with magic pollution and being jerks.

Basically, these are all stories of people being trapped in a world that is inherently hostile to them. Gibiate falls outside this norm, seemingly being more of a contagion theme. How topical! And Beauty Water, a brand that actually exists, by the way, sounds interesting and a classical “be careful what you wish for” story.

me watching Gabriel Dropout

To me, that’s a more viable trend and when you combine it with the kiddies you could get something. Keep in mind that this is my reading and therefore highly subjective. Not to mention that the sample size is abysmal. However, all these half-destroyed, hostile earths do bring to mind environmental concerns. In fact, what I see is the anxiety of leaving a planet that is not that great for future generations. The majority of these “horror” anime read on that theme to me.

Maybe I’m biased and I’m assigning generally altruistic and responsible anxieties to our community. That’s possible. And of course, these things change. Just a few years ago most horror anime had to do with the monster within and themes of alienation and abuse were rampant. I would have read those as fears of not finding one’s place in society or being unfairly judged by the pre-established order.

I can’t say I’m super confident about my analysis but finding any commonality at all is already surprising. And it is interesting. I wonder if this will change in 5 years. Or maybe I can look back at what anime was afraid of in 1980: https://anilist.co/search/anime?genres=Horror&year=1980. Apparently, not much since the only 2 horror animes are also comedies. Too much fun?

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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33 Responses

  1. David Boone says:

    Rough day over her, Irina. Please disregard and remove my earlier post. Sorry you missed the joke in my first reply. Be safe & be well.

  2. Shokamoka says:

    Horror, huh…

    I’m only scared of Truck-kun.

  3. Merlin says:

    A world of hostility, where nowhere is safe, and children pay the ultimate price. I think that’s a fear that most people can relate to on some level. We want to make the world better, not worse, and yet, there are people who spend a great deal of time and effort telling us that we are making it worse instead of better.

    There was a short anime OVA I saw a part of. Horror is not my thing, so I skipped through most of it, but the idea was that these kids all knew an urban legend about something that happens when the city’s power goes out. When seven kids gather together in a specific spot at that time, there is a hide-and-seek game in a maze. They enter, and find supernatural monsters within, who take them and plug them into the grid. The children become the city’s power source and suffer terribly until they die and the power goes out. There is one young boy who is there looking for answers about his sister, who disappeared the last time this happened, and something that looks like his sister is there waiting for him, running the hide-and-seek game. Then, the next time children gather unwittingly and cheerily towards their horrible fate, the thing running the game looks like the boy instead.

    • Irina says:

      Most anime fans don’t seem to like horror much. I guess we’re never getting another Perfect Blue. Good thing that first one was awesome as is!

    • Dawnstorm says:

      That OVA sounds like Kakurenbo. I have it on DVD but haven’t watched it yet. It must be the DVD I have the longest without watching now… It had pretty good critiques everywhere (even outside the anime community).

  4. ramon3ljamon says:

    If there’s one oppressive environment they know & fear, wouldn’t it be school.

    • Irina says:

      Otaku?

      • ramon3ljamon says:

        Yes, as you mention the audience tends to skew younger.

        I think it can be a struggle for some students to safely navigate the social structures established by insecure kids, doubly so in a country as obsessed with conformity as Japan. And that’s without taking into account the existential anxiety wrought by the deeply competitive nature of East Asian school systems.

        You could link this to the pressure-cooker environment & primal fights for survival typically displayed in horror stories.

        • Irina says:

          I think the characters skew younger. I actually don,t now what the average audience is right now. But you’re probably right, they might be mostly school kids. That would make sense.

  5. The reason, IMO, why there’s seemingly a dearth of anime that can be definitively described as “horror” is because horror is probably one of the hardest genres to pull off well in the medium– especially compared to live-action horror, which has the inherent advantage of looking more “real.”

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have so many more romcom, ecchi, action/adventure anime per season than horror anime. The medium suits these types of story better. To create a truly frightening/disturbing cartoon requires a great deal of vision, I would imagine– use the inherent surrealism of the medium, combined with a certain artistic ‘drive’, to create a waking nightmare of sorts. One of the main reasons why I think horror manga is a lot more effective than horror anime in this regard is because so much of the former is left to the imagination.

    • Irina says:

      I understand what you mean, in fact I wrote a post in that sense. This said, considering some of the spectacular horror anime we have had throughout the years, I’m a little sad there isn’t more interest

      • Me too! Japanese horror is phenomenal– maybe a bit *too* phenomenal for some people’s tastes? I suppose the fact that not everyone enjoys being spooked also ensures that horror will always be a bit more ‘niche’ than other genres.

  6. Pinkie says:

    That is quite interesting, I would kind of still think the current theme is about not finding once place in socieity. Just more extreme… before we feared of going out and being alien.. now we fear hostilty.. saying the wrong thing on Twitter can get so much aggression nowadays. The internet used to be a safe haven where we could talk about anime to our heart contents on a forum.. but now if you do not like Bakugo.. people take up there torches and pitch forks.

    In a way I would consider our planet or realm… the internet.. and little by little it has become more and more poluted and tainted with dangerous people. In way that shows our community is growing.. but it has also resulted that we no longer have the “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality.. back 10 years it was like …OMG you like ANIME “glomp” .. now we can meet people who call us fake fans for not knowing every birthday of the Love Live Cast.

    So I do think your theory has merit here. A few years ago I did see “normies” as monsters.. now I am much more afraid of my home and my community shunning me because I can’t keep up and being called a fake fan. My own fandoms have become a bit more dangerous and scary.

    • Irina says:

      Interesting. Do you think the heroes of current anime want to find a place in the distopian societies ink which they exist – like was the case for past Horror anime like Tokyo Ghoul or do you think they would want to change them? Monster within vs Monster without sort of thing. Or it hasn’t really changed and just the magnitude has intensified?

      • Pinkie says:

        Hmmm, I do think in the case of Tokyo Ghoul at least the whole thing is the either or. Kaneki clearly would join the dystopia with people around him not really approving of that.

        In case of horror I feel like often it is depicted to big to change..nor is that much of something they can join. Thats why they fear it. It has something of an unstoppable quality right now? It’s no longer an evil organisation or a monster…it’s the entire world

        I think the point is you can not join it, or you can not change it..your only option is survive and that seems to be also a theme in the modern horror I think? It’s more about sustaining rather than claiming victory?

        So I think it might indeed just be a fear that increased in magnitude? Much like fighting Isabel would not solve troubles… but it is still on the table. Most Protagonist do not get the option to join the dystopia nor can they change it..but they may find a little bit of safe space if they fight hard enough?

  7. Dawnstorm says:

    Gibiate fits as well. The contagion has mostly run its course and survivors are few. They’re still seeking a cure, but it really feels more like a zombie apocalpyse. And with the time-travelling Samurai/Ninja/Monk added in you get a motif of avoiding mental attrition through necessary violence.

    And Talentless Nana isn’t really a magical girl show, dark or otherwise. It’s more a dark version of My Hero Academia, if you ask me.

  8. David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

    Your analysis runs much too deep, Doctor. Based upon decades of anime viewing, I’d blithely say that otaku seem to fear gravity (somebody’s always trippin’! *wait, should we call Snoop Dogg?) and being smothered in shapely young women’s bosoms. Seemingly especially if those young women are some sort of smokin’ hot undead beauties (you know, eager vampires, singing zombies, etc.). I’d list tentacles as well, but over the years I’ve concluded that those represent more of a fetish than a fear. Anyway, Doc, those are a poor layman’s opinions. . .good luck deciding on a treatment!

    • Irina says:

      well I thought it was interesting subject and I put a lot of effort in that post. But it’s not for everyone granted. I hope you enjoy tomorrow’s post more!

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