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.
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.
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.
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?