Horror in Anime – Fairytales, Urban Myths and Strong Women


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With the recent airing of the horror anime Another I started thinking about the role of horror in anime, and more specifically the lack of it. Within the last decade I can possibly a very small number of series that have strong horror themes. And, while we have had recent series such as Shiki, Blood-C and in some ways Mirai Nikki, most people, when asked about a horror anime often suggest Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, a show that has had 2 full length series (two seasons each), not to mention 9 OVA episodes and no less than 25 specials accompanying various DVD and other box sets. While there are a small number of proper horror anime, there are also a significant number that use elements of the horror genre in their story telling, often taking the more psychological aspects of horror. Mirai Nikki is a good example of this, with supernatural parts, but also important aspects of the horror genre in Japan, namely a strong, but also dangerous female lead. It is also important to note that horror is not always scary, many horror stories originate from older folk tales and myths, and while they may involve spirits, were not necessarily meant to be entirely scary.

Many horror stories are often warnings about disturbing the past, along with exploring ideas of respecting yourself, people around you, the ancestors and even the natural world. Another for example is quite comical in the way it pushes all its horror tropes and clichés at the audience. As a story it isn’t particularly scary, but as a psychological drama exploring how a class reacts to a supposed curse, along with the idea that one of them is already dead produces quite a fascinating story. In Japan, the horror genre is often considered to be a female genre; there are several reasons behind this, ranging from the social to the cultural. Horror films and by extension anime can be viewed as sights where the normal world is flipped upside down, places where class, wealth and social status do not matter. Much of Japanese cinema and TV scheduling features samurai dramas, where we can see men being very manly by following the warriors way. However, this does not leave much room for women, who are often either courtesans, destined to marry and live their lives in, often, dull luxury, or they are the schemers (like lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth) from Throne of Blood) who bring about the demise of not only their lord, but their entire clan. While there are many romantic drama, films, and anime, many of them lack particularly strong female characters.

Japanese horror almost always involves a strong female character, someone who defies conventions and goes against the common held beliefs of society. Many of them are quite mad – take Sadako for example, or Yuno from the more recent Mirai Nikki – people who are not quite sane, and yet are potentially quite enigmatic, charismatic, and also fascinating to watch. These characters refuse to conform to the roles that Japanese society places upon the, instead opting to do things their own way. If we take this into account, having women in anime and cinema that refuse to comply with these social regulations and instead fight against them with all their might are incredibly powerful. If anime, manga and cinema can act as methods of escape from your everyday life, to see something a little different, a fantasy world where you can project your problems, frustrations and desires, then horror being considered a female genre starts to make more sense. This may also account for the lack of proper horror anime at the moment; the horror genre is perhaps considered an almost exclusively female genre. Taking the mecha genre, or the high school romance, or even a fantasy set in another world guarantees a far boarder audience than going for a straight horror show.

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This does not mean, however, that horror and the various elements that make it up do not appear in other series. As mentioned earlier, a significant amount of horror is based on Shinto beliefs and Animism, with common themes about the spiritual world, exploring how it can be helpful, but also dangerous, dark and potentially fatal. Hayao Miyazaki, for example, has written and directed many films that explore themes of Shinto and Animism, with Mononoke Hime and Nausicaa of The Valley of The Wind being prime examples of the dangers that nature and the spirits can produce if treat badly. Neither of these films are horror, however, they serve as good examples of how certain strands of Japanese horror have a far broader appeal and may be incorporated into other series rather than a pure horror series.

The series ‘Another’, takes a slightly different approach, with contemplations about what it means to be human that appear in other anime, including several other Miyazaki and boarder Ghibli works. The constant use of dolls, along with their symbolism is in part a metaphor for human life and death, and follows one of the central threads of the story, what does it mean to be alive. That one person in Class 3 happens to be dead, but no one knows who feeds into this doll metaphor, they are incredibly lifelike, but are not alive – so the dead student is still a live in a sense because they, along with the entire class view them as being alive. Mei as a character is also quite fascinating, she appears content with her isolation, and even when it is partly lifted doesn’t appear to view the world any different. Her actions, along with her fake doll eye and the actions of her mother demonstrate how a happy human life can easily mirror that of a doll and appear utterly inconsequential to those around them.

Horror in all countries negotiate these notions of what it means to be alive, along with exploring ideas to do with out relationship with the landscape. Villains are often morally ambiguous, often fearing what they cannot understand, or even being unknown entities, even a simple presence like the phenomenon in Another. Furthermore, horror, and in particular horror involving creatures such as Vampires and Werewolves explores humanities desires, inhibitions and notions of gender and sexuality. These supernatural creatures are slightly outside of the human realm, exhibiting a dangerous sexuality and ability to do whatever they like. In Ookami Kakushi, the inhabitants that can no longer maintain their current mental state come across as deranged, dangerous beings that only follow their desires. The main female character in the series, Nemuru Kushinada patrols dressed in elaborate clothing, looking partly like the grim reaper with a scythe, but also almost like a Kabuki performer in their elaborate costumes and makeup – beautiful, yet dangerous and otherworldly.

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I think one major reason that we see so few dedicated horror anime series is that the main elements of horror are used in such a wide variety of other series. We can see common themes of gender, power, and sexuality; along with ideas to do with what it means to be human and the power of our environment and landscape in countless other anime series, many of which have no other link to the horror genre. On another note, too often people decide that a horror is not worth watching because ‘it isn’t scary’. From my own experience of horror, and more specifically Japanese horror, there are a large number, which are not scary, but instead use elements of the horror genre to explore broader areas of Japanese culture. Another, for example, is a show that isn’t especially scary (and has a terrible opening track), and while it uses very obvious elements of the horror genre – from crows to dolls, and even the atmospheric music – it manages to keep me entertained throughout each episode, perhaps wondering what may come. In terms of story telling it may not be especially original, or even particularly good, but the symbolism employed in the series, along with the idea of a dark presence affecting Class 3 raises some interesting questions. It explores notions of friendship, loneliness and in broader terms, what it means to be human – Mei for example is a character who acts more like a doll than a human being at times. That she has started to freely interact with Kouichi also suggests that she has realised the need for human interaction, and that she is unable to live in isolation forever.

It is the ideas that these shows raise that to me are important, rather than whether or not they were scary or gruesome enough. A story may be hastily, or badly told in places, but if it raises important questions about our world and environment then perhaps it has been largely successful (although many shows are less interesting than others, with more contrivances and bad plot devices used). In terms of horror themed anime, The common themes are used everywhere from Asobi ni Iku Yo, to Ghost in The Shell, Mononoke Hime, Akira, Blood The Last Vampire and so on. This makes it trickier to make a full horror anime because the boundaries between horror and other genres are more blurred; coupled with the commonly held belief that horror is a female genre perhaps compounds the issue. I find Japanese horror fascinating, and while there are so few dedicated horror anime series, there are more than enough series that deal with similar themes if you know where to look and are attentive enough to spot them.

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About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

8 Responses to Horror in Anime – Fairytales, Urban Myths and Strong Women

  1. inushinde says:

    Interesting ideas presented here. I’ll be honest, I’ve never considered anime a good medium for true scary horror. There are certainly a ton of horror elements well implemented, particularly in the likes of Shiki, but there’s hardly anything that manages to keep me up at night. I guess compared to more western horror, anime horror makes me think rather than make me feel uneasy.

    • illogicalzen says:

      I think anime horror isn’t scary partly because of the medium – the way anime characters are drawn tend to make them look cute of handsome more than scary. I find horror themes in anime interesting because they can bring up ideas to do with what it means to be human, or the natural world and humanities place in it. I just think that there is a lack of full horror anime because elements of japanese horror are found in such a wide range of other anime, so it makes it a little more difficult to make a full horror series.

  2. GoodbyeNavi says:

    I think anime can be a good medium for horror. They would have to avoid drawing the characters extremely cute but even if the characters are extremely cute, it’s not how they look that creates horror. For me, that is. I am more into psychological horror, things that are right on the edge of reality, can possibly happen is what’s scary to me. Lots of gore, monsters, doesn’t do it for me because it’s annoying. Gore can occur but usually the way its presented is not terrifying enough. Couple it with psychological terror and we have some true horror. I can understand why people wouldn’t consider anime a good medium partly because it is animated but Another is showing that it can be done.

    • illogicalzen says:

      I would agree, horror for me, both in anime and in film is more about the psychology of what is happen on screen (assuming it isn’t a slasher film, which I dont watch anyway). The different elements of Japanese horror in particular have more to do with notions of humanity, the landscape and links to Shinto and Animism rather than about scaring people. This entire post partly came out of seeing some comments on twitter about shows like another ‘not being scary enough, or being bad series’, which made me start thinking about what makes horror interesting or entertaining. I have watched plenty of shows that aren’t all that special, but the questions that they have raised, or perhaps got me thinking about have been rather interesting.Anime may not be the best medium for horror largely because of how characters are drawn, and especially with the current trend of ‘moe’ character designs that are more in the side of cute rather than scary. Still, that doesn’t mean you cant have aspects of horror being introduced to anime, you as a viewer simply have to watch the shows in a slightly different way.

      I’ll probably be posting a few more things about horror and elements of horror, since writing this post has brought up some interesting aspects for me to explore.

  3. TRazor says:

    Fantastic post!

    To start off, horror is defined as “An intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust”. For anything, be it live-action or anime, to scare a person, it’s entirely subjective. I remember pissing in me pants when watching Exorcist for the first time but my friend was laughing his ass off. It depends on what scares you and what doesn’t. A horror anime is successful in creating a horror atmosphere if it’s creepy…that’s horror enough for me. I look at a horror show as a show which is a thriller, but with supernatural elements thrown in.

    And I strongly disagree that horror needs gore. Granted, the sight of blood increases shock value, but the skill of the writer is tested only when he makes an atmosphere out of nothing. Signs by M. Night Shyamalam is the perfect example for this. No blood, no gore, but nail-bitingly tense atmosphere. The air was so thick that when the climax was nearing, every sound made me jump. That right there was what Another should’ve aimed for…but still, I’m not complaining too much about what we got.

    I second your point on how anime’s drawing style makes it a little more difficult for the medium to scare us. But it’s still possible. Higurashi nailed it. It went for the contrast of cute moe/loli and then slowly let the atmosphere work its way in before paying it all off with monstrous amounts of mindfuck. I’ll admit, I was scared silly when the Curse’s details were revealed. Sharp directing right there. Which just goes to show that horror is possible, but it takes more skill.

    Pretty informative post too, I had paid no attention to the women protagonist role before either…

    • illogicalzen says:

      I think I rambled a bit, like I was trying to put two posts together as one, so there are different messages in the post, in general I still think that certain elements of horror as we know it in the west dont quite fit into Japanese horror. But thats not because the ideas dont work, its because they are used in different ways due to the culture and religious elements fro Shinto and Animism that make their way into other series. I was reading a romance manga recently that involved werewolves – but instead of beings of evil, the werewolf was a handsome, and quite romantic man – the point is that these elements tend to be used differently. So, I look at horror in a similar way, it is a thriller or psychological series/film, we might have mythical creatures such as werewolves and vampires, or we might just have some crazy woman with a knife (usually a woman, sometimes a man, in which case its an axe naturally)

      I have had horror really scare me – for example I remember watching dog soldiers and ringu, both when I was younger and being scared out of my wits, even had nightmares – but now I am more interested in the elements on the horror rather than if it scares me or not. I dont think I meant that horror needs gore, perhaps I worded it badly, this partly came from a conversation I had where it was mentioned that horror without blood wasn’t quite right. I find horror far more effective when elements are implied, rather than forced on the viewer – let the viewers imagination run wild and generate the fear, rather than a big gruesome monster in your face essentially.

      Anime can produce good horror, but perhaps for a western audience, the way in which the horror is produced doesn’t quite fit with what we have grown up with. Higurashi was a good example, but also I think other anime such as Another, Ookami Kakushi and so on have worked, only they approach it from a different angle. They might not induce the sheer dread that Higurashi managed, but I still feel they are successful horror in their own way. That being said, anime just doesn’t come across as being good for horror, in a sense anime is too cute – the Another manga has a far more adult look to it than the anime does for example – not that I wont watch the anime, but it isn’t the best medium. Add a good director, good script writer and so on and I am sure there will be more series like Higurashi perhaps.

      Overall I find the concepts brought up in anime with horror elements fascinating, that they can be put into films such as Mononoke Hime, Spirited Away and so on shows how wide ranging their uses are.

  4. Pingback: Another Retrospective: A Rundown of the Genres and the Quality Therein « Shinde Iie Anime Blog

  5. rafael1197 says:

    Really interesting, I like animes and I like a horror animes, but they never scare me, just leave me a little moment of fun and inspiration.😀

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