Horror, Ghost Stories, and Mischievous Spirits – Tales of The Strange and Anomalous in Anime


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This post was partly influenced by comments I have seen on forums, and twitter in the past criticising horror anime for its inability to scare the viewers, alongside problems with writing and characters. Horror in Japanese culture can be both terrifying, but also seem somewhat benign – it deals with a variety of different themes, but the most important, and arguably the most used is that of spirits and the effect they have on the human world. Having said that, I also believe that the term ‘horror’ when it comes to describing Japanese ghost stories is somewhat misleading, and feeds a series of assumptions about the stories content and whether or not it might be scary.

When we think of horror in the West, images of terrible demons, unnatural beasts, perhaps even unholy rituals may come to mind. Horror in the west is largely embedded within Europe’s – and by extension, America’s – Christian past, with the devil and his servants playing a role in many of our well known horror stories and films. The same is true of Japanese horror stories, or as I will call them, tales of the strange and anomalous. By doing so I wish to make a clear distinction between the western view of ‘horror’, whereby creatures of an otherworldly nature invade and inhabit our world, wreaking havoc and leading to numerous unexplained, and often terrifying events, and the events of many anime classified as horror. If we look at Japanese literature these sort of stories are often called kaidan, tales of the strange and mysterious, supernatural stories often depicting the horrific and gruesome, with the word ‘kaidan’ meaning ‘narrating the strange’. Many of these anime explore the psychology of men and women (or in many cases girls and boys) at the extremes of experience, where they come into contact with the strange and anomalous: ghosts, fiends, dreams, and other manifestations of the world beyond logic and common sense.

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Indeed, even the word ‘supernatural’ does not necessarily accurately describe these sorts of stories, as what is considered strange or supernatural in one culture is regarded as merely strange – but also natural – in another. Belief in revenants, spirit possessions, and other phenomena that we might call ‘supernatural’ was widespread in 18th century Japan when many famous stories dealing with these subjects were produced. And in modern anime we see a continuation – if not of the actual belief – then at least the nature of the belief, presenting stories where the ‘fantastical’ becomes ordinary, a part of the everyday lives of their characters. However, even the word ‘fantastic’ is arguably inappropriate when dealing with these themes in anime, as defined by Tzvetan Todoroc, because ‘the basis of the fantastic is the ambiguity as to whether the weird event is supernatural or not’, and such ambiguity is almost entirely absent from many of these anime. There is nothing ambiguous about spirit possession, or the appearance of spirits, Youkai, or gods within these series, as they are perceived as simply part of the world the characters inhabit. Instead of supernatural or fantastical phenomena, these creatures are a part of the spirit world that is as much a facet of daily life as anything else. Of course such beliefs are not necessarily followed in modern day Japan, at least not consciously, but the history of such traditions remains part of Japanese literature and popular culture.

If we look any number of anime with the horror tag we will find numerous stories about encountering spirits, be they good or evil in the characters everyday lives. In the process of these encounters, the main characters may be brought to the extremes of experience, dealing with something that is odd, even terrifying, but is as much a part of their everyday experience as going to school and living with their family. Akira represents an example of these extremes – it may be an allegory on the destructive potential of nuclear energy, taking its audience back to the immediate post-war period of reconstruction – but Akira also represents the appearance of an anomalous individual into a world that is otherwise perfectly ordinary. Furthermore, the existence of Akira, Tetsuo, along with the other psychics demonstrates the strange in the everyday, with the narrative of Akira following Kaneda and his gang in their attempts to deal with these new experiences as best they can. Akira is therefore an example of a story that arguably uses the kaidan tradition in its exploration of post-war Japan, the immense power of nuclear fusion, and the degradation of Japanese society, alongside the existence of a corrupt political system.

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Anime also uses settings where the spirit and human worlds intertwine, either producing disastrous consequences in the case of Another, or, in the case of Tasogare Otome x Amnesia, an anime that demonstrates the power of stories themselves. Within both narratives, the central characters have to grapple with the problems that spirits, both malign and ambivalent create when they interact with humans. These series are not as much about outright scares, or a sort of shock treatment that many modern, western horror films use, but are instead an exploration of the complex nature of Japanese religious beliefs. In Another the numerous deaths are as a result of a spirit, or unexplained force that must be indirectly remembered in order to escape calamity. The violence and death in Another is the result of an apparently malevolent force bringing out humanities anger and ability to inflict harm onto others. At the same time certain deaths that appear circumstantial, or unfortunate (specifically the umbrella, and speed boat deaths) are the direct result of the class failing to uphold the task that it has been trusted with. There are parallels between Another and Ringu, with class 3-3 dealing with the pain and suffering in order to appease the original spirit, something that has to happen for as long as the school exists. Similar settings are found in other, older stories that describe the importance of remembering older ghosts, gods, or spirits, because to forget is to bring untold misfortune and calamity on a region, province, or entire kingdom. Although, at no point are we led to believe that the being behind these events is malevolent, rather it is ambiguous, and can be bother benign (doing nothing for some years), or destructive. And it is that ambiguity, the inability to simply, and quickly label something as evil that makes such spirits, of forces so powerful, and so frightening.

Tasogare Otome x Amnesia represents a different approach to ghost stories, focussing on an apparently benevolent ghost who we are initially led to believe spirits unsuspecting school students away in the middle of the night. Rather than focussing on horrific events that are the result of a (possibly) malevolent force, we are presented with an anime that explores the power of stories and the effect they can have on humans. Yuko is carefree and always happy, but the stories that swirl around her at Seikyou Private Academy paint an altogether different picture. The suggestion is that Yuko can and has spirited unsuspecting students away, even killed a few, or otherwise cursed sections of the student population in the past. It doesn’t matter that as the audience we can see how silly all of this is when presented with the reality, the power of stories and the pull that they have is clear as day. Furthermore, Yuko died precisely because of this power, and her death as a human sacrifice in order to appease whatever kami the village elders thought had brought the plague upon them demonstrates this. By pushing her hatred, anger, and jealousy for her village and younger sister Yuko hopes to remove herself from human feelings, even if she also creates the visage used in the numerous stories that surround her. The series resolution ultimately demonstrates how the spirit and human worlds can intermingle without any major problems or incidents, whilst also revealing the inexorable pull of a good ghost story, and its ability to morph and change into something perhaps even more powerful that its original influence.

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There are numerous older Japanese stories that deal with similar characters, and while they are not set in a high school (somewhat difficult in the 17th and 18th centuries), they still explore the ways in which the sprit and human worlds collide. To use Ueda Akinari’s well known classic ‘Tales of Moonlight and Rain’ (Ugetsu Monogatari) as an example, we discover that while all nine of his stories involve ghosts, demons, and deities, they all use them in different ways. Some focus on vengeful spirits, women who have been wronged by their husbands and whose spirits want revenge, or snakes who take the form of a beautiful women out of lust for a beautiful man. Whereas other stories revolve around those who have lost their way, humans and spirits who are cursed or compelled by anger, but still hold the capacity to achieve enlightenment through careful guidance. Like with Akinari’s stories, many anime focus on the vengeful spirits of women, with their female characters playing an important role as either the spirit, or the one possessed by a malign demon or other power that must be controlled. Much of the tension found within these anime is because such forces are uncontrollable, and to do so would likely lead to ones destruction.

As I explored in my post dealing with the role of women in Cross Ange, these fiends and demons aren’t inherently evil, but are instead the manifestation of negative emotions that have been unleashed upon the cast by one particular character, usually male. Such stories often deal with the psychology of men and women at the extremes of experience, where they come into contact with the strange and anomalous: ghosts, fiends, dreams, and other manifestations of the world beyond logic and common sense. The events of Tasogare Otome x Amnesia demonstrate how easily love can turn to hatred, or a twisted version of love that holds significant destructive power. Furthermore, the realities of Yuko’s existence matter very little when the numerous stories that involve her have acquired so much power. In these stories Yuko is demonic, destructive, and dangerous, spiriting people away if they invoke her name or meet the correct conditions, and yet, she is clearly not evil. Ultimately it is the stories that hold power rather than Yuko herself, and even her dark half, with all its hate, anger, and grief, lacks the power to carry out the events of these stories. The events of Tasogare Otome x Amnesia demonstrate the power, and importance of the spirit world, and how remembering an individual is still an incredibly important tradition within Japan, because to do otherwise may invite destruction upon you and your family.

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The stories present in series like Mononoke, Mushishi, Uchouten Kazoku, and Noragami are all examples of the anomalous and strange within anime. The list of anime that deal with such creatures, stories, and ideas is significantly larger, with many anime exploring such themes, even if their central premise may be something a little different. Noragami directly deals with the impact that the negative emotions found within anime like Tasogare Otome, and the older stories of Ueda Akinari describe. As the audience we are given an insight into the work that gods have to do, and the constant negative emotions and emotional storms found in modern day cities. Hiyori must learn to accept the things she is seeing, and then integrate herself into the complex lives of Yato and his fellow kami despite still technically being human. Much of the drama and tension comes from the differences between the realities we see, and that which the kami and their servants see. Furthermore, as the audience we are provided with a vision of the negative emotions that things such as education and examinations can create. An area with lots of students creates storms of negative emotions and energy, something that must then be dealt with by Yato, Tenjin, Kofuku, and Bishamonten.

On the other end of the spectrum we have series like Uchouten Kazoku that still deals with the same world, and beings as Mushishi, Noragami, and Tasogare Otome, but instead takes on a somewhat lighter tone by focussing on the daily lives of Tengu, and Tanuki as they bicker and live within Kyoto. The Tanuki and Tengu are both examples of Youkai, supernatural monsters that in Japanese folklore can bewitch humans, bring about great calamities, and even lead people to ruin. But, like all such creatures they aren’t inherently evil, only their actions do not conform to the rules of the human realm, and as such they cannot be held accountable for what happens. The Tanuki has the ability to scare humans at will by taking on terrifying or out of place forms (such as the False Eizan Electric Railway Yajiro and Souichiro create in Uchouten Kazoku), that make the everyday world we take for granted unnerving. While this cannot be called horror in a western that can largely be traced back to the Gothic Horror traditions of Edgar Allan Poe, they nonetheless tap into an older tradition of story telling within Japanese culture that can be traced back to Heian Period (794-1185 CE) Kyoto and the literary traditions of the royal court.

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Mononoke and Mushishi both deal with similar themes as the central characters travel through their individual worlds, and deal with the numerous strange creatures and monsters that they encounter. In the case of Mushishi, we follow the travels of Ginko and his encounters with various kinds of mushi and the effects they have had on the humans, and world around them. Throughout his travels Ginko encounters the effects of various mushi on the natural world and the humans that inhabit it, often having to cure individuals, or fend off potentially destructive mushi, and even helping other mushi to follow their natural path. Mononoke follows a similar pattern, with the central character known simple as the ‘Medicine Seller’ travelling across Edo-era Japan and combating numerous Mononoke or Yokai along the way. In both cases the spirits that Ginko and the Medicine Seller encounter can hardly be called evil or destructive, although they can certainly have a disastrous effect on the humans that encounter them. They are all part of the world in which the characters reside, they can be natural in the case of Mushishi, often as physical representations of the natural world, or they can be vengeful spirits in the case of Mononoke, that use their powers to hurt the humans they encounter. In many respects these two series are the closest to older literature such as Ugetsu Monogatari and the literary traditions that Ueda Akinari’s classic are a part of. They both deal with spirits, and demons, but, rather than focus on them as supernatural creatures that have forced their way into the human world, the depictions we are presented with show them to be a part of nature, and something to be respected, and feared in equal measure.

The kaidan literary tradition in Japan deals with themes and characters that may well seem horrific and scary, with films like Ju-On and Ringu representing the horrific nature of jealousy, and revenge. There are anime such as Shiki, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, and Elfen Lied – along with a number of vampire themed anime in the Hellsing and Blood franchises – that present a more traditional version of horror in the western sense. But even they are part of this narrative tradition, and are arguably seen as horror because they conform more readily to western attitudes of what constitutes a horror narrative. Like Ju-On and Ringu they deal with tangible threats to the main characters, alongside supernatural creatures such as vampires that fit into western, Christian narratives of what constitutes unholy creatures. Which is not to say that Japan does not have similar narratives, with dangerous creatures using their powers and abilities to get what they want at the expense of humans, alongside the dangerous nature of jealousy and feelings of revenge. But rather, that they aren’t quite as dominant as stories revolving around potentially dangerous, but currently benevolent spirits, youkai, or gods.

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This cultural tradition goes further, and incorporates a significant number of anime we might otherwise label simple as supernatural – such as Uchouten Kazoku, Yozakura Quartet, Mushishi, Mononoke, Binbougami Ga, Inu x Boku, and Inari Konkon. Many of these series are certainly not frightening, and a couple are comedies focussing more on slapstick, than scary stories. But they all tap into a narrative tradition of ‘kaidan’, narrating the strange and anomalous events that occur in everyday life. That they can shift between horrific and gruesome, to light hearted and comedic simple demonstrates the varied nature of spirits and the stories that revolve around them in Japanese culture and society. Herein lies my central issue with the labelling of anime as horror – yes it is a convenient label, one that can be used by a western audience to pick out particular shows that might look interesting – but the varied nature of the kaidan tradition, alongside the often more subtle approach to tales of a more horrific nature can give an audience without knowledge of this tradition a false sense of what does, and does not constitute horror. Many anime series deal with more complex issues, often focussing on vengeful spirits, or spirits that may become vengeful in the future, or perhaps a simple sense of foreboding, without anything physical at all. When talking about horror in the west, ideas of physical, or psychological terror and threat are mentioned – there often has to be something tangible to scare or shock people, although many of the best horrors in the west also have a subtle component. Such physical or psychological threat may not always be present within such anime, and instead there can be the perception of a threat, or the realisation that without clear actions that threat will become a reality. And when there is a real threat to the central cast such as in Another, that threat isn’t entirely tangible, rather it is a malign presence.

The tales of the strange and anomalous found in anime are tapping into a different cultural tradition from the west. In the western tradition creatures of an otherworldly nature invade and inhabit our world, wreaking havoc and creating numerous unexplained, and often terrifying events. In the Japanese tradition, we are presented with tales of the strange and anomalous, exploring the interactions between humans and the spirits that inhabit the world of the shadows. Unlike in the west where such creatures are summoned from another, demonic dimension, the Yokai or other forms of spirits found in anime are simply part of everyday life, although humans might never notice they exist except at the extremes of experience. The result is a story that may not necessarily shock or scare the viewer, but makes them question and think about the world they live in. It does not however mean that there aren’t demonic, even destructive beings found within anime, we just have to look at Another, Shiki, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, and even Kyoukai no Kanata for examples of creatures that are neither good, nor ambiguous, but clearly destructive and dangerous. Still, this narrative tradition can be easily adapted into anime series, producing a wide variety og anime that deal with everything from horrific stories of death and destruction, to light hearted romance, and even a few slapstick comedies. This is why I believe the term ‘horror’ is misleading, certainly there are horror themed anime, but they are a part of a broader cultural tradition that explores how the spirit and humans worlds interact.

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

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