Welcome to October and the lead up to Halloween. I know Australia doesn’t technically do Halloween but I find it a lot more fun than a lot of other holidays (less tinsel for one) plus Halloween lends itself to movie marathons. So, tis the season to drag out all the B Grade horror you can find and binge to your heart’s content. In the meanwhile, my features this month are going to focus on various aspects of horror (some more directly than others).
Today, I want to look at the visual aspects that make up horror. One thing you know going in to a horror (of any sort) is that it is probably going to be dark. Tremors is probably an exception given it is set in a blindingly bright desert and most of the action happens in full daylight, but it is more a comedy than a horror anyway so we’ll move right along. One thing that is a problem when you have a lot of dark going on is that it starts getting hard for the audience to distinguish what is happening in a scene.
This is something that was a real issue in the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the grainy quality of the show, plus poor distinction between light and dark, meant some scenes just ended up being a grainy mess. It wasn’t until the DVD’s came out that some of that got cleaned up and even now the first and second season aren’t exactly amazing. Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliantly lit scenes that set the tone and give us the needed contrast and then there are all the other shots.
However, let’s link this back to anime.
During the Summer 2017 season I watched Vatican Miracle Examiner and while this isn’t a horror by any standard, it was trying very hard for a creepy and unnerving atmosphere. I say trying because it was let down by its writing and characterisation and ultimately what we end up with are a lot of dark scenes with poor contrast and very little to draw us in.
I don’t know about you, but that is a lot of brown, grey and black. I’m not even sure in most of those images what I’m supposed to be focussed on. Basically, this is someone thinking all they need to make something creepy is to paint it black and they’ve just kind of missed the point about how atmosphere actually works.
On the other hand, Another really gets atmosphere. The slow pace and ending to the story may irk some people, but looking at how the anime visually creates atmosphere is fascinating. It is every bit as dark in scenes as Vatican Miracle Examiner but in those moments brings the characters to the front, and the character usually contrasts sharply with the rest of the scene. You can always clearly see these characters, particularly their facial expressions (or in the case above, the blood splatter). You still get the sense of a dark place but now you have something to connect you to that scene and to distinguish it from all the other grainy black and brown backgrounds.
Even without characters in the scene, Another manages to make its point clear. Yes, the scene is dark and cluttered, but we have the red light in one corner that gives way to the green lighting on the other side of the room. It is darker in the foreground and lighter further back in the room, meaning we can actually see the room in all its creepiness (because dolls are creepy). The room, and actually most scenes in Another, lacks symmetry, which just adds another element of strangeness to the whole thing.
The final sequences in Another are all fairly dark, taking place on a rainy night, but a handy fire manages to illuminate sequences with an eerie golden glow. It creates strange shadows and a sense of movement, while at the same time allowing what needs to be seen to be seen. This show was dark and a lot of the sequences were dark, but it was never hard to see what was going on and you always knew what was important on the screen. These visuals when combined with the music and the fairly creepy story of a cursed class worked really well to construct the atmosphere that became the highlight of the show.
Back to Vatican Miracle Examiner and if we look at the scene above, well… At least there is a light source in the foreground because otherwise we would have lost the limited bit we can see. And I guess it kind of shows us the facial expressions of those in the foreground. However, the best descriptor for the image above is murky. By the time the audience has even figured out what they are looking at and what might be the focus, the anime will have moved on.
Given the kinds of stories I love, particularly around this time of year, I end up watching a lot of shows that are quite dark visually. I always appreciate it when they do more than just make things hard to see and actually consider what the audience is looking at and what affect that will have.
So over to you. Which anime do you think have managed to create an excellent atmosphere with their visuals and which do you think missed the mark?
Thanks for reading.
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