Friday’s Feature: Characters To Make the Horror Real

This was not my intended post for this week however having started two shows that both seem intent on killing off their cast members in spectacularly gruesome and unrealistic fashions for the entertainment of the viewers this season the importance of the characters in making these sorts of stories anything more than visual spectacle has been thoroughly on my mind. This month my features are all focussing on horror and so far I have looked at visuals and the unnamed victims so if you missed either of those posts be sure to check them out.

Starting with a non-anime example I want to look at a movie from my teens, Scream. Scream is not complicated. It is self-aware of its derivative nature, to the point of having the characters openly list the rules and requirements of a horror film even as they themselves go through the motions of being in a horror film. There isn’t a single character in the film you can point to and claim they are unique or particularly interesting as it is an ensemble cast of horror tropes and they work beautifully together to craft a story that actually makes you want the designated heroine of the story to survive and leaves you feeling happy when the killer is ingloriously shot down before getting his final jump scare.

Scream-1-Cast

This is where we as an audience need to understand that these trope like characters serve a valuable narrative purpose and their most important role is to get the audience to react to them. You are supposed to be suspicious of this one, disgusted by that one, roll your eyes at her, and feel sympathy even as you want that one to stand up for herself. It is manipulative viewing and evokes the same emotional response in more or less any other decent teen horror but it is a formula that works.

When you throw competent people into a horror/thriller kind of story the struggle becomes giving them an opponent they can’t easily defeat. This is seen quite clearly in Predator. Here we have tough, trained soldiers who don’t come off as inept as soon as things go awry. They are just severely outclassed by an alien. All except Arnold but I think most of us suspected that he could beat off an alien hunter even before watching this movie.

And that kind of brings us to King’s Game and Juni Taisen: Zodiac War. King’s Game lands squarely in the high school students being terrorised by unknown forces and freaking out whereas Juni Taisen has trained warriors who have walked into and signed up for a death match (for reasons still unknown). Both shows have their flaws and strengths but in terms of the characters drawing me into the story, King’s Game is kind of winning even if the story doesn’t seem as strong (okay, it is rubbish but no one ever claimed horror was a genre filled with examples of brilliant writing – there’s some and we do appreciate it when it exists, but basically we’ll take what we can get) and the presentation has been far rougher. So what is actually going on here?

For me the issue squarely comes down to how the characters are reacting to the horror of their situation.

King1e

King’s Game may suffer from pacing issues, character over-reactions and general poor writing, but the kids are scared. Inexplicable multiple deaths in a single night have them gathering in a panicked mob willing to lurch toward any potential solution. They want to stop the horror and they want out of the situation. That makes the horror feel real to me as a member of the audience. What is happening is actually a threat and one that is causing these characters to freak out. It makes me wonder what I would be feeling in their shoes or wondering if their idiotic actions might be justified even as I roll my eyes at mob-mentality. So far very few of these characters are anything more than a name (when I remember it) and a type (if they’ve even had a line of dialogue) but as a class of teenagers they excel at grounding the horror into something that becomes relatable and therefore something I am more likely to invest in emotionally.

King2c

Episode two was not good. There is no way around that as a reviewer. It was not a good episode by any measure. Yet, there was this one moment where a character is forced with a choice of not following the King’s Order and dying, or of texting ‘die’ to someone and have them die. She knows the game is real now. She knows it won’t just be a joke  to text someone that single word. The look on her face, even through questionable animation and visuals, is one that brings the horror of that choice straight to the audience. What would you do? Do you die or do you sentence a classmate to death? Does it make it okay if you choose someone that the others don’t like? This is the best part of these sorts of horror stories, these small moments that drive the emotions home. Admittedly, King’s Game is hiding these small moments under a pile of mud and other unpleasant oozing substances and there’s a reason quite a few people have dropped the show.

Juni1c

Juni Taisen however hasn’t had one of these moments. In the first two episodes we’ve met characters who are arrogant, cool, confident or disinterested. They aren’t shocked or scared by their situation and they don’t feel like they are in over their head. In fact, a lot of them just seem bored by the situation, or gleefully and unpleasantly excited by the prospect of killing. Even Boar’s surprise death lacked impact other than a momentary shock because she didn’t see it coming, had no time to feel helpless or pathetic for failing. There was no moment for the audience to empathise with her plight and even though she was in over her head the audience never had a moment to feel that way.

The fact that the Zodiac Warriors aren’t helpless teenagers isn’t a deal breaker in terms of making that emotional connection. Even trained soldiers can feel helpless or cornered and it is brilliant when done well because you can’t criticise the character for being useless. You know they are strong but the enemy is stronger or has managed to get the upper hand. This actually works impressively well when done well, but so far Juni Taisen seems fairly determined not to really allow the audience that connection that would make these deaths anything more than spectacle.

Juni2a

Moving to the second episode and we meet the Dog. He’s as arrogant and self-assured as the Boar, possibly more so, and once again he never once sees his death coming. It is over in an instant. If I was to map out my emotional responses during the second episode it would be mostly a flat line  as we go through rounds of exposition, introductions, waiting around, and then a quick blip when the inevitable death occurred before returning to base.

King2d

So while I’ll admit fairly readily that  Juni Taisen is far superior to King’s Game in terms of its animation quality, so far from an emotional point of view and from just wanting the horror to actually connect, King’s Game has been winning out for me. I know others have a different opinion and that’s what makes discussing these shows so much fun. It has been great reading about how others have taken to these two shows (or not). Neither show is particularly great yet in terms of narrative as there’s still a lot of unknowns and a lot of potential for both to fall pretty flat. The thing is though, when you set up your story with the understanding that the characters exist mostly to die, if the audience doesn’t care about these characters that makes it pretty hard to care about anything else.

Before finishing, I just want to touch on the other ‘horror’ I started this season: Evil or Live. I use quotations for a reason on that horror because other than the fact that it is listed as such, I so far haven’t seen any evidence of it being a horror (unless you count the writing as being horrific and maybe that does scare you). While the characters are horrible and in a horrendous situation, the show is far more teen drama than horror. A very dark teen drama where rape is a possibility and vomiting in someone’s mouth is potentially supposed to be a comedic moment (possibly?). Maybe it will later shift things up a gear but all things considered, I somehow doubt it is going to hit the mark if you look at it being a horror.

Okay, handing over to you and your thoughts on characters in horror and whether they can make or break your enjoyment of a horror story.


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Karandi James.

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24 thoughts on “Friday’s Feature: Characters To Make the Horror Real

  1. I saw the third episode of King’s Game this morning, and while I admit it still has issues, for some weird reason I’m still enjoying it, even though this just isn’t a high quality show. But you are so right though, the horror is real, and you can see it on everyone’s faces. When presented with the choices given in this anime, I think everyone would have a hard time in the end. (Luckily I guess we never have to find out for real, at least I hope so lol). I’m definitely sticking with it, as for some reason this show seems to work for me 😀 Great post! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just tried the first OVA of Corpse Part Tortured Souls on HiDive just to see what it was like. Hoping to finish the other episodes and review soon. First episode definitely had great gore but I’m not particularly invested in any of the characters or even really caring about how they got into the situation they are in.

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      1. Truth. There is almost no character development. They end up in trouble before there is ever any time to care about the characters. Many of them are done away with before we are even sure of how they relate to each other, or so it seems to me.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. while it’s true that they’re both death games, i dont think it’s fair to compare juuni taisen and ousama game as horror shows. in my eyes, juuni taisen doesnt instill a sense of fear in the viewer simply because it isnt trying to do that.

    to the point of ousama game itself, i just want some clue as to how these characters are coming to the decisions they make.

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      1. Yep, and it is definitely a death game. I have to wonder what the purpose of the death game is though given they aren’t trying to make it horrific? As an audience member it has left me confused as to how I am supposed to take it. I’m not worried for the characters, it is visually quite spectacular, but it isn’t really action focused either.

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          1. The trying to guess would be more fun if we actually knew or had any reason to connect with any of the characters. That and, the only real clue we’ve been given is so far they are dying in order of the zodiac so that would make the winner obvious (but that would be an incredibly lazy conclusion so lets all hope for a twist).
            Maybe I’m just getting too old to appreciate spectacle for the sake of it.

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    1. Yeah, their decision making isn’t awesome in King’s Game and continues to be pretty questionable in episode 3.
      And you are right, Juni seems far more going for action/drama than horror which for some people will work well. And that is why I have tried to only compare them in terms of how they present horror and that from that point of view I prefer King’s Game because as you’ve pointed out Juni Taisen really isn’t getting to horror despite the premise.

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        1. It doesn’t. Though, it kind of isn’t over the top action enough to be that sort of death game (at least not yet – though some of the action sequences with the Boar in the first episode flash backs were pretty cool) and there’s not a lot else going on.
          For me, a death game kind of has to either attempt some sort of horror or it needs to be zany action to really draw me in and mostly Juni Taisen hasn’t done either so I’m struggling with it as a show because as much as I wanted to like it going in I’m really not. I’d kind of like it more if there was more action or if there was more horror/drama. Either would work but looking at the show I’m not sure what it is aiming for.

          By the way, I really like it when you call me out on some of my more random features and ideas because it actually makes me reflect on what I’ve written. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my posts and to write such great comments/questions.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. i get expecting certain things out of a death game-style show. i think juuni taisen as a show has a lot to overcome already since it’s depicting a literal arena (rather than the typical death game you see in ousama game) and because of its predictable nature. i think a lot of my approach has been “okay, what did LN readers see in it?”. to be fair, my favorite part of death games is usually the games themselves, so both shows don’t meet that requirement for me.

            and yeah, any time. appreciate that you value my input

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I agree, both death games lack something in terms of us actually knowing what the point is or why they even exist, or even in their presentaiton. King’s Game might still do something interesting with some of the instructions and might get to a point that I quite like, but I’m thinking Juni Taisen is going to remain lacking in this regard.

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