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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks for reading.
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