Well, we’ve made it back to October and so my attention once again turns to one of my favourite anime genres: horror. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how few horror anime there actually are. Talk to any anime fan who watches horror anime and they’ll probably mention the same stock list of titles and that’s really because there isn’t much else to choose from. The other point that will come up again and again is that anime horror isn’t all that scary.
As someone who doesn’t watch horror to be particularly scared, I find the majority of anime horror falls into two camps. All atmosphere with minimal payoff or blood and gore and weirdness for the sake of it with minimal story progression. Both have their place and can be entertaining enough. Shiki is one of my favourites with its slow build up before a senseless massacre with no real winners for a story that focuses on its atmosphere. For violence for the sake of it I’d have to go with Elfen Lied. That one actually does pull a story together once it gets through the gratuitous violence and nudity of the early episodes but it never really leaves behind the desire to splatter the screen with blood.
Though, this year I started to wonder what it would take for their to be a truly brilliant horror anime. Not one that is good compared to other horror anime but one that actually made people realise anime is a fantastic medium for horror narratives. These are my thoughts, or at least the start of them. I was going to write a single post but then it became a bit disjointed so the next part is coming. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think would make the best horror anime possible.
Open With A Bang
But Keep If Short
A lot of horror anime either start in full on blood-bath mode and then try to fill in the blanks later or jump to seemingly unrelated character and then somehow join the dots. Others open with things being calm and not a lot going on however we slowly get a sense of uneasiness as things progress. These two different approaches give two different problems for hooking an audience.
Blood and gore without context isn’t interesting. Unless you really are just watching for the splatter, blood and gore are a byproduct of horrific events, not the source of the horror. Elfen Lied is a great example of a bloody opening that goes on far too long before any context is provided. I actually dropped this in the first episode the first time I tried to watch it and only went back because a friend of mine insisted I would like it. I actually did in the end and it is a horror anime I go back to again and again, but that opening sequence is way too long with way too much focus on death and dismemberment to the detriment of character and plot. Sure we get an idea for how deadly Lucy is, but surely they could have done that in five minutes.
Likewise, other anime take a long time before anything happens. In something like School Live, where the big reveal (no spoilers here but don’t click the link if you don’t want to know) is at the end of the first episode, this is fine. It actually works beautifully with the overall story and ensures the impact of that reveal is maximised without dragging it on too long.
Another is probably a prime example of an anime that takes far too long to do anything outside of drippy atmosphere. It does however do atmosphere fantastically well and I’ll certainly get back to that, but for those wanting to know why everything feels wrong and creepy it takes far too long before anything of significance is revealed. You might want to argue that the dialogue discussing the curse while we get flashes of significant scenery (after you’ve watched the anime you realise that these are all sites of tragedies in the story) is the hook, but to be honest when you first watch the show it is just babble with disconnected images. It means nothing and has little impact. Then we’re spending time with the main character in the hospital and it takes a long time before we get back to the whole idea of a curse.
So what will work?
Well, consider the story being told. As I said, School Live didn’t open with a bang exactly but it made that work within the context of that story. Realistically though, I think Higurashi got it more or less right. The story opens with the silhouette of a character beating another to death with a baseball bat. It is the shock blood and gore tactic of Elfen Lief, but it lasts minutes and then we roll back to find out how we progressed from happy kids to tragic ending. Then we do it again and again as we start time looping. It worked because it assured us that there was something more than just cute kids playing around at school and made us question a lot of seemingly innocent statements by characters that we may have otherwise overlooked.
Short and to the point. Setting a tone and an expectation without derailing setting up plot and characters. A solid opening for a horror story.
Don’t Ignore The Characters
Do you know why King’s Game ended up being laughably bad? And no, it wasn’t the horrendous visuals and animation with horrific censorship as the blacked out over severed necks and the likes. Nor was it actually that the story didn’t really resolve. Or even that the whole ‘game’ made no sense even within the rules they established. All of those things could have been overlooked if one aspect of the story had actually been solid.
That aspect would be the characters. Trope characters are a standard in terrible horror movies in the west. The dumb blonde, the macho but dense jock, the nerd, etc, etc. But when horror becomes more than just popcorn viewing and becomes something really quite compelling, it is because the characters have been well realised within their context. They’ve become more than just their trope.
King’s Game didn’t have even one half-decently written character. They had a whole class of characters and the majority of them were either non-entities, or they would see-saw from hysteria, to blind anger, to meek sobbing messes as the occasion called for it but didn’t actually exhibit a real personality. Those character that were active in moving the plot forward were illogical at best and you just couldn’t get behind their efforts to stop the game because honestly, they were just ridiculous.
Shiki also suffers this point a little bit as it has such a large cast of characters. They do a fairly solid job on the main groups of characters and they are quite entertaining and seem to develop reasonably well throughout, but the majority of the villagers are either cannon fodder or there to simply be an obstacle or part of the mob. Still, I love Shiki because of the main cast and while I would have liked some of the other characters to be a little less stupid at times, it isn’t the show ruining situation that King’s Game finds itself in.
This is where School Live has a definite advantage with its small cast of tight-knit characters. Each one is developed very well along the way and they are very well realised characters which makes their situation even more compelling. Likewise Higurashi has a whole village of characters, but the focus is on the group of kids and few necessary supporting characters and they are nicely presented over two seasons as we learn more about them through each cycle. Even something like The Promised Neverland, which is more psychological than horror, does an amazing job with its cast bringing a story that might otherwise have been pretty ordinary to life and making it one of the most talked about anime of its season.
Characters matter, even if they are just cannon fodder. Even the most generic of generic horror plots can be made to feel fresh and interesting with a well realised cast.
So those are the first two point in what would make the best horror anime: the opening sequence and the characters. Next week I’m going to look at a couple more points but in the meantime I’d love to know your thoughts on what would make a horror anime good.
Thanks for reading
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