A Pandemic Guide to Anime: Horror edition

A Pandemic Guide to Anime: Horror edition

Welcome back! It’s been quite a while since we last met. Like, a while. How have you been? Yeah, me too. It happens.

Back when the days when there had not yet been an insurrection on American soil during the new millennium, and we were only dealing with a deadly worldwide pandemic, we started a wee holiday project of introducing more people in America to the best of what anime, the colloquial U.S. lumping together of (mostly-) Japan’s rich modern animation arts, has to offer.

Gone are the days when bootlegged videotapes featuring often-ridiculous, amateur-written subtitles were the only way to get access to the products of an animation industry that could match or beat whatever Disney had on offer. Gone, too, are the days when American studios and audiences alike were so baffled by the concept of animation not aimed at children that shows like The Simpsons or South Park counted as “edgy” merely for being attempted.

Animation is once again recognized as a medium that can tell stories for adults as well as it can for children.

Shows like BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty aren’t for kids; Archer is cynical grown-up fare; Adventure Time bends the animation themes and standards of a children’s show with subtexts that have inspired a devoted adult fanbase.

But American animation still tends to prioritize sitcom formats and comedy themes. You’d be hard-pressed to find the sort of fare that manga artist Junji Ito has given his audiences or Hollywood-produced animation that challenges audiences with the psychological puzzles of a Serial Experiments Lain.

Rather than give a full introduction, however, let’s go back to the very first posts.

  • Part 1: Want a baby-step introduction to Japanese animation from the standpoint of someone who loves My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away and wants more? Go here.
  • Part 2: Seen all the now-famous movies, and now want series with the same clout and impact? Go here.
  • Part 3: What about the more recent offerings? Which are worth trying? Here’s a bunch.
  • Part 4: Do we have you hook, line, and sinker? Looking for some best-of-the-best options? Here’s your starting point.

There have been a few developments since those earlier entries. If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you might have noticed that the company is doubling down on its efforts to expand its anime lineup; the company is also diving headlong into live-action versions of some of the most popular shows, which … we will not speak of, for now.

But the two primary means of viewing most new anime as it comes out in Japan, along with a back catalog of past entries, continue to be Crunchyroll (mostly for subtitled versions) and Funimation (mostly for English-dubbed versions). Thanks to Big Sony, those two companies are now set to merge, and what that means is still unclear. At best, it will produce a powerhouse that may further pressure Netflix to expand its offerings beyond the still very limited number of titles it has bothered to acquire. At worst, their engineers will manage to combine both streaming platforms into a single new one that combines the truly glorious bugs that plague both. So, yay?

In any event, we’re all very bored now, so let’s jump into things before we fall asleep. We’re going to continue focusing on subtitled shows. If you’re sticking to English-language versions, you’re going to be woefully limited in your choices; English-language dubs are still produced in a hurried fashion that can often wreck the tone of a show simply because the voice actors haven’t been given time to nail their lines.

And the theme for this, our newest entry, is:

Horror

It is now Thanksgiving, which is not an actual holiday. Thanksgiving is nothing but a blend of Christmas Eve and Halloween, a holiday thrown in to practice Christmas before the real one comes. Like Christmas, it focuses on having a lavish feast. Like Halloween, it is a night when all sorts of scary people come to your house to take your food, but this time since they’re related to you, you’re not allowed to turn them away at the door. And while Halloween features people thanking each other for treats and Christmas features people thanking each other for presents, Thanksgiving revolves around thanking each other for bupkis. Everyone gets to be thankful that they’ve survived eleven months of the year, and that your uncle who can’t shut up about Sean Hannity has yet again kindly graced your house with his presence.

It’s an absolutely terrifying holiday. Horror is the right call here, and I won’t take any objections on this. We’re going to start with some hard horror, the stuff that you turn to if you like having nightmares because you’re just that sort of weird. Ready?

Too late, off we go.

Another

Kōichi Sakakibara is a middle school student who has just moved in with his grandparents, but before he ever sets foot in his new classroom, he’s first hospitalized. Things take a turn for the strange when the classroom representative visits him in his hospital room and asks him a series of odd, hostile-seeming questions.

Kōichi soon learns the reason for his classmates’ distrust. His ninth-grade classroom, 3-3, is the target of a curse. During some school years, the classroom’s roster includes one more name than can be accounted for—and during those years, the students assigned to 3-3 suffer serial, gruesome deaths. Class rep Izumi is in charge of “countermeasures,” and the only effective countermeasure has been to choose to ignore a student from the class—disregard their very existence—thus returning the roster to its rightful count.

This time around, it doesn’t work—and that may or may not be Kōichi’s fault. What follows is a one-season gore-fest in which students are killed, one by one, by an unrelenting chain of improbable accidents as the survivors attempt to find some means of stopping the curse. Think Final Destination, anime version. Be warned that it’s blood-and-guts horror, a murder mystery in which the murders won’t stop until the mystery is solved—and maybe not even then.

Available on Crunchyroll, Another is one of the most effective bits of animated horror I’ve ever seen: the pacing, the brooding tone, the baffling nature and rules of the “curse,” and the story’s ability to keep the mystery both mysterious until the end and hiding in plain sight is top-notch work. It may not lend itself to a rewatch, though; like many of the best-written mysteries, a second run-through can’t recapture the suspense of not knowing just how things are going to turn out.

Jujutsu Kaisen

Another is distinctly not funny. Jujutsu Kaisen, however, goes for the humor in horror.

This one’s from the pages of action weekly Shōnen Jump, so you can go into it expecting as much action as horror. When faced with something otherworldly and dangerous, Jujutsu Kaisen asks the all-important question: Have you tried punching it really, really hard? That sets us up for a surprisingly funny, surprisingly scary story that’s become one of Japan’s bigger recent hits.

Yuji Itadori is a high school student who is optimistic, relatively carefree, is devoted to his dying grandfather, and just happens to be superhumanly athletic because, uh, shut up, that’s why. When the occult-researching school club he joined on a lark—that is, only because they needed another member—lays their hands on a cursed relic of unfathomable power, the club is attacked by a “Curse,” a semi-sentient murder-monster usually invisible to humans and born from negative human emotions.

Battling to save his classmates alongside a curse-battling sorcerer dispatched to retrieve the artifact, Yuji is told to stay back. Those without cursed power can’t defeat curses, and Yuji is helpless here. On realizing this, Yuji quickly does what he believes to be the most logical thing: He eats the unfathomably powerful cursed relic in the hope he’ll gain its powers.

Yeah. That’s what he decided. It was certainly a choice. And he’s promptly possessed by the even-more-powerful-and-murderous cursed spirit contained in the relic, because duh.

It all works out in the end, and with the combination of cursed energy granted by an awakened being who is always, always fighting to take control of Yuji, and Yuji’s own devotion to punching things, he soon finds himself enrolled in a (rather terribly run) school for curse-battling sorcerers. Will Yuji be able to keep control of the curse inside him? Will he become a successful exorcist? Or will he be killed, either by the monsters he’s fighting or by sorcerers who believe killing the curse inside him is well worth killing a single super-athletic teen?

While the monsters and violence depicted in Jujutsu Kaisen put it squarely in the not-for-young-kids realm, aka nightmare fuel, what makes the show work is its always-present sense of humor and, especially, the distinctness of its characters. Each of Yuji’s new friends has their own personalities and goals, they don’t immediately trust or even like one another, and all of them are allowed to either save the day or screw things up in accordance to their skills and their flaws. You could base a new series around any of them and it would still hold up.

This is a show that doesn’t take itself seriously. But we’ll still rank it as “hard” horror, rather than light horror, because of its blood-and-gore scenes and horror-worthy body count.

It’s been tremendously popular in Japan, and I’d rank it easily above the other recent top hits, Demon Slayer and Attack on Titan. It’s slapstick comedy mixed with existential dread—sort of like the feeling you might get from owning a vintage Jaguar.

Parasyte

Not to be confused with Parasite, the recent well-received movie, Parasyte is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style tale of creeping apocalypse at the hands of a shapeshifting, body-controlling alien menace. On the night intelligent, parasitic worms invade from space, Shinichi Izumi awakens to find one of the worms attempting to burrow into his arm—after which the worm intends to travel to the brain, attach itself, and turn Izumi into the walking meat robot that the species use as their means of interplanetary conquest.

Izumi is able to halt the parasite with a tourniquet; it turns out the parasites only have a brief period of time to reach the brain before they become “stuck” in whatever part of the body they’ve currently reached and can progress no further. Izumi stays alive and himself—but now has a shapeshifting, foul-mouthed, and extremely bitter talking right hand. Worse, he and his failure of a parasite are both targeted for death by parasites that have successfully zombified their hosts and have far more encompassing shapeshifting powers than Shinichi has gained.

This one might be good for folks who just can’t get enough of Hollywood’s horror movies. It’s got shapeshifting humans fighting each other for world domination, so if you’re not good with body horror give it a pass, and while it does try to grapple with weighty themes like “what is human” it doesn’t meet them with enough conviction to make them memorable. But it’s been popular for years now, so it must have done something right?

But what about…

We’ll add a few more here, but these recommendations are more qualified. You might like them, but you might be turned off by their flaws. You’ll know in the first few episodes.

The Junji Ito Collection

Junji Ito has long been the Walt Disney of Japanese horror manga, and fans have long itched to see his most famous stories adapted into animation. That finally happened, in 2018, and the results are … hmm. Mixed? What makes a Junji Ito work so masterfully chilling is the artist’s imagination and technical skill in producing simple black and white sketches that, by and of themselves, evoke fear or disgust. A human body might be twisted into a spiral form akin to a snail, or an otherwise normal face might stare at you with an uncanny, grotesque grin—Ito is a master of body horror, and produces stories with people getting their deserved comeuppance or undeserved punishments with the brutality of the unsanitized tales collected by the Brothers Grimm.

As a cultural mainstay of sorts, it might be worth watching the anime adaptation if you are agreeably frightened by body horror of that specific type. It’s definitely, definitely nightmare fuel. But the anime was met with mixed reactions for not quite nailing what is so good about Junji Ito’s ink-and-paper works. Is it that it simply can’t be done in animation, or were the pacing and animation decisions this time around just off the mark? Hard to say. You can watch one and see if it’s your cup of tea, but again—not even remotely for kids. Not even a little.

Theatre of Darkness: Yamishibai

Yamishibai is a collection of five-minute horror stories for when you want to be scared for only five-minute stretches of time. No beating-around-the-bush on these; you’ll get your gloomy opening, your unsettling something-is-wrong, and your full-on supernatural terror in less time than it takes to cook and eat cup ramen.

The essence of Yamishibai is Japanese urban legends, the sort of stories that swim through young heads as variations of my sister’s friend who goes to a different school said her cousin told her, and as such it represents a wonderful shorthand look at the nightmares that might plague you if you lived in Tokyo instead of New York, or in Osaka rather than in San Francisco.

The but on this one is not because of the short-story format, but for animation style that can be described as “just barely.” The show attempts to mimic the puppet-show presentations of streetside storytellers of old, with cutout figures that move soullessly across the screen and no other animation to speak of. It’s stylized, sort of a Tales from the Crypt on a shoestring budget—but it also literally gives me a headache to watch. Not figuratively, but literally: It gives me eyestrain. Why? Not a clue.

On the other hand, the cultural differences in tales of ghosts, haunted phones, and other modern-day horrors are worth poking at, and while not all of the many, many episodes are successful there are some good scares and creepy moments throughout.

That’s it for this time around. We haven’t even scratched the surface of hardcore animated horror, but we’ll have to leave the other likely candidates for another time. There’s When They Cry: Higurashi, and The Promised Neverland, Boogiepop Phantom, and more, and maybe we’ll get to those later, and maybe we won’t.

But even this little anime subgenre is too big to cover in one post, so we’ll be doing another. Next time, though, we’ll look at shows for people who aren’t eager to stomach the jumpscares or gore of hard horror, but still like a bit of spooky. You know, normal people. Normalish, anyway.

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