The original “hell girl”.
Yes, Vampire Princess Miyu and Jigoku Shoujo do have quite a number of differences (yeah – Ai wins the popularity contest with seventy-eight episodes versus Miyu’s thirty!), but one would be hard-pressed to say beyond a doubt that the Jigoku Shoujo creators and writers weren’t at least, in part, inspired by the former. Story and plot differences aside, though, there is one big thing separating the two – quite simply the manner in which each goes about approaching the horror genre, something which is reflected in the comparison of many of their respective contemporaries with one another.
So, wherein lies the difference?
I would argue that the primary difference between horror anime of the 1990’s relied on a more visual method of conveying horror, whereas more recent iterations of the genre take a more psychological approach. While physically unpleasant fates often befell completely innocent (and disposable) characters in older horror series, this approach is largely absent from today’s horror shows; instead, the innocent/disposable victims find themselves tormented in more psychological fashion, and if physical violence enters the picture, it is violence that is very much relatable – yes, that kid just got kicked in the stomach by the bully, but it is an action which is extremely human, a far cry from the crushing of skulls by beasts you find in titles such as Nightwalker.
Jigoku Shoujo and Vampire Princess Miyu are shows that are easy to compare on this front given their similarities (eternally young girl who works for demons/hell and has morally ambiguous ends; normal, everyday people who end up suffering unpleasantries, generally through no fault of their own, which then bring about ultimately tragic fates for them). But Jigoku Shoujo is a much more subtle exercise; the disposable characters here are not consumed by ugly monsters, but instead are tortured by peers and superiors alike. While their tormentors do get some brief, supernatural on-screen punishment as they are sentenced to hell, there is still absent the gruesomeness one would find in Vampire Princess Miyu, where disposable characters are routinely sucked dry of blood, eaten alive, and dismembered by evil creatures from hell. Its an extremely different process of enacting horror from the one utilized on Jigoku Shoujo, which relies on the pitfalls of humanity instead of the inhumaneness of folkloric beasts. In the former, the viewer squirms since its a situation that could happen, while in the latter the viewer squirms because its just gross (admittedly, some of Jigoku Shoujo’s plotlines are a bit ludicrous, but even these have a higher probability of occurring than a demon crawling through a dimensional hole to gobble someone up).
However, one show does not a trend make, so let’s consider a few somewhat recent entries into the horror genre; luckily, last autumn was a season strangely teeming (relatively speaking) with horror shows, giving us Mouryou no Hako, Kurozuka, the aforementioned Jigoku Shoujo Mitsuganae, and Shikabane Hime: Aka (if you add in shows that had elements of horror, the list expands to include Kuroshitsuji and Vampire Knight Guilty).
Mouryou no Hako does have some people who end up experiencing unpleasant physical occurrences, but like we see in Jigoku Shoujo, these are largely wrought by other human beings. People do get mutilated, their limbs appearing in boxes in various parts of the country, but no one gets torn to shreds by a monster. The violence occurs mainly off-screen, and we see only the results of said violence, which lends a further air of mystery to the proceedings… and also reinforces the fact that this is a subtle, psychological play at horror instead of the more explicit version that used to be more frequent.
Kurozuka is much, much more violent than Mouryou no Hako, and on its surface would seem to undermine the argument about psychological horror. But Kurozuka, while possessing a good deal of violence, also retains a very human edge on its violence, such that even when violence is committed by a demon, it is pretty clear that what is being dealt with ultimately is an intelligent, humanoid enemy – a far cry from the animalistic creatures which traipse through shows such as Yami no Matsuei or the previously mentioned Nightwalker (and, yes, both of these shows do have humanoid or human foes, but their violence is dominated by gross-out monsters like giant centipedes… and just a general tendency to kill people off in very unpleasant ways). There is also the fact that people don’t get killed in the truly awful ways one finds in earlier horror anime; instead, people actually tend to perish in ways one would expect in a samurai anime, which isn’t quite shocking when one considers the time period in which a decent chunk of the show takes place – and the fact that this samurai aesthetic continues to permeate the proceedings even when they’ve gone forward in time.
I’ve already covered Jigoku Shoujo Mitsuganae in the Jigoku Shoujo-Vampire Princess Miyu comparison, so I’ll skip that.
Arriving at Shikabane Hime: Aka, we find a show that I felt throwback vibes from when I started watching it. In this show, we once again find people coming to nasty ends at the hands of generally mindless monsters, and so it proves an exception to the overall trend. The episode in which they hunt down a little girl who has turned into a shikabane (basically a living corpse with the ability to shapeshift) and has been killing people reminded me in particular of older horror shows, since there was an innocent victim (the little girl) who had died in a manner completely out of her hands… and then murdered other completely innocent victims in disgusting ways! The entire atmosphere of this show screamed 90’s horror – and completely lacked a psychological aspect, outside of the unavoidable feeling of dread one had throughout episodes, since one always knew something awful was going to happen to someone.
So where did the shift come from, and why? Hell if I know – although I would like to point of Boogiepop Phantom, which I tend to regard as a bridge in the change from older style to newer. In Boogiepop, people get ripped apart by otherworldy beings. But Boogiepop also features a very strong psychological aspect, as is made very obvious early on by the very structure of the show, which engenders a sense of paranoia through its demand that the viewer puts together the puzzle pieces. While the unpleasant ends of various disposable characters do help to strengthen the overall horror atmosphere, it is truly the non-explicit aspects of the show which give one the feeling of dread one associates with the horror genre.
Anyway, I’ve basically run out of things to say on that topic and suck at writing conclusions. So…
TL;DR version: Horror anime in the “old” days relied more on making you feel unpleasant by dismembering people, etc., whereas more recent horror anime prefer to freak you out in a more psychological fashion.
EDIT: If you feel like checking out what I mean by ‘unpleasant end’ click here and start watching at about the 2:30 mark and then watch it through to 3:40.