Hey guys, holiday spirit time, let’s all watch some horror!
Spoilers for Shiki, Yami no Matsuei, and Jigoku Shoujo (barely).
I’ll be very sad to see Shiki end in a few weeks considering how solid of an entry into anime’s horror genre it has been. The fact is that horror anime are fairly uncommon to begin with, and those that are truly effective are even rarer. So I tip my hat to Shiki for being such a fantastic treat in that regard (although I think it is also strong in comparison to other anime in general). After all, the last horror anime which aired before Shiki was Ookami Kakushi last spring, and that went downhill fast, while the ones which aired concurrently, while surprisingly numerous, either weren’t all that horrific or weren’t all that good (Occult Academy, Kuroshitsuji II, and Highschool of the Dead).
The fact is, horror anime is a harder gambit than live-action horror is. The main issue lies in the fact that animation represents a further degree from our reality than does a live-action movie or TV show, quite simply since it is animated. So while it is scary to see people getting chased around by a psycho with a chainsaw, seeing such a scene animated doesn’t hold the same amount of suspense for the viewer. Its just harder for one to transpose themselves into the situation and easier to shrug and say, “Well, its not real.”
Thus, physical scenes by themselves do not really inspire much scariness in the audience, or even creepiness. It does depend on the scene. But watching people get sliced and diced in Kurozuka, for instance, doesn’t strike me as even unsettling – the scenes are done in a much more action-oriented manner. Contrast with the final arc of Yami no Matsuei when a girl gets turned into this giant centipede monster despite efforts of the main cast to protect her. When it happens, she is the only one who it happens to, and so it is more disturbing, this sense heightened all the more by the fact that it happened even though she was allegedly under protection of the core cast. Because, honestly, that’s the main thing – she was supposed to be safe.
What I’m trying to get at is that effective horror anime works much more on the psychological level than on the physical level. The girl’s fate as transforming into this disgusting creature and thus losing herself bothers us secondarily on a physical level in that the idea of turning into such a thing is horrible. But it is that violated security which is more striking, since most of us viewing anime have an assumed level of safety on a daily basis. It is this which is truly horrifying, this notion that what we trust to be a very basic thing may not be at all true.
So, violence in and of itself doesn’t wholly lack true horror credentials. One of the most horrifying scenes in Shiki, after all, is also the most violent (thus far). But again, what is truly unsettling about the scene isn’t that Kyouko is getting staked. It is that Kyouko is getting staked… by her husband. After he has had her strapped to an operation table and has duct-taped her mouth shut so her voice won’t ruin his resolve and proceeded to try out different methods of harm on her to discover what will destroy the shiki. It is that he does this all to his very own wife.
Horror is horror because it violates our sense of security. The most often way to do this is to demonstrate that trust is an untrustworthy thing, that one cannot count on others or the world or their society to operate in the manner which one has become accustomed to. And, often, this boils down to our everyday assumption that we are safe during our normal activities. Perhaps we occasionally venture beyond this area of safety; yet it is only when we do when we become truly aware of our surroundings and feel as if we are not safe. And once we return to our normal purview? Safety assumed once more.
I will note that this, too, applies in places where people feel there is less security in their everyday lives as well. Because people generally adapt to such settings, and so while they may be aware that they are not as safe as they could be, they also develop methods of ensuring their personal safety in these environments. So while there may be an expectation of potential violence, there is also the belief that one will be able to deal with it should it arise.
This is also why more subtle horror continues to gnaw at us. It gives us this sneaking sort of suspicion, albeit generally subconsciously, that the world is not what we take it for. The more subtle variety also tends to be of the ‘the more you think about it, the more awful it gets’ type, as well. One can watch Jigoku Shoujo or Vampire Princess Miyu in a superficial manner, and know that what happens to the characters is bad. But if one then ponders it further, their fates become even more strikingly horrific – the string-pullers of JS suffered while their tormentors lived, but even now in freedom they will find themselves haunted by the specter of their eventual damnation. This is confirmed by a man in the first season who is approaching his own death and carries a brand indicating his contract with Ai; he has reached a sort of peace with it, but it took him years of misery to be able to get there. And at the end of the episode, he dies and is ferried to the rest of eternity to undergo torment. Hardly comforting, that.
Hopefully we’ll have some more high-quality horror anime coming down the pike come springtime. Because if there’s one thing I love, apparently its being told that there are things lurking about me which would do me grave harm. Its being reminded that modern life in a first world country may not be so safe and secure as I’d like to think. And now I’m going to go start re-reading The Haunting of Hill House.