Is Horror Anime Less Squeamish About Kids?

by Justin Sevakis,

Robin asked:

So I've watch a lot of anime, and a lot of horror movies, and I noticed one annoying thing. Kids in live action horror are almost never murdered. (new “IT” for example) While in anime, it's not rare for kids to be brutally murdered. (“When they cry” series) Is Japan simply less sensitive about showing these things, or is it something that can only be shown if it's animated?

I disagree with you that kids are often murdered in anime. TEENAGERS are murdered in anime all the time, but that might be because 80% of anime characters are teenagers. And teens getting killed in Western horror movies is a decades old cliché... it's just, those characters often don't register as kids because movie teenagers are usually played by actors and actresses in their mid-20s who work out a lot but look vaguely youthful in the face.

But kids very seldom get killed (or really really badly maimed) in any medium, and that includes anime. There's been an unspoken rule since the beginning of horror films that, while most people are just fine with seeing a fully grown adult get put through a wood chipper, the death of a child is just too sad and too traumatizing for a significant percentage of the audience to handle.

While there are exceptions to the rule, for most people children tend to subconsciously register as "cute," no matter how loud or gross or obnoxious they might be. And "cute" is a very important evolutionary trait for humans. It's what brings out our protective, nurturing instincts. The pained cries of something cute punch us in the gut far more than a typical scream would. Seeing something cute get savagely attacked packs an emotional impact that goes far beyond what most movies, TV shows or anime would ever attempt to inflict on us.

Interestingly, Japan's obsession with cute things has led to a lot of interesting experimenting with our perceptions of cuteness, and our reaction to it -- mostly in mascot character form. You have things like Hello Kitty vibrators that associate cute with sex, violent or subversive imagery with cute things, like Gloomy Bear. You also have the rise of "kimo-kawaii" (creepy-cute) mascot characters like Gudetama and Funassyi. Even the visuals of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu are clearly artistic subversions of our inherent human reaction to cuteness.

But teenagers in general? Most adults don't find teenagers to be all THAT cute. Sociologically, it's a time where they separate and start to become their own people - they don't bring out as many parental instincts.

While anime's lack of realism might buy it some distance from the trauma that it might invoke, the truth of the matter is that for many fans -- most, even -- the characters' lack of specificity just makes them easier to relate to. We might not get the visceral horror of seeing an actual, living, breathing kid dying horribly, but we are probably even more likely to feel their pain. That might not be any better.

And so, what you're left with is a few gonzo movies and anime that just don't give a f---. But very, very few. Even the legendarily nihilistic series Gantz, which featured one of the most annoying kids in anime history, pulled its punches and killed that kid off-screen. Off the top of my head, I can only think of the ridiculous opening to the second episode of Genocyber, the nightmare-inducing nuclear holocaust scene of Barefoot Gen, and -- yes -- Higurashi no Naku Koro ni. For some reason that one doesn't seem as bad as the others.

Did I miss any? I'm sure I did. While anime does play a little looser with trauma against kids -- emotional, hunger, minor blood-letting -- incidents of death and gore involving kids under 12 are still fairly rare.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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