The Mike Toole Show
The Anime-Ville Horror
by Mike Toole,
As the Andy Williams song goes, it's the most wonderful time of the year, because it's October and Halloween is right around the corner! Yeah, I know that the song is actually about Christmas, but tell me this: why are there thousands and thousands of Christmas songs, but only one song about DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince confronting an uncredited Freddy Kruger? Sure, everyone may play the Monster Mash at their Halloween parties, but that song peaked on the charts in August, dammit! It's not even about Halloween, it just talks about some monsters having themselves a little dance party. For all we know, the historical Monster Mash happened on April 20th.
On a related note, there are disappointingly few Halloween-themed anime. There's nothing really about the holiday itself, which is fair because Halloween's only really taken hold in Japan over the past decade or so. Prior to that, you'd catch occasional glimpses of the holiday's iconography in the medium, like that one fantastic Dirty Pair OVA episode when Kei and Yuri have to hunt a runaway killer robot during a planet-wide Halloween party, or the Cowboy Bebop movie's big, climactic Halloween parade, which made me incredibly angry that Halloween parades aren't a big deal in every major city on earth. I'm still mad about that, and mad about the fact that we never did get to see the Spooky Donkey! But really, is there any honest-to-ghoul Halloween anime? The answer is… maybe.
I'd been workshopping this column for a while, which turned out to be opportune, because just after my last deadline (missed due to a spookily-inconvenient power outage), the anime director Yasuhiro Irie launched a Kickstarter for an original anime featuring his own magical girl heroine: Halloween Pajama! If you met Mr. Irie at Sakura-con 2017 like I did, you might've been lucky enough to also meet Ms Pajama, who fights the bad guys while wearing an imposing (yet weirdly cute) Jack-o-lantern helm. Prior to that con, he'd gotten a short manga of his character funded, so he had Halloween Pajama on the brain. Mr Irie did some live drawing of a brief action sequence featuring her, and later finished it and incorporated it into this new project! If you dig Halloween and enjoy the wonder of actually funding animation, toss a few bucks into the pumpkin.
I've always found it tough to find anime that really felt like good horror—suspense is one thing, there's plenty of that, but there are very few shows that really manage to set up an oppressively creepy atmosphere. Golden Bat may have a hero with a grinning skull face and a murderous bad guy that would make any small child crap themselves, but it's both too colorful and too zany to be properly spooky, and too difficult to acquire on video outside of places like Brazil—even the Japanese DVD sets are years out of print. Devilman may be a classic of possession and corruption, but the 70s TV anime that's out on home video has always felt more like a superhero cartoon where the good guy just happens to turn into the devil instead of a caped wonder. Then again, it does have its moments—moments where you might turn to mom and dad for help with homework, but all of a sudden:
Bwah! Like Japanese horror cinema in general, the emphasis isn't on crawling suspense and jump scares, it's on an atmosphere of creepiness, otherworldliness, and uncertainty. This Halloween, as you dress up in costume and frantically shovel down bushel after bushel of candy corn before the authorities seize and return the world's supply to the toxic waste dump from whence it came, you can still watch plenty of genuinely suspenseful, spooky anime, appropriate for the holiday. Here's five of my favorites.
After a string of bizarre murders, schoolkids across town whisper fearfully about a phantasmic figure who appears at night—one that may actually be the grim reaper. They call it Boogiepop, which is kind of a dumb name, but then again, so is “Candyman.” People don't just attribute killings to Boogiepop either – strange visual phenomena, hallucinations, and disappearances are also chalked up to the mysterious character. As chaos and violence bubbles just below the surface of the city, a multitude of unrelated people find themselves drawn into a conflict surrounding Boogiepop, a mysterious scientific group, and a bunch of other shadowy, arguably supernatural entities.
In some ways, Boogiepop Phantom shows it's age—released in 2000, it's one of the last shows to be made largely with cels, but director Takashi Watanabe also employs a neat visual trick – a color palette muted by filters and digital effects, giving the series a sepia-toned, weirdly remote feel. The show's MVP isn't Watanabe, or the source novels' author Kohei Kadono, but Yota Tsuroka, the sound designer. He sets up aural leitmotifs including a series of weird audio pulses and sonar pings, and the effect is remarkably creepy, especially if you do it right and watch the show late at night, in a dark room, in a mostly-vacant hotel where you only occasionally hear muffled bangings and scrapings of some distant neighbor. There are monsters in Boogiepop Phantom, but screenwriter Sadayuki Murai presents much scarier things than them, like discovering that your classmate is an imposter, or the show's gradual revelation that the past and present may somehow be occurring at the same time. At its best moments, it's genuinely chilling.
In another case of good timing, our own Answerman recently briefly talked about Japan's famed 100 Stories, a traditional telling of spooky tales paired with the gradual dimming of lights, bringing the darker world of spirits closer to our own. The 100 Stories is a noted tradition, but mystery writer Natsuhiko Kyogoku had the bright idea to give the stories form and structure, and turn them into a single narrative arc – an arc about an Edo-era pop mystery writer chasing down the origins of famous ghost stories for his book, the Hundred Stories. The resulting series, Requiem from the Darkness, is just like Scooby-Doo—all you need to do is replace the timid dog with a timid author and the van full of hippies with a trio of monstrous supernatural executioners, who force evildoers to face karmic justice before sending them to the afterlife.
In one story, a nobleman's been dumping corpses at the crossroads. In another one, people are attacked by the spirit of a vengeful horse. In yet another, the author and his mystery gang meet a purported immortal, who turns out to be a violent monster. At the end of the story, we learn that there aren't always rational explanations for things-- the world is a truly a chaotic and terrible place, filled with monsters and demons, and connected by flawed and fearful people bound together by chains of suspicion and vengeance. Okay, so maybe the show isn't that much like Scooby-Doo. Requiem from the Darkness is another series elevated by its art direction, using bold colors rather than muted, creepy ones, and giving its characters a striking, heavy-lined look. While we've also gotten to enjoy author Kyogoku's Loups=Garous anime adaptation, his TV series Box of Goblins, a late-90s Madhouse affair written by the aforementioned Murai, remains frustratingly unreleased in the west. If you could get it, it'd be on this list.
Speaking of curiously missing classic shows, Paranoia Agent's continued absence from the streaming and home video market in my neck of the woods is bewildering, because of you ask me, Satoshi Kon's one and only TV series is both scarier and more relevant than ever. It's not about garden-variety monsters, though; instead, it's teeming with everyday terrors, like the persistent fear of failing at your job, fear of being bullied, fear of your boring, everyday evil deeds being discovered, fear of being pushed out of society. On its surface, the show repeatedly returns to the simple creepiness of urban legend, binding its tenuously-related stories together with a threatening figure on rollerblades, wielding an ominously crooked aluminum bat.
What Paranoia Agent turns out to be isn't just the hunt for a mysterious serial attacker on skates—it's a story about how our perception of reality can be shaped and altered by rhetoric and collective thought, a notion that's been discussed an awful lot in public life lately. Even considering the late director's prodigious talents, it's amazing that he crafted something so intense out of a bunch of discarded ideas for movies and TV projects. For the time being, if you want to be drawn in by Paranoia Agent's eerie mysteries, you're gonna have to grab the UK box set.
I always point to Serial Experiements Lain when folks ask me for recommendations for anime horror, because it's so typically thought of as a cyberpunk joint. But the series is still full of deliciously creepy moments, because its central conceit isn't just about the spooky, vaguely dangerous idea of suddenly connecting your online life to a multitude of strangers—something that wasn't altogether that common on its release in 1998. Instead, Serial Experiments Lain goes a bit farther and poses one of the best scary questions to contemplate in the middle of the night: What if you aren't actually you?
That question isn't posed right away, though. First, we met Lain Iwakura and her classmates, all-too-young and vulnerable kids who are left pondering the recent suicide of a classmate of theirs. Then, weeks later, everyone starts getting emails from the dead girl, who insists she's still alive—just on the Wired. As a coping mechanism, Lain starts building her own computer. Maybe she can somehow connect with her lost friend. What she discovers instead is a subdued, sinister mystery, one with tantalizing links to real-life conspiracy figures like Men in Black and the Majestic 12. Hooks like these add a weird air of realism—I fell for this show, just like I fell for Steins;gate once the characters started talking about CERN and John Titor's Coast to Coast AM posts. Shortly after its US release, I got to meet Lain's producer, Yasuyuki Ueda. He had a real influence on the story, and talked about using images and ideas from his own favorites—fare like Kolchack the Night Stalker and Gerry Anderson's UFO series. Given Lain's obviously cyberpunk story and sensibilities, it's easy to forget that it's also a truly effective, creepy tale about Lain's fractured identity.
My absolute favorite tranche of anime creepiness is a TV series from 2007 that's actually a spinoff of an earlier TV series, which makes it kind of like Frasier. In 2006, Fuji TV launched a block called noitaminA, a slot where they envisioned more sophisticated, high-quality anime could be positioned to lure in both older viewers and more women. NoitaminA's third installment, after the generally excellent josei shows Honey and Clover and Paradise Kiss, is an anthology of ghost stories called Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. Ayakashi, on the whole, is pretty good—honestly, there's not a whole lot of shows from the noitaminA slot that are bad—but its clear standout is its final tale, a story of a myserious Edo-era swordsman facing off against the weird terror of a goblin cat, a “bakeneko” that's a popular choice for creepy monsters in Japanese ghost stories.
The swordsman, who is never really named, isn't actually a swordsman—he's a medicine-seller. The sword is just a fun twist that invariably surprises and alarms the people he meets, because regular Japanese folks weren't allowed to carry swords in the Edo era. The medicine man explains that the sword is only for fighting the supernatural. It's up to him to sort out the dark secrets surrounding the family that that goblin cat is menacing. When he follows the clues and solves the mystery, the sword will unsheathe, and banish the demon! Just like in Scooby-Doo.
The Bakeneko segment really stood apart. The DVD volume that contained it sold nearly as much as the first volume, an odd occurrence in a market where later volumes generally sell less. Character goods and doujinshi of the medicine peddler were created. And then, a year and a half later, the same director, Kenji Nakamura, returned with 11 more episodes about the enigmatic exorcist: Mononoke. At the time, Nakamura was not yet The Guy Who Did Gatchaman Crowds, but it's OK, because he was still Kenji Nakamura, and his sure hand and taste for wild colors and evocative scenery and transitions helped make Mononoke fantastic. (See that image above? That's not a promo picture, it's a single from the TV series.) On the whole, the series is run through with sophisticated, engrossing eeriness. Nakamura really gets that, while monsters can be creepy, what's truly frightening is what we can't see: a shadowy figure, not a badly burned man in a stripey sweater; the unreliability of memory. The show is bookended with sliding-shutter scene changes that make it feel like a classic play, and its refinement is polished off by an unusual opening song by Charlie Kosei, a jazz singer of some repute. I don't know why, but this mid-2000s oddity was grabbed up for release on DVD, so it's pretty easy to find, both online and off. Start your ghost hunt with Mononoke!
There are other horror classics—ones that both myself and my colleague Lynzee, on yesterday's list, missed. One might be Vampire Miyu, an eerie tale of an immortal princess and her half-demon ward that's anchored by Toshiki Hirano's exceptionally strong visuals. Miyu's a creepier vampire tale than the more famous Vampire Hunter D—D's adventures are awesome, but they're action movies rather than creepy horror stories. One of Japan's most beloved stories of ghosts and monsters is Gegege no Kitaro, but honestly, that series has never struck me something that's truly ominous; it's charmingly spooky, almost cute, like the Skeleton Dance or that Babadook movie. The five series above are my favorite anime horror tales—watch 'em with the lights out!
Hey, did you just hear something?!
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