Another Ep. 1-3: Quoth the bird

“What a bore.” It’s such a pity, then, that I chose to watch this anime first after such a long hiatus1. But why doesn’t Another work? Where does it falter?

Maybe, as Vuc suggests, the anime’s atmosphere is just plain lacking.

But Inushinde argues instead that the show spends too much time building atmosphere.

Another tweet tries to simplify the problem to (perhaps) the root cause: in the end, Another just doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself. After all, it does feel as though once you’ve seen one anime about a quaint Japanese village, you’ve seen them all2. I’d argue, however, that while this makes Another a poor anime in general, it doesn’t specifically address what makes the show a subpar horror anime. In any case, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the three answers above, but I have my own pet theory that goes beyond Another and addresses why most horror anime just plain suck. Here’s the deal: horror anime are often too pretty.

This might sound like hyperbole, but anime has always failed to scare me. Until now, however, I’ve never tried to articulate why this is so. As luck would have it, Vuc’s tweet somehow jarred something in my mind: “What does ‘pretty’ have to do with anything? Actually, why is it even pretty in the first place?” Sure, you may find stuff like Higurashi When They Cry downright creepy and, well, to each his own. By the same token, I’m not trying to say that Another is objectively “unscary” or anything of the sort, but I do think it’s worth exploring the notion that the show is too pretty for its own good.

You’d be tempted to say the opposite: “Actually, anime isn’t scary because it isn’t dirty or ugly enough for horror.” Maybe, but I don’t see why anime couldn’t exhibit such qualities. There has been plenty of manga3 out there that the squeamish would do well to avoid. Likewise, there have been plenty of anime series willing to feature more than 90 lbs waifs all donning impeccably pressed seifuku (and always attending a multi-story middle school in the middle of the countryside). For instance, I think Shigurui would put a lot of shows to shame.

To be clear, however, when I say dirty, I don’t just mean blood and guts and mayhem. In that case, one might label something like Elfen Lied as dirty. Of course, your mileage may vary. As a result, the juxtaposition of cute girls and limb-tearing carnage might seem creepy to you. For me, such anime often undermines itself. Whenever I see something like Gantz, Shiki, or Blood-C, in which the plot tries to appear as brutal as possible, the horror element just flies out the window when, as always, an impossibly cool pretty boy or a seductive vixen dances across the screen in gravity-defying fashion.

With that said, what could I have expected from Another when I found out that it was just another (no pun intended) PA Works production? Having characters that look as pristine and lacquered as the cast of Hanasaku Iroha just ruins any chance Another might have had of being scary. Such an aesthetic works in a sappy, saccharine plot about precocious teenage girls. On the other hand, the same aesthetic does our latest anime a disservice. All PA Works has really done for Another is slap an overcast sky over everything and cut the lighting budget in half. That does not make a horror setting.

Yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake practically cast models from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog just to brutally murder them, but it also wasn’t a very good movie, was it? In fact, what was the original movie renowned for? Ebert called the 1974 horror classic “as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises.” The movie felt dirty; it looked downright gritty and diseased. Sure, grittiness by itself is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for an effective horror film, but there appears to be a very noticeable correlation here: horror shouldn’t be pretty.

Alien wasn’t just chest-bursting fun time and bizarrely sex-tinged creations straight out of Giger’s twisted imagination. Alien was also very much about the cold, claustrophobic setting of the ship Nostromo. To use another example, there’s almost no blood in The Blair Witch Project; it’s hardly a splatterfest. But whether or not the found footage genre does anything for you, the movie knows well enough not to stick a bevy of nubile teens in front of its (poorly-held) camera.

Is Dracula pretty? Isn’t he seductive to women and even some men? I’d argue that he more embodies sex appeal than prettiness. As such, sex is no stranger to horror films, and it always seemed as though every slasher flick would feature a topless girl hopping into the shower just so she could be literally and metaphorically penetrated against her will. Still, sex isn’t really the same thing as prettiness, which is what plagues horror anime. It’d be one thing if more horror anime was an uneasy mix of sex and death, but Another, like most shows, seems pretty sexually inert. It’s just pretty and while pretty and horror aren’t exactly bedfellows, this combination falls limp more often than not (what’s even an example of a ‘not’?).

Maybe broadcast anime just can’t be disgusting, visceral or dirty enough due to a plethora of reasons: its time slot, its targeted audience, its corporate sponsors, etc. I get it; I’m not exactly asking for an animated version of the French new wave of horror4 either. But why does it have to be so pretty? I just can’t reconcile what I see to be two diametrically opposed qualities for an anime. I’m trying to watch a horror series, but I keep getting this nagging feeling that what I’m really watching is a harem (a horrem?). I’m laughing when I should be–… well, I don’t think I’ve shuddered once since I started tuning in. And I’m not trying to be some internet tough guy who fears nothing; I have plenty of irrational fears (e.g., mirrors in the dark). Anime just never seems to exploit them.

So maybe Another is just a sick joke. Maybe someone kidnapped the characters from Zoolander and stuck them in a horror setting. As a result, when I watched the pretty girl impale herself upon an umbrella, I didn’t recoil in abject horror much like the main character. I’m just reminded of this:

Well, gosh, what did you think was going to happen when you sharpened that umbrella? Without the veneer of fear, Another‘s many limitations become glaringly obvious. The story’s pacing is plodding at best, the characters are fairly stock and thus unengaging, and the third episode “twist” would make even M. Night Shyamalan shake his head in condescension. No one would ever praise Friday the 13th as a gripping psychodrama between a mother and her son, but no one has to when fear is the primary concern. But since horror has long flown the coop, I’m not sure what Another has going for it except for a whole lot of pretty people trying to convince us that their lives are oh-so-creepy.

1 — Why haven’t I blogged in so long? I’ve been super busy. Let’s see… I finally got engaged to my girlfriend of nearly five years, made the pilgrimage to the incomparable The French Laundry, slept in a haunted hotel room, and combated space demons from one of Mars’ moons. One of the above is untrue. Yes, yes, this is all irrelevant personal information, but that’s why it’s in the footnotes.

2 — See this post I wrote from some time ago. Actually, you probably shouldn’t as it wasn’t a very good post. The point here is that there’s a palpable fear of villages in Japanese visual pop culture. Is this merely lazy storytelling or surface manifestations of deeper anxieties within the culture?

3 — Like stuff from that Shintaro Kago guy. I don’t mean that his manga are scary or anything, but they’re also anything but pretty.

4 — I’m thinking of films like Martyrs or High Tension.

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23 thoughts on “Another Ep. 1-3: Quoth the bird

  1. Taka

    Welcome back. Shiki is actually the only anime I was truly creeped out about but that only lasted through the first half before everything when nuts. There was one scene where the blue haired dude imagines the pink haired 1st victim sneaking into his buddies room to bite him that got me pretty heavily with the suspense elements. It wasn’t an outright scare or anything though.

    I think part of it has to do with the nature of anime as a tv show. There are one or two decent horror anime films but television series generally fail at delivering consistently delivering scares. I personally feel like it’s the kind of thing you become desensitized to after a few episode. The beauty of a film is that it’s short enough that it can still manage to throw a few curve balls. Anime series just become too predictable as they wear on. Keeping up that atmosphere at slow pace just doesn’t work out very well.

    I would also throw in that PA Works has a near omnipresent “THIS IS SCARY” soundtrack playing in the background. Also: Screaming Lemons.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I think my main problem with Shiki was that I hated every single character. God, they were all insufferable. I was so disappointed they didn’t completely wipe out all of the vampires in the end. Stupid monk dude and his midget loli…

      television series generally fail at delivering consistently delivering scares.

      Still, that doesn’t make it impossible for a TV series to be creepy or scary. I always trot out Twin Peaks as my de facto standard for a TV series that is both creepy and full of mystery, so I wouldn’t necessarily blame the format. Sure, desensitization is an issue, but then again, fear also taps into something primal that few people can simply overcome due to exposure. Of course, Twin Peaks isn’t anime. It isn’t trapped by anime’s requisite quirks like the need to surround a wimpy male lead with hot girls, etc.

      Reply
  2. Fadeway

    Glad to be reading your posts again, E Minor. Welcome back.

    I’m too inexperienced with horror. I’ve only watched a few live-actions in the past, concluded that they were more disgusting than scary (though I’m not particularly fond of being scared either), and moved on. With anime, I’ve expected more from the mystery some horrors bring to the table, only to be disappointed severely (Blood C), or to be charmed by some other side of the show (Shiki).

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I like mysteries too and sometimes, it really does seem as though mystery and horror goes together hand-in-hand. It’s just a shame though that we pretty much just don’t really expect the horror part of a horror series to actually be any good.

      Reply
  3. IWICSYI

    Bible Black and Princess 69: Midnight Gymnastics are very dirty. They are the most horrifying horror horror I ever seen. Saw them once when I was 11 and scared for life.

    Reply
  4. draggle

    YES! Welcome back! I thought you must have fallen in battle to the space demons while holding the line in the canals.

    The aesthetic definitely doesn’t contribute to the show being creepy, but I kind of have to agree with Inushinde on why Another fails in general. Higurashi isn’t all that creepy either, but I think it did much better at conveying the idea that something is screwed up with the town. They did this by repeatedly starting with rather goofy, cheerful episodes, and then having the same characters brutally murder each other. There’s a contrast: we witness how things should be, and then see it all fall apart. With Another, they have “creepy” mode on all the time: the classmates say “spooky” things, “scary” music is playing in the background at the most inopportune times, and they keep giving random screenshots of dolls. There’s no surprise when someone dies and very little sense of what was lost.

    No matter what they do, though, impaling yourself on an umbrella like that is going to be more funny than scary.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I kind of have to agree with Inushinde on why Another fails in general

      And I’m really just focusing on why the show fails on the horror front. Sure, Another is heavy-handed in its chicanery, but that just makes it a plain bad story. But bad stories can still be effective as horror. For instance, there’s nothing really subtle about those Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark books….

      …but I’m willing to imagine they scare more people than Another ever will. Why? Everyone has their own opinion, but I really do think anime’s just too pretty most of the time for horror. I feel as though Higurashi falls into the same pitfalls:

      Yes, it’s ugly due to the (deliberately) bad animation, but what I’m talking about is the show’s general aesthetic. The whole thing just doesn’t work.

      Reply
  5. Knowitall

    Hmmm, I actually found that Higurashi had sufficiently garish artwork to make the horror believable for me. Or maybe it was just the gore that did it.

    I think that Another also fails as a horror story because of its inept characterization of the protagonist. The “naive protagonist” is a staple of horror shows and for good reason. It taps into our fear that our deaths might take us by surprise and that our own ignorance might be the death of us.
    However, in Another, the protagonist’s sleuthing plus the fact that it’s mentioned that he’s a fan of horror stories in addition to all the extremely unsubtle hints that have been dropped for him, suggests that he’s completely aware that’s something’s off. Yet, when the “plot twist” arrives, he’s all like “NO WAYYY!!” and he reverts to being naive (as though incessantly stalking that girl for three episodes never tipped him off). How could it be possible for the audience to feel afraid when it’s not even possible to tell how the protagonist is feeling?

    Anyway, great post and it’s nice to have you back. I get the feeling you won’t be back for long though. This season is pretty much a flop. I’d be majorly impressed if you found anything decent to blog about. It’s so bad, I’ve actually been taking an interest in real life again (how’s that for a horror story).

    And also, congrats on the engagement!

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      the protagonist’s supposed love for horror

      There are a lot of pointless, superfluous detail in this show that I didn’t get around to mentioning in the post. The “sudden” still shots of the not-so-creepy mannequins are so clumsily handled that I can’t see how they could serve as jump scares. Also, the constant namedropping of various Western horror writers (King and Lovecraft, for instance) is just that: namedropping. Their existence add nothing to the narrative or atmosphere of the show. It’s all just pestering reminder that “Hey guys, do you realize we’re in a horror story yet?” I know the game Silent Hill named the streets in its fictional town after American writers of horror, but the camera doesn’t swing wildly toward the street signs when the player character runs past them. The characters don’t go “Yeah, I love Matheson *wink wink*” in the cutscenes.

      I get the feeling you won’t be back for long though. This season is pretty much a flop.

      Well, I guess I could always finish up Un-Go and catch up on… *shudder* Guilty Crown.

      Reply
  6. Mira

    Congratulations on getting engaged!

    The pristine, shoujo-styled aesthetic on the character designs does the series a disservice. If these character designs were somewhat more realistic, at least it would’ve blended better with the somber background art.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iazh0SeoyGI&feature=related I have yet to watch Kemonozume but the first three episodes of Another aren’t even half as good at this scene. Something’s off, but you can’t tell what it is. And then– bam. If Another weren’t so concerned drawing pretty girls and boys with impeccable hair (Sakuragi’s hair was still perfect after getting impaled by an umbrella!), it could be so much better.

    One thing I noticed about Another is that it’s trying to emulate the moody Japanese horror, but hilariously fails at it. The inclusion of those cut scenes with the dolls is proof of how the series has no idea how to be subtle at all. I was looking at this film called CURE, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (well known for his atmospheric pieces) and I think the director thought it was a good idea to try out his techniques. The sad thing is that he doesn’t know how to actually apply it to an animated medium.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      One thing I noticed about Another is that it’s trying to emulate the moody Japanese horror, but hilariously fails at it.

      It’s also hard to take the mood seriously when it looks like everyone — both guys and girls — seem like shipping fodder for the audience. The weak-bodied guy doesn’t even look like he belongs in the show for any other reason than for fans to have him serve as a bottom for countless fanmade wankery.

      Reply
  7. wanderer

    Welcome back. Terrible season to come back for, though: not much going on that’s ambitious enough to be worthwhile to dig into and critique, and what there is isn’t executed well.

    Another I gave up on: it feels like the source material had to have given lots of access to the protagonists’ inner monologue, but the anime has opted against presenting those as a voice-over (or conversations, etc.). Without that connective tissue it’s just a sequence of awkward interactions, with implausible events filling the gaps.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Terrible season to come back for, though: not much going on that’s ambitious enough to be worthwhile to dig into and critique,

      Yeah, that’s what I’ve been hearing constantly since I’ve started blogging. But I didn’t want to be away too long.

      Well, an angle that could have potential is how schoolchildren, especially in societies like Japan’s, can form cliques and breed conformity. At the moment, there’s really no definitive proof that anything supernatural remotely exists. What if Misaki is just an outcast? What if Koichi is going down that road because he won’t give in the groupthink (just ignore the girl)? Unfortunately, it’s very likely that this aspect of the anime is inadvertent. Yes, there is a curse and Misaki is a ghost; Koichi was a fool not to listen to his classmates, yadda yadda.

      Reply
      1. wanderer

        From those who’ve read the book it’s apparently more in line with what you’d want it to be than what you’re guessing it is, but it’s not as if the first two episodes really inspire confidence that way.

        FWIW I think you’re mostly right about the pretty, but only mostly right. The quibble I’d make is this: anime by its nature requires more of an active buy-in from the viewer than, say, live action film. It might still be a largely unconscious form of active buy-in, but somewhere in there the brain is actively filling some of the the gaps.

        Given that as a working hypothesis, I’d go on to say that the the problem with, say, horror, is that the typical viewer — or typical viewer’s unconscious, at least — doesn’t actually want to fill in those kinds of gaps. Live-action film — with its photorealistic imagery, etc. — can bypass this unwillingness because there’re no gaps to fill in (unless the sfx are terrible, etc.); anime can lead the viewer to water but can’t make an unwilling viewer drink, as it were.

        Similar end result, but different causality. In any case pretty anime fails at horror at least in part b/c the viewer doesn’t want to fill in the nasty details; “ugly” or “gritty” anime might work, but might also be offputting enough to discourage buy-in in the first place, thus failing a different way.

        Just some thoughts. This started out as a joke comment that “anime clearly can produce feelings of horror, just look at fan reactions to ‘NTR’ and ‘impure female characters’, etc.” (a topic on which I’m pretty sure you’ve written before), but morphed into this overly-long thing after I thought about it.

        In any case welcome back, congratulations on all those wonderful real-life developments, and here’s to the season getting better as it goes, maybe?

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          I’d go on to say that the the problem with, say, horror, is that the typical viewer — or typical viewer’s unconscious, at least — doesn’t actually want to fill in those kinds of gaps

          I actually had a couple paragraphs addressing the very subject in an older draft of the post, but for whatever reason, I decided to edit it out of the text you see above. Nevertheless, since you brought it up, I’ll dredge those unrefined ideas of mine out again.

          In contemporary horror, I want to say that there are two main categories by which we can organize films, stories, anime, etc. Of course, there are always nuances and exceptions to the rule, but we need not quibble over the minor details at the moment. In any case, the first sort of horror is the one we’re most familiar with. There exists an unstoppable force of pure malevolence out there, and resistance is (supposedly) futile. The story actively and explicitly tells us why this force is to be feared. In the classic sense, we had Dracula, werewolves, Frankenstein, etc. In recent history, Jason and Freddy Krueger would typify the sort of antagonists you might find in these horror stories. In these stories, the audience need only buy into the idea that the malevolent force can exist. If we can accept that, the story can be scary.

          The other type of horror requires much more audience participation. In fact, the audience’s imagination is what truly drives the horror. In a movie like Jacob’s Ladder, we’re never quite sure what that malevolent force is. Maybe the main character is truly being haunted by demons. Or, as most of the film seems to suggest, he’s the product of military experiments gone wrong. The very end of the movie throws the final curveball: the real antagonist is actually the main character’s guilt. The audience is required to determine on his or her own which of the three possibilities to buy into — which of the three seems the most potent and tragic.

          There are even more extreme examples of media where audience participation is paramount. The found footage films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity necessitate that the audience pre-conditions his or herself with the idea that there’s something scary in the footage. The movie can therefore toy with our expectations (scenes where we expect a scare actually contain no scares at all and vice versa). Although we may vaguely identify a witch or a ghost as the unstoppable malevolent forces driving these horror flicks, when these films are properly executed, the audience is never allowed a firm grasp of what the monster really is. The audience has to, as you say, fill in the gaps.

          In that sense, I disagree that the typical viewers are consciously or unconsciously unwilling to participate in the game, so to speak. The existence of multiple Paranormal Activity sequels suggests otherwise. The emergence of ARG storytelling (e.g., Marble Hornets, “The SCP Foundation,” etc.) shows that there’s a large craving for subtle horror where the flow of information actually goes both ways. The audience of these works are and (I would also add) actively desire to be complicit in their own fear. And often, there isn’t really anything gritty or dirty about these stories to aid the audience along in using their imagination.

          In actuality, horror stories don’t fall neatly into the two categories I detailed above. A movie like The Thing not only identifies and details that malevolent force, but also relies upon audience participation to create a sense of paranoia — the distrust of men amongst the group. The problem with Another, however, is that I find it difficult to categorize it in terms of the two categories above or even place it in some analogous spectrum. We don’t even know if a malevolent force exists in the anime nor has the story given us any reason to fear such a force. There could be a curse, but then again, there might not. Is everyone really dying as a result, or have all the deaths been — as I suggested in my latest post on the series — the result of gross human stupidity. In either case, Another doesn’t feed us fear like the first category of horror films.

          But even when we try to look at it as a candidate for the second category of horror, Another does a poor job of it. First, the pacing and writing really kills the narrative. Like Mira said above, this is no Cure. But the reason I brought up the anime’s prettiness is because it actively works against the audience’s ability to fill in the gaps. I agree that anime requires a greater suspension of belief than most forms of visual media. With that being said, it’s not as though Another‘s aesthetics are neutral. To use an extreme example, it would be a folly to craft a horror story out of My Little Pony aesthetics. You can ask the audience to use their imagination or suspend their beliefs, but the onus can’t lie entirely on the audience. If you’re going to use rainbow colors and sparkles of light, you must admit that you’re undoing your own horror story. While the art direction in Another isn’t quite so egregious, the pristine shoujos with their perfect body types and seifukus, I suggest, works against the audience filling in the gaps. I feel as though I’m watching a visual novel a la Clannad, albeit slightly more melancholy.

          This started out as a joke comment that … morphed into this overly-long thing after I thought about it.

          Hey, I love comments that lead me to chew on my own thoughts. I gave a pretty long reply too.

          here’s to the season getting better as it goes, maybe?

          I dunno. Maybe I’ll have to go back in time to find something to write about. I watched like a min of Aquarion EVOL and just decided taking a nap would be more fun. Actually, I’ll give it a better shot tomorrow, but yeah….

        2. wanderer

          Wow, full circle: EVOL was actually what I had in mind when I started that comment. I dunno about it in general: watching it makes clear how creatively limiting most anime budgets must be, and to its credit I’m finding it a very above-average bit of campy popcorn entertainment, but I think it’s unlikely to prove all that interesting for criticism.

          As for your response, I agree enough with your broader points about the general willingness-for and ability-to buy-in that I don’t have anything specific to add. I had in mind a narrower point than what I actually wrote, essentially the same as what you say about My Little Pony: I was only thinking of things like bloody, violent imagery, and about the way the overly-pretty art style makes it harder — if not impossible — for most viewers to fill in the gaps for such content. Oh well.

  8. KizukuKanshi

    I can’t say I wasn’t waiting for you to come back, but at the same time, I could definitely understand why this wouldn’t be such a pressing and urgent matter to get back to doing this. I honestly couldn’t suggest something that would be of remote interest. If you find something worth the time, I’ll check it out. Good to have you back.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Boy, does this make me look bad. I haven’t updated in close to a month despite being “back.” I keep trying to watch this season’s anime but I have nothing to say.

      Reply

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