“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.