People usually ask me, “If you could make an anime, what would that anime be about?” In the past, I often didn’t have an answer to give them; I haven’t tried penning my own stories in a long time. Thinking about it now, however, I really think I have a certain fascination with horror. But that’s what makes it so unfortunate! The few horror anime that I have encountered are just so ineffective. I just recently tried to watch the Another dub a couple weeks ago, so the show is still fresh on my mind. Not only was the plot tedious and mind-numbing, the biggest offense to me were the show’s pretty, pristine characters. Even when they were killed off one-by-one, it was like someone splashed delicious jammu all over their 90-lb. anime bodies.
The same problem extends to Shiki, a show that people — people I respect, I must add — have sung praises for. I just think the characters on the show are too pretty, too attractive, and too fuckable. Long after the show has ended, people aren’t talking about how scary it is. People are instead pairing the characters up in fanfiction, and can you blame them? When they’re that pretty, we may as well make them fuck. Even when a show like Higurashi tries to make pretty characters look scary, the result is just goofy as fuck. And sure, the stories for both Shiki and Higurashi ain’t terrible. Hell, if I’m judging Shiki by its story alone, it’s a decent anime. But there’s a different set of expectations when I go into a horror anime. I want to feel that palpable sense of fear. I want dread to creep up on me. I want to feel so uncomfortable that I stop watching.
You can’t help but feel that this is somewhat counterproductive, though. If a show is so effectively scary, then nobody would want to watch it. But the point of any show is to get people to watch it. So what do you do? I guess that’s why I think the execution of fear is so interesting in itself. You have to strike a balance between attracting an audience and repelling them. It’s like eating spicy food. Make it too hot, and people won’t touch it. If your goal to serve people food, then you’re not doing it very well. Then again, is there perhaps some merit in making a dish so hot that only a few brave souls would be willing to try it? Hideo Kojima recently spoke about a topic very similar to this:
“One thing that you have to keep in mind is that, if a game is too scary, people just won’t play it. In movies or attractions … if it gets too scary you just keep your eyes shut and soon it will be over. But if it’s a game, people will just stop. So that’s why there’s a limit on how scary you can make a game.
“But in this case we’re totally ignoring that and, you know what? If you don’t want to keep on playing through the game, so be it. We don’t care. That’s the game we are aiming for, we’re aiming for a game that will make you shit your pants. So, players, make sure you have a change [of clothes],” said Kojima.
But even if we assume that an anime director like Kojima exists somewhere out there, i.e. an anime director brave enough to make his or her viewers shit their pants, is this even possible with anime? Is anime capable of being that scary? Maybe horror just doesn’t lend itself to an episodic format. It’s kind of hard to maintain fear and tension when you constantly have to take weekly breaks in the middle of the storytelling. Plus, there’s only so much you can do with mainstream broadcast anime. It’s not all about guts and gore. It’s about creating the appropriate atmosphere, an atmosphere you won’t likely achieve if your anime is all about teenagers attending high school and hanging out with their precious nakama. Take P.T., Kojima’s latest offering. I just can’t see something like it ever being an anime.
But enough about my misgivings with horror anime. Instead, let’s take a look at Yamishibai. If there was an actual horror anime airing right now — and M3‘s emofest doesn’t count — I definitely would be blogging it. All we’ve been getting lately, however, are a bunch of shorts. Pupa was an incredibly shoddy adaptation, though. As a result, I didn’t have much hopes for Yamishibai. Still, as the old adage goes, beggars can’t be choosers, so here I am, writing about these ghost stories. Normally, I would also try to analyze and deconstruct the shows I watch, but these episodes are only four and a half minutes long. So instead, I’ll just focus primarily on my reactions to them.
A police officer tries to show off his ventriloquism to an audience of children, but when a wooden talisman falls out of his puppet, the damn puppet starts to talk on its own. Still, the guy manages to entertain his audience anyway, so the situation isn’t really scary to anyone but him. To me, puppets can be creepy, but only if you’re isolated from the rest of the world. For example, if you walk into an empty room, and the puppet’s eyes suddenly turn to look at you, that would be unsettling. In a room full of people, however, I think puppets are pretty mundane. And on that note, I’m just not getting a big feeling of dread from the anime’s opening episode. The police officer is isolated in the sense that no one else could notice anything wrong with the puppet, but there isn’t any actual danger here. The puppet is harmless.
A girl visits her friend’s place to have some dinner. As she is waiting for her friend to finish cooking, however, she spots an eye in the… air conditioner? I think there is supposed to be a jump scare here, but there is no build-up whatsoever so I am not quite sure what to think of a random eyeball popping up out of nowhere. When the friend finally finishes cooking, a shadow begins to slowly emerge from the kitchen sink as the two girls sit down to enjoy their meal. Naturally, the girl is freaked out about this, but her friend can’t seem to see the shadow. So instead, the friend thinks the girl is just reacting poorly to her cooking. As the shadow slowly envelopes itself around the friend, the friend continues to berate the girl more and more for, well, not liking her food. And this is the primary problem with the episode for me. It just feels a bit goofy to see the friend argue with the girl: “I ALWAYS THOUGHT YOU HAD A SHIT ATTITUDE! WE’RE NOT BFFS ANYMORE!” Uh, okay. Anyway, I think the fight distracts from the actual horror of the episode.
A kid brings home one of those Matryoshka doll he had found, but his mother disapproves of it. She leaves the house just to throw it away, but ends up disappearing for a lengthy amount of time. When she finally returns, the kid notices that something is off about his mother. Over the next few days, the mother would behave oddly, randomly crying or laughing at strange times. The kid tries to voice his concerns to his father, but predictably enough, the father hasn’t been paying any attention to his wife. There’s a common theme here where only the victim can see that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. To top it all off, they’re powerless to stop it.
Eventually, the kid tries to get rid of the doll himself, but he suddenly feels a compulsion to open the doll and look at the other layers. He begins to notice that the inner dolls display the same emotions his mother had been exhibiting in the past few days. Finally, he comes to a doll that appears to be representing his mother. Even then, the kid doesn’t turn back. He opens the doll once more, but then the anime suddenly cuts to pitch black as we hear screams in the background. Afterwards, the father returns home to find both his wife and son acting strangely. Needless to say, the doll has possessed them both. Eh… the story piques my interest, but the execution is pretty lackluster. Done in a proper way, I think the doll should strike fear in both the kid and the audience. We should be flinching as he opened the doll.
So far, I haven’t liked any of the episodes, so you’re probably thinking that Yamishibai just isn’t for me. Well, it turns out I actually really like the fourth episode. I think it does everything pretty competently for an anime. A guy is in love with a girl who lives in a building across from him. One day, however, he spots a strange shadow sneaking into her apartment. And that’s where it all begins to go wrong for the guy. Yes, there’s a jump scare at the end of the episode, and usually, jump scares are pretty cheap. But I actually like this jump scare, so let me try to explain why. First, unlike the first three episodes, the guy is truly isolated. The other victims were only isolated in a sense, but they still had company. The guy here is totally and completely alone in his apartment. Second, the episode subverts what we’d normally find comforting. The girl is supposed to be someone he’s fallen in love with, but here she is, her body bent into an unnatural position:
The story has taken something beautiful and turned it into the grotesque. To add further to this, the guy’s own apartment turns into a mini-house of horrors. He should feel safe in his own home, but he doesn’t. There’s the fear that the horror may have sneaked itself into his own home. From this point on, the story slowly builds up to the jump scare. Here, the camera hugs the guy’s right shoulder tightly, making you think that something might pop out and scare him. Nothing does. He starts to hear strange noises in his apartment. Then, he notices that his bathroom door has been opened slightly ajar. He pulls it back… only to find nothing yet again. What makes the episode work for me is the slowly building tension. But because the guy continually finds nothing, he starts to question his own sanity:
“What the heck am I doing? I’m getting scared over nothing. This is stupid. … Hmm? Huh? The window’s open… I know I didn’t open it. But… Did it open on its own?”
When horror poses both a physical and a mental threat, that’s when I think it’s the most effective. We know the danger is there, but because there’s no evidence, it’s unsettling. As a result, when the jump scare finally arrives, I think the anime has built up to it properly. It’s not about whether or not the jump scare actually surprises you. It’s that it’s not just a random scare like the eyeball was in the second episode.
Boring. A girl is in love with her senpai, so when she hears that some coin lockers can grant wishes, she decides to give it a shot. It works like this: “If you put a picture of the person you like in the locker with the doll inside of it, your love will be realized.” The girl didn’t know which locker the doll is in, however, so when she picks the 10th one — 10 being the number on her senpai’s baseball jersey — she finds a creepy-looking doll inside. But oh well, when in Rome! She sticks her senpai’s picture in there. The next day, she returns to the locker and finds that the picture is gone. Suddenly, her senpai is behind her, and it seems he has heard about the rumor too. When she tells him she had stuck a photo inside a locker with a doll inside it, however, he starts to freak out. Before he can explain to her what is wrong, however, the doll has left its locker and attacked him. Aaaaand he turns into this:
So what is it? A lump of coal? Meh. The episode just isn’t remotely scary or creepy. There’s no sense of isolation, no sense of one’s sanity slipping, no subversion of anything, etc. Plus, these urban legends gone wrong stories are just kind of lame. I mean, how did it even start? And why did the senpai seem to know so much about the doll? If he knew it was so damn dangerous, why didn’t he even come close to the locker to begin with (not that it would’ve mattered)? All because of love?
I like the idea, but as usual, the execution is off. Kids have long been associated with the supernatural. We seem to think they have the ability to see ghosts and whatnot. When a couple’s kid starts referring to a Nao-chan, a name neither parent can seemingly recognize, it naturally creeps everyone out. Is Nao-chan just the result of a kid’s overactive imagination? Or is Nao-chan real? Unfortunately, Nao-chan is very real, so there’s no mystery here. In fact, we see too much of Nao-chan, as it creeps itself into the kid’s mom one night. The idea of Nao-chan becoming the kid’s baby brother is creepy on paper, but the way it happened just didn’t creep me out one bit.
More weird than it is scary. And weird is fine provided you’re also unsettling, but I’m not sure if this story is all that unsettling. Every time a businessman puts a coin into one of those toy machines, he gets a capsule that contains a memory of his childhood. He finds an eraser he had once lost, a pet dog he had to get rid of, a first love that had abandoned him, etc. Addicted to the machine, he continues to stay there, feeding it coins. Before he knows it, he has turned into a decrepit old man. I guess the story is trying to warn us that this is what we’ll turn into if we don’t let go of our past regrets. But again, this is more weird than it is unsettling.
So I’m all caught up now on the second season of Yamishibai, but I’m not sure I’m interested in continuing with the rest of the show. Overall, the anime has been more miss than hit, and after seven episodes, I’m still hungering for something that can really put the fear into me. The search for a decent horror anime goes on… but maybe I should just give up on it completely.