As I have been granting a rather extensive amount of time this month to seasonally Halloween appropriate anime affairs (one previous column dealing with the holiday in a friendly fun focus via Dirty Pair, three weekly entries on horror and gore back catalogue resurrections, with two more distinct pieces still in the pipeline) a few questions have been sent along to me.
In summarizing them and in so many fewer words: Why and how can I bring myself to watch so many disgusting anime? Don’t I just want to watch some nice things?
It is a fair enough series of inquiries. Honestly, regardless of my opinions on any of them, most of the series I have dredged up for Halloween aren’t really very easy to sit through if one is near any degree of squeamish. Elfen Lied provided its horrors with the backdrop of wanting to belong, Corpse Party in the direction of more direct slasher movie style gore, and Violence Jack trying to redefine the cartography on whole oceans of anime content and portrayals of heroism.
They are not really for everyone. But that doesn’t mean they can not have an impact on the viewer in larger ways, due to industry response to the introduction of such works into the consumer arena.
Horror as a genre is an oddball creature. A lot of things can be done with it and in it that can’t be as addressed in the same manner as in other genres. I mean, Dracula is a now classic horror tale, and is essentially a vehicle for exploring ideas on disease, sexuality, and excess. Sure, a straight up drama can tackle those same topics as well. But it would be approaching them from a different series of vectors.
Traditional drama needs more “light” as it were, as the viewer or reader needs to be granted with a more perfect view of the situation at hand. Twists from out of nowhere often fall flat without proper setup, as the height of the experience generally comes from seeing the puzzle pieces dance around each other before clicking together. You squirm because you know everything, or at least an extremely generous amount. In turn, there is a certain enduring power in allowing the covers to fall and adventure in darker and more viscerally primal affairs, because you now are not operating with as perfect information. The game has changed, the rules are different, and it allows an entirely different set of explorations to be had because development and execution now do not need to occur in the same manner.
It can be approached like a roller coaster, where you are locking yourself into a “safe” environment, be it a book, movie, or whatever, designed to evoke a reaction out of you. You are physically fine, you are in absolutely little danger. But you ride this thing, and it maybe gets you to do something, be it yell, laugh, wince, cover your eyes or what have you. And there is a degree of magic to that, to be manipulated in such a way. From a critical level, I do not really view it as all that mechanically different from being engineered to cry during a swell romance or something to similar effect.
If anime is to be taken seriously as a medium of expression, it needs to play with such tools.
Some folks are of the disposition that because an anime production features extreme content, that by extension allows it to be written off as baseless and without merit on that aspect alone. This, I think, is a great disservice to the artistic good horror can bring to a medium in shifting it forward and testing out new techniques.
Allow me to move away from anime to the live action film industry for a moment.
Things that can essentially fall into the particularly horrific territory of “exploitation film” I find can have some pretty fascinating little mechanical implementations, and I think they have a pretty important toolset to consider. Many are terrible, yes. But some want to use the toolset as a “means” rather than an “end.” In turn they lay a lot of groundwork and explore things the more “respectable” works do not want to even go near.
Cannibal Holocaust set down the whole rulebook for the “found footage” film for instance, and did so with an explosive declarative wrecking ball to the point where the production staff were called into court to make sure they had not actually killed their actors on screen. Every schlocky, low budget, shaky cam horror spree or monster romp done in a first person style where the camera is a physical object within the narrative of the characters filming the events like a little documentary traces their bloodline straight back to that work.
It was banned around the world, and is indeed still barred from almost a dozen more than thirty years after release. It contains some of the most brashly vile sequences ever put on film. Yet due to its combination of wanting to use extremely graphic material and have the entire narrative focus on a fictional western film crew wanting to document an uncivilized and savage society, it explores a number of concepts, especially on the idea of media representations. The most vicious and basic people in the found footage film are portrayed as the main characters themselves, who care not for the well being of literally anyone they come across. They are there to drum up a story, and when the story did not prove interesting enough to them, they forced events to be more sensational and made their own to heinous effect.
It is a powerful film. It is a difficult bit of media to sit through. Things changed in the industry as a result though, as it was developed as such to use gore and exploitation “means” rather than “ends.” It hold ups more inside to analyze critically than those from the latter category due to its different sense of purpose and drive. New techniques and approaches to the place of the camera were considered going forwards. Not every such work does this of course. But some very much do, and have incalculable impacts in a multitude of ways.
There is a lot of effort taken by many in an attempt to justify their anime habit as something respectable. I do not discount myself from this either of course. But I think there is a flaw in the notion that anime should not approach these horrific edges of content, that by doing so it cheapens the medium.
If we are in agreement that anime is an art form, it must then be permitted to push the edges, just like any other format from the millennia before it. That is how it learns how to reform the use of those edges, and where it can often experiment most extravagantly for all of our benefit across every genre.
For the dozens of forgettable Wobbly Boob Extravaganza and Buckets O’ Dumb Violence productions, there will be those that crop up and legitimately try exiting new production methods and techniques. Every art form has mindless content that will barely be noticed in even its own time, and while at times it can seem daunting to overcome we also can not allow such works to grate us down too much.
Something like Violence Jack kicks open the modern post-apocalyptic wasteland door in its explorations of things like how violence and heroism are portrayed against such an unforgiving backdrop. A work like Wicked City, while clunky as a narrative, provides nuclear level fuel to a promising technical career in the case of Yoshiaki Kawajiri, whose distinct style having been let loose to blossom there has made vast impressions across many younger animation staff in both it and his other works in the time since. Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show brings a whole historical artistic genre like ero guro to such a particularly passionate representation as a work of moving pictures and sound.
While they do not by any means need to be considered as the height of all things anime, to dismiss their various values to the medium on mere content grounds I think would be quite horrifying indeed.
Pendant Light is a weekly opinion and editorial space concerning various anime questions and subjects, be it topical or otherwise. Much like its namesake, it might swing around or fizzle out at times.