A Pandemic Guide to Anime: Light horror and ghostly shenanigans

Welcome back to our impromptu and sporadically scheduled pandemic guide to anime. Having gone through the lengthy reintroductions last time around, we can skip all that and dive right in. Missed earlier entries in the series and want to catch up? Here they all are, in order.

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)

Today’s topic will be light horror: Shows that are scary, or unsettling, or deal with ghosts or monsters or other supernatural menaces but that don’t go full blood-and-gore and so are watchable for people who aren’t enamored with the more Hollywood-style notion that it can’t be scary unless you see somebody getting bloodily dismembered.

These shows are still probably not for kids and definitely can bring the scares, so be warned. We’ll be getting back to lighter fare in upcoming episodes, but Thanksgiving is a time for scary movies and scary shows and you’re not going to convince me otherwise. Have you ever stuffed a turkey? Even the idea of Santa sliding down a chimney to reverse-mug people in their sleep isn’t considered scary, but just yanking out that little bag of ick will put me off my food for days.

Off we go.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Hey, kids, do you like magical girls? Do you watch Sailor Moon or other classics of the genre and shiver with suspense, every time, when our plucky young heroine or heroines spin magically in a colorful, mystical animated nowhere, donning outfits that are just too impossibly cute so they can battle existential threats to humanity with the power of love?

Yeah, well, get ready to get gut-punched. These magical girls took on the job of saving the world and it turns out it doesn’t matter how cute your outfit is, the most likely outcome of battling existential evils is a nasty, gory death.

Kyubey the not-cat looks cute... but seriously, run fast, run far. Screen capture from Puella Magi Madoka Magica anime.
Very adorable, only a little bit murdery. Sure, little girl, make a contract with me.

Madoka Kaname is a cute girl who likes cute things and stumbles across a sickeningly cute not-quite-cat who asks her: Would you like to make a contract? The catlike, Pokemonesque Kyubey offers Madoka a deal: She can become a full-on, cute transforming-clothes magical girl, battling evil “witches,” and in exchange will be granted any one wish.

What Kyubey neglects to mention, however, is that the job description comes with a high likelihood of getting completely and thoroughly murdered. Madoka learns this the hard way after failing to heed the warnings of mysterious “magical girl” Homura who, if she had her way, would have Kyubey be skinned, stuffed, and mounted as a warning to others rather than cooperate with it.

A magical girl in a desperate fight in Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Madoka Magica succeeds specifically because it plays off the now-bog standard “magical girl” tropes—by “magical girl,” we mean a specific genre of superhero with as much history and popularity in Japan as “brooding man punches things” genre has in Marvel and D.C. offerings in this country—and takes it at face value. Do you really want to fight evil? Do you really want magic to exist, both using potentially deadly magical spells and dodging when your enemies try the same against you?

As a “light” horror entry, there’s not much gore, and the show achieves its frights mostly with images that are unsettling rather than outright terrifying. Each “witch” is represented by a different, uncannily animated landscape that succeeds in being both fascinating and at times a bit eyeball-scraping; you’ll either like it or hate it. But Madoka Magica stood out immediately for its combination of ultra-cute character design with a plot and stakes that make it emphatically not the family fare the images might suggest. Not for pre-teens, that’s for sure.

School Live!

Another school-set horror show, because there are a lot of them, School Live! is a light horror entry that I’d rank as one of the best simply because it achieves so much with such a surprisingly light touch. Is it the apocalypse? Sure. Are our set of plucky survivors trying to make the best of things, dodging dangers when they need to scavenge supplies from the local mall? Yep. But this version of the zombie apocalypse hides the psychological torture of survival in a cute, deceptive package.

We first meet the members of the School Living Club adhering strictly to the self-explanatory rules of their new school club. It’s a club in which the members live at school, eat at school, sleep at school—they never leave. The reason for the club’s existence is, we soon learn, rather dire. And that’s about all we can say without spoiling what makes the show interesting.

There’s not much gore in this one, and almost all of what makes it frightening (and special) is psychological. It also has some undertones that seem to be a bit prescient, when viewed in the COVID-19 era.

It’s slow-paced and surprisingly … warm? … for a horror entry. Part of its effectiveness may come from keeping the style and rote conventions of countless other school-centric anime and bending them only the tiniest bit in taking us to a somewhat different place. The hallways, the classrooms, the character designs, everything is familiar and soothing. And yet?

Death Note

Hugely popular, it was made into a middlingly successful live action version by Netflix. Light Yagami stumbles on a notebook dropped by a shinigami, a god of death, that conveniently comes with instructions. Write a name in the book while imagining their face, and that person dies.

In the anime Death Note, the power of the pen becomes literal

Light is justice-obsessed, and with the encouragement of the bored and intrigued shinigami begins using the notebook to do away with legions of criminals who gamed their way out of true justice using their money or power. He soon becomes a one-man serial killer worthy himself of the world’s attention, and especially the attention of a strange, sugar-addicted supergenius detective who has no name to give out. One of the world’s stranger police procedurals soon develops, with the young Sherlock Holmes-ish investigator both partnering with and attempting to trip up his equally sophisticated Moriarty, all while a grim reaper eats apples and beams at the mischief he’s caused.

While it’s become a such a big hit that its inclusion here is all but required, it’s not a rock-solid entry. It’s hard to get past just how unlikable our antihero is, the supergenius nature of multiple characters is drilled into us a bit too hard, and watching it to the end might leave an aftertaste that isn’t quite “I enjoyed that” as much as, “That was fine, but I’m glad they didn’t drag that out any longer.”

That doesn’t mean it’s not better than nine out of 10 things out there. All I’m saying is that it would have been much better if Light Yagami got hit by a bus three episodes in and we spent the rest of the series following literally anyone else. Yeah, yeah, Kyle Rittenhouse of Japan, you’re so very smart. We get it.

Ghost Hunt

Not to be confused with Ghost Stories, which is an entirely different anime that is an (ahem) fascinating topic on its own, Ghost Hunt relies on more gothic-styled scares. As a fan of gothic ghost stories, the old kind that rely on the creaking of floorboards and the thump of invisible fingers rather than the all-out monster mashes that make up most modern horror, I personally find that wonderfully refreshing. But if you don’t like that, bow out. It’s much slower, it’s quieter, it ain’t for you.

Mai Taniyama is an ordinary high school girl—hey, that sounds familiar!—who due to events is corralled into becoming an assistant for Shibuya Psychic Research, a company that consists of the irritating young paranormal expert Kazuya Shibuya and his assistant. Kazuya uses all the technology money can muster to solve supernatural complaints and “hauntings,” and is foremost a skeptic; there’s very little that counts as a true paranormal event, and he spends the majority of his time ruling out mundane science-based explanations for what’s haunting his clients.

But that doesn’t mean Kazuya—who Mai swiftly nicknames Naru, short for narcissistic—for his insufferable personality, doesn’t find real ghosts. Naru partners with a motley set of near-stereotypes to exorcise spirits when he does come across a real haunting or possession. There’s a Christian priest who feels real shady and might be a fake, and a Buddhist monk who feels real shady and might be a fake, and a shrine maiden who feels real shady and is almost definitely a fake. Whatever their backgrounds, they have true spirit-banishing powers, and we soon learn that Mai may have some some latent abilities of her own.

These are stories about haunted dolls, haunted schools, haunted houses, and haunted people, stories where the scary things are almost always themselves invisible and it’s their ability to influence the visible world that provides the chills. It’s got moments scary enough to be worth keeping young children away from it, but relies on tension, not jump-scares.

But the cast … oh my. The inclusion of “John Brown,” the exorcism-promoting Catholic priest hunting ghosts in Japan, is a wonderful reminder of how goofily shallow all cultures tend to be about all other cultures, and each of the religion-wielding supporting characters feels like the author is intentionally giving each of those religions an unsubtle what-for. What are we to make of it when they use their spiritual powers to banish ghosts that Naru’s science can’t touch? Or when Naru solves a case that each of them was convinced was something different?

It’s not without its flaws, but as one of the few gothic-styled series, it’s a rare entry into a genre that seems to be out of fashion. This one isn’t Saw or Final Destination. It’s The Exorcist stapled to a weekly trying-to-catch-ghosts-on-camera “reality” show.

All of those are good first-try choices, but our list this time is unusual in that each of these entries is something completely different from all the others. If you do or don’t like one, it’s not clear this time around whether you’ll find that you like the others simply because each of them is a bit off-kilter from usual conventions. And, once again, we haven’t even scratched the surface. We will absolutely want to talk about the haunting and gorgeous Mushi-shi at some future point, and that could have been stuffed in here, but did we just conspicuously ignore Demon Slayer, one of the new blockbuster mega-hits?

Huh. Apparently we did!

Next time: Not horror. Not hard horror, not light horror, we’re done with that. It’s time for lighter fare.

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