Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Museum of Terror

It looks like May will see a continuation of my discussion of Japanese TRPGs and Anime/Manga themed/inspired RPGs in general. To that end, here's a subject I haven't yet addressed, partially because my experience with it is limited...Horror. 

I am not, by and large, a Horror fan.

Like Fantasy, I have never been especially enamored with the genre, though I do like creepy, spooky themes, ghost-stories, and art that is weird and even a bit disturbing. It is the tropes of the Horror genre I do not particularly care for and the limited (IMHO) nature of Horror narratives as they apply to ongoing tales (such as RPG campaigns) that make me less interested in the traditional structure of Horror as a whole. 

That said, I do love ALIEN, the Thing, the Shining (film), The Exorcist, the Weird America series of books, and other examples of frightful fiction. I have also been told I run a good Horror-esque game. From my Ghostbusters NJ campaign to recent 'episodes' of our ongoing Star Trek: Prosperity game (now in it's sixth year), it seems I have a knack for making things feel effectively unsettling when I want to. 

While looking at the various genres covered by Japanese Anime and Manga for gaming purposes, I realized how widespread and diverse the Horror genre is and how well it is represented in Japanese Pop Culture. It is also, curiously, mixed with other genres quite often in a way that works for me personally.

Instead of simple modern day Slasher film silliness, we get the giant, man-eating zombie/ghoul creatures from Attack on Titan or the supernaturally powered demons of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. In both cases however, are these really Horror? They are more Action/Adventure oriented and while there is a Horror element, they aren't exactly what an American Horror fan would consider to be a good example of the genre. 

Meanwhile there are series like The Promised Neverland, Paranoia Agent, Tokyo Ghoul, Ghost Hunt, Corpse Party, and many others that are clearly pure Horror. 

Japanese Horror and American Horror aren't the same. Sure, there are things that scare all of us as we are all Humans but there are distinct differences that give Japanese Horror movies, books, Anime, and Manga their own unique feel. 

What is it that makes Japanese Horror special? Well, to figure this out I enlisted the help of several of my good friends who are more well versed on the subject and here is what they had to say...

From Steven Yap:

"Common ideas revolve around cultural mythology like spirits and animism. Themes of finding your place in society and the dread that its at the bottom of the ladder or that your purpose is horrible and you're trapped there are of particular note. Body horror and the 'uncanny valley' of things that seem almost Human but are not are very common motifs.

Because Japanese society has a very "for the good of the collective" cultural tradition and the overwhelming authority of your seniors is pervasive, social mentality themes of loss of identity or being transformed into something less than Human at the whims of those above you are common. These stories sometimes start with a Midas touch/monkey's paw situation wherein it is the attempt to gain greater means or power that traps you in your predicament."

Steve manages to simultaneously be concise in his observation, while at the same time nailing down what are essentially the broad strokes. It's a great overview.

I find the Japanese take on transformation from normal Human to Monster, be it Demon, Vampire, or Zombie, takes on a slightly different connotation. The horror isn't all from being the Monster, from the Monster itself, but 

From Jason 'Big J' McAlpin:

"I think the subjects of the stories are vastly different. In Japanese horror a lot of the stories deal with the students being the monsters instead of the victims as you have in US horror.

Death Note is about a student that decides who lives and who dies, playing god through the use of an otherworldly notebook. Tomie, the first published work of Horror Manga legend Junji Ito, is about a student who drives everyone who sees her to madness, violence, and body horror. Even Ring, Grunge, and other similar stories all deal with a ghost youth or child. That reflects part of the Japanese culture of their society getting older and the lack of young to take over. It’s also part of their reason for the robotics push but robots are always played in a hopeful light in comparison.

Japan also has the whole Animism concept in their folklore and spiritual beliefs, where everything has a spirit and they play off that mythology a lot. For example, a spirit might go evil because someone destroyed its home or they might take human form and fall in love with someone such as the fox spirits/kitsune. If their lover dies or is unfaithful the spirit will take revenge or cause havoc. Spirited Away deals with a bunch of those kinds of spirits. Princess Mononoke does this as well.

The other thing is they use is demons from their own mythology which brings plenty of unique monsters that they can use in stories. Demons are a catch all term for usually malevolent monstrous entities that come in a variety of forms, shapes, and sizes but they are distinctly different from ghosts or yokai. 

A common Japanese Horror trope is that when an individual becomes obsessed with something they can take on a demonic form. The Ring is a good example of this. The Girl's hatred consumed her and turned her into a terrifying demon that killed with a videotape. The only other mythology I’ve encountered that comes close to this approach is Native American mythology with the Wendigo, which is a person that consumes human flesh and transforms into a monster that grows with each body they eat. Death Note explores this as well with the main character getting a book that lets him kill. He starts out by targeting criminals and eventually starts killing anyone that doesn't agree with him and his plan for world domination. He never takes on a form of a monster but definitely plays on the idea of the individual becoming the monster."

Interesting observations all around I would say and it would seem to track with my research. The real question is, how does one apply these elements to Horror gaming? Well, I am not entirely sure how to answer that immediately but let me tell you who can...Japanese Tabletop RPG designers. 

Horror RPGs hold a much larger portion of the gaming market in Japan, with Call of Cthulhu - yes, that Call of Cthulhu - being one of the top selling and most played RPGs they have. is and isn't the Call of Cthulhu we know. It definitely uses the Chaosium rule mechanics and the various official products are dedicated to the Cthulhu Mythos but the unofficial products - and there are MANY - cover a much wider range of Horror settings and subjects, sharing only the game rules with traditional CoC. 

I'm going off topic. Well, more like across topic I suppose. This post laid down the basics of Anime and Manga Horror, though really Japanese Horror. The next post will more thoroughly discuss Horror TRPGS in Japan.

See you soon,

Barking Alien

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff. I'm not a big horror fan, either, but - for whatever reason - I've seen a number of Japanese films that are horror (or have horror elements) and these observations ring especially true, not just in manga, but especially live-action (The Ring is listed above, but the one that sticks in my mind is Tetsuo the Iron Man).

    The anime Akira also had horror elements that echo many (most) of these sentiments, despite being a scifi/action flick. It may just be a common theme in Japanese filmmaking (young vs. old, the transgression of individualism vs. collective leads to "bad things," loss of control/manipulation from authority, etc.).

    Very interesting to contrast with "heroic" type anime (like Macross or Yamato) which have NONE of these, and lack any feeling of "horror."