Sunday, February 5, 2012

Another 2: Blueprint

The episode titles of horror anime series Another have thus far suggested a drawing in process: "Rough sketch", "Blueprint", "Bonework".  It seems to say a lot about the series's idea of its early episodes, which are just groundwork being laid for what will presumably be the horrific events to follow.  As such, it's hard to really write about "Blueprint", because quite frankly nothing happens in it.  Our protagonist sees Mei, mysterious eyepatch girl, a few more times and has some cryptic conversations with her.  He has some dull conversations with his other classmates, and we get further evidence that they're hiding something from him.  He follows Mei to a creepy doll shop, and she offers to show him what's under her eyepatch, which is presumably not an empty eye socket.  Then, just as it looks like something's about to happen, the episode ends.

Perhaps the horror genre is difficult to plug into a serialized television narrative.  The arc of a horror film, in which slight cracks in a mundane normalcy eventually grow to threaten everyone within, doesn't fit in with the repeating threats that fit a serialized format.  For example, in The Exorcist almost the entire first half of the film is mostly mundane domestic drama with only a few hints that something beyond the rational is happening.  Imagine if you chopped that film up into half-hour segments and aired it as a TV miniseries.  Wouldn't those first couple of episodes be awful television?

Similarly, most TV horror shows[1] spend about half their runtime as rather dull affairs, with only gradual signs of the oncoming terror.  The philosophy of this blog is that an individual TV episode has to stand up as a piece of work on its own, in addition to how it fits into the series' larger narrative -- and from this perspective, most horror shows fail the task.  (David Simon and a lot of other people would disagree with this, but I think it's the only tenable position given the format and how it's delivered.)  Of course, some shows manage it -- Shiki was pretty good on the whole, although the first half still dragged a bit -- but it's a problem that most don't really deal with.

Of course, what you do have in these episodes is atmosphere.  The banal conversations with classmates and focus on routine and regularity recall nothing so much as the high school slice-of-life anime, a strangely popular genre that has no real analogue in American TV [2].  I don't want to call it an uniquely Japanese genre, because that calls to mind all kinds of quasi-racist stereotypes, but the focus on atmosphere and setting almost to the exclusion of plot is something that I've only encountered in Japanese media.  Of course, the cynical explanation for this genre's popularity is that it usually involves hordes of cute teenage girls, sometimes revolving around a nondescript male love interest.  Another falls into this category as well, admittedly, and is produced by P. A. Works, notorious creators of cute-girl fluff like last year's Hanasaku Iroha.

But I think there's something more than that at work here.  The slice of life genre fundamentally is about imagining a kind of utopian space that can be inhabited not just during moments of extraordinary passion but in mundane, day-to-day existence.  This space is constructed in such a way that the viewer feels he is visiting it simply by watching.  I don't want to discount the pleasures such a space can bring, or the skill that goes into crafting it.  Steins;gate spent much of its first half building such a space, in its community of outcasts, and I found that quite effective.

The horror in Another, then, is not one that stems from underlying social cracks.  Instead, it's a threat to the idyllic society of the high school -- a society that has its deep secrets, but is basically cohesive as long as nobody starts poking around.  Another wants to present a slice of life world that horror threatens, much in the same way that Twin Peaks presents a small-town sitcom world where murders start breaking out.  But it doesn't go about developing this world well -- we get the mundanity, but none of the charm that would make us care about this small town.  The characters are all ciphers with vague personalities.  Other than hairstyle, it's hard to tell them apart.

I want to go beyond judging quality, as I find that conversation mostly boring.  Another is mediocre.  Most television is mediocre, and there's not much interesting about mediocrity.  There are, however, some interesting things that Another brings to the table, and they emerge not from the fairly unimaginative minds of its creators[3] but from the unintentional conflict between genre and medium.

Take the motif of dolls.  This is a reoccurring image in Another, so much so that during the first episode there were rapid, extradiegetic cuts away from the show's story to still images of dolls.  The final scene of "Blueprint", and its most interesting, takes place in a doll shop.  Of course, dolls have long been associated with horror.  Freud argued that they were a prime example of the uncanny  because they resembled humans but at the same time weren't quite human, mixing the lifelike and the artificial in a way our minds can't quite deal with.  And the dolls in Another are especially creepy, or at least they're supposed to be.  We even go into the basement, to see the more-uncanny spare parts of dolls in progress.

Another specifically calls attention to this uncanny aspect of dolls.  We run into a doll that looks eerily like Mei, a fact that she remarks on.  The horror comes, or is supposed to come, from the breaking down of the barrier between living and non-living.  And to a certain degree this scene is effective at being creepy, probably the most successful the series has been at being creepy so far, although that may be through the blunt-force application of darkness and eerie music more than anything else.

However, this use of the uncanny seems to conflict with the anime medium.  Like dolls, anime characters are human but not human, with proportions and features just slightly out of whack -- and yet we're asked to identify with them as full, canny, nonhorrific humans.  And I'm okay with that, although it does present a barrier that stops some people from getting into anime.  But because we're already being asked to identify with a simulacrum, it staves off the uncanny feeling of the dolls, which are filtered through another layer of artificiality (animation).  Really, the dolls aren't any less lifelike or more uncanny than the characters.  This is a great example of why tropes can't simply be ported between media.

My goal here is certainly not to limit the types of story we can tell in a certain medium.  Like I said, there have been effective horror TV shows, and horror anime.  But artistic creators have to take into account the form they're working with, and be aware of its central features -- and when it doesn't, you end up with a story that doesn't have anything obviously wrong with it, but just feels undeniably weak and distant.  And that's Another.

Next week: "They put the word 'Desire' on the side, just so you know what emotion to feel when you're reading it."

[1]I'm basing this mostly off anime, as there's not much in the way of American horror TV outside of anthology series like The Twilight Zone, which don't need to worry about the serialization problem.  And then there's American Horror Story, which takes the opposite tack of ignoring the horror formula completely and just throwing everything at the screen as quick as possible.

[2]In American TV, high school is the most dramatic, important, over-the-top time of your life, whereas in anime (with some exceptions) it's the most peaceful, harmonious and happy time of your life.

[3]Yeah, I know, death of the author, yada yada.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that the interesting bits come more from the show's existence and less from its aesthetic quality.


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