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Guilty Crown Goes Dark

Sunday 27th April 2014

Andrew Osmond on anime that turn to the dark side…

Guilty CrownThe second volume of Guilty Crown opens with a finale, resolving a battle from the first set. The high-powered hero Shu finally gets some answers about who he’s fighting, how it ties up with the ‘Lost Christmas’ disaster, and why the answers are much more personal to him than he ever dreamed. As you might guess from the way the episode ends, it wrapped up the first season (sometimes called a ‘cours’, from the French) of Guilty Crown on Japanese TV.

The next ten episodes constitute the second TV season, which you might expect to switch to a new scenario and enemies, as many shows do. Instead, it’s slowly revealed that the supposed resolution was an illusion, and the situation is only getting deadlier. Central Tokyo’s under siege, killer mecha squads are gunning down civvies, and suddenly kids are looking at the front line of a war bearing down on them fast. It’s a scenario that, like many Japanese nightmares, harks back to what happened to the country in World War II.

If it sounds like Guilty Crown’s getting dark, it is. In particular, there’s been a lot of comment on how dark some of the main characters get, in a series that seemed relatively light, even cheesy, in its first half. Star Trek used to have episodes set in a so-called ‘Mirror Universe,’ where the familiar cast could be really bad. Guilty Crown does something similar, without the mirror.

‘Going dark’ is a cliché for Hollywood franchises – everything from James Bond to Harry Potter has tried it, with mixed reactions. The situation with anime is more complicated, because of contrasting cultural expectations. For many foreigners encountering anime for the first time – especially round the time of Akira’s rollout, circa 1990 – all Japanese animation could seem a case of cartoons ‘going dark.’ Cartoons had been funny, cuddly, Daffy Duck and Mickey Mouse – and then suddenly they were bloody, shocking, hyperviolent.

BambiOf course, it looked different in Japan, where comics and cartoons had done dark for decades. In his book Starting Point, Hayao Miyazaki recalled his 1950s childhood. He avidly read comics by Osamu Tezuka, which looked cute and Disneyesque, but encompassed death and tragedy even then. “My childhood mind found the tragic quality in (Tezuka’s) work frighteningly appealing,” Miyazaki wrote. Tezuka was partly influenced by old-school Disney, which was capable itself of buttering up kids with cute pictures before devastating them with lessons about life and death. Notably, Tezuka’s early manga included an adaptation of Disney’s Bambi, and you can’t get much more tragic than that.

Tezuka didn’t mellow much when he got into animation. For example, when he decided to end the first TV cartoon of Astro Boy, after four years and 193 episodes, he had his hero… fly straight into the sun, in order to save the world. “It was a terrible shock to young fans,” wrote historian Frederic L Schodt in his book The Astro Boy Essays, presumably meaning Japanese viewers (America was no longer buying the series). “Tezuka was deluged with letters complaining about Atom’s demise and hoping that he might at least somehow have survived.” In fact, Tezuka resurrected Astro Boy several times, and killed him several times too.

Tragedy, then, was part of modern anime from its beginning, and central to some of its best-remembered titles of the ‘70s, from Dog of Flanders to Rose of Versailles. But it could still come as a shock when it broke into certain genres in brutal ways – and by heaven, it did! One example is 1977’s Ringing Bell, described by the Anime Encyclopedia as “a mind-bogglingly disturbing ‘children’s film.’” It was a 46-minute featurette made by Sanrio, the studio that animated Hello Kitty, from a story by Takashi Yanase, creator of the kids’ favourite Anpanman. It’s a cute little fable of a fluffy white lamb. And a wolf, which kills the lamb’s mum. And then… well, imagine a fairy tale called “The Lamb who Wanted to be a Wolf,’ written by Hannibal Lecter, and you’re some of the way there.

Ringing BellSeveral of the most memorable anime follow Ringing Bell by combining very cute images with very nasty material. One of the most famous – and dead serious – cases is the Hiroshima drama Barefoot Gen (1983). This feature film is a horrendously upsetting depiction of what it was like for the ordinary people in the city on August 6 1945, though the early scenes look like a straight kid’s cartoon (and this writer once found a copy in a British car boot sale alongside Disney musicals).

More recently, cute subversion has been used in dark fantasies. A classic case is Higurashi When They Cry (2006), set in a remote background village. The series follows a regular pattern. There are cute and merry school hijinks; then a slightly sinister mystery; then a getting-seriously-dark-now mystery; and then hardcore oh-my-god torture, madness and dismemberment. Reset, rinse and repeat for the next round.

A highly controversial case was the TV series Blood-C, CLAMP’s reworking of the Blood franchise. This managed to shock fans twice. First, it transformed the hardass monster-slayer Saya (introduced in 2000’s Blood: The Last Vampire) into a moe cutie-pie, in what looked like a girly romantic drama. Then it turned the show’s later episodes into berserk bloodbaths worthy of, well, Berserk. (The newly-released film sequel, Blood-C The Last Dark hasn’t time for these tricks, and is much more in line with the original Last Vampire.)

But of course the most iconic case of subverted cute is… well, even naming the series is something of a SPOILER, as it has most impact on the viewers who come to it blind. But if you don’t mind SPOILER warnings, then we’re talking about Puella Magi Madoka Magica. It starts out disguised as a sweet Sailor Moon-style show (though let’s be fair; Sailor Moon could shock kids in its day, as with the Sailor Senshi’s last stand at the end of the original series). We won’t give away where it goes here; there’s more discussion of Madoka elsewhere on this blog, putting it alongside another subverted-cute standout, Mawaru Penguindrum.

But let’s move away from magic girls and worried sheep. Backtracking to the ‘70s – actually to 1977, the same year as Ringing Bell – there’s a different strand of subversively ‘dark’ anime with a more direct link to Guilty Crown. Step forward Yoshiyuki Tomino, the father of the Gundam franchise, nicknamed ‘Kill’em all” for his homicidal treatments of the characters he creates. While his Gundam shows have high body counts and heart-ripping tragedies, Tomino became infamous for one of his pre-Gundam robot shows, Zambot 3 (1977).

ZambotThis was a ‘Super Robot’ show, telling its already familiar story of a boy pilot driving a giant robot to protect the world. It had cartoony, often absurdly cheesy animation. Then, in the later instalments, it suddenly went nasty. The cackling, ludicrous villain embarked on a strategy of kidnapping humans… and putting bombs inside them, releasing them back into the world and blowing them up. And it wasn’t just grown-ups either. Kids, including some of the hero’s playmates, went up in smoke. If that wasn’t enough to devastate the lad, he sees his allies, who also happen to be his family, perish one by one in battle. Finally, the hero meets his true adversary, an overgrown brain who tells him humans are evil and must be destroyed for the sake of the universe.

Um, didn’t this start as a cheesy action cartoon, a toy commercial? Tomino, though, took the attitude that it had fulfilled its sales duties by the later episodes, after which he could do what he wanted. Jonathan Clements argues in Anime: A History that Tomino deliberately ‘injected elements likely to appeal to more mature audiences.” That way Zambot could hang on to a demographic as it grew up, the viewers who had started with earlier robot shows like Mazinger Z and Brave Reideen.

This philosophy carried on through Gundam and other Tomino shows like Space Runaway Ideon, itself notable for its hyperviolent finale, the feature Ideon: Be Invoked (1982). If you’re a sick puppy and don’t care about spoilers, you can get an idea of Ideon’s level of carnage in this morbidly funny fan video; the last minutes are the craziest.

Ideon was acknowledged by Hideaki Anno as a major influence on his own Neon Genesis Evangelion. Eva proved that you could still wrongfoot seasoned mecha fans in the ‘90s, although it benefited from being sold to the post-Akira generation of foreign fans who had no idea how bonkers robot shows could get. The original TV series ran from stirring, upbeat Ultraman-style giants fighting monsters, through an increasingly nightmarish psycho-drama in the show’s second half. That led on the notorious meta-narrative, barely-animated TV end that had Japanese fans sending Anno death-threats; his response was the hardcore visceral shock that was the film End of Evangelion.

And Eva leads us back to Guilty Crown. Like the recent Eureka Seven AO, Guilty Crown is very much a post-Anno series. It’s obvious in some icky family issues for the hero Shu; an episode which expounds on the stories of the grown-up scientists who caused all the show’s catastrophes; and one central character’s likeness to an Eva girl whose name rhymes with “day.”  The fact that Crown goes down some dark alleys in its later episodes can be seen as keeping up traditions – though by that token, it can’t shock in the way that Zambot or Eva did.

But if Guilty Crown had had a cute little lamb…

Guilty Crown 1.2 is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

Buy Guilty Crown Series 1 Part 2


Guilty Crown Series 1 Part 2 (eps 12-22)

was £24.99
Shu's desperate quest to save Inori from the mysterious spectre known as Death sends him hurtling through a horrifying flashback. Glimpses of the boy he once was combine with fragments of painful memories to hint at the harrowing origins of the Apocalypse Virus.
Meanwhile, nefarious GHQ agents seek to incite chaos by turning the frightened band of young rebels against each other. Division in the ranks - and the shocking death of a dear friend - pushes Shu to the brink of madness, exposing Inori and everyone he loves to an eerily familiar enemy. As the terrifying truth about the power of the King's Right Hand emerges, Shu and his comrades must place their faith in one another - and fight for the future of their world!
Contains episodes 12-22.
Spoken Languages: English, Japanese, English subtitles.



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