Andrew Osmond on anime that turn to the dark side…
The 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.
Of 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.
Several 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
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
This 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.
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.
leads us back to Guilty Crown.
Like the recent Eureka Seven AO, Guilty Crown
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
But if Guilty Crown
had had a cute little lamb…
Guilty Crown 1.2 is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.