I recently started watching 2004’s Monster after seeing it listed on “Best Anime” lists for years. It’s been on my to-watch list forever, and I had been putting it off simply because it’s 74 episodes and I figured that was too big of a commitment. I mean, I hesitate to watch stuff that’s 26 episodes long. I like the feeling of finishing a show and moving quickly on to the next one, you know? It clunks up my completionist goals if I have to commit to an anime for more than, like, ten hours.
I’m about twenty episodes into Monster (my attention span is doing good this time, guys!) and I love it. It’s an atmospheric, perfectly paced psychological horror with some dashes of historical fiction and medical drama thrown into the mix. Maybe a bit of magical realism, too. Oh, AND it’s a mystery. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted. The only thing that could make it better would be having some lesbians in there. Which, who knows, there’s still a chance – I have 54 episodes left, after all!
Not to sound like a cranky old get-off-my-lawn anime fan (again), but I can’t help but watch this and think, “damn, they don’t make them like they used to.” I generally keep up on seasonals, and I really can’t remember the last time I saw anything with a creepy atmosphere or drawn-out pacing quite like that of Monster’s, or like any of my other favorites from this late 90’s/early 2000’s era, for that matter. I’m talking about eerie, semi-experimental shit like Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost Hound, Ergo Proxy, Paranoia Agent, and others of its kind. Where have all the good psychological horrors gone? Where are all the mature, existentialist seinen series that I love so much?
I guess I should start by defining what it is about these series that I love so much.
For starters, these shows generally had more mature stories. Even the ones set in high school, like Serial Experiments Lain, had a distinctly adult feel to it. They were directed towards adults and didn’t try to pander to its audience. Series like Paranoia Agent and Boogiepop Phantom knew that they were hard to follow, but they trusted the audience to figure everything out themselves instead of giving any explanations that would ruin the mysterious tone. It was so much fun to try and piece everything together, and they made you feel all kinds of smart and pretentious while you were watching. Like, I love watching and pretending to understand Serial Experiments Lain! It gives me the illusion of having a Galaxy Brain!
These days, for better or for worse, the anime series I see being released are a lot more straight-forward. Studios don’t seem as willing to risk telling an open-ended story, or a story that you really need to devote your full attention to. Ergo Proxy, for one, had a rather dense plot and didn’t always tell its story in a linear way. It had unreliable narrators and sometimes, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. It has a lot of layers to it, and even when I rewatch episodes, I discover new bits of the story and along with them, new questions.
For me, I don’t need to be able to put all the pieces together. I like the experience and the atmosphere. I know I keep using this one as an example, but Serial Experiments Lain feels more like something that’s meant to be experienced and felt than it is to be understood. I would rather be thrown into a world full-force and figure it out along the way than be force-fed a bunch of expository dialogue that over-explains everything, ESPECIALLY when it comes to the Spooky Stuff.
These series often told self-contained stories that focused on side characters and had larger casts. Monster is definitely one of those series, having a ton of side characters that are all woven into the story of Yohanne (supposedly the titular monster). Paranoia Agent was like this, too – it delved into the minds of multiple characters that didn’t always seem related, but everything ties together in the end. And then of course, there’s Kino’s Journey, which was an anthology like collection of short stories similiar to The Twilight Zone. I’m a huge fan of series like these that have a mix of self-contained stories that contribute to a larger theme, and I haven’t found many recent series that operate this way.
I also loved the muted color palettes of these older series. I don’t need none of that flashy, brightly colored nonsense. Give me that Boogiepop Phantom haze of sepia throughout the whole show. Give me that Kino’s Journey glaze of static and green. Speaking of, Kino’s Journey was recently remade, and the Look of the show just didn’t have that same eerie feel. I mean, a remake should try to be its own thing and have its own look, but the 2017 iteration just didn’t hit the marks of the original AT ALL. Boogiepop Phantom is getting a re-make, and it looks great, and I have a little more faith that it’ll stay true to the original. It won’t look like it was animated through a layer of mud like the original, sure, but it’ll have those murky colors that my eyes CRAVE.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get that animation and technology evolves and that that’s a good thing and that it’s just nostalgia making me think that shitty animation and colors are better and blah blah blah. But I think that, in a way, those technological restrictions forced studios to rely more on crafting an unsettling narrative through pacing and sound design as opposed to relying heavily on visuals. And, since flashy action scenes or CG monsters weren’t always an option, much more effort was put into more subtle visual effects like, for example, those muted color palettes.
Oh, and the sound design. These shows had some really fantastic soundtracks. Monster has one of my favorite anime openings of all time, and I loved all those English-language rock openings that were used for all the cyberpunk shows like Serial Experiments Lain, Ergo Proxy, and Texhnolyze. Ghost Hound utilized a lot of strange percussion, and always had an eerie host of buzzes and otherworldly hums that set the mood perfectly.
It’s not like these psychological shows don’t exist anymore. There was 2010’s Shiki, 2012’s Another, a recent Hell Girl reboot…but they don’t share those same elements that I mentioned. But I promise, I’m not trying to sweep all of the newer shows under the rug or saying that Good Anime Is Dead. I recognize that there have been some truly amazing seinen and psychological series that have come out in the past decade.
The show that probably comes closest to emulating this Psychological Perfection I seek would be 2011’s Madoka Magica. It was experimental and never felt like it pandered – it kept viewers in the dark just enough, and had a sketchy, imperfect art style that was actually perfect for the series’ mood. The recent Girls’ Last Tour hit a lot of these treasured notes for me, too – with its self-contained stories of the girls and other characters they met along their travels, it was considered a better Kino’s Journey than the actual 2017 Kino’s Journey! Shin Sekai Yori nailed a lot of these story-rich elements, as well, and had the slow-burn feeling I love so much.
Of course, it’s natural that a genre would evolve. Part of it is just the natural shift of the market. These days, there is so much anime getting produced and aired all at once that there likely aren’t as many networks willing to set aside time for a multiple cour slow-burn series. Not that all of those anime I mentioned before were all as long as Monster – but there definitely isn’t much space for a 74 episode thriller these days.
And, of course, a lot of these feelings I have about the supposed lack of good psychological anime today is going to be steeped in personal biases. My standards for psychological anime are likely what they are because of my Nostalgia Glasses. It also makes sense that I would use the stylings of the first few anime of the genre I saw as the standard for all the series I see. Most people use their early experiences as the barometer for future experiences, and I’m no exception.
Meh. Maybe I am just being a cranky elitist. I just miss those rich worlds and the way they pulled me in and made my skin crawl. I miss when Silent Hill games were actually good. …I miss when Silent Hill games were being made at all, for that matter. I yearn for that good, low-fi, spooky content again.
Well. At least I have 54 episodes left of Monster in the meantime!