This post regards the subject of “grotesque” in anime, my Otaku Warriors for Liberty and Self Respect subject for Halloween.
I am not here to discuss 19th century sans serif typefaces. Grotesque means ugly, however you want to look at it. Very ugly. Be that as it may, I find it to be a very difficult word to handle.
Since aesthetics are entirely subjective, so is any concept of ugly. Grotesque is doubly subjective since it is the extreme of something that is already a value judgement. (There is a classic Twilight Zone episode, The Eye of the Beholder, which examines this in some depth.) Even human behavior is difficult to classify as grotesque in any objective sense. It depends on your value system. I think murder, abusive relationships, aesthetically based discrimination, and rape are grotesque under any conditions.
The abusive murderer-rapist thinks differently. Fortunately those are few. The xenophobic sexist-racist also thinks differently. Sadly there are a few more of those.
I have to fall back on my gut feelings and nearly universally accepted social norms to justify my convictions but I know I will never change the mind of the psychopath or the sociopath. The narcissist may be convinced to behave but not out of any moral context but rather from a PR necessity.
The use of the word “grotesque” itself has powerful connotations of evil. It conjures up the Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, and Michael Landon developing excessive body hair along with anger management issues. Monsters are usually pictured as grotesque. We associate beauty and grace with truth and love and goodness. Demons are deformed caricatures of animals and people while angels have the purest beauty imaginable.
All is not as it would seem, tho. Lucifer is the very definition of beauty, is he not?
Early Christians displayed him as being grotesque because of our instinctive association between beauty and goodness. They needed him to look scary. But nothing in the Bible says anything about fallen angels not still looking like angels.
If you really want to get into grotesque, lets look at how inhumanly people treat other people. That is truly grotesque. I’m going to pick some disturbing anime for this since behavioral grotesquerie has to be disturbing on some fundamental level.
There will be spoilers!
Devilman Crybaby is grotesque anime. The characteristic doesn’t arise from the devils and devil-persons. It arises from humanity’s own weakness. How we are incapable of separating ourselves from racial judgement and accepting beings as individuals. How we don’t judge beings on what they have done or would do. Rather, merely how you look and the power you have lead to mindless fear and loathing of you.
Despite individuals of goodness and virtue, humanity as a whole has failed and Lucifer has plans to fix that bug.
I find the Human failure to listen to their “better angels”, so to speak, absolutely depressing. And grotesque. Instead of uniting with the “Devilpeople” to oppose Lucifer’s plans to extinct everything and start over, they turn on the “other” with a lynch mob mentality. Those who do not are washed away by the flood of hate.
Maybe Lucifer was right?
Quasimodo is grotesque in appearance, yet the very model of virtue and faith. He gets the short end of the stick due to his appearance but understands it and carries on with life. Victor Hugo obviously had a mind that could think outside the box when he wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Those who pass judgement on visual cues are in for some serious disappointments. Do not judge the content of a heart by the biases of your aesthetics. Anime is full of this lesson.
Not all anime, though. For many shows it is a shortcut for lazy thinkers to quickly identify the good guys and the bad guys. Bad guys are ugly, often downright grotesque. Good guys are beautiful, sexy, and alluring. (Much like black and white hats in old time westerns told you who the bad and the good guys were.) I guess that is playing to the lowest common denominator but I dislike the message this sends. Beautiful and grotesque and everything in between should be apportioned, if not randomly, then at least in some way that isn’t a close correlation to good, bad and indifferent.
In Spirited Away, the “good witch” and the “bad witch” are identical twins. You tell the difference by how they are voice intonation, by smiles vs. angry frowns and by what they do. Yubaba and Zeniba are really two sides of the same coin. One behaves positively and the other behaves grotesquely.
Looks are deceiving. We never seem to learn that lesson in real life no matter how many times we have out noses rubbed in it. It even has a name, “lookism“. Studies show that we consistently rate attractive people as being more trustworthy and more intelligent than people who are not so attractive. Teachers even give higher grades on subjective tests to prettier children. Anime like Toradora, My High School Romance SNAFU and Kimi ni Todoke reflect this problem where even a funny look about the eyes makes you a juvenile delinquent. I find seeing that in real life to be rather grotesque, but sadly I do see it happen.
Perfect Blue is perfectly grotesque. Here we have a young, innocent, and naive wanna-be J-pop idol, Mima. Her manager thinks he can make more money off her as an actress. He convinces her to resign from the group for a crime show. (Right after she leaves, they get their big hit and go on to fame. Bad timing!) Now that she has gone into acting, she has some rough spots to get through.
The acting gig involves the end of her innocence. She has to do a rape scene that is horrific, even if it is just acting. (The primary male actor in the scene apologizes to her for what he has to do. Not everyone is totally devoid of decency.) She overcomes her resistance to doing nude modeling and the explicit photos are widely published. These hurdles are things she believes she must clear if she is to succeed. Things get worse.
She has a fan who is obsessed with her as an idol and he has become her stalker. He is initially a Quasimodo figure. His appearance is grotesque but his heart is good. We see him getting beaten up after he confronts some unruly fans who are disturbing her group’s concert. She saves him by taking note of what was happening and asking them from the stage to stop.
But when she leaves the pure and virginal idol image behind for the steamy side of acting, something snaps. He can’t deal with this new persona. Worse yet, someone has opened a social media account in Mima’s name who is saying she doesn’t really want to do these things and she is being coerced into them.
I don’t believe she was being coerced but that may just be a matter of opinion. The casting couch is coercion. She chose to do certain things to further her acting career but she was still free to go back to singing if she didn’t do them. Her agent said he’d understand if she couldn’t handle it. She gritted her teeth, pushed on through and perhaps discovered it wasn’t as bad as she thought.
If you have ever been a rookie in a union or apprenticed to someone or just been the junior person on the management totem pole, you know what kind of jobs roll downhill. Tough woman.
This relates to something David Cassidy did a half century ago when I was young. He had the reputation of a goody-goody two-shoes after his stint as a “male idol” on the TV show The Partridge Family. To break out of his type casting, he had Annie Leibowitz (top celebrity photographer of the day) shoot some nudes of him and they were published in Rolling Stone Magazine. Other women have done the same in Playboy magazine to shed a childlike image. Jane Fonda did several nude appearances in movies, (most notably Barbarella) before gaining status as a serious actress. This is a real world strategy.
The people who convince her to do these things start getting murdered. (Quasimodo gone terribly wrong. He now stalks her every move.) Her roomie, an older former idol, hates her for giving up on her idol career. She has gone nuts and wants to replace her on stage. Step by step, roomie starts chipping away at Mima’s sanity until Mima doesn’t have a clue what is real and what is dream.
Hitchcock could only dream of this level of private horror.
It is a scathing and bitter depiction of both the idol and the movie industries and of commercial human nature in general. Grotesque, both in what she is put thru by her handlers and in what she is dealing with from her stalker and from her “friend”.
We have something even more grotesque.
Kite in its uncensored version is hentai. The edited version is rated for 16 and up. Either way it qualifies as truly grotesque in what it tells.
I don’t have a problem with explicit sex scenes. That isn’t what makes this so ugly. Sex is just sex. It is a normal part of most peoples lives. Two people with adequate agency having well scripted and aesthetically pleasing sex without any deception or coercion is pretty cool. Triple brownie points if they at least really like each other or maybe are even in love. Nothing beats loving sex.
In Kite’s case though, it reflects the grotesque reality of child abuse, rape and murder.
Sawa is a young teenage girl. She comes home to see her family’s brutally murdered corpses. A police officer appears on the scene and befriends her. Becomes her guardian. Becomes her lover/rapist. She doesn’t know it yet but he is also her parents’ murderer.
In the uncensored version you see some graphic sex. (Much of it is gone in the director’s cut and all of it is gone in the Crunchyroll version.) She clearly appears to be enjoying it. Akai is clearly an older adult who has authority over her. She is physically developed but equally obviously a minor and under his total control. Her breasts do not make her adult. Her enjoyment of intercourse doesn’t detract in the slightest from the rape that this really is. Overwhelming adult-child age difference. Total deception. Legal authority over – and emotional manipulation of – a minor. Any of these renders apparent “consent” moot and makes for a rape. He does all of it and more.
Akai goes beyond a mere rapist. He is an assassin broker. He hires her out to kill. He tells her that all of her targets are scum and mob connected. He tells her he is seeking her parents’ killer. She is very good at what she does.
The opening scene has her being hit upon by a rock star in an elevator. The rock star is her target and she is luring him in with all the sweetness and innocence of a shy young girl. An elderly woman tells him what kind of scum he really is for preying on young girls. He attacks her and leaves her bloody and dying. Sawa kills him and disappears.
Psychopaths using children to kill other psychopaths for fun and profit. If that isn’t grotesque, what is?
This is a real world issue. It isn’t pedophilia, it is the psychopathy of the adult, inability to feel empathy for the person being wronged. A belief the rules don’t matter. We’ve seen real life psychopaths. Serial rapists, serial murders, serial swindlers, bloody dictators and probably a few politicians and corporate CEOs. They can charm a snake out of its skin. Their surface can be what ever they want but underneath it is hollow. Pass lie detector tests because lying about murder is of no emotional significance to them. Their next whim is the only thing in the universe that matters. Akai could kill her in a heartbeat with no regrets and go on to his next victim.
She is not alone. Akai has another teenager in his stable, Oburi. He is a teenage boy. We don’t know how long he’s been working for Akai. We don’t know if Akai’s sexual preferences also include young males. But Oburi’s parents were also killed. Akai is his guardian. And when Akai sends Oburi after a target, irony of ironies, he is told they are child molesters.
Akai makes a mistake. One time he uses both on the same hit. They meet. They find a common bond. Naturally they fall for each other. You know that won’t go over well.
Akai has an assistant, Kanae, who hands out the information on the jobs. Kanae is also a rapist/murderer, only instead of seductively raping a deluded young girl, he viciously rapes bound and gagged girls. Neither Akai nor Kanae has a problem with eliminating the victim. This is a bloody, gory movie and the uncut version is unwaveringly explicit.
I think I have gone far enough in describing the show. That’s just the first part. It is grotesque beyond words. Thru and thru there is no shade of decency. But lets not kill the messenger here. The message is about the evil that men do.
Evil in our comfortable lives is dilute and distant. Televised and sanitized for your viewing pleasure. A rape here, a murder there, a serial killer every few years, a robbery at a liquor store, maybe a spousal abuser somewhere on the block gets busted. We give the most egregious of them cute names like the Boston Strangler, Jack the Ripper, Zodiac Killer, the South Hill Rapist, the Night Stalker. (We rarely hear about female serial killers but they do exist.) They even have fan clubs and wanna-be brides. If you are one of the unhappy individuals who experience such cruelty, it isn’t so cute. Kite brings it home.
Evil in the movies is done for scares, is done as a plot element for a hero to overcome, is sanitized. This is none of those. Fantastic evil cannot really be grotesque because you know it is unreal. Media that averts its eyes so as not to offend (too badly) and just implies the evil does not have the impact. Kite is realistic, explicit and matter of fact about its subject. That makes Kite supremely grotesque.
Sometimes I think we need to stare the emotionally and psychologically grotesque in the face without blinking. See the monster for what it is while taking care not to fall into the abyss ourselves. If you have a queasy stomach at such things, watch the Crunchyroll version.
And Boku no Pico is pretty grotesque in its own way.