[Hello all and welcome to Weeb Analysis: a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are truly the classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. Sit back, get some sushi or ramen, and get ready to learn about anime.]
Some genres are naturally synonymous with anime. Action shows, sci-fi sagas, love stories, and slice-of-life experiences are usually the most common genres that anime fans will encounter, but not each category is fairly represented. Since we’re in the month of October (and I’m in quite the spooky mood), I wanted to take some time and really look at the paltry state of horror in anime. Make no mistake, something like Aragne: Sign of Vermillion is the rare instance of an anime whose sole focus is horror.
If we want to look at the history of horror anime, the standout titles are few and far between. There are series like Higurashi: When They Cry or Elfen Lied that are all too focused on terrifying audiences, but those are rarities in the industry. If you see horror elements in a series, it’s exactly that: an element. A part of a larger whole. Shows are content with just implementing fragments of horror in their plots to supplement the main genre.
Demon Slayer is a perfect example of this as an action series that lifts monsters, gore, and the occult from more traditional horror shows/movies and puts it into a Shonen action series. It works for what it sets out to do, but it’s not a true horror series. Demon Slayer doesn’t set out to scare you. Shows like Higurashi and Elfen Leid do.
Because of this, horror as a genre has all but faded from modern anime. You may point to titles like Parasyte or Happy Sugar Life, but those series released over four years apart from each other. Imagine if the Western film industry only released two notable horror movies in that same time span? It would be ridiculous, right? Then again, that just kind of goes with the flow for certain genres. Some are more well-represented than others depending on popularity and trends -I can’t even think of the last time a romance film gained mainstream attention here in the States-, but the underutilization of horror anime has been something that has been going on for decades. This isn’t a recent phenomenon.
That is what makes anime films like Aragne: Sign of Vermillion so interesting to me. It’s an anime that is unashamed at trying to scare audiences and delves into more out-there concepts that are unfamiliar to general anime fans. It also serves as a passion project for director Saku Sakamoto, who served as the head writer, music director, animation producer, and created the original concept. Passion projects are even rarer in the industry unless you’re a big-league player like Shinichiro Watanabe or Hideaki Anno. However, passion projects often have the chance to backfire and boy howdy does Aragne backfire.
Aragne: Sign of Vermillion is a story about a young woman named Rin.
And that’s about as much of a plot as I could follow in the movie. The best way I can even describe Aragne: Sign of Vermillion is almost as a lucid dream, with various different twists and turns happening every minute to the point where it’s hard to follow what’s actually happening. The first five minutes of the movie feature a psychiatric hospital with a violent mental patient, followed by Rin going back to her apartment building that looks ripped straight out of Silent Hill 4: The Room. The rest is a surreal trip through whatever kind of horror Sakamoto was aiming for.
With Sakamoto’s heavy involvement in nearly every aspect of the film, it’s safe to say that Aragne came out exactly as he intended. A person isn’t simply as involved in a production like he was and doesn’t have the final say of every little thing that happens in it. If that’s the case, then I have to wonder exactly what he was trying to go for as Aragne comes across like numerous short films that barely got off the ground were somehow stitched together. If you’re trying to follow this film from a narrative perspective, stop right now and avoid this movie. You’ll only leave it frustrated and confused.
Horror isn’t necessarily about conveying a straightforward, easy to understand plotline. One of my favorite horror films, 2014’s Oculus, was built on a foundation of misdirection and playing mind games with its audience. I feel that Aragne is trying to ape classic Japanese psychological horror, most notably films like the 1926 silent movie A Page of Madness, where the horror had less to do with the story and more the visuals associated with it. There are some ethereal moments in the film, such as watching insects crawl out of people’s arms, the way people will just appear and disappear at random, and the entire nature of the finale. You don’t enter Aragne for its plot, but rather for the atmosphere that it creates.
That’s where we get to not only my own personal issue with Aragne but the problem that I come to often in horror films: horror is entirely subjective. Just as people will find certain jokes and types of humor entertaining, the same goes for horror. I don’t find many things frightening anymore, but I can appreciate the effort put into creating the effect of terror. Watching a slow build-up, seeing the cinematography and the sound design mesh with one another to create a perfect climax to the tension: good scares are an art form unto themselves. Even if I can’t physically recoil or scream in the way that I’m sure a director may have intended, I can still appreciate the craft of a good scare.
Aragne is very easy to dissect in terms of how it wants to scare audiences. Most of its thrills (MOST of them) center on exploiting your entomophobia, or fear of bugs. Characters claw at their arms believing there are insects inside of them. Giant bugs will litter the environment. There are close-up of flies. The combination of these moments alongside standard body horror are the tricks that Aragne likes to utilize. If you have a fear of bugs, this movie will disturb you to no end. I, personally, am not.
There’s also some more standard monster fare towards the end of the movie that’s almost reminiscent of the work of the artist Scarfe, and more traditional thriller elements like a hooded serial killer on the loose. But then we reach a point where there are a bit too many elements in play that Aragne almost completely loses itself. I wasn’t joking at the beginning when I said that Aragne was next to impossible to follow. By the end of the 75-minute film, I had no idea what I even watched.
By myself, in my darkened room, I asked aloud with complete sincerity “what the fuck did I just watch?” Half of the time, it almost felt like there was no rhyme or reason to the events unfolding despite the film making a clear effort to connect everything in one seismic conspiracy. Why is there a serial killer murdering people by breaking their necks? Why do people believe that bugs are going to crawl out of their skin? Why is Rin’s apartment building so shitty? What are all of these flashbacks that Rin is experiencing? These questions might receive some kind of answer by the end, but the problem was that I simply didn’t care if they had been.
That’s when I had to take myself out of the equation and ask if this worked as a horror experience. Let’s put aside the question of if this works as a film, to which the answer is a resounding no. If a horror movie is scary, that alone could redeem it. Not all scary movies need to be “good.” I personally cannot stand It: Chapter 2, but the movie does elicit several worthy scares and still manages to freak me out (if only because of Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise). The same may be true for Aragne.
When looking at it from that perspective, I actually do think that Aragne has the potential to be frightening, but not in its current form. Without spoiling the ending, revelations are made that feel rushed to meet a deadline with numerous setpieces happening with no precedent. Sakamoto needed a few more drafts of his script before it would get to a state where outsiders could understand what was occurring. It may make complete and total sense inside of his brain, but not to anyone else -which is a shame.
Maybe if Aragne was designed as an anthology film with one short focused on entomophobia, one on the thriller aspects, one on the body horror, and one on the eventual government conspiracy (because OF COURSE there’s a government conspiracy here), I think we could have had something special. It’s the mixing of all these elements together in a blender that results in grey sludge. It’s made from good food, but shouldn’t be mixed this way.
Visually, there are some captivating moments. Like the aforementioned A Page of Madness, Aragne is at its best when the images do the talking. In a movie with hardly any dialogue, a lot is left up to the atmosphere and the setting, which is suitably creepy and unnerving. I can almost imagine this movie being better if all dialogue was just taken out and we were left with an audio-visual psychological trip. Just like all of the best horror, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks results in a more terrifying experience.
Even though that doesn’t happen, I was left in a state where I was happy after watching Aragne. I’m happy that an original anime horror film actually exists. It may not be all that great -and my less than glowing analysis of it definitely won’t do it any favors-, but we need more movies like Aragne. Not in terms of quality because dear lord… never again… but in terms of intent.
Anime needs more horror films and horror series, ones whose focus is set solely on scaring audiences. As far as upcoming horror shows go, there is a new installment in the Higurashi franchise airing as we speak. Horror mangaka Junji Ito is also working with Production I.G. in order to create a 4-episode anime adaptation of his famous series, “Uzumaki,” but that’s about it. As far as films are concerned, the options are pretty much nonexistent.
I’m hesitant to say something like “even if it’s bad, I still want more horror anime,” because that’s not true. I don’t want horror if it’s bad. A bad show or movie will only deter good shows and movies from being made. But for as much as I may have disliked Aragne: Sign of Vermillion, there is a part of me that sees other people enjoying it.
Maybe the more cerebral and nonsensical structure can work for others. Maybe the cavalcade of strange sights and sounds may tickle your fancy. It’s experimental and it wasn’t cynically produced. You can easily tell when a product is made just to check some boxes and Aragne: Sign of Vermillion does not under any circumstances feel that way. This is, after all, a passion project, so who am I to deny Saku Sakamoto his passion?
I may not have personally loved it, but as long as he was able to make the film that he dreamed of, then more power to him. We need more fresh blood and ideas in an industry that is growing increasingly reliant on safe ideas and marketable properties. In both situations, horror just doesn’t fit that bill.
Maybe someday we’ll have a mainstream horror anime hit again, but until that day comes, I suppose we’ll just have to take what we can get.