…all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.
Upon completing To Aru Majutsu no Index (post forthcoming) I noticed that this series contained one of my favorite plot elements, seen also in Bakemonogatari, Boogiepop, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya – a trait no doubt attributed the certain style of light novel which all of these series are based on. In each of these stories, there lurks a power far beyond human comprehension – a force that can and will destroy you.
If you’ve never heard of “Lovecraftian horror” (named after H.P. Lovecraft, one of the last century’s most influential horror and fantasy authors) it basically centers on the idea that humans are insignificant, and there are things out there so far beyond our comprehension that we might completely destroy our brain if we ever even found out about them. you might say the stories show you the ‘bigness’ of existence. One of the most famous examples is a certain creature whom, were you to utter their real name, would destroy the entire universe. The cosmos is just brimming with these things that might end life as you know it before you even realize what’s going on. However, there’s something special about the way that these world-destroying powers are represented in the aforementioned light novels.
That is, they aren’t represented much at all. What’s special about these light novels is that the actual stories, the monsters, the mythos – none of that is important. To these light novels, the characters in the story are what really matter. All of the plot and background details exist only for the sake of exploring the characters or bringing out information from them. If the stories were stripped of their mythos and plots and had them totally replaced with some other set of explanations, you’d still essentially get the same story (with perhaps the exception of Boogiepop). So why do they bother creating those Lovecraftian setups? It’s to give the series a sense of extremity.
Let’s start with the most popular example, Haruhi. Effectively, it is the tale of five eccentric schoolmates who form a strange club and go on adventures. However, more than just being high schoolers, each character is connected to an otherworldly force so massive that the fate of the world rests on their every action. Haruhi might be able to reshape existence on her whim. Kyon might be the only one who can keep her from doing so. The others will warp time, space, and the fabric of reality to their needs to keep Haruhi’s power in-check. What’s great about all of it, though, is that we don’t really know how it all works. We’ve been told about the data integrated thought entity, the future government, the society where the espers belong, and we even hear about these massive behind-the-scenes moves by each faction where some incredible event has taken place, like a faction war or a spacial anomaly that is consuming galaxies somewhere, but we only ever see tiny bits and pieces of these forces – so little, in fact, that there are times we question how much of it is really happening, how much of it all is controlled, and what is even real. Fans are still debating the true meaning behind just about every event to have transpired in Haruhi.
Next, take Bakemonogatari. In this series, it is less that the monsters and forces are ready and willing to crush human existence, but it is nonetheless true that there are always forces of mysterious and insane power lurking behind the scenes. And normal people just so happen to stumble upon them – what seemed like your average walk through the park turns out to have been an event that triggered a god of misfortune to make you lose your weight or something. However, Bakemonogatari is the best example of how these forces are talked about but hardly shown. What matters is not so much that Araragi is a vampire, but that his experiences with vampires are what gave him knowledge of the supernatural to help out other people. Kanbaru’s attachment to the monkey claw is less meant to tell us a story about supernatural events as it is meant to let us explore Kanbaru’s mind as we learn about her jealousy, her past, and what drives her.
What’s really cool about these stories for me is that they make sure that none of the characters are normal people, and yet are human. In To Aru Majutsu no Index, this is a major theme of the show. In the Accelerator arc, we learn that Mikoto Misaka has 20,000 clones of herself involved in a deadly game wherein they are being slaughtered by the city’s most powerful esper, Accelerator, in an effort to raise his power even higher. But the point of Misaka’s situation, as crazy as it is, is to teach us about her. We never see all 20,000 clones lined up or anything. We don’t see the organization pulling the strings behind the experiment (although we do learn about some of the scientists later on). What mattered was only that Misaka’s psychology was tied to these events, and Touma wanted to save her. Not just her, but her clones, as Touma considers their lives precious and fights to make it so that the remaining 10,000 of them can live on as characters.
Touma, too, is a person with an abnormal background, not only from all the crazy shit he gets involved with, but also because of his one-of-a-kind power that quickly has all sorts of factions trying to use him in different ways. Even Accelerator, the villain of the arc, is explored beyond merely being a fixture of the story. This is also why I think that all of the characters in Index show up in all kinds of situations – their significance in the story’s universe allows us to understand the significance of the story arc. For instance, if the characters we know are members of the church as well as the characters we know are high-level espers all converge on one place, then we know something huge is up (just like how in Haruhi, we know big trouble is brewing when both Itsuki and Yuki are worried). However, ultimately, we see only Touma and a few other characters interacting in very limited locations. A back-alley, a building, a house, a bridge, the streets – but in these little locations with these small groups of people, they decide the fate of mankind and have whole organizations choreographing their moves. Just like the esper society in Haruhi, we never really see the so-called ‘higher-ups’ that run Academy City.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that Boogiepop had a big influence on all of those stories, especially because it is pretty much considered influential to light novels in general. Boogiepop takes the most Lovecraftian stance with it’s portrayal of the big, killer world. A lot of the characters are those inhuman and important forces that decide the fate of the world in the shadows (hell, that’s one of the first things that Boogiepop himself clarifies as his responsibility) but there are also ‘normal’ people in Boogiepop who just happen to stumble into these affairs. A lot of them are crushed or lose their sanity in true Lovecraftian fashion, but then you even have the characters who steep themselves into that world and end up becoming one of the big forces and names themselves. In the very first Boogiepop novel, we are given the story from the perspectives of five normal people who brush up either lightly or heavily against these forces, and we learn about things like an organization that literally controls the world and supernatural horrors beyond comprehension – but we are never made to understand just what the hell they are. We only see how they effect those five normal people and the others they encounter.
I love these kinds of stories, because I love to see a story go ‘all out’. Why just make normal great characters when you could make great characters who also have insane powers? It makes it so that possibility is increased. In these stories, there is always the sense that anything can happen, anything can get you, anything could snatch you up, or worse, blow you away. In a way, it is the ultimate kind of fantasy – a fantasy that out there in this cosmos that seems so maddeningly large, you never know just what could happen. And if you know of more stories like this, anime or otherwise, please recommend them!
(Title taken from a post-rock band of the same name)
Related Posts: I’ve written before about my love for abnormal characters with strong presence here.
If I were in one of these worlds I would totally pilot a robot.
Yes you would. You would pilot a robot and you would act exactly like Style Magnus from Index, and you would be a pretty boy and many girls would ship you with my character in bl doujins.
I need to make a blogosphere fanfic……
sup for all of y’alls
In one sense, Bakemonogatari’s cosmic horror is just more of the same in Japan: You can’t walk down the street without kicking a stray rock and pissing off the kami of the pavement so that he torments you to death, or what-have-you. It’s the consequence of a universe where everything has an inner god. But on the other hand, if you look at the source of the problem in each arc, it’s like the characters in Bakemonogatari are haunted by language itself. And that’s a bit scary, even truly Lovecraftian, because it’s not like you can escape words. They’re the very foundation of how we exist.
By the way, I hope you’ve seen this:
R’lyeh wgah-nagl ftaghn!
I AM GOING TO HAVE NIGHTMARES FOR THE REST OF MY FUCKING LIFE NOW, THANKS
Didn’t think about it that way, and now that you said that it reminds me of “The Colour Out of Space.” Bakemono anthropomorphizes the idea a little more, but still, being attacked by abstract concepts like “language” and “color” is about as existentially horrific as you get.
The main thing that keeps these series (Boogiepop being the exception) from really being Lovecraftian is the presence of hope.
Bakemono and Haruhi have hero figures in the forms of Araragi and Kyon. Mythos stories don’t have heroes, only varying degrees of victims.
In that sense they’re more like the Cthulhu rpgs and board games, since they’re games that require (usually) some way for the players to actually WIN. Which makes sense since anime and light novels from the past couple of decades are heavily influenced by video games and the like.
Right, of course they aren’t true Lovecraftian stories, because they actually aren’t horror, though as you also mention, yeah, Boogipop is more true to the title, being as it does still have a pretty strong horror element. I’ve only just begun reading Lovecraft so maybe I’ll be able to write with more sureness about ‘lovecraftian anime’ in the future~~
Going off what 2DT said, Japan’s Shintoism could also be a big influence for the fascination with these kinds of stories – the idea that humans are not solely in control of the world, but rather many, and very much unseen, gods (kami) are. Because of the existence of so many gods, the Japanese understand that the world is more mysterious than they could know, but then they also want to emphasize that, despite this, they can go on living normally. These stories seem to imagine this kind of dual relationship, where the mysterious forces often cause strife for the characters, but at the same time, help them grow stronger and learn more about themselves and each other.
Like you, one of the things I loved about Index was the characters and how they could (technically) pop up at anytime, in any place and change something about the story. I feel like the whole of the series is/was a love letter to Academy City and the people living there. In every episode, we learned something different about the place – sometimes something awesome, sometimes something dark – and Railgun was an extension of that; even in the filler episodes, I felt like I was getting to know the city better. Essentially, the reason why I loved it so much was that Academy City was treated just like any cosmopolitan city in the world (real or imagined) would be, even though there were fantastic powers and powerful quasi-government organisations controlling the fate of the world. Which was cool. (I also think the characters are brilliant and I’m a massive superpower nerd so that might be clouding my judgement. And the animation and art were stunning and I’m highly superficial, so that might be contributing as well. Never mind.) [/end fanboy rambling]
Great post, by the way! I’ve been reading this blog for about a month or two, actually, but this is my first time commenting. Heaps of the stuff you’ve written has been excellent and all of it has been highly enjoyable, and your “200 anime to take with us” post now lives in my bookmarks. It’s the first place I go when I want to pick up a new series, and it has already made my to-watch list very fat. I think I’ll stop typing now before I embarrass myself further. xD Have a good day!
:D!!! I agree with everything in this comment! I LOVE Academy City, especially because I have a fascination with big cities so I was effectively jizzing my pants all throughout the show hehehe.
Thank you so much for reading my blog! I’m glad to hear you enjoy it!
I had so much fun with it as well because of that! :D I think the creators did such a good job of making it a realistic big city. Heaps of the time I saw parallels to my experiences living in Sydney (which is arguably a big city… I like to think of it as a small big city) so I got to shout at the screen YES I KNOW WHAT THAT’S LIKE. The whole Kiyama arc in Railgun reminded me how some of the people I’ve met by chance or fate or whatever (not to say that they’re actually that much like Kiyama) have really made my life interesting. There were lots of other fun moments on the show that I felt like I had experienced too. Except… without the superpowers. xD
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