Halloween Week - Beginner's Guide: Horror Anthology Collection 2014

To end out all Hallows Eve, I figured some last minute recommendations were in order for all you newbies to the world of anime and manga. So, this calls for a special edition Beginner's Guide, this time over Horror Anthology works!

Yes I am here for the sexy ladies time, yes.

Horror anthologies have received a lot of popularity over the decades, with the most notable hits being the sci-fi heavy Twilight Zone and the old comic serials hosted by the Crypt Keeper and his ilk. People love dealing with the strange and horrific, and anthology formats allow for a lot of creative freedom due to a lack of continuity, or simply the ability to have self-contained stories that have to worried little over greater continuity interrupting them. Anime and manga is no exception, with tons of long-running horror or dark fantasy anthologies get made constantly with new hooks to keep the reader in.

I think a yearly tradition is in order; every Halloween, I'll give you a look at some of the most interesting horror themed anthology series out there, from the best to the worst. To start this off right, I have three big names you need to check out.

xxxHolic (CLAMP, Manga, 19 Volumes)

Simply pronounced "Holic," xxxHolic was part of CLAMP's big attempt at universe building back in the early 2000s. CLAMP, for those out of the know, are a group of female artists and writers who have produced countless popular manga, mainly known for their very pretty (if long limbed) characters and a few all-time classics under their belt, like Cardcaptor Sakura and Chobits. xxxHolic was introduced around the same time as Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, its brother series that had alternate universe versions of the main leads of Cardcaptor Sakura exploring the CLAMP multiverse and hunting for the feathers of memory belonging to the heroine, Sakura. For the most part, xxxHolic sticks to its own stories, with the occasional appearance of a Tsubasa character that hinted at a greater importance for the series main character, Watanuki.

The series premise proper is that Watanuki is a normal high school student who's commonly chased and harassed by spirits he's able to see. He finds a shop owned by a beautiful witch named Yuko, who grants wishes to those who are able to find said shop. The price has to be of equal value, however. Watanuki wishes his spirits away, but he has to work for Yuko as a part-time employee, handling small jobs and basic upkeep of the shop. He's still able to see spirits, meaning he also has to deal with them in a lot for the sake of Yuko's various jobs. He also has a handsome rival named Domeki whom he hates (a completely one-way feeling as Domeki can't be bothered to care) and a crush named Himawari, who's always positive and smiling, to have shenanigans with. As the series continues, however, things become more and more complex.

Despite the sound of things, xxxHolic is very much an anthology series, but in the way a Shinichiro Watanabe series is. There's a larger story being told in bits and pieces, but focus is mainly on short stories that build the series thematic core, or exist solely to be entertaining. For example, one of the earliest stories has Yuko helping a woman get over her internet addiction, leading to her smashing apart her computer with a bat because sometimes blunt objects are just better than magic. Another story deals with the power of words as a twin starts having an identity crisis due to her relation with her sister. They're all heavily in the anthology set-up, while some stories continue on in later chapters with returning characters, like a fox spirit that owns a noodle cart.

The stories here are less horror and more "dark." Several have the lives of the major characters threatened, and there are some grim dramatic turns, but they're more fantastical and intriguing than horrific. For example, when Watanuki is making a delivery while playing a word game in order to drive back a shadow monster chasing him, the scene is simply more interesting than chilling. A ghost story where Watanuki meets an older lady he grows a connection with is more somberly tragic than anything close to scary. It's not a manga interested in scares, but instead imaginative sequences and stories. The abstract nature of spirits in the world of xxxHolic allow for a lot of different ideas and stories to mold, and the series makes great use of all of them.

How Yuko treats her clients is also very interesting. She's very neutral towards most of them, and she holds up her rule of equal trade at all times. It's simply all business to her, but she doesn't try to hide her disgust or contempt at times, yet it never stops her from doing what she's asked. It's a stark contrast to how she acts around Watanuki, eventually becoming a surrogate mother to the poor kid. His relationships with Domeki and Himawari also evolve in very interesting ways, especially in how all the preconceived notions we had to go on proved to be completely off in unexpected ways, especially in Himawari's case. I can't go into detail, but her past is very interesting.

If you're interested in this one, be warned; later volumes start really getting into the events of Tsubasa, as the existence of Yuko and Watanuki are directly tied into major revelations and events occurring in that series. On top of that, time travel gets involved, and it is hopelessly confusing. People who make those complicated time travel charts for movies like Back to the Future have no idea what they're in for here. If you want to finish the series proper, check out Tsubasa (it's quite good most of the time), or simply read only a few early volumes.

An anime was made for the series, but CLAMP outright despises it and the anime for Tsubasa. Both disregard a lot of important universal rules in each series, and they're just poorly directed on the whole. Stick with the manga.

Hell Girl (Studio DEEN, Anime, 78 Episodes)

Hell Girl follows the titular "Hell Girl," Ai Enma, who ferries souls to the Underworld. To be more specific, Ai ferries souls she's asked to drag down to the pits of Hell. If you visit her website around midnight and type in the name of the person you want revenge on, Ai will bring the fool to their eternal penitence, no questions asked. However, doing so comes with a cost; once you finally die, your soul will be dragged to Hell as well, and you will always remember that fact and will never be able to undo that curse, no matter how good of a life you live.

Hell Girl is definitely one of Studio DEEN's better productions. Said studio is commonly hated by many anime fans for all the shortcuts they take in their productions, along with poor planning for multiple projects. However, Hell Girl, all 78 episodes, manage to avoid the usual DEEN quality issues for most of its run, and brings with it a dark and eerie atmosphere. It's as basic as a horror anthology can get; someone is a huge dick to someone else, meet a cruel and deserved end (and don't forget the irony!), and the victim party is also punished because, I mean, they did just send someone to hell. You just don't do that.

That's all fine, but Hell Girl follows that formula almost religiously. The few shake ups, like the "hell boy," don't really add to much to the show, and the ongoing plots are ultimately cast away by the end of the season. The first season has an ongoing plot with a journalist chasing after Hell Girl to expose her, while his daughter shares some strange connection with the girl. While there's one really good episode from these two where they witness a truly innocent person dragged to hell by request, their involvement is mostly for dull back story. Ai simply isn't interesting as a character, only as a force to move the story. Other magical youths get introduced in later seasons, but they don't really change the formula significantly either. The real enjoyment comes from the single episodes.

I'm most familiar with the first season, which I enjoyed a good bit. Some of the stories are very been there, but others throw in some welcome twists. There's one about a dancer (or actress, I forget which now) is uncertain of using Ai's services after already accepting her straw doll (the contract is sealed once she removes the red thread) because of the cost, so she tries solving her problem herself while keeping the doll as a backup plan. Another involving a woman obsessed with dolls and a newlywed terrified of her new mother-in-law also has a great ending I honestly didn't see coming. There isn't really a "bad" story in the series, just ...samey stories.

Hell Girl is not a series to binge watch. It's better to look at episode guides and cherry pick the episodes that look the most interesting. However, it makes for solid horror fair, and I really can't state enough how good it looks. I still remember the colors and shadows to this day, and Ai's uniform simply looks hauntingly beautiful. I only wish the show experimented with its format more than it did, because there's a lot of promise. There was a manga made, but it has cutesy shojo art that doesn't really work well for a horror series like this. Nightmare Inspector works because it's more about abstract puzzles, but Hell Girl is full on evil onto evil hate material. Cute doesn't work.

Franken Fran (Katsuhisa Kigitsu, Manga, 8 Volumes)

I've saved the best for last, everyone. The moment I finished Franken Fran, it shot right into my list of all time favorite manga, and it has stuck there for a long while. Unlike our other two subjects, which deal with dramatic horror and suspense, Franken Fran is a series more interested in making you laugh ...and then making you lose your lunch. The horror that's there is effective because of how much it clashes with everything else, but there's a grim enjoyment to be found from it as well. Then again, the series also has a literal flying spaghetti monster, so it's not exactly a serious dramatic time. Franken Fran is sort of like that one weird friend who's REALLY into the supernatural, but has a really twisted sense of humor about it that you awkwardly laugh at, hating yourself for getting the joke and finding it funny in the first place. It's a series that really understands the world and human nature, and it makes one long, sick joke out of it.

The series follows Fran Madaraki, "daughter" of a famous mad scientist and master surgeon. She helps people with their problems with her skills out of the goodness in her heart and her belief in life's great importance ...but her definitions of good and evil are very different from ours. She also doesn't mind committing acts that basically spit in the face of god, seeing no moral issue with it. Her jobs tend to backfire horrifically for the people who hire her, as her solutions somehow end up becoming karma's newest weapon for people who really have a lesson that needs to be learned. At least, this is how the series starts.

As the manga goes on, more stories go in more horror based or comedy based directions with little overlap. One story could explore Fran's bizarre morality code and the terrible things it leads her to do, while another may have a superhero discover that the bad guys are helping everyone in the world so the human population increases and humanity destroys the planet faster, leading him to believe the best course of action is to kill as many people as possible. Yes, really. Franken Fran is filled with weird logic like this, and there's an insane truth to every case of it. It's like if that asshole on a message board was actually right about something instead of just making up stupid shit.

Fran also has two sisters, Veronica and Gavrill. They are wonderful. Veronica is an assassin in charge of protecting Fran's mansion, basically the death to her life. She's also somehow the more "good" one because she doesn't stitch people up into a grotesque flesh blob to "save" them. In her first appearance, she is freaked the fuck out by Fran's methods and ends up becoming the eternal suffering sad sack that Fran occasionally corrects with electric shocks whenever she tries getting violent. Her entire existence is an endless string of awkward moments, accidental deaths, manipulation and emotional distance. When she finally gets a hug late into the series, she earned it. It's hard not to relate to Veronica, even if she is a trained killer with head blades. All she really wants is a friend and someone to be nice to her, neither of which Fran can provide due to how her weird brain works. She has to get split down the middle, into nice and mean, in order for Veronica to get a single compliment from her. And it's the only one she gets. How Veronica keeps being funny and not depressing comes from her childlike wonder of the world and her honest attempts to make friends, which usually go wrong due to murderous gunmen or Fran being Fran. Such is life.

Gavrill, on the other hand, is like the two other sisters combined. In other words, she is infinitely worse than either of them. She's an amoral monster who can survive and atomic explosion with barely a scratch who loves to loot and kill whatever or whoever she wants. Oh, and that monster bit wasn't just metaphor; she can turn into a literal monster with massive teeth and a damn tough hide, and she can fight endlessly for months. She is terrifying. Her best moment in the series, by far, is when she somehow becomes the first successful school councilor ever, despite advising teenagers on the best way to rape someone without being caught (and that is not a joke, even the teens are shocked by this). The big joke is that since Gavrill doesn't give two shits what anyone thinks of her, she can talk straight about anything she's asked. She ends up giving incredibly valuable, useful advice on how best for her students to make it in the world with their own talents, all from her own observations and life experiences of doing horrible things for fun. Maybe criminals can teach us more than we ever thought.

There's tons of memorable stories and even ongoing mini tales. There's a running story about Kamen Rider parody characters who constantly make things worse for themselves and the people they try to help, the giantess woman who gets knocked up by whales, a school instituting racist policies via blood types, the woman who gets graphed with roach skin, discovering that old people refuse to die to make the younger generation miserable, and as I said earlier, the flying spaghetti monster birthed from a cult Fran was doing medical work for. And that's just off the top of my head. There's not a single outright bad story in the series, and it's endlessly entertaining from the first chapter to the last. Fran captures a magic no other piece of horror media has managed, and it is an absolute crime that it still has no anime to speak of.

We'll meet again next year, but for now, enjoy your Halloween night! Unless you live in a timezone where it's November. That sucks for you. You get no candy. You get nothing. Back to the mines.


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