It’s often been said that horror anime is impossible to pull off, and that has never sat right with me. Manga and video games, two of the most popular source materials for anime, are mainstays of the horror genre. Anime, however, seems to have a built-in weakness to produce that same type of fear that comes so easy to manga and games.
Manga is a medium predicated on a single person drawing approximately 20 pages at a time, often with assistants filling in backgrounds and other details. The average anime runs at about 24 frames per second, with prominent objects on screen moving at 8 FPS at the most. That means that the average anime episode requires the same subject matter as 20 pages of manga be drawn hundreds and thousands of time, so the same level of visual fidelity is just not going to be popular.
That isn’t a problem, most anime fans don’t let a little detail lost in translation bother them, but it really inhibits horror. Renowned horror mangaka Junji Ito built a career off of some of the most expressive and detailed body horror ever committed to paper. When those same works were adapted into the anime The Junji Ito Collection, they underwhelmed after losing that high-definition of skin-crawling nastiness.
Video games, meanwhile, include the audience as an active participant in their stories and scenarios, and have an advantage for conveying emotions like fear. In a television show, it is the creative team’s job to force the audience to empathize with these fictional characters and their plights. While playing a game, the audience is forced to use these characters as a proxy for themselves, and that immediately makes any threat or peril much more present. That means that anime lacks multiple tools that similar media fully employ when attempting to tell a horror story.
But that does not mean that horror is impossible for anime to excel in, just that it needs to find some workarounds. One of the best examples of taking advantage of the strengths of anime in this sense is the first season of The Promised Neverland. It stands as one of the best examples of how to instill unease and fear in all of anime, and does that while spinning a tightly plotted story with gripping characters. I will refrain from discussing the second season here, as the second season has completely diverged from the manga at this point and the first season tells an almost complete story in this horror framework.
Emma, Norman, and Ray live a quiet and idyllic life in the orphanage they’ve spent their childhoods in, surrounded by their family of fellow orphans, and Isabella, the kindly woman who raised them. This illusion of safety is shattered when the children discover that their foster siblings were not being adopted, but shipped out to be slaughtered for the tables of bizarre and eldritch demons. Children are a delicacy to these monsters, and their mother has been raising them to be harvested.
The Promised Neverland has something in common with many horror video games; the protagonists are functionally helpless. In Alien: Isolation, the protagonist must hide and outwit the titular xenomorph while being unable to overpower it. Forcing the player to hide creates a claustrophobic atmosphere as they must run and duck away from a confrontation they can’t hope to win. The three children are all exceptionally bright and athletic for their age, but they are still children after all, and they have no chance of overpowering Isabella.
Isabella, as the sole adult influence in the children’s lives, has a unique ability to both weed out deception among their ranks, and turn the children against each other. The threat of Isabella having a spy among their siblings is an early complication in the three’s plans. Most horror movies have the protagonists succeed by taking the monster by surprise, but Isabella is ever-vigilant and knows every strategy they might devise, as she was once in their shoes. We learn that Isabella was an orphan like them, spared from her fate in return for joining the demons and helping lead countless other children to theirs. She might not be unstoppable killing machines like Michael Myers or Jason, but she may as well be.
Now, the most essential tools to instilling a sense of dread in your audience is use of music and cinematography. Anime has the added bonus of being able to manipulate the picture presented to a stronger degree than a live action production, the rare advantage the medium possesses in horror. The music and direction in The Promised Neverland are both next level, and do a lot to sell both the cheery facade the orphanage operates under and the dark secrets lying underneath it.
This effect is amplified by the character animations and voice performances, which conveys troves of information with the smallest line or bit of inflection. Isabella is a masterfully written villain, both occupying that space of sympathetic villain that the protagonist must take heed to not become, as well as that force of nature style antagonist that crops up so often in horror. I want to especially shout out every part of Isabella’s assistant, Krone, who is just the most unsettling person on every level. Her wild and condescending manner of speech, her uncanny facial expressions, and the inhuman athleticism she flexes in order to dash the children’s hopes of escape.
The art style is translated mostly accurately from the manga, with few liberties taken to make the animation flow smoother. I’m always ready to praise studio Cloverworks, as they’ve done some of my favorite anime. The face work in this anime is done superbly, as these characters have to move between white-hot rage, crippling fear, and Death Note level mind games in a matter of moments. The character animation sells this level of deception and variety without hamming it up, and if the art style could not balance its veneer of cuteness with its depictions of all-consuming terror, this story would not work.
The conflict of The Promised Neverland is obviously how are the children going to escape the orphanage, but the way this conflict is presented is akin to a knot being untied. Emma and Norman refuse to compromise, insisting that they have to take each of their siblings, while Ray declares that the risks of bringing dozens of children under the age of five ruins any chance of a successful escape. They have to play Sister Krone off of Isabella, because if the two adults ever legitimately joined forces, the children would be as good as trapped.
Then there’s the problem of the trackers implanted in each of the children, that have to be disabled or removed as they escape. Isabella can track each child, though she cannot tell which beacon corresponds to which child. This might feel like a plot contrivance to give the kids a break, but it is assisted by the vague and anachronistic setting. They light the house at night using kerosene lamps, yet Ray receives a Polaroid camera as a present. This help reinforces the internal consistency of the story, because it would break the audience’s suspension of disbelief if Isabella communicated with her handlers via a WWII style radio, and yet had a high-tech tracker that communicated more information than simple location.
As the escape attempt draws closer, the series pans back in its focus so that the details can be obscured until being revealed for the most dramatically opportune moment. It allows that sense of hopelessness to set in as Ray’s ship date approaches, and allowing time for a flashback to explain each part of the escape help covers any plot holes, or gives the semblance it does. A simple writer’s trick to avoid having your audience scrutinize plans too heavily is to withhold information, and then deliver it later so as to satisfy their curiosity. Another little shortcut for a tighter narrative, but I can forgive it if it is in service to a more streamlined narrative.
The Promised Neverland is a wild ride, full of harrowing moments and scenes so tense it feels as though you can’t catch your breath. The level of peril and helplessness here is so overwhelming that it makes the threat feel omnipresent and suffocating, and it refuses to let up for 12 whole episodes. Horror anime is difficult to create, but The Promised Neverland has forged a path for any who want to follow in its footsteps. Creating a severe power disparity between your heroes and your villains, making use of unsettling expressions, camera angles, and a soundtrack that sends chills up my spine.
I hope to be discussing The Promised Neverland again soon, whether to tackle that controversial ending to the manga, or the ramifications of the anime splitting off from the source material at this point in the story. Are there any anime that you think have done horror as well or better than The Promised Neverland? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and if you enjoyed this essay and want to see more, don’t forget to follow the Otaku Exhibition for new essays and reviews every Monday and Thursday.