There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart. — John Carpenter
The fear of the unknown. The dread of self-isolation. The psychological divide between ourselves and the monsters within. For as long as I can remember, horror is a medium that I’ve held near and dear to me. It is an art that has continuously evolved and expanded beyond the realms of nightmares, cementing its place into the general consciousness in more ways than I can possibly count. But what is it about the genre that continues to seep into the deepest corners of our psyche?
I couldn’t begin to tell you, but one show this season certainly tried to. Based on a web comic turned manga written and illustrated by Tomoki Izumi, Mieruko-chan is an unorthodox approach to genre conventions that garnered quite a bit of buzz when its anime adaption (Passione) began airing. Having no prior knowledge of this series beyond the premise and the unusually high praise from both critics and audiences — including some internally — I had very high hopes as someone who regularly partakes in the strange and obscure. This will be a first for me as I’m reviewing a series that I’ve not completed which I’ll get into momentarily. Though this is outside my regular analysis and retrospectives, my hope in submitting this early is to touch upon a few critical areas I feel are worth examining on their own. For that reason, I have revived the “Some Thoughts” series as I try and narrate my thoughts into something coherent, introspective and hopefully, entertaining. So, gather around and dim the lights as I regale you with not one, but three tales of cosmic terror focusing on horror, comedy, and narrative. Does Mieruko-chan reinvigorate the horror genre or is it all one terrible joke?
Can You See Them?
Horror is a genre of storytelling intended to scare, shock, and thrill its audience. Horror can be interpreted in many different ways, but there is often a central villain, monster, or threat that is often a reflection of the fears being experienced by society at the time. This person or creature is called the “other,” a term that refers to someone that is feared because they are different or misunderstood. This is also why the horror genre has changed so much over the years. As culture and fears change, so does horror. — Jonathan Scott, studiobinder.com
Before diving in, let’s take a moment to discuss the concept of horror. Though the definition is subject to change with the passage of time, all horror fiction can be distilled into three basic elements: 1.) The protagonist or audience insert device 2.) The existential threat, sometimes called the “other” (this can be internal or external) and 3.) The presence of “fear.” Regardless of the exact terminology or framing and narration utilized, most horror stories follow some variation of this formula. When it comes to horror anime, however, that’s a mystery box with its own subset of rules beyond the scope of this topic. Personally, I don’t feel the need to differentiate between what is and isn’t horror, but what I’d like to focus on specifically is how well those elements of horror are deployed and how effective is it at creating the impression of fear.
Taking place in a modern-day setting, Mieruko-chan tells the story of high school student Miko Yotsuya who develops the ability to see spirits. Overwhelmed and confused over her new hostile surroundings, she takes matters into her own hands and chooses not to engage with the deceased. On paper, it’s a promising setup to explore terror and powerlessness from an everyday person’s point-of-view as they try their best to go about their day. Miko plays the unwilling protagonist as she rejects her newfound discovery at every moment. The existential threats in this story takes the form of various sprits both benevolent and hostile. So far, it hits all the basic principles of a horror story while presenting itself as a subversion of what’s come before by doing the one thing most would not immediately consider a viable survival option. Each episode is setup as an everyday scenario before introducing its brand of horror, attempting to trigger a response in Miko. Sounds pretty good so far?
In setting up Mieruko-chan’s premise, this presents an interesting conundrum. How do you build around a character whose sole objective is to not acknowledge the persistent boogeyman roaming the streets? How do you make a captivating or compelling monster who does not share a connective thread to their primary target? Most importantly, how do you instill fear when the premise runs counterintuitive to that crucial mainstay?
Here’s a thought for you — imagine your favorite piece of horror media. Maybe you’re a slasher film kind of person. Perhaps you fancy a round of survival horror using a controller or prefer something with more thrills than chills for the faint of heart. Now let’s suppose we lock the existential threats from each of these stories for the duration of the plot. Would Michael Myers from the classic Halloween be the imposing figure today if his point of view was never established as he approached his victims? How about Mr. X and the Nemesis from Resident Evil 2 and 3 or the E.M.M.I from the recent Metroid Dread if they never gave chase? Would the heroics of Tanjiro from Demon Slayer and Yuji from Jujutsu Kaisen be as integral to the plot without some friction established between their main antagonists? That is what it is like to watch Mieruko-chan.
Now, to be fair, it’s not for a lack of trying. You have a common everyday school girl in Miko who’s more concerned with going to school and hanging out with her friends than necessarily trying to solve the (supernatural) world’s problems. All of the horror monsters presented are genuinely well detailed and they put forth a solid effort in integrating them into the world (the axe monster in episode 8 is my favorite). But no matter how well defined the premise or visually graphic the monster, I have still not addressed the serial killer in the room or the execution of fear.
Though this will come down to personal preference, the best kind of horror genuinely aims to leave some form of ambiguity, suspense, and mystery to put the viewer on edge. This type of horror works best because it lets the viewer’s imagination run wild as they and/or the protagonist frantically try to put the puzzle together all the while being chased down by some unspeakable abomination. But when you’re constantly being shown the monster at every given opportunity — in broad, open spaces no less — and your main character has the “Invincible” cheat permanently set to on, that removes a lot of the tension. Of the first eight episodes, I’d estimate there was only one instance that ever presented the possibility of Miko being in physical danger (I’ll let you guess which one!).
That’s not to say that danger is a requirement for fear, but the show’s other questionable choices leave much to be desired as well. The show’s pacing is unbearably slow (noticeably in the beginning), so when the horror does eventually make its presence known, it plays out identical to the last. Long dead shot angles of the monster, as if to violently wave the show’s production values at the viewer’s face. Constant close ups of Miko’s expressionless face along with her features — more on that later — and slow, drawn-out monologues telling the viewer exactly what’s on her mind in excruciating detail. Then there is the show’s inconsistent score ranging from entirely absent to ill-fitting the scene at hand, to say nothing of the show’s abominable opening and closing themes. For a show that plays its horror tropes too close to the chest, its lack of clarity and theme often diminishes any sense of wonder, leaving an empty feeling at the end of most episodes rather than dread. Of course, this being a hybrid show, horror is only the prelude to this anthology of short stories.
Yep, She Sees Them
The best comedy and horror feel like they take place in reality. You have a rule or two you are bending or heightening, but the world around it is real. — Jordan Peele
Believe it or not, I am actually a pretty huge fan of horror comedy in general, with Shaun of the Dead, The Munsters, and American Psycho ranking among my favorites. As you can glance, these all vary in subgenre from to satire to black comedy, so I’m not beholden to one specific niche. Seeing as comedy is a lot more subjective in nature and will come down to personal preference, I’d like to use this section not as an analysis of whether Mieruko-chan is funny or not, but rather what I feel hinders the show’s execution of its intended audience.
Let’s briefly go over the show’s fanservice. Given the divisive nature of this topic, it bears repeating that sex is as much a tool as any given plot device or mechanic. Intimacy and horror are no strangers to one another, so the question here is how well it integrates to Mieruko-chan in terms of setting, tone and context. Despite garnering mostly praise elsewhere, the general consensus is the fanservice is pretty much non-integral to the story. Eventually, it goes away all together or is at least minimal at best. Sure, that’s great in the long term, but it begs to question how the fanservice is utilized to begin with. Does it work in the show’s favor or was it simply included for the purposes of being “faithful” to the source? Based on my observations, I’ve come up with the following:
- The fanservice is utilized both inside and outside the horror scenarios with no relation to the event taking place. Therefore, the argument that it is a homage to the genre is invalid in terms of the setting.
- As it is established that the fanservice can take place in either scenario, the case cannot be made that it purely exists to enhance the comedy, resulting in some very tone-deaf moments in both cases.
- Since it’s not exclusively for comedy or horror and it inevitably goes away after a point, it cannot be suggested that it was included for the purposes of arousing the audience as the situation is almost always horrific or comedic in context.
So, if it’s not being used as a plot device or genre tool and was simply added because it was in the source, then that raises another question: why? Why is camera suddenly lingering on this girl’s thighs while evil spirit is literally hovering over them? Why pan over this girl’s rear end during a scene that’s clearly aiming to invoke terror? Why did this adaption feel the need to include fanservice at all if it has no bearing to anything happening on screen? Like fanservice, comedy can also consist of a combination of setting, tone, and context. As you read through this section, this will be a recurring theme.
When you think quality, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Animation? Writing? Pacing? All-important attributes, no doubt. But which of these would you say is most important? Whenever I think quality, the first word that comes to mind is consistency. Even if one area stands out, if it’s only applicable in a few instances such as a single episode with unusually high production that does not necessarily elevate the entire show. It’s like eating an entire box of crappy cereal to get to the prize at the bottom. That probably best describes how I felt at the end of most episodes of Mieruko-chan, except I’d usually come out empty with no prize to show for it. Each week Miko goes about her day, encounters some unspeakable horror, and then one of three outcomes occurs. Sometimes, it’ll end with Miko having successfully avoided contact in ridiculous fashion (the funny ending). Other times it will end with a small twist such as finding out a spirit is not hostile or Miko’s sixth sense is indirectly used to solve someone else’s problem (the heartwarming ending). On at least one occasion, it ends with an out-of-left field twist that’s meant to be a character breaking moment (the emotional ending).
Before I break down Mieruko-chan’s issues, is it possible that horror comedy is just not suited to anime? Absolutely not! In fact, I’d argue the medium has been getting better at it with time. The key difference is consistency of said comedy while offering substance in other ways. Shows like the supernatural murder mystery Another generally stick to horror, but the one occasion it does break character, it’s an unexpected but funny moment to offer a brief respite. Ultraviolent gore fests like Hellsing Ultimate and Dorohedoro often cruelly and comically one off their victims in cartoonish fashion while indicative of its methods behind the madness through its central cast. This year’s gothic inspired Shadows House and The Case Study of Vanitas offered a unique blend of horror, class, and grace to match its storytelling and comical wits. Even as recent as this season, shows like the The Vampire Dies in No Time implement their horror aesthetics in service to their comedy by not taking itself seriously.
As pointed out by Polygon’s Rafael Motamayor, the genre that’s oddly enough embraced horror wholeheartedly is the one that would seem like its direct antithesis: shonen. The last five years has seen a dramatic shift in the number of mainstream titles embracing a darker and serious approach while still emphasizing the usual themes of heroism, bravery, and comradery. A show I previously covered, 2021’s Kemono Jihen is one such title that pushes the idea combining elements of horror, slice of life, and comedy, while still telling a gripping and intimate journey of overcoming abuse through the eyes of its young protagonists. What does Mieruko-chan offer to break the mold? Take a guess:
Misdirection can be a powerful instrument, but once you figure out Mieruko-chan’s formula, it quickly becomes stale. As a result, you end up with some very weak episodes in terms of setup, delivery, and self-awareness. To its credit, the setup remains the most consistent of having Miko stay deadpan despite every square inch of her wanting to scream, but it doesn’t evolve beyond the gag. At one point, the show teases a potential character moment of her moving forward, only to backpedal at the last possible moment. In terms of delivery, once you’ve seen the first four episodes, you’ve pretty much seen everything Mieruko-chan has to offer. Despite taking place in the real world, its environments and secondary characters feel hollow and underutilized with the show’s other ESP inhabitant being yet another gag to justify Miko’s permanent denial. My final breaking point in the show’s routine came in an early episode where Miko and her best friend Hana are in the locker room and they literally rip off the stalker-behind-the-locker-door trope while Hana goes on about how overused and repetitive the trope is. It’s laziness at best and a reminder of better horror media at worst, which brings me to my final point.
She Sees Real Crazy Ones
There’s nothing scarier than silence. A lot of horror movies lean on hits and score to try and create tension, which actually does the opposite. The best scares come from a desire to see the character overcome what they’re dealing with in the scene. If you care about the character you’ll care about the scare. — Mike Flanagan
In the series Bleach, there is a moment where the main character is fighting against his “hollow” version in an effort to manifest its powers safely. During their fight, the hollow poses a question, mocking his host’s misunderstanding of their own power: “If you ask a stranger their name, does that automatically make them your friend?” Though I may be misremembering (I couldn’t find the exact quote or episode), this is a favorite of mine that best exemplifies my next concept: circumstantial situations. Simply put, it’s a situation about a setting or character that one can reasonably infer based on other factors such as dialogue or story. My final topic has to do with the circumstantial situations surrounding Mieruko-chan’s protagonist and how much of the show’s narrative is dependent on the audience’s assumptions of Miko.
But before that, I need to briefly pivot away from the show and take you back to the maddening year that was… 2020. Most of our regular readers will be quite familiar with my Tower of God review — a piece that garnered quite a bit of commentary when it was originally published back when Kinja was still breathing. Though the comments are long gone (unless you want to give Wayback Machine a spin), I reviewed the feedback along with my own words to see if I could get a clearer picture. Given it was always intended to be a spoiler-free review to reach the widest audience possible, I have no regrets with the final product. But as a writer, my only regret is not being able to communicate some of the larger burning questions at the time of publication.
In January of this year, I had begun a follow up article intending to revisit it when life got busy and lost interest. I never expected to be using it here, but in reading some of the notes on Mieruko-chan everywhere regarding one specific scene, I was inspired to revisit my unfinished script. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have issues with the actual “twists” in each that I plan to address today. But as I navigate the twists and turns, I’d like you to keep a mental note of the circumstantial situations. How many times is the audience required to fill in the blanks in order to solidify the narrative or character?
***MAJOR Spoilers for Mieruko-chan and Tower of God***
Back in my original review, I highlighted multiple issues with many of Tower of God’s underutilized characters, its underdeveloped main leads and with the way the show attempted to build around Bam and Rachel without putting in the effort to develop them as individuals. In Glass Reflection’s own review of the show, he touches upon many of the same criticisms I had with Bam as a protagonist and going over how the narrative fails to challenge him to take any action without plot intervention. In his video, he takes it a step further noting the following (emphasis mine):
- “Bam doesn’t do things that change the story, things happen to Bam that changes the story and that’s a very significant difference.”
- “All of the mystique from Bam doesn’t come from what he does, but rather the mystery behind where he came from and why he was allowed to be here [the tower] in the first place.”
- “Throughout all 13 episodes of the series I would say Bam made exactly three actions that affected the story.”
If you are interested in a more detailed breakdown, I highly encourage you watch the full video above. For the sake of brevity, I’ll be focusing on those three actions which can be largely summarized as going after Rachel or protecting her from certain death whenever the situation warrants it. Outside of that, he is constantly told where to go, what to do, and how to accomplish it, all without actually having to lift a finger because it always falls on someone else. It really says a lot about his character and priorities, and with the show’s rushed pacing, he’s never forced to change. This is reinforced further with the show having the gall to spout expository while his pseudo ex-girlfriend comments on his fictional growth.
For its part, Mieruko-chan’s main protagonist doesn’t suffer nearly to the same degree as Bam, but it is still plagued by similar situational circumstances in order to move the story forward. In the show’s eight episodes I’ve completed, I know exactly this much about Miko:
- Miko does not want her ESP ability, so the story often has to prop her to action. In other words, Miko is a reactionary protagonist than proactive one.
- So much of Miko’s personality is dependent on external factors: her family, friends, and the ghosts she comes into contact, with much of their relationships being defined by what they are rather than who.
- In the show’s first eight episodes, I counted at least three to four instances that gave a little more insight into Miko, with the rest being mostly repeats.
So, what do we know about Miko? She lives with her family, goes to school, and hangs out with her best friend. Occasionally, she will intervene when she thinks a spirit will harm her or someone else like the episode about the abandoned kitten. That much is a given. But what do we actually know of her as a character? Tell me, in the show’s 12 episodes, what can you tell me about the relationship between Miko and her best friend Hana or brother Kyosuke beyond the surface? What about her parents? Are they close, or are you inferring that from their few interactions? What about each of the monsters? Now, how does this all equate to her psychological trauma? No wait, let me guess, because she says she’s scared. Yes, of course, I would be too if someone tried to jump me outside my block!
Now let’s examine each of the show’s twists and what was actually accomplished, starting with Tower of God. Before Rachel tried to murder Bam, we never get a clear picture as to who she really is or what kind of connection she has to him beyond they lived together for a time. Her only character traits are her vagueness, mystique and envy, before and after her motivations come out. The revelation that she had it out for him all along doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things because nothing actually changed in the run up to the climax. While it pushes the plot forward, the character work and build up in the show’s previous episodes were not suddenly penciled in. As for the twist itself? Short of giving her an “I Am Evil” shirt, the show basically spells it out for you with Rachel’s evasiveness and lack of clarity when questioned further prior to her psychotic tantrum. A hero and a villain are defined by their relationship, but when so much of their motivations are built around a very weak set of circumstances, their actions become preordained rather than endearing or reprehensible.
Whereas Tower of God has a twist with narrative consequences but no situational awareness in the setup and execution, Mieruko-chan suffers from the exact opposite problem. For what it’s worth, Mieruko-chan’s twist did catch me off guard, mostly because there were only two “blink and you’ll miss” moments. It is revealed that Miko’s father Mamoru Yotsuya has been dead for quite some time — a fact obscured given he makes only one appearance early on until he resurfaces again in episode 4 at a dinner table with three plates if you noticed. At face value it works in the show’s favor, yet the conclusion doesn’t really tell us more than we already knew beyond the twist. By this point in the story, Miko’s mental state has remained the same beyond the same observations and relationship with her family has never been a focus. If this is where the story is supposed to pivot, then I must be the bearer of bad news because from episode 5 onwards, this moment is never referenced again and Miko is once again back to square one, haunted by yet another unspeakable horror to the tune of the same joke. As for ghost Mamoru? He likes pudding and he died. That is the extent of his character arc!
Whether its horror or narrative, the power of a plot twist comes from being able to catch the audience off guard in a way that makes story sense and pays off in the execution of the outcome. Tower of God demands that you care about Bam and Rachel because of the twist and the consequences rather than anything they say or do. Mieruko-chan’s twist is cleverly foreshadowed, but does not follow through in any significant way to push the narrative or Miko forward beyond its one ghost trick. In either case, both miss the point of having a twist in the first place in their circumstantial situations and narrative-driven consequences, and that, my dear reader, is a very significant difference.
Don’t Look (Final Thoughts)
Horror is the future. And you cannot be afraid. You must push everything to the absolute limit, or else life will be boring. People will be boring. Horror is like a serpent: always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back. It can’t be hidden away like the guilty secrets we try to keep in our subconscious. — David Argento
I can’t tell you what’s scary or not and what’s funny or what matters. What I can tell you are stories. Eight episodes in, I still don’t know what kind of horror story Mieruko-chan is trying to be. It has all the necessary components of a classic external horror, yet lacks the tension between the characters and the monsters to tell an interesting narrative, much less an internal story about the human heart. Though the comedy can lead to some unexpected outcomes, its world feels empty and barren for a story set in reality. Then there’s the narrative itself — or lack of one depending on which Mieruko-chan we are discussing. The best twists or scares come from feeling invested in the success of its characters, but if its star protagonist is constantly divorced from the situation at hand, then what is the point?
That’s not to discredit what the show does right, but when it comes down to it, what does Mieruko-chan “innovate” in terms of horror? What is a horror story that does not examine the complexity between good and evil? What is a horror comedy that does not understand the genre it satires while overcompensating with unnecessary fanservice and cheap knock offs from other media? What is a horror protagonist without examining the human heart and what is a plot twist without consequences? Because if this is the pinnacle of what the medium can accomplish, then what are we sacrificing in the process? More importantly, what was wrong with it in the first place? Or are we simply too afraid to admit our own guilty secrets?
What is the future of horror? Though experts may disagree on the details, there is one word that should never be used to describe it: boring. The most frightening thing about Mieruko-chan is how bored you’ll be having watched this show.
You know what, I take it back. That was funny!
Special thanks to Allstair Hyde and Protonstorm for editing and providing suggestions.
Mieruko-chan is streaming on Funimation.
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