“How Anime Monsters Help Us Understand Ourselves”
“Monsters are tragic beings. They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy. They are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy. They do not attack people because they want to, but because of their size and strength, mankind has no other choice but to defend himself. After several stories such as this, people end up having a kind of affection for the monsters. They end up caring about them.”
– Ishiro Honda, director of Godzilla
In/Spectre has quickly become one of my favorite shows of the Winter 2020 season, not only because it gives me strong anime X-Files vibes and its quirky story, characters, and sense of humor make it ceaselessly entertaining, but because of its approach to yokai, spirits, gods and monsters. In the second wonderful episode, the giant snake who is the guardian spirit of Tsukana swamp, laments its receding place in the world. No one pays tribute to it anymore. No one seems to care. Its spot is ultimately uncertain.
It’s this kind of humanizing that has made me love monsters. And from Frankenstein’s creation screeching from atop the burning windmill at the angry villagers that refuse to understand his pain, to Kong taking one last look at Ann Darrow before plunging from Empire State Building, to the Creature from the Black Lagoon trudging toward the ocean and its certain doom, to Mothra desperately trying to defend her egg against an approaching Godzilla, there are few things more saddening than a tragic monster, a beast whose position among humanity has been removed or never existed at all.
And while cinema is full of these kinds of monsters, I find that anime is, too. In the first two episodes of aforementioned In/Spectre, we’re introduced to monsters great and small, some angry, some docile and comforting, and some just there for comic relief. But what most of them have in common so far is a need to be heard, a need for a mediator like Kotoko to listen to them and respect their wishes. Monsters are very rarely given that.
It honestly reminds me a lot of Yu Yu Hakusho, a series that slowly began to empathize with the demons that Yusuke was so eager to punch apart in the beginning. Younger Toguro became a demon, and was thus seen as a pawn by people only wanting him for his strength. Sensui turned on humans entirely after discovering the evil they committed against demons. And by the end of the show, Yusuke, having learned that he has some demon in him, willingly participates in the customs of demon society. The show slowly evolved from “Let’s kick this demon back into its world where it belongs!” to “How do we co-exist with demons?”, even though it never lost its weighty themes of combat and competition. Yu Yu Hakusho is great, y’all.
Shows like Digimon and Pokémon are entirely about humans and monsters discovering what they need from one another to survive and thrive. Pokémon tells stories of partners and roles in society, presenting a world that’s a borderline utopia. And Digimon is about hidden saviors, the fact that monsters need humans to save their world, and vice versa. These are series full of compassion for monsters, with the tragedy usually coming from the ones that are too large or too powerful. That’s the entire backbone of Mewtwo Strikes Back – a monster (created by man) lashes out and only Ash Ketchum is like “Maybe instead of trying to beat the crap out of the strongest Pokémon ever, we should just grant it peace.”
Meanwhile, Somali and the Forest Spirit presents a full-on monster society that doesn’t need humans to function (though its history with humans is, at best, sordid.) And those are just a handful of monster-centric anime series to choose from. You could also watch To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts, in which men-turned-monsters revolt against humanity due to powers they can’t control. Or even check out One Piece and the character of Big Mom, a giant abandoned by her parents and left to fend for herself as a child among those who may seek to manipulate her.
Monsters may be one of the purest parts of fiction because we use them to understand the real life things that scare us. We created zombies and vampires to tackle our fears of death and disease. We concocted giant monsters to illuminate our anxieties about nuclear science. Beneath every wolf-man, there’s a struggle with addiction or rage. With every killer animal, there’s the panic of the unknown. With every troubled ghost, there’s the confrontation of a life left unfulfilled.
And by presenting these stories with a compassion for monsters or yokai or demons or spirits or gods, we give ourselves the chance for compassion. A chance for growth and a chance to better our abilities to adapt and understand and love. As it turns out, the world is a lot less scary with monsters in it.
What is your favorite anime monster? Do you like In/Spectre so far? Let me know in the comments!
Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter!
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