13 Days of Halloween with The Owl in the Rafters: Day 13

Posted on Oct 31 2011

Happy Halloween, kiddies! After a tiresome two weeks we’re at an end of this monster of a marathon. My final treat to you this month will be a personal favorite of mine, a manga series that really embodies the core values of Japanese horror as I see them. The three volume long horror collection by Nakayama Maasaki, Fuan no Tane aka Seeds of Anxiety, published in 2004, and the 4th volume addition Fuan no Tane+, published in 2007.

What makes Seeds of Anxiety so unusual -and what often makes or breaks the horror experience for some- is that there is no ongoing story to Seeds of Anxiety. Seeds of Anxiety is a three volume long compilation of short stories arranged by similar subjects, and the same format carries over to Fuan no Tane+. And when I say “short stories”, I do mean “short” stories: the shortest out of the bunch is just two pages long.

I have mentioned repeatedly over that past two weeks that Japanese horror plays chiefly upon the ability to make the audience uncomfortable not only during the course of the story but even after they’ve walked away. It is that invasion of the private life and the ability to obstruct it with paranoia and anxiety that makes it so powerful. As the title would suggest, Seeds of Anxiety strives to plant the simple seeds that can grow into that discomforting anxiety. The stories themselves are so brief and fleeting that any single story may not spook you by itself, but with so many different short stories at least a few are sure to stick with you, and rather than the specific image conjuring up discomfort, the idea behind the story will pop up at unusual times to remind you of the disconcerting feeling of being watched, followed, and/or invaded.

On top of simply presenting various horror stories, Seeds of Anxiety groups the stories together by key principles, each with a brief sort of anecdotal blurb from the author. For example the first chapter of volume one is titled SCHOOL, and the opening statement goes as follows: “In the corridors, at the back of the classroom, in the tool shed toilet… There are a lot of places I’m scared of. I wonder if it’s just my imagination…” The different stories all play upon the sense of discomfort schools tend to have, usually while empty. There is after all a distinct conflict of consciousness and subconsciousness when you are in an empty school: on one hand you know no one else is in the school, but subconsciously you are so used to the school being full of kids that on some base level you expect to see, hear, or sense people in the halls. This conflict of expectation and awareness creates the uniquely eerie effect of feeling for certain that someone is around despite knowing for a fact that no one is there.

Another element worth noting about these stories that really lends to their ability to unsettle the reader is that given their remarkably short length, none of the stories have any conclusions. Often the stories only get as far as something happening before they simply cut to the next story. There is no murder, there is no conflict. The monster appears. The end. And really that uncertainty as to what happened is part of what makes the whole story so memorable, because the moment you realize there will be no conclusion your imagination begins to fill in the blanks.

To put this into some perspective, American horror has fallen into a bad habit of making horror stories where the monster is “beaten.” Normally there is the cliff hanger where the monster does in fact survive, but the idea that the main character managed to evade death is still present. This idea that every horror story has a conclusion where the monster is stopped creates a weird sense of smug superiority in the audience. You walk away with a feeling that if somehow faced with such a situation, you would know what to do and how to handle yourself, and that at the end of your own little horror film you would walk away from the battle to continue your day to day life. Japan loves to do just the opposite of that. When the monster doesn’t outright kill the main character, he/she will more often than not be forced to return to their normal life with a nearly crippling sense of dread, or in some cases while still aware of being haunted. The idea that the supernatural cannot be stopped and that you can’t just wait it out and then go back to a normal life is part of what makes the real sense of horror so appealing.

What may be one of my favorite elements of Fuan no Tane are the stories in which someone is watched or followed by a mysterious creature that does not attack at all. The characters instead are forced to proceed about their daily life while being watched and while knowing that they’re being watched. It’s that constant discomfort and the accumulating pressure and stress that makes the situation so sympathetic and the experience so imaginable. Some of my personal favorite elements of horror that the manga covers and their respective opening blurbs include:

I’M FOLLOWING YOU “When you inadvertently get the attention of something you don’t want, what would you do?”

ROADSIDE SHADOWS “When you see something just beyond your peripheral vision, you may be inclined to take a closer look. But it’s also best not to do so.”

OUT IN PUBLIC “An inexplicably strange person in a place where crowds of people roam… That is a scene that will stay in your mind.”

And IN YOUR HOME “The feeling that something’s invading your privacy, even without ill will, is still disturbing.”

I will confess that I was initially unimpressed with this little collection the first time I read it back in 2007. What convinced me otherwise was when I suddenly found myself out in public, recalling certain stories and glancing about as if I were looking for something, all without realizing I was doing so. It only occurred to me well after the fact that I had been doing it and wasn’t until even later that I started to realize why I had been doing it. When a story can implant in you that kind of anxiousness or odd discomfort, even if it is not an adrenaline induced fear (or perhaps exactly because it is not adrenaline induced), I think that is the most impressive kind of horror. After all, I don’t find myself thinking of the Amnityville Horror when I go looking at a new house, or Jason Voorhees when I go on vacation to the lakefront, or Freddy Kruger every time I go to bed, but when I walk along a busy street and see dozens of unfamiliar faces, or when I just so happen to meet stride with someone headed in the same direction I am, there are times when I’m hesitant to look up or to my side, as if I expect something bizarre to be there to lock eyes with me.

What I’m really trying to get at here is that in a lot of ways what Japanese horror strives for, in relation to American cinema, is not to create an experience like the Friday the 13th films, or Nightmare on Elm Street films, or Halloween, films, but to create an experience more like Jaws: something that will present you with a story that in and of itself is only mildly unsettling, but the thought of which will keep you and dozens of others on dry land instead of out on the water the next time you go to the beach.

I know this has been a strange recommendation, as there’s not a lot to go over in terms of story, so most of what I’ve had to ramble on about is just personal appeal points. To add a little solidarity to this let me at least comment on the art. While not as iconic, or uniquely bizarre as the work of some more prominent horror artists like Junji Ito, Nakayama’s art is solid, and suitably grotesque when the situation calls for it. His writing is hard to judge, even over four volumes, given the tiny snippets in which it is presented, but I cannot recall any particularly bad or somehow inconsistent pieces, and his work outside of Seeds of Anxiety tend to be romance, slice-of-life, comedy, and drama titles, and all dozen or so of them fairly well received from what I’ve seen, though I must confess I haven’t read his other work myself.

Really, the reason I saved this particular title for Halloween is that it is easily the most accessible, most relatable, easy to pick up, easy to put down, generally enjoyable, and still effective work of horror fiction I think I’ve ever come across. You can show it to a 12 year old without scaring him half to death, and you can show it to a man in his 30s without boring him half to death and get the same general desired response for both readers. The fact that most of the short and simple stories can be understood without any cultural context, and cover enough sheer ground with its audience really does ensure that no matter the age or disposition, something in here is likely to hit home.

So then, that’s it! This has been 13 Days of Halloween with the Owl in the Rafters, I hope you enjoyed it. Now, I wish you a Happy Halloween and I beg you all be safe tonight, be it trick-or-treating, dancing, drinking, or any other generalized form of festivities. It’ll be a busy night and I’m expecting you back here tomorrow for a special day early update!

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