Demonbane, Nanoha and the Cosmic Horrors

Referential
Memes must sometimes be reinforced.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Demonbane is not, by any stretch of the imagination, good. It’s a visual novel franchise adaption, and it tries to squeeze a great deal of information into a mere twelve episodes: the first episode feels like it’s playing at double-speed, the OP/rapid-fire clipshow is only one minute long and events frequently occur during the credits. Despite all this cramming, lots of extra plot, helpful explanation and some whole characters are cut to create an unfortunate ‘All There In The Manual‘ situation. I didn’t understand the conclusion (which was written especially for the anime in the first place) without the aid of Wikipedia.

To add moral disapproval to the marks against it, Demonbane contains a certain amount of fanservice involving women of varying ages and proportions. The writers retained enough decency to put the beach and the onsen in the same episode, but I can’t help thinking that said episode’s bout of serendipitous-hypnotic-gas-induced-lolita-pseudo-rape could have been cut in favour of something which would have helped to clarify the plot. I’m assuming this was in the original game, for it was entirely gratuitous. I would’ve settled for a badly animated CG dragon, but perhaps the budget for bad CGI was devoted to the mecha.

[Before I'm accused of being part of the 'plot is more important than fanservice' camp (studied here), allow me to point out that (objectionable as fanservice is) the two can be integrated quite well. Take the fourth episode of Mazinkaiser: the fanservice becomes more graphic as the main movement of the episode's plot comes to its climax, and breasts are the key problem-solving element in the story.]

I don’t know why but I have a harder time accepting CGI than most. Macross Frontier‘s action sequences provoke near-universal salivation; I think they’re brilliantly choreographed, but the CG animation strikes me as merely passable, and it’s among the best I’ve seen. In fact, I’ve only ever been really convinced by obviously computer-generated work for short parts of one OVA, Battle Fairy Yukikaze (which, strangely, is not mahou shoujo). Even a less picky (or more normal) viewer would, however, balk at the animation of Demonbane‘s eponymous mecha, and some of the more throwaway opponents are downright poorly done: there’s no shoddy dragon, but there is a shoddy Dagon.

Yes, In the Face

It’s a shame, because Demonbane itself is not a bad design. Rather than being cool simply by pleasing the eye, or being cool by looking gritty (like a Scopedog), Demonbane looks cool because it’s confusing. It’s body is odd, with giant shin-guards, a wasp-waist and massive shoulders, and it very clearly feels magical (only magic could justify such bizarre weight distribution). At the same time it feels just technological and robotic enough to be not entirely mystical. This impression is underlined by its frequent maintenance sessions, and the way that some of its attacks mimic moments of extremely unrealistic mecha science (the Lemuria Impact, combining an approval sequence and something suspiciously like a Shining Finger, is a prime example).

This uneasy combination of robotic and magical brings us to Demonbane‘s most distinctive feature, it’s appropriation of elements from the Cthulhu Mythos. Until a few weeks ago my knowledge of Lovecraft extended only as far as dimly-remembered parodic elements from Discworld Noir, but Kaiserpingvin drew a connection between Lovecraft and the Alhazerd Precia Testarossa was seeking in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, sending me off to do a little reading.

Lovecraft’s monsters are apparently horrifying not because they’re evil, but because they’re incomprehensible, amoral things: their existence drives home our insignificance and the limits on our ability to comprehend the universe (Lovecraft’s term for his work’s ethos was ‘cosmicism‘). He also seems to have spawned the literary equivalent of a RPG campaign setting (and a real RPG – one which quantitatively tracks sanity!), encouraging other writers in his circle of acquaintances to borrow names and concepts from his work. This continued after his death, with various authors busily referencing away.

Of particular note among these inheritors is August Derleth, who edited and promoted Lovecraft. Derleth’s own additions, alterations and categorisations created a dualistic system, a titanic (if still eldritch) clash between two sides. Categorisation probably suited Derleth, a Catholic, and it’s continued with the influence of the aforementioned Call of Cthulhu RPG: it would presumably be boring if dice-rolling combat wasn’t involved, and it’s hard to have dice-rolling combat when your opponent cannot be comprehended by the puny faculties of the human mind.

There Had To Be Tentacles

Dualism also evidently suited Nitroplus when the story for Demonbane was written. The show borrows from Lovecraft quite widely – there’s a blizzard of grimiores to get your head around, Demonbane wields an arsenal of artefacts, the whole show is set in Arkham, the beach episode happens at Innsmouth, Nyarlathotep is cunning and manipulative, &c – but the borrowing is superficial because it doesn’t affect the underlying moral structure.

Demonbane is more Derleth than Lovecraft: it’s a story of good and evil and the antagonists are comprehensible. The hero’s battles have clearly-defined rules and are always fought with the hope of victory, leaving aside the point – my favourite point – about two thirds of the way through when matters briefly become futile and desperate. I suspect this was a conscious decision, because Nitroplus have written some games which are, frankly, messed-up: try Wikipedia’s summary of Saya no Uta for size!

If there was a mecha show which was truly Lovecraftian, it wouldn’t be much like this one. It would chart the struggle of an alcoholic hero to merely survive, rather than protect anyone. It would revel in the horrific, the unspeakable and the incomprehensible, rather than in cool special attacks. It would be punctuated by terrifying, chaotic battles with cultists in semi-biological mecha (designed by Escher, Giger and Bosch in committee, while on LSD), and the final, desperate conflict would leave the hero physically alive but comprehensively insane. In fact, it would be something like a mashup of Zeta Gundam and Evangelion.

Returning to Nanoha for a moment, Precia Testarossa’s attempt to reach Alhazred is arguably more Lovecraftian than Demonbane‘s entire plot, for she descends through a rift into an unknown place which has no normal rules, and disappears. Demonbane‘s hero travels somewhere where, we’re told, ‘human logic and the laws of this universe no longer apply’, but what happens there is standard mecha stuff, and our hero returns. Of course, while Nanoha‘s void may be truer to Lovecraft, it is only the smallest of elements: Nanoha‘s story clearly has a good and a bad side, and also has comprehensible antagonists (Figure 17‘s inscrutable Maguar are much more Lovecraftian opponents, though they still obey discernable rules).

All of this is not, however, a problem for Demonbane (which has enough problems of its own), it’s an observation. We’re used to stories with clearly identifiable sides and happy endings, and Demonbane isn’t a great literary project or an attempt to troll future generations of academics, it’s the animated adaption of a visual novel. Plus, of course, you have to admire a story with the audacity to transform the Necronomicon (at the name of which one is meant to shudder) into a pink-haired tsundere in a gothic lolita dress.

13 responses to “Demonbane, Nanoha and the Cosmic Horrors

  1. You don’t have much good to say about Demonbane, but you seem hesitant to really condemn it. What I’m wondering is, would there be anything to gain in watching it?

    I’m a sucker for Lovecraftian references, but I find that the same problem that you mentioned is rampant in almost all movies/stories/anime that claim a Lovecraft root: Good and Evil, or Derleth’s epic Versus battle, just didn’t figure into HPL’s work, and that’s where the real horror was. There was no moral disagreement or great “cause” in a human’s struggle against these ancient forces, only our own pitiful insignificance. I’ll go out on a limb that no one else will/should touch and say that makes Urotsukidoji closer to Lovecraft than most things.

  2. @otou-san: The Animanachronism is not a judgmental one.

    @the entry: Beach episode at Innsmouth?! Namedropping or not, the absurdity strikes a chord with me. Demonbane gained an extra level of urgency on my “To Watch” list, yes it did. I need more bad shows anyhow; too much of the good stuff and I’ll be spoilt.

    I’d say the first season of Higurashi was the most Lovecraftian I’ve yet seen in anime (it was not that Lovecraftian though); it was insanities, and there loomed something great and incomprehensible behind the flimsy walls of Hinamizawa. Until the end of the first season and pretty much the whole second – the foe began to get definitions, blood receded from the cels.

    I must also supply addenda on the topic of the RPG, that it was mainly the D20 version which gave long and winding rules on how exactly you could beat Cthulhu to pulp or how many horrific SAN-draining spells you needed to kill Hastur. The Chaosium variant is more horrific as far as I know.

    Oh, how did you like Lovecraft, by the way?

  3. I think this post is just a clever troll to rickroll a lot of fans of Lovecraft. Demonbane may not troll academics, but some bloggers do that in their spare time.

  4. I was going to say how animation might be an ideal medium for conveying Lovecraft’s horror, but thinking on it, everything about his style relies on things that are unreal, unnatural and indescribable. Basically, it’s best left to our imagination. I read a few of Lovecraft stories around the turn of the year because, like you, I was curious about his cult reputation and popular mythology. My favourite was ‘The Dunwich Horror’ (“Wilbur Whateley, the son of a deformed albino mother and an unknown father”), though I’m stalled half-way through ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ (“The group that discovered and crossed the mountains found the remains of fourteen ancient life forms”). If you’re interested, Junji Ito is probably the closest thing Japan have to a Lovecraftian writer and I definitely recommend reading his short manga “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” to taste that vibe of an ‘unknowable terror’. The last few chapters of Uzumaki could have been written by Lovecraft himself.

  5. I think Lovecraft wouldn’t have liked his themes adapted by Japanese Anime, for one thing because he was so racist and afraid of everything foreign, but also because his story ideas don’t adapt well to film. It’s one thing to joke about Cthulhu, it’s another to realise what he represents: absolute madness, even if you just look at him you’ll go insane. And current technology in animation, although it has the ability to frighten and disturb, can hardly make y0u go crazy just by looking at it as an Anime. Though otou-san may be right about Legend of the Overfiend… I’ve never seen that, but from what I heard it is pretty madness inducing.

  6. @ otou-san: As Kaiserpingvin says, I try to avoid condemning things outright. The truth is, as I said in the entry, I quite enjoyed Demonbane, but I didn’t enjoy it because of the Lovecraft elements. There’s something to gain from watching it, yes, if you’re interested in an unusual mecha and an anime show which tries to squeeze every possible genre into twelve episodes. There’s little or nothing to be gained in the form of Lovecraftian satisfaction, however – as you say yourself, good and evil shouldn’t figure much in Lovecraftian stories – unless, of course, you’re prepared to enjoy the absurdity of the Necronomicon-as-lolita.

    @ Kaiserpingvin: The beach episode does pay superficial homage to ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ in its plot as well as its location (as did the fourth episode of Kaibutsu Oujo).

    Your remarks on Higurashi might illustrate the problem with doing Lovecraftian horror – the unknown and incomprehensible is horrifying, but once your viewers/readers demand the story have a conclusion you start making it understandable.

    The first thing I noticed about Lovecraft was how little of his work was available in my university’s library, which is usually very good. I suspect academic snobbery, though I don’t have any hard evidence.

    I thought his prose was very accomplished, and managed to be weird and unsettling without being hard to read (there’s a brilliant line in ‘The Nameless City’, ‘[p]rimitive altars, pillars and niches [. . .] were not absent’, which takes litotes to a new level). And I liked the ‘open source’ nature of his circle of friends swapping eldritch horrors. At the end of the day, though, I do like my stories to make sense and have clearly defined sides, so I wouldn’t say I was a fan of his. Lovecraft Country is an interesting place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there (for deeper reasons than the presence of monstrous threats).

    @ omo: I don’t know if Demonbane is the Lovecraft fan’s equivalent of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ or not. Anyway, you should know by now that The Animanachronism never trolls . . .

    @ bateszi: You may have a point that text is good for conveying Lovecraft’s horror. Though any kind of communication carries a certain level of comprehensibility; perhaps the best way to get Lovecraftian horror across is to go into your victim’s head and stimulate the parts that deal with primal fear directly. I should hunt down a copy of At the Mountains of Madness – Wikipedia said that some Lovecraft scholars hold it up as Lovecraft attempting to make his previous work less occult and more like science fiction.

    I remember you writing about Uzumaki – I suppose the spiral isn’t entirely meaningless, but it’s a simple-yet-confusing symbol to deploy. Unfortunately, TTGL pretty much firmed up the spiral’s connotations for me, so I suspect Uzumaki might lose something.

    @ newgeekphilosopher: I’m not sure animation’s ever going to be capable of conveying madness by image alone, whatever the technology deployed, though portraying nigh-on-incomprehensible and graphic events (Urotsukidoji) might be the best bet. Ironically in the UK the BBFC helped to make Urotsukidoji even more incomprehensible by cutting some plot points – or at least, that’s what I read.

  7. Well, it’s not animated but it does go into deep, dark places in the psyche and grows into incomprehensible creatures and barely-comprehensible near deities. Hopefully someday the authors will finish the final chapter:
    http://www.thekeep.org/~rpm/eva/coaeg.html

  8. Hmm. Certainly superior to the standard Eva fan-fiction, though the prose style’s a bit off – the authors are a bit too fond of ponderously circomlocutious near-humour. Great concept, though.

  9. The visual novel is a bit better. I think.

  10. I can imagine it might be – the greater length possible would make the story feel much less cramped, for a start.

  11. Oh man… I remember trying the first episode of Demonbane a few years ago, at a friend’s recommendation. I really wanted something bad to happen to her for a few days.

    I’m a huge Lovecraft fan, so it was pretty hard to go in just looking for an anime. But what they did to Herbert West probably hurt me most. West is supremely creepy in the source material, even though the story he comes from — Herbert West: Re-animator — is somewhat a parody. I suppose West has been defined for me by Jeffrey Combs, who plays him in the Re-Animator movies. He is most definitely not a freakish, rock-and-roll doctor with way too much sex drive.

  12. The portrayal of West made me laugh. I do wonder if Nitroplus were aiming to get as far away from the spirit of Lovecraftian material as possible, what with West and the Necronomicon it/herself. But perhaps that’s what happens when an author actively makes his or her canon open-source (as opposed to having others muscle in on it).

  13. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is
    fantastic blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

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