Robot Lords of Tokyo: Lovecraftian Anime

(The following is by Justin Mullis.)

This article is the second (read the first article here) in a series of short essays illuminating the connection between author H.P. Lovecraft and Japanese popular-culture. Once again all Japanese names have been rendered as they would be in English. 

For many the first images which the conjunction of the terms “Lovecraftian” and “Anime” will undoubtedly bring to mind will be that of Japanese school girls beset by lascivious tentacled demons. These images, made infamous by such hentai (pornographic) anime films as 1987’s Urotsukidōji (U.S. title: Legend of the Overfiend) and TV-series like 1992’s La Blue Girl, however will NOT be the subject of the following essay. The reason for this is simple. Scene of women engaging in erotic acts with tentacled beasts are actually a classic part of Japanese art, dating back as far as 1814 as seen in famed artist Katsushika Hokusai’s celebrated woodblock print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which itself is possibly based on older oral folk traditions. Needless to say the Japanese were conjuring up such images long before Lovecraft ever alluded to such unspeakable couplings in his work.[1] Ergo we will be skipping over those animes which carry on the tradition begun by Hokusai as they are not a direct result of Lovecraft’s influence on Japanese pop-culture.

Instead the following essay will focus on four different anime series – Demonbane, The BIG O, Digimon Tamers, and Haiyore! Nyaruko-san – each of which makes use of the Cthulhu Mythos in far more unique and provocative ways then the Japanese Lovecraftian literature encountered in part one of this series.

In the first installment of this series we discussed how, as in America, the influence of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos first made significant headway into the world of Japanese pop-culture via Sandy Peterson’s landmark Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game. However it was not long before the Mythos transcended the realm of tabletop RPGs and branched out into other formats. Of those it is the 2003 videogame Demonbane from indy Japanese game developer Nitroplus that undoubtedly is the most interesting. Billed as an erotic visual novel game, Demonbane mixes the Cthulhu Mythos with the genres of detective story, mecha (giant robots), and hentai to form an undeniably unique gaming experience.

Set in Lovecraft’s own witch haunted city of Arkham, Demonbane follows detective Kuro Daijuji whose life changes forever when he meets a mysterious girl named Al Azif, who turns out to be the living personification of Lovecraft’s dreaded Necronomicon. Al, as Kuro calls her, is being hunted down by the nefarious occult group The Black Lodge who want to use her for their own diabolical purposes. In order to escape their grasp Al consigns herself to Kuro and makes him into her master even though he knows next to nothing about magic. In the game Kuro and Al eventually end up in an explicitly sexual relationship – hence the hentai part of the game – as well as the co-pilots of a giant robotic god called Demonbane which they must use to battle the evil occultists of The Black Lodge each of whom likewise control their own robot gods; making Demonbane at its core a twist on the classic giant robot anime.

For those who find this plot intriguing but are otherwise uninterested in video games and the decidedly niche gaming genre that is the erotic visual novel game (which includes myself) you will be happy to know that in 2004 Demonbane was adapted into a 12-episode anime series titled Kishini Hôkô Demonbane (Trans: Roar of the Machine God Demonbane). For the anime the hentai elements were removed, though Kuro and Al still find themselves in a romantic relationship.

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Al and Kuro with their robot god Demonbane behind them

Aside from those already mentioned, Demonbane has more Lovecraftian and Cthulhu Mythos elements, homages and references in it than you can stake a tentacle at. The first agent The Black Lodge sends after Kuro and Al is Dr. Herbert West, though fans may not recognize him since he looks nothing like Jeffery Combs and instead comes bedecked with spikey green hair, a black and white checkered trench coat, and an electric guitar! In addition, just about every major grimoire featured in the Mythos, some of them personified as girls like Al, make an appearance throughout the series. Some of the various mechas are also named after Mythos creatures – one is called Byakhee for example – while Demonbane uses a number of attacks which should ring a bell for Mythos devotees; the Scimitar of Barzai, for example, is Demonbane’s main melee weapon. Likewise, the Powder of Ibn Ghazi is used by Kuro to make magically infused bullets. Naturally nearly all the Great Old Ones make an appearance. This includes Cthugha and Ithaqua who, perhaps fittingly, end up functioning more as Derleth-style Elder Gods, Nyarlathotep, scheming as always, Dagon and eventually “The Big C” himself. One last allusion worth mentioning is Kuro’s name which is a reference to British Cthulhu Mythos author Brian Lumley’s paranormal investigator character Titus Crow. In Japanese Kuro means “Black” and Crows are black birds, so that’s the connection. There are other Lovecraft allusions in addition to these but to talk about those would be to give away certain plot twists.

Keeping with the theme of mecha animes involving Lovecraft we move on to the 1999 series The BIG O. In our last article exploring Lovecraft and Japan we discussed the Mythos related works of writer Chiaki J. Konaka. In the course of his prolific career Konaka has served as the head writer for numerous anime series with some of Konaka’s best known works including: Armitage III (1995), Serial Experiments Lain (1998), RahXephon (2002), Texhnolyze (2003) and Ghost Hound (2007) just to name a few.

Though Konaka regularly incorporates Lovecraftian elements into his work The BIG O is worth singling out. Set in an unspecified future where forty-years prior to the beginning of the story a mysterious cataclysm struck resulting in every single human being coming down with amnesia; unable to remember anything prior to that day. However in spite of this mankind is able to quickly reconstruct society, though it is evidently not as it was before the cataclysm. Though possessing technological advancements, such as android maids, this new world more closely resembles Depression-era America then a bright and shiny future. Society is sharply divided into the very rich and the very poor with the rich ruling over the city from domed enclosures that cut them off from the lower class. Crime is rampant and the laws are enforced by a no nonsense military police whose first concern is always to protect the plutocratic city government who pay their wages.

The BIG O is set in Paradigm City (which may or may not be a refashioned Manhattan) and is believed by many to be the last remaining human city as attempts to contact the outside world are strongly discouraged by the city’s ruling class. Our protagonist is Roger Smith who works as a freelance negotiator, helping the military police deal with hostage situations and the like. Though possessing Bruce Wayne-like wealth Smith refuses to live inside the domes with the other rich members of Paradigm and instead lives amongst the poor; albeit in an entire apartment building which he has renovated into his own private mansion. Smith is actually very much like Bruce Wayne in that he also possesses a vigilante streak. However rather than donning a cape and cowl, Smith pilots a giant robot known as a Megadeus into battle with other giant robots as well as the occasional giant monster. Smith calls his robot The Big O.

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Roger Smith and his android maid Dorothy with the Megadeus BIG O

In addition to the show’s overall 1920s art deco aesthetic The BIG O’s main connection to Lovecraft is its obsession with the uncovering of a lost past. In Lovecraft’s tales characters are always trying to dig up the past, be it via archeology (“The Call of Cthulhu”, At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Out of Time), folklore (“The Whisperer in Darkness”), antiquarian research (“The Shadow Over Insmnouth”), or one’s own family history (“Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Festival”). In every case, the protagonist of the story hopes to learn something that will in some way enrich their present. However inevitably the price of such inquires is madness and death. This same theme also runs throughout The BIG O where characters are constantly trying to uncover who they were or how the world was before the cataclysm of forty-years ago. Like Lovecraft’s protagonists these characters also set out hoping that such discoveries will enlighten their world, rather than bring despair and ruin which is what it ultimately does. It could also be argued that as with Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, the giant robots and monsters seen in The BIG O are simply there to serve as a dramatic representation of the real existential horrors which befalls the human characters.

The most overtly Mythos related episode of The BIG O is Episode 7 “The Call from the Past” in the first season. This episode contains a number of explicit shout-outs to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” including Roger visiting a mysterious half-sunken part of Paradigm City, strange frog-men, and an aquatic enemy mecha called Dagon. The BIG O ran for two seasons from 1999 to 2003. The second season finale chose to take the show in a decidedly cosmic direction which thrilled some fans, enraged others and left many simply confused. Whether or not the ending is Lovecraftian, however, is something that fans will have to decide for themselves.

While in between writing the first and second seasons of The BIG O, Konaka found work at Toei Animation on one of that studio’s most successful properties; the popular dueling monsters TV series Digimon. The idea of a noted horror writer like Konaka working on a series as “kid friendly” as Digimon may surprise some, but then what is even more surprising is what Konaka did with Digimon.

Konaka originally worked as a scenarist on the series Digimon Adventure 0.2 (2000) writing two major side-story arches, one of which involved the child protagonists taking an unexpected trip to the “dark digital ocean” where they are threatened by Deep One-like Scubamon and their master; the decidedly Cthulhu-shaped Dagomon.

Delighted with the world of Digimon, Konaka applied for the job of head writer on the show’s third season; Digimon Tamers (2001). The result of this was that Konaka took everything that was previously established about the world of Digimon, tore it down and erected a much darker more freighting world in its place. As Anime News Network critic Hope Chapman notes, due to Konaka’s Lovecraft fueled influence Digimon Tamers is by far the most terrifying, and at certain points disturbing, season of Digimon ever produced.

Like previous installments in the series Digimon Tamers involves a trio of kids who join together with monster partners who they train to fight other monsters. The kid’s monsters initially start out small and cute but as they get stronger can “Digivolve” into larger, more powerful forms. However while the previous two seasons had taken the kids to a digimon filled Narnia-like “Digital World”, Konaka instead chose to bring the digimon to the real world with the real world consequences of property damage, death and government intervention that one would expect might result from a group of children staging dangerous monster battles in the city streets. Of government agencies the one which is most interested in the digimon is a mysterious organization called Hypnos (after Lovecraft’s 1922 short story of the same name) which views digimon as an invasive species and a danger to the planet. Initially Hypnos’ ultimate goal is to develop a weapon that can destroy digimon. This aim results in a pair of weapons called Yuggoth (“The Whisperer in Darkness”) and Shaggi (from Ramsey Campbell’s 1964 short story “The Insects From Shaggai” based on an idea of Lovecraft’s) which when used essentially causes digimon’s souls to be ripped from their bodies, producing one of those rather disturbing scenes mentioned earlier.

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Chiaki J. Konaka’s Lovecraft inspired D-Reaper consumes Shinjuku in Digimon Tamers

Name dropping aside, where Konaka really lays the Lovecraftian influence on thick is in his portrayal of the series’ central antagonist; a sentient computer virus called the D-Reaper. In both conception and execution the D-Reaper certainly owes a lot to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. Like Lovecraft’s alien gods the D-Reaper is said to have slept for untold eons in the depths of the Digital World awaiting the day it would be awaken, at which time it would fulfill its one and only purpose which is to eradicate all life. Furthermore, like Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones the D-Reaper is neither truly evil nor malicious. As a computer program originally designed to trigger a mass extinction in the Digital World in the advent that the number of digimon surpassed the amount of RAM needed to maintain the Digital World, the D-Reaper is simply doing its job. The problem is that now that it has escaped into the real world the D-Reaper is attempting to carry out the same function on all human life. In this way the D-Reaper displays the same cold indifference towards mankind that Lovecraft’s gods do, and also serves as metaphor for entropy in the universe.

Ultimately the goal of defeating the D-Reaper falls to our trio of child protagonists and their digimon partners, but not before the D-Reaper is allowed submits the children to enough nightmare educing experiences to last any kid a lifetime. This is what happens when you let a celebrated horror author pen a children’s show.

The last anime series we will be looking at is one of the more recent and perhaps the least likely to appeal to even the most devoted Mythos fans. The series is Haiyore! Nyaruko-san (Trans: Crawling Up! Nyarlko-san) and is based on a series of “Light Novels” (what we call Young Adult literature) by author Manta Aisora with accompanying anime-style illustrations by the artist Koin. The first Nyaruko-san novel was published by SoftBank Creative in April 2009 and proved a success spawning eight sequels to date as well as a 2011 manga adaptation and the aforementioned anime adaptation which came out in 2009 from studio Xebec.

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Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep goes from terrifying to adorable in Manta Aisora’s hit series Haiyore! Nyaruko-san

The premise of Haiyore! Nyaruko-san finds the Great Old One Nyarlathotep on Earth having taken the guise of a high school girl, named Nyaruko, with long silver hair. While on Earth Nyaruko falls in love with a human boy named Mahiro Yasaka. Dispite Mahiro’s protests that the feeling isn’t mutual Nyaruko persists with her constant presence in Mahiro’s life becoming an ever increasing source of aggravation as it attracts more and more Mythos related gods and monsters into his school and home life. In every case the various Mythos entities are depicted as high school students, girls and boys, with some, like Cthughan and Hastur, becoming allies of Nyaruko and others, like Nodens and Lloigor, becoming enemies.

Though some, well probably all, Lovecraft fans will see Aisora’s transformation of Lovecraft’s vision of comic horror into that of high school drama a grave injustice inflicted on the Mythos I can’t help but be reminded of comedian Patton Oswalt’s comment that the most Lovecraftian horror he ever experienced was high school. Also if it is any consolation readers should know that the Cthulhu Mythos is not the only mythology which has been subjected to this kind of adaptation. The 2003 anime series The Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok likewise transformed the gods, goddesses and monsters of Norse mythology into a group of Japanese high school students. Even more recently the 2009 anime series Hetalia: Axis Powers has become extremely popular with its reimaging of WWII as a high school drama with each principal country personified as a teenage student.

In drawing this essay to a close, we have looked at four different anime series which make use of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.  None of these series have involved either a straight forward adaptation of Lovecraft’s works or an expansion of his Mythos in a manner familiar to most American fans. Rather these four series have instead re-purposed Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos in ways that Lovecraft could have never even dreamed of. Often time this has involved the fusing of various Mythos elements with tropes and themes more familiar to Japanese (and American) anime fans. To this end Lovecraft’s alien gods, eldritch monsters and blasphemous books have been re-imagined as giant robots (Demonbane & The BIG O), sentient computer viruses (Digimon Tamers) and nubile high spirited schoolgirls (Demonbane & Haiyore! Nyaruko-sa). While some American Lovecraft fans may find such permutations not to their liking it is important to understand that this kind of pop-cultural syncretism is to be expected and if possible embraced, if for no other reason than the unique and vastly entertaining media which it produces.

Readers can stream Demonbane and Haiyore! Nyaruko-sa in Japanese with English subtitles at Crunchyroll.com. Digimon Tamers can be streamed in Japanese with English subtitles at Hulu.com. The BIG O can be viewed in Japanese with English subtitles or an English language dub on DVD via Bandai Entertainment or can be streamed at Adultswim.com.

About the Author:

Justin Mullis is a M.A. Candidate at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte enrolled in the Religious Studies program. His B.A. thesis “Playing Games with the Great Old Ones: Ritual, Play, and Joking within the Cthulhu Mythos Fandom” was selected and presented at the 2010 North Carolina Religious Studies Association and will be published in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. He has written on Japanese science-fiction for G-Fan magazine and is a guest on the podcast Under the Stairs DCU where he speaks about Lovecraft and Cthulhu’s connection to DC Comics. You can find more of his writing at his blog Of Epic Proportions: A Blog on Myth and Mankind.

Sources for this Article:

Patrick Drazen, Anime Explosion: The What?, Why? & Wow! Of Japanese Animation, Berkley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2003.

Susan J. Napier, Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (2nd Edition), New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Jason Thompson, “The Long Tentacle of H.P. Lovecraft in Manga.” at iO9.com (Pub. Jan. 4th, 2010).

Ask John: Is There Any Lovecraftian Anime?” on Animenation.net (Pub. August 13th, 2002).

Chiaki J. Konaka Interview” at cjs.org (conducted June 2001, last updated June 2002)

Alice 6: Chiaki J. Konaka’s Web, official website for Chiaki J. Konaka, contains extensive production notes regarding Digimon Tamers (in Japanese and English)

Digimon Tamers Video Review Parts 1 & 2 by Anime News Network critic Hope Chapman.
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[1] And for that matter so were Western artists as well. See Belgian painter Félicien Rop’s (1833-1898) painting La Pieuvre (1990) for an excellent example.

7 responses to “Robot Lords of Tokyo: Lovecraftian Anime

  1. This is a very interesting essay, and it’s getting me in the mood to start watching anime again. That BIG O sounds especially interesting, and I would have never even considered watching Digimon until I read this article.

  2. Awesome article! I love the cross pollination of Lovecraft with other cultures and really liked Demonbane–I’m definitely going to try and find some of the others!

  3. Love the article! Very well done Mr. Mullis.

    Lovecraftian covers a wide range from tentacles to cosmic paranoia and much in between, so a lot of H.P. influenced stuff comes across as only tentatively connected- mainly via Elder God name dropping. I’ll suggest some animation that isn’t explicitly influenced by Lovecraft but captures the bleak ambience more reminiscent of a Ligotti tale or Bruno Schulz’s haunting and absurd stories, or even the surreal and tranquil dread of a Mark Samuels or Michael Cisco. So hopefully there’s some overlap for those who appreciate weird fiction.

    Though more specifically ga-nime (basically anime that uses still shots extensively like a picture book) the first that comes to mind is Chuumon no Ooi Ryouriten. The animation is beautiful and the whole thing is hauntingly strange, not unlike a Robert Aikman story.

    Bavel’s Book is more whimsical and strange than Lovecraftian, though it does have a magical tome that sucks the kids into another realm, a mysterious librarian, islands rising from the sea, a monstrous sea creature, etc… it captures that quality of childlike wonder where fear and the joy at encountering the unknown intersect.

    A Country Doctor is the anime version of Kafka’s existentialist masterpiece. The animation is eerie and weird and beautiful. The soundtrack is amazing as well.

    Paprika is a masterpiece. Obviously Lovecraft and many influenced by him can cite their dreams as inspiration and this film manages to portray dreams in such a wonderful manner I heartily recommend it. Sure I may be stretching Paprika’s connection to weird fiction but any filmmaker that can so passionately portray the dissolution of reality gets a thumbs up from me.

    The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories is Japanese animation and appropriately Lovecraftian (of course!):

    I’d also suggest hunting down The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto, and anything by the Czech animator Jiri Trnka (who actually taught Kawamoto his craft). Again, most of these short films are less noteworthy for any vestiges of Lovecraft (if any) than their emphasis that the bizarre and the unsettling are merely permeable cell walls that segregate the known from the unknown.

    While I’m here I have to post the video for the band DyE. It’s French, not Japanese, but it is animation and overtly Lovecraftian. Oh, and probably NSFW. The last scene is jaw-droppingly awesome.

    And lastly (finally!), I’ll suggest Adventure Time. It’s just the best animated series around (though Gravity Falls is a close second). They’re brilliantly animated, clever and full of cool references for any speculative fiction nerd.

    • Thanks for the video links Christopher! This is some great stuff that I haven’t seen before. I have seen the DyE video before and it’s fantastic! I will have to disagree with you about Adventure Time vs. Gravity Falls however. Gravity Falls is a vastly superior show to Adventure Time and I recommend readers of the eZine check it out. An interview I read with creator Alex Hirsch leads me to believe he has some decidedly Lovecraftian plans in store for Dipper and Mable in the future.

  4. I was just getting ready to post the DyE link here. It blew my mind out my butt when I watched it the first five times! The mellow music juxtaposed with the images is just…whoa. And yes, the ending is friggin’ INSANE!

  5. You would think that manga would be a terrific medium for Lovecraftian expression but the list of English language Cthulhu related manga is actually rather short:

    http://www.amazon.com/Arkham-Woods-Christopher-Rowley/dp/1934876364/ref=cm_lmf_tit_16

    Arkham Woods by Christopher Rowley came out in 2009; I have yet to see him tackle anything new along these lines in spite of how attractive this book is.

    http://www.amazon.com/Taimashin-Vol-1-Hideyuki-Kikuchi/dp/1413900364/ref=cm_lmf_tit_17

    Taimashin #1 by Hideyuki Kikushi is actually translated from Japanese, and features intrepid acupuncturists fighting Wilbur Whateley’s brother. The art for these monstrous beings was actually quite good even if the plot was pretty lame.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Dark-Goodbye-Volume-1/dp/1598169726/ref=cm_lmf_tit_36

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Dark-Goodbye-Volume-2/dp/1598169734/ref=pd_sim_b_1

    Drew Rausch and Frank Marraffino gave us the two book series, The Dark Goodbye, where Max “Mutt” Mason lives in the bottom of a bottle and fights Lovecraftian horrors. I really enjoyed this, but the publisher pulled the plug and the artists did not have the rights to continue the series on their own.

    http://www.amazon.com/No-Mans-Land-Vol-1/dp/1933164034/ref=cm_lmf_tit_39

    http://www.amazon.com/No-Mans-Land-Vol-v/dp/1933164077/ref=cm_lmf_tit_40

    No Man’s Land was a terrific two book series by Jason DeAngelis from 2006. John Parker fights demons summoned from the Necronomicon in the post Civil War west. It was also discontinued after two books.

    As far as I know, that does it for English language mange in our little niche. I’ve read The Bug Boy and Museum of Horror series, and these do not really have even tangential references. Orion by Masamume is also purportedly Lovecraftian but I read it and I just don’t see the connection.

    Maybe the future will bring us more mythos manga for English speakers.

  6. Pingback: Cthulhu Mythos In Japan – Part 2 « Echoes From R'lyeh·

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