MAKE THIS HAPPEN: Petshop of Horrors

We’ve collecitvely that Pupa is thus far a hideous disappointment, right? I know I was a bit crushed to find that the alleged “dark and disturbing gorefest” translates out to “four minutes of poorly exposited insanity, an exploding dog, and a giant censorship bar.” But then, I knew going in that the project was helmed by Studio DEEN, so shame on me for hoping.

But watching my dreams for an enticing and atmospheric horror-tinged anime go up in smoke did put me in mind of a long held dream of mine. You see, there’s a wonderful candidate out there for a modern supernatural-horror anime, if only the modern studios would think to tap it. That story, friends, is Petshop of Horrors.

“What? That terminally 90s looking OVA with the man eating rabbits?” said absolutely no one, because I’m fairly certain that bit of trivia’s been lost to the annals of time.

Allow me to bring it back for you

A consummate portrait of the era, isn’t it? The broad shoulders, the somewhat grainy visuals and shading-light palette, the candy colored blood. But wait, hear me out. This strange little footnote of animation is based on a manga absolutely crying for an update.

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And a miracle is what it will take

First, a primer: Petshop of Horrors is a ten volume horror-fantasy manga by Matsuri Akino, and tonally it’s a bit like XxxHolic meets Gremlins (though it came before the former and gives a nod to the latter right out of the gate to clear the matter). There’s a shop in Chinatown run by Count D, a mysterious and beautiful man who claims to sell love and dreams. He offers everything from house cats to basilisks, all looking more human than animal, and has an uncanny knack for finding just what a customer needs. But there is a catch – customers must sign a contract before taking home their new pet, and the Count can’t be held responsible for what happens if that contract is broken. Thus is the setup laid for a series about the passions and foibles of the human heart. These self-contained narratives are intertwined with the dogged efforts of American detective Leon Orcot, who’s obsessed with bringing D to justice for the many bodies leading back to the petshop’s doors , and the bloody origins of the Count and his family.

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Zenigata would be so proud

There’s a pristinely perfect setup for a two cour (24 episode) anime here. While not universally true, there is a certain pattern common to most shows of that length: there’s an introductory episode to establish the rules and primary characters of the story, followed by a few relatively stand-alone adventures that further flesh out the cast while also adding in factoids that will ultimately feed into the revelation of whatever overall capital-s Story the anime is choosing to tell. PSoH has it down to an art, perhaps more engagingly than any largely episodic series I’ve read. Firstly, there are an ample number of anthology style tales to choose from, all of which are different enough in tone, mythos, and methodology to keep the audience intrigued. While the OVA highlighted some of the bloodiest tales in PSoH’s repertoire (which certainly exist, don’t get me wrong), the series also excels at Lovecraftian or Twilight Zone-esque uncanny creepiness.

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To be fair, it does have this in the very first chapter

While it would’ve been easy to fall into a one-trick pony sort of storytelling, the majority of the stories are unique and memorable in their own way. In fact, the bloody tragedies might be the least accomplished, for all their memorable shock value. Give me the parasitic insects masquerading as miracle diet pills, the old woman who buried the horrors of the Holocaust in her collection of teddy bears, or Leon and D trying to recover a dragon egg on Christmas Eve.

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Somewhere, Rod Serling is smiling
(yup, I’m using my own collection again. Apologies for shadows etc.)

On the subject of that last one, a note on tone: PSoH is remarkably balanced in its inclusion of horror and comedy, able to shift quite naturally from bickering to the gruesome details of an unfortunate customer’s fate. This might be because of how well the undercurrents of hope and despair tie together throughout the connecting narrative, as well as how remarkably the two leads play off of one another. Leon is a loudmouthed porno aficionado with more vigor than sense, but he’s also gifted of sharp instincts and quite honestly passionate about protecting the people (and animals) of LA in contrast to D’s rather cruel judgments of man’s sins against nature. And the Count, his mask-like grin and love of sweets not particularly hiding his disdain for humanity, still finds himself growing fond of having the detective around – to the point of eventually allowing Leon’s mute younger brother (whose silence allows him to perceive the animals’ human forms) to live in the petshop. Their interactions are the heart of the series, and the individual tales are leant grounding and weight by seeing how they affect the figures at the story’s core. Leon and D’s relationship manages to be at once metonymic – Humanity’s will to survive at all costs versus Nature’s vengeance for the suffering at the hands of said humans – and very personal, becoming with time an amorphous, ambiguous attachment lying between suspicion, reluctant friendship, and inexplicable mutual magnetism that neither is willing to quite admit or do without.

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The wording more easily implies kidnapping or murder,
while the art is giving me ‘wistful’

While I’d love to suggest the illustrious Studio Madhouse, whose lovely hand at the surreal would be an excellent choice for stories that deal so often in muddled perceptions and the interiority of the mind, it’d probably be best to suggest something a little more practical (in my fantasy land that has little chance of becoming reality). In such a case A-1 Pictures, with a back catalogue that includes horror-tinged titles such as Black Butler and From the New World (and Blue Exorcist, though that’s a bit more shonen in execution), would be an equally well matched candidate. They’ve got money to spare with the success of Sword Art Online, and their production list boasts a wide variety of genres and audiences –  From the New World certainly proves that they’re not adverse to less than surefire successes. And believe me, there’s a few elements of PSoH that they would know how to market alongside all the lovely factors I mentioned above.

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Don’t worry Leon, the guy’s just a serial killer

No, it’s not a BL manga , but nor is it a blatant piece of fujoshi pandering with no intent of delivering a la K, Black Butler, or Pandora Hearts (pick a modern anime aiming for a female demographic, really). I used the term ambiguous above with all due precision – the central relationship is a strange and well-written mix of friendship and animosity and unexpected loyalty that leaves itself (without spoiling the ending) rather plainly open to audience interpretation. It’s something I actually rather respect, allowing the story to have an element that’s neither played for coy fanservice nor an out and out romance that would’ve changed what the story is by virtue of generic pigeonholing.

“All of that is very nice,” I can hear you saying (in the dulcet tones commonly used on the violently unstable), “but they already got their shot.” To which I must reply, if Ah! My Goddess can have a feature film, a 90s OVA series, and two seasons of a 2000s era anime, then my hope is not yet dead (there’s also more obscure examples like Magic User’s Club, but considering what a step down that series was from its OVA its better left unincluded). Plus, with the Sailor Moon reboot due any day now, the anime industry has apparently opened the door to the same levels of creative barrel scraping commonly used by Hollywood, so why not use a remake for its intended purpose – to reattempt a good idea that was previously executed poorly? The extremely detailed character designs would translate well to the modern era, with computer animation able to render more detail than would’ve been possible on a TV budget before; and the stories themselves have aged relatively well, requiring only minor rewrites with the consideration of modern technology. The themes are as applicable as they ever were, if not more so, and damned if there isn’t a gaping wound where a thoughtful piece of psychological horror should go. And that puts us back where we started. Because Pupa is what we have: a woe begotten mess from what might’ve been an interesting concept, unable to commit to the black core of its subject matter and unwilling to devote the running time to a proper suspenseful story. And if that’s what this season holds, I’ll head back to my pipedream.

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10 comments on “MAKE THIS HAPPEN: Petshop of Horrors

  1. Alex says:

    Heh, I want to read this now (although hopefully I won’t get all horror-ed out). Looks interesting!

    • Vrai says:

      It’s easily my favorite manga (that doesn’t have a decent anime adaptation) – poignant and thoughtful, dark and heartfelt and a bit bittersweet. I wouldn’t worry too much about getting horror-ed out, if you mean it being too disturbing. I first read it way back when I was a young and wimpy thing, which means 99% of the populace are probably fine.
      If you read it, I’d love to know your thoughts!

  2. Artemis says:

    I’d definitely watch a reboot of the anime if one does ever happen to come about – which I think is unlikely, but not impossible by any means. I haven’t read the manga version of Petshop of Horrors, but despite its faults I have to admit that I did genuinely enjoy the OVA.

    • Vrai says:

      I think the OVA definitely has strengths, and I enjoyed watching it myself. I thought it played up the stories it picked pretty well, and there are some great moments scattered throughout. On its own, it’s a rather satisfactory little anthology tale.
      It just always reminds me of wasted potential, given how fantastic source material. Ah, alas. I’ll need to become a millionaire and make it happen myself.

  3. Alex says:

    So I meant to get back to you on this a while ago but… yeah, I forgot and it didn’t happen 😛
    I read volumes one and two of Petshop of Horrors. You were right, it wasn’t particularly gory, which I was grateful for. There were some really creepy scenes though, the one which comes to my head is where babies come out of a girl’s stomach during the rabbit chapter (3). In contrast, I thought the story about the guard dog was heartwarming.
    However, overall the manga didn’t hold my interest that much. I think I’m just not as keen on the one story per chapter thing, and I found it repetitive. I lost interest in anime like Bokurano and Hell Girl in the same way. Thanks for the article though, I don’t usually read manga like Petshop of Horrors so it was good to experience something a bit different.

    • Vrai says:

      Glad to hear you gave it a shot, and terribly sorry it didn’t appeal. It does eventually develop a strong plot thread (long around volume 6, when Leon’s brother shows up), and things are pretty breakneck intense by the last two volumes. But that’s a lot of investment to get there, and I understand not wanting to put in the time and effort if it isn’t grabbing you. I’m really flattered that you took my recommendation, though.

  4. T says:

    wow. i came across this piece entirely by chance and I have to say I agree 100%. I remember discovering PSoH when i was 16, loving the entire thing and being absolutely devastated by the OVA. Like you say the story is far from gore, and horror billing doesn’t do it justice, nor does only a few episodes, giving short shrift to Leon/D relationship and the hinted at unfolding mythos that made the series so lovely in the first place. I also want to say that id love to see a reworking of anime visuals to incorporate the lush and unique colors chemes of the series color spreads. D had a distinct alieness and spiritual side that doesnt come across well plodding through typical supernatural visuals. Pet Shop of Horrors to me feels more like a mysterious but vibrant garden that needs to be illuminated abd explored by so many more people. Thank you for this; a girl can dream.

  5. marimorimo says:

    Just a passerby chiming in with my 2 cents as PSOH is one of my greatest obsessions and a full anime season would be a dream come true. I was living and breathing the manga when I discovered it, back in 2009-2010. It’s the only fandom that made me write and *complete* my one and only fanfic–I was so desperate for PSOH material that I had to create it myself. LOL.

    Speaking of fanfic, PSOH is one of those niche fandoms that has a small but high quality pool of fanfics, thanks to god-tier writers (mainly Telanu) writing for the fandom.

    The reboots we’ve been seeing these past years is giving me a glimmer of hope…

    • catalaise says:

      I am in the middle of rereading Telanu’s “unwilling sleep” at the moment, so glad so see that name pop up, what an amazing writer.

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