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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.