The Lovecraft Reread

Don’t Judge a Book By Its Lacy Frock: Kishin Houkou Demonbane

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today, to celebrate our 150th post (and definitely not our 151st), we’re covering Lovecraftian mecha anime Kishin Houkou Demonbane. The Original Video Animation, directed by Shintaro Inokawa, was released from ViewWorks in July 2004. The animated series, written by Yōsuke Kuroda and directed by Hidetoshi Yoshida, aired May-August 2006 on WOWOW. Spoilers ahead.

Both are based on a Nitroplus game first released in 2003, which neither of us has played, but which commenter RushThatSpeaks assures us is deeply NSFW. The game series has continued since, and there has also been a novel series running from 2003 through the present.

“A pure and foul ceremony is about to revive.”

Summary

Kurou Daijuji was a student of arcane lore at Miskatonic University, but dropped out before becoming a sorcerer. A private detective working the mean streets of Arkham City, he’s so poor he must frequent the mission of Sister Leica Crusade, where the sister’s orphans claim he “freeloads” his meals. Then Ruri Hadou, head of the Hadou Group, offers him a job: Find her a genuine grimoire, one with a soul of its own. What she doesn’t mention is that she needs the grimoire to power her grandfather’s battle mech, Demonbane.

Searching for a grimoire, Kurou stumbles across a bookshop he never knew existed. The red-eyed, curvaceous proprietor Nya tells him he’ll soon acquire the most powerful grimoire of all. She’s right—a violet-haired young girl literally falls on him from the sky and claims to be the personification of Al Azif, original version of the Necronomicon! Too bad she’s pursued by minions of the evil Black Lodge, including green-haired rocker/mad scientist Dr. West!

The two escape West long enough for some exposition. For hundreds of years Al Azif has made pacts with sorcerers to battle evil, and she happens to be looking for a new master, and, wait, Kurou might make a fine sorcerer after all! She kisses the bemused Kurou, mystically binding them. He gains the hero-avatar of a muscular white-haired man with mismatched eyes—the left is entirely suffused with red. (“Gains the hero avatar” = “can now do a magical girl transformation.” It’s a big improvement.)

West arrives in his giant battle robot. Grimoire Al summons Demonbane (remember, the Hadou Group’s battle mech?) which she and new partner Kurou can pilot together. They defeat West. At first Ruri Hadou is angry that she can’t pilot Demonbane herself, but before long all unite to fight the Black Lodge together!

Adventures ensue. Black Lodge Master Therion and his many sorcerous thugs (and their grimoires and battle mechs) lose no opportunity to wreak havoc on poor Arkham City. Our heroes’ vacation at the famous Innsmouth resort is spoiled by Deep Ones and Dagon. The Black Lodge summons Cthulhu. Nya(lathotep) watches over all with sardonic interest.

Meanwhile all the ladies nurse love, or at least lust, for Kurou, including Dr. West’s battle gynoid Elsa! Poor Kurou—he can’t even take a bath without feminine interference. Al finds herself viewing Kurou not as a tool, as she did other sorcerer masters, but as a love interest, and he’s kinda uneasily fond of her, too. Can they sort out their feelings and save all reality at the same time?

Time, and the twelfth episode, will tell.

What’s Cyclopean: This anime gets out all its irrepressible word-love in the names of spells: Atlantis Strike, Lemuria Impact, and of course the ever-reliable Abracadabra. Oh, and the robot Deus Machina, whose name (we’re assured) bears only a coincidental similarity to the trope of the Deus ex Machina.

The Degenerate Dutch: Kurou randomly freaks out at being dressed as a cute girl during an Innsmouth beach party. Perhaps relatedly, prehuman elder gods (or at least the Deep Ones who serve them) have gender preferences for their human sacrifices.

Mythos Making: Shoutouts to everyone from Nitocris to Barzai the Not-So-Wise, not known for wielding a scimitar but who cares. Plus guest appearances by Deep Ones, dead worm-things, and numerous elder gods.

Libronomicon: The Necronomicon is literally one of the main characters–opposed by, among others, the Pnakotic Manuscripts. She plays volleyball quite well.

Madness Takes Its Toll: DOC-TOR WEHHHST!!!!!

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Now this is what I’m looking for in a Lovecraftian anime. Surreal, frequently over-the-top, and with all the Easter eggs and fannish references you can shake a giant city-destroying stick at. The central conceit of personified grimoires is fun. Grimoires personified as full-fashion lolita girls is particularly entertaining. Although I quickly get distracted thinking about how we’d feed everyone if the volumes on my own numerous bookshelves suddenly came to life.

Also distracting, alas, are the badly animated attempts at fan-service. Fair warning: this anime contains things that are clearly trying to pass as breasts, but are probably some type of alien infiltrator, or possibly weirdly shaped brain canisters. Half the female characters are showing off the uncanny valley of mammary glands under their scanty costumes. Which is entirely irrelevant to anything else, except there are whole exchanges of dialogue I missed because I was too busy sputtering, “But gravity—wait—anatomy what?” (Though I guess Nyarlathotep of the thousand forms might, in fact, be going for precisely this reaction.)

I could also have done without half the mecha battle scenes. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with them as mecha battles, but they could have been replaced with more snarky grimoires and exasperated princesses of Arkham, and made me much happier.

Or with hot bored villains. The bored villain redeems a great deal of mecha battle. The only problem is that I will basically always root for a bored villain, especially a bored villain with an adoring Yithian manuscript at his side, over a whiny detective-turned-magus. (This is also my problem with Sailor Moon.) Someone could probably save the world by giving him a really good game console. His problem is that he’s stuck brooding in a dramatic throne room with no good entertainment options. No wonder he waxes poetic about our whiny hero’s heat. Or that Etheldreda/The Pnakotic Manuscript (who, let us remember, is responsible for sinking Atlantis) is so delighted to see something pique his interest.

Bored Villain is an excellent counterpoint to the lesser threat of over-the-top Mad Scientist DOCTOR WEST!!!! Ahem. Given that West was originally meant to be satirical, it seems perfectly sensible to have him show up as a Frankensteinian monster creator/mecha pilot/rock musician. It’s the electric guitar, I think, that adds that last perfect bit of oomph. He reminds me of Immortan Joe’s personal soundtrack provider in Fury Road, a little bit of joy in the midst of post-apocalyptic wasteland. (And if the mecha pilots keep up at this rate, Arkham City will soon be reduced to such a wasteland and a necessary subgenre switch. Presumably this would please the grimoires and their dark deific masters.)

Actually, let’s talk more about Ethelreda and Al Azif and their grimoirian kin. Given the fan-servicey tropes, you might expect lots of scenes where submissive books snark at their brooding masters. Or alternatively, you might expect more on-screen support for Al Azif’s cynical claim: that masters and grimoires simply use each other. But all the pairs I’ve seen so far (up through the Innsmouth episode) have unmistakably distinct relationships. Horrible Undead Lizard Guy’s tome, De Vermis Mysteriis, isn’t even bothering to personify any more, and given his hobbies who can blame it? Big Bricklike Dude Who Sacrifices Deep Ones and The R’lyeh Texts are visible only for a brief scene–during which time he grabs her possessively, and she flinches, in a way that isn’t the least bit cute or titillating.

Ethelreda and Bored Villain, in contrast, seem like well-practiced partners, perfectly comfortable with each others’ foibles and perfectly confident in their ability to back each others’ plays. There’s a sense of contentment between them even as they both freely acknowledge that he also desperately needs a worthy opponent in his life. Al Azif and Kurou are the polar opposite of this security: even as she grows fonder of his weird tendency to treat her like a person, she’s jealous and angry and pushes and pulls and throws around large balls of energy. (And he, still the least interesting character in the whole show, whines and panics.) I also appreciate the way the anime emphasizes these dynamics with moments in which all the tropes and animated shorthand suddenly vanish. It’s these relationships, and the contrasts between them, that are likely to keep me coming back.

So Demonbane is fun and engaging and exasperating and deeply weird. How is it as actual weird fiction? The creators say right up front, in the Mythos description at the first episode’s end, that they’re more interested in Lovecraft’s creations as background flavor than anything else. It certainly shows, especially at the beginning—the traditional anime tropes, from mecha to the workings of relationships, tend to overwhelm any feel of cosmic horror that might otherwise make it through. Except that there are moments—more frequent as the show progresses—when Al Azif says something disturbing, or world-breaking spells spin out from an incongruous magical girl transformation dance… and hints of something deliciously darker spill through.

 

Anne’s Commentary

All right. Let’s say we wanted to personify the great tomes of the Lovecraft canon—actually give them living human avatars. My first thought would be to render them as their authors, perhaps with an eldritch modification or two. The Necronomicon, then, would look like a medieval Arab, male, garbed to journey deep into the great desert to commune with its ever-howling demons. Occasionally, just for fun, he might unfurl the sand-brown wings of a desert falcon and fly across the gibbous, leering moon.

The Pnakotic Manuscripts, which predate humanity by eons, could look like one of the original authors, a member of the Great Race of Yith in its first Terran incarnation. You know, cone-body, nippers, pen-manipulating tentacles. Or, if we insist on the humaniform, like a vaguely inhuman man or woman, shunned by family and friends for reasons beyond their naming.

I don’t know about you guys, but I would never have imagined the Necronomicon or its Arabic original Al Azif as a barely adolescent girl with violet-pink hair and aqua eyes, sporting a very short, very frilly white dress and lots of red ribbons. Nor would the Pnakotic Manuscripts be her Goth chick cousin, identical except for the sapphire-blue eyes, black hair, black dress and black ribbons. Which is how Al and PM are imagined in the anime series Demonbane.

Watching the first episode, for the first time, I’m all I can’t even. Especially when Al would morph into flying chibi form, or when Dr. West would essay another electric guitar riff just prior to wielding another of his quirky weapon-inventions, or MOST especially whenever a battle mech would lumber into action. Could never understand the Transformers craze. Couldn’t bother with Pacific Rim for all my Del Toro love.

Then I watched the first episode again, and before I knew it, I was on Episode Seven. What makes anime so sneakily addictive? It can’t just be the great big puppy dog eyes, can it? No, it must be something more profound, more amenable to academic discourse. Like the complex conventions and stylization, the epic storylines, the sly humor, the fraught relationships, the pervasive sexuality.

Or else the great big puppy dog eyes. And the boobs.

The boobs in this series intrigue me. Why are some female characters flat-chested while others are ridiculously busty? If Al and Pnakotic (aka Etheldreda) and the cat-girl Ennea are flat because barely adolescent, that raises another issue, and one explicitly addressed in the series. Seeing Kuzuo in a double hug with Al and Ennea, Dr. West (of all mad geniuses) chastises him as a pedophile and pervert. Sister Leica is shocked the first time she hears Al call Kuzuo “master.” Kuzuo himself is hyperaware of the problem—although Al is hundreds of years older than he is, she does present as a girl too young for him. And there is the mortifying incident in Episode Five, when a strange violet gas removes Kurou’s inhibitions, whereupon he gropes Al until she gives him a well-deserved whupping.

Not that he isn’t equally interested in the grown women and their ample assets. Like Sister Leica in her bikini (what else would a nun wear at the Innsmouth Ocean Resort?) Like Ruri Hadou’s maids (who double as mech engineers because that way the engineers can wear maid uniforms.) Particularly like Nya the bookstore owner and one of Nyarlathotep’s most fetching avatars. I guess if you’re an Outer God in female form in anime, you might as well go for the GGG cups. Anime experts, explain breast size trope.

Yeah, boobs. One thing I don’t remember Lovecraft ever addressing. Stuff Lovecraft did address is liberally strewn through Demonbane, often with an amusing twist. I like the concept of sorcerers bonding with their grimoires, and that the grimoires gain so much mystical power they develop souls of their own. Throwing in additional bonds to battle mechs, Deus machina or god machines, nah, doesn’t strike me as a great subgenre-mashup. The mechs looked too much alike to me, had too many gimmicky weapons and attacks, made way too much of a mess.

Specifically they mess up Arkham City, which looks nothing like Lovecraft’s Arkham. Much more like a cartoon New York—or Gotham City, in fact. Why it has a bridge that looked like the Golden Gate or a pentagonal fortress that looked like, well, the Pentagon, don’t know. Miskatonic University is supposed to be there somewhere, but I haven’t seen anything like it yet. Not that urban renewal will ever be a problem here. More like a continual necessity, given how the mechs are always leveling whole neighborhoods with a single pounce. Innsmouth got far less damage, as the battles in that episode were out of town. Phew, no damage to the tourist industry!

One of the coolest things happened in Innsmouth—the summoned Dagon-monster looked like it was based on Burgess Shale apex predator, Anomalocaris! The same circular port of a mouth, the same spiky caudal feelers! I also enjoyed the simultaneous summoning of Cthugha and Ithaqua (fire and ice) that saves Al and Kurou’s butts in the Dagon battle. Later the elemental powers of Cthugha and Ithaqua get translated into Kurou’s handguns, via the introduction of the Powder of Ibn Ghazi into their gunpowder. Don’t ask me, ask Al Azif—she’s the one who figured out how that worked.

In a final example of how Mythos-allusive details can delight, Al is often shown lounging on a one-eyed yellow blob that occasionally emits a mild Tekeli-li. Who knew shoggoths made such accommodating house pets?

I’ve cheated and read ahead in Web summaries of Demonbane. Things seem to get progressively more cosmic in the later episodes. Deep space, deep time, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep revealed, all that good stuff.

So, yeah, I’ll have to endure the clunking mechs to see the adventure through to the end. Damn you, Demonbane! Long live the girl-shaped grimoires!

 

Your friendly hostesses have, perhaps foolishly, volunteered to join a panel on Lovecraft’s collaborations at Necronomicon in August. This makes an excellent excuse to cover C.M. Eddy, Lovecraft’s one major collaborator who hasn’t yet received the reread treatment. Next week, “The Loved Dead,” which you can find in the collaborative collection The Horror in the Museum.

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” is now available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint. The sequel, Deep Roots, will be out in July 2018. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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