Does Vanitas Case Study Do Gothic Horror Well
WARNING: The following contains spoilers for The Vanitas Case Study Episode 5, “Friends,” now streaming on Funimation.
Despite the existence of very popular titles like Hellsing and black butler, Gothic horror isn’t an incredibly prolific subgenre in the anime. In fact, unless western animation like Castlevania is included, the most recent gothic horror animated series released before this year may be black butler Season 3, released in 2014. Part of the summer 2021 program, Vanitas case study may not fall directly into that subgenre as a whole, but the darker tone and storyline of Episode 5, in particular, fits very well.
The defining elements of Gothic horror – the dark aesthetic of terror and the melodramatic character relationships – are fully exposed in Vanitas case study Episode 5, a flashback episode in which Noah remembers his childhood friend Louis, Dominique’s older brother.
They are also the grandchildren of the mysterious teacher of Noah. When the teacher adopts Noah and brings him back to his castle, Louis and Dominique naturally become Noah’s friends. They grew up together seemingly happy, but the others have no idea Louis is hiding a dark secret.
Louis was kicked out of his family because he is a curse bearer, someone whose name is cursed and will eventually lose his mind. Their grandfather deliberately briefed Louis on this secret to observe how he would react. Louis prepares for his own death on his own, carving out stakes that he hopes will eventually pierce his heart.
When the day finally arrives, Louis kills all their other friends as well as another curse-bearer, Mina, in an abandoned church. He then attacks Noe, but with his last ounce of sanity, he asks Noe to end his life. Noe, however, can’t stand killing his best friend, so Louis starts sucking his blood. Fortunately, the professor arrives just in time to behead Louis and save Noah’s life.
The church scene is incredibly gory and gruesome – quite worthy of the episode’s warning – and it’s a climax for a gothic horror story. In fact, the whole of Episode 5 has the tonal signatures of the subgenre, specifically the architecture. The Teacher’s large empty castle under the threatening blue moon as well as the abandoned church which cries out the symbolism of the “abandoned” are at the same time grandiose and classic settings which are typical of Gothic horror.
Having said that, where Vanitas case study really excels represents Louis’s descent into darkness. He’s already a brooding character to begin with, having been abandoned by his family. But by the time his grandfather allows him to uncover his own secret, it’s essentially his death sentence. Still, he has no idea when that day will come or how it will end, which makes the prospect all the more gruesome.
Not only does Louis have to worry about his own death, he also doesn’t want to hurt those he loves. Over time, he feels the darkness slowly closing over him and thus becomes more and more desperate with no one to help or comfort him. He struggles between hoping someone will save him and not wanting to hurt others, which makes his demeanor more isolating and frantic at the same time.
Episode 5 uses a lot of visual details to express Louis’ desperation, such as his eyes completely losing focus (no pupil) as soon as he discovers his true state. While lack of a student is often used to express insanity in cartoons, it’s actually Louis’ sanity that drives him crazy. The next time he regains the focus in his eyes, he is consumed by the curse, losing control with only the bloodlust remaining.
Yet even in the depths of the curse, Louis still wants Noe to end his life, showing how important Noe is to him. Noe’s ignorance of his friend’s condition only adds to the tragedy of the situation. Louis’s desperate cry for help ultimately goes unheard, so he can’t even die the way he wants. Unrequited feelings are also a common element in Gothic stories, and Noah has no idea what Louis wanted until Dominique shows him the chest full of wooden stakes that Louis was making.
Louis’ abrupt disappearance comes when the horror really sinks in. While the teacher in this scene is visually similar to the Charlatan, it could be a bad direction. Noe’s shocked state of mind now sees the teacher as the bad guy because before he showed up there was no real bad guy in this story. Turning something familiar into something unfamiliar and terrifying is another common gothic horror trope. Vanitas case study Episode 5 uses this approach in several different layers, all very effectively.
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