Animating terror : Noroi the white weasel

Anime is infamous for its unsuccessful attempts in the horror genre : even though violence is often depicted, the feelings of fear and terror are rarely provoked in the audience. The explanation you most often see comes from the medium itself, animation : because we know, more than in live-action cinema, that what we see isn’t real, it does not frighten us as much. That is a valid explanation, and explains why anime labeled as “horror” either use this irreality for ultra violence (Hellsing or Higurashi, for example), or play on atmosphere rather than just visuals (Shiki, Mayoiga). However, I believe that there is at least one attempt at creating a truly terrifying character by using proper animetic means : that is Osamu Dezaki’s 1975 TV show, The Adventures of Gamba. The show is not generally listed as horror ; on the contrary, it is rather aimed at kids and has during most of its course a  light-hearted tone. But the main antagonist, the white weasel Noroi, is more than just the bad guy of a kid’s cartoon : his maleficent presence is the occasion for Dezaki to deploy all of his talent as a director.

Dezaki is famous for introducing many arguably experimental techniques into animation, among which lighting and color effects, innovative shot compositions, and most notably, “triple takes”, that is the repetition of the same action or camera movement three or more times, and “harmonies” (also known as “postcard memories”), painting-like still images. Many of these techniques can be said to be specific to animation : even if triple takes are just an editing effect that could be used in live-action cinema, animation’s distance towards reality makes repetition far more easy to accept for the viewer, whereas such a technique in live-action would only be disorienting. Moreover, these effects all more or less are a consequence and a way for Dezaki to play with limited animation and its constraints on movement. But effective movement, that is the number of frames in an image, is not what Dezaki aims at ; it is rather what Thomas Lamarre calls “potential movement”, or Marc Steinberg “dynamic immobility” : images that remain striking, even if they are not really moving. Dynamic immobility is therefore the sole property of animation : even though it supposedly is an art of moving images, it creates movement through the absence of it.

In Gamba, movement is everywhere. There is geographical movement, that of the main characters crossing the sea to reach and defeat Noroi ; then, there is their individual movement : as they are mice, they are vulnerable and constantly running away from predators, whether they be cats, seagulls, humans or weasels ; but the animation also emphasizes their constant dynamism and energy, as they are always running to and fro. There is the constant movement of the sea and waves, animated in detail ; and finally, there is the movement of the hunt and fighting between the weasels and the mice. From such an overview, one could believe that Gamba is all about movement and that dynamic immobility does not have its place. But it is precisely Noroi’s character which represents, in Gamba, an end to movement ; and it is precisely here, in the specifically animetic technique of immobility, that lies Noroi’s most terrifying aspect.

Let’s start by laying out the fundamentals of Noroi’s character, the non-strictly animated elements that make him so impressive. The plot of Gamba could be said to revolve around Noroi : the weasel is the starting point of the story, as his killing of mice on the now eponymous Noroi Island is what compels Gamba and his comrades to go on an adventure ; and he is its goal and ending, as defeating and killing Noroi is what everything leads to. From the start, he is an ominous presence : in the first episode, the sheer mention of his name makes all mice cower in fear. His name itself is everything but comforting : after all, noroi means “curse” in Japanese. The island named after him is therefore literally a “cursed island” that no reasonable person or mice would want to approach. From the outset, Noroi is associated with supernatural powers, maybe sorcery, something that his hypnotic abilities only confirm.

In the last episode, Noroi is shown shining even brighter than the sun

What’s also striking is, obviously, his character design : Noroi is a white weasel ; more precisely, he’s an albino. His white color sets him apart from the impersonal crowd of weasels, as do his frightening power of speech, but also from all of the mice characters, whose color scheme is, like the weasels, in browns and grays, exceptionally blues and greens. His white fur makes him stand out, but also contributes to the image of a supernatural being : it glows to moon and sunlight. Moreover, the way Noroi’s reflecting natural light is depicted is by using the same trademark Dezaki technique for sunbeams : streaks of light coming from the corner of the screen or lighting cels from below, which creates this glowing effect. The result of all this is making Noroi himself a source of light, a rival to the sun and moon, all the while highlighting his fearsome charisma. The same could be said about his eyes : they are red, in contrast with the other weasel’s white eyes, and the mice human-like pupils ; but they change colors, becoming green when Noroi uses his hypnotic power and shining like the sun in his moments of rage. 

Noroi’s eyes glowing with anger

In fact, I would go so far as to say that, during most of the show, Noroi is not so much a character, but rather a simple menacing presence. This is obviously true for the first 19 episodes, during which we do not see him directly, apart from flashback sequences ; but it still applies in the final arc, when our main characters fight him face to face. Indeed, Noroi sometimes appears like a omnipotent and ubiquitous being : as Chuuta says in episode 20, he “will appear anywhere there are mice around”, and this is confirmed by the show. He often pops out of nowhere, simply watching the mice from afar before directing an attack or provoking them. Dezaki repeatedly uses the same two techniques to express Noroi’s materializations out of thin air : sudden close-ups to Noroi’s face or claws, which contrast with the mice running or beautiful painterly landscapes ; or Noroi just entering in the frame with a pull-cel. Both are accompanied by equally ominous audio cues, either Noroi’s characteristic dog-like growling  or a tune signifying danger. On the island, it’s like Noroi could appear everywhere, because he knows everything that’s happening and instantly reacts. Therefore, he doesn’t even have to physically be here for us and the characters to feel his presence and his menace.

This is confirmed by Noroi’s role as a constant deus ex machina : mostly in episodes 20 to 22, Gamba and his companions, or other mice, are very often exposed to weasel attacks and death as they run around the island. But almost every time, they manage to escape not because of their own fighting capabilities or intelligence, but because Noroi paradoxically and sadistically saves them. For example, in episode 21, Noroi interrupts his troops to ironically welcome Gamba and company to his island ; and he always does it through his trademark cry, or song/poem (uta), as Shijin calls it in episode 20. Here too, Noroi does not have to be visible to frighten : he just has to make himself heard, both to order his weasels around and to make the mice cower in fear.

Then, finally, there is Noroi’s movement ; or rather, the absence of it. Indeed, Noroi is almost never animated, in the sense that all of his body, drawn on a single cel, is shown moving. The only notable example is at the end of episode 20 ; but even then, Noroi’s movement has something unnatural, or at least unnerving : it is all in curves, fluid-like, as if his body could not move straight. In this cut, Noroi looks more like a snake than a weasel.

The immobile and immaculate Noroi ordering his crowd of weasels to attack

Noroi is therefore more often still than moving. This, just like his white colour, makes him stand out. As I’ve said, the mice are always running around, whether it is to get food, or running away from predators. They are little balls of energy. In the same way, the weasels are often chasing after the mice ; and when they do, their movement is expressed not only through character animation, but also by elongated shapes that make their bodies appear longer and slimmer. In these shots, the weasels have horizontal or curved shapes ; but at the middle stands Noroi, the only still and upright figure : he is towering and calm, at the center of the frame, while the rest of the world moves and revolves around him. This aspect only becomes more terrifying in the last episode, when Noroi seemingly comes back from the dead and starts slaughtering defenseless mice : in this cut, all revolves around the still weasel : the background cel moving from left to right at a rapid pace, while the mice are running towards the camera in the bottom right and left corners from the center of the screen. In this flawless composition of dynamic immobility, Noroi occupies most of the space, and the center of the screen ; while everything moves away from him, his own towering position and circular body movement invite the spectator’s gaze back to him.

These shots also highlight Noroi’s peculiar shape : his body is triangular, without any other clear limbs than his claws and distorted face. This of course emphasizes the three most dangerous parts of his body : claws, eyes and mouth. As the key elements of what makes Noroi so dangerous, they are as well put in clear emphasis. I already mentioned the sudden cuts to a close-up shot of Noroi ; but these are not only used to provoke jumpscares. Indeed, I believe that only showing parts of the weasel’s body is not an innocent choice : except when he attacks or towers over cowering mice, Noroi’s body is very seldom entirely shown. Dezaki prefers using close-ups of his face or claws, and then zoom-outs or pans (that is, in animation vocabulary, pull-cels) over his body. It’s as if Noroi was too big to fit on the screen, and the camera had to move to capture even a part of his body. Here, the movement is not Noroi’s, in the sense of his body : it is purely animetic movement, that is Noroi’s cel that is moved to give an impression of camera movement.

Noroi’s face in full length

What this overview reveals is the paradoxical power of limited animation, that is, to do more with less. Indeed, what makes Noroi’s presence so striking is not impressive animated effects, but on the contrary the lack of movement, that is, the absence of animation. If the literal meaning of the verb “animate” is “to give life to”, we see here that life in animation does not necessarily mean movement. But Noroi’s “life” is a different one from that of the ever-moving mice : it is one of immense, but contained power that is only unleashed in rare and intimidating occasions – just like limited animation, whose usual lack of movement results in overly expressive and explosive movements that are all the more striking.

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