Have you ever been fooled by an anime’s cutesy art style? Were you one of the people who were absolutely floored when episode three of Madoka Magica came around, or someone who wasn’t expecting Made in Abyss to involve so much gore and vomit based on the character designs? Did you think Doki Doki Literature was just an innocent dating sim?
Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us. Even Cactus Matt was fooled by a manga’s cover art recently! The poor fella just wanted to see some cute anime girls, but instead he got cute anime girls melting!
This concept of having an art style that doesn’t necessarily match up with the show’s tone is commonly utilized in anime. It’s called art style dissonance. The logic behind it is simple enough – if you see a cute looking character getting absolutely obliterated, you’re (probably) going to be more shocked by what’s happening. That can’t happen to her, she’s got pink hair and big moe eyes!
There are the more well-known examples like Madoka and Made in Abyss that I mentioned above, but those just scratch the surface. There are many, many series that utilize this method. Let’s take a look at some of my favorites.
Content warning: since this post is specifically talking about anime that are secretly fucked up, there’s some mention of some fucked up stuff in here. Some mentions of body horror and sexual assault beyond this point.
School-LIVE! (or Gakkougurashi) is an excellent example. It’s a hard show to talk about, because part of the fun is the twists and turns and shifts in perspective, but Crunchyroll will spoil you right there in its show synopsis anyways, so I’m just going to go for it: Gakkougurashi is about four girls who are hiding out from zombies in their high school. The art style is bright, moe fun despite being an anime filled with suspense and violence, but it doesn’t use it purely for shock factor. It actually corresponds with the mental state of one of the characters, who is so traumatized by the zombie apocalypse that in her eyes, her and her friends are just having an extended sleepover at school. To her, everything is as cute and fun as their character designs suggest. It’s one of the best examples of the art style dissonance trope, because it lends itself to the story itself just as much as it contributes to the general sense of uneasiness and surprise that viewers get from seeing these cute anime girls forced into life or death situations.
Another perfect example is the criminally underrated Alien Nine. Both a manga series and a short (and unfortunately unfinished) OVA series, Alien Nine gives us the classic “kids get tasked with saving the world for some reason” anime plot. Three middle school girls are told to help combat aliens around school, and are given roller skates and some nets to round ‘em up. Looks and sounds innocent enough, right?
Wrong! They’re also given some decidedly un-cute aliens that they’re expected to form a symbiotic relationship with. The alien gives them special abilities and in return, the girls have to let them lick them for nutrients. It’s very creepy, and naturally, not all of the girls are too big on the idea of having to run around wearing freaky aliens on their heads. There’s also a lot of sketchy, backdoor things going on with the school administration… it turns out they have some more nefarious reasons to be employing kids to capture aliens. Despite the superflat cutesy art style, Alien Nine actually gives you a story filled with body horror, deceit, and lots and lots of girls crying.
Another darker take on the kids with pet monsters genre is Narutaru. Despite its cutesy cover art and anime opening, it’s actually a story about kids getting pet aliens that can capable of kill other humans. Since kids are little shits, most of the ones given these desctro-beasts use them to exact revenge on their bullies, scare the shit out of their parents, or just straight up kill people for fun. There’s plenty of horror to be found here, and depictions of sexual assault, as well. It’s no Pokemon, that’s for sure. The manga is far better than the anime, which suffers from poor animation and ugly color schemes that do the series a huge disservice.
Similarly, Bokurano, also written by Mohiro Kito, deceives its audience by pretending to be a typical shounen mecha, only to flip the switch by having the young pilots commit evils with their giant robot. The atrocities they commit are much like the ones the kids in Narutaru commit with their aliens. Both series are very much not for the faint of heart – there’s a scene in Narutaru involving a glass jar that still frightens me deeply, and a very uncomfortable plot line in Bokurano that involves one of the pilots getting molested. I hope that Mohiro Kito is, like, okay…
This contrast of art style and tone isn’t only used for horror or gritty “deconstructions,” though. It can be very, very effective in comedy. As AstralGemini pointed out a few weeks ago, defying expectations is one of the biggest, most effective methods of comedy. She writes about how Carnival Phantasm flips the rules by presenting you the usually-super-serious Fate series as a giant screwball comedy. That dissonance between franchises elevates the comedic moments of the series. Similarly, comedy anime like Seitokai Yakuindomo does the same thing, but instead of surprising you with a twist on a belovedly dark franchise, it surprises you by having cute high school girls say absolutely nasty, raunchy things.
Another series that does this to an even bigger extreme is Hen Zemi, which has a super cute style similar to that of Made in Abyss but is actually about college students having weird sex and saying gross shit. Characters that look like the ones below end up doing weird things like having sex with pool toys or eating tampons. Unlike the previously mentioned series, this isn’t one I would necessarily recommend, but it’s an extreme example worth mentioning nonetheless.
It’s worth noting that it’s not always a moe art style being utilized for art style dissonance, either. Barefoot Gen looks like it’s a silly Sunday morning cartoon when it’s really about Hiroshima. Sanrio has an old anime film from the 70s called Ringing Bell (or Chirin no Suzu) that looks like a Disney film, but actually tells the story of a sheep whose entire family gets killed by a wolf and then becomes a monster himself in his quest for revenge. Cromartie High School looks like an intense action series, but it’s actually a wacky comedy. The list goes on and on.
Then, of course, there are series that have this art style dissonance accidentally. Maybe they were going for something subversive with their art, but they didn’t quite pull it off like the other shows mentioned did. Or, maybe the art is just straight-up bad, and no one thought that generic visual novel art would clash with its more violent plot points (School Days), resulting in some unintentional hilarity.
Admittedly, there are plenty of criticisms of this trope. There are so many series that utilize this trope that it does lose its edge at times, and many believe that it’s been entirely overused. Then, of course, there’s the issue of being annoyed by the deceptive qualities – maybe you just wanted to watch a wholesome, colorful show! I can understand the resistance to these kinds of series, but when used thoughtfully and sparingly, it can be an incredibly effective tool for visual storytelling.
Are there any examples I’ve missed? Have you been fooled by some cute brightly colored girls before? Let me know!