The Fear of Humanizing the Monsters: Why We Kill in Contemporary Japanese Mysteries

When the Los Angeles Times posted a humanizing op-ed of Charlie Manson, social media exploded. Monsters aren’t human. There’s no human side to Manson, a serial murderer and cult leader. How could a man who preached race wars as the next apocalypse be depicted as one of us? It didn’t help that there were problems with the perception of the newspaper industry at that time, with its callousness and out-of-touch nature with its readers. There were better, more humanizing accounts to report.

So it isn’t a surprise to see people’s stomachs turn about if they read stuff like this:

Manson, though, was no devil but a human being, as his death makes clear. I don’t say that to soften or absolve him. But I don’t believe in demons; people are frightening enough. Indeed, to accept Manson as a person, to see him through the filter of his humanity, is to acknowledge what we resist: that he was perhaps not so utterly different from the rest of us.

To acknowledge that may depreciate our understanding of the human condition. As someone writes on Twitter, “Evil is evil. Rational thinking people will never be able to understand, nor change, what drives evil. Manson was evil. Period.”

Pure evil is not a part of the human soul. If there is anybody who deserves to be other-ed — to be cast outside of the human group — it has to be the people who are described as monsters. The villains of history: Serial murderers, fascist dictators, committers of mass genocide. You don’t want to see yourself as someone who could be one of those people. Humanizing pure evil is akin to madness.

But for the people who keep on reading, they will find the eery similarities between them and the serial murderer:

One of Manson’s inspirations was Dale Carnegie, whose 1936 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” offered him tips on manipulating others to his ends. Among his successful strategies? Convincing his acolytes to commit the murders he planned, then claiming innocence since he did not actually kill anyone.

This is, of course, horrific, venal — and recognizably human at the same time. Just look at the news; evasion of responsibility is our new national pastime. You might say Manson was ahead of his time, spinning out a series of false narratives about race war and his own messianic status that ensnared his followers.

Manson is one of us. He reads the same self-help books and feels the same problems like us. The idea of him is in every one of us. The only conclusion to arrive from this then is something horrifying:

Manson was a killer, yes, and he was a psychopath, but he was never otherworldly. The violence and the hatred he embodied may be his most human attribute.

What then is a human but another potential candidate to be a mass murderer?

The contemporary Japanese mystery movement, Shinhonkaku Mysteries (or the New Traditional Mysteries), has always treated evil as a seed of possibility in the rational mind. Any one of us can go to the kitchen, grab a knife, and stab someone for the sake of it.

The only things stopping characters in Japanese mysteries are laws, morality, and of course the lack of incentive to kill at all. Yet. It is more rational to have cereal for breakfast than to commit murder until a reason comes up. Once a reason surfaces, people look for other ways until they realize that murder is the only solution possible. This desperation thus drives people to do the rational yet unspeakable act of murder.

It isn’t always the greed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lectured us on or envy that Agatha Christie warned us about. None of the simple cardinal sins. It is survival. It is the truth. It is life itself that provokes us to murder and live to see one more day.

In order to understand why people may behave this way, writers might write in the perspective of a serial murderer. Scissor Man (ハサミ男) by Shuunou Masayuki is one such book where the protagonist is a brutal serial murderer who employs scissors to tear people’s body apart. However, the so-called Scissor Man finds the corpse of a person they were planning to stalk and kill. The Scissor Man talks to an imaginary psychiatrist in their head on what to do and decide the only way to get out of this mess is to be the detective and solve the copycat murder themselves. It is a clever and ironic premise that plays with our understanding of serial killers in pop culture.

Shuunou Masayuki also likes us to be aware of the flaws in police investigations as well. The police arrives on the scene after the Scissor Man has left and the book goes into their point-of-view. Even though a new profiler trained in the United States has moved into the department, he hardboiled cops prefer trusting their instincts (勘). Their instincts have helped them solve various cases and they have honed them from experience of figuring out crime. The profiler however explains that his job is the more statistical and scientific version of their instincts.

But because profiling works based on precedence and information provided by past cases, criminal profiling in Japan is still primitive compared to its American counterparts. In the United States, if a victim is a white person, then it is likely to be white. If there is evidence that the murder was premeditated, then it must be an older, a more intelligent person. Criminal profiling in this sense has helped increase the probability of the criminal, even though it isn’t always 100% accurate. Japan lacks that kind of information and, because it is a mostly homogeneous nation, is unable to use statistics derived from their Western counterparts.

So it isn’t that useful in the end. The cops remain stubborn and prefer using their instincts to solve crime. They believe their experience is key to solving this case. Patterns should emerge if they keep on analyzing this case and their gut can tell them what’s up. However, cognitive biases and stereotypes cloud their perception onto what the case is really about.

So we have this interesting dynamic where the cops are supposed to be the smart one, but their judgments are burdened with bad heuristics. If a serial killer doesn’t fit any of the descriptions found in a previous case, then the case could go cold or worse, the wrong person might get caught. In one scene, the Scissor Man watches a television show where criminal psychologists and layman journalists writing about serial killers on television try to analyze their behavior through questionable evidence. What are the motivations and what kind of societal behavior do serial killers have? Obviously, they are sick people who can’t talk and the scissors the Scissor Man is a Freudian analogy of penetration and cutting through the vagina or something. They’re sexually perverse monsters. Duh.

But the reality is: The Scissor Man is an ordinary person who has a body image problem and they think they’re really dumb. They like to kill smart girls because they want to see if the girls’ brains are any different from theirs. There was no other weapon than scissors because they couldn’t find anything to stab the girls with. The Scissors Man became The Scissors Man because of media and speculation. The myth began to be stronger than the murderer themselves. People turned paranoid because they didn’t know who could be the Scissor Man. In the meanwhile, the real Scissor Man could eat in a restaurant by the murder spot and not be questioned for one bit.

That’s because we are just too boneheaded to think of different possibilities. We believe a serial murderer looks like someone who emanates evil. They should act like the monsters in fairytales. They haunt our dreams because their evilness are not within the bounds of our rationality. But if the serial killer turns out to be someone we can reasonably empathize with, then doesn’t this mean something is wrong with our thinking?

Anybody can be a killer in Japanese mysteries. It could be a person drinking a coffee cup or someone reading the papers by the bus stop. They are of course just mere possibilities in a world of chance. However, fiction is a realm of possibilities and lets us be aware of what can lie ahead.

And one of the possibilities is that any good, law-abiding citizen can fall into disarray and find themselves needing to kill. Raging Loop (レイジングループ is technically Rei-Jin-G-Ru-P, which is a multilingual pun but for better ease of reading will be referred to as Raging Loop) posits good and evil do not exist in a binary as we hope to be.

Haruaki, a biker, finds himself in a life-or-death situation that should remind people of death games like Danganronpa: he and a small village of people are entrapped in a bizarre ritual that resembles the party game of Mafia. Unlike Dmitry Davidoff’s party game that is still played today, werewolves replace mafia and anyone who is picked by the werewolf to die will die in a gruesome fashion. Two to three people in the game — villagers who have lived their whole life there — become possessed by the spirit of the werewolf and start devouring villagers. The villagers need to band together and overcome their differences in order to find out who the werewolves are.

Mafia is a game of communication. And if there’s anything humans are exceptionally bad at, it is communication. Suspicion, confusion, desperation, and even prejudice poison the rationality of the players involved because they want to live to see another day. All they can think of is survival.

Everyone thinks the person sitting beside them is harboring intentions to murder them until they are convinced that they are indeed a 100% innocent player. Otherwise, this game — which the villagers should always win in because there is an overpowering amount of people over werewolves — often reveals that human trust is especially weak and fragile.

To help the villagers overcome this distrust, there are characters with the ability to perform unusual tasks during the night, much like the power roles found in websites like Epic Mafia. Someone can write the name of a person they suspect on a slip of paper and put it under their pillow before sleeping; the next day, they would learn if that person is a human or a werewolf. If they survive, they may bring this information into the day meeting.

In the day’s meeting, people gather around in a circle and choose — based on the evidence and suspicion people have — someone to lynch in the hopes of getting a werewolf.

Haruaki also has a bit of an upper-hand over the villagers in the game. He experiences a deja vu sensation because he is trapped in an eternal loop. Every time he dies, he relives on the same day he first arrived in the village. Haruaki is able to predict the events with some foreknowledge beforehand and can manipulate certain events to go to another way after he sees how the event would transpire.

This lets the reader and Haruaki accumulate knowledge about the villagers at a speedy rate without backtracking or having to read the same scenes again and again. You also don’t have to press skip much in the main game because you can jump about flowchart events and get to the next interesting event. For the reader, it is actually a hard game to put down because of this.

But that also means we get more experience and observations on the behavior of the villagers. The village is a microcosm of society and, while each character is individualized enough not to be merely a symbol, shows the myriad motivations that drive people to vote or even kill. These ordinary, good-natured people can kill if they have to in order to survive.

Why do good people kill? The answer is always there’s no choice in the eyes of the people. Maybe it might be better to ask why and how is killing reprehensible in the first place.

Killing rarely benefits the whole community. At most, societies prefer to imprison people who have committed crimes. Ending someone’s life is a stab into someone’s ethical conduct as well because they realize how life is precious. But that kind of knowledge comes from experience and seeing what life has to offer. For children and others who have not adapted to the ways of society, they would have no knowledge on why killing is inhumane. Even if you are aware of the laws of murder, it doesn’t mean laws reflect moral or ethical values.

So there needs to be some kind of background to really make sense why we shouldn’t murder. For many of us, that would be tradition. Breaching the Ten Commandments for example will incur the wrath of God in many Western societies. For more Confucian societies, it would be disrespect to our ancestors who have toiled the lands before us.

These “folk ideas” are, as Alan Dundes puts it, “traditional notions that a group of people have about the nature of man, of the world, and of man’s life in the world.” They are the “units of worldview” and thus become the “unstated premises which underlie the thought and action of a given group of of people”. This also means they are inconsistent; they are not in any “fixed-phrase form”. These folk ideas can mutate — Sandra K. Dolby in Self-Help Books argue that Alan Dundes’s “Folk Ideas as Units of Worldview” is a precursor to Richard Dawkins’ usage of memes, especially in the cultural context — and become the “underlying assumptions held by members of a given culture”.

Every culture has these assumptions and why we can be frustrated or driven to do what we have to do. We see this in superstition when traditions force us to do things we normally shouldn’t do and it causes us to do somewhat irrational things. Even murder. Some cultural notion, some basic premise we have, some religious or traditional concept we share, can make us go crazy and think that murder is an acceptable solution to a problem. It is easy to feel impelled to murder if the basic premises of our culture have gone entirely wrong.

The mafia game is its own folk idea because it only works based on the premises we have. Without the premise of the mafia game, there wouldn’t be any game. The characters would just be good people farming and enjoying life as it is.

But life-and-death situations can bring out the incentive to murder and incentives come from the very same cultural assumptions lingering in our subconscious. No matter how many times we hide these assumptions under jargon, religious texts, and so on, the bare naked truth propels us to murder and we don’t know why we even did it in the first place. We feel like we have to because of something.

Something that we can’t explain except we know we have to do it.

Maybe the idea of folklore and the arts are to make us realize this. We are not that good of a people to be trusted completely. The flaws of humanity — our inability to trust people for one — can make us feel like society is an artificial construct and the idea of a human condition is to put us in straitjackets. Maybe that’s why we tell these stories to caution ourselves that we can be one of them.

But it is also a pessimistic notion to have. We humans are the definition of inhumane and that’s why religion, society, the arts, and so on stop us from murdering people. If something goes wrong, it’s one of those few that have caused — to use a David Cage-ism — a “syntactical error in our coding”. Somewhere along the lines, the folklore ideas have mutated so much its meaning got distorted and that’s why we can kill. Even in a secular world like ours, we can’t run away from these bad folklore ideas. Thus, ordinary people can kill.

However, it doesn’t mean everyone harbors a notion to kill. Learning what are the bad folklore ideas is crucial to live. We don’t always have to follow tradition. Sometimes, we have to be a bit liberal with our ideas — even to those who consider themselves conservatives or originalists — in order to adapt to current societal standards. We learn to break free from the standards that are deemed impossible to follow today.

And there are still good traditions out there. The idea of God comes from the ideal of good. We want to be one with the holy because we want to be good. There is a truth in religion. Folklore and religion have meaning because they have stories to tell. And much like how we consume art, we also need to consume folklore and religion in a similar way because they speak not the truth but the truths.

There is no truth in myths, but they do have truths. Truths that we call folklore ideas can be examined and explored the same way we talk about themes in fiction. These truths are bounded by the world around us and that’s why they are relevant, possibly more relevant than the actual truth.

Reza Aslan, a scholar of religious studies, describes in No god but God: The Origins, Evolutions and Future of Islam why religions behave like this:

“All religions are inextricably bound to the social, spiritual, and cultural milieux from which they arose and in which they developed. It is not prophets who create religions. Prophets are, above all, reformers who redefine and reinterpret the existing beliefs and practices of their communities, providing fresh sets of symbols and metaphors with which succeeding generations can describe the nature of reality.”

Prophets are nothing more than re-interpreters of these folklore ideas and that’s why we need them. And artists perform a similar role as they try their hand on philosophical and societal issues. They look for frameworks that try to redefine folk ideas in the name of the good they believe in.

If these people believe that humanizing the worst of the worst could show us that we could be one of them, that’s what they will do. Humanistic interpretations can easily backfire however and there are certain figures in history that loom too dark to be explored in detail. And there is always the possibility that it can evoke darker feelings inside us that we wish to repress before we go mad.

That’s why these accounts can be dangerous and why some philosophers like Plato warn us that art can destroy the mind. Normalizing what is considered abnormal, dangerous behavior can be destructive to our understanding of what humans are.

But I also believe that is why we need to understand why it is bad to normalize such behavior. We may have to read into them in order to reject them. To love humanity, we need to learn the reasons why we hate ourselves — and go beyond them. We have to go beyond the serial murderers in ourselves. We need to learn survival doesn’t always mean we have to murder. Being aware of what makes ourselves evil, the cultural assumptions of being good, and the folklore ideas of law can help us figure what it really means to be a good human being.


This is the third post for the 12 Days of Anime project where anime bloggers try to write 12 posts in a row for Christmas. I have decided to write a post a day from scratch if possible and as such, this may have more grammatical errors than the usual post. But I’d like to be as thorough as the other posts I have written before, so it should be quite interesting to write 9 more posts like this in a row. I may fail, but it is worth a try.

If you like my post and others, consider donating to my Patreon, retweeting, or commenting on the post. I am always happy to reply to any questions and comments.


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