Why I Can't Stop Watching Prison Schoolby Jacob Chapman,
I can't stop watching Prison School. I'm not sure I'd call myself a fan of the show, and I'm not sure why I can't stop watching it, but I'm definitely hooked.
Unfortunately, I'm also the kind of person who can't just "turn my brain off" when I'm watching things, so not knowing why I was fascinated by this show really bugged me. I should understand why I like it, right? Heck, I should understand if I like it or not, and I'm kind of at a loss on that one too. It's not fair. Why can't I stop watching Prison School? Maybe we can solve this mystery together. (I can't be the only one afflicted by Prison School addiction.)
First, we need to cover the basics. Prison School was one of this summer's most anticipated new anime prior to the season's start, but once the first episode finally aired, many viewers had no idea what to make of it. Prison School defies genre as a gross-out comedy without any actual "jokes." Funny things happen in the show, but they're not treated as setups or punchlines. There's no unspoken "cue to laugh" at outrageous moments, because every episode is an unrelenting onslaught of "why." The gruesome, irreverent, and often disgusting things onscreen at all times are played as deadly serious as they possibly can be. There's humor to be found in that, but it's more like nervous laughter than anything else. It can't not be a comedy, but it's still really hard to define it that way.
This premise is simple on the surface: five boys are admitted to an all-girls school, decide to take advantage of their new situation by peeping on the girls' bath, but are taken by surprise when the school's "Underground Student Council" (of powerful and imposing schoolgirls) has them literally arrested and thrown into a tiny prison on campus to pay for their would-be sins. They don't even get so much as a glance of sideboob before they are condemned by this hyperviolent squad of ladies, but since no one likes the boys enough to rescue them, their incarceration goes unquestioned and only gets weirder with each passing episode.
I found myself baffled by the series' odd start, gave it an extremely rare rating of "??? out of 5" and basically dismissed it as pure artistic id vomited up to amuse the artist and anyone else who "gets it," and that's about it. I didn't get it at the time, so I settled on question marks for a ranking instead of a number. Well, no more! I'm seven episodes into Prison School by now, I'm in for the long haul, and if I don't start getting it soon, it might just get me instead.
So what is this show doing so right?
Maybe It's Kinda Sexy?
Alright, so I dismissed Prison School as a comedy (or at least a traditional comedy) early on, because it isn't "funny-ha-ha." It can be funny, but it doesn't feel like the show's main goal is just to make you laugh or it wouldn't be so off-putting. It clearly isn't trying to be a gut-busting satire or a feel-good sex romp. But maybe I'm onto something with that "sex" part. Maybe the real appeal of Prison School lies in its sexual shamelessness. Maybe the show is entertaining because boys getting shackled and subjugated by voluptuous women is scratching a carnal itch that doesn't get served by most other fanservice anime. Maybe Prison School is secretly super-hot?
Nope. Negatory. That is not it.
Just because something is sexual doesn't mean it's sexy, and Prison School is probably one of the least sexy shows about S&M you could possibly make. Sex-shaming and domme fetishism can be hot to certain audiences, but I don't think that's what Prison School is going for, because it would be failing spectacularly if so.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: the show just looks too gross to be sexy. Even before we get to the suggestive scenarios or camera angles, all the character art is intentionally coated in about three inches of Vaseline to make everyone look as greasy and spongy as possible; these are teenagers at their most pore-oozingly pubescent, and the show wants to make sure you never forget it. The school itself is lit in the most unappetizing shades of puke-yellow, rust-brown, and that-stuff-under-your-fingernails-gray, and that never changes either. This is the kind of school bathed in those fluorescent lights that make all your sweat and blemishes pop, and the prison yard looks like the kind of place that has never known a ray of sunshine, except when the sun is pounding down and washing everything out. Some of the characters are nice-looking guys and gals, but the world they live in is ugly, and it casts them in an ugly light.
There's more to it than that, though. Art styles are subjective, and in theory, the pseudo-realism of Prison School's art could still be aiming to turn someone's crank. Far less attractive hentai have found their audience just fine in the past, after all. The real nail in the coffin for Prison School's sex appeal comes not from the art, but from its narrative choice not to titillate, at least not directly. (I'm positive someone finds Prison School sexy, but my point is that the show seems to have the opposite goal in mind.)
To sell either S&M or the sexiness of shame, you have to show people being turned on by that domination or shame in a way that invites the audience to turn on too. Prison School never does this. When given a setup where it would be insanely easy to show the women getting off on their boy-torture, Prison School never shows the women feeling any kind of sexual satisfaction from their work. They're not resisting or denying any arousal either, which could also be a turn-on; they're flat-out oblivious to the potential hotness of their situation. They're honestly just punishing the boys because they detest them for various personal reasons. Some of the boys do get off on the torture, but this is immediately played up as disgusting and pathetic, and the main character isn't included in their gleeful masochism, so we never see any potentially sexy side of his situation. We see the world through Kiyoshi's eyes, and Kiyoshi is just miserable. Watching the other guys betray him by finding their abuse hot only makes him more miserable, and none of this misery seems remotely titillating.
So why is the show drenched in sexual imagery in the first place? Well, because libidos and naughty-parts are just another gross thing the show can play around with in its pursuit of maximum discomfort. (Also, artists often enjoy drawing boobs. Even distinguished artists like Akira Hiramoto love drawing boobs!) Sexual things in the show don't invite the audience toward them, they just sort of exist to eventually get covered in sweat or urine or something else icky. Meiko's colossal boobs are treated like "objects" by the most objective definition of the word. The boys don't get worked up over her bounce-action because they're too busy being afraid of her, and she never seems to care whether those puppies do or don't flop out of her jacket. They're just there, like that always-topless script girl in The Life Aquatic.
Okay, so it's not exactly a fanservice show. Well, even if they're not titillating, maybe the cast is appealing in a more thoughtful kinda way?
Maybe I Like the Characters?
Prison School has an undoubtedly high-stakes premise by high-school anime standards. So if I'm not objectifying these characters through humor or fetishization, maybe I'm supposed to empathize with their plight? Maybe Prison School has designs on being a weird sort of goofy-and-gross-yet-sincere character drama?
Huh. No, I don't think that's it, either.
It's obvious that the self-appointed wardens of this whole circus sideshow are pretty terrible, keeping these dudes locked up and forcing them into manual labor for a crime they didn't even get to commit. But this isn't any kind of inspiring prison-break story about well-intentioned boys standing up to their matriarchal dictators. These guys are just as perversely intentioned as their captors suspected, they're frequently cruel and catty to one another in ways usually associated with cliques of girls rather than bro-hordes, and they're so stupid that they seem to partially enjoy their captivity and pass the time playing like infant versions of their better selves. (Kiyoshi is the most "normal" one in the group, and even he falls prey to pettiness and bone-headedness pretty often.) They don't really deserve everything that happens to them, but you still kind of feel like they do.
At least they're all uniquely awful, which makes their antics fun to watch in a nauseating sort of way. Kiyoshi pedestalizes his "girl next door" crush and endangers the other boys and himself repeatedly in ill-planned attempts to see her. Gakuto is a high-strung otaku with an officious vocabulary and off-putting, sleazy mannerisms. Shingo is a judgmental, insecure dope who becomes dumber and more traitorous whenever a pretty skirt is involved. Joe is a monosyllabic cipher who mostly communicates through phlegmy coughing and the occasional dirty word. Andre is the most masochistic of the boys, with no personality traits apart from "loves to be abused" and "mentally five years old at most." Even at their best (Gakuto shows some incredible valor in pursuit of otaku collectibles rather than friendship, but eventually chooses friendship in the end), these guys are pond scum. Entertaining pond scum! But pond scum nonetheless.
Still, even though both the captives and the captors are schmucks in various ways, Prison School never seems pressed to settle on a villain. Mari, the crow-loving president of the Underground Student Council, comes closest to fitting the bill, but even her ruthlessness is tempered with sympathetic traits like strong protective instincts and a contemplative nature. She can be reasoned with, and has understandable reasons for doing things, which makes her feel both more and less villainous than her sillier and softer (yet more simplistically sadistic) underlings. With no true villains, there can be no true heroes, even though their bizarre actions are so compulsively watchable, Prison School doesn't seem judgmental or spiteful of any one person more than the others. It's a cartoonish perversion of the battle between sexes where neither side is right or wrong, but everyone is laughable, leaving no character depth behind to explore.
So what's left that has us all so entertained? Is this all a parody? Satire?
No, it's not satire or parody, the two biggest and smelliest elephants in any room of media analysis. Prison School isn't parodying anything because it's too distinct from any other prevalent genre to draw playful parallels. (Parody relies on familiarity with or similarity to another thing, and Prison School is too much of its own bizarre animal.) It's also not satirizing anything because satire relies on humor to deliver a message about its target. Even if a satire's humor doesn't always land, the message should be crystal clear, and Prison School seems to have no designs on a message of any kind.
Seriously, there seems to be no point to Prison School except to leave viewers in that constant haze of "why," always on the edge of their seats wondering what horrible, weird, perverse thing will happen next.
Wait a minute...
Wait, That's It!
It's the tension. Prison School is engrossing because there is always, always, always tension, and that's also what makes the comedy so unique.
When it comes to gross-out comedy in anime, there are already many cult favorites like Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, Excel Saga, and even this season's SHIMONETA. In most of these cases, the comedy comes from the trivialization of grossness. Even if something is juvenile and not much of a punchline on its own (poop, boogers, and vomit carried entire episodes of Panty & Stocking), the humor typically comes from treating the unmentionable like it's no big deal. Characters often seem oblivious to the "You can't say that on television!" responses around them (Excel Saga), and the audience gets positive feelings from the idea that laughing at an exclamation of "PENIS!" is normal, and it's the world around us that has the real problem (SHIMONETA). Gross-out comedy is usually predicated on making the audience pretend to be disgusted while barely concealing the gleeful look on their face.
Prison School is different because instead of trivializing the unmentionable, it treats the unmentionable with dread, and it totally sells the fear as a new flavor of comedy. It feels like a bizarro-world version of Flowers of Evil, where the show was supposed to be funny.
If Prison School can be said to have a theme, it's that pubescence is terrifying in an "embrace the madness" sort of way. In their own words, the boys are "imprisoned by love" (lust) and the real prison they can't escape from is the rush of perversion and sexual obsession flooding their system that just won't ever go away. It will follow them for the rest of their lives, just like it has the academy's otherwise professional headmaster. He will forever like big butts and be unable to lie about it.
Lady-parts are supposed to be sexy, but having those lady-parts sweat or pee on you can elicit a lot of mixed feelings. After Kiyoshi accidentally sees Hana (one of his captors that he's also very attracted to) peeing in the woods, she swears an eye for an eye, demanding that Kiyoshi let her watch him pee. It's genuinely scary and funny all at the same time, but it can only get worse from there.
One thing leads to another and Kiyoshi accidentally sprays number one all over Hana's face. She's mortified for only the faintest glimmer of a moment...but then once again swears an eye for an eye. And so, Kiyoshi may have developed a brand new phobia, the fear that just when you least expect it, somebody is going to pee on you. (Mingesmephobia?) Needless to say, all of Hana's ensuing appearances are ten times more terrifying.
Every interaction in the show is like this, and I don't think I've ever seen anything like it before. Shingo feels dread when he suspects that he's just witnessed Gakuto and Kiyoshi having sex in the shower, and Meiko feels dread when her inferiority complex to Mari causes her to sweat by the stinky gallon. Most of the time, this fear is communicated through foul gross-out humor, but that doesn't make it any less palpable. The boys' first prison break attempt is rife with all the tension of a real penitentiary escape, except instead of digging claustrophobic tunnels with a spoon, Gakuto must loudly poop his pants in a room full of girls in order to facilitate the jailbreak. It's no less dire a decision, at least not to him.
(You'll have to imagine the world's wettest and squirrel-iest fart for yourself, since .gifs only come in silent-but-deadly.)
Almost every gag in Prison School seems to be derived from fear, whether it's fear of embarrassment, fear of isolation, fear of your own hormones, or just fear of having a sexy stiletto heel shoved up your anus (and maybe liking it.) It's not an experience I'd recommend for everyone, but I can't stop watching Prison School because it always demands my attention, wrapping all the gravitas of a drama around all the substance of a comedy for a one-of-a-kind entrapment.
So why can't you stop watching Prison School? Let us know in the forums!
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