The Spring 2020 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Shuichi Kagaya is a high school senior from a more rural area. He passes on a college recommendation for his own reasons, perhaps in part because he's recently felt a beast within himself. That's not figurative, either; his sense of smell has become exceptionally keen, but more importantly, he can also transform into a creature that looks like a leering, dog-themed mascot. He uses that form to save an unconscious girl from a fire in a factory shed up on a mountainside, though he is also terrified by the urges it brings on. When the girl tracks him down the next day, she is aware that he is a monster and pushes him on whether or not he knows anything about a mysterious coin. But as they both soon discover, Shuichi isn't the only monster around.
Gleipnir is based on a manga and streams at 11:30 a.m. on Sundays.
How was the first episode?
I was wondering when we'd see this season's prerequisite sleazy battle manga adaptation, and Gleipnir looks to be filling those shoes out nicely. Like many of its ilk before it, Gleipnir takes a grim n' gritty approach to its story and then spices it up by throwing a whole bunch of mysteries at us all at once. What are the strange coins everyone is carrying, and why does one of them summon some weirdo out of a vending machine? Why does Clair comes across as such a sadistic misanthrope, and what stake does she have in the violence exploding all around her. Oh, and perhaps most pertinently, why has our protagonist, Shuuichi, started transforming into what can only be described as a superpowered mascot costume straight from hell?
We don't get any easy answers to these questions in Gleipnir's premiere, unsurprisingly, but what the show succeeds at where others before it have failed is in crafting an aesthetic and a tone that is worth caring about even when you aren't being pummeled with gratuitous sex, gore, and plot dumps. Shuuichi seems like a good kid for the most part, if not a little aimless, but his first heroic deed as an impromptu hero when he transforms – saving Clair from a fire that we later learn was a suicide attempt — is immediately sullied by his newfound impulse to lust after and even molest the unconscious girl. He stops himself short, thankfully, but it's a monstrous act, and he knows it. Other series would have lingered on the taboo of the scene, and the aggressive sexuality of it, but while Gleipnir doesn't shy away from having its camera linger on Clair's body many times throughout the episode, I feel like its intentions aren't strictly lecherous. This is one of those series that is exploring its protagonist's ambivalent relationship with his own sexual desires, and the dangerous ends those desires can lead to when gone unchecked.
That doesn't excuse the fanservice, it provides meaningful context. That (hopefully) thoughtful approach to otherwise seedy material is pervasive throughout Gleipnir's premiere. The animation has weight and purpose to it, the editing keeps the tension high even in scenes where no immediate threat is present, and Shuuichi is a flawed and messy character without being either boring or outright despicable, at least in my opinion. I'm only vaguely familiar with the manga on which Gleipnir is based, so I don't know at all where any of these breadcrumb trails of mystery might be going, nor whether the story's exploration of dark and disturbing subject matter will ultimately be handled well, or simply descend into Gantz-styled ultra-nihilism. Gleipnir's first episode must be doing something right, though, seeing as I'm curious enough to stick with it some more and find out.
If I had to describe Gleipnir in a word, it would be “clammy.” Clammy in the way your shirt sticks to your back on a hot summer day. Clammy in the way you feel uncomfortably aware of your own pores and sweat, just as you're trying your best to look confident. Clammy in the way adolescence in general tends to be clammy; packed with uncomfortable intimacy and uncontrollable hormones, shameful and ugly and raw, just as the world is expecting you to finally grow up.
Gleipnir's first episode is packed with moments of raw, uncomfortable intimacy, along with a whole lot of nudity and sweat. We open on a viscerally overheated scene of protagonist Shuichi giving up on a potential college recommendation, as the summer sun bears down on him and his advisor. The sense of overbearing summer heat is palpable all throughout this episode, captured through dramatic lighting, evocative layouts, and persistent closeups on the show's expressive, perpetually damp-haired characters. Cicadas are echoed by mechanical techno squeals from the show's excellent soundtrack, creating a sense of horrific anticipation even before we learn about Shuichi's other form. And by the time he starts being manipulated by the suicidal Clair Aoki, Gleipnir feels like a full-on horror production in the mode of The Flowers of Evil; tense, uncomfortable, and bracingly immediate.
Those two paragraphs basically described everything I liked about Gleipnir: its incredible ability to capture uncomfortably hormonal adolescence, its terrific layouts and character designs, its strong sense of oppressive summer atmosphere, and its general quasi-horror tone. Less thrilling to me was the show's frequently clumsy use of Clair as a source of pure fanservice, which felt voyeuristic in a way that didn't actually add anything to the narrative or character relationships. Clair in general feels more like a device for the protagonist's journey and hormones than a person so far; she feels unknowable in the way girls often seem unknowable to adolescent boys, more an idol of beauty and terror than a human being. My biggest hope for the show is that that impression is merely a reflection of our initially Shuichi-centered perspective; if Gleipnir is going to evolve beyond “interesting” into genuinely good, it'll be through building Shuichi and Clair into equally messy, sympathetic characters. Based on the opening song, it also seems likely that Gleipnir is going to resolve into a particularly horny battle royale, which frankly feels like a bit of a waste of this premiere's terrific control of atmosphere and subtle character acting. Still, Gleipnir is both visually enthralling and dramatically fascinating in its hormonal grindhouse way, and probably deserves at least a glance from any adventurous anime fans.
In Norse mythology, Gleipnir is the name of the rope which was created by dwarves to bind the great wolf Fenrir. How, exactly, this applies to this series isn't clear based on the first episode, and it's entirely possible that the original manga-ka used it just because it sounds cool. But hey, the protagonist does have a dog/wolf-like appearance when transformed, so it may mean something after all.
Whatever the case, I was somewhat interested by this series based on the concept and the form Shuichi turned into shown in the advertising graphic, and after seeing the first episode, I think it's a keeper. This is a concept that could have very easily been silly, stupid, and/or schlocky, but the first episode mostly avoids all of that – and that it does so despite the protagonist looking like a mascot is quite an accomplishment. A lot of the reason for that is the writing's tone. Driven by a strong musical score by Ryōhei Sataka (whose only other anime credit is Release the Spyce), the series has a dark and moody ambiance without fully wallowing in it. Part of this is how the protagonist is unsettled by what's happening to him in a not-at-all-humorous way. He's disturbed by the changes in himself and the way it's pushing him toward more animalistic instincts, especially the way scent seems to be driving him. The sadistic flair to Clair, the girl in question, also sharpens the edge to the content, though I have trouble buying her claim that the burning shed was a suicide attempt; it seems both out of character for her and more like an attempt to attract attention.
And yeah, sex appeal is very definitely an intended draw here. The visuals for both the opener and closer promote it, the fire isn't the most drastic scene in the episode where Clair gets to flaunt her figure, and the visuals aren't above panty shots. Save for Shuichi's mascot form, I am generally not a fan of the character design aesthetic here, and the animation isn't anything especially remarkable except for one thing: an unusually high level of animation detail is devoted to the transformation scenes. There's also a very interesting early scene where a young man climbs out of a vending machine. On the whole, I can't seeing Gleipnir blowing people away with what it does, but it puts together just enough appeal that I can give it a mild recommendation.
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