The Winter 2020 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
When she was 11, Kotoko Iwanaga was spirited away for two weeks and asked to become a God of Wisdom who would mediate for various spirits. She agreed, at the cost of an arm and leg. Four years later she encountered college student Kuro Sakuragawa at the hospital and took an interest in him, though he had a girlfriend at the time. Two years later, after he was apparently dumped, she approaches him openly about her interest. But her interest isn't just romantic; the local yokai seem deathly afraid of Kuro, and that isn't normal at all. When she asks him to accompany her in dealing with a violent spirit who is rampaging in a library, she gets her first big hint about why they fear him: Kuro's body is fatally poisonous to spirits.
How was the first episode?
Though there are plenty of anime directors with a variety of telling stylistic tics, there are far fewer anime writers who can be identified by prose alone. Gen Urobuchi's punchy dialogue and thematic obsessions, Mari Okada's flair for vulnerability and melodrama, Nisio Isin's wordplay and self-aware prose; they are outliers in an industry whose writing more often feels strictly functional, or even flat-out derivative. To this shortlist of distinctive writers, I am happy to add In/Spectre's Kyou Shirodaira. You might not like his style of dialogue, but he absolutely has a style, and that itself counts for something.
Having watched the entirety of Shirodaira's earlier Blast of Tempest, it actually felt kind of nostalgic to return to his style of rambling, character-rich conversations. Shirodaira's cast speak with a combination of confessional lyricism and rigid formal structure; often, his characters feel like confident formal debaters, each attempting to corner the other in a logical or emotional contradiction. This premiere introduces us to the spiritual mediator Kotoko and mysterious young man Kuro, and it only takes a handful of exchanges before the two of them have developed an endearing, punchy rapport that naturally celebrates the differences in their personalities. There aren't many shows that would hang a key scene's dramatic turning point on the phrase “please clarify the subject of that sentence.”
Though In/Spectre isn't overtly riffing on stage plays like Tempest, it still feels like one; the conversations lead the drama here, meaning that people who are seeking a more action-packed spirit hunting vehicle might find this premiere slow. But personally, I had an excellent time with In/Spectre's first act, and already feel invested in the contrast between the smug, overbearing Kotoko and the self-loathing Kuro. In/Spectre's above-average production values also help enhance its appeal, with the bulk of this episode's animation seeming to (wisely) be dedicated to Kotoko's various pouts and smirks. On the other hand, I wasn't a big fan of this premiere's washed-out colors, and felt the overall muted palette drained some tension from the episode's finale sequence. But stories like In/Spectre live and die by their character chemistry, and so far, this production has that in spades. In/Spectre gets a solid recommendation from me.
In/Spectre is the rare title this season where I actually have read some of the source material – specifically, the manga adaptation of the novel originally known in Japan as Invented Inference: Steel Idol Nanase. (Fun fact: the writer of that novel was also the creator of Spiral and Blast of Tempest.) Though I did not keep up with it past the first volume, the concept and characters interested me enough to make this one of my second-tier Most Anticipated Titles for the season. As I had expected, the story translates well into anime form.
The first episode exactly corresponds to Chapter 1 of the manga version, with only a few inconsequential bits skipped and the ordering of some scenes adjusted slightly. The latter is definitely a plus; when I reviewed the first volume back in 2016, my main complaint was about how some of the early content was ordered. Even so, the episode is still slow to get going. It picks up markedly once the truth about Kuro's break-up starts to come out, hence making the middle and final third of the episode distinctly stronger than the first third.
One of the more interesting aspects of the episode is the logical foundation it uses for why Kotoko specifically had her right eye and left leg taken. The most direct connection is to the Shinto god Kuebiko, a scarecrow who had great knowledge but could not walk. Kotoko also brings up the point that a missing eye being associated with being godly and wise isn't uncommon in mythology across the world. (As a side note, characters with a missing eye and a lame or missing leg who are considered spiritual mediums also appear elsewhere in literature; see Creb from Jane Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear.) Hence it isn't a random sympathy play, and indeed, that she has a glass eye and prosthetic leg are not immediately obvious; in fact, in at least one place she moves well enough on that prosthetic to suggest that her cane may now be just an affectation rather than something she actually needs. The details about why Kuro is scary will have to wait for next episode, though the revelation about his own early encounter with yokai makes for a fantastic ending point for the episode.
So far the spirits and yokai have been fairly typical in manifestation, but the pairing here isn't an entirely normal one. Kotoko is remarkably forward and confident about expressing her romantic interest, but not in the all-too-common over-the-top way generally used in anime for bolder girls. With her usually- calm demeanor and dry wit, she has a bit different kind of style and appeal. Kuro, meanwhile, seems like the kind of guy who gets overwhelmed by the women in his life, but he shows flashes of a tougher spirit as well. By the end of the episode they are showing signs of being a potentially interesting couple. The pairing of a girl who can mediate with a guy who can terrorize creates a potential “good cop/bad cop” kind of dynamic, which has a lot of potential for future dealings with spirits.
The visual effort, courtesy of Brains Base, is not the strongest, as it already shows some signs of quality control issues in select shots. And is it just me or does Kotoko's design (especially in the head) remind anyone else of Tanya from Saga of Tanya the Evil? Also be forewarned that it can suddenly get very graphic. Maybe the neatest production element is the jazzy closer, which shows the two dancing in formal wear.
Overall, there's enough of a vibe here for this to earn a mildly positive recommendation from me.
What I remember most about the In/Spectre manga is not being particularly enthralled by it despite it having numerous elements that I normally enjoy. Sad to say, the same holds true for its anime adaptation. While it uses folklore, urban myths, ghosts, and mystery as the basis for its story, with a dollop of romance thrown in for good measure, the ingredients fail to come together in an engaging way, making it feel a little under-baked at best, or perhaps overly ambitious.
Part of the issue is that some of its base mythology is a little bit off the mark. Female protagonist Kotoko says that she's essentially become a kuebiko, which she describes as a deity who has given up a leg and/or an eye for divine knowledge and cites the Kojiki for that. Maybe I just read a different translation (which in all fairness is entirely possible), but my understanding was that Kuebiko is a specific god of knowledge who cannot walk but knows all and is often depicted as a scarecrow. There's no mention of there having been a trade-off for this wisdom, and it feels a touch disingenuous to be actually citing a source and then flubbing it. Is this academic snobbery on my part? Probably, but it absolutely took me out of the episode, which is a problem.
The greater failing, however, is that In/Spectre's first episode just sort of strings together a lot of plot threads without taking the time to interest us in any of them or to weave them together into a full narrative. Kotoko's obsession with Kuro seems to come out of the blue, Kuro's relationship with his ex-girlfriend is meant to make us question who (or what) he is, but instead comes off as a rambling side story that proves Kotoko's stalker tendencies more than anything, and we never even actually find out what the monster in the library is before Kuro poisons it. (I think it's a gyuki, or cow demon.) It feels as if the episode is hoping that something will be interesting enough to make us want to keep watching, andfigures that if it throws a fallen warrior ghost with a Harlequin romance habit AND a guy who can poison yokai with his flesh, one of them will bring us back for more.
Obviously it didn't work for me, even if I like that the heroine is differently abled with her prosthetic leg (because we don't see that very often, much less in a show with an action component) and really did get a chuckle out of the Harlequin-reading ghost. It's just too much without enough of it following the same internal or folkloric logic. This isn't a bad story, though – just not one that, despite its best efforts, really comes together in a way that truly works.
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