The Fall 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
One day, Miko suddenly started seeing grotesque beings that others couldn't. Her response was not to run, not to face them, but to do everything she could to completely ignore them. (from manga)
How was the first episode?
Mieruko-chan is an interesting beast. On one hand, it is your typical high school slice-of-life series. We have the pretty-but-normal girl, Miko, and her best friend, Hana, just doing the daily student grind. They go to class, talk about random things, and play with their phones.
On the other hand, there's a distinct horror undertone from the get-go. As Miko goes about her daily life, she wipes away mysterious handprints, hears odd knocking sounds, and sees things moving all on their own. Of course, all of these could have mundane explanations, so Miko doesn't think about them twice—until she's face-to-face with a ghostly abomination that wants to know if Miko can see it.
Luckily, Miko is genre savvy. She knows how things end in horror movies. There's the jump scare, followed by a chase where the victim ends up somewhere “safe”, only to be surprised once more and killed by the supernatural entity. So she uses the unflappable persona she's cultivated at school to ignore the abomination before her by simply pretending she can't see it. And it works. The ghost wanders away and leaves her alone.
It is at this point that the show reveals itself to be neither a slice-of-life nor a horror series, but a comedy. The juxtaposition of the truly terrifying things Miko sees with the utterly blasé reaction she gives is funny in and of itself, but the additional layer of hearing her panicked inner thoughts raises the humor to a new level. My only real concern is how long this joke can go on before it gets stale—or if they will be able to mix it up in various ways to keep it funny.
The other thing I am interested in is the possibility that, instead of being “genre savvy,” Miko (as well as the audience) is actually “genre misled”. While both she and the audience know all the horror tropes, there is nothing to suggest that the ghosts she has encountered are evil or even malicious outside of their looks. None of them have actively tried to harm her (nor have they harmed anyone else for that matter). They've only tried to gain her attention. Perhaps that's the big joke to come: that they're all actually quite nice and are just searching for someone living who can help them pass on to the next world.
Of course, like Miko, there's no way I'd gamble my life on that possibility. Better to just keep your head down, soldier on, and let the tragic comedy ensue.
I love horror media, so one of my great disappointments over the years has been how few horror anime exist that actually work. I think some of that is just a fundamental problem of the medium; animation has a harder time than any other art form when it comes to generating scares, and to this day I can count the number of series that genuinely creeped me out or disturbed me on one hand. So, by my potentially unreasonable standards for scary cartoons, does Mieruko-chan hit the gold standard? No, not quite…but it does do a finer job than most, and that's saying something!
Interestingly, what makes Mieruko-chan work well as a horror anime is actually how it also leads into comedy whenever poor Miko is face-to-face with a nighttime spooky. The running joke of this episode is how all of the ghosts are constantly asking if Miko can see them, which results in Miko having to work really hard to pretend she's none the wiser. The laughs come from how over-the-top hideous these ghouls are (one of them is a large woman whose torso has been split open and stuffed full with even more corpses), not to mention how banal their requests seem to be. They don't seem like they're out to harm anyone; they just want to be seen.
For as funny as these encounters can be, though, Mieruko-chan never forgets how awful the experiences are for its heroine, and that's where the shivers start to run down the spine. The gross contortions of the spirits are one thing, but it's the zoom-ins on the tears welling up in Miko's eyes that get to me the most. The episode also has some keen editing and sound design to bolster its atmosphere; sure, it's mostly mimicking other, better horror media, but that's a tried and true genre tradition at this point. The gag that had Miko's cellphone freaking out was an especially creative sequence, and I hope we get more like it in the future.
Alas, there's one major fly to pick out of Mieruko-chan's ointment, and that's the fanservice. I know that sleazy butt shots are also horror tradition in their own right, but most horror movies and shows have the good sense to cut the horny crap when things are supposed to be frightening. The amount of completely irrelevant crotch shots in this one episode is frankly absurd, and there were a couple of moments where I was afraid that Miko's pajamas were going to straight up get swallowed by her various orifices. I'm pretty sure that isn't the kind of horrific vibe that Mieruko-chan is going for.
Still, most of this premiere was pretty great, and folks online tell me that the show's source material cools it with the panty peeking before too long. It's Halloween season, after all, and we're all entitled to one good scare, right? In Mieruko-chan's case, it's more like a “good enough" scare, but I'll take what I can get.
The scariest moment in Mieruko-chan for me came about ¾ of the way through the episode. The protagonist, Miko, is brushing her teeth and when she bends over to spit, there's a shot of her pajama pants crawling all the way up her buttcrack! It looks so uncomfortable! She'll never get a decent night's sleep that way, and as we all know, insomnia is the true horror.
I joke, but Mieruko-chan has exactly one decent spook in the entire episode. It's the first actual creepy moment and comes fifteen minutes into the 24-minute runtime. Waiting alone at night at a bus stop in the pouring rain is bad enough, especially when it's the end of a day with random little inconveniences, like having wet clothes because you decided not to bring an umbrella, or losing your keychain. It's the kind of moment where you're feeling edgy and vulnerable, and the slightest oddity or surprise can send your imagination spiraling.
After that, it's all gross-looking ghosts trying to get Miko's attention as she does her best to pretend she doesn't see them. This wasn't particularly scary so much as mildly amusing — it's the kind of thing you do when a small child is misbehaving for the sake of getting you to pay attention to them. They're decently gross-looking, reminiscent of the famously horrifying illustrations of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark children's books. Undoubtedly it didn't work in the episode's favor that I already read the manga and didn't care for it.
As for the first fifteen minutes? Well, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I didn't at all pick up what it was putting down until someone else pointed it out to me, so mostly I just found it boring. Now that I know what they were doing, I can respect it, but unless you're already familiar with the visual language of horror, a genre I rarely engage with, it really does seem like an anxious teenage girl going through her day. The animation is rather flat and static, saving its most lavish cuts for things like Miko pulling her underwear up after peeing in the school bathroom.
Maybe I was thrown off by the fanservice, with off-puttingly frequent shots of high school girls' thighs, and detailed shots of Miko's friend's sweater stretchers and lacy bra showing through her uniform shirt. It's damn near constant and throws off the mood; even if I had realized what the show was doing, I'd feel bad about how obsessively the camera ogles this frightened teenage girl, objectifying her even as she's pretending she's not scared witless.
Honestly, I'm not sure how to sum this review up. I honestly thought the first fifteen minutes were dull slice-of-life until I was halfway through writing up so I feel like a bit of an idiot. However, I don't think even if I had realized what was going on I'd be into Mieruko-chan; the fanservice is just too much and Digimon Ghost Game is already doing something similar that I enjoyed more.
I love horror stories – ghosts in particular. Blame it partially on my upbringing – for reasons not worth going into, I spent multiple nights in unattended cemeteries as a pre-teen – but the concept of spirits existing just outside the frame of normal human perception has always fascinated me. So just the premise of Mieruko-chan was enough to hook me, even if I wasn't already familiar with the manga. A girl suddenly being able to see the numerous terrifying remnants of human aura populating the shadows of her every day life, powerless to remove or avoid them, is left to cope in the most human way possible: ignoring the horrific sights and sounds itching at the edges of perception and hoping they'll go away after enough time. It's a wonderful setup for both horror and comedy, and so far the anime is doing the source material justice in both regards.
Perhaps too much justice, if I'm being honest. The one big caveat to this IP is that its origins as a web comic mean its early chapters are, for lack of a better word, distractingly horny. I'm not opposed to any and all fanservice, but when I'm witnessing our heroine try to maintain a pokerface in the shadow of a gangly ghoul, desperately hoping it won't realize she can see it, I don't really need a close-up of her pajama bottoms conforming to her ass crack, y'know? That element thankfully eases itself out of the manga after a bit, and I was hoping this adaptation would do away with it entirely. But alas, there's just as many obtrusive butts and close-ups of thighs interrupting what is otherwise some Grade-A supernatural horror at play.
A lot of that comes down to the pacing. The pitch-perfect spooky story opening lets you know up front that this isn't a simple slice-of-life show, priming the audience for the coming scares even as nothing is actively happening on-screen. Audio cues and blink-and-you'll-miss-it background moments keep just enough tension in the air, before the ghostly dangers surrounding Miko finally make themselves known. Then there's little touches, like Miko spotting a figure walking by the window, only to slowly realize she's standing on the third floor. It's classic ghost story ideas, but delivered with just the right amount of visual and audio panache to make it land, and I ate it up even as I knew what was coming most of the time.
So yeah, I can't blame anyone for being put off by the uh, “creative” camera work on display in this episode, but I can reasonably promise folks still curious about this one that it's worth sticking through. If nothing else I'll be sticking around because by god do I need some good, fun horror in my life to combat the dull, real-life variety.
Mieruko-chan in its first episode seems to be playing it relatively true to its source manga, meaning that it is an awkward mix of fanservice and horror. Not that the two can't coexist, but the particular blend is what makes this feel a bit off – scenes of poor high school girl Miko trying desperately to convince herself that she isn't seeing the unholy (or just plain ugly) dead are juxtaposed with images of her taking her underwear off to sit on the toilet, of her butt, or, alternatively, of her friend Hana's breasts. Since these elements don't really work together, things just wind up feeling disjointed. That's true of the manga at this point as well, but this may be a case of where too faithful an adaptation isn't a great thing.
That's a shame, because when Mieruko-chan is leaning into its horror aspects, it's really pretty good. The way that the episode builds up to the realization that she is seeing and hearing everything that she's seeing and hearing is very well done. We go from an episode of an in-world TV show where a ghost crawls out of a fridge Sadako-style to seeing Miko's refrigerator at home slowly opening all on its own, but without Miko acknowledging it. She casually wipes handprints off the bathroom mirror, trying hard to convince herself that her little brother made them. She sees shadows flit by out of the corner of her eye, and visibly tries not to turn around to look. Finally, around the three-quarters mark, we see what Miko has been trying not to: big, deformed, scary ghosts.
I do very much appreciate how this is done. Fanservice elements aside, we get a good sense of just how hard Miko's working not to see the spirits, and little clues like the way she looks in desperate need of a good night's sleep and how she's either laser-focused or easily distracted provide nice hints before the big reveal of the ghost at the bus shelter. Seeing her stare at a rolling ball outside her classroom window before hearing approaching sirens is another good indicator of what's really going on for her, and by the end of the episode when she's basically seeing spirits in every room, including under her covers, we can understand why the poor girl has circles under her eyes. Her life is simply terrifying.
The good news is that the manga does move away from the fanservice and gets into some solid, emotional material. (Manga readers will have already picked up on a major hint in this episode.) So this may be worth sticking out another episode or two to see if the anime follows suit.
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