by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 12 of
It's flashback week on Gleipnir, as last week's last-minute tease leads into an extended look at Shuichi's former life and, more specifically, the lives of his friends. The spikily-coiffed Kaito, shown in full antagonist regalia last episode, temporarily takes over protagonist duties in the past while the aftermath of Honoka's meeting with the Alien spirals out of control into a melodramatic slurry of tears and murder. Gleipnir has never been one to pump its brakes, but this backstory slides downhill with such unhinged acceleration it's hard not to feel bewildered and exhausted by the end of it. With Shuichi's character arc finally coalescing into something tangible, I'm a little disappointed in this swerve into a different story. It's context, sure, but I don't know if we needed this much context this quickly.
I'm not foolish enough to think I can stop Gleipnir from being Gleipnir at this point, nor would I even want to. Its strangeness and baroque dramatic flourishes are encoded deep in its DNA, and the tragedy of this friend group unfolds like any other arc I'd expect out of the show. The main issue with this episode is one of characters. We didn't know that most of these people existed before last week, and even those we do know—Elena and Shuichi—are neither central to this story nor closely related to the figures we're currently familiar with. I mean, Shuichi still has anime amnesia, and Elena at some point warped into a significantly different person capable of killing her family (and almost killing Shuichi). This episode doesn't detail the events that led to these sea changes, but it does certainly explain the beginning of the end.
Our new faces, Kaito, Naoto, Aiko, and Honoka, form a tangled web of pre- and pubescent relationships that quickly warps into something much more disastrous once Honoka makes contact with the Alien. Gleipnir, however, is careful to point out that this is hardly the sole fault of the Alien's meddling. It's a trashy and frequently absurd story, but it's one that recognizes the importance of grounding its fantastical conflicts in familiar issues, like ostracization. Aiko falls prey to school bullying, while Honoka is ostracized more broadly by society at large due to her father's crimes. They find some solace in each other, but both are eventually driven to self-negation. Aiko literally kills herself, while Honoka does so metaphorically, asking the Alien to change her physical appearance to that of her friend's so that Aiko can, in some way, live on. The trick the episode plays on us (and on Kaito) relies on withholding this information, so that we default to an assumption that Honoka must have more sinister motivations.
This is a good trick, because it's perfectly in line with Gleipnir's thematic concerns. Seemingly sinister actions may come from a place of selflessness, which makes the morality of those actions a lot more complicated (although not necessarily more excusable). Kaito fails to conceive this, but only because he loves Honoka and thus could not accept her desire to no longer be Honoka. The result is a horrible spiral of wounded people wounding each other. And the more I reflect on it for this review, the more I really like what this episode does in abstract. The coin collecting plot in Gleipnir has always been the silliest part, but it can work really well behind the scenes as a catalyst for more personal tragedies. “Melodrama” is too often used as a pejorative, so I want to be clear that I think Gleipnir is a melodrama in a frequently quite effective sense. Exaggerating the dramatic aspects of a story—even as far as transmuting them into a battle royale with a fleshy fur suit mech—can legitimately work if there's a structure and a commitment to that structure.
Where this episode fails, then, is the fact that it tries to pull these tricks with characters we barely know. This stuff works with Clair and Shuichi because we've spent time with them since the beginning, and we've watched their weird relationship develop into the delightfully hot mess it is right now. I didn't even know Kaito existed before the final minutes of last week's episode, and I didn't know his name until this week. Fast-forward fifteen minutes, and he's strangling a girl to death while tears flow and mawkish music swells. Even for Gleipnir, that's a little much! There's value in the contextualization of the grand downfall of these cram school classmates, but the reach for emotional resonance is fatally constrained by the shallow characterization of these fresh faces. Maybe the manga pulled this off with more grace; here, it feels like something crammed into the final episodes of the season to drive up intrigue for the source material and/or a potential second season.
I admire Gleipnir for its commitment to its messiness, but this is a rare moment where I think it could've used more polish. Without Clair and Shuichi at its center, the narrative needs to work harder to remain compelling, and when it instead responds by taking a few too many dramatic shortcuts, it collapses. Still, Gleipnir slathers on the irony and dives headfirst into horror, and now we have a teen murderer hanging out with the unholy ghost of his victim (and romantic interest) while the two of them guard a stash of 100 GleipCoins™. And it does indeed appear that we have a 13-episode cour, so the exciting finale should drop next week! I hope that ends up being the episode I was anticipating this week, circling back to Clair and Shuichi and setting the stage for the next part of their journey. Even with this week's narrative hiccup, Gleipnir remains my favorite pick from this season, and I'll be sad to say goodbye to its gross visage.
Gleipnir is currently streaming on Funimation.
The state of the world has left Steve in despair! But never fear, he's still on Twitter too much.
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