by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 4 of
Last week's cliffhanger made it obvious that Clair and Shuichi got a bit ahead of themselves when it came to confronting Elena. Therefore, this week functions as a small breather—to the extent that we can consider Gleipnir capable of having a “breather,” that is. The situation doesn't get any less strange, and if anything, the presence of a decapitated-yet-conscious Shuichi and the confirmation of an actual alien ensure that Gleipnir keeps its audience on their toes. Nevertheless, we finally get a pause in the action as the story lays out its overarching plot and solidifies our main duo's motivations for the extraterrestrial treasure hunt to come.
I suppose we had to get an infodump about the “rules” of this coin collectathon eventually; I do, however, praise Gleipnir for holding off until its fourth episode to do so. I wouldn't have cared about this story nearly as much if we had begun here, but now that I'm invested in Clair and Shuichi as characters with clashing personalities and chemistry, I'm a lot more open to having their roles in the plot more thoroughly elucidated. This section is also aided by the natural charm of Takahiro Sakurai's voice, which adds an affect of sublimely condescending nonchalance to the Alien's explanations and ruminations. His initial affability gradually wears thin as the scene progresses and his inhumanity becomes more difficult to ignore. I especially like how this contrasts with Clair, who has a much more abrasive personality, yet stands firm and keeps her defenses up in the face of his blatantly-honeyed words.
The resulting outline of Gleipnir's plot is pretty hilarious when summarized: a UFO crash has strewn poker chips containing alien consciousnesses all around a small sleepy town, and the first person to collect 100 of them will be granted godlike powers. This is, of course, taking everything the Alien says at face value, which I'd advise against. But that's a fun if formulaic setup. What I really enjoyed about this scene, however, was the Alien's cold and detached probing into Clair and Shuichi's psyches. Fundamentally, the Alien offers people the power to remake themselves in their ideal image (with some monkey's paw-like caveats that should be pretty obvious by now). He claims that Shuichi has already had this procedure done, to the expected and amusing protests of the living mascot suit in front of him. Obviously, the Alien isn't being entirely genuine, since Elena appears to be the one responsible for Shuichi's metamorphosis, but he strikes a nerve when he muses how much the empty form fits Shuichi metaphorically.
The Alien's assessment of Clair is more layered and indirect. The form he promises and shows her is just a carbon copy of her own, but he prefaces it with a pointed question about self-hatred. Clair's depression has been in the foreground since the premiere, and it flares up awfully during her confrontation with her sister. Her desire to kill Elena is a sublimation of her own desire for self-destruction, a fact which Elena cruelly exploits when she brings up Clair's prior hatred of the parents she's now supposedly trying to avenge. Clair, ultimately, can't bear her own feelings of guilt by herself, and she can't forgive herself. The Alien more or less promises her an existence free from that depression, but she's strong enough to know that there's no miracle solution to her problems. She'd rather work things out together with Shuichi, and while that isn't at all the healthiest basis of a relationship, it's still leagues beyond surrendering her own agency. And I really appreciate that Gleipnir is able to explore Clair's vulnerabilities in a way that feels neither exploitative nor incongruous with the fun, sadistic aspects of her personality. That's a tough needle to thread!
That brings me to this episode's greatest triumph, which is the continued compelling development of Clair and Shuichi's relationship. The visceral, deliberately off-putting strangeness of their physical relationship remains Gleipnir's cleverest asset: it makes the anime tough to recommend, but it also provides a piercing lens through which to explore and feel their psychologies. Clair is utterly broken and wracked with guilt when she thinks she's lost Shuichi. Shuichi, in turn, wills himself to consciousness so he can desperately plea for her to not take her own life. This happens while Shuichi's decapitated mask animates itself on the ground, while Clair remains in the fleshy and mucousy confines of his comically oversized bodysuit. This scene shouldn't work, but it does. She hugs his big bug-eyed head, and it feels like a legitimately tender moment between two lost souls who have somehow found comfort in each other's brokenness. Later, she muses out loud that being with Shuichi has—literally and figuratively—given her a place where she finally feels like she fits in. The previously aimless Shuichi has also found a sense of purpose and belonging, as Clair has helped him explore and accept his new monstrous form. This scene pairs a tender and nostalgic piano piece with a flashback to the time she kicked him off the roof. Gleipnir makes no apologies for itself; it wears its absurdities on its furry sleeve alongside its anatomically-correct heart, and it works.
Of course, Gleipnir is neither perfect nor blameless. Most egregiously, I think the directness in the portrayal of Clair's suicidal tendencies is hard to reconcile against the heavy abstraction going on elsewhere. Now, I also think it's possible (and, indeed, good) to tell stories about depression through symbolism and metaphor, and I've found Gleipnir really compelling in that regard, but I have to recommend caution in approaching it. Additionally, Gleipnir's wild tonal inconsistencies are going to be a sticking point for a lot of people. On one hand, I appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into accurately rendering the all lace and wrinkles on Clair's underwear, but on the other hand, Gleipnir operates on a level of shameless skeeviness that will likely exhaust those who don't have the tolerance for trash that I do. In general, I'm really fascinated by intersections of so-called high-brow and low-brow art, and that's pretty much exactly what we have here. That said, the less Gleipnir returns to passé lecherous jokes at the expense of Clair, the better. And there's really no reason to do so when we have the sublime Junji-Ito-esque humor of our main character having to hold their decapitated head in place for half the episode.
While this was a more purely “functional” installment of Gleipnir than the prior three, it managed to make important strides both setting up its future arcs and bringing its main duo closer together. Clair and Shuichi's shared sense of codependency will absolutely need to be addressed at some breaking point, but right now they're the only people who can make each other whole. And personally, I love a show where I can groan at the gross visual irony of my prior statement while I also sigh wistfully at the sight of two depressed kids finding it in themselves to take care of each other. Gleipnir contains so many multitudes, and I can't wait to see more of them.
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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