by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 1 of
How would you rate episode 2 of
The glut of new anime airing each season can be a chore to wade through, so it's especially refreshing to me when a show immediately asserts itself with an actual personality. That's the impression In/Spectre indented onto me within its first few minutes, mostly by virtue of the strength of its character writing. The original In/Spectre novels were written by Kyou Shirodaira, who I only really know by reputation as the author of Blast of Tempest. However, I'm energized to check out more of his work now, because his voice can be heard loud and clear through his dialogue. These are characters in a novel who talk like they're characters in a novel—it's a very particular brand of loquaciousness and self-effacing wit. I can certainly imagine it'll be grating to some people, but I love this.
It also helps that I really like our two main characters, especially Kotoko. She's a plucky little gremlin with a penchant for bonnets that wouldn't at all feel out of place in a Touhou game. Returning to my point about personality, hers is strong and evident from the get-go, and it's funny to watch her run into a brick wall as she tries valiantly to confront her crush. Her thirst for Kuro is front-and-center, and honestly it's always nice to have a female protagonist who's frank and unapologetic about her romantic and physical attractions. It's even more charming to see the way her weird goat metaphor metamorphoses into a literally-horny epiphany. She's far from a total disaster, however. Her love flailings are balanced by her confidence and competency when it comes to the supernatural, courtesy of her assumed role as Goddess of Wisdom. Despite the grandiosity of her title, she's pretty much a mediator for squabbles that pop up between the various yokai in Japan, and that forms the spine of In/Spectre's story.
Our leading man Kuro is not nearly as animated as Kotoko, but in turn his personality is a good complement to hers. As the second episode makes abundantly clear, he's the all-too-rare breed of the male tsundere. He's obviously intrigued by Kotoko and the similar (albeit opposing) relationships they both have with the supernatural, but he's definitely not going to give her the satisfaction of cooperation without friction. Their verbal fencing makes up the bulk of the premiere, which, again, is why I'm glad the writing is good enough to sustain these extended interactions. I enjoy huge action spectacles as much as the next person, but my ideal form of interpersonal conflict in literature is two jerks disguising their desperate flirting as intellectual debate. That worked really well for Monogatari, and so far, it's worked very well for In/Spectre.
The pun in the title alone promises some kind of mystery series, but it's already apparent that In/Spectre isn't concerned with being a “normal” mystery series, even beyond its focus on the supernatural. The premiere is fairly straightforward, establishing its characters and the structure of the show. While the focus will unsurprisingly be on figures from Japanese folklore and mythology, I do like that In/Spectre seems willing to draw from and play with other cultures' stories. Kotoko herself acknowledges that the figure of a one-eyed and/or one-legged god is something that permeates nearly all mythologies. Similarly, the opening scene pulls deliberately from the popular image of Alice In Wonderland—a blonde girl in a blue dress having fallen into a place full of strange creatures. Its thematic interests, then, can be assumed to be not merely the relationship between yokai and the modern world, but the place that folklore in general has with modernity.
Kotoko and Kuro, consequently, represent opposing frames of mind when it comes to dealing with these yokai. Kotoko willingly embraced her role as supernatural mediator, and she did so at great personal sacrifice. There's an altruism to her actions, for sure, but she also appears genuinely buoyed by her status as “goddess.” The fact that she can help her friends, who are invisible to (nearly) everyone else, is a source of pride that defines her character. Even if the conflicts are largely petty, it's something she and nobody else can do. Kuro, on the other hand, does not embrace the yokai; he scares them away. This is a consequence of him eating the meat of two yokai after a chance encounter when he was a child. There are parallels to Kotoko's story, but they're divergent parallels. It's implied that he probably didn't do this of his own volition, and where Kotoko's body was maimed, his was blessed (or cursed) with a kind of immortality. Neither he nor the yokai want anything to do with each other, but Kotoko is determined to reignite that relationship. It's important to remember that, in stories such as this, the supernatural is often a metaphor for the natural, and thus what's also going on here is a discussion about how modern man interacts with nature. In/Spectre, therefore, feels concerned with exploring the synthesis of both Kotoko's and Kuro's philosophies, and I'm eager to see where that goes.
I'm also eager to see if In/Spectre continues to pull off the metatextual trickery found in its second episode. The first episode ends in an action scene because that's what first episodes do, but the second episode's mystery seems (I hope) more indicative of the tone that In/Spectre wants to strive for. After watching it, I couldn't help but notice that the comment section was full of people grumbling about the cliffhanger, which is missing the point of the story entirely. Kotoko's goal in that episode isn't solving the mystery; her goal is to solve the mystery in a way that's satisfactory to a pedantic snake god who keeps interrupting her explanation with tiny quibbles about how they interpret the clues. Using more or less the same set of information, Kotoko continually revises and elaborates her explanation, ultimately to no avail. By the end, it's clear that, no matter what Kotoko comes up with, the snake is going to come up with some way to be dissatisfied by her answer. Their back-and-forth could feasibly be continued ad infinitum. Thus, this isn't a story about the mystery itself as much as it's a story about a particular and prevalent kind of audience who love to pick apart stories with complaints of plot holes and logical inconsistencies. In other words, the snake god is a metaphor for CinemaSins. Theirs is a boring, A-to-B misinterpretation of storytelling as an airtight reproduction of reality. Stories are much more interesting than that. Stories are about things.
I'm also, admittedly, biased towards any text that goes out of its way to troll its target audience for a noble cause. The episode preview makes it deliberately clear that In/Spectre will not be picking up on this cliffhanger next week, and I wouldn't expect it to ever reference that cliffhanger again. That's going to make most people angry, but I hope it also makes a subset of those people question their preconceived notions about what stories are. There isn't a “correct” answer to that mystery beyond the one you yourself find satisfying.
In/Spectre emerges as a supernatural mystery series with an abundance of personality and a strong head on its shoulders. I've already praised the writing, so let me finish by praising how well the animation component has complemented it so far. Lots of care has been put into depicting the minutiae of its main characters' body language and facial expressions, and that's important for a series so reliant on long stretches of dialogue. I also really like how expressive they made the snake god by taking some anthropomorphic liberties with its eyes. While I wish the palette weren't so muted, what it lacks in color saturation, it makes up for with the saturation of its author's voice. In/Spectre will probably end up a divisive series if its second episode is any indication, but for people like me who subsist on wry character banter and genre playfulness, it should be a boon.
In/Spectre is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Steve loves two things: writing about anime and retweeting good Fate GO fanart on his Twitter.
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