by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 4 of
Otherside Picnic ?
So I'm given to understand that last week's episode of Otherside Picnic was not a part of the original novels' stories, but rather an anime-original creation nonetheless composed by the series' author. Some of the general vibes and ideas of that episode still fit with the motifs the series was leading to between its second and this week's fourth, but I daresay that being effectively filler after a fashion might've contributed to the looser, less-consequential elements of that episode. That's to say nothing of the technical efforts, though I at least also confirmed the seemingly-inconsistent depiction of Sorawo's eye color is in fact the result of her covering up the inconsistent iris with a contact, though that's still not been spelled out in this anime adaptation. Even with that tonal bridge of the third episode, there remain a few inconsistencies with the storytelling here, particularly with the subject of the episode's title, the Space-Time Man. He's described at the beginning as a somewhat antagonistic multi-dimensional G-Man, and he's apparently started following Sorawo around, advising her to lay off the trips to the otherside. Except that detail, like so many initiating plots in Otherside Picnic, is kind of dropped onto us in media res, and stranger still, isn't as central to this episode's plot as you might expect from all that highlighted importance.
That might be an inevitable consequence of all the other details, worldbuilding, and backstory crammed into this episode to the point of feeling positively bursting. The Space-Time Man stuff is practically glossed over, the show seeming to act like we already know enough about it based on an (admittedly effectively atmospheric) opening narration and mysterious showcase. As Kozakura informed Sorawo, the Man himself may only be one hazy prong of a more bizarre otherworldly conspiracy coalescing around Sorawo. That injects some positive momentum into the details of this plot, even as the show threatens to leave us in the dust by simply dropping new clues that warrant more context and setup. Otherside Picnic is supposed to be a brain-bending trip, sure, but just a couple times this episode it feels like it's trying to pass being confusing off as being mysterious.
I feel like they actually could have made more economical use of the mysterious motifs of those details, because the entire theme of this episode is fear, and how that springs from the unknown and misunderstood. And here's the big surprise, within that theme, everything else about this episode works wonderfully. The setup for this week's story is borne out of Sorawo's concerns about the diminishing returns of their Otherside trips she remarked on at the end of last week's episode, played up compared to the previously-unspoken fear she vocalizes for Toriko that Satsuki may no longer be around to be found. So the girls go their separate ways for a time, escalating Sorawo's fear that she might lose her new connection to Toriko, alongside a fear of how much that connection really means to her. As someone who loves strong, tangible themes in stories, I was thus already on board for this initiating conflict of the episode, even as odder details are being dropped.
The rest of the episode is spent on demonstrated quantifications of how different people experience fear. With Toriko having gone off on her own, Kozakura gets to come along for the ride with Sorawo instead, and she's precisely the type of character necessary to deliver a supposedly-scientific analysis of why different people are naturally predisposed to different capacities for fear. Kozakura's an immediately endearing resource to the situationally scary shenanigans of Otherside Picnic, playing off a different dynamic with Sorawo and even drawing out some personal information not yet divulged to us or Toriko! Sorawo's backstory, involving tragedy and a cult tearing her family apart and her own momentary contemplation of destroying her own father and grandmother before they were taken from her by pure incident, is shockingly dark. I wasn't ready for it at all, and the matter-of-fact way it is delivered impresses on us and Kozakura how Sorawo's ability to power through the kinds of horrific situations that currently define their lives might not be as down to pure biological predilection as Kozaruka hypothesized only moments earlier. When you've already stared down the unraveling of your own connective reasons for existing, how much trouble could it be to gaze at an unknowable horror? In that moment we grasp why Sorawo is grappling more tensely with her spiraling feelings for Toriko than with any of the flickering nightmares threatening her in the Otherside: Toriko has once again turned her onto the mortifying ordeal of being known, and losing that feeling again, slipping back into being unknown, is Sorawo's greatest fear.
Like I said, this is some dense stuff, and it's only one slice of the pie that was packed for this week's picnic. And frankly, I will take that kind of layered analysis of the very concept of fear, acknowledged in-universe as the feeling the Otherside entities prey on in order to manifest to us, over any kind of labored explanations of how and why Sorawo met the Space-Time Man. Thankfully, if the show's blowing off boarding in those details, its presentation is put to way more effective use as a tool of tone and style in this episode. All that exercising of fear means the horror-genre knob on Otherside Picnic's DJ station of influences is turned as far up as the previously-modest resources would let it go. Moments like the fake-out tension of the intruders at Kozakura's door are directed with pitch-perfect horror-movie effectiveness, timing it just right to freak us out with a big eyeball followed by a nightmarish giant head. The trick of not trusting anything you see in the Otherside, once again communicated through Sorawo, isn't as novel as that first ‘Gotcha’ moment back in episode 2, but it still works in making its point, now manifold with all the other spooky elements folding in on each other this episode. There's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it evil version of Sorawo who disappears around a corner for us to look out for now moving forward, not to mention the way each new room and environment Sorawo turns into disorientingly sports a different color pallette than the last. I don't think there's overtly more animation this week than there has been in the previous episodes, but how they're using it is that much more consistent, with even the CGI shortcuts used much more sparingly.
It almost feels like letting Otherside Picnic off easy for me to back off criticism of a story supposedly powered by detail-heavy speculative science-fiction in favor of praising what it made me feel, but then again that seems entirely appropriate. The creatures and their effects are, after all, codified as being conducted through a feeling itself anyway, and the series is pushing all its buttons to bring the audience into that this week. The sound design is another element firing on all cylinders, from the ramping-up disorienting instrumentals that fuel the tense roller-coaster pacing keeping us on our toes, to the wind whistling past Sorawo's lonely reprisal of a climb up the ladder, the presentation of which I swear set off my own acrophobia. This series is tapping into everyone's fears to manifest itself! At the heart of all that, then, is an arc about what feelings we should have, to which degree, in any given situation. As Kozakura details, the fear humans experience can be used by us as much as other entities, gauging situations and assessing when it might be time to back off. Was Sorawo's fear that Toriko might not find Satsuki a warranted, safe reaction? Or was pushing through that to help Toriko overcome the fear-fueled manifestation of a fake Satsuki and save her from it the right choice in the long run? Otherside Picnic tempts us with one and rewards us with the other; Sorawo and Toriko had barely been separated for the length of this episode, but as they reunited and communicated again in the final minute, I realized how much I'd already missed their dynamic. The series here proves it can sit at an effective crossroads of emotional and conceptual storytelling, exploring ideas rooted in manipulating our very human feelings. And it can do so in a way that compels me, at least, to look past some clumsy exposition or workmanlike technical merits presented simply with strong, confident direction. I said before that I thought the show would be at its strongest if it could manage that specific kind of balancing act, and I think they've already done it with this episode.
Otherside Picnic is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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