by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 6 of
Otherside Picnic ?
“It'll work out as long as we have each other” is the mantra that Toriko posited in last week's episode of Otherside Picnic, and while I appreciated its assurances to the girls then, the ways it comes back this week leave me contemplating a decidedly darker element of that exclusive reliance on each other. It's possibly unintentional as well, or at least reflective of a worldview of Otherside Picnic's author towards the unknowable horrific situations they've continually crafted. The specter of the untrustworthy ‘other’ in the Otherside has already been called attention to several times, but I feel like the complexities of self-reliance versus assisting others for no more mercenary reasons than maintaining your own humanity land too squarely on the side of self-interest at the end of this particular story. If it sounds like I'm making a roundabout effort to skirt the issues, that's because I am, because at this moment the show leaves me really unsure about how to assess its portrayal of the characters involved. But let me try to explain what I mean.
This episode of Otherside Picnic sees Sorawo and Toriko taken in by the soldiers they met and regrouped with at Kisaragi Station last week. A little more information on their stranded situation is put forward, with the dwindling numbers of the military men thrown up as stark, multiple-choice examples of the harsh, uncaring danger of the Otherside. Our heroines have to escape death at every turn due to being the protagonists, but anecdotes of waves of soldiers being thrown into magical mystery meat-grinders just clarify how lucky they've really been. The grim picture their tales of lost comrades paint honestly made me feel for their situation and even understand the cutting, untrustworthy way some of them acted towards the girls. It genuinely feels hopeless, as something like this certainly would to anyone without a magical eye or hand to help guide them out, and the crushing effects of that should leave anyone paranoid.
So well does Otherside Picnic sell the reasoning behind the soldiers' distrust that the self-centered aspects of Sorawo and Toriko's actions within immediately didn't sit well with me. These two, after all, only found themselves taken in by the soldiers after being saved by them in the previous episode, and I never really got the sense that they were to be seen as being ‘held captive’ by the men. One of them, Drake, even offers them rations and attempts to give advice that can protect them, which Toriko and Sorawo immediately disregard with the expected flippancy of a horror movie. Yes, the atmosphere communicated by the audio mixing and aside comments on their phone call to Kozakura is suitably creepy in that way the show manages to pull off even with its simplistic visuals, but their decision to even make the attempt comes off so boneheaded and spirals into a worse situation so definitively that it's hard for me not to judge the choice harshly.
For all their successes and mysteriously-enhanced advantages, Sorawo and Toriko have not been shown to be terribly superior or knowledgable at navigating the Otherside compared to others. Rather, we see them slowly accumulating the street-smarts at doing so from information and advice they get from others – those same extras who they seem content to abandon and forget once their part in the plot is over. The writing did this with the stalker in episode two who was unceremoniously killed off, and it seems to do it again this week, with Sorawo and Toriko having to save the soldiers from the attack of a massive monster they inadvertently summoned, only to leave the men helplessly on their own in the Otherside by the end. It's particularly harsh since the mechanics of Sorawo and Toriko's escape make clear that the soldiers wouldn't be able to replicate that success, lacking the mysteriously-modified bodies the girls use to pull it off. The writing, I think, makes a game attempt to reconcile the soldiers' fate with this aspect: their own who obtained such changes were driven to death by unacceptance, not to mention their attempts to take out the girls once their own unnatural aspects are revealed. But slow-cooked paranoia or not, the whole situation seems like one that could have been avoided had Sorawo and Toriko acted a little less selfish with their lack of communication, and their dedication to only looking out for each other in terms of an immediate escape honestly leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
As I've tried to articulate, there are questionable ideas powering this plot. In a desperate situation, you can't guarantee that even the most earnest-seeming ally won't immediately turn on you, something the girls learn very clearly by the time this is over. But when their own untrustworthy actions at least partly fueled that reaction, it feels less fair a turn for them to react to. The show's counterpoint to the inherent lack of trust one has with others when forced into these situations is the same as the mantra I outlined at the beginning: “It'll work out as long as we have each other”. Their reliance on each other consistently groups Sorawo and Toriko into actions that lead to their mutual salvation, even at the expense of the temporary allies they leave behind. I can appreciate the dedication on display there: moments like Toriko steadying Sorawo as she fires the killing shot on that aforementioned giant monster land as an affirmation of the absolute trust these two have in each other in the face of an army of unknowns. And deepening their relationship over the course of these adventures makes sense in a purely mechanical way, as Otherside Picnic seems to be, on some level, a love story. But it all serves as something of a harsh reminder of the blunt, cynical tale lying beneath the inviting vibes of the show's theme songs and the comedy beats between the girls.
In that respect, even if I don't necessarily agree with the mercenary nature of that worldview, the presentation of other aspects of this episode certainly sell it. ‘The unknown’ is probably that which we humans generally fear the most, and this episode revels in teasing us with it. We're presented with the ominous feeling of the creature summoned by the girls' phone call and the terrified group reaction to it long before we see it. And that phone call itself is handled with horror-story staples like the mere suggestion of sounds heard on the other side with no source. Even the girls' last train home is made clear to be no clean salvation, but without the object of terror actually being shown. Only fleeting glimpses of confusing, horror-tinged imagery are flashed at us as Sorawo begs Toriko not to look, and we're left to question if we even could have known what we were looking at had we gotten the chance. I understand that florid descriptions of the scary sights in Otherside Picnic's source novels are a selling point of that aspect that may work better in effectively-written text, but given the anime's continuously-modest visual efforts, maybe finding this minimalist choice was the right one. And there is some flair to the presentation this week regardless, including an impressive 360-degree shot around Sorawo and Toriko at one point, or the flourish of the backlit tent showing the slow-motion march of the soldiers. It's clear the production team is trying with what they have.
But for all those efforts in terms of presentation, and attempts to reconcile some of the thematic ugliness that rears its head with the main characters' actions, I keep coming back to that ultimately unpleasant finish and the feeling it leaves me with. Not accidentally, I must add; near as I can tell, Otherside Picnic did build in me sympathy for Drake and the other soldiers, and to see them abandoned to die trapped in that dimension of horrors with barely a second thought by the girls just doesn't sit well with me. Now I'm unfamiliar with the Otherside Picnic's source material, and admit that it's entirely possible this isn't even the end of this plot, that there will be a follow-up and closure between all the people involved in this escapade. But that doesn't change how Sorawo and Toriko were presented in this particular moment, and the harshness with which it shook out for pretty much everyone involved. Is that the point? Perhaps, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't interested to see where the story might continue to follow this particular thematic through-line. But the empty, unfinished feeling in the end we get only jibes with that worry over ‘the unknown’ in a way that leaves me unintentionally unsatisfied.
Otherside Picnic is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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