Otherside Picnic
Episodes 1-3

by Christopher Farris,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Otherside Picnic ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Otherside Picnic ?

How would you rate episode 3 of
Otherside Picnic ?

Much like the bizarre alternate dimension its characters venture into, it can be difficult to predict what you're going to find in Otherside Picnic when you first go into it. However, even without the context of its bases on formative Russian sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic (and it's ‘Stalker’ derivatives up through films and video games), we're still presented with a solid paranormal genre exercise at the beginning. The story immediately anchors itself in the passive melancholy of its first focal character Sorao, spilling out mysteries about her situation that the show just dropped us into. Why has she found herself here? What is ‘here’? How does she or anyone else know about this strange place? Her meeting with Toriko ends up dragging her into a more active exploration of this setting and story we're now curious about, and an immediately endearing dynamic between the two characters is established.

The genre-based derivativeness of Otherside Picnic spans beyond its literary inspiration in the same way Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's novel would inspire the rest of the sci-fi field. That helps key in the appeal points for the show; it's easy to imagine “Daphne and Velma from Scooby-Doo go tromping around the Shimmer from Annihilation and also maybe they wanna smooch each other?” as being an incredibly easy sell for some people, and the show delivers on that front. From the moment they meet, it's Toriko and Sorao's rapport that stands out as the real draw here, and everything else is just fuel to facilitate that. The basics of how the Otherside works, as well as the dangers of exploring it, are communicated via how the girls react to each other regarding them. It's even hard-coded into the magical-world mechanics post-Episode 1, with Sorao's eye and Toriko's hand existing to demonstrate to us how this world can be seen and touched.

The most interesting thing Otherside Picnic is doing so far, to me, is its way of depicting that interaction with the Otherside as something that neither we nor the girls can inherently trust. The second episode introduces the danger of ‘glitches’: Instant-death spots that can't readily be seen, which the pair are informed of by a Stalker, who himself comes off as having dubious trustworthiness. The best part of that episode comes at the very end, where Sorao's attempts to stop a siren-song-tempted Toriko reveal a brilliant ‘gotcha’ moment on both her and the audience, in that she was actually the one being led nearly to her doom. It's a great bit wherein you can find yourself loving the fact that you got played, opposite Sorao having the experience confirm her growing feelings for Toriko and taking that pretty hard.

That use of the familiar in storytelling to mess with the audience plays into Otherside Picnic's concepts of real-world familiarity facilitating something fundamentally alien. The supernatural perils that the girls brave are all rooted in urban legends, like the wonders of pressing elevator buttons in an arcane order to gain access to the otherworldly area. Toriko's reasons for venturing to the Otherside are strikingly down-to-earth: Finding her missing friend Satsuki, and collecting artifacts that can be sold for money. Even an uncanny world of deathly adventure can't be explored without feeding the gig economy on the side! And the social options are open for others as well, with Sorao seeming to continue the trips mostly as a dating service. Her developing crush on Toriko in spite of herself is an adorable ongoing detail that is already being used to mine deeper drama, like the aforementioned monster-lure fake-out, or her concerns over what actually finding Satsuki might mean for her burgeoning relationship with Toriko. Their dynamic, and the various ways it could evolve, is a familiar human intimacy at the heart of the bizarreness surrounding everything.

The show conveys that atmosphere of the familiar against an alien backdrop shockingly easily. It's fascinating to see how the series can turn on a dime from feeling like a breezy picnic to an oppressive trip to the other side. This is impressively achieved through things like character context, framing, and pacing, since the actual visual elements depicting those situations are probably its biggest liability so far. Trying to visualize incomprehensible horrors was always going to be an uphill battle, but at some point you must question if the janky CGI depicting most of the monsters enhances their uncanny weirdness or simply looks cheap. There's also a distracting habit of using CGI character models for distance shots that still come off quite noticeable, and even a lot of the character art itself has issues. The design of the doomed Stalker from episode 2 looks rushed or unfinished in some shots, and the show is already having trouble remembering to depict Sorao's mismatched eye (unless there's a detail about her hiding it under a color contact sometimes that I missed). Hopefully the show keeps leaning on its strong directorial sense to set its mood, while the rest of its technical aspects even out.

Otherside Picnic is thus far an appealing contrast: It feels positively stuffed with context for potential worldbuilding alongside all its various genre references, but it's anchored by the simple depiction of a compelling relationship, of two people growing closer together in a way that feels natural and endearing. It lives up to that breezy, positive vibe depicted in its opening theme, making me just as excited to see Sorao and Toriko flee in fear from spooky ghosts as I am to see them go get some beers together. If it can keep up that fun time while still occasionally messing with me in ways I enjoy, this should be an entertaining ride.

Rating:

Otherside Picnic is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.


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