Otherside Picnic ‒ Episode 9
Otherside Picnic's most consistent struggles have been in doing justice in its depiction of the freakish and fantastical encounters that make up its story. There's only so much the yeoman's work done so far by LIDEN FILMS has been able to reach for, ending up with undercooked encounters that can garner a double-take from the audience often in their raw freakishness, but haven't quite effectively communicated the unknowable horror you expect from these kinds of dimension-crossing, mind-bending trips. There's a boon to sticking with the presentation though; the story has done well in exploring the characters' motivations, their priorities, and how that feeds into the fear they experience, which keeps the spooky storytelling moving at its accelerated rate. And that means that exploring what drives these personal fears can work well even without any trips to that titular Otherside!
Yes, this is the first episode of the anime that takes place entirely in the ‘normal’ world, with apparitions crossing over to attack a heroine in her own literal backyard. That'd be Natsumi Ichikawa, childhood friend to last week's cast addition of Akari. You can tell these two will actually be important since they get to show up in the OP. The exact role of that importance unfurls over the course of the episode at about the same rate the ostensibly focused-on supernatural mystery also does. Akari on her own last week, especially in the context of that cat-crazy silliness, was merely a new face in the cast, presented as a potential interloper in the relationship Sorawo increasingly clearly wants to pursue with Toriko, but otherwise mostly a drive for that week's adventure. The introduction of her better half Natsumi, however, clarifies the parallel these girls embody to Sorawo and Toriko's ongoing situation, and how that speaks to the kinds of real-world fears Otherside Picnic has really been exploring in its cast lately.
Just as Sorawo saw Akari as a potential threat to her partnership with Toriko last week, it's revealed that Natsumi initially considered Sorawo a rival for her own affections for Akari. This love-polygon mix-up is thankfully not taken seriously for too long, but it seeds the real issue at hand here: The fear of abandonment. We gather that Natsumi's worries about losing Akari are rooted less in her understanding of the others she sees as rivals, and more in her concerns over her own self-worth. Kozakura explained all those weeks ago how fear is really the specific reaction of a person's body to whatever stimuli that have come along to affect it. What we are afraid of varies, but at the end of the day, we're doing it to ourselves. Sorawo's shiny-eye power is specifically based on perception, after all, and how she sees different things and people as threats has been the broadest motivating factor of this story so far.
That's an idea of the imperceptible that Otherside Picnic can really dig into apart from trying to animate monsters that you pointedly shouldn't be able to see without going insane. Even after realizing that neither Akari nor Natsumi pose a threat to her special times with Toriko, the seeds are still planted with the constant references back to Satsuki Uruma. Apart from any creepypasta critters, Satsuki is a very real person who's touched the lives of all the girls involved in this week's plot, each of them taking away their own kinds of worries from their interactions with her. The direct parallels between Sorawo and Natsumi are drawn by their take on Satsuki, representing an unknown that could take away the most important thing in their lives by virtue of her mere existence.
That's conflated in a brilliant turn this episode, with the offhand comment that Sorawo is reminiscent of Satsuki. That creates that worst kind of nagging doubt regarding her relationship with Toriko. It's no stretch to say that, since the very beginning of the series, Toriko and her recognition has become Sorawo's reason for living. If that's based purely on her ability to serve as a replacement for Satsuki, what would that do to Sorawo's sense of self as perceived by Toriko? The doubt is always the worst part, and despite dismissing a couple of threats to her relationship with Toriko, Sorawo ends this episode more uncertain than ever on where they stand as partners. The articulation of that perfectly communicates the overarching fear of the unknown powering this story, which in turn elevates this episode as a whole.
As I said, it helps that the material it's working with here is tailor-made for the kind of adaptation the Otherside Picnic anime has been. Natsumi's backyard is presented with the banality of the show's everyday environments, but that only draws us in better to the supernatural sense of escalation as the girls execute the world's creepiest scavenger hunt. Regardless of the context, digging up a big jar of teeth in your yard is an unsettling experience! It fits with the framework of the threats Natsumi is facing, as the creeping onset of violent real-world accidents befalling her parents and stalking her works as an articulation of real-world worries to watch out for, even if they are initiated by spooky Otherside visitors. That leads to a mild presentational clash that the series has needed to reckon with before, the ghostly appearance of Kanno Sannuki being resolved simply by Akari physically beating her up. I understand that Sorawo's perceptive powers make these threats vulnerable to real-world damage, but it still comes off as oddly-practical after all the creeping introspection that leads to these creatures appearing before the characters in the first place. It also means we've had two moments of creepy personality swerves by Akari in as many episodes, but with separate inciting factors, which just makes it read as an odd trend.
But overall, this was an episode I just liked more the more I thought about it. It makes the best use of how the Otherside Picnic has handled its content up to this point, delivering a story that hones in on the unknowns and fears powering its characters and theming in ways that they'll only be able to build on going forward from here. I feel, more than ever before, like I really understand Sorawo's motivation and the conflict that could power her story with Toriko from this point. As long as the show stays focused on that idea, and communicates it as well as it did this episode, I think it could keep working quite well regardless of how effectively it's rendering the otherworldly sources of fear. It clearly knows the ways we can scare ourselves well enough.
Otherside Picnic is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.