The four-episode mini-series boasts writing chops from Raging Loop game creator amphibian, but does the series deliver on its Lovecraftian promises?
This series is streaming on HBO Max
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Nicky, we’ve covered plenty of scary subjects for the spooky month of October so far. And here at the end, I might now have to confront what I really fear most: My expensive anime figures taking a dive off the shelf and being destroyed!
Well my worst fear is people discovering my secret underground trove of cool drawings. I’m just trying to make some art here!! It’s not hurting anyone.
You wouldn’t think an original anime produced for Adult Swim
could so concentratedly contain our worst worries, but you also might not expect a sleepy apartment complex in the Japanese countryside to be home to extradimensional horrors. Yet here we are with that as the central conceit of .
is a short four-episode horror series co-produced by Akatsuki and Production I.G
With original character designs by Yoshitoshi ABe
and a story written by amphibian, who previously wrote the horror visual novel Raging Loop
I heard some pretty good things about Raging Loop
from fellow horror game perverts so that was enough to make me somewhat interested, but my expectations for a project get tempered when there’s a completely brand-new director and a studio only ever credited with in-betweens and commercials.
The “C” in stands for “Cthulhu”, you see?
This is an extremely subtle, understated story. In fact one of the overall issues I have with the series right away is how its understanding of subtlety and significance in terms of foreshadowing and detail feels…uneven.
Like, for instance, it turns out to be a key plot point that takes place within the year 2000, but that’s hardly illuminated past a corner notation on some calendar pages we glimpse a couple of times.
The only mention of it is at the beginning when the resident old folks are basking in the summer heat, drinking and chattering about how the “old ways” will likely phase out with the new age. It’s a surprisingly lax opening to a horror thing that it’s easy to miss.
Especially when it turns out that other details that would be pointed foreshadowing can’t work in tandem like that. We see a smartphone being used by Yuri, the daughter of the new family moving in at the beginning.
That might be cool as a “go back and realize it on rewatch” detail, except the reason for that isn’t even really clear until the “twist” is fully been articulated at the end.
The phone comes up several times! I assumed the island was just behind the times due to its location and population of elders.
It’s even a key item in tying together our two main characters, the young nine-year-old girl Kimi, the “baby” of the complex, and new resident Yuri, who is only a year older.
Like I said, it’s a weird approach to a detail that could have worked to provide a more provocative twist. It speaks to that broader problem that, for me anyway, troubles the series through its whole construction. Like the show uses its direction to make abundantly clear that the “Mommy” that Kimi keeps referring to in her apartment absolutely isn’t an actual living person in there. Is the audience “supposed” to catch onto that obviousness? Or are we actually intended to be as unaware of this twist as the other characters?
I’m pretty well-versed in horror stuff so the minute I hadn’t seen either of Kimi’s parents I was like “oh they’re dead, aren’t they?” But for a miniseries, I didn’t expect it to bury its lede so much. When I heard about it, I expected it to be more anthological about weird happenstances in a cursed complex, but it’s really more of a slow-burning mystery where a bunch of old guys wonder what to do and how to keep tensions from boiling over between themselves and the recent group of foreigners brought to work in the area.
‘Slow-burn’ is definitely the name of the game here, in line with the creeping background dread of Lovecraft’s style. At least the issues with those foreigners is sympathetic enough to them to not do Lovecraft proud. The tensions between them and the residents speaks to a general idea of xenophobia that wants to explore, an easy enough angle regarding the base idea of ‘the fear of the unknown’, I suppose.
Unfortunately, the key to a good slow-burner is really all in the execution. It’s not that exploring relationships between people isn’t interesting, but it takes skill to express the general uneasiness that creeps in when you’re dealing with something stressful. And while tensions between people do rise, the show’s pace doesn’t.
I don’t think it’s an issue with the small-town setting either. Lot’s of horror takes place in closed-off communities. Like many works of Stephen King or the entire conceit of Twin Peaks
. Even other anime, like Higurashi
, use their backwater country settings extremely well to instill a sense of deep isolation.
But all of those examples are highly dependent on one thing, the thing that truly lacks, and that’s “vibes.”
You can definitely tell the vibes of something like Higurashi
are what was going for. But instead of strategically dotting in the idiosyncrasies of its residents, or utilizing well-placed happenings to drive up the tension, it just sort of has elements that count as ‘suspenseful’ blocked in around people milling about the complex, waiting for the next weird thing to happen.
Moss formations that obviously used to be human bodies. Mysterious fish piles. But they’re only blithely commented on and nothing is linked up until the very end. It’s like the show has the LEGO blocks of horror components, but instead of actually sticking them together, it just kind of disjointedly arranges them around the carpet.
Something happens and everyone goes “that’s weird’ and go back to their day. Meanwhile, the show also sometimes puts in false scares about the perfectly mundane and average things to highlight the differences between people, like say the local custom of eating shrimp live or several of the new residents partaking of daily prayer in the Muslim fashion, or even just your local otaku. Ooooh Spoooooky!~
False flags don’t really work when you can see them a mile away.
I actually really liked the gag about the Muslim prayers, it’s a clever reversal of how that practice is used to make people seem ‘threatening’ or ‘dangerous’ in other media, but here it is used as an anticlimactic punchline.
I think that one is fine, but it’s an example of how it tries to paint the new people as scary without the payoff. Even when the point is to create a subversion. It’s all very flat.
That fake out angle does highlight the character of Kan, who’s made out to be a marauding antagonist in the show’s flash-forward opening, only to come across as nothing but a kind-hearted gentle giant as we and the residents get to know him over the course of the series.
Kan’s storyline is a part of the series I’ll say actually kind of worked for me, since it hooked me in wondering how it would get to that point we’d already seen, while actually endearing me to him as a genuinely sweet dude along the way.
I think I would like it better if he had a slightly nicer looking design and didn’t feel so much like a caricature to me. Most of the other characters are also relatively simple, so by comparison he actually come off as one of the more complex ones. We still don’t get as much about Kan or most of the other migrants as much more than just the background characters and the anxieties of the main elder residents. Even Kimi is portrayed as no more than a seemingly cheerful albeit eccentric little girl, most of the time.
Despite the few hints about otherwise.
But even then it’s hard to tell whether these girls are the cause or simply innocent victims of these occurrences.
Somehow, even for a series only four episodes, it feels like it takes way too long to hit a payoff point for any suspense or characterization. Like the guy we spend the most time following putting the plot together is Takashi, and he’s got less of a personal arc, and more simply a role explaining lore and supposed thematic elements.
Stuff which he doesn’t even stick around to see finished up!
He’s the resident historian/detective, so the closest we get to an actual protagonist. Similar to what Ozaki or Natsuno play in Shiki
, if you’ve seen that. But like, he’s an old man so it’s harder to feel cool about it or empathize with him as he’s actively trying to figure out what’s going on in their small corner of the world. What he does is end up explaining and connecting things with the island’s own history while also carrying around a satanic rock he found in the basement.
I too, love to carry around cool rocks I randomly find all the time.
It’s definitely a place where you can feel, even more strongly, the author’s roots in visual novel writing. Taka’s explanations might have worked better as clue-containing narration to page through in that format. But without a more direct player surrogate through, you end up with stuff like the revelatory narration over the final episode, his journal read by another character as Taka’s voice actor races through reading it an effort to get all of it out.
All this is dumped out in place of them seemingly realizing the writing hadn’t imparted anything with the details in the previous three episodes beyond “these spooky happenings might have to do with offerings at a religious site, maybe.”
Yeah, I could deffo see this working on its own in a different medium, but I’ve also seen similar novels and visual novels adapted well into anime, so ultimately this all points to lacking good direction. While we can blame some of these issues on the writing, the fact that it isn’t presented better feels more like a directional challenge to me. Things that should feel off don’t and subtle hints about characters true nature get glossed over.
This would be a frustrating enough problem for any series, but it results in a particular death sentence for what is trying to be: it isn’t scary. For all the reasons you just listed, it fails to set up and pay off the tension and atmosphere necessary for a Halloween-appropriate airing. Even its jump scares don’t land, regardless of how many dead dogs it utilizes for them!
Sidebar, seems to have it out for dogs in general.
And fish. I thought we were trying to deal with Cthulhu not catch Godzilla?
There’s nothing spectacular about the animation either. You’d assume those sweet western dollars would be able to buy themselves some sick production values without having to spread them out over the course of a full series but that doesn’t keep from looking occasionally stiff, off-model, or having awkward still pans overall several points of the show. I was also surprised when I learned ABe did the designs because the characters look nothing like his style.
The kids understandably seem to get the most distinction, particularly Kimi’s cute cat motif. But otherwise the surrounding collection of old folks and generic adults don’t stick out, apart from those aforementioned instances of Kan looking like, well…
“Mom said it’s my turn on Xbox.”
It’s like, this is Lovecraft. It’s supposed to be uncanny, unsettling. But it can’t even find a place to cut loose with the facial expressions until everything goes to hell in the last episode.
The last episode is pretty much the peak of the show. Especially Yuri’s psycho mode turn. As of now, only the dub is available for and I found it overall listenable but Kayli Mills
made one hell of a murderous 10-year-old.
Given the show’s complete inability to establish tension leading up to it, it’s at least fun to have it shift instead into pure slasher camp territory. There are more surprising and amusing fake-outs in this last half-hour than we’d gotten in the series prior.
Was it part of the plan of her cult family all along? Sure, textually. But I prefer to believe Yuri was truly driven over the edge by spending all this time around this mind-numbing housing complex.
Though, the rampage is a bit short lived. Just like , even some extremely gruesome pay-off can’t make up for 75% of it being pretty boring and pointless build-up. Kimi, actually the island’s god of eternity, quickly overturns things when she decides playtime is over.
After all that I couldn’t help but laugh at Kimi just stomping on her anticlimactically underexplained embryo-Mommy and declaring that she was just done with all this.
What’s the point of all that? Hell if I know. Shruggo. God’s done now gonna reset everything into the future after spending 20 years in the year 2000 because nobody learned how to play nice with each other. Rainbows ensue.
Like they don’t even go for a
style looping/try again ending, Kimi just gives up after all this time because she’s finally done with how stupid humanity and their xenophobic inability to get along are.
It’s a bold angle, anyway, given we see Kimi opine an episode earlier about the possibility of humans to actually learn from their mistakes and get along, only for the ultimate realization she reaches at the end to be “lol, guess not!”
The one silver lining is that Kan, seeing all this, manages to save himself by praying to his own god using the certified “Cool Rock” and getting transported to what I can only presume is the future and spared the fate of the rest of the island. He’s not the prettiest Final Girl, but he’s a worthy one.
She at least also left him with a modern smartphone, so he could call an Uber to come get him. So if Kimi learned that a complex full of stubborn old folks isn’t worth it, what did we learn from ? It’s a little frustrating that effective anime horror still seems so challenging to do, even in a unique, curated context like this.
I think the premise definitely had some potential but it’s foiled by overall poor execution that doesn’t work for a miniseries. Though, 12 episodes of old folks fartin’ around at what goes bump in the night probably wouldn’t have been very riveting, either. It could’ve been a decent novel or visual novel. It was weird watching this after covering Netflix‘s , which is almost on the opposite end of the spectrum of being not perfect but overall succeeding on the strength of its vibes. The vibes really do matter!
It almost feels like with tighter pacing they could have condensed this four-episode series down to a mere two-parter that would have been more effective. As is, the whole thing feels like an undercooked first pass at an idea
for a suspense story.
And I know in the Lovecraftian sense, mere ideas can be mind-meltingly horrifying on their own, but this is not one of those ideas.
If you cut it enough and add more flourish it maybe it could’ve stood as an interesting movie or one-off OVA, but as it stands remains just a little too simple for us. I’m unsure what this spells for anime co-pros in the future but I’m hoping the next one is more watch worthy, even if it costs our sanity. ‘Til next time, all!