Adventures in the Uncanny with Otherside Picnic

Otherside Picnic is a portal fantasy… in a sense. Though you might be able to call it an isekai by a technicality, it certainly doesn’t have much in common with other “transported to a virtual world” anime among its contemporaries. It might be more accurate to call it a portal horror, because the titular Otherside is so delightfully eerie; constructed entirely of sweeping plains, ruined buildings, and strange inexplicable shapes and “glitches” in the landscape.

It’s scary because of the cryptids and folkloric monsters who roam the grasslands, but the horror is present even before they take centre stage. A sense of bizarre dread is baked into the setting itself. The Otherside is a monster in its own right, and the aesthetic of the world masterfully sets the stage for the psychological horror that is to come.

The nature of the Otherside—the strange portal world that monster-hunting buddies Sorawo and Toriko explore for science and profit—is unknown. You could even say it’s unknowable, and that, in essence, is what makes it so scary. Not necessarily in the Lovecraftian “horror beyond human comprehension” way; not just yet. The spookiness of the Otherside is quieter in nature, understated but ever-present. It stems much more from a sense of uncanniness, which comes across in the atmospheric descriptions (in the novels) and the visual direction (in the anime).

The uncanny, as I talked about in this post, is the discomfort created in the mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. It’s a cerebral fear reaction rooted in juxtaposition between our expectations and what we get instead. The Otherside is full of this: humanoid figures who are just a little too tall and slender to look properly human, buildings that are recognisable as offices and houses but are mysteriously rundown and abandoned, and clouds that don’t quite act like clouds, as Sorawo describes in this passage from the first light novel:

At the distant edge of the mountains, there was a strangely angular cloud that looked like a blocking artifact. It sparked with lightning and showered that area in a torrential downpour. It was the first violent weather effect I’d seen in the other world, but it was a mystery that we couldn’t hear any thunder. All we heard was the howling wind and rustling of the grass. When I looked along the foot of the mountains, for a moment, I felt like I saw something triangular moving among the branches of the trees. It was too far away to see what it really was. (p.69)

Miyazawa (2017), translated by McCann (2019)

The disjointed nature of the Otherside is set up well in this paragraph: we have thunder we can’t hear, strange shapes we can’t quite name, and a general sweeping emptiness that feels wrong when we so usually humanise a place by, well, the presence of other humans. In the anime, there’s a lingering mist that makes it hard to tell what you’re looking at in the distance, and the sky is overcast enough that the colours of the world are slightly dimmed and the contrast seems turned up, just a touch.

There are lots of panned-back shots that emphasise the wideness and emptiness of the Otherside, unsettling in their openness especially after the cluttered city street scenes of the “real” world. When the camera goes in closer, there are lots of shots that frame the explorers from down low, as if being watched by something that’s lying in the spiky grass; or place bits of stark grey debris in the frame to loom over them. The Otherside seems to have been racked by some unknown apocalypse, and the lingering mystery of what exactly happened to leave the landscape littered with decrepit buildings and fallen powerlines sends an unspoken tingle up your spine.

And all this is before we even get to the “glitches” that the explorers encounter in episode/chapter two, unexplainable anomalies in our understanding of basic physics that work to make this otherworld all the more otherworldly. The language of “glitches”, and the presence of creatures and ghosts from Internet lore, draws the comparison to a digital reality for both the reader and the characters, which further enhances that feeling of oddness.

The Otherside looks organic, by all means… that is, until it doesn’t. It looks pretty normal, until it doesn’t. You’re minding your own business in the “real” world, until you adjust your vision slightly, press a different elevator button, or take a wrong turn when you’re not paying attention, and then suddenly everything’s not quite right and you find yourself in this liminal place.

The idea that the Otherside is, well, just on the other side of everyday reality, and you can stumble into it by simply wandering through the wrong door or passing by a torii gate while keeping your eye out for a certain trick of the light, is part of the glorious eeriness of the whole thing. The Otherside is normalcy, but slightly to the left, slightly tilted so the image distorts. Just so, just enough, to throw of the illusion and trip the heebie-jeebies that exist right at the centre of your mind.

Toriko’s scientist friend, Kozakura, even suspects that the Otherside is born from the innate fears that live deep in the human brain. She reckons that “The other world acts in a way that appears intimately tied to human cognition. From Toriko’s explanation of the ‘Kunekune’, I can hypothesize its very existence is dependent on the subjectivity of the one who encounters it” (p.63).

Monsters like the kunekune (or “wiggle-waggle” in the anime’s English subs) gain their power by being perceived, and gain their horror factor from the way they shift and twitch and can’t quite be processed by your brain. The Hasshaku-sama from case file/episode two takes the form of whoever you’re drawn to most, yet is really a shifting pile of illusions that only Sorawo can unpack with her altered vision—and even then, her perception of what’s happening slips, and she finds herself wandering into the trap regardless.

The Otherside plays with the mind, and the horror of the creatures we’ve seen so far is drawn from that idea of warped perception: what we see is familiar, yet wrong in some way, unable to be fully perceived and understood. The Otherside itself embodies this uncanny essence, looking almost recognisable as a stretch of rural Japan until you look closer at the details and discover a wavering horizon or a broken-down building or a raincloud that doesn’t quite act like a raincloud. Or, of course, a vision of a loved one with a few features that are slightly off, in a way that you don’t notice until you’re really paying attention… and by then it’s too late.

At time of writing, Otherside Picnic is only two episodes in, so it remains to be seen how the uncanny nature of the monsters and the Otherside itself will translate from book to screen in future. Thus far, I feel that the monsters have been weakened a little by their transition from text to animation (we can, after all, now perceive the imperceivable), but it’s heartening to see that the Otherside itself is functioning as a vector of the uncanny, permeating the whole series with a sense of otherworldly dread and wrongness. And by “heartening” I meant “deeply freaky on some dense cognitive level”, which bodes well for the rest of Sorawo and Toriko’s adventures. Watch this space… that is, if it doesn’t crackle, glitch out, and vanish.

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4 Comments

Filed under Archetypes and Genre

4 responses to “Adventures in the Uncanny with Otherside Picnic

  1. Pingback: My Favorite Anime Community Posts – 2021 Week 03 Edition | Crow's World of Anime

  2. So far, Otherside Picnic is a promising story. I’m still navigating through its early episodes since I still felt a bit of boredom from it but it has been an interesting ride. I love the folkloric stuff and I am excited to see what will happen next between our 2 main characters.

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