Otherside Picnic and Groundbreakingly Goofy Queer Fiction

As a yuri adaptation starring college-aged characters and located squarely in the realm of genre fiction, Otherside Picnic is a rare beastie: while more and more are cropping up, yuri anime remain relatively thin on the ground, and the majority of titles are romances set in high school. The Otherside Picnic novels merely existing, and doing well enough to get a TV adaptation, is an exciting proof of concept, spotlighting that these stories are out there and there’s a definite place for them. With all this riding on it, there was a bubbling need for Otherside Picnic to be exemplary. As well as, of course, fans of the novels waiting eagerly to see the stories they loved come to life, there was an undercurrent of tension, a field of crossed fingers. A chorus of hushed voices saying “please let this be good.”

And you know what? Otherside Picnic is good. But maybe not in the way I expected nor “needed” it to be at first.

When you’re neck-deep in matters of queer representation—as I am, near constantly, in my various fields of work—you can get tangled up in the question of what is “good” representation. “Is this good rep?” is not a question you can ask expecting a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer. Questions of nuance, variety, authenticity, and empathy are far more useful and far more important. And the question of whether or not something has been done before, and to what degree—but we can get to that in a second.

A trap we can slip into, as readers and commentators, is holding media depicting queer stories or queer characters to a higher standard. It already stands out as something of a statistical oddity, so it must stand out in a positive way. It must address all facets of queer life and love, it must speak to queer issues with its whole heart, and it must resonate with its queer audience and give them an adequately triumphant place to see themselves. Most importantly, it must be a deep and meaningful piece of art because argh, what if the heteros think it’s dumb and dismiss it out of hand and no one wants to publish any more?!

In fairness, I understand this impulse. When you don’t have much representation at all, you clamour for the crumbs you do have, and put them on a pedestal—whether that means holding a work to impossibly strict standards and ensuring that it can never meet your demands, or going the other way and refusing to engage with it at all critically, washing over any legitimate flaws it might have. I’ve seen both happen, and both are in the end unhelpful.

I was aware that this impulse was itching at my brain as I was watching Otherside Picnic every week. Midway through the season, I found myself fizzing with a mild and difficult-to-name disappointment. Sure, some of it was due to the anime’s status as an adaptation. I miss Kozakura’s lengthy mutterings about the nature of human fear and the possible nature of the Otherside as a psychological construct, because I personally found that super cool. I miss some of the quirks of Sorawo’s internal narration, because I enjoy the dark humour that brings to the text. I think it’s bizarre that they chose to smush the very climactic and important Case File 4: The One Where We Need to Go Rescue Toriko into a single episode, but gave Case File 3: Hey, There’s Americans in Here! a two-parter.

But also, along the way, I realised that the changes in tone and pacing weren’t just rubbing me the wrong way because they mishandled some cool material from the books. They were rubbing me the wrong way because they were making it goofy, schlocky, silly, in a way that made something in my brain rebel. No! This is supposed to be a deep psychological thriller that gets to the heart of human fear! This is supposed to be a dynamic and surreal piece of queer art! How am I supposed to put this on a pedestal as an example of the amazing things yuri can do if it’s… a dumb fun action show?!

And lo, there was my problem. As well as conveniently forgetting that the novels are also frequently very funny and downright silly, I had, unconsciously, been needing this show to be some sort of paragon of queer television. Because it was a rarity, a “first” of its kind in many ways, I needed it to be good. No, I needed it to be fantastic—groundbreaking, heartfelt, stunning, all-encapsulating. If it was going to be weird, it needed to be weird in a distinctly artsy, cerebral, Ikuhara kind of way. It needed to be Art. Otherwise that would reflect badly on my tastes, wouldn’t it, and on the field of queer fiction in general?

Here is the knowledge I’ve since made peace with: the Otherside Picnic anime is art. And it is, in its own way, groundbreaking. Discard all those expectations, those gripes about the books being better, and what did I have? A goofy, funhouse-spooky sci-fi action show starring a cast of female leads, all with different personalities and flaws, none of whom are sexualised or harmed arbitrarily or reduced to plot devices—and two of whom are falling in love! It’s not a perfect adaptation, but hey, the books are almost universally always better. What it is, is fun. A fun piece of genre fiction led by two queer characters. And an anime no less! How often do I get to say I’m watching and enjoying such a thing?

There is a power in queer silliness. Yes, there is still a great need for stories that capture and unpack the reality of our current world, that get to the messy heart of contemporary queerness, that are easy to point to and proclaim as Good Art from a critical standpoint. But the real importance of queer representation is the variety of it: the more we have, the more voices can ring out and resonate, so each story isn’t required to speak for everyone. The more we have, the less onus is placed on each individual work to be a paragon of the possibilities of queer storytelling. The more we have, the more tropes we cover, the more genres we branch into, the more fun we can have getting loosey-goosey with narrative. The more stories we have, the less they need to be good.

Otherside Picnic is some dumb, entertaining, ghoulish fun, and that in and of itself makes it valuable. I have had the privilege of sitting down to a lighthearted (if sometimes deliciously creepy) monster-of-the-week show starring two queer women, watching them bamboozle their way through somewhat familiar horror and action tropes, slowly falling for each other all the while.

Even if they don’t get those Hollywood signifiers of a big sunset kiss or declaration of love, I am contented in the knowledge that this is only the beginning of a slowburn track to true, weird, bonded-by-ghost-hunting love. Even if their stories don’t engage with what we might consider deep and meaningful queer themes. Even if the show, overall, is just “pretty good” when it could have been “impeccable”. Pretty good is just fine. Fun and silly is just fine.

Is Otherside Picnic “good representation”? Otherside Picnic is fun and silly and scary and overall a tip-top way to spend some time, perhaps with some popcorn and Maltesers in hand. The characters are charming if tropey, the romance gets you on board, and even if you can guarantee there will be some weird-looking monsters and some cartoony scared-faces along the way, you can never quite tell what it will throw at you. It’s exactly as good as it needs to be.

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4 Comments

Filed under Fun with Isms

4 responses to “Otherside Picnic and Groundbreakingly Goofy Queer Fiction

  1. perpetuallytired

    Your review really made me rethink my feelings about the anime a bit (coming from someone whose read up to Vol4 of the novels). I was pretty disappointed with that major story in vol2 getting dropped and with the continuity issues (probably due to production issues) but I think that the anime does very well in several aspects too. I thought about your comment about the silly and goofy part and I think that’s actually a really good point. We already have a lot of dark psychological stories (Utena, Madoka, WEP) with LGBTQ+/female characters and how they suffer so much.

    I think that Otherside Picnic (the anime but the novels too to an extent) is actually a more unique storyline because it isn’t focused on the darkness and suffering of these characters and you’re right that is actually a really good thing because we also need happy fluffy stories as well – especially ones that don’t involve sexual assault or rape. I’m not counting solely SOL/Romance/Drama genres here because I’m personally bored of those and avoid them.

    In terms of representation, I’d think the vol3+ does a better job than 1 and 2 at developing the relationship. I felt like I liked these two more by end of V3 than 1 and 2. It doesn’t particularly focus on discovering sexuality but I think we have a lot of stories that already touch on those, so sometimes its nice to have a character whose problems are coming from elsewhere. I am already happy with the fact that there are no romantic subplots in the present past or future that involve men. It’s good escapism and is probably one of my favorite pieces of media in a long time.

    Another note, I like how both the show and novel forgives the female characters for being flawed and allows them to have flaws that society generally does not accept in women (selfishness and general misanthropy) instead of limiting them to the usual more acceptable “flaws” (too giving, gullible, low self esteem).

    • I’m glad my thoughts could help warm the series up for you! That’s a good point too about the lack of suffering – even when the novels emphasise the horror, I feel like it’s never putting the female characters through the ringer just for shock value. Flawed as they are, they’re always heroic (sometimes even rescuing the manly men who might normally be the ones with power in a survival-horror story!) and it makes for great escapism.

  2. Pingback: Non-binary Finery: March ’21 Roundup | The Afictionado

  3. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up, 24-30 March 2021: Nagabe Interview, Gendered Activism Issues, and Otherside Picnic - Anime Feminist

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