Title: Urasekai Picnic / Otherside Picnic
Length: 12 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Thriller, horror, slice-of-life, drama, comedy
Year of release: 2021
‘Show, don’t tell’ is a fantastic cliche given to writers to help them get better at writing – and Urasekai Picnic takes this and runs with it. It rarely ever ‘tells’ any of the machinations of the Otherside, other than Sorao recognising many of its monsters from urban myths and ‘copypastas’ (no, really, that’s what she calls them). Normally, a sci-fi series about eldritch horrors without any explanations would be a hard swallow, but it isn’t because of the dedication to gentle, amusing character moments and a couple of pleasant girls exploring and observing this world. In a rare twist for the old school, contemplative sci-fi genre, Urasekai Picnic is very, very charming!
And, make no mistake, this is definitely old school, contemplative sci-fi. It spends a lot of time on ‘fear’ as a concept, and provides a ton of food for thought on the topic – including a brief discussion on neurological pathways! – but it leaves the conclusions up to you. The thought-provoking nature is such a great fit for Urasekai’s horrific Otherside, a barren wasteland, visually war-torn, with terrifying monsters across a huge spectrum – from ghosts to ghouls to human-like spirits invading your mind and enticing you closer to their jaws. Much of this styling, and indeed the anime’s title, is influenced from a Russian novel from the 1970’s called Roadside Picnic (also adapted into the 1979 movie, Stalker, and has influenced a recent series of video games). Perhaps the most overt reference comes in an early episode, where Sorao and Toriko are navigating the ‘Glitches’ in the Otherside, random areas in the world that will suddenly destroy your body if you come into contact with them, and they figure out a path by dropping bolts and slinging a rock on a string.
Sorao, our bespeckled loner protagonist, meets Toriko in episode one, who is something of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl with her long blonde hair and oodles of ‘she’s so pretty’ from Sorao. Did I mention this is a yuri series? It’s very ephemerally so, with gestures being more important than declarations, but the gradual relationship forming between the two women forming one of the cores of the series. Sorao sees the Otherside as dangerous, but Toriko has to find her
girlfriend ‘Friend’ Satsuki who went missing over there, and Sorao is dragging herself along totally begrudgingly the whole time. You can see the pair getting closer and closer as they have more fun together, laughing in a place that could kill them in a few distracted moments and coming home to go on beer-drinking sprees and buying, uh, farming equipment and guns for their travels. Oh yeah, these college-aged girls love their guns, and it’s never explained how they get them so easily – just go with it.
The pair exploring the deadly Otherside is really, really fun. Despite the two having some scarily convoluted backstories, the pair are just pretty normal for it. I like that they think they’re nothing special and don’t dwell too much on – my notes say that Sorao’s parents got into occult stuff before they were killed in a housefire (that she may have caused), and Toriko’s part-Canadian parents were in the forces and trained her in their footsteps… but the girls are normal, and they’re just gonna have fun, and I like that a lot. They show a lot of creativity on the Otherside in their travels – the section of them navigating Glitches that I spoke about earlier takes up a good quarter of an episode, and is a great watch of ingenuity-cum-stupidity. These girls are human, and for all they’ve got going on, they are really natural and have great chemistry.
And they get into a lot of spooky happenings. The monsters tend to take up the climaxes of the episodics, with Toriko and Sorao overcoming their fears to face the monsters – or, simply, run away. In fact, most episodes result in them running away, but usually after understanding something about the beasts. The anime’s use of misdirection really helps the creepy scenes where monsters distort reality, and you quickly learn that you can’t trust what’s on the screen. Many of these are quite clever, though there were a couple of instances where it bended reality so much that I wasn’t really sure what was supposed to be real or not.
One of the early scenes of Sorao’s mind being warped. A monster uses her thoughts against her, of worrying that Toriko will abandon her. The feeling of misdirection veers a little on the confusing side, but it’s a very clever attempt, and psychologically genius.
I think the overriding feeling of Urasekai Picnic is that it’s on that sci-fi edge, but with a flair for fun. Near-death experiences shouldn’t be so fun, but the adventuring, exploration parts of the anime are definitely fun. And it’s especially fun too, when the show dwells on the Scooby Doo-like nature and has the pair running from monsters before uncovering what the monsters really are – not that they are the guy trying to swindle the government, but that they are the feelings inside. When Urasekai Picnic begins to make sense – though, do understand, many of its episodes don’t offer succinct conclusions but feel more like a series of ideas loosely connected – when it does make sense, it’s a brilliant written anime.
But you get the feeling it would be so much better… staying written.
There’s a descriptiveness to the supernatural and creepy moments, and some smart directorial choices are used to bring that across. But much of this stuff is just better left in the mind, and the minimal animation doesn’t help. The art is generally consistently on-model, but there’s some time-saving CGI in distance shots which is awkward. The monsters are often horrifying to look at, but often, the lighting just isn’t there to make them look as creepy as they should – though props to the mechanical dog-like monster in the Army episode. That’s one to give you nightmares. On the flipside though, the CGI monsters of episode 3 look silly. A mixed bag leaning negative on the visual front, and the audio front is nothing special – not a good thing to say about psychological horror, as the soundscape is the genre’s bread and butter.
The climactic arcs ends in the final episode’s midway point, before the anime spends the next half of the episode… hanging out. The pair park their AP-1 (farming equipment!) in the Otherside, hang out with the friends they’ve made along the way and… chat. It’s triumphant in the minutiae. I really enjoyed my time with Sorao and Toriko, but I felt episodes needed just a little bit more purpose, and a lot more artistry, before I’d call it a great anime. I’m sure, though, that the novels it’s based on are terrific.