Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Another (2012)

When high school kid Koichi Sakakibara (confusingly an anime protagonist who is neither one of those tsundere monstrosities nor treated as a total loser even though he's friendly, reserved and a bit shy) transfers from Tokyo to a school in a small country town, he does not expect the strangeness he is going to encounter there, despite being the kind of avid reader of horror novels who should be suspicious of country life.

His new class may greet Koichi friendly enough, but there's something off about his new classmates too. Why does the class have a "head of countermeasures"? And what is the big secret everyone does so pointedly avoid telling him for bizarre reasons like his coming to the class in the middle of a school year?

Possibly even stranger than the behaviour of Koichi's classmates is a girl named Mei Misaki, whose pale-skinned lonely character make her a) a natural-born goth and b) the mysterious girl the new boy in school just must get interested in. Stranger still is that nobody else in class seems to see Mei, quite as if she were a ghost to everyone but Koichi. The combination of mysterious girl and mystery is too much for Koichi too resist, so he begins, in his own reserved manner, an attempt to unravel it. When he reaches the conclusion that Mei just might actually be a ghost, classmates begin to die in strange and random accidents. The secret Koichi is trying to understand will turn out to be far more dangerous, and far more complicated, than he could have expected.

Another, a 12-part anime series chief directed by Tsutomu Mizushima and written by Ryou Higaki, based on the novel by Yukito Ayatsuji (or possibly its manga adaptation, for all I know) surprised me quite a bit for the positive. Although - as you know, Jim - the horror genre has quite a rich tradition in Japanese media of all types, there really aren't all that many anime shows doing the genre justice. Furthermore, the careers of Mizushima (whose body of work looks completely random to me) and Higaki (who just hasn't done all that much until now) don't look too promising on paper. However, after I had seen the first handful of episodes, any scepticism I had towards the show turned out to be unwarranted.

In fact, while Another is not a perfect show - there's a bikini beach episode and a certain flabbiness in the plotting of the episodes before the finale standing between it and that description - it's a very good one. The show has a rather wonderful time building up its strange mystery (including some effective red herrings), ending each episode with a clever - and utterly melodramatic - cliffhanger, until everything ends in the sort of hysteria that is one of the major charms of a certain school of horror manga. Think Kazuo Umezu's Drifting Classroom, and you get the mood - if not the plot trappings - of the last two episodes. In fact, Another as a whole does have the feeling of being an update of the sort of horror manga Kazuo Umezu did best, but with clear improvements when it comes to the treatment of gender (the novel was written by a modern woman, after all), and a taste for more personal apocalypses.

The show is also very good at using the classic trappings of teenage angst for its purposes; there are some moments that should speak to the isolated and angsty teenager in every one of us. Of course, this is also the kind of show that follows a demonstration of very real and close to the bone teenage anxieties (of the sort we don't all lose growing up) with scenes of teenagers dying mildly gory, and slightly grotesque, deaths, and some well done melodramatic shouting. Wonderfully, Another does manage to balance out these very different dramatic impulses and techniques more often than not, resulting in a story that works well on rather more subtle and very unsubtle levels.

On the visual side, the show is very much a state of the art anime of today, the sort of thing whose look and basic character design is not all that original, but that does too well bringing these characters to live or - as it may be - death to be called generic. The show is also pretty great at providing a sense of place beyond "generic Japanese high school in the country", always making the locations the story takes place in memorable and individual.

On a personal level, I'm also quite happy with the show's nearly total - except for that damn beach and bikini episode - lack of fanservice; one could nearly suspect the people in charge trusted their viewers to be more interested in the story they tell than in spotting another pair of panties. While I'm far from being a prude, and do think that sleaze has its place, it does not need to be everywhere all the time.

So, if you want to watch a piece of teen horror done right, Another might be just the thing for you.


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