“Stand by oneself”
Arrggh… Another, I love you as a series – but this feeling I have right now isn’t what I was hoping it would be when you ended.
I probably don’t need to tell you not to read this post until you’ve watched the episode, but just in case – don’t read this post until you’ve watched the episode!
And so begins the longest day of the anime season for me, as probably my four favorite Winter series all come to an end. Not only do I have to say sayonara to my companions and friends of the last three months, but summarize my thoughts about them too. And it starts with Another, a series I adore but which ultimately leaves me feeling a little unsatisfied for a few reasons. That’s not to say I didn’t like the last two eps a lot, but I think they strayed too far from the formula that made this series so great and were somewhat tarnished by conventionality. Perhaps Mizushima-sensei wasn’t “over” the Blood-C debacle quite as much as I’d assumed.
Let’s start with the ending itself. In hindsight, there are things in Another that only make sense if Reiko and Mikami-sensei are the same person. But hindsight is, as they say, always 20-20. There was certainly ample evidence that something was “off” with Aunt Reiko – many of them mentioned here. I think of “Why, Rei Why?” and “My poor Reiko too” as very prominent examples – not to mention the headaches, and “Painting is my real job” and now I recall a very odd moment in episode 3 (which in hindsight was a crucial ep) in which Kouichi and his friends are talking to Mikami-sensei and there’s a quick – and otherwise seemingly extraneous – cut to Kouichi in pajamas on the couch, talking to Reiko.
There’s other stuff too, and some of it is pretty out there. I mentioned way back near the beginning that Reiko’s seiyuu was credited as “Sakakibara Naoko”, which I found odd. But it’s also percolated out in this last week (I think Kanon on ASF spotted it first) that Mikami’s seiyuu is credited as Miyamaki Misayo – which with some very minimal jiggering can be changed to “Yomiyama Misaki”. It seems that P.A. Works was trolling us with these seiyuu names, and I suppose it’s likely the “two” characters were actually played by the same actress. But I think it’s very legitimate to ask – could an unspoiled first-time viewer have taken the facts as presented and figured out that Mikami = Reiko? I’m not so sure, myself – I won’t list all the clues that exist, but it’s some pretty vague stuff – the kind of thing no reasonable person would connect unless they knew what they were looking for. I won’t accuse P.A. Works and Mizushima of cheating, but I’m not sure they were playing 100% fair, either. And I’m not sure the mystery wouldn’t have been just as interesting if they’d let us know from the beginning that the two women were the same person, and made the game a lot more fair in the process. There would certainly have been enough clues that the Another wasn’t a student, some of them already covered in prior blog posts, to suggest Mikami-sensei as a candidate.
Let’s set that aside, though, and talk about the episode itself and why I say it strayed too far from the formula. No, there was no “human blender” moment but I do think the last two eps gave themselves over to a lot of gore and “Final Destination” style coincidences. What I loved most about Another for 10 episodes was the character interaction and the subtle, tense and sinister atmosphere it created. It was the anticipation of terrible things happening that made the show exciting more than the events themselves – and when they did happen (once an episode, or sometimes even less) their impact was all the greater as a result of that. It took us three episodes to build to that terrible moment with Sakuragi and the umbrella, and it hit like a kick to the solar plexus – in the last two episodes, that sort of scene was a dime a dozen (was it really only eight students that died? It seemed like twice that many).
There’s also the matter of what I would consider to be gratuitous carnage and gratuitous coincidence. I don’t know about the novel, but was it really necessary for the anime to show the four kids crushed by the chandelier – and then when the one boy escapes, to have him crushed by a falling column? That was almost comical, to be honest – a Mizushima “Blood-C moment” – and it felt beneath the dignity of what Another has been as a series. It also defies explanation in a way that doesn’t thrill me. The students going a bit crazy when Mochizuki let the cat out of the bag might have been overplayed, but it at least makes sense – they were acting in what they saw as self-preservation. But why did all these students die in such laughably bizarre circumstances in the final two episodes? It’s a degree of coincidence that I don’t think is explained by anything we’ve been told about the phenomenon as we know it, and it feels as if Mizushima-sensei threw it all in for effect. Through episode 10, the horror that occurred in the series was what was essential to build the mystery and the impact it created. In the last two eps much of it was superfluous, and it desensitized this viewer in a way I didn’t find welcome. I felt oddly emotionally removed from the events of the finale, after having been completely wrapped up in them for most of the series, and I think this is the reason why.
Of course there was much to be admired in this show, and in the ending, too. I thought the moment when Chibiki arrived with the gorgeously understated “This is not normal.” was beautifully handled, both for impact and for irony. The moment when lightning struck the lodge and the glass shattered was one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful sequences of art in animation I’ve seen in many a season – and that was before the impact became clear. Akazawa’s death was a bit heavy-handed, but the cinematography and art design made up for that. And while it had already become pretty obvious just by process of elimination whose arm that was reaching out from under the rubble as Mei hefted that pick-axe, it was still a very powerful moment, and Kouichi’s pain was intense and difficult to watch. This is the fundamental dilemma of the “solution” – there’s no tangible way to differentiate the Another from a person, and they themselves think they’re alive. In terms of their own actions, the Another has done nothing wrong, the genius of this premise. Could everyone do what Kouichi did, even knowing what he did?
There’s little doubt in my mind that Another will stand as a great series for me, but it will be as one with serious flaws as well. I can start to list the things that were exceptional here and go on for far longer than I should. It’s P.A. Works, and the series looks fantastic. There are indelible visual moments that stand out for me all throughout the series, right up to the final episode. BGM was excellent, and really found its voice in the finale, where it was a bulwark of restraint and sadness against the visual excesses of gore. I think the show had the most effective sound design since Ghost Hound, another series that used sound brilliantly to create a mood. Sound was almost a character in and of itself, and it did so much to unsettle the viewer – pounding on doors, distant thunder, static… I wish this show had followed Ghost Hound’s example and relied on atmosphere for tension and terror all the way to the end, but that’s a matter I’ve already covered.
Horror is a tough medium for anime, which I think explains why it isn’t attempted more often – well, that and the fact that it doesn’t tend to be a big money-maker. The issue here is that it feels like Another was a mystery for ten episodes, and a horror for the final two. I liked it better as a a mystery, but that’s me. The core relationship in the series was the best one, as some of my favorite moments simply involved Kouichi and Mei interacting as two kids on the outside of the social infrastructure of Yomi North, taking comfort in each other’s presence as they shyly began to explore stronger feelings. Kouichi’s ballroom-dance dream sequence was possibly the best scene in an anime this season, for it’s visual brilliance and stylishness and humor, but also for how it both contrasted with the “reality” of the series and fit perfectly with it. I could have done with even more Kouichi-Mei development than we got, but what we got was enough to make them one of the best anime couples in quite some time.
I won’t argue that Another is under any obligation to explain everything that happens inside its boundaries. I like the fact that the true nature of the phenomenon is still left as a bit of a mystery, but I could have done with a little more background on just why events seemed to be conspiring to kill as many students as possible in increasingly unlikely ways at the end. I would’ve also liked a little more explanation about Mei’s odd ability to “see” using a false eye, which feels a bit like a dramatic crutch to lead us (and the characters) to the identity of the Another, and whether there are any deeper significance to all the mysticism surrounding the dolls.
At its heart, though, I think the central conceit of Another is pretty ingenious. It’s something of a tale of good intentions gone wrong – it seems so noble, to proclaim that a person who has died tragically isn’t really dead, but their spirit lives on. And this is a supernatural horror that doesn’t give is an easy target to focus on – our “villain” isn’t really the Another, who isn’t actually doing anything wrong. In a sense, they’re like any other person – but one carrying a terrible disease (death) of which they’re asymptomatic. Imagine someone carried such a deadly illness, but was otherwise fine and had no desire to hurt anyone. Would it be so easy to just kill that person, never mind if it were a member of your own family? You might think of putting them in isolation, and searching for a cure – but isolation doesn’t help, the disease spreads as long as they’re alive.
There’s no “evil” in this story – not until the truth comes out, and people start behaving in an evil manner towards each other (John Saul comes home to roost, after all). I guess I think of the deaths as nature’s attempt to restore balance when confronted by something outside itself – something quite literally “supernatural”. Nature may abhor a vacuum but it also abhors something that violates its laws, like a dead person among the living. It tries to correct for this by killing someone, but that doesn’t fix the problem – the dead person is still in the living world, so it kills again, and again, and until the imbalance is corrected it won’t stop. This is the dilemma Mei faces – she has no idea that eliminating the carrier will stop the flow of the disease. She has no desire to crush the feelings of the boy she’s come to consider the person closest to her in the world, now that her dear cousin (in reality, twin) has died. So she suffers in silence with her knowledge, until Matsunaga’s tape surfaces – and then resolves, too late, to try and fix the situation herself.
I may wish the ending had been handled differently, but I still rank the series as a resounding success. It made me feel deeply, it unsettled me, it made me laugh, it made me think and it scared the hell out of me. The mystery was engaging and interesting and never boring, even if the ultimate resolution wasn’t completely satisfying. The production values were off the charts. And most importantly, Another recognized that no mystery or horror scenario can succeed if it doesn’t build a connection to the characters, and it did the hard work and heavy lifting to turn Kouichi, Mei, Mochizuki, Teshi and Akazawa – and even Chibiki and Aunt Reiko – into real and complex personalities that we could identify with and care about. That gave the finale arc a power and emotional resonance whose impact not even the missteps of Mizushima-sensei could dull. It wasn’t perfect, but it was exceptional, and Another definitely goes down as the best example of the mystery and suspense genres that anime has produced for quite a while.