Greener grass: Critical reviews of “Wonder Egg Priority” and “Otherside Picnic” (2021)

This blog would be generous to say “despite my best efforts” in describing our failure to watch enough anime in 2021, but then I’d be apologizing for not being a big enough weeb, and why would I do that? There are a few anime I wanted to watch last year that I haven’t gotten around to: “Sonny Boy,” “86,” maybe that one with all the ghosts and fan service, or the one where the detective is already dead.

Still, in the interest of pretending to round out the best/worst of the year, here are a couple of anime I watched that were, at least, pretty good. They have the added bonus of a kind of thematic synchronicity: cute girls doing things in other worlds. Intriguingly, the two shows reflect different approaches to presentation: one illustrating the highs and lows of ambition; the other illustrating the quality of consistency.

“Wonder Egg Priority” was the first anime of the year to really catch my attention (in a positive way – more on that later). It begins with Ai, a withdrawn heterochromatic (I learned that word because of this show – who says anime ain’t educational?) girl, following – as I recall – a talking firefly to a secluded garden. There, she receives an egg that takes her to a dream realm where she can battle fantastic creatures to defend the holdover souls of young women who have committed suicide.

Ai later learns that she is one of a group of girls buying eggs from the garden’s dream egg vending machine. As the girls each pursue a particular wrong they seek to right, they will grow closer, explore dark spaces in their lives and learn more about the mysterious mannequins that oversee the garden. The show has a few twists to pull before its conclusion, which was… we’ll get there.

But before we do, there is much to recommend about “Wonder Egg Priority.” The show is gorgeously presented, with detailed, smooth animation and stylish design, particularly during the technicolor, almost psychedelic, dream world battle sequences. Monster design is typically fantastic and logical within the narrative, with the creatures suggesting the regrets and jaundiced worldviews of the suicidal girls.

It helps that the script is usually smart and often fearless. It tackles taboo topics like suicide, depression, abuse, relationships, sexuality, legacy, guilt and purpose, and it does so in a way that makes sense for its youthful cast without ever being overly simplistic. There are consequences to the girls’ actions. Characters can get scared, quit or die. Between that and the show’s intense visual design, it’s easy to see why it was compared to “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” upon release. It even has contrasting opening and closing themes: a stately choral piece for the opening, which received much praise, and J-power-pop sung by the various leads for the closer, which feels odd after some of the episodes given its intense upbeatness but kicks all the same if you’re in the mood.

It’s not quite as tight as “Madoka,” with some of the late game revelations so dark they threaten exaggeration, but at least it builds to them. Regardless, “Wonder Egg” is easy to recommend to “Madoka” fans. It’s a thoughtful, stylish and satisfying 12-episode anime, that… wait, it concludes with a 13th episode, a double-length special that was released three months after the show proper? Well, I don’t see how that could leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth.

But of course it could. It’s really a pity because the 12th episode was a decent conclusion. It was a little incomplete, but not more than any show that’s hoping for a second season, so the special already unnecessary to this blog. Still, there are some decent moments in the special, ones with a maturity, acceptance and release that fit the atmosphere of the series well. It was on track to end with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a world-weary sigh.

Such sighing was undermined by a couple of things that cannot be ignored. First, half the special is a recap. That wouldn’t be the worst, especially after a break, but the series already had a recap – one that the Internet speculates was giving the writers a minute to catch their breath, especially given how it’s an entire episode and not a halfway point-five. One recap in a season of anime is not unheard of; devoting a fully numbered episode to it stands out; having a second one is strange to say the least.

There is also a revelation about the identity of one particular character that is utter left field sci fi bullshit. There was no setup for it. It just happened. Worse, it was unnecessary (there’s that word again). Said character already had a singular backstory to set them apart from the rest of the cast. A last minute attitude change could have been baked in, but instead, we get a complete overhaul.

Then there’s the final moments of the show, when the atmosphere of thoughtful resignation the episode had been building since the recap ended is cast on the rocks of fist pumping “to be continued.” Why? If the producers wanted a second season, why not stop at the more organic conclusion of the 12th episode? Or, if they felt that wasn’t enough, why lace such a melancholy mood into a special only to subvert it in the last 30 seconds?

Throughout its run, “Wonder Egg” always had a kitchen sink attitude toward piling elements on top of elements, building a massive tower to strain at the infinite, but it was always smart and stylish enough that it worked despite threatening to topple over… right up until it didn’t. In the end it finally went too far, but the show certainly had a hell of a time going there.

In a different parallel reality, we have our second show, “Otherside Picnic” The series follows Sorawo and Toriko, two college students (not high schoolers!) who have random access to the otherside, a dangerous shadow world that resembles a bombed out version of our own populated with misshapen monsters and psychic traps that ensnare unwary explorers. Enigmatic Toriko is searching for her missing friend; downcast Sorawo is along for the ride, frequently to her own chagrin.

Much of “Otherside Picnic” is familiar, and I’m not just talking about the homages to Russian sci fi in the title and premise. The show is based on a light novel series; has a boilerplate J-rock opening and closing; has some not-so-subtle hints of queer relationships; sports a beach episode; features a goofy “on the next episode of” sequence at the end of each episode. Across the board, it’s a very anime anime.

Luckily for us, it also happens to be a pretty decent horror anime. It doesn’t get under your skin like the best of them, but it is smart enough in its presentation to engage on atmosphere alone, like a junior Silent Hill. A few early episodes stand out. The season’s second half starts verging more into fantasy and less into straight horror, but the monster designs continue to hold up. Even a couple of goofy ones can be explained by the narrative’s link to urban legends and web conspiracies.

Regardless, the show presents itself throughout like a relationship driven drama. The two leads are pretty standard character types – the ditzy Toriko and the nervous Sorawo – but their oil and water interactions are watchable, and there are enough suggestions of darkness and intrigue to keep things moving. Better than either the girl-on-girl comedy or the low Gothic horror is how easily they both gel. The two genres feel genuinely complimentary rather than one just an excuse for the other. It’s fairly seamless and so pleasantly surprising when one realizes it. If there was anything in the anime that this blog had not seen before, it was that.

So which show is better? Naturally that requires some context. If you want is a show to recommend, then “Otherside Picnic” is the clear victor. “Wonder Egg Priority” is by far the more offbeat choice, and both its quirks and inconsistencies make it the harder sell. On the other hand, “Roadside Picnic” does not feature any of that anime’s fascinating highs or frustrating lows. For better or worse, “Wonder Egg Priority” is the show that will stick with me.

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