New Anime

Fall 2023 – Week 8 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. This week saw my viewing party finishing off some key TV series in addition to our film viewings, as I continue in my attempt to actually offer some quasi-timely commentary on the year’s superior anime. So yes, I’ve finally written up The Witch From Mercury, only to be immediately informed that the new Scott Pilgrim production is actually really good. Look, if folks are just going to keep creating great art while I catch up on the previous thing, I can’t really see myself ever getting ahead in this whole creator-critic paradigm here. Nonetheless, I will press valiantly onward and continue to watch good things, for that is the pledge I have made to you, dear readers. Let’s see what fresh treasures I rummaged up in the Week in Review!

Our first screening of the week was The Wolf House, a Chilean stop-motion production about a girl named Maria, who flees from “the colony” and hides in an abandoned shack. There she finds two little pigs who she adopts as children, using her powers to transform them into simulacrums of humans. The three play house in their new home while sheltering from the wolf who hides in the woods, ever waiting, ever hungry.

The Wolf House’s loose, fantastical storytelling constructs a fine metaphor regarding the generational effects of gaslighting and mental conditioning, but the main appeal of this film is undoubtedly its remarkable animation. Rather than stop-motion’s usual tableaus of miniatures, The Wolf House treats the entire building as its stage, characters dancing across endlessly repainted walls or rising like papier-mâché golems one strip at a time. The effect serves as a marvelous realization of Maria’s ambiguous powers, conveying both her delirious fear and the ominous mutations of her children. The Wolf House’s slow pacing and dreamlike narrative demand a patient viewer, but anyone who’s interested in animation’s aesthetic potential should absolutely give it a watch.

We then checked out Demons 2, the sequel to Lamberto Bava’s majestically indulgent monster flick, once again directed by Bava and produced by Argento. This film trades in the original’s movie theater worth of demons for an apartment complex worth of demons, stuffed with a rich array of would-be victims: a birthday party of rambunctious teenagers, a young professional and his pregnant wife, an old lady and her dog, an entire gym’s worth of muscle bros, etcetera. The risks of too much television viewing are soberly realized when a demon actually reaches out from the screen during a viewing of the original Demons, leading to general pandemonium as one tenant after another is attacked and demonified by the relentless horde.

As with the first film, if you’re expecting a coherent narrative or impressive acting or a keen thematic takeaway, you are absolutely in the wrong theater. But if you are here to watch bodybuilders and zombie hordes collide, or to see a tiny demon puppet burst from the chest of a zombie child, you are certain to have a wonderful time. Argento’s influence is clear in this film’s effective use of silent corridors and long shots focused on the demons’ reflective eyes, while Bava otherwise indulges himself in fun conceptual larks like “man versus demon while suspended from elevator cables” or “pregnant lady versus gremlin-sized demon.” The brakes never slow down once the demons start wailing, making it easy to forgive things like the script forgetting about half a dozen characters. Not quite as focused or entertaining as its predecessor, but still a delightful B-movie ride.

Alongside our film viewings, we also recently watched through Mike Flanagan’s latest miniseries, The Fall of the House of Usher. My experience of Flanagan’s work has been exceedingly hit-or-miss so far; while I greatly enjoyed the winding ghost stories of Haunting of Hill House, I found both Bly Manor and Midnight Club underwhelming as both horror stories and character dramas. I tend to feel his characters aren’t lived-in enough to support his attempts to stray from genre; he’s at his best in the mechanical nitty-gritty of horror scares and thriller puzzles, not when he’s striving for poignancy or thematic significance.

As such, I was relieved to discover that outside of its obvious gestures towards the opioid crisis, corporate justice, and America’s various other twentieth-century crimes, Usher is mostly just the tale of an exceedingly unlikable family meeting a variety of horrible ends. The series takes place across three concurrent timelines: an elderly Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) explaining his ruin to state attorney C. August Dupin (Carl Lumbly), a young Usher rising to the top of the pharmaceutical industry, and the individual paths of his six children towards their various ironic ends. These timelines offer an urgent variety of mysteries to solve, with each episode simultaneously burning the shorter fuse of its focus heir’s remaining time and the longer fuses of just what led Usher to this curse, and where his story will end.

Most of Flanagan’s regular gallery are here and in fine form, with Greenwood accompanied by a characteristically menacing turn from Carla Gugino, and other Flanagan mainstays like Henry Thomas, Rahul Kohli, and T’Nia Miller turning in excellent work as several of Roderick’s children. With no one to actually root for and the conclusion set in stone, episodes proceed as menacing Rube Goldberg assemblies, as lingering daddy issues prompt reckless acts of fealty, which all end in diverse, horrific unintended consequences. The series is as playful with its characters as it is with Poe’s oeuvre, drawing widely and interpreting boldly to essentially construct a gothic Final Destination. Also, Mark Hamill is there, and proves absolutely fantastic as the family’s stalwart attorney-slash-fixer. Meaty genre structures, ample payoffs, and soft thematic targets: Usher seems to demonstrate Flanagan is finally recognizing his own strengths.

We also caught up on another of this year’s key anime productions, munching through the second half of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury with all possible haste. After cracking the shell of its intriguingly Utena-indebted bridal duel structure, Mercury’s first half ends with a demonstrative splatter of blood and tissue, announcing that playtime is over and war has arrived. It’s a striking statement of purpose for the show’s second half; unfortunately, I can’t honestly affirm that The Witch From Mercury follows through on that promise.

There are certainly individual elements of Mercury’s second half that are striking. The show has a broad and engaging cast, and individual journeys like those of Guel, Elan, and Nika find interesting, poignant friction in the contrast between the allegedly meritocratic dream the academy represents and the cruel, corporatized world it is actually serving. Guel in particular goes through a hazing any Gundam protagonist would have to respect, with the one episode demonstrating how corporate warfare is seen from the other side likely standing as the series’ best. His arc embodies the series’ initial promise, as the children of privilege are forced to acknowledge the mountain of skulls beneath them, emerging stronger and more compassionate for it.

Unfortunately, much else in Mercury’s second half feels unfinished or simply forgotten. Nika, Elan, and the final earthian rebel spend much of the season’s running time locked in a room, unable to interact with the rest of the cast or move the plot forward in any way. Instead, much of the season’s running time is dedicated to Suletta and Miorine stumbling through canned misunderstandings, circling each other purely for the sake of ginning up next-time-on suspense. The genuinely interesting succession battle waged by Shaddiq and Miorine ends in a whimper; rather than complimenting the simplistic threat presented by Lady Prospera, it’s resolved too easily and too soon, leaving most of the cast with little to do.

“Too many characters with too little to do” describes Mercury’s second half in a nutshell. The tale of Suletta and Aerial is tragically compelling, but the narrative feels less like a series of interlocking, inherently reactive pieces than players stranded at a great distance, choosing to interact or not while invoking no secondary consequences. I like the cast, I like the concept, I like the battles and the best individual episodes, and I love love love the show’s heartbreaking second ED. But ultimately Mercury feels like a missed opportunity; enjoyable and recommendation-worthy, but still less than the sum of its parts.

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