The “three episode test” is a largely unspoken tradition of modern anime fandom. The idea is that most TV anime are paced and structured to cement the impression they want to make on viewers by the end of episode three. If you make it that far and still want to see how the story ends, then you’re hooked for the long haul. Though the exact origin of this test is unknown, it has become trendy enough to influence the production staff behind many anime series today, creating a feedback loop where third episodes are often developed with the expectation to impress in mind. Today’s test subject: Gleipnir.
You know, I’d like to think that I’m a pretty tough cookie. I’ve got my fair share of crippling anxieties and irrational fears, but I try to face them with a smile, so I can gradually build up a tolerance to all the stuff that makes my skin crawl. I’ve just got two dumb phobias left, horrors that still grip my heart and seize my brain with a fervor I can’t shake until I get the fuck away from them. I’m afraid of fire, and I’m afraid of fursuits.
In the first episode of Gleipnir, our protagonist gruesomely transforms into a mascot costume to rescue a half-naked girl from a burning warehouse. My jeebies were 110% heebied, watching Shuichi live out my own personal hell.
I know most people don’t share my disgust for anthropomorphic suits, so I appreciate how thoroughly Gleipnir has embraced their potential for horror. Sure, they’re warm and fuzzy and they make children smile, but underneath those oversized frozen grins, you know it’s probably just a sweaty pervert. In Shuichi’s case, his entire body morphs into the costume as if it were an autonomous creature, so underneath the zipper, there’s nothing but a hollow void of clammy flesh, like his body has been turned inside out, stretched and warped into the facsimile of a childlike animal. The immediate question is why (god, why), but there are no answers yet, and the morbid chaos that followed this bizarre premise was just as engrossing as it was gross.
I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Gleipnir’s first three episodes, because it belongs to a specific class of anime horror that usually does nothing for me. Future Diary, Deadman Wonderland, and Happy Sugar Life are just a few examples of this genre, where kid-friendly images like candy, theme parks, and stuffed animals are constantly juxtaposed with shocking displays of gore and sex for maximum shock value. Most of these stories are aimed at teenagers, but they’re so blunt and self-aware about bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood that their attempt to ride a bleeding edge just reads jagged and dull to me. “Stop trying to shock me and shock me,” I want to say every time another uninspired anime trots out a 6-year old girl who puts bombs in teddy bears. Gleipnir seems to understand that the gap between children’s toys and adult weapons is not scary on its own—it’s mostly distracting, because we know those things don’t belong together and don’t tend to overlap in real life. It’s much more disturbing to watch innocence and corruption ooze together naturally, until the gulf between them just disappears.
After Shuichi saves Clair from a suicidal act of arson with his mascot-morphing powers, she thanks him by stealing his phone and taking blackmail photos of his monstrous alter ego. As it turns out, she was trying to take her own life because her sister had undergone a similar transformation that resulted in the death of her parents. Now Shuichi is her only lead for resolving the tragedy that ruined her life, whether he likes it or not. Shuichi himself has no idea why he’s become a were-furry (all signs point to aliens so far), and he wants nothing more than to get rid of this power, but he’s tender-hearted enough to trust Clair’s leadership in this mystery, if it means she’ll stop trying to kill herself. And that’s when we get to the real meat of Gleipnir.
In a stomach-turning, baldly sexual sequence, Clair strips down, unzips Shuichi’s costume body, and plunges inside. The moist, pulsing folds of his innards wrap around her limbs as he submits to her control, her grief, her hatred, and above all, her lust for vengeance. I found this role reversal fascinating, seeing a girl who was cast into adulthood too fast dominate a boy who’s been transformed into a symbol of his own desire to remain childlike, happy, and ignorant. I took it all in thoughtfully, with rapt attention. I definitely didn’t prance around the room squealing “ew, ew, ew”, flapping my hands around on the ends of my arms like a toddler with castanets at the ren faire.
Look, it ain’t high art, but there was something unexpectedly captivating about Gleipnir’s balance of the infantile and macabre that its peers in this subgenre have not had the confidence to pull off. There are no doe-eyed, rosy-cheeked moppets shouting obscenities or giving their victims poisoned lollypops. For once, this anime’s visceral vision is cohesive enough to close that gap between cute and creepy and genuinely unnerve me. Instead of trying to shock me with deadly babies or child-minded adults, Gleipnir exposes the horror in the minds of teenagers kicking and screaming at adulthood, developing kids who look in the mirror to see bags under their eyes for the first time and begin to fear that these empty summer days at the end of high school are as good as it will get for their lives.
Shuichi wraps himself up in denial, confronting the ugliness of death and loss around him with random acts of kindness in a friendly form, ignoring the hormonal impulses of the dog inside him in favor of its cartoonish smile. By contrast, Clair lost everything so abruptly that she can’t imagine ever being happy again, so she just wants enough power to punish the world (and her sister) for ripping it all away from her. It’s a chemistry that just works for this twisted nightmare of a premise, and there’s plenty of room for these two to push and pull against each other inside that stuffy suit. After three episodes of vile and upsetting imagery, I still hadn’t rolled my eyes once, and I never found the lack of explanation for all this madness irritating. The story had the confidence to make me believe it would dole out answers at the most dramatically potent time down the line.
If you’re in the mood for a shamelessly ugly twist on teen romance with some wild sci fi hooks and a snappy pace, Gleipnir passes the three-episode test with flying colors. I don’t expect Shuichi and Clair’s death-wish-fueled fling to resolve happily, and I’m not in the mood to watch more of something so dark and bitter right now, but I have to respect its successful shock factor in a playground over-populated with anime that try and fail harder to make teddy bears scary.
Gleipnir is currently streaming on Funimation.
Thanks to Ethan for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤