2 out of 5
Directed by: Yoshimitsu Ōhashi
covers season 1
In much English-language media, produced in a country which considers the that as its native language, a strange premise or twist will often be accompanied by an explanation. It can be an aside, or an afterthought, or the whole concept might revolve around explaining that premise, but whatever the format: it’s assumed the viewer wants to know “why” and “how,” and then we can argue about the effectiveness of those Whys and Hows amongst ourselves.
While I’m sure it’s not unique not manga and anime, as I’ve become more familiar with those specific avenues of entertainment, I’ve come to accept that such setups are often just a subgenre; that is: there’s no explanation forthcoming, it’s just part of Genre X. Isekai is the main one that comes to mind, but you might find other splinters that involve time travel, or alternate universes, and after maybe your first time realizing that no one’s going to sit down and explain why people have RPG powers, you get used to it.
So Kokkoku’s spin on this – in which the Yukiwa family (our point of view centered around Juri, sister, aunt, granddaughter, and daughter to the other family members we meet) discovers they have access to a world referred to as “Stasis,” in which time stands still – can be accepted with the expectations suggested by the above: it just is. Yeah, the Yukiwa’s access it through a magical stone; yeah, grandpa – who’s the one who introduces Juri and her father Takafumi to it – also has teleportation powers in Stasis; fine. The hook can be more on the character interplay, and the way the show uses its setup for drama, or action. To the former, there’s a lot of possibility: the Yukiwa family seems dysfunctional, but in an understatedly believable way. A NEET brother; a kind, but irresponsible father; money woes. Juri sees herself as a character, and there’s bickering, but also the casual bonding of people who’ve been living together for however long. These low-key interrelations are fascinating in how they don’t stretch to fit more typical molds, and it’s curious to see how that will blend with the show’s sci-fi / fantasy bent. To the latter, the nature of Stasis: the family enters the state when brother Tsubasa and nephew Makoto are kidnapped and, lacking the demanded ransom or the time to negotiate with authorities, seek to use the frozen world as a way of seeking out and rescuing the two. Discovering that there are others – the kidnappers – free to move in Stasis, and coming to understand how to manipulate the non-moving nature of the world and its occupants (and the limitations with that) makes for some fascinating visuals, and tense and cool showdowns. So there’s definitely promise there as well, and new (at the time) studio Geno has a nice formalism to their characters and settings that lends itself to both the nuances of conversation, as well as the more fluid animation needed for bigger sequences.
Unfortunately, Kokkoku also decides to go the route counter to what I’d generalized for manga and anime, by treating Stasis, and grandpa’s powers, and the kidnappers, as mystery box pieces. Unfortunate because this stuff is gripping as Hell, creating a binge-worthy first few episodes as more and more oddities stack up… and then after a bit it’s clear that the air of mystery is a put-on: the majority of these oddities are included only for convenience, and there are likely no satisfactory explanations forthcoming. (To clarify with a spoiler: there aren’t any satisfactory explanations.)
Still, the Stasis scuffles can be fun, and you can sort of swallow the rest as set-dressing, except / until the illogical stuff starts cropping up, and the promising character work begins to fall on its face. Stasis lacks a clear sense of “rules,” which starts to diminish the enjoyment. It passes off justifications for actions by tying them to character’s sudden understandings of how physics work, and I guess that would be fine if it felt like it was applied excitingly, or consistently, but neither is the case. The tone, primarily maintained as sullen and heavy, becomes oddly comedic at inopportune points, and this is all before the reveals of the kidnappers’ motivations, and their leader’s – Junji Sagawa – which fit fully into the mode of mustache-twirling-take-over-the-world, and then also hardly make any sense at all. In short, the latter half of the season undoes all of the interesting character work, and unspools the premise into a scattered and senseless disarray.
The first half of the final episode, suddenly, is brilliant. Strong writing; great voice acting (which is, admittedly, strong throughout, especially from Chika Anzai’s Juri); but then any hopes of a reassessment are poopied on by the latter half, which is like a compressed version of all the deus ex machina / plotting by convenience stuff to which we’ve been subjected. Stick around through the credits to see how everyone’s life has changed oh-so-positively.