‘Style over substance’ has longed plagued animation, a medium fussed over frame-by-frame, and considered down to the last detail. At first glance, The Perfect Insider suffers this same dilemma, yet the scale tips throughout its short arc, striking a balance between its heavy-handed philosophy and striking surreal imagery.
Told across 11 chapters, the series begins in a familiar fashion with a character narrating his journal after enough time has passed to warrant writing events down. These flashbacks, filtered through the haze of memory and high strung emotion, cut back and forth between the present day bringing together three elements to form a whole. There’s a forbidden love story (both incestuous and underage, yikes!), the friendship between associate professor of architectural engineering Sohei Saikawa and Moe Nishinosono, the daughter of his former mentor, and then the murder of an infamous academic. It’s not so much a whodunit, as a ‘whydunit’.
The series is quietly unsettling, building an atmosphere before breaking it down, like laughter in silence. The face of this creeping feeling is the alabaster Dr. Shiki Magata, a former child prodigy now incarcerated. She got her PhD at 11, and posed philosophical questions even before that. And yet, at 14, she murdered both her parents. Although her psychological state found her innocent in court, she has been living in solitude since.
Saikawa has some strange kinship with Magata, framed as a cynical philosopher; a decorated academic chain smoking and asking great, almost unanswerable questions. He says he only smokes when he thinks, and as he’s always smoking…well, you get the idea. Still, he’s convinced that meeting her could break him free of this world. Having already interviewed her through a display screen, and like entertaining the delusions of a schizophrenic, Moe organises a camping trip for Saikawa’s upcoming seminar group.
Of course, it’s a façade so he can finally talk to Magata himself. The doctor, however, ends up murdered, or so it would appear. The rub is that she has been sealed inside the secure room that can only be unlocked from inside for the last 15 years, meaning her killer must have spent equally as long inside.
The series, based on Hiroshi Mori’s 1996 novel of the same name, has since been adapted into manga, a visual novel and a live-action series as well as this anime outing from A-1 Pictures. The mystery has been all but sucked dry. Through its short run, the central murder fails to captivate until well into its final episodes, where we learn more about Magata and, while it’s hard to empathise with her, perhaps understand her a little better. It’s more the exchanges between Moe and Saikawa that are most compelling, leaving the murder superfluous by comparison. Each have just enough quirks to make them seem engaging, whether it’s Moe getting ‘drunk’ on non-alcoholic beer or Saikawa struggling with his eye drops.
With its photoreal flourishes, the animation is uncanny, while exterior scenes look as though the exposure has been cranked up. The character design is especially strong, with clothing not only believable but stylish. Some of the CG leaves it looking worse for wear, and there are more than a few shortcuts (the old knitted-fingers-in-front-of-the-mouth trick to name but one). Elfen Lied director Mamoru Kanbe keeps things from feeling static with quick cuts and unusual angles. The opening and closing sequences excel here, full of geometry and fractals. It shows off the mathematical conundrums that pepper the narrative, further driving the point home that life is nothing but a series of equations.
With a story so dense, plot holes and inaccuracies pop up like so much Swiss cheese. How everyone was so calm when they all agreed a killer was still on the loose, remains a mystery. This was a bunch who were oddly composed even when the doctor’s limbless corpse was wheeled out of her room, after all. And then there’s Saikawa’s Mary Poppins pocket of cigarettes and how he never seems to run out. Now that’s truly a question for the philosophers.
Clean opening/closing animation; also available from Sentai Filmworks.