How Otherside Picnic masterfully uses horror to explore abuse and show healing queer love

By: Caitlin Donovan March 8, 20230 Comments
Sorawo and Toriko taking a picture together.

Content warning: suicide, cults, predatory relationships, grooming 

Spoilers for the Otherside Picnic light novels

The horror genre is not often thought of as “healing.”  Many who don’t know the genre’s history consider the main goal of horror simply to frighten or disgust the audience.  In recent years, thanks to hits like Get Out and The Menu, general audiences have become more aware of how horror can examine structural violence and the struggles of marginalized people.  Miyazawa Iori’s novel series Otherside Picnic makes a wonderful addition to the canon by centering queer love and examining how survivors of abusive relationships can heal from their pain and trauma in order to move onto healthier relationships.  

The series follows two university students named Kamikoshi Sorawo and Nishina Toriko as they explore a mysterious alternate dimension called “the Otherside,” an uncanny realm full of creepy monsters and phenomena from “true ghost stories” (basically the equivalent to creepypasta in Japanese internet spaces).  Throughout the course of their adventures in the Otherside,’ the two women get to know each other and gradually begin to fall in love.  It’s because of their mutual love that they are able to face their past traumas and overcome their literal personal demons together.   

A New Place to Be”: Rejecting Escapism and Forging Connection

A major way the series begins to explore abuse is through Sorawo’s experiences as a cult survivor.  When Sorawo’s family was in shambles over the death of her mother, Sorawo’s father and grandmother were emotionally vulnerable, which made them easy targets to be recruited by a cult.  Sorawo was able to resist the cult’s indoctrination, but it was at the cost of her relationship with her loved ones. Any chance of repairing that relationship is destroyed completely when the cult dies in what seems to be an accident, but could have also been a ritual suicide. 

In the wake of this trauma, Sorawo tries to move forward with her life by attending university, but she has a hard time relating to other people.  As a result, she isolates herself from everyone and when the reader is first introduced to her she states that “even if I up and vanished, nobody would care much” and that “dying here on the Otherside wasn’t so bad.”  She explicitly gets drawn to the fantastical world of the Otherside because of her desire to escape her reality, saying she wants to be free from the “nuisances of life” in this “secret world” that belongs to her alone.

Sorawo in the Otherside contemplating her existence.

The main aspect that drew me into the series was how much I connected to Sorawo’s experiences, since I am also someone who struggles with mental health issues.  She’s acerbic and bitter in a way female characters often aren’t allowed to be in any medium, she has a hard time figuring out social situations, and her coping mechanisms are often pretty unhealthy.  Her behavior makes sense given her circumstances, but the series also allows her to heal. She slowly makes positive changes to her life and begins to build relationships with other people, and it’s both inspiring and touching to watch her develop. 

While most modern isekai focus on the wonders of escaping to another world, Otherside Picnic is a strong allegory about how it can be dangerous for abuse survivors to isolate themselves and rely heavily on escapism as a coping mechanism. The series makes a point that it’s important to form connections in “the real world” and that Sorawo can’t spend all her time alone in the Otherside.”  There is a real danger that Sorawo could get consumed by the Otherside and, while it’s a genuine struggle for Sorawo to live out her mundane life in the real world, it’s vital for her to form a connection to her reality so that she can confront her painful past and move forward to a healthy future.  

Sorawo being exhausted of interacting with other people and found solace in the Otherside

That’s why Sorawo’s relationship with Toriko is the heart of the series. Sorawo is hesitant to share the Otherside with Toriko when she first meets her but slowly finds that sharing her world with someone else and accepting support allows her to thrive even in scary situations. Sorawo states that she worries about being “victim or victimizer” in relationships because those were the two options framed by her experience with the cult, but when Toriko cheekily refers to herself and Sorawo as “accomplices” in their adventures, she gives Sorawo a space to exist outside that rigid binary she’d set up for herself. 

The relationship between Sorawo and Toriko isn’t always perfectly healthy. Toriko sometimes crosses Sorawo’s boundaries and shows affection in a way she isn’t ready for; meanwhile Sorawo sometimes fails at communicating or makes dark comments that Toriko is uncomfortable with. But importantly, they both always try to understand each other and work together at the end of the day. They give each other room to grow. Thanks to Toriko, Sorawo sees that relationships don’t have to be unbalanced and that people can truly rely on each other and love each other as equals.

“I’m Glad It Was This Me”: Sorawo Faces Her Traumatic Past

It’s this realization and Toriko’s support that allows Sorawo to face her traumatic past. This really shines in volume four during her encounters with the “Red Person,”  a haunting Otherside creature who represents Sorawo’s trauma and traps her in an abusive relationship.  After Sorawo lost her relationship with her family and began exploring the Otherside alone, the “Red Person” preyed upon her loneliness and desperation to be loved.  Sorawo describes the “Red Person” as watching over her “with mercy. And tolerance. Like a mother.” 

The creature used this maternal connection to manipulate Sorawo and convinced her that the only way she could escape the cult’s control was to burn down her house with herself and her family in it. Sorawo’s family died in unrelated circumstances before she could carry out this plan, however, and the “Red Person” vanished.  But like any sort of bad relationship, the creature eventually returns and attempts to destroy Sorawo’s life again.  

The "red person" that haunts Sorawo
The “Red Person”

The difference this time around is that Sorawo has Toriko supporting her. The “Red Person” tries to lure Sorawo to her death by tempting her with a world where her mother is still alive, but Toriko calls Sorawo back to reality and helps her fight the creature.  After defeating the “Red Person”, Sorawo is finally able to open up to Toriko, and only then does she realize that, “This guy tried to make me douse myself with kerosene and commit suicide by burning myself to death! Now that I finally realized it, I was shocked by the fact I had never found it strange before.”  This moment captures how oftentimes, the tactics of an abuser or the toxic messages mental illness sends about oneself can seem “normal” until you discuss them with someone who truly cares about you.

Despite this realization, Sorawo still struggles to forget the “Red Person” and can’t shake their assertions that she can never move on from her losses and that she’s just “desperately scraped together from the pieces left after [her] mother died.”  She begs Toriko to slap her in order to snap out of it, which shows that she still internalizes the “Red Person’s” message that self harm is the only way to handle her trauma.  That’s why it’s extremely profound when Toriko kisses her lovingly instead, and this expression of tenderness helps Sorawo realize she can move forward without hurting herself.

Sorawo and Toriko flirting

Toriko’s kiss makes a simple but effective statement that a loving relationship can help someone move on from trauma.  There’s also something deeply moving about how this expression of queer love is healing to Sorawo and shows her that she’s not broken.  She’s able to see that the horrors inflicted on her don’t make her any less whole, stating that, “I’m glad it was this me here today. I lost my Mom, and went through hell, but just being able to meet Toriko was enough to make life satisfying.”

“Other Girls Like Me”: Growth and Connection Under the Spectre of Abuse

Sorawo’s growth isn’t just about her relationship with Toriko. While the fantastic development of Sorawo and Toriko’s relationship is the core of the story, the series also sends a strong message that Sorawo can’t limit her connections to just her love interest.  Even though it’s incredibly difficult for Sorawo to develop relationships outside of Toriko, she slowly becomes friends with Kozakura and Akari, both of whom offer their support in dealing with the mysteries of the Otherside.  Part of the joy of reading this series is seeing Sorawo develop friendships and deepen those bonds, which are just as essential to defeating the monsters of the Otherside as her love for Toriko in later volumes.

The solidarity between Toriko, Sorawo, Kozakura, and Akari is especially important because all of these women are abuse survivors.  It’s only their support for each other that allows them to stand up to the series’ greatest monster, the living specter of toxic relationships named Uruma Satsuki.  Toriko is haunted, both literally and figuratively, by the missing Satsuki: Sorawo and Toriko meet for the first time because Toriko is still searching the Otherside for her missing mentor.  Sorawo is jealous of Toriko’s lingering devotion to Satsuki, but her history with cults also lets her see the red flags in the relationship.  Satsuki was Toriko’s tutor when she was in high school and she encouraged Toriko’s infatuation with her so that she could lure Toriko into accompanying her to the dangerous world of the Otherside. 

Sorawo and Toriko hanging out with all their friends

It’s later revealed that Satsuki not only went after Toriko, but recruited several other young women to accompany her to the Otherside in a similar way, including Akari.  Satsuki had the closest relationship with Kozakura (a fellow adult) and they were even planning on moving in together, but Kozakura was quickly discarded when she refused to accompany Satsuki on her dangerous adventures.  Instead, Satsuki found it easier to manipulate her vulnerable young students into becoming both her backup and test subjects as she investigated the effects of the Otherside’s dangerous monsters.  

Satsuki’s tactics—an adult teacher who targets young queer women and exploits their devotion to indoctrinate them—are pointedly similar to the tactics that cult leaders use to recruit followers.  The series makes the parallels explicit, as one of the girls who Satsuki enticed calls herself as a “humble servant,” worships her, and even forms a cult of her own to be useful to Satsuki.

“An Inhuman Monster From the Beginning”: Satsuki as a Villain

There are a lot of romantic stories about teacher-student relationships in fiction and they rarely ever examine the unequal and abusive power dynamics involved, but Otherside Picnic treats the subject matter with the seriousness and gravity it deserves.  The characters in Otherside Picnic show disgust at Satsuki going after teenagers, with Sorawo wondering uneasily “what she thought she was doing with high school students” and Kozakura exclaiming “Just how many underage girls did she get her hands on?”.  

What’s more, Satsuki becomes a literal monster thanks to her terrible actions.  After getting lost in the Otherside, she turns into a wraith-like being who stalks both Toriko and Sorawo and often messes with their relationship.  Everything about Satsuki depicts how abusers attempt to control their victims and how their memory continues to sabotage their victims.

Kozakura explaining to Sorawo that even though Toriko is clever the fact is she was still a high school student who was easily manipulated by Satsuki.

Part of what makes Satsuki so dangerous and scary as both a monster and person is how she purposefully used her position of authority to manipulate young people and exploited the power imbalance of a teacher-student relationship in her favor.  When Sorawo encounters Satsuki’s wraith, she notes her “deep, soft voice, one that made it seem like she would tell me anything. It had the tone of one who teaches and guides, admonishes, and then takes people to somewhere far away. My head swam.  I’d heard Satsuki Uruma was a tutor. That was how Toriko and Akari met her.  How many kids had fallen for her the same way?”

Even when fiction critiques the abuse of teacher-student relationships, these abusive relationships are often still sexualized for the sake of salacious shock fodder.  What makes this worse, is when there are depictions of women abusing other women, it’s easy to fall into the trap of framing attraction to other women itself as “bad,” rather than focusing specifically on the abuse at play.  Thankfully, the series avoids this by choosing to focus on Satsuki’s victims’ journey to heal and move onto healthier queer relationships.  For example, the story focuses on the emotional aspect of Toriko dealing with her inner turmoil after being manipulated by someone she trusted rather than sensationalizing whether or not she and Satsuki had a physical relationship.  

Media that frames queer women as monsters often feels alienating because they tend to  conflate queerness and villainy.  However, Otherside Picnic’s portrayal of Satsuki is balanced out by numerous heroic queer women in positive relationships, which makes it easier to enjoy Satsuki as a full blown villain.  What made Satsuki so monstrous has nothing to do with her attraction towards women, but rather her lack of feelings towards her victims and her willingness to target vulnerable teenage girls. 

Kozukura explaining how Satsuki manipulated teenagers.

“I’m Going to Take Care of the Girls You Messed With”: Solidarity as Survival

The triumphant climax of this arc is when Sorawo gathers all of Satsuki’s victims to exorcize Satsuki’s wraith for good.  Despite the exorcism ceremony being depicted through a fantastical lens, the event itself mirrors a cathartic experience of people supporting each other while processing their pain and voicing their determination to cut off their abuser.  

The women Satsuki abused all get their chance to speak their truth about how much pain she caused them and ultimately they are able to cut her out of their lives for good.  The most refreshing part is that none of them are required to forgive Satsuki in order to feel at peace.  In fact, expressing their anger and disgust is an important aspect for them to find closure.  Kozakura, the one who was closest to Satsuki, is able to tell her that she has “No attachment to you, no regrets, nothing. I’m glad I could tell you that to your face.  It felt good.”

Toriko explaining to Sorawo that Satsuki was her tutor.

Toriko, meanwhile, is finally able to process and vent her conflicted emotions about being manipulated by Satsuki at such a young age. It’s Toriko’s love for Sorawo and solidarity with Satsuki’s fellow victims that allows her to finally recognize Satsuki as a threat and releases her lingering affection for her former teacher.  Once Toriko saw Satsuki try to abuse her loved ones, she finally realized what happened to her was absolutely wrong. When she confronts Satsuki’s wraith she states that “When I heard you’d gone after Sorawo, I was mad. I don’t want to touch you anymore, and I don’t want you touching the people I care about either. You and I are through.”

Expressing anger is an important part of the healing journey, but so is expressing the intention to move forward in your life. Satsuki’s wraith can’t stand up to Toriko expressing her desire to move on when she kisses Sorawo in front of her.  Sorawo also asserts to Satsuki that she’s going to look after victims of her abuse and they’re all going to continue to protect and care for each other.  This is truly the final blow that exorcizes Satsuki for good.  

Satsuki’s defeat is a poignant victory where the themes of the series come to a climactic conclusion.  It’s a raw demonstration of the power exploited people wield when they finally find solidarity and support with each other.  It’s honestly a beautiful expression of healthy queer love, and a celebration of reclaiming one’s life from the specter of abuse all in one.

Sorawo and Toriko playing in the snow.

Otherside Picnic is a satisfying narrative on every level, but it holds a special place in my heart as a queer woman who struggles with trauma and relationships. The story offers the euphoric experience of seeing queer women overcome their demons and celebrate their love. It allows the characters to grapple with monsters as a metaphor for overcoming abuse and trauma without relying on salaciousness or stereotypes. It shows the nuance and power horror can have when there’s thoughtfulness and care behind it.  

Most of all, it offers hope in a fight for a kinder world.  It’s true that there are plenty of terrors out there that want to use and control us, but if we truly offer each other tenderness and solidarity, perhaps we can face them together and make our way to a brighter future.

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