It’s hard to nail down exactly what Prison School is, beyond “very strange.” It’s not, as you might guess from the title, an inspirational story of prisoners educating themselves behind bars, but rather an anime about a prison on high school grounds, intended for disobedient students. The existence of the prison – which soon houses the school’s only five male students as punishment for peeping on the girls’ bathroom – makes little sense upon reflection. Which is fitting, because very little about this series makes much sense. It’s gloriously weird in a way that will either revolt or delight you.
The show is also incredible sexualised; on the Blu-Ray’s special features, the voice actors recount being asked “Have you done porn?” before signing onto the show. However, it feels distinctly different from your typical fanservice anime, which tend to be pitched to pubescent male interests. Think panty shots and oversized breasts. Think onsen outings and torn clothing. While there’s plenty of leering at the female characters (well, one in particular – we’ll get to that), Prison School’s fanservice is more specifically directed towards those with masochistic tendencies.
All manner of punishment – physical suffering, emotional torment, every kind of humiliation imaginable – is enacted upon our five protagonists (who, it is must be said, largely deserve their punishment). These can be heinously brutal, including a literal impaling, or overtly fetishistic, as in a recurring subplot around Hana – secretary of the “underground student council”, who control the school and operate the prison – and her ill-fated attempts to get main character Kiyoshi to pee in front of her. I could try to explain all this, but honestly it wouldn’t make any more sense than it already does.
For those of us whose tastes might not enjoy watching all this suffering, the series is buoyed by a deeply unconventional sense of humour. There are a whole range of deeply weird recurring jokes: a couple who go into The Grapes of Wrath expecting a very different film, or the underground student council president’s difficulty with the acronym for their “Destroy Testicles Operation.” It’s rarely laugh out loud funny, granted; this is more the kind of comedy that prompts you turn to the person next to you with a look of bemused astonishment, wondering “Did I really just see that?”
That unconventionality extends through to the artwork and character designs, which have a kind of grotesque corporeality to them. I could talk about ‘Andre’, an overweight prisoner with his own masochistic tendencies and a face about a fifth of the size it would be, or ‘Joe’, whose defining qualities are coughing up blood an obsessing over ants. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Prison School’s most memorable character, vice president Meiko.
Where the remainder of the series’ female characters are thin and pretty in a fairly generic way, the vice president’s appearance is a parodic exaggeration of anime women. She has huge breasts, barely concealed by a shirt invariably open to the navel, and parades around in a G-string and a skirt that barely reaches her pubis. She’s deeply insecure about her own authority, while being feared and revered by the five boys. The camera unapologetically treats her as a sex object, finding absurd camera angles to accentuate her cleavage or ass. Contrasted with the otherwise ordinary character designs of the female cast, it’s clear she’s supposed to be at once sexy and a joke; much like the series itself.
I’m not sure if Prison School is “good” in any conventional sense of the word; as erotica it’s not especially erotic (though maybe masochists would disagree), and as a jailbreak narrative it’s rarely convincing. Despite this, I’m a fan, almost purely because of how absolutely original it is. It’s an utterly personal (perhaps too personal) goof that’s somehow been turned into an anime with high production values, and utterly unlike anything I’ve seen before.