The Spring 2019 Anime Preview Guide
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How was the first episode?
Regardless of your personal feelings on the works of Kunihiko Ikuhara, you'd have a tough time describing any of them as boring. The director is acclaimed both for the wild aesthetic creativity of his works and how each of his productions dive deep into poignant social issues, reflecting on topics as diverse as familial alienation, terrorism, and the various problems of modern patriarchal societies. His works draw from classic anime, literature, and diverse visual and performing arts, often so driven by their imagery and metaphors that watching them feels like solving a puzzle. His rich and challenging productions tend to either thrill people or bounce off them entirely, and if you expected him to slow down for Sarazanmai, you're in for a rough ride.
Sarazanmai's premiere hustles through a dazzling array of transformations and visual set pieces, introducing fresh concepts to the Ikuhara canon while still feeling deeply indebted to his past catalog. There's a sprinkling of the theatrical mode of dialogue he adopted for Yuri Kuma Arashi and a return to the frequent mysterious signage and faceless background characters of Penguin Drum. There are monsters and metamorphoses that seem to draw equally from sentai programs, Pretty Cure, and musical theater. There's a truly gleeful fascination with butt-related shenanigans, drawing on the kappas' mission to steal your special anus ball (really, look it up) as a reflection of our own sense of shame when it comes to exposing our desires and identity. There's a bunch of ambiguous imagery related to boxes and social media, alongside far more on-the-nose declarations about assimilating your secrets into your identity. In short, Sarazanmai is absolutely brimming with all the delirious imagery and still-ambiguous social commentary you'd expect from an Ikuhara production. If his style doesn't appeal to you, Sarazanmai won't change your mind in the slightest, but if you like your stories mysterious, thematically rich, and visually inventive, you're in for a treat.
Personally, my biggest point of contention with Ikuhara dramas is that he can let his worldbuilding or thematic goals overwhelm the human element, making his stories feel somewhat didactic. I didn't have that sort of trouble with Sarazanmai; this episode did a fine job of humanizing our reluctant kappa Kazuki, mirroring our confusion with his own and ending on a painful reveal of his precious secret. The premiere is full of images and threads that will likely be developed later (the false intimacy of modern connection through social media, the complexity of gender and self-image, the nature of desire and shame), but it also works well as a high-concept fantasy drama. The closest point of comparison in Ikuhara's catalog would probably be Penguin Drum, which also worked hard to keep its story thrilling on a beat-to-beat level, while grounding its drama in the rich and alienating wilderness of the modern world.
Incidentally, this also might be the best-looking Ikuhara show yet. After the very modest animation of Yuri Kuma Arashi, I was keeping my expectations muted in terms of visual execution, but this premiere is absolutely brimming with lush backgrounds and expressive characters, equally comfortable embracing traditional animation, CG objects, and even some live action footage. The animation is also fluid and evocative throughout, with standout sequences like our heroes' journey back into the human world offering some of the most beautiful cuts of the season so far. I loved this episode's Precure-esque monster design, was impressed by the expressiveness of its minimalist kappas, and was delighted to see Ikuhara continuing to experiment with borders and other visual framing devices. Sarazanmai is certainly the most visually creative premiere of the season along with being one of the best-animated.
On the whole, while Sarazanmai's kaleidoscopic imagery, theatrical narrative style, and heavy emphasis on Butt Stuff will undoubtedly put off some viewers, basically every element of this premiere felt like Ikuhara at his best, and a resounding reiteration of why he's such a beloved creator. I don't know where this train is going, but I am absolutely along for the ride.
I boarded the Ikuhara hype-train rather late in my life, but I have since become a huge fan of the director's unapologetic commitment to his own personal vision and style. His use of recurrent symbolism and brazenly abstract metaphors makes for dense but riveting stories, and Sarazanmai is no exception. In the course of just one episode, Ikuhara's latest joint delivers a positively overwhelming flood of gorgeous animation, thought-provoking storytelling, hilarious comedy, and the most viscous anal secretions you'll see in a TV anime.
That last part will likely be a sticking point for some viewers, even the ones who arrived ready for Ikuhara to bust out his usual complex array of psychological deconstruction and social commentary. The mythology of the kappa does involve the little creatures leaping into people's anuses to steal their souls in the form of a gem called the shirikodama, and Sarazanmai does not skimp on any of the moist details by faithfully recreating the legend on screen. You'll see Keppi the Kappa Prince plunge right into the backsides of our three protagonists, and moments later the three boys emerge from Keppi's own rear, kappa-fied and covered in his butt juices. The kappa boys are charged with leaping into the buttholes of the so-called Zombies that must be defeated each week, with their shirikodamas representing the secrets that each Zombie is hiding from humanity. So Sarazanmai isn't just weird – it can be downright nasty in a delightfully irreverent sort of way. I found it all hilarious, but the show could be too much for many people who would otherwise dig the series' perspective.
Personally, I'd implore you not to let all the farts and fluids deter you from what could be one of the standout anime of the entire year. Every aspect of Sarazanmai's writing and production so far has been devoted to telling a powerhouse of a challenging story. The box that our hero Kazuki must carry around every day isn't just a cutting metaphor for the way that people are forced to hide their innermost desires in order to conform to society's expectations; Kazuki's box literally contains his true self. When the episode first highlighted Kazuki's yearning to be connected with the idol Azuma Sara, I knew the relationship wasn't likely to be anything as straightforward as a typical romance. Sure enough, what we learn about their relationship by episode's end immediately cuts to the bone.
It would be easy to overreact to the theatrical and allegorical strangeness of Ikuhara's work, but when you get past all the kappas and butt jokes, Sarazanmai's thematic intent already feels sharp and deeply personal. What makes the show especially fascinating is how it explores the exterior and interior conflicts that arise from trying to live life while hiding such large parts of you that society deems unacceptable. When Kazuki leads Kuji and Enta in the fight against the Box Zombie, he says it's the zombie's own fault for hiding a secret that could get him in trouble, which turns out to be a reflection of Kazuki's own self-loathing. When the boys perform the Sarazanmai ritual and the other two learn of Kazuki's secret, Kuji is quick to judge him, while Enta makes a flustered attempt to defend his friend. These themes aren't new territory for Ikuhara, but they are already being approached from a different perspective compared to his past work.
Art like this is vital because it supports building of empathy and visibility for disenfranchised people, and work like Ikuhara's that deals specifically with queer themes serves as a platform for LGBTQ fans and artists to engage with the material on an even more personal level than viewers like me. Sarazamai's lush visuals, catchy music, and utter confidence of style and tone will ensure that Ikuhara's vision remains thrilling and fun, at least until he decides to start breaking our hearts.
My track record with Kunihiko Ikuhara titles is not a good one. I managed to muddle through all of Revolutionary Girl Utena (and its movie), though that was more because I was curious about what everyone else was raving about rather than because I actually liked it. I only ever got a couple of episodes into Penguin Drum and maybe five episodes into Yuri Kuma Arashi before losing patience, and I have no desire to revisit them. The main problem is that Ikuhara's style of presentation supremely irritates me. I find his storytelling to be pretentious, obtuse, and so obsessed with symbolism that he seems to see it as a crime to state anything directly. I feel like I need an interpreter to understand anything he's trying to say, which doesn't make for an entertaining show to me. All of that is present in spades through the first episode of his newest effort, and I hate it already.
To be fair, the technical merits on this episode are amazing. This is easily one of the best-animated premieres of the season, and it's loaded with creative and eye-popping visuals, if you don't mind that a fair amount of those visuals involve objects going in and out of people's asses. I will also acknowledge that the revelation of the main character's secret was a neat gimmick that I didn't see coming. The way that kappas are worked into the whole premise is also clever, though the repetition quickly became tiresome too. Yeah, I get that the whole show is kappa-themed, but this is overkill.
That's just the start of where the first episode slides into madness for me. I get the distinct impression that the show is trying to convey some sort of deeper meaning, but it all zips by me in a morass of visual gimmicks like CG-animated flying boxes, pervasive kappa imagery, briefly flashing text scrolls, and so many invaded rear ends, all backed by a peppy musical score. The lack of translation for some on-screen text and all the overblown melodrama doesn't help, nor do the random police officers who feel like this series' version of Yurikuma's Life Judgment Guys.
Basically, this episode is everything that we've come to expect from Ikuhara, for better or worse, just with a slicker coat of paint. I can easily see how his established fans would love this, but I also can't imagine it winning over anyone who has previously been turned off by his style.
Every few years we get a new Ikuhara show, and I find myself sitting between the excitement of a new emotional mystery to piece together and hesitation over whether I'm going to “get it” or not. His works can be divisive for this reason. Utena, Penguin Drum, and Yuri Kuma Arashi all ask the audience to emotionally and intellectually engage with what's on the screen at all times. His surreal imagery and elements can be confusing with little explanation, so watching an Ikuhara series sometimes feels like work, and not everyone is going to find the process rewarding. Hell, sometimes it can feel pretty exhausting, and that's where my personal trepidation lies.
Fortunately, Sarazanmai is by far one of his most approachable series to date. There's still a handful of “what the f***” moments but the major points that the narrative hinges on are explained by the episode's end. If you were worried about feeling lost, I think you're going to come out ahead of the first episode. Questions like “what are zombies,” “what are the boxes,” “why are they flying” and “what is a shirikodama” are all answered adequately by the end of the premiere. The series' constricted run time of a single cour means Ikuhara and his team have to keep things tight if they want to accomplish a coherent emotional narrative.
I'd be remiss to focus solely on the mysteries in the first episode and not mention that there is a TON of butt humor on display here. Characters getting literally pooped out by kappa, flying up zombie butts, cucumbers that look like turds, etc. This isn't 100% serious business; there's an immature and playful sense of humor around it all too. It's not something I found laugh-out-loud funny, but it works as a ballast to keep the story from feeling like it's too far up its own ass, if you'll pardon my pun.
Artistically, the show is gorgeous. The background art by Flip Flappers' Studio Pablo is superb. The setting has a very important role within the show itself, so I'm happy to see the level of detail the staff put into representing Asakusa and its landmarks. There are some dynamic action sequences during the zombie faceoff as well, and When Kazuki, Toi, and Enta work together, there's a very super sentai kind of vibe. There's also singing for all of us that missed the chorus battles from Utena.
Sarazanmai is worth checking out for plenty of reasons outside of its pedigree. Fans of absurd humor, emotional drama, monster boys, and impressive sakuga sequences will all find something to dig their teeth into.
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