The Fall 2020 Preview Guide
Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear
How would you rate episode 1 of
Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear ?
What is this?
Fifteen-year-old Yuna prefers staying home and obsessively playing her favorite VRMMO game to doing anything else, including going to school. When a strange new update gives her a one-of-a-kind bear outfit that comes with overpowered abilities, Yuna is torn: the outfit is unbearably cute, but too embarrassing to wear in-game. But then she suddenly finds herself transported into the world of the game, facing down monsters and magic for real, and the bear suit becomes her best weapon.
How was the first episode?
After all these isekai/MMO shows about boys and men going into another world and finding themselves totally overpowered, finally we have one about a girl! I officially declare sexism to be OVER, and it's all because of Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear. Feminists, we can finally lay down our arms. Thank you, Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear!
Okay, maybe not, but it is kind of a nice change to have access to a popular male fantasy once in a while. Yuna is ridiculously overpowered in her adorable little bear suit, and she knows it. She moves through the game world with the ease and confidence of a person who is aware that she'll come out of most battles unscathed, and even if she doesnt, it's still just a game. At the same time, she takes the world and its people seriously enough that it's actually a bit confusing whether the characters she encounters are actually sentient, or if they're just really well-made AI.
Although, for a VRMMO we're supposed to believe Yuna is spending most of her waking hours in, the game world doesn't look particularly immersive. It's probably because of the artistic limits of the production than any actual choices, but the background art is generally rather awkward and boxy, with some wonky perspective. Climbing up the stairs in Kai's house would be a hell of a workout!
The character designs, meanwhile, are a mixed bag. The background characters are just like the backgrounds: awkward and boxy. The designs for Yuna and presumably the other recurring characters fare much better, and are overall quite cute. I know some of you out there will disagree with me, but I love how the bear suit is not only adorable but also pretty much precludes any fanservice. Sure, it's not super practical, but it's not the battle lingerie that has plagued, well, any kind of fantasy with female characters for decades. Also, it looks sooooooo cozy.
My question now is what direction will the story take? Yuna's life is, according to the summary, perfect: playing video games all day, every day and making big money through the stock market so she can send her parents on vacation and no one except her grandfather bothers her to do things that physically and emotionally healthy fifteen-year-olds should be doing, like going to school or socializing. It's nice that she's not a misanthropic jagweed, but spending all your time in a video game is still maladaptive at best. Will the show actually examine the issues with her lifestyle, or, like so many similar series, will it shrug its shoulders and say, “Well, she's happy so who cares?”
I can bear-ly wait to find out!
Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is another entry in a long line of anime that boldly ask the question: “What if we made a cookie-cutter anime about a character stuck in another world or a VR game that does absolutely nothing new or interesting with the genre, and our protagonist has some kind of quirk that makes them invincible!” Like basically every other one of these anime that isn't trying to get you to take its story seriously, the fact that these quirks usually result in a comically overpowered protagonist is the whole point. If the MC-kun of any of these given anime is a guy, then the show is probably doomed from the get-go, since it is usually assumed that “Being Unreasonably Good at Everything, Forever” is where the writers begin and end trying to develop their characters. When shows like Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear or Bofuri have a female protagonist, though, fans can look forward to the heroine getting an explanation of their powers that is at least a little weird, or something. Could you write a whole book on how this is indicative of anime's underlying problems with how the industry overvalues traditional gender norms and often incentivizes creators to play it safe and take zero creative risks whatsoever? Absolutely, but that's a bit outside the scope of this preview guide. We're here to talk about bears.
Like I said, there is virtually nothing unique or interesting about 99% of what K3Bear sets out to do, and that is by design. Though the show's art and creature designs are a touch more charming than what you might see in other series, the video-game setting of World Fantasy Online is indistinguishable from the same MMO landscapes we've been trudging through for years now. The whole point is that our heroine, Yuna, is the one scrap of identity that K3Bear has to its name, and that's because she's dressed like a bear, and she has a pair of magical bear puppet-gloves that can shoot fireballs and summon her two adorable bear friends, Kumayuru and Kumakyu. Throughout the episode, people constantly comment on how weird Yuna looks in her oversized pajamas, and then they are appropriately shocked when she can travel to a distant village and take on a monster as terrifying as the Black Viper, all without breaking a sweat. We meet no other characters that aren't stock RPG NPCs that are there to keep Yuna going along her quest, and Yuna herself has little personality beyond being humorously deadpan about the bear getup she wears.
Essentially, K3Bear's premiere makes no case for its own existence beyond proposing that it might be kind of amusing to watch an anime girl wear a silly bear costume and beat up monsters that are ten times larger than she is. Admittedly, this is amusing…for all of a minute or two. For the life of me, though, I cannot see what is supposed to keep the audience coming back for more. It isn't funny enough to work as a comedy, its world isn't interesting enough to function as a fantasy, and there aren't enough likeable characters or cute interactions to justify itself as some kind of iyashikei series. The synopsis on Funimation implies that Yuna is going to be stuck in this world and brought back down to level one, but if that truly is the plot of the show, I didn't see any sign of it in this episode. Regardless of what direction Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear ends up going in, I'm not convinced it would be worth anyone's time to stick around and find out.
This is sort of a revival year for VRMMO anime, isn't it? Between BOFURI, Infinite Dendrogram, and now the delightfully titled Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear, we've seen a resurgence of series where instead of being trapped in a game (or a game-like world) the hook is simply following our cast through the travails of daily MMO quests and storylines. While the formula is at least a move away from the absolutely stagnant isekai landscape, I do wonder if we're already running out of hooks for “watch this anime character play a video game” – though considering how many of my friends have fallen down the Vtuber hole, maybe it's just that K3B doesn't have much going for it.
The hook, if we're to call it that, is that Yuna is a super strong ace player who's gotten the nickname “Bloody Bear” through her astounding exploits, but also she wears a big chubby bear kigurumi as her signature gear. That's not much of a hook, and unfortunately this opening episode doesn't have much to it beyond that. Yuna takes on a dangerous quest only the highest-level adventurers would dare attempt, rides on her cute bear summons, then beats up a big snake with entirely bear-themed attacks and comes back to amaze her fellow players(?) with her accomplishment. She also seems remarkably nonplussed about the whole thing too, only getting at all excited about things when going full Shadow of the Colossus on the boss monster. There are hints at the very end that Yuna leads an extraordinary life outside of the game – she lives alone, trades stocks like it's breathing, and is presumably ridiculously wealthy – but that's all plot seedlings that only barely inform anything about her character. Watching this premiere was me waiting for the other shoe to drop or another character to show up, or even for some new jokes to pop up, but it never happened. I like Serial Experiments Lain a ton, but you can't just stick an anime girl in a bear suit and expect me to watch it just for that. She doesn't even make a bunch of unbearable bear puns, come ON!
The show also underwhelms in the visuals. Outside of Yuna's getup none of the characters are particularly memorable or striking; granted 90% of them are NPCs or background fodder, but combined with the oddly pale color pallete it makes for a pretty dull show to look at. There are blips of some slick animation during the fight, but otherwise it's a stagnant affair that mostly left me missing the expressive characters and sharp timing of BOFURI'S crew of bozo gamers. As-is, this isn't all that more immersive than watching a random Twitch streamer playing WOW. Maybe there will be more to dig into as the series goes on – perhaps it'll capitalize on the hints of a sterile family life for Yuna we got there, but this tutorial mission is dangerously close to game over for me.
It's interesting to me that of the three premieres this season that I know are changing the series' starting point from the one in the source material, each has chosen a different approach. Wandering Witch - The Journey of Elaina decided to open with a middle-of-the-volume chapter for chronology purposes, Moriarty the Patriot made the exact opposite decision and starts in medias res instead of with the origin story first chapter, and now Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is essentially choosing to do a little of both, blending the novel's first chapter (origins of the bear suit) with mid-volume material to throw us into the story when Yuna is already aware of her outfit's abilities. What's neat about this show's approach is that it's definitely playing with what the series is going to be – is it isekai, or something more like Infinite Dendrogram, taking place inside a VRMMO?
I won't give you the answer to that question, but I do like how the episode raises it. There are some clear hints as to which is the case, with the most telling being what we see during Yuna's login sequence after her phone call with Grandpa, but otherwise the episode leaves it up to your own interpretation, assuming you haven't read the novels or the manga.
What I'm less sold on is the story itself, which honestly is true of my feelings about the first novel as well. Yuna's ridiculous bear costume, which makes everyone underestimate her, is actually incredibly OP, but no one believes her even after they're more or less aware of what she can do, as we can guess from guild worker Helen's comment in the end of how nothing Yuna does surprises her anymore. It doesn't bother Yuna, though, because she seems to just be out to fulfill quests and maybe have a good time. She is, however, very attuned to the kids of the world, which is an interesting piece of the puzzle. Yuna appears to have been essentially abandoned by her parents, and while she seems okay with that and annoyed that her grandfather would try to parent her in their absence, she's also very sympathetic to kids who are trying to take too much on by themselves. It's clear that she's the breadwinner in her family with her little stock market set-up, and maybe that makes her understand on one level what Kai is going through as he takes it upon himself to find a savior for his village.
That's the part of the episode that grabbed me the most. The rest feels fairly standard, whether this is a game or not. Yuna gets a quest, no one thinks she can do it, she does it, there are bears. That everything about her is bear-shaped – from the blips on her radar to the hole she makes when she's slammed into a rock wall – is kind of funny, and her giant riding bears are cute enough. But the fight scene is pretty lackluster and there's really just not enough going on here to hold my attention. It does tonally match the source novel, although Yuna was a lot cheerier than I expected from the book, which is neither here nor there. If you liked the novels, this may be worth your while, but once the question about the nature of the story's world is answered, there isn't much besides bears to make me recommend this.
Anime series featuring female RPG enthusiasts as part of ensemble casts have been around at least since 2002's .hack//SIGN, but over the last couple of years an increasing number of titles have popped up featuring girls or young women as singular protagonists in series about RPG gaming, typically in the mode of being outliers in the way they design their characters and/or play the game. (See also BOFURI and Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online.) This would seem to be the newest example of this trend.
The first episode more implies what's going on here than explaining it, and is curiously at odds with the advertising blurb from the source material. In fact, it is described as an isekai title, but none of that is apparent in the first episode. This is all about heroine Yuna, a teenage girl who can apparently play the markets well enough to be financially stable in a hikkikimori-type lifestyle, playing a very lifelike-looking VRMMO RPG. She undertakes a quest about saving a village from a massive snake, defeats it on her own despite initially promising to only scout it until strong adventurers could be summoned, and earning the respect of the village and the boy who rode to town to summon help. All of this would be perfectly normal fantasy RPG behavior, but she does it while wearing what looks like a bear-themed pajama suit, complete with bear puppets on each hand.
Now, by all appearances (and according to the advertising blurb), the bear suit is a unique item with broken capabilities, and that shows quite clearly in the dynamic fight against the giant pit viper. She can summon tame giant bears, shoot bear-shaped fireballs, and perform numerous other (usually bear- themed) tricks, and the suit is quite resilient, too. Hence the ongoing irony is that no one can take her seriously in that get-up until she shows what she can do; she even admits that she wouldn't take herself seriously on first encounter. Watching her go around having various adventures in that bear suit could be fun on its own.
But is that really what this series will be? Again, the gap between the advertising and what we're seeing here is pretty great. She already has the bear suit, does not seem embarrassed by it, and definitely has not been transported into another world, so we might not have seen the real series yet. I may watch another episode or two just to see what's really going on.
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