Reviewby Gabriella Ekens,
After accidentally destroying a sacred kappa statue, middle schoolers Kazuki, Enta, and Toi are turned into kappas and recruited as footsoldiers in an ancient war against the evil Otter Empire. Now, they have to fight the otter-run Kappazon Inc, which controls society via its ability to manipulate what people desire. To combat them, the boys are forced to go deep into the bowels of the population, eliminate blockages in desire, and reveal the secret untamed truths behind what people want. As they do this, the boys' secrets are revealed in turn. The ensuing drama will upset the foundations of society, alongside the fragile confines of our heroes' own lives.
French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once described his own idiosyncratic career as an attempt to “bugger” philosophy. Many have attempted to follow in his footsteps, producing “queer” (or simply strange) readings of otherwise normative works. With Sarazanmai, however, one is forced to confront - what happens when philosophy comes pre-buggered?
I've dedicated a lot of braintime to Kunihiku Ikuhara. This review is written from this perspective, that of a diehard Ikunihead, back for my fourth foray into the auteur director's headspace. From the moment it was announced, Sarazanmai attracted ardent speculation regarding as to where he'd turn his eye this time. Now more than a year later, with the entire work behind us, the answer turns out to be quite unlike what was expected, while still also constituting familiar territory to anyone intimate with his art.
So what is the show about? Well, it's about the same things as most of Ikuhara's oeuvre, plus a little extra. Previously, the man directed Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum, and Yuri Kuma Arashi. These shows - all masterpieces, in my estimation - have served to mark him anime's foremost creators, one of the few people capable of maintaining auteur status within this overwhelmingly collaborative medium. For the uninitiated, his stuff is all about marginalized people dealing with and ultimately transcending the oppressive forces that bear down on them in society. This is told in a magical realist style where the fantastic freely intrudes upon mundane reality, which contributes to the impression that his shows are bizarre or incomprehensible. Thus in Sarazanmai, the kids are roped into serving as slimed-up singing sentai heroes without too much fuss, and it's all a metaphor for them fighting their various oppressions.
Sarazanmai's overt theme, as stated in interviews, is “connection.” But to me, that just raises the question - connection how? All of his other shows are already about this. Utena, Penguindrum, Yuri Kuma - they're all about people struggling to connect in spite of trauma and social resistance, and end by stating that love is worth any possible hardship. How can an Ikuhara show be any more about connecting with others than they all already are? So the question becomes - has Ikuhara found something new to say about the topic, or does Sarazanmai amount to a sort of supercharged version of statements that he's already made over the course of his career? In other words, has the master begun to repeat himself, even more so than his body of work already functions series of repetitions, of the same transcendent anarchic empathy applied in turn to different spheres of the human experience (adolescence, gender, family, generational conflict, sex, etc.)?
The answer turns out to be that, yes, the show is repetitious, even more so than Ikuhara's previous output, with little that'd appear novel to a dedicated viewer/reader of his. This doesn't mean that it's a bad show - just that the superfans might have to adjust their expectations, and not expect too much that's revolutionary (in content, not mandate) about this one. While there are of course still some juicy bonus themes wriggling around beneath the surface, on the highest level of overt text, it's kind of just a pared down version of what's become Ikuni's archetypal narrative. It goes like this: we meet some eccentric weirdo kids, learn that they're super traumatized by society and their families or whatever, watch them nearly succumb to their antisocial coping mechanisms, and eventually they beat the system with a transcendent act of selflessness. Fill in the blanks with whatever the animal mascot is this time and there you go. While Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum, and Yuri Kuma Arashi all manage to distinguish themselves in the details, they do still conform to this basic skeleton. Sarazanmai shares that structure, but with only 11 episodes, it just can't afford the luxury of taking sideroads as much as its elder siblings. Not that they don't try. Frankly, the thing is rushed. It doesn't help that it feels like it was maybe conceived as a two cour anime - so many subplots are just summarily dismissed in the latter half. Now I know for a fact that it didn't have to be like this. At 13 episodes, Yurikuma was nearly as brief, and while the pacing got tight sometimes, it did end up feeling like it said most of what it wanted to say, mostly in the way that it wanted to say it. The same is not true for Sarazanmai, which enters hardcore “outline mode” (as I call it) around its midpoint and never leaves. By the final episodes, major plot beats are happening about as quickly as they can squeeze out dialogue, and characters stand around explaining the symbolism directly to the audience. This reduces the show's emotional effectiveness, as there's just no breathing room.
Really, this isn't terrible storytelling. This exact same problem is present in plenty of shows that I'd ultimately review positively. I'm harsh on Sarazanmai because I know that its creators have done better in works very dear to my heart. It's just that on a technical level, according to my reviewer brain, this is the most narratively flawed Ikuhara, mostly for that reason. The other reason is that it abandons a bunch of subplots in the latter half, but I'll get into that in more depth later.
First of all the three main kids represent three different ways of losing touch with your ability to connect with others. These “three ways” are named in the venn diagram image that appears in the show sometimes. From this, Kazuki is “can't begin” because he doesn't understand what he wants, and instead runs around chasing random stuff and getting into trouble. Enta “can't end” because he knows exactly what he wants - Kazuki - but can't work up the courage to confess out of fear of rejection. The worst off of the bunch is Toi - he's given up on the idea of connecting altogether and is at risk of falling into hardened isolation. By turning into kappas, they're put into a situation that forces them to be honest with one another about their vulnerabilities and desires. This is what allows them to connect. The show's main argument is that fear and repression forces people into a toxic isolation that can only be broken through by taking the risk of reaching out to others. The “kappa zombies” that the kids fight are all people who have fully succumbed to this process, and the adults in the show are mostly “zombielike,” with pale skin and hooded eyes. Typical for an Ikuhara production, it's up to the children to carve out a new destiny for themselves, while the adults serve as portents into a bad future, examples of the traps that they could fall into.
In the first place, Sarazanmai is novel among Ikuhara shows for starring queer men. (His previous work with male protagonists, Mawaru Penguindrum, is his most lacking in queer themes, and queer men have only ever been side characters throughout the rest.) On that front, it breaks some new ground, although it soon becomes apparent that he doesn't have as much to say about the unfair sex. While his previous Gay Shows about women worked as examinations of femininity alongside lesbianism, the men in his work function almost as neuters, with little corresponding attention paid to the details of their gendered identities. In the end, I just don't think Ikuhara thinks very highly of masculinity. He seems to primarily envision it as the absence of a more positive and substantial femininity, a sort of crust that envelops a person after they align themselves with society's forces of oppression, and become alienated from their status as loving beings. When macho traits concentrate, it tends to signify a character's fall into this trap and a corresponding moral depravity. This began with Akio in Utena, and in Sarazanmai, that same role is occupied by Toi's brother Chikai. He and the promised prince share the same arc, albeit on different scales - both make a Faustian bargain to protect their beloved sibling, become corrupted, and finally turn their weapons against the one that they love, having forgotten where they came from. Actual masculinity is of course more than this, but after Sarazanmai, I'm convinced that you can't turn to Ikuhara for the same intimate perspective on the topic that he provides femininity. Even genius has its limits, I guess.
The show's true thematic innovation lies elsewhere, in its making explicit of a theme that's operated below the surface of Ikuhara's earlier shows, but never quite risen to the level of explicit text. This is his criticism of capitalism as an exploitative system that consumes human lives in its pursuit of profit. Now it's easy enough to say this kind of thing - even Saturday morning cartoon shows (like another Ikuni classic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) have episodes where the heroes fight off the evil banker who's been buying out the neighborhood. What makes Ikuhara exceptional is, as usual, the degree of his articulation, and the pathos he wrings out of the character drama he uses to illustrate it. There are three main scenarios to this criticism, each centering around a different treatment of adult male characters.
We'll start with Reo and Mabu. They illustrate how the system is capable of employing marginalized people as its enforcers, granting some privileges while still keeping them oppressed. How this works is that the system will elevate select members of the group that it oppresses into middling positions of power, and they accept in exchange for reprieve from some aspects of their oppression. Sarazanmai criticizes that deal by making it come at the cost of Reo and Mabu's ability to properly love each other as an openly gay couple. Its conclusion is that, while the deal carves out some space for select oppressed people to survive, it doesn't allow them to thrive, because it still bars them from what makes life fulfilling: the ability to connect with others exactly as one is. In the meantime, Reo and Mabu serve two functions for the regime. In the first place, they do its “dirty work,” scouting out and killing the deviants whose desires Kappazon will recast for mass-market consumption. The fact that Reo and Mabu do this as police officers, and not mere common thugs of some stripe, is a criticism of how government agencies are integrated into big business, and tend to work in the interests of capital rather than those of the citizenry. On another level, they function as a distraction, a pleasurable spectacle put on by the company that encourages people to ignore the devious activity going on beneath the surface. This is exemplified by their song and dance sequence, which takes place over ominous factory imagery (which we later learn is of people being packaged into boxes). It may take a distracted viewer several rewatches to catch what's occurring in the background. This harkens to real-life issues like “pinkwashing,” in which a company will market themselves as progressive in order to distract from other issues, including more subtle forms of discrmination against the group that they claim to support. This is also a pointed self-criticism of the anime industry, which marginalizes queer people in its workings even as it profits off of their representations. While conditions have been improving for LGBT people in Japan, it remains difficult for someone to be “out” in the anime industry, even as representations of queerness are increasingly celebrated by (and sold to) a mass audience.
Onto the subject of Reo and Mabu's weekly quarry, the precise reason why Kappazon collects weirdos may not make sense without some knowledge about capitalism. Basically, capitalism works by constantly “buying out” new creations, sawing off the edges that won't sell, and marketing that as the hot new product. You see, capitalist economies need to be constantly getting bigger or else they'd just collapse - this has been proven mathematically. This means that their economies need to be constantly finding new ways to make money, usually by making new products that cater to new desires in the population. Money makers generally aren't very creative in this way, so an effective way of doing this consists of finding an innovation that a random person came up with on their own and making a version of that for mass consumption. This is perhaps most easily visible in music, where it's a stereotype that obscure bands “sell out” to make watered down versions of their old music for a bigger audience. From the perspective of capitalism, this “buying out” strategy is convenient because it not only produces a new thing to sell, but gets rid of somebody who was doing something outside of capitalism (or even worse - actively resisting it). What capitalism hates more than anything is the idea of anything existing outside of it, so if anyone tries to fight back, it cuts them off with impunity. How long could you survive without spending money? That is deliberate. So as soon as Reo and Mabu get what they need out of some freak's desires, the excess (the unsellable parts, which are of course still a crucial part of their individuality) prove unnecessary and they're killed. Fun stuff.
(Longtime Ikuniheads may recognize this as an extension of the Child Broiler from Penguindrum, the machine that grounds up excess, abandoned children as a metaphor for how society treats people who aren't productive. This is an instance where anti-capitalist themes had been latent in a previous Ikuhara work. Impressively, the guy's ideas have been fully formed since at least Utena - everything that we see is just a slight shift in the focus of his articulation.)
The third adult eaten by the capitalist machine is Toi's older brother Chikai, who makes an Akio-esque bargain to save the family soba shop from destitution. I've gone over most of his deal already, but the exact difference between him and Akio is who they sell their soul to - while the prince gives into patriarchy, our gangster oniisan cuts his deal with the forces of greed and profit. It leads them to the same place, although Chikai perishes before he can fall quite as far as his predecessor. After his death, Toi throws his final gift - a bale of cash - into the lake, as a statement that no amount of money was worth the loss (either spiritually or physically) of his beloved brother. In the middle of this, the scene cuts to a shot of the Japanese flag. You can make of that what you will.
If you want confirmation that the show's anticapitalist themes are intentional, just look to its antagonist. Kappazon is named after one of the biggest companies in the world, one that's infamous for destroying industries in its attempt to monopolize while also exploiting the hell out of its employees. Amazon (named for a river that's populated by its own species of otter) embodies capitalism in its aim to become Everything Inc., both fount and spigot controlling rationing all desire, as well as in the human cost that accrues beneath its glossy surface. It's up to the kappas, those illicit shapeshifters, buggerers of men and hoarders of flows, can do to combat their influence. Kappas represent the flow of desire in its raw state, which the otters - nothing on their own - colonize as the source of their influence. Ikuhara understands the system well as a parasite upon human activity, a harvester fueled by the production of perversion.
And that's it for the show's major themes. There are also a few minor ones - the biggest one is probably the show's “trans baiting” regarding Kazuki's crossdressing. While I understand the arguments that justify it as part of the capitalism theme (Kappazon profits off of Kazuki's insecurities by selling him a prepackaged identity that makes him feel more confident), I still think that it was a faux pas to offer trans fans the spark of hope that they might see themselves reflected in this work only to take it away. The character Sara also goes completely unexplored, despite her occupying an interesting position as a kappa working for the enemy. Her story in particular feels like material that was left on the cutting room floor in the rush to reach a conclusion in 11 episodes. I'd be curious to read the novel, should that ever get released over here.
Besides all the Big Brain, Sarazanmai should still be plenty entertaining for casual viewers. Its surface-level drama remains exceedingly well told, with special emphasis going to the Reo/Mabu storyline for also serving as a subtle deepening of BL's typical themes. I'd also be remiss to go without mentioning the show's sense of humor, which per Ikuhara standards, is excellent. Gags, both visual and verbal, are constant, and the first episode in particular amounts to a SHIMONETA-style gross-out sex comedy in the sheer volume of its dick-and-ass jokes. If a little vulgarity is enough to shrivel your loins, then be warned: this show is not for you. However, if you're like me, pricking your ears at the slightest profaneness, then prepare for a rare dish of hilarity, served steaming hot as a wiener between buns. As usual, it's a miracle that Ikuhara manages to pull it off. It's also a big part of what makes his profundity bearable, the fact that it's tempered by a love of baseness, by an appreciation of the bodily facts that underlie human experience, and unite us beneath all difference.
In the end, I'd have to rank Sarazanmai as my least favorite within the master's oeuvre. By most measures, it's still a fantastic show - affecting, funny, thoughtful, and gorgeous - but my standards here are sky high, and within the Ikuniverse, Sarazanmai stands as both his least complex and most technically flawed work. There are some perks to (relative) simplicity, however. If someone were looking for an entry point into Ikuhara's art, this is where I'd direct them, since it's a relatively short work that also serves as a summation of his major themes. Those are, of course, love, connection, revolution, crossdressing, cute animals, and anal sex. Anything that a girl (or boy, or kappa, or bear, or abstract concept) could want in the modern world. Remember to hold onto your shirokodama, and see you next time.
Special thanks to Rose Bridges for the conversations that went into making this piece, and Nick Penrhyn for the screenshots.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A
+ Thoughtful, affecting, hilarious and aesthetically gorgeous work of high art, innovative critique of capitalism by the director
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