by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 2 of
Prior to Sarazanmai's release, Ikuhara's fans and critics alike would often wonder why his work focused on queer women so much to the exclusion of queer men. He's made no secret of his own feelings about gender and sexual flexibility over the years, so surely such a story would be closer to his own lived experience, right? Well, according to the man himself, the higher level of sapphic stuff was largely reflective of what pitches anime production committees were willing to accept from him, but given that he hadn't revisited masculine queerness in his work since the '90s (where all the queer male characters, however sympathetic, existed firmly on a spectrum of villainy opposite their queer heroines), it was fair to presume that Ikuhara might just have a lower opinion of men in general.
Sarazanmai has definitely broadened Ikuhara's oeuvre in this regard, but the more things change, the more they remain the same when it comes to his affection for queer masculine villainy. Our sweet little trio of heroes have gradually been revealed as a pet thief, a drug dealer, and a kiss-snatching stalker, and they're the good guys as far as we know. For the most part, they remain sympathetic to the audience because of their tender age; these are children trying to muddle through some surprisingly adult problems, which is a common struggle for kids who have to grow up gayer than their peers. But those otter cops have just got to be stopped, as powerful authority figures who appear to have crushed hundreds of lives already in their thirst for desire. Mabu and Reo dance straight to Big Gay Villain Central Station this week while wrapped in each other's arms, which means the line between kappa and otter may be thinner than we think, and simply finding a way to "connect" won't solve the boys' problems. After all, the otter cops are definitely connected on a deep level, but they only bring terror and misery to the unlucky victims they pluck from the populace they claim to protect.
But dangerous or not, Kazuki, Toi, and Enta will continue to connect through the sarazanmai now that Keppi has given them proper motivation. For every shirikodama they extract, he will gift them a Dish of Hope that grants any one wish their heart desires. Unfortunately, they can't share the Dish of Hope, which puts an even greater strain on their teamwork over who gets to make a wish, but at least it renews their determination to fight as kappa once more and drive Keppi's mysterious plot forward. Since Enta blew their first wish on cucumbers, Kazuki and Toi are at odds over who gets the next one, but the distance between their wishes may be much shorter than they think.
As it turns out, both Kazuki and Toi want the next Dish of Hope for the sake of their brothers, as the river of time drives a gradually greater distance between them. For Kazuki, his ascent into manhood puts him at an awkward distance from little Harukappa. He wants to have the same closeness with his baby brother that he did when they were younger, but he's reaching the age where he's intensely self-conscious about looking "cool" and masculine, which means smothering his little bro with affection and compliments is no longer socially acceptable. While Kazuki claims that he's pretending to be Sara in order to preserve his brother's innocence, I think there's a part of him that enjoys playing the part of the big sister instead, since girls don't age out of the freedom to show unbridled affection the same way boys do.
Toi has the complete opposite problem, as he forces himself to grow up as fast as possible to prove his worth to an older brother who's become involved in some kind of criminal enterprise. The shocking edit—from Kazuki and Harukappa giggling about idols to Toi waterboarding a grown man before his own brother Chikai threatens to stab the guy through the mouth—drives this tragic contrast home immediately. While Kazuki spends his days obsessing over how best to fulfill his little brother's childish fantasies, Toi obsesses over adult concerns like money and status in the hopes of growing up fast enough to travel alongside his big bro. Their mirrored connection is just opposite enough to put them in constant conflict, but that's what makes the nebulous feelings between them so strong compared to Enta, who always feels more out of the loop as a boy who's largely hidden his convictions and desires behind a lukewarm nice facade so far.
Keppi warns the boys that connecting through sarazanmai is always a risk, because the secrets that leak out of you can change your relationship with someone. The easiest assumption to make is that your secrets will damage your relationship with someone, but perhaps there's also danger in getting closer to someone through those secrets. Things have already escalated to both violent and sensual levels between Kazuki and Toi, when they clash over a cat that Kazuki wants to protect, Toi wants to kill, and they have to hold hands all day for the slightest chance to achieve either goal. (Sorry, it's "Kapples Only!") Learning empathy is a painful process, because in coming to understand the perspectives of others, sometimes you have to feel multiple emotions at once, as their feelings diverge sharply from your own feelings about the same situation. That's because the reason that someone does something—the shirikodama that contains their seemingly arbitrary mix of desires—is just as important as the deed itself. It's an overestimation to say that you can understand a person by looking at their acts alone, and this doesn't just apply to how Kazuki and Toi are starting to perceive each other differently after their lovers' spat; it applies to the audience's perceptions of them as well.
Initially, we're on Kazuki's side in the war for the Dish of Hope for a simple enough reason. Toi has to destroy things to protect his connection with his brother, harming humans and animals alike, while Kazuki creates things to protect his connection with his brother, even if those fantasies are fictional. But the sickening truth comes out in the sarazanmai; Nyantaro wouldn't be in any danger in the first place if Kazuki hadn't snatched him away from his loving home. Kazuki even clipped the poor kitty's ear to cement him as a neighborhood stray. It's a crime so cruel that even Enta has trouble forgiving his beloved for it, but this same information got filtered differently through Toi's perspective. He's seen far more ugliness than most kids his age, and he understands how hard it is to do things you know are wrong for the sake of someone important to you. He lets Kazuki keep the 80%-less-effective wish-dish with a word of advice for both boys: "take what you want by force, because I certainly will". (Incidentally, Toi is my runaway favorite of the trio so far, and I hope all that weed he grows is helping relieve the anxiety he must feel from living such a stressful life.)
Unfortunately, Enta takes this advice in some ill-advised directions by planting a kiss on his sleeping beauty without the other boy's knowledge. Enta was bound to start acting on his desires sooner or later now that the Dish of Hope has given him cause to be more aggressive, but unlike the other two boys, the person he wants to connect with is also his competition for the prize. When desires become entangled in truly incompatible ways, love can quickly turn into hatred, and I'd hate to see what warped effect this might have on the boys during their next sarazanmai.
But first, let's talk about that dance. You know the one. "KAWA-USOYA!"
I have so many thoughts on all the symbolism and foreshadowing bleeding out of this scene, but the otter cops have barely shared ten lines with the audience so far, and we're bound to see that dance repeated every week going forward, so instead of dumping out theories prematurely, I'm just going to describe what's literally happening during the dance in a way that will hopefully point us in the right direction for what to focus on in the future.
Okay. So Reo and Mabu summon their victim of choice to the station-house through social media somehow. Mabu presents him with damning evidence of a crime, and then Reo uses a revolver to extract the victim's feelings of desire that caused the crime, while the question "Is it love or desire?" hangs unanswered in the air. (Are they hoping to find love over desire for some reason, or are they just mocking the victim's selfish assumptions about the love he might feel?) Then a giant taiko drum descends from on high, surrounded by zombie-blue otter ghosts who slowly drum-beat into the victim until everyone in the station-house vanishes. Next thing you know, the otter cops are performing a bizarre fusion of idol choreography and a Bon Dance (traditionally used to send off spirits of the deceased) on a hellevator descending rapidly down Tokyo Skytree (a tower that notably has two stacked circles to match our top-and-bottom boys-love otter-ficers). Apparently, Tokyo Skytree is packed with boxes containing Reo and Mabu's past human sacrifices, which are all tethered to a conveyor system by bright red threads.
Once their victim's box reaches Skytree's lower ring, it drops into a pool of zero-gravity zombie-water, a dark dead blue against the red of squashed human lives and the white of sterile machinery. As the otters continue to sing and dance about extracting all human desire into one homogeneous existence, the pressure inside the zombie-water crushes all desire out of the victim in a bloody show, to be sucked up by the unfeeling machine at the heart of Skytree. Now drained of red desire, the victim's remains messily reform into a cold blue zombie state, while the mysterious creature feeding off his desire (who has familiar saucer-like eyes) watches the two otters perform their dance's climax. Reo physically dominates a willing Mabu, reaching into his cold blue body to grab his heart, which has been stopped by some kind of clockwork mechanism, recalling the imagery of slumber and immortality that's been tied to Keppi (and somewhat to Kazuki). When Reo touches Mabu's heart, life and warmth flow back into his body. Reo quickly rips the heart out entirely, now connected to Mabu only by two red strings of fate. They freeze there, posed dramatically in a vast bloody ocean of stolen desires, as the giant cat-zombie they've created sinks lifelessly into—
Then the world's most baffled police chief says "Erm thank you, that'll be all," and I guess that's the end of that. The victim's human body is dumped into the river, and the kappa trio reduce his zombie form to a ghost in the night. It's already yesterday's news. Make what you will out of all that foreshadowing, but I think it's safe to say that Sarazanmai is headed in some truly dark directions.
Some final thoughts before I wrap up:
Kazuki's Younger Brother, Harukappa: Besides just being a precious cinnamon roll in general, Harukappa seems like a total otaku for Sara Azuma in a way that perturbs his mother. Is it his introversion and idol mania that bothers his mom, or is she uncomfortable with him being into something so girly? Even for such a young boy, Harukappa acts unusually feminine, and I have to wonder if this is another reason Kazuki feels such pressure to act more masculine around him.
Toi's Older Brother, Chikai: This snappy dresser uses a long metal ruler as his weapon, which Toi copies for his own amateur crimes, like breaking into cars in pursuit of petty cash. Rulers are associated with measurement, which when applied violently to other humans could correlate to judgment of someone's worth by a cold metric, implying that Chikai lives by strict standards that bend for no man, not even his brother. However, his "cigarette" is actually a lollipop, hinting that there may be a childish side to Chikai that he keeps hidden from Toi, even though it may be more obvious to adults his own age.
Enta's Older Sister, Otone: Not much is known about her yet, except that she's his homeroom teacher, which has gotta be awkward. She seems to judge Enta pretty harshly, and he certainly doesn't see her as a pillar of support in the way the other two kappa relate to their brothers. He also seems to resent her for going on dates. What's that about? There's definitely more to their story than we know.
Simply SARA Report: This time, Sara informs all the abnormal humans watching her program that her prince's appearance has changed recently. So Keppi probably has a human form that's being withheld from the audience for mysterious reasons. Sara then gives her own sly take on the common observation that links cat ownership to loneliness. As a cat lover, I would probably frame this connection more positively, but the short version is that Ikuhara is making a joke about lonely people adopting cats because they too don't connect to others so readily, so it's easy to relate to their lonely nature by being lonely together, staring at the wall of your apartment for companionship.
The Cat-Zombie: On that note, the stark difference between a crime of desire and the motive behind it comes back into play when we discover what's inside the cat-zombie's shirikodama. At first, it was easy to assume that he was shaving local cats out of spite toward his ex-girlfriend, who spent more time with her pets than him, but it turns out that his love for her was so strong that he was trying to rescind his humanity entirely and become a cat himself by covering his shameful human body in their fur. If only his girlfriend had been into kappa! I know one magical frog-prince who could have made that dream come true. (Alternately, he could have found a new paramour at the nearest furry convention.)
The great river dividing these characters' motives from their actions is only going to grow more tumultuous in the weeks to come, and there's already reason to suspect that our perceptions of the good guys and bad guys have been prematurely skewed. Sure, the otter cops are murdering their victims in a horrifying way, but the kappa boys seem to be completely erasing those victims from existence. So which fate is really worse? The otter cops seem to find Keppi's crusade laughable because "only those who can connect desires have a future." It's been clear from the beginning that Enta has romantic feelings for Kazuki, but even after it's become obvious that Kazuki doesn't want to connect with him in that way, Enta is content to breeze past Kazuki's consent for the sake of his own desires. Does that mean loving Kazuki is connected to some idea of the future that Enta can't give up? Time waits for no boy, and I'm already worried about what kind of men our poor kappa trio will become under this kind of pressure.
Sarazanmai is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Jacob also enjoys yelling about anime on Twitter and YouTube. If you're thirsting for more Ikuhara content, he's written many episode analyses of Revolutionary Girl Utena that will resume after Sarazanmai concludes.
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