by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 4 of
Well, he finally did it. After decades of accusations that Ikuhara's work is too surreal and obtuse for its own good, this idiosyncratic director concocted a metaphor so obvious that no viewer could possibly mistake its meaning—unless of course, they don't know any Japanese. Episode 4 is all about "soba", which is to say it's about noodles and closeness, since the word can be arranged to mean both things. So when Toi asks Kazuki why he's so "bad at soba" after the kid lays out his plan to kidnap an idol for the sake of his little brother, he isn't referring solely to his sloppy eating habits.
Why is Kazuki so bad at closeness? Well we won't be finding out this week, because episode 4 is all about Toi, and he's got the complete opposite problem! Instead of driving his brother away in a convoluted bid to protect him, Toi's slicing himself thinner and thinner every day in the hopes of receiving affection from a sibling who thinks he's protecting his family by cutting himself out of it. It's circles within circles as Kazuki comes face to face with Haruka's dark alternate future in Toi, for an episode that combines the straightforwardness of Enta's story with the melodrama of Kazuki's.
"Bad people are the ones who survive in this world." It was an ethos that Toi, like most children, never wanted to believe was true, but fairytales about fairness are for more privileged little boys, and when the reality of the world's uncaring greed destroyed his parents' lives, Toi was powerless to keep his brother from repeating their mistakes, until he began to wonder if turning your back on modern society was such a bad thing after all. After all, if Chikai hadn't committed a crime to save his family's soba restaurant, it would be packed up into boxes and erased completely. The world would have forgotten about the Kuji family, and all the bellies they filled in their endeavor to live good lives would find sustenance somewhere else tomorrow. Toi's entire life was one bad deed away from being yesterday's noodle. So maybe, Toi thinks, it would be okay to live for the sake of protecting just one person he loves, even if living a life on the outskirts of society would ruin any hope of connecting with others.
Unfortunately, Chikai's refusal to give Toi that connection has left the younger brother isolated in limbo. Since he's already sacrificed connections with his classmates and surviving family through his delinquent deeds, Toi finds himself struggling to prove himself worthy of closeness with his older brother, and it's becoming more than his body and spirit can handle. While his relatives promptly unpacked their lives once more after Chikai bailed them out, Toi's room is still covered in boxes, so he can always be seconds away from fleeing everything to support his brother completely—but it's only ever "next week, next month, next year I'll come for you" from the ironically-named Chikai. Because he assumes the best of the brother he loves, Toi can only see this as further evidence that his weak little life is not a commodity the world needs, so if he's going to be discarded anyway, he might as well become rotten enough to survive society's dumpster.
Because Toi is actually the complete opposite of the self-interested criminal he tries to be (I'd even argue he's the most empathetic and observant of the three boys), this effort to stretch himself further than his growing body can handle is really taking its toll. The dark circles under Toi's eyes are a sure sign that his boxed-up life is reaching its expiration date; he can only linger between worlds for so long before he drowns under the weight of his own loneliness and self-hatred. It's just too much for a child to bear alone. And that's when the Golden Combo blunder into his business, forging criminal connections with Toi whether he likes it or not.
Of course, like most connections forged in Sarazanmai so far, it's not for altruistic reasons. Enta tries to convince Toi that Kazuki should have the next wish by appealing to him as a friend (making him possibly the first person who's ever tried to befriend Toi), while Kazuki decides he needs the help of a "bad" person to seal his false connection with Haruka into reality (and Toi doesn't seem to mind Kazuki's company for suspiciously hormonal reasons). Having faced the greatest amount of hardship in the trio, Toi sympathizes greatly with both boys even as he finds their antics irritating. He wants to be there for them because he knows that their fear of being forgotten is just a few steps removed from the fear of death, a dark reality he survived only by clinging to the droplets of affection from his brother that kept him going.
It's obvious to us that Toi should put aside his protective instincts for his selfish brother and start applying them to relationships with these two other weird boys who might want to share his burdens, but the world looks very different to him at such a tender age. Feelings in adolescence are usually all-or-nothing, and Toi's drawn a firm line over "deserving" connection with his brother that he can't cross on his own. When he shouts at the soba-zombie to "stop being such a baby!", he's berating himself for not growing up fast enough to reach his little hand across that line, but the truth is that Chikai's hand was never out in return, and his back is always turned away. The voice driving Toi forward into isolation is just a child pretending to be an adult, because that's exactly who he idolizes. Chikai is still a little boy pretending to be a man, and it's as clear as the sucker in his mouth: a symbol of nostalgic sweetness that keeps him pacified as he drives himself to destruction under the illusion that he's protecting his family like some stoic anti-hero in a seinen manga. (On that note, is that other childhood emblem in Chikai's past a soccer ball?) This classic example of masculine emotional constipation also drives home Sarazanmai's unique focus on boyhood specifically. Kazuki, Toi, and Enta's difficulties connecting with others are all tied to issues that follow maleness in some way, from Kazuki's inability to be directly affectionate to Toi and Chikai's idolization of toxic masculinity to Enta's invisible attraction to another boy.
By episode's end, Toi's backstory cements the inevitable connection between crime and zombification in its cruelest final twist, when baby Toi's ceaseless drive to be close to a person who's always running away causes him to take someone else's life. After both Toi and his brother effectively double the weight of that murder by taking it all on their own shoulders instead of sharing it, Toi's inner childish judge becomes the sole enforcer of the death penalty on his own head. His box literally contains a deadly secret, and now he believes that he's become a bad person who can only connect with other bad people. But if any "good person" who stands in the way of his impossible goal to connect with Chikai is considered a liability, Toi will only be able to destroy more connections until the otter cops capture and execute him for his crimes of desire. Also, because Toi is neither dead nor alive in this state of eternal waiting, he has pivotal meetings with others in places that only exist as transitions between two "real" locations, from an alleyway to a shipping garage to an underground tunnel.
On that note, now that we've seen all three boys' backstories, we've seen the three very different arenas in which they attempt to connect with others. Kazuki's attempts to connect happen in artificial spaces like social media, because he's trying to escape a painful present reality that doesn't allow for the kind of connection he seeks. Enta's attempts to connect all occur in nostalgic places lost to the past, because he's yearning for a simpler version of reality where his pure feelings would be understood without question. Toi's attempts to connect happen in transitory spaces because he's trapped himself in a living death, yearning for a future with his brother that will never come. And in the space between the cracked plates of these boys' lives, we see the many overflowing ripples of connection that could draw them together, if only they could break past the rules they've constructed for themselves about how that's supposed to happen. Even if neither Kazuki nor Toi consciously understand that Toi is a dark reflection of the effect that Kazuki's behavior could eventually have on his little brother Haruka, Toi's heart is still desperate enough for connection that he betrays his own mantra and gives Kazuki his silver dish, now trying to protect the parts of Chikai he sees reflected in both Kazuki and Enta. Unfortunately, Kazuki seems to have taken the complete opposite lesson from their shared sarazanmai, determined now more than ever to put Haruka at a distance. Someone really needs to bust a kappa in these boys' behinds and get them to open up for real, before the cops come calling!
The Seagull Yakuza: These garbage-eating shorebirds are hardly the most threatening animals to pick as an emblem for your criminal organization, and I'm pretty sure that's the point. Like otters and kappa, seagulls exist in the liminal space between connected worlds, in this case the sky, land, and sea. But unlike otters and kappa, there's nothing mythological about their empty-headed greedy behavior. Much like Ikuhara tries to sap the potential coolness out of Chikai's turn to the dark side with that childish sucker, the yakuzas' cartoonish squawking makes it easy to see them as impulsive kids playing at being grown-ups by pecking and tearing at each other.
Simply SARA Report: Much like zombies, writers like Ikuhara exist between life and death. They must see the world both for what it is and what it isn't in the pursuit of truth (or something pretentious like that). More pertinently, if princes exist between love and desire, the same two things the Otter Empire seems to be looking for, what does this say about Prince Keppi? What does he possess that lies between the selflessness of love and the selfishness of desire? Is it related to the shirikodama, which also contains both things? In any case, it can be inferred that both writers and princes are like the Kappabashi bridge, where connections are meant to be created, even if not all stories or romances are successful in that regard. The second Sara report is more cryptic as a series of puns. Sara (the dish or the idol?) is soba, which is to say that she/it is close by. However, the noodle soba is not served in a dish like udon, it's served in a zaru, and the zaru is not a dish, because it does not hold water. So I guess the sara's ability to hold water is intrinsic to its secret nature in this story. That's especially weird because...
Water = Death: In Utena and Penguindrum, water is often synonymous with death, and drowning in particular has been Ikuhara's go-to method for symbolizing the erasure of someone's soul ever since he first fell in love with Night on the Galactic Railroad. It's in water that zombies are made and mafia marks are waterboarded, but it's also the lifeline kappa use to survive, filling their dishes with water as humans fill their shirikodama with desire. They don't have any choice; the water is where kappa must live, so they must tread lightly between life and death, keeping their heads just above the surface in their daily struggle for connection. I get the feeling Sarazanmai is going to develop this particular pet metaphor more thoroughly than he's ever addressed it in the past. Perhaps more than ever before, water in Ikuhara's work will come to symbolize life as well as death?
The Soba-Zombie: While all the perverts among us may assume that the soba chef is getting off on the delicious flavor of his beloved's bathwater, the truth turns out to be more tragic. The poor guy just wants to feel closer to the girl he loves, even though he knows that she only loves his soba instead. The parallel to Toi's laborious efforts to get closer to his brother is obvious, but used bathwater is probably a safer security blanket than a loaded gun.
Finally, we get another sneak peak at the Otter Empire this week, not from inside the police station or Tokyo Skytree, but in yet another liminal space, far above Asakusa in a reflected watery void that I'm guessing exists somewhere between life and death. Apparently, the otters are targeting specific individuals based on their Kappazon purchases or LINE messages, because each person's antenna is stacked around in a circle, broadcasting their vulnerabilities as bulls-eyes to be fired upon by deadly arrows. As the three kappa boys grow closer in both desires and frustrations with one another, how long will it take for their own crimes to be targeted?
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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