by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 6 of
Well, he had a good run as our goofy amphibian guide to the Field of Desires, but now I'm more than ready for Prince Keppi to start showing us his true face. In an episode that's otherwise climactic, triumphant, and surprisingly optimistic about our misfit trio, Keppi's smiling red eyes have never seemed more sinister.
After being exposed before Haruka in the most humiliating way possible, Kazuki has decided to completely give up, and so has the world around him! Time stops for kappa and human alike as Kazuki's family waits anxiously for him to come home, and Kazuki gorges himself on cucumbers (ice cream) while playing sumo (video games) in the invisible alleyways of Kappabashi (his filthy bachelor hovel). Yes, we've all reached that point where it feels like connecting to the people we care about is too damn hard so why bother trying anymore? The modern world is full of delightful distractions that require no human interaction to enjoy! What's so great about having family or relationships, anyway? Sure, his loved ones might be worried about Kazuki now, but the world won't stand still for him forever, and once the people in his life realize they're better off without him—a lying abusive cross-dressing cat thief whose own mother gave him up—he'll be free to have as much fun as he wants all alone, after the other two outcasts in his life inevitably give up on him too.
Fortunately, Toi and Enta are just removed enough from Kazuki's bottomless state of despair to see the situation more clearly. Toi has nowhere better to be in any form, so he simply waits with mild irritation for Kazuki to figure out his feelings, while Enta, despite his concerns for Kazuki's mental health, relishes the fleeting dream of playing with his friend like they did when they were younger. He knows it's more of a Fool's Golden Combo than his dream of a beautiful romance coming true, but you can hardly blame Enta for taking some joy in wasting time with the boy he loves. Of course, no one can party away their problems forever, and Enta loves Kazuki enough to admit that his friend is only spending time with him to escape from a painful reality. If they don't want to become permanently invisible to society, these three will have to complete the sarazanmai, which means Kazuki will have to confront how his actions past and present have affected Haruka—for worse and for better.
The theme of invisibility has always been sleeping under the surface of Sarazanmai, but this episode awakens it violently by propelling our heroes straight to the final boss lair in Tokyo Skytree, after Haruka is kidnapped to join hundreds of other silent victims on the Otter Empire's assembly line of human sacrifices. Just like Schrodinger's infamous cat (episode two makes even more sense now), Reo's targets are neither living nor dead inside their boxes; their souls are still pulsating with desires to be exploited, but they remain unseen to a fast-moving world that will only hear about their lives from a dismissive headline in yesterday's paper. At first I was alarmed by how quickly Sarazanmai had jumped to what seemed like an endgame scenario, but in retrospect, everything the boys have learned about their world has already prepared them to confront this shocking revelation. In their own ways, all three kappa kids have come to understand that connecting with others can be insurmountably difficult, that even connections forged in blood can be lost permanently, and that people who fail to connect will be forgotten by the world. So this horrifying factory filled with disconnected zombies is just presenting an emotional truth they've already accepted, blown up to a scale that illustrates that everyone is alone together in this struggle, with the invisible bodies of the forgotten under our feet. It's like they've graduated from childhood assumptions about "love" and "happiness" to face a world of efficient commoditization, where their value to society will be quantified by the success of their connections.
It's this crushing resignation that leads Kazuki to do the unthinkable. His desire to protect Haruka, while certainly brave and noble, isn't separate from his desire to punish himself for being a deviant who was unable to connect, so he offers up his own existence in exchange for Haruka's life. The only thing more alarming than how quickly Kazuki agrees to be wiped from history is how quickly Keppi proposes the trade. He literally corners Kazuki on a precipitous dead end to suggest the shirikodama transplant, and then he effortlessly operates technology that was supposedly invented by his enemies. (Once again, I suspect that the line between kappa and otter is much thinner than we've been lead to believe.) But if anyone's bound to be shocked most by this turn of events, it's longtime Ikuhara fans who have seen this exchange play out many times before. While Sarazanmai's version of this scene is most similar to a sequence in episode 18 of Penguindrum, basically every Ikuhara protagonist is eventually given the chance to change their broken world in exchange for their place within it. In fact, this is usually how an Ikuhara story ends rather than middles; the hero's sacrifice is always just subversive enough to betray its manipulative villain's expectations, and there's no greater achievement in an Ikuhara story than laying one's life down for the sake of true love, because that sacrifice will burn bright enough to inspire others to change or escape the system that threatened to extinguish something so beautiful. It's the Happily (?) Ever After to every Ikuhara fairytale.
That is, until Sarazanmai.
In a story about the importance of maintaining connections with the ones you love, no matter how painful and difficult the process as your desires grow and change, destroying a connection by sacrificing yourself can't change the system that separates people into boxes to indulge their desires alone. With their Silver Combo powers of tough and tender love, Toi and Enta remind Kazuki that he can only make things right with Haruka by not running away anymore, and by forcing himself to trust his little brother with everything good and bad about his true self. So Keppi's suspicious plans for shirikodama transplantation will simply have to wait. Some fans have taken this subversive scene as a sign that Sarazanmai is openly dismissing any need for the more melodramatic sacrifices in past Ikuhara works, but I would caution viewers not to count their kappa before they're hatched—Keppi's devilish deal is almost certainly going to return before this story is through.
Fortunately, the Dark Keppi system (I'm sorry, the what? Are we sure the otters and kappa are just enemies?) has no need for pure-hearted love, so little baby Haruka gets the big boot to a giant shredder at the base of the tower. It's genuinely shocking to see love personified as a garbage emotion to the Otter Empire; I certainly can't think of a more direct indictment of how modern capitalism has conditioned us to pursue the fulfillment of personal desires at the cost of vulnerable intimacy with others. True love is irrational, undefinable, and it don't cost a thing, which means it isn't worth jack to a system that relies on boxes and labels. But despite Reo's jocular dismissal of such powerless feelings (perhaps a self-loathing projection like the kind those kappa boys would shout at their zombies), Haruka's sincere love for his brother not only saves his own life, but Kazuki's as well, as he reaches out one last time through their tattered connection on LINE. Haruka admits that he took Kazuki's mother's sachet, but only because he wanted to be closer to a brother who was constantly pushing him away. He was worried that this strange woman would take Kazuki away forever, which would break his heart because he loves being with his big brother so much. Sara Azuma was never a replacement for Kazuki, and neither was Enta. Even if Kazuki erases himself from existence completely, there will never be another person in Haruka's life like him, and finally accepting that their flawed connection means the world to Haruka gives Kazuki that final push he needs to fight back.
With Keppi stepping in to take the place of this tiny soccer team's game-winning ball, the day is saved, the sachet zombie's shirikodama is reclaimed, and Kazuki is finally ready to return home alongside his two true friends. After surviving such a harrowing adventure to come out stronger on the other side—both as an individual and a very important part of a growing circle—Kazuki believes anew that he can do anything with the support of people who accept him for all his faults. But even though this episode lifted my spirits far higher than I expected, I suspect this emotional break in the clouds won't last long. Ikuhara stories always get darkest before the dawn, and we've passed the halfway point now. Even though he came through for our boys when Haruka's life was most immediately at stake, I'm sure Keppi doesn't have their best interests in mind. And yet I also suspect that Keppi is somehow different from former Ikuhara villains. His frivolous actions suggest to me that his motives toward the boys may not be actively malicious, but simply "inhuman" in some way, as an immortal who's been forcibly separated from his mysterious dark side. Of course, in a story about trying to maintain connections with others no matter how messy their human foibles, being incapable of those human foibles could make this frog prince very dangerous indeed.
Simply SARA Report: Sara is still hung up on smells this week after the lucky item repeats itself, and the sour stench of sadness still lingers on Kazuki as well. Kazuki can't escape his problems by drowning himself in kappa-talistic pursuits of pleasure any more than you can escape your own smell by scrubbing it off, because the relief of washing your troubles away is only temporary when those troubles live inside you to start leaking out tomorrow. Sara also explains that taking a bath right after you wake up is a great idea because "a lot of sebum is excreted in your sleep", which I think is a sly joke about how our subconscious likes to torture us with nightmares about things we've been avoiding in our waking hours.
The Headdress: With time effectively frozen until Kazuki comes home, there's no new zombie or lucky item this week. Instead, the symbol of this episode is Kazuki's cosplay headdress, which simply symbolizes his sara, the delicate circle of his spirit that Harukappa wants to connect with through love. At this point, I think I understand the key difference between a sara and a shirikodama, as conflicting spheres in our top and bottom that make us human. The sara is meant to evoke the purity of a person's soul, the childlike part of us that seeks to connect safely with other souls through ripples of communication over the thin membrane separating life and death. But as we grow older and various factors from puberty to society color our self-image, powerful adult desires also grow within us to gradually fill our shirikodama, becoming harder and harder to keep from leaking out when the ravages of time put greater pressure on our fragile plates. Contained as they are within the same imperfect bodies, our sara's desire to connect is inseparable from our shirikodama's desire to consume, just like that "Aa" symbol and the otter symbol are literally two sides of the same coin.
Sara vs. Shirikodama: From Sarazanmai's perspective, people tend to act more selfishly than selflessly not because they're evil, but because it's an instinctual survival strategy that follows us into situations that are not literally life and death (even if they sure feel that way). Unlike other animals, humans are aware of our own mortality, which means "survival" doesn't just mean continuing to live, but living a life that we feel is worth the eventual cost of death. That requires both connection to others and fulfillment of personal desires, even though those two needs are frequently at odds. We must risk connection with others to fill our sara, even though that makes us vulnerable to being shattered. And we must also risk releasing our selfish desires into the world, even though these emissions could damage our connections badly enough to be pushed out of a greater circle. This puts Mabu and Reo's philosophy—that you have no future if you cannot connect your desires to someone else's in a feedback loop that maintains this balance—into clearer context, even if their judgmental methods of pruning the societal circle don't seem to be repairing their own damaged relationship. These two symbols are intrinsically connected, so perhaps there's not much point in splitting hairs over which S controls what. Just as it becomes futile to litigate whether someone's choices in a damaged relationship are selfless or selfish, it may be equally pointless to draw such firm distinctions between what is desire, what is love, and what comes from our sara or shirikodama. From top to bottom, it's just a messy mixture that makes up human nature, constantly connecting us and excluding us from big circles of other humans whether we like it or not.
Otter Drama: The biggest development on the otter-cop side of things this week is obviously their discovery of Prince Keppi's location, but this twist is made more potent by the glimpse we get into Reo's true motivations. Apparently, the undead Mabu we know is not the Mabu that Reo remembers. He compares his beloved's current state to that of the regional confection ningyo-yaki: an empty doll who's been drained of desire. So did Mabu have his shirikodama removed, or was he transformed by something similar to the Otter Empire's usual zombification process? Whatever the case, it's safe to assume that Reo is using his position within the empire's ranks to hunt down Keppi, so he can use the prince's Dishes of Hope to bring Mabu back to life with his original heart intact. You'd think that this grand sacrifice he's undertaking for love would make Reo more sympathetic, but the unnerving glee he takes in torturing others and his lack of attention to what Mabu thinks of this whole plan still keeps him squarely in villain territory for me. What was their relationship like before Mabu died, and what is Mabu's own motivation in all this madness?
Kazuki and Sara's Connection: While it may be tempting to forget about Kazuki's cross-dressing now that he's moved on in his relationship with Haruka, I don't think our protagonist's connection to Sara Azuma should be discarded so easily. Toi (who totally has the hots for his friend in drag) mentions that Kazuki was awfully passionate about playing dress-up for something he was doing out of obligation. More pertinently, Kazuki's mother mentions that the two did seem similar to her for some reason she can't pin down. The enigmatic idol and sensitive soccer star certainly don't seem alike to me, so perhaps she's sensing some deeper connection that will be revealed later on...
As if to warn us that the worst is far from over, this episode's post-credits scene is far less optimistic than its fist-pumping climax. We see the Otter Empire destroying the Kappa Kingdom, which resembles the landscape of pre-WWII Japan, given the presence of the Ryounkaku tower, which was destroyed by the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. However, the structure's demise in Sarazanmai is caused by what can only be described as Ottzilla, an ominous yet adorable kaiju who brings to mind the world-changing advent of nuclear power and Japan's subsequent rapid modernization. (At least, that's what Godzilla often represents, so it's no stretch to say that Ottzilla is calling upon the same associations.) Apparently, Mabu and Reo charged in on Prince Keppi together back then (yet none of those three have aged a day since), and Mabu died protecting Reo from the unexpected outcome of their confrontation. Adding to the pile of evidence that Prince Keppi is not as noble as he claims, the otters found him convulsing in a giant caged sara, overflowing on all sides with cold blue water that turns into bright-red desire at his feet. Though we can barely see it, his face is shaped strangely, looking neither kappa nor human, and he cries "my desire is shattering" as the sound a Dish of Hope makes when it is broken by a wish echoes through the air. Suddenly, Dark Keppi emerges from the prince's chest and escapes, tragically ripping the otter lovers apart for many decades to come. In a story where everyone is trying to maintain fragile connections, could Keppi be out to retrieve this dark part of himself somehow? It chills me to think about what might happen if that Darkness was unleashed on Kappabashi...
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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