by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 7 of
The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and everything's coming up kappa! Kazuki no longer walks around hiding his desire in boxes. Now he has somewhere special to run to each day, bringing along a soccer ball that he can share with his friends. After so many hurtful lies and zombie battles, Kazuki is finally committed to building honest connections with the people in his life. As long as he's connected with the people he loves, Kazuki knows that he can make it through anything life throws his way! But just under the celebrating kappa trio's feet, there's a whole other world of darkness boiling deep inside the ground. Now that Reo has tracked down Prince Keppi, his unfulfilled desires have begun raging hot enough to shake the earth under Kappabashi. Jealousy simmers in the hearts of our dysfunctional otter couple, and unbeknownst to Kazuki, these dangerous feelings may be hiding in the shirikodama of his friends as well.
Okay, to be strictly accurate, we learn that Mabu and Reo are not otters-at-heart this week, only otters-for-hire. It's still unknown if they were originally denizens of the Kappa Kingdom, or if they traveled there from our human world at some point before the Otter Empire invaded, but we do know that they were once normal boys in a loving relationship, who were only conscripted into the Empire after Mabu died by shielding Reo from Dark Keppi. Of course, this raises the question of why they were seeking out Prince Keppi during the invasion, but I'm sure that mystery will be untangled when Ikuhara is ready to reveal it. All we know is that Reo woke up somewhere in the Otter Empire's vast underground complex to the sound of a Dish of Hope shattering. (Did it belong to Mabu, or was it just an echo from some other horrible experiment being conducted down the hall?) And if you thought Keppi was creepy, Doc Otter is on a whole 'nother level. I've always loved Ikuhara's penchant for making cute things deeply unsettling, and Takaya Kuroda's seductive yet robotic delivery of "usooooo" ranks high on the list of spine-chilling concepts Ikuni has concocted. While their reasons for drafting Reo and Mabu into their service are still unknown, it's reasonable to assume that nothing the otters say can be trusted, because even though they claim to be efficiently logical creatures, everything that comes out of their mouth ends in "uso", like they're perpetually gaslighting you by asserting that everything must play out according to their own rigged system.
So what is the true nature of that system, and how does it control the world of Kappabashi above? Rather than looking to Ikuhara's past work to understand these slippery devils, I'm more immediately reminded of modern American cultural critiques of capitalist exploitation that rely on similar concepts of a secret underground society. The idea is surprisingly popular in horror movies right now, from successful examples like Jordan Peele's Us to captivating failures like David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake. While all of these stories are wildly different, the one thing they share is the premise that the seemingly endless outlets for desire that capitalism offers to those who can afford them come at a great cost of invisible sacrifices, all conducted out of sight from a populace who would rather not think about who's getting exploited to make the new smartphone they'll just replace next year. The boxes that Kappazon (strangely not Kawa-zon) offers to the world are essentially someone else's life re-packaged into a form that will give you just enough of an endorphin rush to want to buy more boxes. And so the cycle continues, as the otters use their profits to expand their cold exploitative reach deeper into the earth's resources like an ant farm, all to give the disconnected insects on the surface some illusion of happiness.
Whew, things are getting pretty dark down there, so let's refocus on the only human element in the Otter Empire's unfeeling system. By twisting his wishes to "hear Mabu's voice again", the Otter Empire has turned Mabu's corpse into a commodity for Reo to love. Reo is initially horrified by this doll with his partner's face, but if he wants to "return" his gift, he would have to watch Mabu die a second time, and that's more than his frozen heart can bear. And so the two enter into a terrible contract, where Mabu's robotic soul must be powered by the desires that Reo drains from exploitable victims—with all the runoff going to profit the Otter Empire, of course. Their once-beautiful partnership has turned toxic, and neither of them can escape the consequences of trying to revive a relationship that has already died.
Setting aside the potent pathos of this whole situation, my heart doesn't really go out to Reo on this one. His frustration with having to babysit a facsimile of his boyfriend is understandable, and his quest to return the clueless doll to his former self is sympathetic, but it could not be more obvious to me that this Mabu—even if he's not the Mabu Reo used to know—already loves Reo very much. He's trying so hard to become a version of Mabu that Reo will love, and it hurts to watch him shove broccoli yakisoba into his barely-functioning gullet, just so he can try and appreciate Reo's cooking. He knows that the way he and Reo used to desire each other has been irreversibly damaged, but his feelings for Reo run deeper than that, and he deserves the chance to express love in the ways he still can. It's a little early in the story to make any strong assertions about what their dynamic symbolizes, but I get the feeling there was trouble in paradise between these cops even before Mabu sacrificed himself for his beloved. The sad truth is that the two of them still love each other, but their desires have become incompatible, which means this toxic relationship must end before their mutual frustration turns both of them into the worst version of themselves. (On a lighter note, I don't think it's a coincidence that broccoli in yakisoba is a highly gaseous combination of foods, implying that both otters want to break the uncomfortable constipation between them and leak out their true feelings. It's too bad Mabu's artificial stomach is just as limited as his artificial heart.)
Of course, the otter cops aren't the only duo unable to connect their desires in this episode. Now that Kazuki has made it through the worst trial of his life and come out the other side stronger, his newfound joie de vivre has left him oblivious to the wars still raging in the hearts of his friends. When Kazuki and Enta discover that Toi used to play soccer, Kazuki wants them all to become a Golden Trio, but Toi is still having trouble accepting his own desires. It's clear from the enthusiasm he shows cleaning up their vandalized soccer spot that Toi wants to start living for himself, possibly for the first time in his life, but his connection to a brother who isolates himself from the world has severely limited Toi's options to connect with others. Toi's conviction that he owes Chikai his life runs deep, and the lingering pain of losing his family once before both dulls his grief at giving up new connections with his friends and cements his resolve to never lose his family again, no matter how much Chikai keeps him at arm's length. It's way past time for Toi to start living more selfishly, but after waiting so many years for Chikai to bring him closer to his side, he feels like it would be impossible to turn back now—unless of course, there was some magical way to change his fate. Kazuki, overwhelmingly enamored with his cool new friend, is more than willing to use his wish on Toi so the three of them can stay together forever.
Needless to say, Enta has the opposite problem from Toi. He loves Kazuki so much that he wants to live purely to satisfy his friend's needs, but the desire to possess Kazuki within him has become too powerful for Enta to control. Outwardly, Enta's doing his best to connect with the desires of others, and it's clear that he cares about Toi as a good friend who was essential to bringing back Kazuki's happiness, but his frustration leaks out into the Field of Desires at night, taking form in the piles of garbage and stark paint splatters that he spreads all over the nostalgic spot that should belong to him and Kazuki alone. He would rather turn the beautiful memory they share into something ugly than share the person he loves with someone else, and the more he tries to deny this desire, the more toxic its expression becomes, until he even steals the Dishes of Hope from Keppi to keep Kazuki from wasting a wish on Toi. Even before the reveal comes out in their sarazanmai, you can sense this struggle in his frustration with being unable to scrub the paint off the wall during the day, and his slip of the tongue that leads Keppi to choose him as the center of their battle at night. Enta's frustrated because he technically didn't say the word "frog" to get Keppi riled up, but sometimes all it takes is a sideways slip of the tongue to expose your true feelings.
With the Dishes of Hope displaced and another great rift running through the trio's only superficially perfect bond, this seems like the absolute worst time for Mabu and Reo to show up. No matter how much they may wish otherwise, none of these lost boys can turn back time to mend their broken relationships. What connections will remain between them when all hope is lost?
Prince and Princess Reunited: After weeks of wondering what on earth would happen if Keppi and Sara finally found each other, Ikuhara trolls us all by reuniting them offscreen to little fanfare. It seems their idea of a satisfying date is to go around town putting labels on things—kappa and frogs, things that connect and things that can't. Putting labels on everything is forebodingly similar to putting everything into boxes like the Otter Empire, so it's safe to say that Keppi and Sara's "perfect" bond is probably going to become bad news for their imperfect subjects. Kazuki also happens to be wearing a frog shirt today, so what does it mean to be a frog, and what fate does the arrogant kappa monarch think that frogs deserve?
Simply SARA Report: This week, Sara's going on about catfish, which haven't literally appeared in the world of Sarazanmai, but they are connected to many other things we have seen. Nyantaro enjoys his daily meal of fish snacks by the riverside, the subject of Schrodinger's cat and death-by-drowning have been teased as equal reflections of what it means to be excluded by society, Kazuki engaged in the practice of "catfishing" his little brother, and last but not least, giant catfish in Japanese mythology are said to cause earthquakes, which is cause for alarm indeed considering the Otter Empire operates underground. (And on a final catfish note, Reo and Mabu's zodiac signs are a Leo and Pisces respectively.) This episode's second report is less foreboding and more straightforward, as the subject of balls is finally breached. Sara says that she enjoys bowling because there are almost too many balls to handle, and balls are friends! You gotta collect them all! Much like sara and shirikodama, soccer balls are emblematic of the human soul. If sara represent the desire to connect, and shirikodama represent the desire to consume, I think balls represent the inevitability of both those things coexisting and informing who you are as an individual. Balls are meant to be kicked between people in pursuit of a goal, evoking the imagery of all the joy and pain that relationships with others cause us every day. But why does Sara want to collect so many human souls, when there are too many of them for her to control? Since Keppi has spend the entirety of Sarazanmai collecting balls, is that why Sara wants to be with him? What does this inhuman prince need with so many human souls? Is it possible that these royal amphibians are actually...from outer space?!
Space Aliens: Okay, they're probably not literally from outer space, but I bring this up because Sara makes a joke about being an extraterrestrial when she says "balls (human souls) are friends!" Extraterrestrials have traditionally played the role of Ikuhara's superego in his work; any time he needs someone to stroll casually in front of the fourth wall and explain how he feels about what he's just made his characters do, that someone tends to be characterized as a space alien. I think this cements Keppi and Sara as eternal concepts of some kind rather than individuals like most of our cast or even modern societal systems like the Otter Empire (modern-day capitalism) and Kappa Kingdom (perhaps old-world imperialism?). I think Keppi's true face will be something more cosmic, and I can't wait to find out what this alien invader wants from our modern world.
The Ball-Zombie: If soccer balls represent the human soul as defined by its relationships to others, being jealous of balls means being jealous of those relationships. Like all zombies, this poor guy couldn't connect, which means his only valuable relationship came from taking pleasure in being treated like an object. Of course, being dominated is harmless as a sexual fetish, but I think the implication is that the Ball-Zombie's desire translated into a real-life one-sided relationship dynamic, and it isn't healthy or sustainable to see yourself as a vessel for someone else's desires. This should sound familiar to Enta, who wants to devote his life to serving Kazuki, but his jealousy inevitably overflows to try and stop Kazuki from getting closer to Toi instead of him. If only Mabu had been around to absorb the same lesson! (And if Mabu is akin to a grown-up Enta, does that make Reo more like Kazuki or Toi? I think it's still too early to say.) On a final note, this battle delivers a fun pun on the word "trick"; the boys trick the zombie in combat as usual, but a "hat trick" is also the term for getting three goals in soccer.
That's One Big Otter: The biggest outlying mystery in Sarazanmai's kappa-talism metaphor so far is the otters' mythical ability to shapeshift, which we see demonstrated when Doc Otter takes on a giant muscular form to finish Mabu's mysterious maintenance process. How does this power factor into their control over the human world, and how does it differ from Prince Keppi and Sara's own powers of mutability? The biggest difference between them as far as I can tell is that while Keppi changes forms frequently, every version of his body is still undeniably the eternal Keppi, while the otters don't seem to have any individual identity of their own, even in their natural states.
KAWA-USOIYA!: At long last, we get the second verse to the otter cops' joyful dirge of death, which turns the focus away from mocking their victims to foreshadowing their own dark ambitions. I can't describe their "dream" as anything other than a lovers' suicide pact of some kind, with lyrics about an endless night (meaning unending desires) and a morning that never comes. I suspect that Reo thinks his only way out of the Otter Empire he hates so much is to first bring back the old Mabu and then somehow sacrifice both of them to the Dark Keppi system, so their mutual desires will blend together in an ocean of the unconnected, paying a purely selfish kind of penance for all their evil deeds. It's total speculation, but I'm having trouble interpreting this song in any other way right now.
Overall, I've found Sarazanmai to be the most thematically straighforward of all Ikuhara's work so far, which is a good thing in terms of emotional resonance with an audience, even if it means losing out on all the fun rabbit trails he likes to stitch into his less focused stories. This episode's final shot confirms that the Otter Empire's desire extraction machine is powered by Dark Keppi's bottomless thirst for blood, so we'll just have to see what Mabu and Reo decide to feed the beast, now that the connections holding our trio of kappa together have been shattered once again by their conflicting desires.
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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