Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
Once upon a time, the world was a younger and simpler place, without so many walls and secrets. But then, the planet Kumaria exploded, raining down meteors all over the earth, and humans began to live in fear of being eaten by bears. Bears waged war on humans, humans hunted bears, and the chaos became downright unbearable on both sides. So the humans started erecting an enormous Wall of Severance to keep themselves safe from the world of bears, and now Kureha, an ordinary girl with an extraordinary past, attends an all-girl school within this silent and judgmental world, where every susceptible young woman must travel with a buddy and be on the lookout for ravenous bears who've dared to cross the wall.
However, in a flagrant betrayal of the school rules, Kureha's "buddy" Sumika is also her lover. When they find their hidden lily garden torn to shreds by the force of the Invisible Storm that rules the academy, Sumika and Kureha promise each other that they will never back down on love no matter the consequences, but things may not be that simple. The dangerous bears that threaten their safety have learned to take on human form, and it's not long before Sumika becomes their first victim for standing out too much in the crowd. Kureha swears that she will destroy these bears-in-hiding once and for all, but the two fugitive-bears Ginko and Lulu have come looking for Kureha specifically, to return a Promise Kiss that was made to them once upon a time.
Yuri Kuma Arashi is a show about lesbians, written and directed by a man. For some people, this might not mean anything one way or the other. Countless other yuri anime have been written or directed by men, along with numerous indie films like Blue is the Warmest Color. For others, however, that factoid could be a big red flag, making it far more likely that this story will pedestalize, fetishize, and otherwise alienate the love stories between its female characters into something less than human (like countless other yuri anime and, frankly, Blue is the Warmest Color). While this is a completely valid concern, I hope this show's unusual pedigree doesn't push too many people, especially LGBTQ audiences, away from giving this remarkable show a chance. As director Kunihiko Ikuhara has proven in the past with Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum, he always brings an overwhelmingly human investment to the very queer stories he loves to tell.
Yuri Kuma Arashi isn't just about the romantic and sexual relationships between its female characters, it dares to take on the bigger question of what it means to be a woman who loves women in a world that tries to crush their identities by putting them in a dozen different restrictive boxes. These lies the world tells queer women range from the dismissive ("it's just a phase, you'll get over it when you've had a man") to the antagonistic ("lesbians are aggressive sexual predators who must be reformed or destroyed") to the patriarchal ("it's okay to be gay, so long as you're doing it in a way that I find non-threatening and sexy.") That last box is the most common one that misguided male directors of lesbian media like to wrap their gifts in, so it's only fitting that Yuri Kuma Arashi turns it into a central sequence of every episode, as the show's only male characters, a court of bear-lawyers representing the dated and male-centric Freudian concepts of Id, Ego, and Superego, litigate the exact ways in which female bears ("perverse predators") must behave in order to justify the ability to disguise themselves as human ("straight girls going through a phase").
This extremely loaded metaphor is only one of a jaw-dropping multitude of concepts the show cycles through in its search for an escape from the Wall of Severance that controls its world (and ours) with harmful labels. Of course, if the idea of teddy-bear-lawyers discussing what is and isn't sexy strikes you as too absurd to be meaningful, rest assured that Yuri Kuma Arashi is always aware of just how ridiculous its surrealist symbolism can be. The real magic of this show comes through in its refusal to turn its heavy material into a lecture. This is a love story after all, and even love that has to struggle for survival against all odds can be punctuated with moments of joy and silliness.
For every darkly symbolic moment like the hands of the Invisible Storm (societal pressure) reaching out to snip the heads off lilies in the school garden (public symbols of love), there are moments of absurd levity to endear us to the show's imperfect world, like Ginko's domestic fantasy of being hand-fed a gigantic photo-real salmon for breakfast while wearing nothing but an apron. Yurikuma's adorable aesthetic, defined by breathtaking architecture, softly inviting character designs, and a boldly sugary color palette, makes it extremely approachable even in its harshest moments, when the subtle references to classic horror movies take center stage to bathe the screen in stark reds and blacks.
Of course, while Yurikuma's attractive visuals and lovely soundtrack make it immediately endearing and easy to watch, its commitment to telling its story through symbolic writing, dreamlike imagery, and frequent artistic cross-referencing could make it off-putting for audiences unprepared to devote 110% of their attention to deciphering its ideas. Anyone familiar with Ikuhara's past work should know ahead of time that his arthouse style always expects audiences to bend their brains around in pursuit of the truth he wants to share, but every new project he creates still tosses the viewer into the deep end head first, which might not be what many are looking for when they decide to kick back and relax with an anime series. Compared to his previous work, Yuri Kuma Arashi is the most straightforward and easy to decipher, but it's also the densest and most fast-paced, with its 12-episode runtime leaving absolutely no breathing room for rabbit trails or superfluous deviations. Yuri Kuma Arashi hammers you with its jokes, its message, and its frequent twists at an emotionally exhausting rate, and if you don't embrace the intellectual journey, no amount of artistic creativity or powerful social commentary can make up for that feeling of disorientation.
Yurikuma does its best to mitigate audience confusion by repeating its symbols (with slight variations each time) through fairytale-like recurring set pieces, but this might open up another problem for on-the-fence viewers. By the fourth or fifth time you've seen the bear court sequence or roof-summoning sequence or "kuma shock!" bear transformations in as many episodes, the obvious benefit these scenes offer to the show's humble animation budget becomes difficult to ignore. These repeated sequences are clearly a deliberate choice by the director rather than pure animation shortcuts, since they always serve a purpose in the incredibly tight story, and he's employed them liberally throughout his work, but any repetition of footage this transparent can still feel like a crutch in such an artistically ambitious story, which could push any viewers on the edge of their patience with Yurikuma's style off into complete rejection.
Funimation's English dub does its best to stay faithful to the original Japanese script, clarifying just enough ambiguity from the source without betraying the extremely specific intent of each line. While this is easily the best dub effort that an Ikuhara anime has ever gotten (as the only one that doesn't destroy the meaning of the original in translation, and the only one where the ADR director and adaptive writer seem to know what the show is about), the dub still stumbles tonally in a few places. It's a totally listenable effort with moments of excellence (like the perfect casting of Lulu and the Bear Court members), but Funi's dub remains at a melodramatic volume even at times when the acting needs more sensitivity and restraint to carry the delicate emotions of the scene. It's a laudable effort for a show so potentially difficult to dub that was produced at simulcast speeds (right when Funi was first starting their broadcast dub process), and it could definitely be useful for making the show easier to follow and understand, but it still struggles tonally compared to the Japanese track. On-disc extras include the usual clean theme songs, promotional videos, and a pair of fun dub commentaries that delve into the silly sapphic symbolism along with the rigorous process of producing one of their first broadcast dubs.
In the end, beyond all its symbolism and silliness, Yuri Kuma Arashi must live and die on the strength of its central love story. While it's definitely a spoiler to give away who's destined to be with who beyond the Wall of Severance, I can say that Yurikuma uses all its relationships, both victorious and tragic, to explore the powerful effect that the world's unfair labels can have on how women define both their sexuality and themselves. This intimate view of a global struggle ultimately gives Yurikuma's story a stunning power very few romances achieve, queer or straight. Before Ginko, Lulu, Kureha, or any other girl can embrace a loving relationship with someone else, they must first accept their true selves in a world that will always be eager to force false definitions on them in an effort to make true love between women impossible. The most crippling oppression doesn't just come from the outside world, it comes from within as well, and by the time we finally see the true face of "Kumaria," Yuri Kuma Arashi has stripped all its star-crossed lovers bare in ways more spiritual than sexual, making their bittersweet victories feel unforgettably earned. We watch each character fight for their love and stumble along the way, but if Ginko and Lulu and Kureha's love is true, it will always find a way to guide them out of the storm.
More than anything else, this seamless combination of sympathy for the individual and criticism of society elevates Yuri Kuma Arashi to artistic heights that beg for complex discussion, while not backing down on the need for cuteness and laughs along the way. If you're intrigued by this show's premise but intimidated by its artsy-fartsy style, we have friendly analyses for every episode right here on ANN to clear up any symbolism you don't understand. There's no reason not to give this weird little masterwork of queer animated cinema a shot. Once again, Ikuhara has proven that art doesn't have to be deadly serious to say important and powerful things. Or as his self-insert character, Life Sexy, might say: "For that is the sexy way! Shabadadu!"
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A+
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Wildly creative and biting exploration of lesbian identity politics in the media and society, mixes absurd and adorable imagery with haunting and emotionally charged ideas, touching love story at its core, fearless high art in a cuddly commercial package
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