by Gabriella Ekens,
Kunihiko Ikuhara is a divisive auteur. Some anime fans swear by him, others scoff at the notion that any sheer insanity he puts onscreen could ever be considered deep. (See all the shouting about the lesbian car movie.) I'm deeply in the former camp, and yet when I got this assignment, all I could think was, “this show is gonna be a tough one.”
It's certainly facing high expectations. I consider Ikuhara's two previous shows (Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum) stone-cold masterpieces, and Yurikuma Arashi is colored by these expectations. I'll be making an effort to stress where I think this show is going, and not lock myself into some definitive interpretation early on. Deciphering his stuff has always been a collaborative effort, and I'm excited to be undertaking this journey with you. Just note – I'll be reviewing this from the perspective of someone who's already a big fan of Ikuhara and has spent a lot of time trying to untangle his previous works. Ikuni's a niche artist, but also a transcendent one if you're invested in experimental storytelling and happen to relate to the subjects he depicts. There are plenty of people who he just doesn't speak to, and whether he speaks to you or not in no way reflects your intelligence or acumen.
If you're new to Ikuhara, Yurikuma Arashi might not be the best place to start. “Series about queer female sexuality by a man” isn't an easy pill to swallow, and it would be much harder to accept if Ikuhara didn't have such tremendous feminist cachet. If I weren't already familiar with him, I'd probably find the “fanservice” in Yurikuma bizarre and off-putting, but Revolutionary Girl Utena was not only an important series for feminists and queer women but a transformative one for even wider audiences, and that's a feat that might not by rivaled by any other male artist in the world. I recommend that show for beginners.
So with all that out of the way, what actually happens in this show? After the planet Kumalia exploded and rained meteors upon the earth, bears rose up and began eating humans. In retribution, humanity hunted them down in turn and constructed the Wall of Severance, a massive barrier to separate humans from bears. Then one day, two schoolgirls, Kureha Tsubaki and Sumika Izumino, see a lily bloom in their flower garden. They make a vow of love, but are suddenly interrupted by an alarm – bears have breached the wall! They separate for a day, but when Kureha goes back to school, Sumika isn't there. After several days missing, it seems likely that she's dead, having been eaten by a bear. Despondent at having lost her beloved, Kureha retreats into her hatred for bears, who also killed her mother years prior. Meanwhile, two new transfer students, the bears-in-human-clothing Ginko Yurishiro and Lulu Yurigasaki, are also skulking around, lured in by Kureha's “delicious smell.” They aren't the only bears in town either; class representative Mitsuko Yurizono is also one, and she's far more aggressive in her pursuit of Kureha. When Yurizono finally strikes, Ginko and Lulu decide to help Kureha, giving her the strength to kill Yurizono, who reveals herself as Sumika's murderer! After this encounter, Kureha is forced to realize that the bears she's been hunting are in fact her schoolmates!
Uh, well, that sure is a summary. That's not even all of the crazy stuff that happens in these three episodes – there's also the “Judgemens,” a trio that consists of a bear judge, bear defense attorney, and bear prosecutor. (“Bearisters!”) They're the only male characters in the show and appear every episode to judge whether Ginko and Lulu are being “appropriately” yuri. There's a recurring sequence wherein the two lick nectar from a phallus-like lily protruding from Kureha's abdomen, which might have set a land speed record for "most unsubtle visual metaphor for cunnilingus." The bears are tiny, cute blobs with devilish snarls and funny hats. In short, it's Ikuhara's trademark blend of a cute aesthetic, serious themes, and opaque storytelling.
While Ikuhara's previous works have been saturated in sapphic sexuality, Yurikuma Arashi may be his first show about the subject. Yurikuma Arashi can be translated as “Lesbian Bear Storm,” a title beyond parody in its Ikuhara-ness. While Utena and Penguindrum had (extremely overt) undercurrents of same-sex desire, it wasn't their main focus. At its bones, Revolutionary Girl Utena is about the patriarchy, while Mawaru Penguindrum is about child abuse, terrorism, and Japanese generational ennui. They had subplots featuring lesbian women that happen to be some of the most successful and fondly remembered parts of their respective series. (The Juri episodes in Utena are standout entries, and the “chisel episode” in Penguindrum was about the lesbian character Yuri, and features the most apt metaphor for child abuse I've ever seen while remaining technically PG.) The central conceits of these works were ultimately somewhere else, but Yurikuma Arashi is about Women in Love – passionately, jealously, physically in love with each other, with nary a male character in sight. It takes copious cues from classic horror films and gothic romance to create an atmosphere of turgid repression punctuated by sudden, explosive release.
So far, Yurikuma Arashi looks like a criticism of how lesbianism is treated in Japanese media, appearing largely in two forms: romantic friendship and the predatory lesbian stereotype.
Romantic friendship is an intimate relationship between two adolescent girls. While homosexuality is largely condemned in Japan, romantic friendships are socially acceptable because they're perceived as nonsexual and temporary – the girls are expected to grow out of the relationship and marry men as adults. An early 20th century literary genre called Class S helped develop the idea of romantic friendship in Japan. Class S works usually depict intense emotional relationships between schoolgirls that end with them separated by marriage, graduation, or death. This genre serves as the bedrock for modern yuri. Adult women-loving-women are still stigmatized in Japan, where their sexuality is often perceived as a mental illness.
The “predatory lesbian” stereotype is the most common depiction of lesbianism in Japanese mass media today. It depicts lesbians as unstable, malicious, and even evil. In most anime, they're villainous sexual predators who prey on other women – just look at Selector Infected Wixoss' Ulith, Code Geass' Nina Einstein, or the entire cast of Akuma no Riddle, which also incorporates Class S elements into its story between the predatory stereotypes. Interestingly, Ikuhara's work has a history of flipping this trope on its head. In Utena, it was the (ostensibly) straight Shiori who bullied gay Juri. Penguindrum's Yuri starts out as a disturbing caricature but grows into one of the most sympathetic characters in the show. With this in mind, Yurikuma Arashi seems like a show dedicated to exploring a consistent fixation throughout his work. (For more on lady-love in Japan, check out this link.)
In Yurikuma Arashi, these two "socially acceptable" forms of queer female sexuality take the form of yuri (maiden) and kuma (bear) respectively. Maidens are girls who “fit into the herd” by not acting on their physical attraction to other girls. The ones that do are noticed and expunged from the herd through social alienation, which often turns them into bears. Becoming a bear is the only way to achieve physical satisfaction as a lesbian under the current system. It's a Faustian bargain, as becoming a bear means both being hated by society and hurting other girls. It comes at the expense of your soul. There's no option to be a normal, healthy couple.
Of course there's a ton of other symbolism in this show, but I'll just run through the rest of the important bits for now. Lilies are symbols of love between women (shocker). The “invisible storm” is pressure from society to fit into its expectations, as well as the illusion that society's mandates are the only avenues for happiness. (Both of Ikuhara's previous shows were about systems of oppression, and Yurikuma looks like it's continuing the trend.) The Judgemens are our old friend, the patriarchy. They arbitrarily regulate women's sexuality under the trappings of authority while giving anything that titillates them a pass. I suspect that Kureha and co. will ultimately have to overcome their governance, alongside the Wall of Severance.
Kureha's the only developed character so far, but she's a good one. The first episode establishes her as a self-denying person, probably due to her mother's death. Sumika was important to her because she worked past Kureha's personal barriers to become her most significant relationship since then. There's an important conflation between love and nurturing in this show. After losing her mother, Kureha only eats salted fish, which stunts her nutritionally. It's Sumika who teaches her to eat other foods again. Their love blooms while they raise flowers together, indicating that Sumika taught her to take care of others as well as herself. Losing Sumika re-traumatizes her, and threatens to permanently dismantle her ability to connect with other people. Kureha's not all baggage, though – she seems steadfast, neither jealous of other people's happiness or sustained by their suffering. In a world where the only options are consuming others or dying, these traits could be either a death sentence or the virtues that'll allow her to transcend the system.
On a technical level, there isn't much animation in Yurikuma, but the show makes up for it through stunning direction and design. The backgrounds are gorgeous and every shot composition contributes to the exact emotion needed for a scene. For example, the camera emphasizes Kureha's smallness when she's lonely at home, while Kureha and Sumika's love scenes are foregrounded by the ever-growing Wall of Severance. Very little is wasted. If this show has a flaw, it's that there are quite a few reused shots and the stock footage sequence (another Ikuhara trademark) is less impactful than it was in Utena or Penguindrum, although as of episode three they've already begun interrupting its regular flow for dramatic effect. The character designs are cute, and good at conveying the physical attraction between characters that often goes unexpressed through dialogue. I also admire this show's commitment to rebuking invisibility down to the background characters. Unlike other shows that use one repeated character model with three or four different haircuts for extras, all of Kureha's 30-some classmates look distinct. This makes the audience aware that, despite belonging to the herd, they're distinct people with their own private feelings and relationships.
The most puzzling aspects of this show's aesthetic are the strong visual callbacks to classic horror films, most notably The Shining, Psycho, and Suspiria. Arashigaoka (Wuthering Heights) Academy's interior is lifted from the school in Suspiria. Kureha's house looks like Norman Bates' down to the mommy dearest bedroom, which bodes ill for Kureha's mother as a character. The pattern on the Wall of Severance is the same as the carpet in the Overlook Hotel. It's not hard to tell why they're referencing horror. Yurikuma already has more hard content than either Utena or Penguindrum did at this point. Both of those shows had deceptively low-key openings, and what they left implicit, this one makes explicit, coating it in only the thinnest metaphoric veneer.
Now that Kureha knows her classmates could be bears, I wonder who she'll be able to trust? Is everyone who has the word “yuri” in their name secretly a bear? Is it supposed to be some sort of cover, like calling oneself “Susie Notabearington”? What's up with the teacher, Yuri-ka? Well, she was in love with Kureha's mother, and there's a bad precedent for people who resemble deceased loved ones in Ikuharadom. Right now, the biggest ciphers continue to be Ginko and Lulu. Why did they save Kureha? They seem to be sincerely in love, unlike the manipulative Yurizono and her poor stooge Yurikawa. Ginko's smiling, murderous bear form is also a big difference from her serious human appearance. There's a story there, and I'm excited to discover it. Also, is there still a chance that Sumika is alive? In Revolutionary Girl Utena, “dying” meant not being a part of the system any more, aka growing out of Ohtori Academy's eternal childhood garden and being forgotten by its residents. Maybe Sumika, who seemed much more confident in her feelings and sexuality, is waiting just beyond the wall for Kureha to catch up with her?
Also, the lesbians probably represent lesbians. Keep that in mind.
Yurikuma Arashi is currently streaming on Funimation.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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