by Gabriella Ekens,
Say what you will about Kunihiko Ikuhara repeating himself in terms of imagery and theme, he has grown to have an incredible amount of narrative control. He knows how to maximize a story's effect. He can make an audience feel exactly what he wants at the exact point he wants in a story, and every setup he creates has a payoff down the line. You can trace the development of this mastery throughout his career. In Revolutionary Girl Utena, the difficulty of exploring so many complex characters was mitigated by splitting the show into many small arcs. Mawaru Penguindrum disposed with that format and struggled to integrate everything it had to say into one story without such rigid segmentation. Yuri Kuma Arashi, however, perfects the structure established in Penguindrum. There's a tight present-tense narrative that plays out from the first episode to the last, but our initial impressions of characters are constantly re-contextualized by flashbacks, which build to a nuanced conception of them and their relationships. Is Ginko the cold woman-eater who we met in episode one, the infatuated goofball from episode five, or the abandoned child from episode seven? The answer is that she's all of these things, depending on the POV we see her through. The character work in Yuri Kuma Arashi doesn't contradict our previous impressions of a character, but rather adds layers over them to create a very successful illusion of depth. Information is revealed at just the point when it could be inferred.
That brings us to this episode. Although it wasn't revelatory in terms of information, showing the rest of Ginko's backstory was an important move at this juncture to keep us from completely losing sympathy for her before the finale. Her actions up to now haven't been very flattering. Sure, Ginko threw herself into the fire to rescue sumika's letter, but she also let the girl die and killed many of Kureha's schoolmates. Even if they were bullies, Kureha is now being punished for their deaths, showing that violence only begets more violence.
Lulu's guess was right – Kureha lost her memories of Ginko because the bear traded them away to the Court of Severance in exchange for the ability to become human. This was supposed to protect Kureha, similar to sumika's planned break-up. Ginko saw Kureha get injured due to their association and couldn't stand it. It's hard to describe the scene where this happens, because it's so minimalistic and disturbing. I can only best describe it as an “emotional assault”; characters appear as black silhouettes to grab at Kureha, and the background becomes that stark red pattern from the war scenes. After what seems like an interminable stretch of time, we finally see Kureha battered and bruised on the ground. This is when Ginko internalizes that “it is wrong to be a bear.” The horror and tragedy of this event fuel her decision to become human and lose Kureha, if only (in Ginko's mind) temporarily.
Ginko is the only character who doesn't compromise with the Court of Severance. Sure, they impose things on her, but the Lone Wolfsbane continues to insist that she can both “be with Kureha forever” and “protect Kureha.” The Court asks her, “Will you become human? Or will you give up on love?” She replies, “Yes and no.” I think the solution Yurikuma will come to is the same as the one in Penguindrum – you can't avoid pain altogether, but you can form bonds of love in order to share and overwhelm it. Yurikuma looks like it might mirror Penguindrum's ending of tripartite salvation leading to transcendence. In Penguindrum, Shouma saved Himari, Himari saved Kanba, and Kanba saved Shouma. In Yurikuma, Kureha saves Lulu, (taking her to the Door of Friends), Lulu saves Ginko, (taking the bullet for her), and Ginko saves Kureha, (dragging her out of the blizzard). At their best, loving relationships are mutual, reciprocal, and far from unilateral. In contrast, the Court of Severance – true to their name – seeks to isolate people, even though they seem to trade in relationships.
Some more interesting tidbits: Life Sexy admits that “Lady Kumaria has been lost” and that she “became meteors that scattered across our planet.” This indicates that the people using Kumaria to promote an agenda aren't in direct communication with her, and the Life Trio is probably acting in her name in absentia. Societal institutions (many of them religious) are commonly used to promote discriminatory agendas that have little to do with their prescribed purposes. Life Beauty also does my job for me by bringing up the relationship between this show and Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. The concessions that bears are prescribed from the Court of Severance echo what the Little Mermaid gives up to be with her prince: her voice and her life, if the prince doesn't want to marry her. When the prince marries someone else, the Little Mermaid chooses to die rather than kill him and revoke the pact. As a reward for her good deeds, the Little Mermaid ascends to heaven. This relates to Yurikuma in several ways. First of all, Hans Christian Andersen was a closeted gay man and many interpret this fairy tale as an expression of anguish over his sexuality. Secondly, Yurikuma criticizes how the idea of salvation can be used to justify a life of suffering. Wouldn't it have been better if Ginko or the Little Mermaid or Hans Christian Andersen could have been happy on earth? Was their unhappiness an inevitability or just societally sanctioned?
I haven't spoken about the show's visuals very much yet. It's tough to talk about cinematography when you're not using a screencap-commentary format to accompany each point with an image. However, I've got to talk about how much this episode upped the ante. Many images from the opening, such as the spotlights, the stairs, and this background, have finally appeared in the show itself. The confrontation scene was made by its editing, particularly surrounding a certain character's death. I also just realized that the school roof is a triangle in order to reflect the triangular relationship between Kureha, Ginko, and Lulu. The school roof is the show's site of confrontation, and this show isn't about two people addressing each other, but three. This gives me a speck of hope that somebody in that triad might pull through.
That brings us to this episode's revelation: Lulu was the best character on purpose, in order to make her sacrifice as devastating as possible. Before, I thought that this might have been a flaw in the show's approach – why are we more attached to the “third string” protagonist than the ostensible lead couple? Now, Lulu is Ginko's ultimate failure, and her loss is what our other two leads will need to overcome. Ironically, in her quest for redemption after her brother's death, Lulu became another version of him. Ginko's method of exclusion was kinder, but she still strung Lulu along for her love and dedication. Now that the promise kiss has shattered, will our heroines find another way to happiness?
(Also, props to Funimation for changing “Kumalia” to “Kumaria.” It's already been fixed in the subtitles and the most recent dub episode. I also checked out the episode two dub, and the delivery already sounds much more natural. Good news all around!)
Yuri Kuma Arashi is currently streaming on Funimation.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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