Yurikuma Arashi
Episode 12

by Gabriella Ekens,

WARNING: This review contains major spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena and the ending of Mawaru Penguindrum.

This is it. We're now living in a post-Yurikuma world. After two years of waiting, it ended in two brief months, and anime fans are once again without Kunihiko Ikuhara's unique blend of sex jokes, cute animal mascots, and radical cultural critique. Shine on, you crazy diamond, and please have another show in you.

I feel kind of dumb for not seeing this resolution coming. I guess I was hung up on them destroying rather than working with and redefining the yuri/kuma binary, but in hindsight, of course Kureha wishes to become a bear. The problem all along has been that people distance themselves from their loved ones in order to “protect them.” That's what Kureha, Ginko, Lulu, Sumika, and even Reia kept doing over and over. This type of sacrifice is both futile and delusional because the pain of persecution can't hold a candle to losing the person you love. Only true love and companionship can weather the invisible storm, which breaks people by isolating them. In becoming a bear, Kureha renounces her privileges as a “yuri” – a passing straight person – to be with Ginko. Ginko can no longer protect Kureha by refusing to be with her, and the two are emotionally liberated to be together forever. The societal institutions that oppose them still exist, but their love will serve as an infinite fountain of strength, their own private world where hatred becomes irrelevant. This fearless rather than fearful act of sacrifice revives the goddess Kumaria, who takes the form of Sumika, the first person to save Kureha by reminding her that love exists. The patriarchy returns to its home planet (and hopefully dies along the way). The Exclusion Ceremony continues, but its foundations have been shaken, and another yuri, moved by Kureha and Ginko's example, finds love with a bear. The oppressive institutions still exist, but they're being eroded away – slowly but inarguably – by the raging counterstorm of love.

The concluding sequence was brilliantly constructed, as it cut from gunshots fired at our heroines to the next Exclusion Ceremony. At first we're led to believe that they failed, but then they zoom in on a face in the crowd under a spotlight, belonging to a seemingly random extra. It turns out that her name is Ai Utsuko. She's been present throughout the execution scene and, in fact, the entire show. We learn the execution's outcome through her memories - Ginko and Kureha ascended somewhere before the shots could hit them, carried away by Kumaria. This scene shakes her to her core. Unable to remain complicit with the ceremony any longer, she exits the auditorium to find the cyborg-ized Konomi – Yurizono's old accomplice – abandoned in a box at the Door of Friends. Ai approaches the ailing bear, and in that moment they connect. They embrace happily, and a new love story begins in Ginko and Kureha's image. Credits.

Meanwhile, Ginko, Kureha, and Lulu inhabit a promised land with the people they love. Lulu's narration turns out to have been a framing device. She's reading a storybook to her brother Milne from the afterlife/abstract world of transcendent sacrifice. He even gets to give her a promise kiss! Here, Milne sums up what promise kisses are supposed to mean. He admits that it was a mistake to go on a sprawling quest to prove his love when he could have accomplished that by just being with Lulu. Grand gestures that take you away from the people you love are self-serving distractions. Often the most loving thing you can do for a person is just to be with them, in spite of what it costs you. Meanwhile, Ginko and Kureha are living this life out in their own exalted space.

I do have an issue with this ending. It's almost a quibble, but considering how tightly planned every aspect of this show is, it has far-reaching implications that I feel somewhat compromise the show's message.

I don't like how they played into the imagery of lesbian double suicide (a recurring phenomenon in Japanese history and art) as the bridge to the heroines' transcendence. It felt like a sudden concession to the Class S conventions that the show had previously tried so hard to subvert. I get that this is just how Kunihiko Ikuhara likes to end stories. It's pretty much the same as Mawaru Penguindrum's ending, where Shouma and Kanba give themselves up so that Himari and Ringo can live. For their sacrifice, they're canonized in the Scorpion Fire as well as the audience's memories, where they'll live on as heroes. They change a world in which they are no longer present. While it works perfectly for Penguindrum, I find this ending problematic for Yurikuma because it fits in with the traditional Class S image of same-sex relationships, as something that can only exist in an exalted space separate from the mundane world. It's good that works like Dear Brother and Shiroi Heya no Futari present love between women in a sympathetic light, but their ultimate emphasis on the transience of the permissible space can lead to despair. I feel that it also misrepresents the situation for same-sex couples right now, as they're winning the right to marry across the world. There's increasing traction in favor of same-sex marriage in Japan. Just hours ago, Shibuya ward in Tokyo became the first place in Japan to recognize same-sex partnerships. Women live together and raise children. These incidents may be exceptions to the general tide of repression and isolation, but they exist.

I think Yurikuma's finale makes a mistake of equating its subject matter to Penguindrum's. Penguindrum was about the inescapability of inequality and how that can be transcended through relationships based on mutual sacrifice. The ending where our heroes vacated the world was suited to a story where the villain was the human condition itself. Yurikuma Arashi – while also about these things – is grounded in the persecution of sexual minorities. Vacating to a transcendent fantasy space as the solution to their plight feels unusually toothless for Ikuhara, especially when so much of his past work is dedicated to tearing down the harmful false promises made by fiction. This show is so controlled and uncompromising otherwise that it seems like a subtle but far-reaching miscommunication. I wouldn't gripe on this for most shows, but most shows aren't Yurikuma Arashi. I don't expect it to compromise, and I will not compromise with it. One of my favorite things about Yurikuma is its willingness to poke sacred cows, but this feels like a moment when it might have aligned too much with genre conventions.

Ultimately, I think I wanted the show to pull back the curtain and remind the viewer that the yuri world, the bear world, and the transcendent world are all parts of the same reality, just isolated and amplified. In his work, Ikuhara turns the unquantifiable mess of social interactions that constitute oppression into simpler systems so that he can talk about them. Society's mechanisms are so complex that you cannot talk about it without leaving something out. Any representation of something is necessarily reductive, aka the mapmaker's dilemma. This can cause problems if you don't communicate how your picture of the world is limited (either intentionally or unintentionally), others can internalize and misapply it.

This ending averted the necessary separation of the lovers but continued to frame queer love as something that cannot (yet) exist in the heterosexual world. The reality is that there are no separate worlds. Throughout history, queer women have managed to carve out their own slices of happiness in the face of immense hatred. The boundary between worlds is permeable. I feel that there should have been, in terms of imagery, not a surmounting of the Wall of Severance but the revelation that it was always both there and not there.

As for other downsides to the series, it's hard for me to think of any. The pacing was perfect to my tastes, but it's also airtight. I can see how other people might have needed more time to connect with the characters. Rather than cut more content to fit the show's limited screentime, they just gave each episode the density of a neutron star. Important meaning is sometimes conveyed in single shots. It's exhausting to watch, much less write about. Fortunately, Yurikuma's themes are both straightforward and often-repeated, so it could be good training for people who want to accustom themselves to surrealist film. Yuriika also dies a bit suddenly. It's neat to see Ikuhara de-emphasizing his villains as his work progresses, and Yuriika feels like the culmination of this. She exits the show three episodes before the ending, but her threat lives on in Ginko's psychology. The final girl to lead the Exclusion Ceremony, Chouko Oki, is such a minor character that her name isn't listed on any information websites, including ANN. The final human antagonist, who gets more screentime than quite a few of the named characters, is so minor that people forget to list her. The real villain here is anonymous zealotry. It's systematic, possesses people, and can't be eliminated with the current leader.

Other than that, Yuriika dies a bit suddenly, and poor Sumika really was dead all along. It took a long time to come to terms with that. Do you remember your reaction to the first episode? Everyone was so confused. The criticism that “Yurikuma wasn't very emotionally affecting at the beginning” doesn't work for me, because all TV shows are like that. You can't re-access your reaction to the first time you saw Utena or Penguindrum's first episodes, and subsequent re-watchings will inevitably be tinged by knowledge of the full story.

Can I give something a grade between A and A+? An A-minus-plus? I don't think that's allowed. Fine then, I'll round up. I'll shaba-da-do it just for you, Yurikuma Arashi. Thank you.

Grade: A+

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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