Yurikuma Arashi
Episode 9

by Gabriella Ekens,

WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum.

It's time for our weekly dose of non sequitur and heartbreak.

In the attack's aftermath, a dark lily blooms in Ginko's heart. It turns out that she was an accomplice to sumika's death, allowing Yurizono to kill her rather than face a rival for Kureha's affection. Her fatal flaw echoes Yuriika's – Ginko views love as unilateral and exclusionary, so you can only love one person at a time. In despair, she succumbs to her worst instincts and resolves to consume Kureha, so she will never be apart from her beloved. Meanwhile, Kureha retreats toward “invisibility,” joining the exclusion ceremony for the first time. The ceremony has become aware that bears are infiltrating the school disguised as girls, so they focus their efforts in that direction. Yuriika finally acts on her intention of eating Kureha, but is shot dead by her students mid-assault. Realizing the bear's identity, Kureha runs to find her wounded teacher lying dead in her office. With her dying breath, Yuriika – seeing the error of her ways – admits to killing Reia. She points Kureha to the conclusion of “The Moon Girl and the Forest Girl,” hidden in her wall of boxes. When Kureha finds it, she's shocked, and the episode cuts off before we learn what she sees. That's cruel, Ikuhara!

I like how every revelation in Yurikuma arrives at just the point when the audience would've predicted it. When it finally seemed certain that Yuriika is a fiendish bear mastermind, the show went out and said it next episode. The same was true for Ginko's identity as Kureha's childhood friend. Yuri Kuma Arashi has such a tight narrative trajectory that almost every development, no matter how sudden, has felt inevitable right before it was introduced. This is good plotting. If a twist comes straight out of nowhere, it probably isn't connected to the previously established story very well, and will result in a hackneyed product.

Yuriika finally acted on her decades-long scheme to eat Kureha, but she was stopped by the latest girl to head the exclusion ceremony, who we've just met. It's a bit anticlimactic, but I understand why. Having elaborated on her backstory with Reia, Yuriika's role in the show is over, and she's escorted out to focus on the conflict between Kureha and Ginko as people. Without a doubt, this is not the last time we'll see her, considering that half of this show takes place in flashback or heavily employs conversations with ghosts, but this is the end of her direct impact on the action. Ultimately, the Reia/Yuriika story is a failed version of what Ginko and Kureha are intended to accomplish.

The bulk of this episode is spent following Ginko as she converses with Yurizono's specter. The dead have been kicking around the Ikuhara-verse since Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Yurizono is the latest addition to his legion. As with the “what constitutes a bear” question, it's best not to take the ghost characters too literally. When a deceased character appears in the flesh, it means that another character is grappling with what they represent. In Mawaru Penguindrum, when the cultist Sanetoshi Watase appears as a “curse” to manipulate the Takakura siblings, they are grappling with disillusionment and the promise of a reward for violent retribution rather than the man himself.

It's appropriate that Yurizono takes on this role for Ginko. The class representative has been an anomaly in the cast so far. She's the one who least exceeds stereotypes about queer women; she's pretty much a predatory lesbian to a T. Rather than rejecting the stereotype outright, Yuri Kuma Arashi frames it as the state that a victim achieves if their pain and repression drives them to dehumanize others. (Extensive dehumanization teaches a person to dehumanize others.) The cycle of pain continues when victims become abusers. Yurizono's memory represents the part of Ginko that wishes to dehumanize Kureha for her own self-satisfaction. With Yuriika ousted, it looks like the final battle will consist of Ginko and Kureha's internal struggles. Will Ginko overcome her bear self (predatory and selfish idealization of Kureha)? Can Kureha overcome her yuri self (conformist tendencies and prejudice against bears)? Kureha will need to find room in her heart to forgive Ginko and move on from sumika, while Ginko will need to stop using Kureha's idealized love as a crutch. Lulu is the wildcard here. Judging by her equilateral position in the opening triangle, she will be the key to stabilizing their relationship. She and Ginko will need to stop using each other.

In the meantime, I've been doing some research on the status of queer feminism in Japan. I've read the compilation of biographical essays Queer Japan: Personal Stories of Japanese Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals (translated and edited by Barbara Sumerhawk, Cheiron McMahill, and Darren McDonald, published in 1998.) It's illuminating as to how Japanese society approaches gender and sexuality. “Gender” apparently wasn't a concept separate from “biological sex” until Western influences appeared, and Japan still has a limited vocabulary for discussing homosexuality. The closest Japanese translation to the Western notion of “homosexuality” is doseiai or “same-sex love,” and even then it's a formal term mostly used to describe men. Japanese lesbians usually describe themselves as rezubian, which is a transliteration of the English word lesbian. (The abbreviation rezu, by contrast, is a derogatory term that carries pornographic connotations.) That means there isn't much of a linguistic space for queer women to reside. Note that there is no word for homosexuality in Yuri Kuma Arashi. “Yuri” and “kuma” are both inadequate containers for the relationships the characters desire.

Words are boxes that contain meaning. They constrain people to the concepts contained within the languages they speak. In order to find happiness, Ginko, Kureha, and Lulu will need to transcend the yuri/kuma binary, which has been reinforced their entire lives through language. They need to move beyond their society's established structures, beyond its tools for interpreting the world (language), and into uncharted emotional and intellectual territory. The same thing happens at the end of Adolescence of Utena, when Anthy and Utena vacate the rigidly structured castle of their adolescence into the wasteland of adulthood. At first, this is a strange departure from a wasteland's usual associations with ruin and desolation. Their triumph is that they've resolved to be together, without regard for what society wants out of them as women. The wasteland, as an “unmapped continent,” becomes a symbol for their freedom to define themselves and direct their lives as they wish. They will still face obstacles, but they won't compromise their identities as women and lovers. I think Yurikuma will end in a similar way.

For real world context, same-sex couples are often discriminated against when trying to live together in Japan. Many women don't come to terms with their sexualities until they're already married with children, and divorce is heavily stigmatized. Once a woman is brought into the domestic sphere, she's expected to stay there, and many obstacles prevent her from leaving. Marriage is compulsory to the point where it's difficult to even maintain a job as a single woman, and the wage gap is worse than it is in the United States. While male workers often receive protected “full-time” positions at companies, women are shunted into low-paying “part-time” work. The benefits received from full-time work extend to the worker's family, and married couples receive significant tax breaks. The obligation towards heterosexual coupling extends past mere cultural expectation and into the practical necessity of living in society. It's expected that women marry men for many reasons other than love, although they prize love as an ideal.

This section from Barbara Summerhawk's preface to Queer Japan is particularly illuminating regarding Yuri Kuma Arashi: “For the most part, the struggle of the gay political movement in Japan has been to make society aware of the existence of gay people. That nature of the struggle reflects the unique context in which homophobia operates. Essentially, homosexuals in Japan do not exist in the consciousness of Japanese society. One gay activist has succinctly traced this mindset to the “dynamics of ambiguity.” In Japan, heterodox elements are never directly excluded. They are handled in the most ambiguous and innocuous way possible in the interest of avoiding direct confrontation and maintaining a state of blissful ignorance. Although Japanese homosexuals are rarely the targets of overt violence, their very existence is denied by society. This form of disavowed oppression serves to mask the faces of both the perpetrators and victims of discrimination in Japan.” The “invisible storm” is a more apt metaphor for the discrimination queer people face in Japan than I would've assumed. As an American, my image of what queer people face is more violent and confrontational. This is apparently not the case in Japan. Repression, isolation, and avoidance are the name of the game. Based on the despair, self-harm, and suicide attempts chronicled in Queer Japan, this kind of bullying is just as harmful. The conflation between “invisibility” and “death” is more than just spiritual – Japan has a long history of well-publicized lesbian double suicides.*

Side note: wow, this episode decided to ramp up the raunchiness. The comedic highlight was the Judgmens' manifestation of the male gaze. Kureha's assault was also (I believe) the first time we've seen a main character's underpants. Overall, Yurikuma has had remarkably little fanservice for a show whose initial images were all upskirt shots of the main three.

I can't believe that Yuri Kuma Arashi only has three episodes left. It's been a journey for me as well as for the characters. Ikuhara is well on his way toward his third masterpiece, and it'd take a serious upset to make the show falter now. There are still some mysteries left, though. Will Ginko and Kureha be able to smash the world's shell (their own self-images at the Door of Friends) and find true happiness? What will Lulu's endgame be? I still want to fill the box of myself with more Yuri Kuma Arashi.

Rating: A

* If you know more about Japanese LGBT+ feminism and take issue with something I've written, feel free to correct me. As an American, my frame of reference for this is extremely limited. I consider untangling this show a dialogue and would love more contextualizing perspectives. Also, if you can't find a copy of "Queer Japan," there's also this website of testimonials from Japanese queer women. The translation is rough, but it's understandable.

I don't like how Christianity-centric my analysis of Yurikuma's religious critique has been, but I really don't know enough about Japanese spirituality to expand upon it. Fortunately, people with more expertise than me are also doing great work on the show. Dee at Josei Next Door has been doing a series of exhaustive write-ups, and her piece on last episode expounds on the Shinto influences in Yuriika's worldview. Check out her Shintoism-focused piece here. She also tweets as @joseinextdoor.

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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