Lesbians, flower symbolism, psychedelic sex sequences, fabulous posing and even bears who are lesbians! It looks like that wily Ikuhara is up to his old tricks again!
A storm of speculation and a deluge of theory-crafting; fans of renowned director Kunihiko Ikuhara were already cranking their figurative gears months before Yuri Kuma Arashi’s premiere. Of course, being one of said fans I also went into Ikuhara’s latest work with a certain degree of uncertainty. Usually, promotional material, PVs and early concept artwork are enough to gauge a show’s angle, but in the case of Yuri Kuma Arashi, let’s just say that what we were provided with left a lot to the imagination. Calling someone like Ikuhara an eccentric would be a grave understatement, as the man is easily as flamboyant as some of the caricatures in his works. Furthermore, Ikuni enjoys giving purposefully evasive answers in his interviews – as he would rather his viewers construct their own opinions than take his as the definitive perspective. As a result, it’s pretty difficult to say exactly where Yuri Kuma Arashi is headed after its first episode. But from my view, there are already a number of intriguing pieces of the puzzle in play. It’s just how Ikuhara decides to develop these ideas – or whether he is able to, considering the show is only a single cour in length – that remains up for grabs.
With the preamble out of the way, I can say with certainty that I enjoyed Yuri Kuma Arashi’s first episode a great deal. Ikuhara is an exceptional director when it comes to crafting surreal, contemporary shoujo fantasies with powerful allegorical undercurrents and a clever touch of absurdist humour – and Yuri Kuma Arashi is yet another testament to his craft. Instantly, we’re drawn into this otherworldly all-girls’ school – a triangular structure of perfect geometric form with multi-coloured stain glass windows and an interior reminiscent of Baroque architecture. It’s as grandiose as they get and in this day and age almost seems like an affectionate parody of classic shoujo settings played straight. However, looking past the school’s fantastical locales, we see very ordinary looking scenery surrounded by constant construction. As the camera zooms out we realize that this construction is due to humanity constructing a giant pink barricade to protect them against the threat of…alien bears from outer space. I think I mentioned Ikuhara is a very eccentric fellow.
Now what really intrigues me about the setting is that although one could take the school simply as artistic expression and the wall as a literal barrier, this is Ikuhara that we’re talking about. Part of the reason Ikuhara has become so notorious in more niche anime circles is that he’s able to transform our perception of even the most ordinary and unassuming objects into something with a symbolic and emotional weight for his characters. Already, there’s plenty to imply that the wall may hold greater meaning in the grand scheme of things – Ikuhara’s clever storyboarding suggests a connection between the characters and their enclosed universe. Take the one scene in the episode as the two bears masquerading as humans, Lulu and Ginko, are walking down a spiral staircase. The two girls (bears) are overlooking Kureha and her lover as their “hunger” intensifies. Ikuhara then makes a quick cut to a close-up of Ginko in bear form grinding her teeth so rapidly that it begins to sound like a piece of machinery. The scene then zooms out and shifts the focus to a scenic shot with construction in the background – while the hum of Ginko’s grinding begins to blend in with the sound of a jackhammer. An example such as this is a clear and deliberate association, possibly suggesting that the physical setting is meant to act as a backdrop to the characters’ mental states.
Regardless, Ikuhara’s attentive use of background sounds and melodramatic musical cues – cornerstones of his style – are very prominent and effective in building a dynamic mood throughout Yuri Kuma Arashi’s first episode. Ikuhara is one of the few directors that are able to successfully strike a balance between nonsensical comedy and heavy melodrama. Rarely does a scene ever feel jarring, as he gives careful thought towards accentuating the intention – and this is one aspect of his approach that I feel he has refined over the years. While there are plenty of scenes in Yuri Kuma Arashi that are filled with over the top theatrics, the ridiculous posing, sparkles and cute bear sounds are short-lived, off-hand gags and are kept to the periphery so as not to interfere with any drama.
The take home message right now would be that I feel Yuri Kuma Arashi’s audio-visual direction and background aesthetic are the defining aspects of the work, and are currently spot-on with what Ikuhara intends to accomplish. This is a huge boon for the show, as unfortunately Silver Link’s animation quality is underwhelming and Etsuko Sumimoto’s adaptations of Akiko Morishima’s original character designs are a tad plain. Disappointing as the lack of many standout pieces of animation (henshins aside) or the constant off-model characters may be to my inner animation fan, I do not feel these production shortcomings are deal breakers to Yuri Kuma Arashi’s potential success. Ikuhara’s impeccable direction, allegorical storytelling, absurd humour and Yukari Hashimoto’s dreamlike musical score blend together so well that they forge enough of an artistic identity to cover the weaker bases. At the end of the day, it’s really about how much of Ikuhara’s artistic flair he’s able to put out there and how well he conveys his ideas that will seal the deal for me.
Speaking of which, Yuri Kuma Arashi’s subject matter does pique my interest…and it’s not only because it involves naked lesbians! With a central conflict that makes liberal reference to the Sankebetsu bear attacks, a claustrophobic setting and this idea of hiding ourselves from an outside “terror”, from what angle does Ikuhara intend to frame these lesbian overtones? Already, it’s not quite clear if the bears’ “hunger” is just that or more of a sexual lust and them “eating” people is really just another euphemism for lesbian sex. The double entendre in the dialogue and abstract sex sequence towards the end of the episode suggest it’s the latter, but it may be tied to character perception more than anything. I say this because at the very end of the episode there’s a quick scene where a classmate catches the two bears feasting on another girl, but to her the act isn’t quite clear but she’s horrified all the same. Interesting.
Additionally, the show’s heroine, Kureha, has already received a bit of flack in the community for not having anything about her that would make the viewer want to emphasize with her tragic situation – unlike the protagonists in Shoujo Kakumei Utena or Mawaru Penguindrum where we instantly got a sense of their present ideals and endearing personalities. Kureha has neither ambitions nor discernable personality traits – she’s simply a girl that likes another girl and is afraid of bears. Although at the present moment I understand the criticism, I have my inklings that Kureha is meant to be a blank slate at this point in the story. Perhaps it’s through her future lesbian encounters with Lulu and Ginko that causes her to open up and reveals more aspects of her past and personality. Likewise, is her fear of bears to be taken literally, or does it perhaps suggest a fear of intercourse with the same sex? Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing how Ikuhara explores the subject matter. He’s always been fond of including same-sex – specifically, lesbian relationships – in his works, but Yuri Kuma Arashi is really the first one where this is the primary focus – rather than a component of adolescence.
All in all, you can colour me impressed with Yuri Kuma Arashi’s first episode. I certainly have my utmost faith in Ikuhara, but I am a bit concerned about the show only being one cour in length. What Ikuhara wants to convey and what he’s able to feasibly convey due to scheduling and a limited amount of episodes will truly test his profile as a director. But if anyone can pull off a show about lesbian bears from outer space, it’s him.