Monday 24 June 2019

Anime REVIEW: Sarazanmai

Sarazanmai is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

If you're ever looking for anime that shows off just how wild the medium can get whilst also tackling a myriad of mature themes and subjects, then look no further than the works of Kunihiko Ikuhara. From his early days on Sailor Moon to creating Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum and Yurikuma Arashi, Ikuhara has garnered quite the reputation despite what seems like a relatively limited filmography. However in 2019 he returned with his latest creation - Sarazanmai. A joint production between studios MAPPA and Lapin Track, Sarzamanzai aired as part of Fuji TV's prestigious Noitamina programming block. Drawing heavily on Japan's kappa folklore at 11 episodes it is Ikuhara's shortest original work, but that doesn't make it any less heavy on the symbolism.

After accidentally breaking a statue of a kappa that serves as the guardian god of Asakusa, middle school students Kazuki, Toi, and Enta are transformed into kappas by Keppi - the prince of the Kappa Kingdom. He tasks them with assisting him in collecting the Dishes of Hope - items that will grant the wishes of those who possess them. To acquire them, the three must battle in a parallel world against zombie creatures manifested by human desires. By removing their shirokodama and chanting the sound "Sarazanmai", a dish can be created.

However each time the sound is made, the three boys truly unite and their deepest secrets are revealed. As they struggle to connect they learn more and more about each other, as well as the war between the Kappa Kingdom and Otter Empire that has waged for generations.

If you were someone unfamiliar with Ikuhara's previous works and so happened to take a chance on Sarzanmai, there'd be no judgement if you were somewhat confused and possibly even deterred by its opening. With things like the shirokodama (a ball said to contain the soul) being located in the anus elements of Kappa folklore are questionable at best, but Sarzanmai wastes no time in getting the viewer fully acquainted with such things. The first episode alone features rather graphical depictions of said shirokodamas being removed (particularly of our three heroes when first turned in kappas), an alternate universe where desires manifest into surreal monsters and where kappas play out a catchy musical number to defeat said monster. The musical numbers and bizarre imagery only carry on into further episodes, along with details like the Japanese for "butt" appearing in the background of particularly sensitive scenes. Even for veteran anime fans, Sarzanmai can be a lot to take in.

However peel back the layers of this strange audio-visual entertainment and revealed is a series rich in themes, abstract concepts (something even the show boldly proclaims in its final episode) and deeply personal subjects. In short, very much the kind of thing Ikuhara is known for. Though the key theme of the series is "connections" and the various types of connection between the principle cast, the subjects it covers in the process include love, desire, identity, sexuality, crime, murder and adoption just to name a few. What makes it work so well is that it presents these ideas on a number of different fronts, and just how much you get out of Sarazanmai will depend on how much time and thought you want to put into the series. For those planning on a simple watch through, the core themes and intent are all presented relatively clearly. On top of that, much of the dialogue/lyrics and background detail offer additional information more open to interpretation, which will likely require multiple viewings in order to catch everything. Finally Ikuhara recycles many ideas and visuals from his previous works (such as the faceless crowd cutouts or use of cardboard boxes), which can work symbolically on their own or how they've been used in the past. Not everyone is going to have the time or patience to comb through a series so rich in semiotics, so at least this method allows the series to be understood on a number of different levels.

This abstract symbolism is nothing without strong characters to make it work though, and Sarazanmai works because its cast are (to put it in the bluntest of terms) a mess. Not in the poorly written sense, but more the wealth of issues they all have. Throughout the series Kazuki deals with the fact he inadvertently caused his brother Haruka to be in a wheelchair, dressing up as his idol Sara in order to better connect with him. Meanwhile Enta struggles with his love for Kazuki – keeping his romantic feelings in the dark whilst also wishing to rekindle the pair's identity as "the golden duo" from when they played soccer together. Toi on the other hand is perhaps the most messed up of them all, with a history selling cannabis for his Yakuza brother as well as having shot a man in the past. These descriptions only scratch the surface of how deep these cuts go for the trio, affecting not only their connections with each other but also how they perceive themselves. Similarly the connection between Reo and Mabu – policemen responsible for the creation of the Zombies, proves to be another of the series' stronger elements. Sarazanmai is explicit in its LGBT themes and it's in these characters that shines through the most, as their story unfolds slowly over the course of the series to take them from ambiguous villains into something much more interesting.

There's no denying that the series is short though, which means some elements aren't quite as well-rounded as others. Arguably this has less to do with the actual ideas the series is trying to convey though and instead it’s the background parts that could have done with a lot more work. For example, the Kappa Kingdom/Otter Empire history and dynamic is only covered very loosely. While maybe not essential information to the overall running of the series, it does have the knock on effect of under-developing Keppi and (in turn) Reo and Mabu. Sara's involvement also feels more open to interpretation because of this, outside of her obvious role to act as the show's Greek Chorus. Though ultimately these don't matter to the story that Sarazanmai is trying to tell – one that runs on themes and emotion rather that straightforward story, it's still a shame that it couldn't find time to elaborate on them a bit more. Especially when it's a show that makes fairly frequent use of stock footage, but also relies on fake-out endings which are then continued in post-credit sequences rather than left as effective cliffhangers.

Though its surreal and gross-out imagery may prove a difficult entry point for some, Sarazanmai is a thoroughly entertaining series rich in ideas and talking points that stay with you long after the series has finished. Though it may seem short at only 11 episodes, it's able to tackle all its subjects effectively - concise enough not to cause confusion or leave you wanting more, but at the same time abstract enough to leave some things up to interpretation. These qualities make it all the more accessible despite its inherent madness, and prove once again that an Ikuhara anime clearly isn't one to be missed.

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