“Jesus Butt-fucking Christ, what the hell is this?!”
It’s no secret that Kunihiko Ikuhara is one of the most out-there anime directors, conjuring up several queer-focused, high-concept mystery box anime on whatever themes he feels like exploring. This fact has only become more apparent over time as Sarazanmai becomes his third anime in a row this decade to focus on this type of narrative. In 2011, Mawaru Penguindrum focused on themes of changing one’s fate, with a compelling cast of characters and marvelous setpieces across a tight, binge-worthy 24-episode plot. Yuri Kuma Arashi came 4 years later, focused on love, lesbian relationships, and desire over the course of 12 episodes, only 4 of which I managed to get through before quitting. It had none of the coherence or humor of its predecessor, and its exceptionally gratuitous and insufferably blunt nature on such themes further turned me off. The lack of compelling or even consistent characters served to solidify my disappointment, as gorgeous as most of them are. Now, 4 years later and with only 11 episodes to work with, Sarazanmai focuses on the struggles of forming and keeping connections, as well as the painful, even shameful nature of secrets through the lens of gay kappas. I don’t think it’s as exciting or compelling as Penguindrum, but it’s definitely an improvement over its predecessor, bringing back some of the loveable quirkiness and solid writing that made Penguindrum so engaging.
Visually, this might be my least favorite entry in Ikuhara’s repertoire, but it’s mesmerizing to look at. The joint efforts of Studio MAPPA and Lapin Track (the latest in this decade’s horde of new studios) pay off as charming character designs move beautifully across vivid and sometimes exceptionally animated setpieces. These setpieces are so good that the anime reuses them throughout almost every episode, just with new designs and sequences being added to the action setpieces at the end of most episodes. This probably has the most reused animation of Ikuhara’s shows yet, as the sequences shown here are the longest to date. That, along with the repetitiveness of the first 5 episodes and the fact that each of the “battles” that make up half of each climax setpiece feels exactly the same, drags everything down. The finale resorting to a slideshow sequence towards the end doesn’t help matters. The CGI is also more frequent than ever, though rarely is it truly awful. Thankfully, the animation is still more fluid and full of sakuga moments than Yuri Kuma, and its art style is about as charming as that of the previous two works, thanks to the aesthetic brilliance of Ikuhara and chief director Nobuyuki Takeuchi, who did some of the best sequences of Penguindrum, like the library scene in episode 9.
The music falls into a similar boat. "Massara" by KANA-BOON is an energetic and enjoyable OP that gets me a bit more excited for what our trio of gay middle schoolers go through next. Surprisingly, given my distaste for their song on Bunny Girl Senpai, the peggies do a wonderful job with the equally energetic rock ED, "Stand by me”. The OST is where the show falls a tad short, with barely any memorable tracks outside of the mediocre song they play at the climax of nearly every episode (regardless of who sings the bulk of it in any given episode), and a few small jingles. It’s probably the weakest OST of all Ikuhara’s shows.
The writing is where I was worried, given how much I grew to dislike Yuri Kuma before dropping it. Thankfully, outside of occasionally abrupt editing and a few trashy cliffhangers, coherence and good character writing are actually present again, even if the pacing becomes an issue every now and then. The main trio each come with their own easily identifiable baggage and fun interactions that make their dodgy actions not detract from them as relatively likable characters, at least outside of a few idiotic cliffhangers. For the most part, even if they aren’t exceptionally engaging, they’re consistent, and the emotional turmoil they deal with regarding their horrible actions and their difficulties regarding human connection is easily felt. The supporting characters and major antagonists are also quirky and entertaining, even though the main antagonist of the series is just an evil thematic entity, making him not as fun as the two gay cops that slowly come to oppose our protagonists and the kappa prince who guides them. Said prince (named Keppi) is the most entertaining and quirky character of the lot, as he is responsible for the funniest moments of the show. Part of why I feel this way is that the show never resorts to abrupt tone-shifts despite the abundance of cute and or quirky comedy moments which Keppi instigates or is otherwise involved with.
As for how Sarazanmai unravels each character, it’s not only poignant and heartfelt but surprisingly brutal. It’s hard not to feel bad for some of these people despite how awful their actions are, especially Toi. Even with the painful realities of the characters in Penguindrum, the problems were always fantastical in nature, not like Sarazanmai where characters are traumatized by murder and witnessing their loved ones getting run over. Their dynamic, slowly developing, and sometimes charismatic personalities make it easier to feel for their suffering and the awkward situations they often find themselves in. Of course, the themes of the show revolve around the cast’s suffering, and barring a few forced moments of characters breaking character for one scene, the themes come in cleanly and powerfully, despite some of the exhausting repetition of the show’s big thematic setpieces. It helps that, again, there’s logic to the transformation sequences and most of the characters’ actions, and the themes aren’t presented in a gratuitous or illogical manner, unlike Yuri Kuma. The show does get a tad rushed and melodramatic towards the end, and it does fall into one of my least favorite writing traps regarding one of its mechanics, but that’s not enough to stop the show from being emotionally or thematically resonant. Hell, they actually use one of the tropes I generally dislike and make one of the most gut-wrenching character moments out of it. This doesn’t mean the show is great, especially with the absolute mess that was the finale, which just spells everything out while being a complete clusterfuck.
It’s unfortunate that the show becomes wearisome and rocky in places, and that the reused animation and setpieces tend to take up a third of the length of most episodes. However, the relatively solid writing, cute comedy, and vibrant presentation keep this self-unraveling mystery box show entertaining, and even powerful at times. It’s certainly not my favorite Ikuhara work, but it’s still one of the better shows to come out this year if you can look past the finale… kero.
Written and edited by: CodeBlazeFate
Proofread by: Peregrine