“I want to connect, but I want to lie.”
Sarazanmai presents two sides of the same coin. On one side, we have desires; the sense of longing and hoping for a certain outcome. Often considered an innate part of our humanity, they can also be attributed with the darker aspects of one’s personality. They’re the deep secrets we hold to ourselves, not wanting the world around us to know about, and dreading the thought of if they were found out. But as much as the show focuses on desires, it’s just as focused on connection. The world is comprised of all kinds of connections, whether by blood, through communities or even with similar desires. We are all connected in some way to one another… But connections can be broken just as easily as they were formed. And even with a desire to connect with other, can we truly form the connections we want with the desires we hold still intact?
“I want to connect, but I want to take.”
Sarazanmai is the latest series of one of anime’s most stylistic and socially-conscious directors in Kunihiko Ikuhara. His ability to tackle thematic topics such as love, adolescence, destiny and power hierarchies through surreal plotlines and symbolism is arguably unmatched in the entire industry. Lauded as a visionary by fans, Ikuhara seems to increasingly escalate the bizarre nature of his works as they’re churned out. Sarazanmai does little to change this notion, taking viewers on a journey that’s honestly hard to describe on first impression. It should come as no surprise that the show can be very difficult to follow at first despite how overtly direct it is in its ideas. There’s such a unique blend of sexual symbols and homoerotic imagery on display that could easily warrant essays analysing just those aspects. But my interest in the show lies more in the characters here, with Ikuhara having crafted in my opinion an oddly compelling character drama in the span of 11 episodes.
“I want to connect, but it’s not meant to be.”
The main cast of Sarazanmai consists of three middle school students, all vying to protect the desires they hold dearest. The first of the trio to be established, Kazuki Yasaka, also happens to be the most fortunate of the group on the surface. Liked and appreciated by practically everyone around him, it’s not until his more startling hobbies are brought to light that reveals a clearer picture of Kazuki. He’s a child burdened with self-guilt, feeling responsible for crippling his younger brother because of his own selfish wishes, and as a result tries giving him the happiness he felt was taken away. But make no mistake, Kazuki’s actions are made for his own sake, not his brother, show a fundamental flaw in his character: maturity. Kazuki understands his own mind and wishes, but is unable to recognize the minds of others, and without the latter remains wary of the connections he still has. Until he’s able to appreciate others more, his struggle with connection can only continue.
“I want to connect, but you’re so far away.”
Toi Kuji is an interesting case in that he acts as a direct opposite to Kazuki initially. The delinquent to Kazuki’s upstanding persona, he ironically counters Kazuki’s self-centredness through being the most empathetic and mature of the three. He understands the feelings and relationships of others best, and despite some troubles with communicating his own thoughts, connections can be formed with others. But in Toi’s case, it’s not so much about forming them, but preserving them. Toi underneath his mysterious nature and dubious actions does have respectable desires – to save the soba shop his parents owned and to get away from the illegal circumstances his brother pushed him towards. From an early age he was taught of the importance of familial bonds, though under the inkling that it ultimately came at the cost of other potential bonds. However now he arrives at a crossroad between preserving the relationship he has with his brother, or valuing the connections made through friendship more. Maybe more importantly, is he worthy of having these new connections?
“I want to connect, but I can’t be forgiven.”
Enta Jinnai is the last of the three to be enveloped in Sarazanmai’s story, whose desires are probably the most simplistic of the three, but still a core part of his character. Unlike familial love or friendship, the kind of connection Enta yearns for is romantic love, specifically toward his best friend since childhood, Kazuki. But as much as Enta might try to form that connection, his feelings are not reciprocated. Enta can clearly be seen as cheerful, innocent and the one with the least amount of baggage, but overtime it’s readily apparent how frustrated and fearful he is about Kazuki and his situation, at times even hallucinating about what his ideal romantic relationship would be like. A connection already exists between the two, just not the type he honestly wants most. A solution may seem obvious to us as onlookers, but if it were us, what choice would we make? Abandon this desire for unrequited love with someone who has never registered these emotions? Keep these strong feelings bottled up for fear of losing your closest and possibly only friend? Or end up pursuing them, and risk falling in a cycle of heartache as a result.
“I want to connect, so I won’t give up.”
Three distinct personalities all different from each other are brought together through the strangest of ways – being transformed into kappa and having their shirikodama removed from the anus, before having to fight zombies and remove their shirikodama in order to become human again, assisting the Kappa kingdom in their ongoing war against the Otter Empire. The premise is certainly original, but the themes are what take centre stage here. How connections between people are forged, strained and how that pain can affect each other being the most overt example, but for as much as the series shoves connections at the audience, the relationships between the cast are formed rather organically. The way each character’s darkest secrets are revealed after each fight is what leads to the natural bonding in the show. There’s a trust created as they rely on one another whilst holding their own goals that would put each other at odds, a dynamic rarely explored in anime and is reinforced through the explicit symbolism. But these bonds may also speak to the level of trust required in a world not accepting of their desires, with the backdoors of society being the one place where people can freely express themselves. Or perhaps the world is not as it seems, and in reality is controlled by an industry feeding and profiting off our desires through corporate means. Or maybe it’s just saying that it’s ok to be gay. This is both the beauty and difficulty of Ikuhara’s works; always shrouded in so many visual metaphors that it presents itself as a puzzle, almost devoid from the typical standards of storytelling but still encapsulating a myriad of ideas and messages, to where viewers are inclined to decipher the dense tale themselves. It’s not a style that everyone will enjoy, or even acknowledge, but for those who do, it’s part of the charm, something that is constantly gleaming off of Sarazanmai
“I want to connect, but I want to betray.”
Now while I am personally a fan of Ikuhara and this series, there are some glaring issues I have with Sarazanmai, most notably due to how this eccentric tale is contained in only 11 episodes. Ikuhara, as beloved as he is by many, is known for his many tropes, from wacky animal hijinks and overly flamboyant poses, to increasingly surreal and almost gratuitous imagery, to the worst of his traits: his re-use of animated scenes. Sarazanmai features all of these quite regularly throughout its broadcast, to a degree where it can be no longer inviting for viewers unfamiliar with Ikuhara’s work. But speaking for myself, watching so many of his trademarks on display leaves very little room for the show to breathe when it needs to. The director’s previous work, Yuri Kuma Arashi, is the worst example of this. To quote a review for the series: “Watching Yuri Kuma Arashi is like trying to memorize the first 100 digits of Pi. Succeeding might technically be considered an accomplishment, but good lord is it meaningless.” Thankfully Sarazanmai does not become this insufferable, staying a joy to follow moment by moment whilst remaining coherent on top. But the quirks do leave their marks on the series. For a show so based around connecting to its characters, the audience is given little incentive to care for the characters in the first place. Factor in the repetitive tropes, a breakneck pace and a script that beats the term “connection” into your skull, and as a result we’re left with inconsistent development and key events not able to fully capitalize on their emotional impact. I truly believe it would have benefited from having more time available to explore the world, the cast, their backstory, etc. in order to tell a more complete story without rushing to the finish line. But alas, we fans get what we are given.
“I want to connect, but we’ll never meet again.”
Ikuhara’s history as a director is riddled with him having to compromise in some way on most of his projects, whether it be the numerous limitations that faced the production team for Yuri Kuma Arashi, or him completely abandoning his position on the Sailor Moon TV series. But with Sarazanmai, it’s hard to tell if there were any issues the crew faced. Very rarely does an anime emerge with the kind of intensity that Sarazanmai brought in the first episode. At face value, the show is visually stunning, using a multitude of vibrant colours and attractive character designs that immediate distinguish it amongst the crowd. The show also has a knowledgeable understanding of colour theory, with red, blue and yellow used to help define the personalities of the main trio. The series features a surprising amount of action that’s animated very well. I find it extremely praiseworthy that despite MAPPA being credited as the main studio, the first 4 episodes were produced by Ikuhara’s small team at Lapin Track and look no different from MAPPA’s work on the project. The show is like an explosion on the screen, bringing Ikuhara's vivid creativity and imagination to life.
“I want to connect, but I can’t express it.”
The music for Sarazanmai is fantastic and well-voiced even with how repetitive it can be. Each of the fights feature the same tracks over re-used animated footage of the same dance sequence most episodes. The show takes inspiration from musicals with how it uses a mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic songs that help propel plot and character development, another rarity to be found in the medium. The themes of desires and secrets mesh well with the musical format, utilizing the basic structure and common song format to help give the series a theatrical essence in these moments. The voice acting is also excellent in conveying the appropriate tone, clarity and emotions required from each scene, effectively helping to humanize the characters. The soundtrack was composed by Yukari Hashimoto who also worked on the soundtracks for March Comes in Like a Lion, Toradora, Osomatsu-san and one of Ikuhara’s other works, Mawaru Penguindrum. Yukari has a knack for combining traditional Japanese motifs with modern electronic-style music to create a collection of tracks that’re uplifting in their own distinct way. The opening and ending themes are also bangers if that means anything to you.
“I want to connect, but I can’t.”
Sarazanmai, as much as I may like it, is an anime I find difficult to recommend, simply due to how hard it is to describe the kind of experience someone is in for. And in a way, that’s how Ikuhara’s works differ from the norm. There’s a story to be found and characters to move it forward, but they rely on interpretation to the point where my experience could end up completely different to that of the average anime watcher. But what I will say is that Sarazanmai sums up a bit of every original work from Ikuhara: The structure of a battle closing each episode with meaning behind each foe faced from Utena, the comparison of love and desire from Yuri Kuma Arashi, and the way society works with a shredder to destroy what the world doesn’t accept from Mawaru Penguindrum, all while maintaining its own identity. Sarazanmai is a weird show, but the weirdness is not complicated, as it constantly bears two sides of the same coin. Connection is an important part of the show, and our lives, but the show is also about hidden desires – the embarrassing parts of ourselves we don’t wish to share. The truth is we all have weird parts about ourselves, and we’re afraid we won’t be accepted if we admit those things. Yet in Sarazanmai, admitting those desires allows for real human connection to foster, and there’s something worth fighting for in that.
“I want to be connected.”