Ikuhara is quite the director. There’s no one in the industry that can weave such vivid social commentary into such visually vibrant, unique and confounding narratives as the creator of Utena and Penguindrum can. This time the master artist has lesbians, bears and storms in his sights. So, is Yurikuma Arashi as brilliant as Ikuhara’s previous works?

Eh…

A couple hundred years back a bunch of meteorites hit earth. Since then, bears and humans have been locked in combat, ‘cos, y’know, bears eat people and people shoot bears. The Wall of Severance was built to separate the human world from the bears. One girl, Kureha Tsubaki, has a particularly strong hatred of bears after one ate her mother. She also has a borderline-romantic friendship with another girl, Sumika Izumino. Problem is, there are reports a bear has infiltrated their school and is now masquerading as a human.

Yurikuma Arashi is a visual masterpiece. With a predominantly pink colour palate and imagery inspired by cinematic classics such as The Shining, Suspiria and Psycho, the series forges a unique and highly memorable visual identity of its own.

This is exceedingly important, given that, first and fore mostly, Yurikuma Arashi is a visual tale, an allegory that makes use of visceral motifs and symbolism to create a poignant criticism of a persecutory, bigoted, Japanese (although, definitely not exclusively) society. The series is very much Ikuhara’s soapbox, his mouthpiece in this regard. All of his metaphors and stylistic flair (well, most of it at least), all the walls, bears, lilies, birds and invisible storms, help construct his overall message.

Which, incidentally, isn’t as complex as it’s made out to be. To put it simply, he’s bashing on a Japanese society which excludes and alienates those in transgressive relationships – homosexuals – or more broadly, those that don’t follow social norms. In fact, this is pretty much explicitly stated in the show. Indeed, despite its chaotic and ostensibly cryptic exterior, Yurikuma Arashi is actually a very simple series with a very simple, but no less pertinent, message. For the seasoned viewer, all the visual metaphors won’t take too long to decipher, and with them, Ikuhara’s purpose and contention.

Also, the sound track is goddamn beautiful.

As it stands, Ikuhara’s obsession with allegory and symbolism is also the show’s greatest failing. What made Utena and Penguindrum so great wasn’t just the quirky visuals and deeper social commentary. Rather, it was a blend of these factors with an impactful, moving and emotive story, complete with fleshed-out, nuanced and compelling characters.

This is what Yurikuma Arashi lacks. It appears that Ikuhara was so caught up in producing a rich piece of art that spews out profound social commentary in a colourful display of sexual innuendos, hilarious catchphrases and kawaii bears that he forgot the basics of his craft. It’s unfortunate that to create his deep’n’meaningful social commentary, Ikuhara chose to create a cast of bland, uninspired and uncharacteristically shallow characters.

If you’ve read DaLadyBugMan’s review, it’s probably apparent that I nearly fully share his consensus. There is one point I’d like to disagree with him on, and that’s Yurikuma’s plot. Whilst the actual narrative is certainly nothing new, and indeed, is somewhat cliché in a variety of departments, I don’t necessarily think it’s the show’s primary weakness. When we get down to it, Yurikuma’s plot is, much like many of Masaaki Yuasa’s works, a simple love story. However, just as with many of Yuasa’s series, it manages to distinguish itself due to its inherent, individual charm. Also, I personally found the ending hella satisfying.

Rather, Yurikuma Arashi, for the most part (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get just a little sentimental at times, irrespective of how cheap the tactics may’ve been), lacks emotional weight. This is largely because of how bland, and indeed, boring the main cast are. Although it may be seem reductive to dismiss most, if not all of the show’s character’s as so one-dimensional such that their single, ubiquitous, defining trait is their unbreakable love for another character (nauseating, I know), well, that’s what they essentially are.

That said, some of the cast have their slight nuances, and, despite (or perhaps because of) their apparent simplicity, they can be endearing in their own way. Still, it’s almost irritating how uniform and discreet virtually everyone is - doubly so for a series that blatantly advocates defying social norms. Even their backstories are remarkably similar. For all intents and purposes, it was as if these characters weren’t characters as much as they were allegorical puppets. They were Ikuhara’s metaphorical mouthpieces, and were utterly lacking in any distinctive qualities and any empathetic hooks of their own. It’s pretty damn hard to feel sympathy for a puppet.

As such, the show wasn’t nearly as engaging and moving as it probably could and should’ve been. Maybe it the episode count was too restrictive; that said, I doubt the plot could’ve carried for that much longer.

Yurikuma reminded me of Zankyou no Terror in a lot of ways. Resonance’s compelling message about a post-war obsession with material gain that led to a voiceless and resentful generation of youths was ultimately squandered by crappy plot points and uninteresting characters, much like Ikuhara’s commentary in Yurikuma. I can’t help but feel that, just like Watanabe probably didn’t invest as much care into crafting Nine or Eleven as he did Spike or Mugen, Ikuhara probably didn’t devote as much care into the creation of Kureha or Ginko as he did Utena or Kanba.

There is a dubbed version, although from what I’ve seen of it, I still prefer the subbed.

It’s unfortunate, really. Despite how visceral, visually and audibly striking and deeply gratifying Yurikuma Arashi is, it is plagued by underdeveloped, wallflower characters. This is, without a doubt, Ikuhara’s weakest work. Would I still recommend it? Definitely - especially for you more artsy folk. That said, don’t be surprised if you’re ultimately disappointed.

70 /100
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