Vrai, Chiaki, and Dee take a look back at yet another difficult-to-succinctly-summarize TV anime by Ikuhara, SARAZANMAI! You know the deal (or maybe you don’t yet): messy teens, queer themes, and lots of symbolism about societal oppression.
Date Recorded: February 9th, 2020
Hosts: Vrai, Chiaki, Dee
0:01:03 Background, Ikuhara, and related media
0:11:48 Kazuki’s crossdressing
0:13:26 Family values
0:22:01 Archetypes or cliches?
0:26:45 Fightin’ about Enta
0:31:20 Reo, Mabu, and ACAB
0:35:57 The big idea
0:42:46 Soccer practice
0:55:39 Final thoughts
VRAI: Hey there, listener. Welcome to Chatty AF, the Anime Feminist podcast. My name is Vrai. I’m a contributor and editor at Anime Feminist. You can find me on Twitter @WriterVrai or the other pod I cohost @trashpod. And joining me today are Chiaki and Dee.
CHIAKI: Hi, I’m Chiaki Hirai. I am a freelance writer and editor for Anime Feminist. You can find me on Twitter @AnimatedEmpress or @Chiaki747. One’s public, one’s private, and neither have anything sensible to say.
DEE: And I’m Dee. I also work at AniFem with these lovely folks, and you can find all my writings on my blog The Josei Next Door, and you can hang out with me on Twitter @joseinextdoor.
VRAI: Nice. And we are coming to you today with a Sarazanmai retrospective. For those of you who don’t know, Sarazanmai was a 2019 one-cour series, 11 episodes directed by the one and only Kunihiko Ikuhara, and also the chief director was Takeuchi Nobuyuki. And the writers were Ikuhara and also Utsumi Teruko, who has done not a lot of other series composition but has done a lot of script work on other series like Natsume Yuujinchou and is working on Uchitama this season.
DEE: Yeah, Uchitama is also a MAPPA/Lapin Track co-pro, which I thought was neat, that they did this big, intense Ikuhara joint and then were like “Let’s do a cute show about animals.” And it’s been really good, so…
VRAI: Why not? I mean, wasn’t Lapin Track Ikuhara’s studio that he kind of made for Yurikuma?
DEE: I think so, but don’t quote me on that. I know there is an extensive Sakuga Blog post about it, and I am pretty sure that Lapin Track is basically Ikuhara’s thing, but I don’t know how officially it came about or anything like that.
VRAI: I just remember talk of it when the series was airing because there was a big gap where the studio’s main productions were basically Yurikuma and then Sarazanmai.
DEE: Yeah, they haven’t done much else. But it looks like maybe they’re starting to get into working with MAPPA on stuff, which I’m fine with because I like MAPPA and the two of them seem to gel well together, because Uchitama also looks really nice.
VRAI: Nice. Dee, you and I are obviously Ikuhara veterans.
VRAI: You’ve seen all of his stuff. I’ve seen everything but Penguindrum. Someday we’ll get to that watchalong. But Chiaki, this was your first Ikuhara series, wasn’t it?
CHIAKI: Yes, under technicality. I’ve seen episodes of other shows, but this is the first time I’ve actually sat through a full show.
VRAI: I’m a little bit dying to know what it’s like to sit through an Ikuhara show with just the awareness of the mythos.
CHIAKI: [Chuckles] It’s definitely… I felt like I knew what to expect, and given the manga that came out a little bit before the series premiered, I figured it was gonna be a little bit BL-heavy. And I didn’t expect it to be that—what’s the word?—auteur.
CHIAKI: But, you know, I gelled with it. I gelled with it.
VRAI: Nice. That interview where Ikuhara mentioned that the series ended up the way it is because nobody’s told him to stop is maybe the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.
CHIAKI: I’m glad nobody did.
VRAI: Definitely, auteur theory is one of those things where eventually somebody has to tell an artist “no” or they’ll eventually spiral into becoming parodies of themselves. But Ikuhara is one of those where his idiosyncrasies really, really click with what I like to watch, so I’m always into it.
Oh, and the manga you mentioned—by the time this goes out, I believe it will be available in English—Sarazanmai… I think the English title is just Reo and Mabu, but it’s a sort-of prequel but seems to take place in a different universe, kind of, that’s about Reo and Mabu finding baby Sara and raising her and doing cute couple shenanigans.
CHIAKI: Is that a thing that happens, where anything Ikuni works on is a manga before it’s an anime, but it’s also kind of done at the same time and not exactly the same universe?
VRAI: Yeah, so far all of his series have manga that are basically a different take on the same concept, I would say, because the Utena manga has very little to do with the Utena anime, and ditto the Yurikuma manga. Whichever one you like better is whichever one you like better, but they tend to be quite different in tone and even just characterization and narrative.
DEE: Yeah, and Penguindrum actually has a trio of light novels that go with it, as well. My understanding of the light novels is that they are more in line with following the anime but providing more background detail and peeks into the characters’ heads and stuff like that. But I’m not 100% on that. They have been licensed, though, so I eagerly await the opportunity to read them and see what I can glean from them.
But yeah, I think every project he’s ever worked on has had some kind of manga or novelization companion piece to go with it.
VRAI: Mm-hm. Yeah, it’s very characteristic of his work, and I’m not sure why he likes to do that, but it does seem to keep happening, especially this case where he works predominantly with women creators who do these other pieces of media.
DEE: Oh, it looks like Sarazanmai has a light novel, as well. That’s fun.
VRAI: Yeah, I heard that.
DEE: Yeah, the Reo–Mabu manga is Misaki Saito. I believe that’s a woman. I know on the other things he’s worked on, the other companion pieces have all had female mangaka on them, so…
VRAI: Yeah, Morishima Akiko and Horishima Lily, I believe is the—
DEE: Hoshino Lily. Yeah.
VRAI: —famous BL… Yeah.
CHIAKI: Oh, yes! I know Hoshino.
DEE: Yeah, Hoshino did a lot of the stuff with Penguindrum, worked on that with him.
VRAI: It’s interesting to me, because I think one of the criticisms that gets sort of leveled at Ikuhara is that he is, as far as we know, a cis man who tends to write a lot about lesbians, which is, of course, what made this series catch so many people’s eyes, because it’s the first time he’s done a show that is predominantly about queer male desire. And also, nobody dies—or none of the good guys die, which I think we were all shocked about.
DEE: Yeah. Again, I don’t want to get too deep into his other stuff. It’s just sometimes it can be hard to talk about him without comparing it to his other works because he tends to cycle back around to similar themes and imagery. But I don’t want people listening to this because they watched Sarazanmai and haven’t seen any of his other stuff to be like “Why do you keep talking about Yurikuma? I haven’t seen it! You’re spoiling everything!”
VRAI: Fair enough. We will try to keep spoilers—
CHIAKI: You’re spoiling everything!
DEE: [Chuckles] So, I want to be careful because, yeah, Chiaki, it’d be fun if you checked out more of his stuff in the future, so I don’t want to necessarily give away endings and be like “And then everybody dies!” because that’s not accurate either.
DEE: But yeah, I think Sarazanmai is a little bit more straightforward exuberant by the end of things. I think Yurikuma is a very difficult watch, especially for the first three episodes, and then there’s a really good breath of fresh air in episode 4, and then you start to get a feel for what it’s doing, and I think it clicks really well from there out.
CHIAKI: I’ll definitely say, back in college, I was considering watching Yurikuma, and I dropped it the first episode because it was a hard watch. I was like “Eh, I’m okay with it.”
VRAI: I’m prepared to go out and say the first two episodes of Yurikuma are Bad, Actually! I do love that series, but boy!
DEE: Yeah. But I think Sarazanmai is more immediately joyful and locks you in with the characters themselves as opposed to the big broader themes, which can make it a bit more accessible.
I continue to argue that Utena is more accessible than a lot of people like to say it is, because I think it also does a good job of having fun early on and getting you to just care about the people, and then you can start digging into the big ideas as you go.
And I think Sarazanmai is somewhat similar to that, although boy, they sure do drop you straight into the transformation sequences and the butts. So many butts, right off the bat!
VRAI: Butts everywhere! But I think you’re right. It is definitely a case of Ikuhara really trying to be accessible. Each episode is a thesis statement. There’s a lot of deliberate labeling of “This is a metaphorical item. This is an allegory! I am an abstract concept!”
DEE: [Laughs] Yeah, when the big otter says that in the last episode, I just lost it. I just started cackling. I’m like “That’s it! That’s Ikuhara in a screenshot!” So good.
CHIAKI: You otter believe it!
CHIAKI: Yes. No, but I… for those who are listening, I just marathoned the entire series last night because I hadn’t rewatched it in months. And in rewatching it, I felt it was very tight as a story. Everything just… it doesn’t skip a beat. I think initially, when we were talking about the series when it was premiering, we said, “Ah, 11 episodes? Is that going to be okay?” But I feel it might have even been that Ikuhara said, “No, I only need 11 episodes. I don’t need 12.”
VRAI: Yeah. There are things it elides for sure, but it feels purposeful rather than “This is how much time we had. We gotta make it all fit.” I think there are lots of places where it could have expanded, but I’m definitely on team “I think this told exactly the story it wanted to tell, and there’s not a lot of extra.” But I know not everybody feels that way, which is fine, because I can definitely see wanting to spend more time with these characters and the kind of complicated relationships that they have.
How do you feel about the crossdressing stuff with Kazuki early on?
CHIAKI: I mean, I know there was a lot of talk about “Oh, is Kazuki trans?” or something like that initially, and definitely, it was a nice thought to have. But when I watched it, I was immediately keyed into “No, this isn’t trans.” This is just somebody who probably doesn’t want to be doing this is realizing it’s not his identity, but he’s doing it because, in a sense, he has to—in a way that kind of falls into a trans narrative. But at the same time, I didn’t get those vibes at all.
VRAI: I have a lot of characters that are certainly not canonically trans, but where that reading really speaks to me just because they’ll be disguising themselves to become this other person that’s more of themselves, whereas with Kazuki, he’s becoming this other person because he hates who he is and he feels like the real him doesn’t deserve this place in his family.
And it just felt qualitatively different to me emotionally—which is not to shame any of the people who really felt that connection to the character or have that headcanon. It’s just it was very odd to me to see people upset at the series for not pursuing that line of thought when to me it wasn’t coded that way from the get-go.
CHIAKI: Yeah. No, I agree with you there.
VRAI: Mm-hm. And with him, it gets into the whole… His storyline and Toi’s are very much about getting into that narrative of blood family versus chosen family. There have been a lot of shows about adoptive kids this last year, it felt like, even though there weren’t actually that many.
DEE: Yeah, I think it came up a fair bit.
VRAI: But it’s interesting in terms of this narrative that Ikuhara wants to talk about with bonds, because it’s framed a lot in terms of desire—and I think we’ll get to that concept of how it works with queerness and romantic relationships. But he also establishes this broader scope of “What is a connection?” Does it only count if it’s tied to this nature of assignment or duty or being naturally born into it?
Like, you have the kappa prince and that whole royal bloodlines thing, and you have Kazuki feeling like he doesn’t belong to his family because of his mother. And it’s interesting to see that woven in in such a way and also to this massive issue of guilt.
And I’m sort of just babbling incoherently. It’s fine.
DEE: [Chuckles] No, I know what you mean. Yeah, the whole concept of “I want to connect”—and I think the show touches on a wide variety of relationships, and certainly family is a huge part of that. And I do like that it doesn’t just stick to the kind of standard blood relatives as the best.
I feel like we’ve talked about this in a lot of different podcasts. It certainly is something that comes up a lot in anime, I think, partly because—and Chiaki, call me out if what I’m saying is completely off base—because the ties of blood family are still culturally a lot stronger and more highly lauded in Japan in general, as opposed to the US, where you definitely get that sort of family vibe but still that sense of “It’s okay to break away from your family if things aren’t working out,” I think is a little bit more common in Europe and the West.
As opposed to in Japan, there’s still very much this idea kind of baked into the culture from centuries that “No, but they’re your parents,” so you need to always forgive them and be loyal to them and listen to them and that kind of thing.
CHIAKI: That’s definitely a case. Family is not everything, but it’s definitely a strong bond in Japan, to the point bonds are so important to Japanese families because it also identifies you as a Japanese person. You are from that family. Citizenship is entirely based on you being on a family register of Japanese descent.
So, a lot of the times, being disowned, getting a divorce, those kinds of things are huge deals in Japanese culture, compared to… in American culture, you’re like “I don’t want to be married to you anymore; we can get a divorce,” or, you know, kids get thrown out. No, usually it’s “You’re in this family. And if you decide to leave, you’re more a shame to the family rather than no longer considered a part of the family.”
DEE: No, no, no, I think that makes total sense. And so yeah, so I think it gets explored a lot in Japanese media, especially young adult media. And it definitely feels like there’s been an uptick recently, with Stars Align coming out as well this past year.
There’s some stories I’ve seen come out, like in Your Lie in April, there’s a parent who is straight-up abusive, and the story goes out of its way to excuse her and kind of forgive her, and it’s very uncomfortable the way they do it. And that’s not to say that you can’t have a relationship… You know what I mean? I’m not trying to say that it’s totally wrong to try to repair those relationships with family members or what have you. But the way the series plays it is very much like “Well, obviously, this person just had your best interest in the heart.” It’s like “No, no, no, they were straight-up abusing you.”
And so I do like that in some of these more modern stories, like in Sarazanmai and Stars Align, there is more of a push back against that thread in media, so that… You know, Toi’s brother sucks. And I think the show does a good job of showing how much he sucks while still being very sympathetic to the fact that Toi still wants to be connected to him because they are brothers. (I feel like this is word salad, what I’m saying.)
But at the same time, the found family is clearly the healthiest part of Toi’s life. Getting to know Kazuki and Enta is clearly the thing that is helping him more than his shitty brother. And I think the narrative throws that through… And then you kinda have the same thing with Kazuki, where he suddenly feels like he doesn’t belong with his family because they’re not related by blood, but then as the series goes on, he and Haruka have a very close relationship despite not being full-blood siblings, and then he’s able to kind of repair those bonds with his adoptive parents as well.
So yeah, I think that’s kind of a running thread throughout the series, is, again, these different connections that don’t necessarily have to be the traditional bonds. They can be, but they don’t have to be.
VRAI: I rewatched a couple episodes because I was finishing up the dub, which is stupendous, by the way. If you’re into dubs at all, absolutely check this one out.
DEE: [crosstalk] It’s a really good dub.
VRAI: It’s an amazing dub.
DEE: They killed it with the songs. They killed it! I was so pleased with the dub.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Oh my god! They’re so incredibly hummable!
DEE: They really are.
VRAI: Like dangerously hummable. It’s amazing!
DEE: [crosstalk] Oh yes. They stick in my head.
VRAI: Well, I was surprised to find myself feeling a little bit softer towards Chikai by the fourth time I’d watched that episode.
VRAI: But it’s interesting… The show does go in on the whole “Well, he was doing all of this to try and separate you from him because he doesn’t want you to get dragged down into this.” It does play to those beats mostly so that you can understand why Toi cares about him, but it ultimately doesn’t matter because he still fucked his brother up a lot by doing all of this!
DEE: Yeah, and this is, I think, true of a lot of Ikuhara’s works, where even the characters who suck, there’s a humanity to them. You can kind of sympathize with them and see where they came from, even if you don’t agree with the methodology that they ended up using.
And Chikai, I think, is definitely one of those characters where… Yeah, watching it through a second time, there were a lot of things I liked about Sarazanmai more than I did the first time through. And that relationship, I think, ties better together once you kind of know where it’s going.
VRAI: If I remember right, you liked it okay, but you weren’t as rapturously into it as I was.
DEE: I would have these really high peaks where it felt like everything was coming together really well, like the kind of midway point where Kazuki and friends have to go rescue Haruka and they have that big, emotional reunion. I thought that worked really, really well. I was all in for the first two, three episodes, like when we were starting to get their backstories. And then I struggled with bits and pieces. And then I thought the stuff with Reo and Mabu at the end was really good, but it just didn’t quite feel like stuff was tying together.
And I still kind of have an issue with Toi’s arc in that it feels… How do I put this? Not just Toi. I think every character’s story feels familiar in a way that I don’t love. Like, “the older brother who got involved with the mob.” It’s kind of like it’s picking up these traditional melodrama beats, and I think it ends up taking them in some kind of unique directions, but I wasn’t particularly surprised that Chikai died because that’s kind of the way those story beats tend to go. Protecting his brother… That’s how that story goes.
I think we’ve all seen the story of the person who feels guilty for an accident that was only marginally their fault, that hurt somebody else, which is kind of what we see with Kazuki and Haruka. Although I do appreciate that this series doesn’t go the “poor, suffering invalid Haruka” route. Haruka’s doing okay. Kazuki’s the one who can’t seem to cope with the current reality they’re in.
Yeah, so watching it through the first time, I think I kept getting hung up on that. Also, spring 2019 was so fucking stressful for me for a lot of reasons. And so, just in general, I was having a hard time gelling with a lot of media because there was so much else going on.
So I’m glad I rewatched it over Christmas and was able to binge it and I watched the dub, and yeah, I enjoyed it a lot more the second time. I think some of my issues with the sort of… “cliche” is not exactly the word, but archetypal beats, I think is still there, but I think the way that the series pulls them off makes me care less about that.
VRAI: Yeah. That is completely fair. I don’t know how I missed the really upsetting suicide subtext in the last episode before, by the way! Was just rewatching that this afternoon.
DEE: Mm-hm. What do you mean?
VRAI: Because everybody else cuts themselves off, but Toi gets a gun and is told to… and the dub translates it in this really upsetting way where it’s like “Put a bullet in your younger self.” It’s like, “Jesus! Okay! This is about depression and suicide. Okay, okay, okay, okay!”
DEE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you mean.
VRAI: There was something about the way the English version did it that really clicked that element of it to me.
CHIAKI: I feel in a sense, that’s also what people who are contemplating suicide do, which is cutting yourself off from all your support. You isolate yourself so that you can say, “Well, I don’t have any other options, so therefore, I can go.” So I think it was definitely… Him systematically going through and erasing himself… It fits the way people who are contemplating suicide may think.
VRAI: Mm-hm. Yeah, there’s something about that particular element of his character arc clicking together that really… I think that’s true with all three of the boys in particular, is that there’s some nugget to each of their characters that does what you were talking about, Dee, that takes these archetypal things and gives them this very human element that I think gives it more than the sum of its parts.
DEE: Yeah, and I kind of wonder because Haruka’s—
VRAI: [crosstalk] Like my beautiful trash son? [Chuckles]
DEE: Oh, sorry. Enta?
DEE: Do you want to talk about Enta?
VRAI: No. Yes. No, no. No, no, carry on first. Carry on. We can talk about Enta any time.
DEE: [crosstalk] Oh, I think all I was gonna say was … I think I was just gonna agree with you and then say that… Watching it a second time, I started to think that maybe that was more intentional than I thought it was the first time through, because Ikuhara does like to play with traditional or well-worn story types and archetypes and then spin them in new directions.
I’m not sure it was as obviously challenging archetypes this time through as his other stuff has been, which is why it maybe took me a little bit longer to get on board with it rather than thinking he’s just repeating the thing, he’s not doing anything new with the thing. But yeah, I think the way it came together and the way the characters wind up having more pathos than I think a lot of those, again, melodrama archetypes do.
Which is the segue, Vrai, for you to talk about your trash son, Enta, the archetypal “boy who’s in love with his best friend” story. Go.
VRAI: I love my trash— People get mad about Enta and I love him!
CHIAKI: Yeah, I’m one of those mad people. But go ahead.
DEE: Oh, no, we’re gonna have a fight about Enta.
VRAI: No, get it all out first. We’re gonna have to fight about Enta!
VRAI: Carry on.
CHIAKI: No, I mean, I feel he’s, out of the three, the least redeemable in a sense. I know he’s messy and he’s supposed to be messy, but… I don’t know. It’s knowing how self-destructive, how much he lashes out kind of just made me mad. At least with Toi, I’m like “You’re straight up a bad person sometimes, but you have a reason. Enta, you’re just sad that Kazuki won’t look at you. And that’s some toxic things you got right there. And I’m kind of mad at you.”
VRAI: I mean, you’re not wrong. The thing is that you’re not wrong at all.
VRAI: And maybe it’s because I see myself so much in Enta at that age. There’s something very 14 about putting on that very unaffected, friendly demeanor while secretly being a little bit shitty and selfish and extremely self-sabotaging and jealous and just this cocktail of emotions that you don’t know how to deal with.
Because yeah, he sucks! He sucks for a lot of the run. But he’s also, I think, the character who comes the farthest and is the bravest one when he’s explicitly handed the option to do anything.
Toi needs to be pulled out of it. Kazuki kind of comes along slowly throughout the story. But Enta explicitly makes that choice that “I could have this selfish thing that I want, but I don’t want it because I’m not going to throw away all of our development and this relationship that we have for something that I now know wouldn’t make us happy; it would make me happy.”
And that’s an incredible leap to make for a 14-year-old. He’s the Nanami of this series. He’s my boy. I’m so proud of him.
CHIAKI: Happy for you, Vrai.
VRAI: Ikuhara always has a character like that. I think it’s why I’m probably gonna end up liking Ringo in Penguindrum if I don’t miss my guess.
DEE: You’re not wrong. Yeah, there’s usually a character who… And the thing that really helps with a lot of Ikuhara stuff is his characters are usually somewhere between 14 and 16, which is the age where I think you can do messy, shitty things and there’s definitely still a lot of time to grow from them.
And to Sarazanmai’s credit, Enta definitely gets punished pretty routinely for the shitty things he does throughout the show. So I think it’s one of those things where it never feels like the narrative is condoning his possessiveness and jealousy and the sabotaging he does both of others and himself. I don’t see Sarazanmai saying that when Enta’s behaving that way it’s okay.
But like you said, I think that he does end up having an arc where he sort of comes to terms with “Why did I even do that? Actually I care about Toi, and even if I didn’t, Kazuki does, and I’m being extremely selfish and petty.” And yeah, like you said, to make that choice at the end where he could have the thing he desired and he realizes, “Well, no, this isn’t just about me. That would be overriding somebody else’s will, and I’m not going to do that.”
VRAI: That’s an incredible thing to realize at that age. It’s so hard to realize that relationships are a balance of multiple people’s wants and not just managing other people’s emotions so that you get the thing that you want.
I was a shitty teenager, you guys.
CHIAKI: Oh, that’s fair. That is very fair. I’ll agree with you there.
VRAI: Yeah. And like Dee said, the fact that he is kind of the comedy punching bag is very Ikuhara. And I don’t know. I feel extra protective of him, I think, because people were going in hard on “Oh, he’s abusive and he’s shitty, and he doesn’t deserve Kazuki!” And I’m like “The narrative is already kicking the shit out of him. Can’t you save this ire for adults that the show thinks are great when they’re explicitly abusive to people? Can we calm down? Please?”
Dee, you mentioned earlier the show taking a slightly less radical bent on some of the archetypes than some of his other shows have done. And I think you’re right, and I think it’s because it saved its big chit to only do that with Reo and Mabu’s arc. That’s the only one where I think, “Ah, this is the most Ikuhara-core…”
DEE: Yeah, and I think that’s why that’s the one that, especially the first time through, was the one that was at the most immediately clear to me what was going on there; whereas the other characters, it took a little bit longer to figure out what he was fiddling with, with their arcs. Yeah, Reo and Mabu. Talk about Reo and Mabu, you guys.
VRAI: I love them. I wrote a whole essay about them.
DEE: You did, yeah. Well, because they’re kind of—
CHIAKI: [crosstalk] Good boys.
DEE: What were you saying, Chiaki?
CHIAKI: Oh, they good boys.
DEE: [Chuckles] Well, I mean, they’re not—
VRAI: Reo’s not!
DEE: They kinda do very bad things throughout the course of this series. It’s why they have to die—
VRAI: All cops are indeed bastards.
DEE: It’s why they have to die and be reincarnated. You have to die and be reincarnated if you’re a bad guy who gets better through love, usually queer love. Reo and Mabu kind of remind me of the Amazon Trio in Sailor Moon SuperS, in terms of—
VRAI: Oh, I love them!
DEE: Yeah, characters who do unquestionably terrible things and then sort of have a redemption arc. And they get a happy ending, but they’re gonna have to start from scratch. [Chuckles] So yeah. Yeah, they’re shitty cops. I’m glad they stop being cops. I’m glad they get their little metaphorical rebirth and…
VRAI: Ikuhara knows what’s up with the cops. By far the scariest moment in the series is when Enta’s in the hospital and Kazuki’s desperately like “No, you don’t understand! It was the cops!” And they’re like “No, no, it was this criminal.” That scene is so upsetting if you are any kind of marginalized person. It’s some fraught shit.
CHIAKI: [crosstalk] Especially in Japan, especially if you’re talking about Japanese cops, which are… You don’t question them. They know who’s guilty.
VRAI: Yeah. I think Ikuhara is definitely pointing a rather pointed finger at that, especially with the fact that I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen an anime with weed in it.
DEE: Yeah, I can’t really think of another one where it’s shown up quite as obviously as it does here. I think I can definitely think of some shows where you see characters smoking and it’s like “That could be pot.” But yeah, there’s no question in this one.
CHIAKI: No, I just remember that bong hit Fujiko did.
VRAI: Oh, that was good.
DEE: Okay, there we are.
VRAI: That is a great GIF! But that wasn’t a TV anime; that was an OVA, so it’s okay for them to be edgy.
CHIAKI: I see.
VRAI: Yeah, I think that’s maybe… “Underappreciated” doesn’t feel right. That feels like not giving the audience enough credit. People noticed it, but this is a show where the police are the systemic evil that are ruining our main characters’ lives! That is not nothing.
DEE: Yeah, and basically going around and murdering people with fetishes. Which, to be fair, some of those fetishes are harmful. They are creepy and they are messing with other people’s lives. But some of them are just fetishes. Everyone involved would be a consenting adult. And they make no distinction. It’s aberrant, so it has to be extracted for the Otter Empire’s personal gain.
VRAI: Yeah. There’s a lot in here about the commodification of desire, like between the Amazon—excuse me—the Kappazon boxes and the fact that Reo and Mabu get repurposed after they’ve been horribly traumatized by war to… Essentially, they’ve been given this great opportunity as long as they work against their own communities. As long as they become part of the system, it’s fine! [Pause] It’s not fine.
DEE: Yeah, it’s… I’m not… I agree with you that those are definitely pointed elements of the story. I’m not sure Sarazanmai comes together at the end as strongly on that front as it does some of its other ideas. I think it ends up being more of a background element in favor of just the story of these three boys trying to get through life and make connections with one another and with other people. But again, it’s definitely there.
One of my minor disappointments with Sarazanmai is it feels like it’s building up this big idea about exploitation through The Powers That Be and, like you said, the commodification of kink or marginalized identities with… You know, Reo and Mabu can be together as long as they never say they love each other.
Which feels like a very pointed—Vrai, I think this is kind of what your article was about too—it feels like a very pointed critique of a lot of fiction outside of the specific Boys’ Love genre, where it’s like: these two are clearly a couple, but they can’t kiss and they can’t say “I love you,” because then that runs up against broadcasting standards or what society deems appropriate or however…
VRAI: Plausible deniability.
DEE: Yeah, however you want to word it. I think you can definitely see that with Reo and Mabu’s backstory about how they’ll die if they… the fact that they will literally die if they use The Love Word, which is always one of the big points with these heavily queer-coded stories. So I think that in itself is a really good sort of self-contained arc.
But there’s a lot of these other background elements involving the Kappazon boxes and things that don’t really feel like they go anywhere. Do you know what I mean? Do you disagree with me? If I’m missing something, tell me.
VRAI: I don’t think you’re wrong, is the thing. I think the reason it still works for me is that it feels like a generational story, like this success by increments.
There’s this very deliberate paralleling between Mabu and Enta, where Mabu says, “Well, okay, I’ll say I hate him because clearly I can show that I love him through my actions, and it’ll be okay.” And it was not okay because Reo’s kind of shitty. And then Enta very pointedly has that line, “Even joking, I couldn’t say that I hate you.” He has that ever so slightly firmer stance, and it makes this world of difference.
So I think… You know, Utena is an untouchable masterpiece. But as much as that series is about breaking down the whole system, it’s ultimately about “You can’t bring down the system; you can only revolutionize yourself.” And I feel like there’s that same ethos in Sarazanmai, especially with the last speech and all of that.
So, that really worked for me, but I also don’t think you’re wrong that it felt like it was going towards this more cataclysmic place and then kind of didn’t and then ended up being this very personal conclusion.
DEE: Yeah. And maybe part of that is just that… Because I think a lot of Ikuhara’s works critique a particular element of society and then end up rejecting that in favor of, usually, things like personal connections and emotional honesty and whatnot. And honestly, this could be one of those where it was like “Well, this time I’m trying to tackle the foundation of capitalist society itself.” That one’s kind of big! You know what I mean?
VRAI: A little bit! Yeah!
DEE: Because a lot of his other stories deal with issues like bigotry, which, as complex and massive of a problem as that is, at the end of the day “stop hating other people for being themselves” is a relatively straightforward… Do you know what I mean? It’s not easy in practice, but the big, broad answer there is relatively straightforward.
Whereas I think with this one, because it’s so deeply laced in the characters’ lives… There’s a lot of images of modern society and the Kappazon boxes and the commodification of desire, but then at the same time, you do have the characters connecting using their smartphones. And so, it’s so much bigger and more complex that he may have gotten to the end of that and went, “Uh, I don’t know. Let’s just try to be good to each other. Let’s just start with that.”
VRAI: Be excellent to each other! End of series.
DEE: Basically. I don’t know. Chiaki, did you pull much out of those elements that were flying around in the story?
CHIAKI: I mean, in the end—and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it—they change Asakusa into kappa territory and frog territory. The kappa are gone. And I feel like it’s supposed to mean something, I’m guessing. But I’m still not sure exactly what they were trying to go for. Maybe the war is won and everyone’s happy, so everyone can go home now. I don’t know. I highly doubt that’s the case, especially when, as you said, in critiquing capitalist systems and all that, the systemic route is still there, and it’s just been replaced by something else.
VRAI: Yeah. All he could think to do was end with the otter fading away, “I’m always with you!” Okay, Ikuni!
DEE: Yeah, the otter doesn’t get nearly as soundly defeated as I think a lot of the… Which again, left me feeling like there was a little bit more of a catharsis that I think I wanted and I didn’t quite get. But, again, I think that also maybe just speaks to the big, complicated nature of what the series is trying to push back against and the fact that at a certain point, they’re 14-year-old kids. They can’t topple the entire system as they are now.
But “keep holding onto those connections and trying to understand other people and don’t give up”—that’s kind of the lesson of the story, right? “It’s gonna hurt but keep going because it’s going to be worth it.”
Which is good. I think it’s good the direction it takes the characters in the story and the fact that Toi jumps into the river but then Enta and Kazuki are there to pull him out again, and that sense of… In the little future snippets we see of what the world could be like, it’s not like we’re gonna magically solve our problems. We’re gonna keep having problems, and we might continue to get into fights. But we can work through that together. Which, you know, I think all of that is good.
VRAI: Yeah, I think there was a lot of readings, shall we say, of the flashforward stuff. I kind of like it as this potential “Here is what would have happened to the three of you if you hadn’t had this transformative understanding” type thing. But also, I’m sure at the same time the emotion of that… Like you said, they will still fight. It will still be hard, but you have to keep going.
I feel like Ikuhara got depressed at some point. There are very strong Evangelion [episode] 26 emotions to some of these last beats.
DEE: Yeah, I could see that. Yeah, I see kind of what you mean there. I liked the way this one did it better because this one didn’t feel like it was trying to solve depression.
DEE: This one felt like it was going, “We’re not gonna be able to solve it in a 11-episode anime. We’re just going to try to give you a few tools that you can use going forward.” So, I think this one gelled a little bit better for me because of that.
Oh, there was something else I was gonna say about the ending, and then just on a personal note: I was a little sad because I kind of wanted a canon poly ending. Just based on the imagery in the—
VRAI: OT3 good!
DEE: There was so much trio’s imagery throughout the series, and I kept thinking, “Oh, maybe we’re actually going to go that route in an Ikuhara show.” And then I think it really went more for a “No, these are three really good friends and they’re kind of a family with each other.” I didn’t really get the vibe that it was going to end up being a romance. I hope Enta finds somebody, but I don’t think it’s going to be Kazuki.
DEE: Oh, Vrai, you disagree!
VRAI: All I’m saying is that… [Chuckles] No. Because I think the found family stuff is really strong and sweet and the most important part, especially because they were 14 and you’re children and you don’t know anything. But also, if I had to pick just a ship, Enta and Toi have extremely strong Duck and Fakir energy, and I’m here for it.
VRAI: But also, I don’t think the ending shuts out a poly interpretation, just because so much of the later language when they’re older is still extremely romance-coded, in that flashforward stuff.
DEE: Mm-hm. Yeah. Are you talking about the possibilities section, where they’re like “These are things that could happen,” or are you talking about the very, very end when Toi gets out of juvie?
VRAI: Yeah, the possibilities section.
DEE: Well, in that section, Enta gets rejected. He confesses to Kazuki and Kazuki turns him down. So, that’s why I kind of got the read the series wasn’t gonna go that route. Which again, it’s okay. And I wouldn’t say that it’s 100% not going to happen. I kind of wanted it to go that route, and it didn’t, and I was a little bit bummed.
But I think it really helps that Reo and Mabu exist in the story as a canon queer relationship, so even if these 14-year-olds end up with other people and what they have is a friendship bond, that’s also important and good, and it’s not like we’re erasing queer folks, because there’s other queer folks in the story.
VRAI: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. You’re definitely not wrong at all, and it would have been nice to see it be more explicit on that front. It’s one of those cases of, eh, I think the coding is still there, but it’s coding.
DEE: No—my friend, when I finished Sarazanmai, she asked me what I thought of it. And I was like: “Honestly, wasn’t gay enough.” [Through laughter] And she just started cracking up. And I was like “Oh, no!” And that was immediately upon finishing. Having rewatched it, I don’t think I quite believe that anymore! But that was where I was right when I finished it. She was like, “I watched the first episode. Really? Wasn’t gay enough for you?” I was like, “I don’t know!”
VRAI: Oh, Chiaki, thoughts. Gay enough?
CHIAKI: You know, when I finished watching the series, it reminded me of Jonny “The Gay Pimp” McGovern’s song “Soccer Practice.”
DEE: [crosstalk; giddily] “Soccer Practice”!
DEE: Thank you! I’m so glad we got a reference to that in the podcast.
CHIAKI: [crosstalk] You know, this show really isn’t about soccer really, is it?
DEE: I don’t think they’re talking about soccer at all!
CHIAKI: [Laughs] And you’re right, because… No, so, the future concept of them playing soccer together, I felt, is more looking into their own interpersonal relationships moving forward, rather than just their actual, literal future. And I felt that there was still that very strong sense of… There might be some romanticism or romantic emotion still kind of tangled up into it, and it’s left a little unresolved, and I’m wondering if that’s really something that needs to be resolved, per se.
DEE: Yeah, I agree. Again, upon further reflection, like Vrai said, they’re 14. I don’t think we need to be told that they’re going to be together forever and ever at this point. It would be weird if they were, truthfully. Well, not weird—it wouldn’t be unusual for them to not, and it’s a little strange with characters who are that young to say, “No, definitely, they’re soulmates.” So I think leaving the door open is a better, smarter way to handle that story arc.
So, yeah, I do agree with you, though I kind of like this idea of, what you’re saying here, soccer as sort of a grand metaphor for their relationships with each other.
VRAI: That’s good and I like it. I approve.
CHIAKI: No, yeah, because it’s kind of what brought them together. So, it doesn’t necessarily have to be soccer, but Enta treats his connection to Kazuki through playing soccer as the crux of all of his emotions, all of his desire for being with Kazuki. And then also Toi inviting Kazuki to… or giving Toi the miçanga also is the way they connected. It could have been something else. It could have been… Yeah, it could be literally anything else, but it’s just the matter that these three boys were connected through a sport that requires teamwork, and they’re kind of floundering when they’re not working together.
DEE: Yeah, I like that. I think that’s a really good read on especially how the soccer imagery continues to be used and the idea of passing the ball back and forth as they… God, that would be… Now I want to rewatch it and pay closer attention to how they use soccer throughout, because I think that’s… You know, I was lowkey aware that soccer was part of their relationship, but the idea of it being more tightly connected to reading how they’re feeling about each other, I think that’s really neat. I like that a lot.
I have seen some folks online talk about how it seems like it’s maybe playing with… So many sports manga have these romantic undertones that a lot of readers read into them, even though it’s about rivalries and teamwork and friendship. It’s not uncommon for people watching them to read those romantic relationships—and as of recording this, I’m watching Number24, which is extremely unsubtle about it! And some shows are. In some shows, it’s maybe almost accidental; other shows, it seems intentional and subtle; and other shows, it seems intentional and not subtle at all.
And so for Sarazanmai to straight-up say, “They’re teammates, and also Enta is in love with him,” explicitly just throw that out there, is maybe another way that the series is kind of playing with these common archetypes in not just the BL genre but more that… In fact, not even specifically the BL genre, but more that gray area that exists in anime and manga where it’s queer-coded but not explicit in the same way we’re talking about Reo and Mabu, with the soccer being a part of that as well. Yeah, I should see if I can track down that article, and we can link to it because it was a pretty neat reading of it.
VRAI: It was on AniGay. I could dig it up and leave it in a Links post at some point.
DEE: [crosstalk] I think you’re right, yeah. Okay, cool. Yeah, Chiaki, I like that reading of that final scene.
CHIAKI: And also, just speaking on Enta, when he’s messing up the practice space each night, I think that’s also speaking to how he doesn’t want to confront his relationship with Kazuki and Toi, and that’s why he’s self-sabotaging. Because I’ve been there. I don’t want to talk about my relationship or something, so you’ll just be like, “Oh. Oops, there’s other things we gotta do.”
VRAI: Right, well, and not just… If he messes it up, then they always have to continue recreating that happy day of them all coming together to fix this thing. They don’t have to move forward from there. They can just have the thing that he knows is a good time.
DEE: That’s a much nicer way to read it, Vrai, than the way I read that scene, which was I read it as Enta doesn’t want to share Kazuki with Toi, so he keeps messing up the spot and hopes they’ll give up, and they keep saying, “No, no, no, this relationship is important to us. We’re going to continue to repair it even though somebody out there keeps trying to stop us from playing soccer together.”
VRAI: I don’t think that is an incorrect or unsupported reading, but I think… maybe it’s because I ship them a little bit, but I think that Enta likes having Toi around but he doesn’t know how to quantify those emotions because he’s devoted to Kazuki and Toi is this asshole who is trying to take Kazuki’s attention, but “he’s kind of fun to have around and argue with, and I can be shitty at him when I have to be adoring and enthusiastic and supportive for Kazuki all the time. Oh, no, what do?”
DEE: I could see that. No, and I do agree that Enta is jealous of Toi and possessive of Kazuki, but especially by that midpoint, where the two of them work together to help Kazuki reach Haruka, I think at that point there’s definitely a part of him that cares about Toi even though he doesn’t want to admit it. So, yeah, no, I could see that.
VRAI: This series is good actually! Not perfect, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because it’s so perfectly made for me. It’s super gay and it’s really pretty and super surreal, and also it’s a musical!
DEE: Because of course it is.
VRAI: It’s so perfectly made for me and all the things that I like, and I will never be able to not love it intensely.
DEE: And that is good and I am glad.
VRAI: [Laughs] And I am glad that both of you humored me after pestering you for months to do a retrospective podcast.
DEE: No, I’m glad you did because I had been wanting to rewatch it when I was maybe in a less fraught place and see if my issues with it were actual issues or if I was just stressed out and wasn’t enjoying anything at the time. So I’m glad I got a chance to rewatch it.
I think it is like most Ikuhara joints: it rewards rewatches. I think you see the threads better when you know where things are going. And now I have a good reason to watch it again, to pay closer attention to the soccer imagery, so thank you for that, Chiaki.
VRAI: You know, Chikai gives Toi a soccer ball and he gives it away when he cuts himself off to be a tough crime boy, except he leaves that thing with Kazuki and… This metaphor has legs!
DEE: It’s very good. There should be essays. [Chuckles]
CHIAKI: If you’d like to write about this, feel free to pitch to AnimeFeminist.com. [Laughs]
DEE: No, actually, you are right. We are almost always accepting pitches. Every so often we do have to close them down because we have an influx, but usually we’re accepting pitches.
VRAI: Does anybody have any final thoughts on the show before I kind of wrap us up?
CHIAKI: Nope. I think—
VRAI: All right! [Chuckles]
CHIAKI: Yeah, no, I’m just happy.
DEE: No, I think I’m good.
CHIAKI: I’m happy with having had this opportunity to really revisit this series and have an opportunity to really have a second look, because yeah, it definitely helped.
VRAI: Chiaki, we’re gonna do a Penguindrum watchalong. It’ll be fun!
CHIAKI: Oh no. I gotta watch Utena first.
DEE: And you’ll have to do a Penguindrum Re-watchalong because, once again, it will reward you upon second viewing!
VRAI: Heck, yes. Listeners, if you want to tell us which Ikuhara shows to podcast more about, do email us.
CHIAKI: Only if y’all agree to doing a watchalong with one of my trash shows.
VRAI: We’re not watching How Not to Summon a Demon Lord. I already suffered through enough of that.
CHIAKI: [crosstalk] Dammit! [Chuckles] Dammit.
VRAI: So, thank you for joining us, AniFam. If you liked what you heard, you can find more episodes of this podcast by searching SoundCloud or your podcatcher of choice for Chatty AF or going to our website, www.animefeminist.com.
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And that about does it for this time. Until next time, remember: you don’t actually have to choose between love and desire— Fuck, I forgot to talk about that! That was important!
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