Content Warning: NSFW images
What’s it about? ERROR 404 FILE NOT FOUND. Probably a metaphor or some shit (definitely a metaphor or some shit).
Hold on, let me try that again.
What’s it about? BUTTSBUTTSBUTTSBUTTSBUTTSBUTTSBUTTSBUTTSBUTTSBUTTSBUTTS
Wait, no. Sorry, that’s four years of pent-up Waiting-For-Ikuhara Energy talking. For real this time.
What’s it about? Kazuki lives his life by three rules: he has a box he must always carry with him, he must listen to the Lucky Selfie fortunes broadcast on Sara TV, and he must send a selfie to a certain girl every day. When he’s cornered by angry punk Toi in a case of mistaken identity, the two accidentally release the Prince of the Kappas from a statue…only to anger him and wind up as kappa themselves. Now their only way to become human again is to defeat zombies by removing their shirikodama (an organ containing a person’s soul and desires, located in the anus).
I’m sorry in advance, because getting a levelheaded review of an Ikuhara anime from me is basically impossible—Revolutionary Girl Utena has been way too important to my life, and Ikuhara’s style has a direct feed to my brain’s weirdness filters. It is Made for Me.
What I can stay is that, like all successful auteurs, from Hideo Kojima to Soubi Yamamoto, Ikuhara’s stylistic quirks and pet themes have only gotten more pronounced as his career’s gone on. And while Sarazanmai is breathtaking, it’s also a veritable wallop to the face.
If you found 2015’s Yurikuma Arashi too obtuse, too weird, or too aggressively sexual, you’re gonna want to turn around here (although the tone of this premiere is much less bleak than the horror-inspired Yurikuma, for what that’s worth). With only eleven episodes to fit the story into, this premiere has elected to pack itself so dense with metaphors that it practically chokes, and a second viewing is all but required. It’s a very active watching experience, which is not everyone’s cup of tea (and that’s okay!).
Loaded images cross the screen at a mile a minute—crowds reduced to faceless figures, omnipresent
Amazon Kappazon boxes, otters, ominously vague messages—all inviting the viewer to speculate about deeper meaning. Long-time Ikuhara viewers likely know that’s impossible at this point, as his shows frequently rely on a late-stage re-contextualizing reveal before all the pieces come together.
The only solution I can offer, I’m afraid, is to simply strap in for the ride. There’s no guarantee the series can pull off an elegant, completely satisfying conclusion over only eleven episodes (certainly I’ve never seen one that has), but the component parts are so breathtaking that it’s a little hard to care.
Its color scheme is rich and vivid without being painful, and it stretches its visual style to convey jumps in time and perception, media framing, and peeks into the inner self with aplomb. It is hands-down the most gorgeous anime of the season, and every few minutes it would surprise me with something unexpected or arresting—particularly its handling of bodies.
Yes, we’ve reached the BUUUUUUUUTTS portion of the review. I think everyone (correctly) presumed this series would be homoerotic once kappa were announced as a story element, but I assure you that doesn’t prepare you for the actual execution. The sheer parade of buttholes across the screen—tiny farting mascot buttholes, deep and meaningful silhouette buttholes, giant glowing buttholes covered in viscous goop—is sort of awe-inspiring, if not a little laughable.
This premiere frames its premise largely as absurd comedy, but (and here’s where I get into hopeful speculation) I have my doubts that it’ll keep that irreverent tone. When the main trio performs the titular “sarazanmai,” they gain the ability to see into one another’s hearts, and the episode finally takes on a sense of weight and anguish. Connecting with others, after all, can be as frightening as it is life-sustaining.
When it’s revealed that Kazuki has been dressing as TV idol Sara, it’s not a wacky reveal meant to make him the butt (sorry) of the joke. His friend(s?) react badly, and we’re pulled tightly into his perspective as he huddles over the box containing his other clothes. It’s the crucial moment at which the series reveals its capacity for empathy and not just weirdness, something the show will need in order to be worth the ride.
I’m leery of declaring that Kazuki’s arc will include coming out as a trans girl, because he states that he’s been dressing as Sara to form a connection with a young child called Harukappa (big blinking sign reading THIS IS SIGNFICANT goes here). When anime introduces genderfluid and crossdressing characters specifically by tying their presentation to a relationship, it tends to mean that it’s going to be something they “get over” (hello again, Fushigi Yugi; and to you, Fruits Basket).
I would love to be wrong about this, mind you (and Ikuhara has a better track record with gender stuff than a lot of anime directors), but I am a jaded soul who’s gotten their hopes up about a lot of anime and manga that ultimately weren’t on my side. So, this is me, gently encouraging fellow trans viewers to calibrate their expectations so they don’t get hurt.
The series isn’t cruel to Kazuki, but I’m not certain it views his experience as a trans one either. And because this is a story explicitly about identity and coming of age, it might be more difficult to work in a headcanon that papers over the story’s (possible) shortcomings.
That dark cloud aside, this is a must-watch for anyone who’s been a fan of Ikuhara’s previous works, anyone who enjoys anime that fully embraces the medium’s capacity to do unique things, and anyone looking to have their brain utterly fried by oddity. However it turns out, I’m strapped in for the next ten weeks.