One day, while listening to a friend speak about music, he remarked that he often dislikes listening to strings only. He was quick to add that this was a personal preference, but expanded on the statement by saying that he prefers a mixture of piano and strings. In his mind, the presence of a piano keeps the strings grounded.
Similarly, I can say the same thing for an anime series directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, where the grounded narrative serves to enhance any symbolism or subtext that arises and relate to the viewer immediately. In the first episode of Mawaru Penguindrum, one can find a simple story of two brothers treating their terminally-ill sister to a day of her own at the aquarium. The penguins, survival strategies, and monologues regarding fate are placed strategically around this setup. Utena Tenjou’s scenario is arranged as a fairytale in Revolutionary Girl Utena. She searches for the prince of her childhood while that prince serves as inspiration for saving a classmate from perceived abuse. This tale comes with setpieces, a Greek chorus, and daily after school duels with the student council.
With its more airy trappings, Yuri Kuma Arashi‘s first episode lacks a similar foothold to ground the production as a whole. Kureha Tsubaki’s search for her missing classmate – and lover – Sumika Izumino, is intrinsically tied to the supernatural elements of the story.
This narrative gains traction not from what Kureha does – she takes little action – but what it sets around her. Pictured above is the overall setting of the world, complete with a wall separating the alien bears from humans. There’s a sense of industry choking out the greenery and active deforestation.
As the series peers closer into Kureha’s immediate surroundings, the buildings become slightly warmer in color while remaining distinctly angular. The number of trees increases around her school, Arashigaoka Academy.
Kureha’s lily garden, which also serves as a meeting place with Sumika, grows in front of homey pink building. Rather than pushing nature out, it is embraced by vines.
When Kureha and Sumika meet up on the roof for lunch, they look out at the cityscape, which is made slightly more distant through atmospheric perspective. It places hominess side by side with industry. There is still an ominous sense of encroachment; however, the couple’s warmth staves it off.
Against this backdrop, Kureha and Sumika are noticeably the only two people – aside from the humanized bears, Ginko Yurishiro and Lulu Yurigasaki – who show any genuine affection for one another. Based on the limited scope of their conversations, their time together is limited, and their relationship is presumably frowned upon by others.
Interestingly, what social mores we are introduced to within Yuri Kuma Arashi‘s first episode push the girls to stick together against the alien bears. Their teacher urges them to pair up and use a buddy system, all while Kureha and Sumika’s classmates are shown as a generic pattern, devoid of individuality. When the entire class is in view, both Sumika and Kureha are conspicuously located in a row of their own, seated at the back of the classroom.
Following the mysterious destruction of Kureha’s lily garden, student council president Mitsuko Yurizono stumbles upon the couple and awkwardly attempts to make friends. Although her efforts are seemingly genuine, her actions are stunted, both by the lack of animation and her placement in relation to Sumika and Kureha. In the shot above, Mitsuko’s feet are noticeably distant, enhancing the closeness of Sumika and Kureha. Sumika is shocked when Mitsuko reaches out and touches her hand, indicating that touching another person is generally frowned upon. There is a transfer of dirt from Sumika’s fingertips to Mitsuko’s, reiterating the presence of nature.
It is only sincere affection – Mitsuko touching Sumika’s hand, Sumika and Kureha as lovers – that is taboo in the world of Yuri Kuma Arashi. When Sumika vanishes after a bear attack, the mantra that one needs friends to survive is spouted by the convenient mouthpieces of Arashigaoka Academy students. As various classmates whisper about Sumika’s demise, they are always shown in pairs or threes.
Additionally, in the majority of the establishing shots, students are also shown in twos and threes.
Without Sumika, Kureha is at the mercy of the bears. Paired with the sterility of Kureha’s world, particularly now that she has lost Sumika, Ginko and Lulu’s actions are outrageous and overwhelming but provide a stark contrast. Arashigaoka Academy is presented as a place where one must do certain things, but not indulge in those same things. One may have friends, but not lovers. Additionally there are the visually reinforced narratives of deforestation and references to the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident.
This leaves Yuri Kuma Arashi in a precarious place. Where viewers of Mawaru Penguindrum likely resonated with the characters along with the symbolism in its premiere, there’s not much to Kureha Tsubaki as a character, aside from what her setting has told us. In spite of this, the overwhelming feeling of isolation – along with off-putting societal signals of disingenuous closeness – provided by the visual direction has a certain indescribable value. Hopefully Ikuhara will be able to spin a grounded narrative within Yuri Kuma Arashi‘s shorter time frame to go with his airy one, providing a figurative piano to accompany his exceptional strings.