A slightly-too-early primer of Kunihiko Ikuhara’s Sarazanmai

In two weeks, director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s latest original anime, Sarazanmai, will air in Japan. I’ve found few anime as immersive, both coy and direct with their symbolism, and as emotionally-affecting as Ikuhara’s original works, which include Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum, and Yurikuma Arashi. They all have something important to say and reward watching (and rewatching) with a careful eye. To say that I’m looking forward to Sarazanmai is an understatement.

I rarely preview series, but in the interest of digging into Sarazanmai as soon as possible, and organizing my own thoughts before the first episode airs on April 11, here is a collection of themes that the series may be looking to tackle, based on the information available thus far and Ikuhara’s previous work.

This won’t be as in depth regarding some of the names behind Sarazanmai outside of Ikuhara and a few others. For more on that check out this post at Sakuga Blog. Also special thanks to Good Haro for translation work and providing additional pre-release material.

Major spoilers for Mawaru Penguindrum.

Shirikodama (or kappa butt fascination) and Japanese mythology

Did you know that you have highly-prized small ball in your anus?

According to Japanese mythology and folklore dating back to around the Edo period, kappa were said to murder humans who wandered too close to their marsh or river territory by forcibly removing your shirikodama (small anus ball). The kappa would either stick their hands all the way up a human’s anus, or suck it out. More often than not, the kappa were said to drown humans in the water before performing this extraction. As for why the kappa wanted this particular piece of human anatomy — which may or may not be the liver — it was rumored to either be a delicacy for them or it was blocking access to the liver, which was a delicacy for kappa-kind. These stories were so well-known that they were reflected in art of the time, like Hokusai Katsushika’s “How to Fish for Kappa” which features a man presenting his buttocks to a river behind him in order to catch kappa in a fishing net.

Kappa have mellowed out in recent years to become cute pranksters, but Sarazanmai mentions shirikodama specifically. The kappa Keppi instructs Kazuki Yasaka, Toi Kuji, and Enta Jinai to become kappa in order to steal shirikodama from kappa zombies. This line is followed by an image of a kappa-fied Kazuki looking shocked and covered in some sort of viscous fluid.

With a nearly all-male cast consisting of a main trio of eighth-grade boys along with an adult policeman couple and the rather graphic description of just how kappa steal shirikodama, Sarazanmai is setting up for a discussion about gay men. Much like Yurikuma Arashi discussed lesbians and yuri media, Sarazanmai looks like it will at least touch upon common boys-love and yaoi tropes, hopefully skewering the more toxic ones in the process while simultaneously developing genuine relationships between men that eventually break the confines of societal mores.

In conclusion, if Yurikuma Arashi can have a transformation sequence that involves three naked young women covered in lily and camellia flowers, licking nectar off of flower stamens, be prepared for whatever Ikuhara has in store for these boys’ transformation sequences in Sarazanmai.

Visual similarities with Mawaru Penguindrum (the otter faction versus the kappa faction)

From the moment the first Sarazanmai teasers were released, a major visual similarity to Mawaru Penguindrum was Wataru Okabe’s iconography. Okabe was brought back for Sarazanmai as are his grey icons that represent the masses along with circled “A” signs in katakana. This depiction of people and large crowds is fitting for the themes that Ikuhara has said that Sarazanmai will focus on: connections and relationships.

In Mawaru Penguindrum, the masses of icons tied into what the series had to say about the rise of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, their subsequent terrorist attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995, and how the Japanese people reacted in the aftermath. Here, they’re more likely used to separate our main trio of boys as another nod to how each of them have trouble communicating and connecting with other people.

Otters and kappas also appeared in Mawaru Penguindrum as stuffed animals representing Ringo Oginome’s estranged parents. After Ringo’s elder sister Momoka passed away in the attacks, her parents’ relationship didn’t survive. Ringo blithely pretends that everything is normal while trying frantically to follow in her sister’s exact footsteps until she sees her father with someone else and is forced to face reality. The otter is meant to be her father and the kappa represents her mother.

Both otters and kappas are tricksters in Japanese folklore, and sometimes otters were said to be a type of kappa or grow into being a kappa as they aged. Across a variety of prefectures, otters were shapeshifting monsters that would appear as beautiful women before luring men to their deaths. The otter imagery in the preview appears to be associated with the policeman couple of Reo Niiboshi and Mabu Akutsu and their own transformation sequence. From this, it seems that the main trio will be a part of the kappa faction and the two policemen, the otter faction. Both will likely have similar goals in mind but conflicting ideas of execution or how to achieve them.

As for Reo and Mabu themselves, they were two of the first characters revealed in Sarazanmai’s early marketing. They also have their own Twitter account where they appear to tweet mundane things about their lives. With the suspect handle of “keeponly1luv” and preview lines like Mabu’s, “With no beginning and no end, I implore you, the unconnected, let us open up a door––will it be desire? Or love?” they appear to be drawing a direct line between the ideas of love and desire, as if they cannot coexist.

The three kappas and color-coding the initial PVs

The plot summary of Sarazanmai introduces eighth-graders Kazuki, Toi, and Enta. They are color-coded as follows: Kazuki (red), Toi (blue), and Enta (yellow) with small scarves in their kappa forms. Not-so-coincidentally, the first Sarazanmai previews were also color-coded in a light pink, light yellow, and a cornflower blue. The voice-acting doesn’t match up so they’re not true examples of what each of the characters are thinking at a given moment, but could still give insight to their motivations or deeper secrets, despite the fact that these initial previews appear to come from the otter faction. This is the largest presumption I’m making in this preview, so even if it turns out to be completely wrong, I hope it can still break down some of the narrative through lines by placing these previews and characters’ lines from the main preview side-by-side.

For a few a small side notes, the first three previews all end with the lines, “Don’t let go, desire is your life. Sarazanmai.” There are two larger previews, one called “Connected” and a more recent series preview.

Kazuki Yasaka (red) first preview: “I’ll let you in on a little secret”

The first preview (the red/pink preview) features a line that is very similar to the title of the third (yellow) preview: “Even if everything went away and this whole world was empty.” This is followed by, “I’ll let you in on a little secret––you’re connected, but you’re alone. Don’t let go! Desire is your life.” The main splash of red/pink is over icons of two people, one of whose head has been marred with diluted black ink.

In the Connected teaser, Kazuki says, “This world is overflowing with connections––connections by blood, between towns, of feelings. Everyone is connected here. So why is it that I can’t connect with anyone?” In the main preview, Kazuki adds while typing on his phone, “I live my life by three rules. I don’t need anyone else.”

Kazuki’s character summary describes him as a boy who used to be cheerful and loved soccer, but recently has become obsessed with “a certain something.” When placed next to the themes in the first preview, it presents the picture of someone who still desperately wants to connect with others, even if his outward attitude suggests otherwise. The marred couple in the preview could represent a relationship that scarred Kazuki in the past — if you want to go down the rabbit hole of assumptions, it could be fellow Sarazanmai trio member Enta since they used to be childhood friends — making him weary of opening up to other people.

Toi Kuji (blue) second preview: “As much as I hate it”

The blue preview features an otter icon and is more melancholy in nature. “Am fake? Is the world fake? Are we fake?” it begins. “We’re connected. As much as I hate it. As much as I want it. Whose desire is the strongest?”

In the Connected preview, Toi says, “In this town, when things disappear, they’re forgotten. Shops, buildings, and even people are replaced by the new, and no one even notices. I don’t believe in connections.” And finally in the main series preview he says, “Let’s get to it. You aren’t so different from me.” This last line in likely in response to the idea that all three boys are needed to perform the necessary sarazanmai transformation sequence. It would seem that Toi is the type to try to push forward, even if the three aren’t connecting in in the manner that they’re supposed to. Toi’s character summary tells us that he’s a recent transfer to Kazuki’s class and has been isolated from his classmates due to bad rumors. (Here’s where I put on my tinfoil hat and wonder if Ikuhara will revisit how society passes sins down through family members, even to children, like how Chiemi and Kenzan Takakura’s sins were heaped onto Himari, Shouma, and Kanba.)

I covered the otter symbolism in an earlier section, but here it could be tied directly to Toi’s feelings of isolation or things that are leading Toi astray/covering up the fact that he actually does want to connect, like rumors or presumptions of his character made by other people.

Enta Jinai (yellow) third preview: “Even if this whole world was empty”

“Cross the river. Because you can never return.”

“Even if everything went away and this whole world was empty, I want to maintain this connection.”

This is the preview that matches up most directly with its presumed counterpart. While Kazuki and Toi have more cynical mindsets, Enta takes up the position of their more positive counterpart, filling a similar role to Mawaru Penguindrum‘s Ringo Oginome and her initial musings on how much she loved fate in comparison to the Takakura brothers’ denigration of fate.

Enta’s main preview lines reveal an optimistic outlook. Even if it’s difficult, or he ends up physically alone, he wants to remain connected somehow to people he cares about. “Our connections aren’t that weak or flimsy!” he yells in direct response to Toi’s words. In the Connected preview Enta says, “But I do––I believe that we have a connection that can’t be severed so easily. And I know we’ll connect again.”

Most importantly, the yellow preview shows people icons for all three boys with a splash of yellow as they’re falling together. This could be another depiction of how they’ll have to be connected to transform together.

(again, special thanks to Good Haro, who has most of these these translations organized here.)

Social media, definitely-not-amazon, and connections

Revolutionary Girl Utena used Takarazuka Revue and other theatre trappings — the Kashira/Shadow Girls as a Greek chorus element for example — along with fairy tale framework to break a toxic cycle. Mawaru Penguindrum used iconography, Haruki Murakami books, and ARB’s music as covered by in-universe trio Triple H to tell the story of the 1995 Sarin Gas Attacks on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Yurikuma Arashi used horror films like Suspiria and Psycho along with the Sankebetsu brown bear incident to denigrate toxic or outdated aspects of how media views lesbian relationships. According to Ikuhara himself, Sarazanmai will use Japanese folklore of the kappa alongside modern technology to tell its story.

If you thought I was kidding about the kappa folklore tying into gay relationships between men, here’s Ikuhara on that very subject in an interview about Sarazanmai with Pash+.

“I’ve wanted to make a story focused on boys for a long time now. While there’s a lot of folklore about kappa, but no one’s ever actually seen one, which is why I’d like to say that the kappa that appear in Sarazanmai are the real deal! (lol) So the shirikodama is a pretty famous piece of kappa folklore and it’s a major motif in this series.”

“We live in an age where, with our smart phones and social media, connecting with people is a daily activity––so I wanted to ask, what does that all mean? What do we want to do with [those connections]?” Ikuhara said in this same interview.

While Mawaru Penguindrum used some social media trappings and the “villains” of Yurikuma Arashi made their calls on snazzy smartphones, Sarazanmai seems even more plugged in to modern technology and how ubiquitous it is in our every day lives — the world has changed so much in the short span of time since Yurikuma Arashi (2015), never mind Mawaru Penguindrum (2011) including the Kappazon (Amazon) boxes present in the previews and a giant cardboard monster. Look for themes about the strength of relationships through technology, and how technology helps form and maintain relationships as well as isolates us from each other.

SARAZANMAI!

The title of Revolutionary Girl Utena is self-explanatory and is part of the framework of Utena Tenjou’s journey. The meaning of the “penguindrum” is revealed throughout Mawaru Penguindrum. And the title of Yurikuma Arashi means, depending on how you want to parse it, either “lily bear storm” or “lesbian/girls-love bear storm.” All of Ikuhara’s titles are important to the content of the series and Sarazanmai will likely be no different.

From a recent summary of the series, when the three boys transform together, they make a noise together, “Sarazanmai!” They can only perform the transformation when fully connected or united, reiterating series themes of communication and connection. The transformation process also forces them to reveal a secret about themselves (presumably involuntarily as part of the sequence). Tying this together with the previews, there’s a Venn diagram motif that shows three statements: never starting, never connecting, never ending. If I had to hazard a guess, Kazuki is never starting, Toi is never connecting, and Enta is never ending.

The bowl or dish on top of a kappa’s head is called “sara” which likely has something to do with the series title and transformation sequence. When the water in the bowl is emptied the kappa is defeated or dies. If a person refills the water dish with water from the kappa’s home river, the kappa will be indebted to that person for eternity.

9 comments

  1. Regarding the Venn diagram, I theorized that “Never connecting” was Kazuki’s problem while “Never starting” was Tooi’s. I based that on the image of the boys (as kappas) holding hands. If you tilted the image slightly, they would match up with the diagram.

  2. My first thought when I saw the “otters vs kappa” conflict was the “iOS vs Android” rivalry, haha… Wonder whether that’ll be relevant at all. Also, going by the most recent trailer, it looks like Mabu & Reo are on the otter side, but their Twitter account suggests the exact opposite? Weird.

    In regards to the “bad rumours” about Toi and the “passing sins down through family members Penquindrum-style” theory, I think it might be relevant to mention that earlier this month, he’s been revealed to have an older brother that apparently engages in some shady business, so it’s highly likely you’re right. Somewhat related, I can’t believe I missed the colour-coding of the first 3 teasers, thank you for pointing it out!

  3. Could I throw in few crazy speculations that Kazuki could either be transgendered and/or secretly a crossdresser?

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