Who is Sara?
The short answer is, a local idol of Asakusa in Sarazanmai. The longer answer could relate to a kappa’s head dish (sara) and director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s penchant for Greek choruses.
Major spoilers for Mawaru Penguindrum. Mild spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena.
A Greek chorus in the traditional sense was a large, homogenous group of up to 50 people who, with an informed viewpoint, accompanied the audience through the story unfolding onstage. Dressed like the general population of the work being performed, they were said to be a bridge between the audience and the characters onstage, who were often divine beings.
Other iterations of Greek choruses as they evolved through the years as a theatrical element are commonly an informed group who comment on the action, spelling out allegorical or symbolic elements of the story or giving viewers a peek into the characters’ psyches. In Little Shop of Horrors, a trio of street urchins interact with the main characters frequently, but also begin large musical numbers with the entire cast, and sing songs that give greater insight to characters’ motivations. They’re also members of the Skid Row populace that makes up the cast of the musical.
Revolutionary Girl Utena was Ikuhara’s first original project as a director and features his most classic example of a Greek chorus element. A trio of high school girls appear in shadows, framed against a rose backdrop. Called the “Shadow Girls” or “Kashira Players” — due to their refrain of “Kashira, kashira, gozonji kashira?” (Do you know, do you know, have you heard the news?) — they launch into a short skit in every episode. With mannerisms ranging from slightly vague and symbolic to very direct, the skit spells out what that Utena episode aims to talk about.
For example, in the fourth episode of Utena, one of the Shadow Girls talks about how the first person to have a crush on her in middle school was a boy who was a math whiz. Yet, when he found out she liked weird or un-feminine things like pro wrestling and garlic ramen, he left her. They leave with the phrase “The truth behind the girl. Do you really know what it is?”
What follows is a study session featuring several desperate attempts by Nanami Kiryuu to “out” Anthy Himemiya as a loser, costing Anthy her newfound friends in Utena Tenjou and Miki Kaoru. Nanami is foiled at every turn, with both Miki and Utena accepting or even liking Anthy’s weirder tendencies. Unlike the Shadow Girl’s first boyfriend, they accept Anthy for who she is. Yet, it’s not that simple. There’s an added layer that all parties involved in this math review (another nod from the Shadow Girls’ tale) are involved in the mysterious after school duels for Anthy, the Rose Bride. None of them know the “truth behind the girl,” and that truth could refer to Anthy, Utena, and even Nanami herself. Some of the meanings behind the Shadow Girls’ plays are only revealed until after the series is finished, and a viewer returns to Utena for a second time.
In Mawaru Penguindrum, idol duo Double H becomes the series’ Greek chorus element. Appearing in daily slogans on the subway, Double H offer advice and commentary to the main characters of Penguindrum along with hints at the series’ thematic elements. Like the Shadow Girls’ plays in Utena, many meanings behind Double H’s slogans aren’t fully revealed until the series ends.
A particularly gut-wrenching example can be found in Penguindrum‘s third episode when Ringo Oginome brings a pot of curry on the train and the smell offends her fellow passengers who complain it’s something “foreign.” The slogan features Double H hosing down an icon with offensive body odor before saying “Stop Physicurry Odor.”
When this episode first aired, it wasn’t yet clear that Penguindrum would be addressing the 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Later on in the series, Penguindrum makes it clear that not only is the series about those sarin gas attacks, but that it’s addressing them directly. What becomes a slight poke at possible xenophobia via so-called foreign smell becomes a direct reference to the sarin gas used in the attacks, which was said to have a sickly-sweet odor like rotting food or vomit. Passengers began to complain about the smell first, before the sarin began to violently attack their nervous systems. Further driving this point home is a shot directly of Ringo and other passengers’ feet as she enters the subway car. The perpetrators of this attack placed sarin packets in bags, which they then stomped on beneath the subway seats to release the gas. It’s no coincidence that this shot follows Ringo into the subway. Similarly, it’s no coincidence that Double H’s slogan tells us that Penguindrum is going to be about these terrorist attacks before stating this outright in Episodes 11 and 12.
With less room to tell its story — an episode count of 12 instead of Penguindrum‘s 24 or Utena‘s 39 — Yuri Kuma Arashi doesn’t have a structured Greek chorus element like Ikuhara’s other two works. Instead, it presents thematic elements through the whispers of the young women at Arashigaoka Academy and the three judgmens of the Severance Court. These too, take on different meetings once a viewer has been informed by Yuri Kuma Arashi‘s ending.
This brings us to Sarazanmai‘s Sara Azuma, local idol of Asakusa, and a bit of speculation based on how Ikuhara has used Greek chorus elements in prior works. Sara appears in all of the “Connected” previews outside of the Asakusa Matsuya on a billboard. She is also in the main trailer and additionally appeared in her own teaser during a broadcast marathon of Ikuhara’s works before Sarazanmai‘s airdate.
In the Sarazanmai trailer, Sara greets us with a loud, “Good morning!” in English after Kazuki Yasaka’s initial monologue about failing to connect with others. She returns several times throughout the trailer in the form of what looks like her own local streaming show, commenting on local events or holding her own events. Sara seems to be connected to the ubiquitous katakana “A” (ア) scattered throughout Asakusa and her fortune-telling show is full of puns using her name, Sara. Kazuki’s room is full of Sara merchandise, his younger sibling does what appears to be Sara’s signature pose, and Kazuki’s cell phone charm is even of Sara’s icon, showing his dedication to (or obsession of) Asakusa’s local idol.
Iconography around Sara, including the ア, is reminiscent of Penguindrum‘s Double H and the duo’s subway slogans. This style comes from graphic designer Wataru Okabe who worked on Penguindrum and is returning to work with Ikuhara in Sarazanmai. Sara’s “Fortune of Today” or “Today’s Topic” shown in the previews could easily become Sarazanmai‘s Greek chorus element. There’s already been speculation of what her fortunes could mean.
For an addendum, in the supplementary manga that follows policeman duo Reo Niiboshi and Mabu Akutsu, Sara is specifically named “dish” (sara), not after a kappa’s head dish, but because she was found on a dish in the middle of the street. The two raise her together as their child. This doesn’t mean that this will happen in the Sarazanmai anime (the Utena and Yuri Kuma Arashi manga didn’t follow their anime counterparts exactly) but it’s something to keep in mind.