There are people in my industry that give me hope for the future. I’ve told them as such. As it continues to grind forward into the future, they are the ones keeping others in check. They are brave, frequently eschewing or challenging existing systems or a general status quo. I’m fortunate to know them because, quite frankly, I’m a bit of a coward.
In an interview about Sarazanmai, director Kunihiko Ikuhara mentions the future, and specifically how it’s always marketed as something good. “The future is sparkling,” he paraphrases a commodified message. Everything in post-war Japan is “an improvement” and whatever lies in the future is certainly better than the past. You can see this in the upcoming preparations for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo — which not-so-coincidentally are featured in the skyline frequently in Sarazanmai.
If there is hope for the future, it’s not in commodified messages or Ama-Kappa-zon boxes of desire. The challenge of Sarazanmai is the same one that my friends are rising to face in my industry: wading through oceans of societal bullshit and infrastructure while fighting it with genuine passion.
The future isn’t always sparkling, but even Sarazanmai — a series that argues heavily against looking towards the future with a blanket rosy outlook from the marketing machine — has hope. A better future is possible, it’s just not the one that’s been marketed or promised.
First, the story of Reo Niiboshi and Mabu Akutsu, the two who perpetuated the system.
It’s no coincidence that Reo and Mabu are policemen. Their career choice tasks them with uploading the law which, by the by, means maintaining the status quo and order. Nothing will advance under their jurisdiction, including their own relationship.
Formerly Keppi’s vassals, Reo and Mabu fall into the hands of the Otter Empire when the Kappa Kingdom falls. Mabu sacrifices himself for Reo, which sets off a chain of events that gives Mabu a mechanical heart and forces the two into a seemingly endless toxic cycle in service of the Otter Empire’s nefarious plans. The poisoning of their relationship is painful to watch, especially for viewers who read the purposefully fluffy and domestic manga about their partnership, Reo and Mabu, Together They Are Sarazanmai, prior to watching the series.
Reo, the more visible and outgoing of the pair, grumbles about gathering the desires of others and berates throughout the series Mabu for being an emotionless doll, but ultimately is unwilling to face Mabu’s death again. This is why he continues the cycle. For Mabu, he is told to give up his connection to Reo by renouncing their love. If he tells Reo that he loves him, Mabu’s heart will stop and he will die. He says that he hates Reo and perpetuates his own cycle. Their relationship and love for each other quickly becomes something poisonous and toxic once societal pressures infiltrate it and, as cops, they uphold this system all while it continues to exploit their relationship.
Mabu extricates both of them from this cycle by effectively committing suicide (as an aside, I don’t think Reo or Mabu are “officially” dead within the scope of the series, knowing Ikuhara). He tells Reo that he loves him and his artificial heart stops.
Reo goes on a minor rampage in his grief before breaking down and asking aloud, “Who was I pissed off at?” It’s a particularly heartbreaking moment, not only because he’s about to forget Mabu — similar to the kappa zombies he and Mabu created who were erased from memory once they were defeated by the trio — but because of who he’s actually pissed off at: himself. He didn’t recognize that Mabu was in front of him this entire time. He was swayed by the Otter Empire. And at the end of it all, he wasn’t even the one who was strong enough to profess his true love. Reo’s anguish also cements the villain as the system, not as Reo or Mabu (although they’re complicit in continuing it).
As for what in particular the Otter Empire refers to, there are no small amount of societal expectations that would keep a man from professing his love to another man. It’s a different situation than what Yuri Kuma Arashi was attempting to dismantle — this idea that romantic connections between queer women are allowed up to a certain point before they’ll inevitably “grow out of them” — because there are different, but equally toxic, societal rules in place for queer men, but Sarazanmai seems to have a similar goal in mind.
It’s also no coincidence that Reo and Mabu are older than the main trio of Kazuki Yasaka, Enta Jinai, and Toi Kuji (and, by extension, Haruka Yasaka, who is even younger and has an incredibly important role to play in all of this). The future lies with them, if they can not be swayed by the same societal quagmire that ultimately trapped Reo and Mabu.
Enta has been — rightfully and maliciously — maligned throughout the series for his actions. His crush on Kazuki is genuinely heartbreaking — it bears repeating that anyone who has had a crush on a member of the same sex but had no idea what to do about it will relate to Enta in some way, I definitely did and still do — but the manipulative nature of his actions deserves scrutiny. Enta appears to be the next person poised to continue the toxic cycle of the Otter Empire, especially when the otters tempt him with Kazuki in a similar way to how they tempted Mabu.
Yet Enta, despite his many flaws, has also witnessed Kazuki’s own transformation in the series. We know what his answer will be to the otters’ temptation based on his dying words in the eighth episode: “It’s no use. Even as a lie, I can’t say that I hate you.” Although we don’t know it upon first viewing, this is where Sarazanmai draws a line between Mabu and Enta, with Enta doing what Mabu could not. Like Mabu, Enta takes a direct hit/bullet for his loved one. Unlike Mabu, Enta cannot renounce his love of Kazuki, even in jest.
This foreshadows his actions in this episode. He not only breaks the dish, destroying the otters’ illusion and reiterating his love for Kazuki, Enta also stops Kazuki from sacrificing himself. When questioned, Enta still has hope for the future and tells Kazuki as such.