I’m not as into anime as I once was. Still, there are a handful of directors and writers within the genre that still excite me, and when they drop a new work, I stop to take a look.
Kunihiko Ikuhara (Revolutionary Girl Utena, Sailor Moon S, Mawaru Penguindrum, Maple Town Stories) is one of those directors. When he launches a new series, it’s always a big deal. Ikuhara, like Evangelion‘s Hideaki Anno, is a new-wave anime director and producer who began at Toei under Junichi Sato on soft fare, and gradually grew teeth as he grew experience. Along with Anno and Sato, Ikuhara sharpened and redefined a huge swatch of directorial tropes in the 90’s.
Although these days Ikuhara’s basic feel no longer stands out as it did in the 90’s, thanks to ruthless copying and a kind of calcification of his initial directorial flavor by his ‘trainees’ like Star Driver‘s Igarashi, what Ikuhara brings nowadays is a savage, steely audacity. Ikuhara’s willingness to attack the cliches and conventions of anime storytelling and to actively subvert audience understanding and expectation still stand out in a media landscape full of fluffy moe, harem anime and generic plot-by-numbers fantasy and action series. Ikuhara’s works bring up difficult, complex issues of ‘forbidden desires’ and all but attack the audience with thorny literary and visual references. His works tend to be mysterious and demanding, forcing the viewer to work hard to follow along.
Unlike many of his knockoffs, Ikuhara has a refined understanding of framing, color, sound, light, angle and shot composition, and he’s relentless about using all of these tools to wreak maximum emotional havoc on his viewers. He knows how to play audiences like a harp and he knows exactly how to convey information through the medium – even if that information is heavily codified behind layers of abstract visual symbolism. One does not watch an Ikuhara series as much as one experiences it viscerally.
Ikuhara’s works hide grim meanings behind surface cute and surface “weird”. Ikuhara’s last work, Mawaru Penguindrum, was supposedly “just” about a magical penguin hat, a dead-girl-brought-to-life, a weird other dimensional princess, and family guilt – but the actual coded references of the story were built extensively around culturally processing the subway sarin gas attacks of the Aum Shinrikyo cult – and the entire story makes no sense without that underlying backdrop as context. Likewise, Revolutionary Girl Utena hid a bittersweet story of how people recover from vicious sexual abuse, depression and existential despair behind its pseudo-“magical girl” trappings. So what Ikuhara is really after with Yuri Kuma is yet to be seen.
Oh, and be sure to keep your Ikuhara Bingo card handy, of course.