(This is my post-series review, so please be warned there are spoilers and mentions of plot significant events inside. )
I won’t dwell too long on this, but Yuri Kuma Arashi turned out to be a real headscratcher of a series. Even as someone who’s followed the vagaries of Ikuhara’s career through the days of comedy goldfish and homely bunnies to now, who’s pretty familiar with his visual tropes and fetishes and the way that he tells stories in broad, I just honestly can’t tell this time what Ikuhara’s trying to do or say with Yuri Kuma. While it’s unmistakably an Ikuhara series, I’ve talked before about how his unique style has basically been all but consumed by the broader industry. In one sense he, Anno and the other ‘avant-gardes’ raised the high water mark in the 90’s… but not so high that others couldn’t reach it.
Now I’m honestly not sure if he’s parodying himself or just no longer cares about the audience experience at all.
We Loved You And Hated You From The Beginning
Yuri Kuma Arashi is about Kureha, an unpopular lesbian schoolgirl living in a women-only world where bears regularly attack and ‘eat’ humans. Following an explosion from the planet(oid) “Kumaria”, all the bears rose up and began attacking and eating humans. Because of this, the fearful “human” population has set up strict rules and codes of behavior, The Wall of Severance and the Invisible Storm, to protect themselves from these predators and shun anyone who invites bears near. Except, as it turns out, at least half of the ‘humans’ are actually bears in human disguise anyway. Kureha’s significant other, Sumika, is killed and eaten by bears. This sets off a panic among the students. More students disappear. Bears continue to appear within the school body and all of them make a beeline for Kureha, who ‘smells delicious’ to bears. Kureha vows a vague kind of revenge against bears, but actually spends most of the series boxed in in one way or another – either by her ‘excluding’ classmates who ‘search evil’ and it’s always her, or by being manipulated by friends and people she trusts.
The Boxed Bride
Kureha, the ostensible series lead, has no distinct personality and spends most of the series shown in fetal positions or impotently reacting with futile anger. Or she’s being manhandled by one group of nasty schoolgirls or another. Or she’s being lied to and manipulated physically, mentally and emotionally by others. She lacks agency on every level. It makes you wonder why all these other characters are fighting so hard to control her.
Kureha is passive and seems to take a secondary role in her own story, while various other characters conspire to kill her, exclude her, or win her love. And we have to ask, why? What is it about Kureha that makes anyone want her?
The big difference between Kureha and Anthy is that you knew (or came to understand very quickly) that Anthy was hiding herself; a blistering, powerful ‘witch’ wrapping herself in lies and self-defenses to avoid facing her true power and her true feelings. Kureha is given no visible inner depths. She ‘hates bears’ and will ‘kill bears’. She ‘loves Sumika’, except she really doesn’t; she just ‘forgot her love’ for Ginko, her true ‘friend’, because that sin was necessary to allow Ginko to be a human so their love could be acceptable (except ha ha, it still wasn’t, you get excluded anyway, the text sniggers.)
The Daily Horror Show
To add some degree of resonance to this confused story, Ikuhara cribs shamelessly from The Shining, Suspiria, Psycho, and other horror movies – shot for shot and set for set in many cases. Kureha’s house is the Bates house, only done out in pink, and her room matches too. The academy is the school from Suspiria and features its same hallways and unique visuals, including the dove motifs and the broken checkerboards. The Overlook Hotel’s iconic carpet pattern is also the pattern that shines on all the half-finished buildings and structures that stand in for the Wall of Severance.
But for all this blatant appropriation, Ikuhara doesn’t seem to do anything with them; they’re there as the bluntest kind of visual metaphor for a daily ‘horror show’ reality. Why invoke such powerful, iconic imagery and then do nothing significant with them except to slap them up as window dressing? Is it enough to steal the iconic imagery and hope that the viewer will mentally project associations from the original works into Yuri Kuma? Is it a kind of mind-hacking to attach connotations that otherwise aren’t supported in the text from those works? I did look into Suspiria after seeing Yuri Kuma, and interestingly, I found it quite disorienting. The blatant, naked theft means that because I saw Yuri Kuma first, my head was then colonized by those images instead of the originals; I couldn’t look at Suspiria without seeing Yuri Kuma Arashi around every corner. And it seemed like too much of a giveaway, almost a visual shorthand joke – yes, this school is clearly evil, just like it was in Suspiria, and there’s incest and murder and Bad Things, just like in Suspiria, get it?
Ikuhara also seems to be cribbing heavily from himself – repeating his own tropes. Yuri Kuma Arashi may be his most self-referential work to date; the spiral staircase, the school rooftop, the Child Broiler, the crazy melding of human and machine in the cyborgization of Yurizono’s bear form. Leads to a feeling that he’s remixing himself.
Yuri Kuma is Whatever You Think It’s About: The Mirror At The Heart Of The World
Interpretations about YKA, and inevitably arguments, are going to rage on and on. Ikuhara’s works tend to provoke these kind of things, but his real trick is in structuring his works in such a way that they hold up nearly perfect mirrors to the audience and then invite the audience to ponder what, exactly, their reflection shows them.
Utena, Ikuhara’s masterwork, was very much like this. Whatever you want Utena to be about, the show supports. Want to read it as a story of personal liberation against a background of psychosexual incest or abuse? Utena will argue for it. Want to read it as a veiled metaphor for Ikuhara himself attempting to find ‘the real world’ beyond anime and encouraging otaku (and himself) to seek new insights and expanded horizons? Granted, this is an interpretation that suits the Movie slightly better, but still, Utena can support it. Its depths, nooks, crannies, hints and inferences were just vague enough to allow for almost any degree of interpretation by fans. You can come away from the experience convinced that your interpretation is the right one – maybe even the only true interpretation. Utena’s imagery doesn’t work without the viewer’s deep projections into the mirror. It cooperates with the audience to build its structure.
Yuri Kuma Arashi is like this too, except where Utena seemed to have a center of its own – the trauma, grief, rage and insecurity of Himemiya Anthy – YKA seems to lack one.
Scenes are often inserted out of linear time, at whatever point the narrative feels like inserting them. After a while this stops being clever and starts being annoying and frustrating. It’s meant to bring the past forward to comment on current events, but it ends up shattering any sense of internal time; we don’t know when things are objectively happening. The effect is to give YKA a ‘things are happening for no reason’ quality where plot logic doesn’t seem to work in a normal way. Sometimes we don’t find out badly needed information until seconds before (or after) it was relevant to full understanding.
In Yuri Kuma, the characters are manipulated by fairy tales. The tale told by Kureha’s mother before her own death at the hands of a bear dominates the shape, pattern and structure of Kureha’s life. The storybook she wrote for Kureha becomes a central plot device throughout the series. It postulates a prophecy that the two lead characters, from vastly different ‘worlds’, will reach the mirror at the heart of the world and shatter it by destroying themselves. Only then can they break through to connect with each other, forest girl and moon girl.
Yuri Kuma‘s lead characters struggle to reach that climactic point, through a torrid maze of hostile external forces and left field plot twists, and ultimately reach their goal. But while the fairytale within the story says this is how you reach your true love on the other side, their actions leads to their deaths within the “real world”; they are ‘waiting for you in an empty world’, permanently severed from the daily reality of the rest of the presented characters. This isn’t victory. This isn’t a positive, empowering message to lesbians. This is the ultimate form of Severance.
The Revolution fails. At the end, the boxes that symbolized the show’s framing are dumped higgledypiggledy on the doorstep of a closed gateway, with a half-dead cyborgized bear shuddering inside one of them. The thin structure underlying the show is left completely in ruins, and a character we never even meet or learn the name of arrives to pluck up the bear and start the stupid cycle all over again. Except that Nameless Girl takes more action and agency in the last five minutes of the series than Kureha does at any point before the final episode. I found myself wishing for Nameless Girl’s story instead, because Kureha’s just doesn’t make any damn sense. I’ll leave the finer nuances for others to argue about.
In the end, Kureha has to become a bear to be with Ginko, and it doesn’t help; they meet the all too standard end all gay couples in media seem to always meet.
Because it’s completely acceptable for two girls to be gay if they’re dead, right?
Dead girls aren’t a threat to the Invisible Storm. They’re just dead.
I’ll Be Waiting In That Place, In An Empty World
I think I’m a little tired of Ikuhara always resolving things by saying that people who are inconvenient for one reason or another ‘disappear from the world’. They always have to leave/die/be transformed. They never get to stay and be adults, applying what they’ve learned or showing anyone else how to struggle through the same ‘revolution’. But that’s not what we need, as audiences or within story structures. Who can find you if you’re invisible? the show asks, and then fails to answer. What’s the point of changing if you can’t affect anything by doing so? Why not stay exactly as you are, then? This is the question I would want to ask him if I had the chance now.
Yuri Kuma was uneven and disjointed; I won’t be revisiting it. I also can’t recommend it in good faith. There are some frankly offputting and distasteful scenes and imagery scattered throughout the work. And it’s just too much of a hot mess and not a good introduction to Ikuhara’s work. As he turns away from universal themes and more toward commentary on Japanese internal affairs, he becomes less compelling outside of his designated audience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but YKA is, like Penguindrum, a show that isn’t really meant for anyone outside Japan. With its confused metaphors, disjointed construction and weird treatment of lesbians, I feel like Yuri Kuma goes even further by being a show really meant for no one except Ikuhara himself.