~ Gao Gao! ~
WARNING: This post contains potentially uncomfortable imagery. If your opposed to lesbians in anyway, you should definitely leave. Also there may be some minor spoilers.
Kunihiko Ikuhara is a visionary director. Despite having only worked on two major works before this (Not including his directorial work with Sailor Moon), Ikuhara has developed a huge cult following for his unique love of stagecraft, lesbians, and themes of adolescent identity. Revolutionary Girl Utena is a stone cold classic, and while some find Mawaru Penguindrum to be off-putting and messy, I thought its messages of fate, family, adolescence, and the modern day Japanese identity after the Tokyo Subway gas attack in 1995 and the Lost Generation (Wow that last one was a mouthful!) were absolutely amazing. It also helped that underneath all their subtext, his works just work as straight up dramas, making them enjoyable even without all that gobbledy-gook. That’s in general my favorite aspect about his work, it’s always accessible to casual audiences, even if not overtly so. Which leads me into my subject today, Ikahara’s most recent work: Yuri Kuma Arashi!
When I heard of this show’s existence and its release date of Winter 2015, right off the bat I thought of two things: 1, Wow that was quick, and 2, LESBIANS! Yes, in case the fact that the literal English translation of this show’s title being Lesbian Bear Storm didn’t tip you off already, this show is about lesbians. This intrigued me from the start because, despite how much Ikuhara heavily employs lesbian and homoerotic imagery and themes into his work, he has never made a show directly about lesbians. I mean there was a lesbian character in Penguindrum, and Utena and Anthy are basically the ultimate lesbian couple in anime; but the closest he’s ever gotten to having a story that’s overtly about a girl on girl romance is with Juri’s arcs in Revolutionary Girl Utena. Which, in my opinion, were some of the best parts of what is already a masterpiece of fiction. So yeah, I was pretty excited about this series’ potential.
And boy is this show exactly what I was expecting! While Yuri Kuma looks like a rather shallow fanservice show on the surface, underneath it all there’s an interesting story about the restrictions put up against those who are different in society. Though more specifically, it’s a story that talks about the oppression of lesbians in Japanese society, told through the lense of the Sankebetsu incident, aka the worst bear attack in Japanese history. That sounds loaded, but trust me when I say it doesn’t seem like that in execution.
Like all of Ikuhara’s work, the surface is deceptively shallow. There are shots that are very unsubtle metaphors for lesbian sex, and the general, “I’ll eat her up,” attitude of the lesbian bears in this show would seem to suggest a very lowbrow fanservice romp. Combine this with the nude shots in the OP, and you’ve got yourself what seems like a mess of show, disguising itself under the “arty” visuals (Cough, cough, insert lazy SHAFT/Akiyuki Shinbo joke here). However, Yuri Kuma subverts this surface elements by having flipping the perspective of these characters multiple times throughout the series. Nothing is as it seems in the world of Yuri Kuma Arashi.
Nowhere is this clearer than with the cast of characters, who are more than just the fetishized lesbian archetypes they’re portrayed as. Ginko isn’t really a predatory lesbian trying to steal any woman she can, she’s genuinely in love with Kureha, just like Lulu is genuinely in love with Ginko. Really, all the bears are amazingly interesting once you start digging into their motivations, and the best example of this that I can think of would have to be Yurika, the high school principal. At first you just think she’s a normal principal who just hates bears, but once you delve into her backstory and learn she’s a bear herself, her character becomes much more intriguing. Being trapped in the human world, she learned to trap the things she loved, in order to help maintain their beauty. However, when Kureha is born, Yurika was afraid of losing Kureha’s Mother, who was the only friend and love she had; leading her to devour her one night.
Now, while her actions are not portrayed as positive, the exploration of her motivations is done spectacularly well. Focusing in on her emotions and the way Yurika views the world, was a perfect way to make the audience sympathize with her character, to the point where her tragic end feels just. Yeah she was a villain, but she was still a relatable person nonetheless. She, like most of the characters in the cast, is really just a person underneath their beastly appearance. And even when characters in the show are played as straight up evil, they’re usually there to be a contrast against the main cast members, showing how truly despicable some lesbian stereotypes and assumptions can be.
However, while the characters are human and interesting, they sadly don’t get enough time to truly shine. Like I feared, the show’s runtime severely cripples everyone’s overall development, forcing the main trio of Ginko, Lulu, and Kureha to carry the show alone for far too often. Despite this flaw though, they’re all still compelling through their combined motivations of wanting to sacrifice something in order to help their loved ones. Lulu sacrifices kisses and her human body in order to save Ginko and Kureha, and Ginko and Kureha are willing to let go of each other’s memories in order to keep them safe from the harsh views of the world.
That being said, by the end of the story it becomes clear that these decisions are all made not because they want to be, but because their forced upon them. The Invisible Storm is the true enemy here, wiping away those who show affection that doesn’t fit the mold of society. This is obviously a pretty big metaphor for our modern day patriarchy, but it still is a strong symbol that works really well dramatically. Time and time again, Kureha is constantly being hunted down in order to get rid of her. The people of the human world don’t want someone like Kureha, someone who stands out from the crowd of seemingly identical people.
In the end though, Ginko and Kureha are able to weather that storm by just accepting their love. Throughout the show Kureha had still been trying to live under the guise of being a normal girl, hoping to remain a normal part of society. But when she decides to change herself for Ginko at the end of the story, none of that matters any more. Sure the societies and institutions that oppose them still exist, but together their pure joy and love is enough for them to get through it, to transcend the petty opinions of others. I won’t pretend to be an expert of analysis here, since Ikuhara shows always have a ton of stuff underneath the surface, but if there’s one message that should be taken away from this show, it’s that true love isn’t something that can’t be destroyed by society, and it also shouldn’t be something to hide. Like at the end of Penguindrum, the characters realization is seen through their sacrifices. A true bond is formed through actions and acceptance, not secrets and thinly veiled masks. And love like that is what inspires others.
Yuri Kuma Arashi is a great show. It doesn’t reach the heights of Ikuhara’s other works yes, but for something that only had twelve episodes to work with, it turned out to be quite a gem. The characters are interesting and relatable, and the messages and symbolism, while less subtle, are still executed with a lot of heart and passion. I’d really recommend to anyone, especially to those who have seen Ikuhara’s other works, since this is basically more to the same amazing stuff he always makes. Just keep in mind that it’s a little bit overstuffed, and that it’s presentation might not appeal to you. You’ve done it again Ikuhara, you’ve done it again.
Since I couldn’t really find anywhere to put it in the post proper, I figured I might as well talk about the aesthetics of the show down here. I’m going to be quite blunt here when I say this work is pretty low budget right from the get go. There’s rarely any actual movement, and in scenes where the camera zooms out the characters can turn into somewhat messy blobs. However, it’s really hard to care because this show is still extremely pretty to look at. Yuri Kuma Arashi proves how you can make a show look good, even without a lot of sakuga moments. The character designs are varied and attractive, some of the still frames here are just absolutely mouth watering, and it still has the abstract weirdness of Penguindrum and Utena to boot. Everything looks like a beautifully elaborate picture book, and I just love that. So yeah, it’s one of the best low budget shows I’ve ever seen.
I’d also like to recommend reading Gabriella Ekens ANN posts on this show. They go into Yuri Kuma’s thematic core way more than I could have managed in a reasonable amount of time. Anyways, thanks for reading!