Creative spotlights are easily digestible overviews of a director or animator’s body of work, style, and vision. My goal for these articles is to highlight some of the exceptional and possibly lesser-known creative voices in anime. I’m hoping these write-ups encourage people to explore more of what anime has to offer.
The spotlight for this week will be on Kunihiko Ikuhara, the mastermind behind Revolutionary Girl Utena, Pengiundrum, and Yurikuma Arashi. This article is the last of four parts looking at Ikuhara’s career, and will be focused on Yurikuma Arashi.
Since the beginning of his anime career, Kunihiko Ikuhara wanted to confront the social forces preventing an open expression of gender and sexuality in Japanese society. During the 90s, Ikuhara challenged the oppressive ideals born out of a patriarchal structure with his masterwork Revolutionary Girl Utena. Despite dealing with sensitive subject matter in his anime, Ikuhara has never shied away from being upfront about his ideas and opposing conventional schools of thought. Ikuhara has always been an idealist, at times letting his ambitions cloud the logistics of a smaller production. However, as his latest work Yurikuma Arashi proves, Ikuhara’s voice is incredibly valuable to rounding out anime as a diverse storytelling medium.
Although narrower in scope than Ikuhara’s previous anime due to its 12 episode run, Yurikuma Arashi still manages to be a provocative work. Liberally weaving in the historic incident of the 1915 Sankebetsu bear attacks to create a distinct atmosphere of terror, Ikuhara constructs a lesbian narrative directly critiquing “forbidden” relationships. Ideologically, Yurikuma Arashi is a work that opposes the notion that a romance between two girls is simply a phase of adolescence, rather than their corporeal desires for a sexual relationship. An accepted perspective in contemporary Japanese society is that even if two girls become romantically involved, they are simply practicing for when they do enter a heterosexual relationship later in life. However, women that openly identified as homosexual were often met with social disdain and their same-sex relationships were no longer considered acceptable.
In Yurikuma Arashi, Ikuhara establishes a conflict between two opposing factions: the humans and the bears. After numerous violent attacks from the bears, the humans decided to build a barricade called the wall of severance to protect themselves from the threat. Despite humanity’s best efforts, two bears named Ginko and Lulu breach the wall and disguise themselves as humans to get closer to a human girl called Kureha. A quiet and soft-spoken individual, Kureha harbors an immense hatred for bears as she witnessed her mother being killed by one. However, as Kureha becomes infatuated with Ginko, her perception of the bears begins to change and she comes to a startling revelation: if humans and bears are two sides of the same coin, then why does humanity so desperately persecute those that are different?
The answer is simple: fear. Behind their cute, unassuming appearance, the bears in Yurikuma Arashi represent individuals in society who are labelled as deviants. The students at Arashigaoka Academy are all socialized to be prim and proper young ladies. However, beneath their elegant façade, the student body is a homogenized entity that eliminates anyone who strays from the herd – be it human or bear.
Left: Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977); Right: Yuri Kuma Arashi (Kunihiko Ikuhara, 2015)
Ikuhara’s love for the 1977 Italian horror film Suspiria heavily influenced the visual direction of YuriKuma Arashi. The interior of Arashigaoka Academy is colored with a sickening blend of red, black, and white. Arashigaoka Academy’s design carries a hint of irony as it’s intended to be this sacred garden where pure maidens are raised, yet it ultimately instills a nightmarish image of an inescapable labyrinth which punishes behavioral and sexual deviancy. Ikuhara plays up the horror tropes through lightning flashes, jump scares and over the top audio cues to construct a playful yet poignant narrative of fear. Initially, the bears are portrayed as the enemy, but this is only because we are seeing the conflict from the perspective of Kureha and the students at Arashigaoka Academy. Soon, the lines between villain and victim become blurred in this contemporary fable.
Humanity has driven away the bears and locked themselves behind their own walls. Their physical barricade represents a flawed system that oppresses the outsiders from society. Yurikuma Arashi is the latest anime from the mind of Kunihiko Ikuhara, and in many ways embodies the core pursuit of his ideologies. Yurikuma Arashi is by no means a straightforward work, but at only 12 episodes it is the least daunting entry points into Ikuhara’s oeuvre. If you’re curious in seeing how one of the legendary shoujo directors has progressed into the modern times, Yurikuma Arashi is well worth checking out. And who knows? With a sensational director like Ikuhara, it may be a while before we see another anime from him.
Did you enjoy the Kunihiko Ikuhara spotlight? Let us know your thoughts on Yurikuma Arashi or any of Ikuhara's other anime in the comments below!