As we approach his new Sarazanmai, let's explore the brilliant career of Kunihiko Ikuhara!
Hey all, and welcome back to Why It Works. Last week I wrote an article celebrating the upcoming original anime Carole & Tuesday, which will be directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, the director of Cowboy Bebop. Watanabe is a true titan of anime, and has developed a stunning catalog over his years as a director, but he’s not the only heavyweight offering a new show this spring. And as I promised last week, today we’ll be exploring the resume of one more anime legend, as we work to gather clues on what his latest production might offer. Today on Why It Works, let’s run down the unique style of Kunihiko Ikuhara!
Though he’s best known as the director of Revolutionary Girl Utena, Ikuhara spent many years honing his craft at Toei Animation before handling his first original production. He might never have achieved such fame if not for working closely alongside the equally legendary Junichi Sato for many years, acting as both assistant director and episode director on a variety of Sato productions. Along with being the original director of Sailor Moon, Sato would eventually go on to direct such esteemed magical girl properties as Princess Tutu and Ojamajo Doremi; the man is an unparalleled titan of shoujo anime, and working closely with him undoubtedly shaped Ikuhara’s ability to make resonant, insightful stories that are rich with complex themes, and yet never talk down to their audiences.
After the fourth season of Sailor Moon, Ikuhara would move on from Toei Animation to create his masterpiece, Revolutionary Girl Utena. Combining his experiences at Toei with a narrative that drew on Takarazuka theater and classic Dezaki imagery, Ikuhara imagined a magical girl anime that defied both genre and societal expectations in all manner of ways. From the very first episode, the heroine Utena’s desire to be a prince clearly indicated that this show had a bone to pick with gendered expectations; from there, the show would go on to sharply challenge a vast array of expectations facing young adolescents, from the ways we are shaped by public perception to the harsh censure that falls on any non-socially-approved relationship.
The complexity of coming to terms with your sexual identity, the brutal mockery of your equally insecure peers, the ultimate reality of adolescence as a harshly limited domed ceiling… Utena is absurdly rich in empathy and social insight, and rises to a stunning crescendo, as its complex and deeply sympathetic characters rally against the imposing walls of their world. I feel no hesitance in saying that Utena is undoubtedly one of the very best anime of all time.
Along with its varied and insightful social commentary, Utena demonstrated Ikuhara’s unique style in manifold other ways. Though Junichi Sato’s influence likely informed his visual sense of humor and rigorous understanding of narrative structure, Ikuhara also draws from older influences, with his visual flourishes often echoing the embellishments of anime godfather Osamu Dezaki. But Ikuhara’s influences aren’t limited to other animators; his work is so unique and rich because his fields of interest also stretch farther afield, encompassing arthouse cinema, classic horror, and modern literature.
All of these interests would play into his next anime, the bewildering Mawaru Penguindrum. Tasked by a strange woman to find the “penguindrum” or watch their sister die, Penguindrum follows two brothers through a deeply troubled Tokyo. The real-world Aum Shinrikyo cult’s 1995 sarin gas attack (along with Haruki Murakami’s post-attack interviews and associated stories) would become the inspiration for a story about how all of us are dehumanized and isolated by the modern world. In response to this alienation, Penguindrum offers the hope of finding our own families, in a story that blends evocative mythology with brutally painful character drama, and even one frog-based love potion ritual.
Ikuhara’s next production would lean heavily on his interest in niche horror, while carrying on his fascination with personal transformations and profound social consciousness. Yurikuma Arashi banks on the limiting assumptions of “Class S yuri” works, which once were able to subversively portray lesbian relationships in a harshly homophobic time, by promising that such relationships would dissipate once adolescence had passed. Ikuhara spun that dramatic assumption into a horror story where lesbians are literally bears in disguise (echoing one more famous Japanese tragedy), ready to actually devour any unsuspecting young girls. Funny and visually inventive and genuinely searing, Yurikuma might be Ikuhara’s most pointed allegory to date.
For his latest work, I’m not expecting Ikuhara to give up any of the qualities that have made his shows so rich and fascinating. Sarazanmai’s predominantly male cast is an unexpected and welcome choice, but I have every expectation that questions of how we overcome our scars to survive adolescence and embrace our personal truths will be relevant once more, and am quite sure I’ll start sobbing somewhere along the way. Ikuhara’s fascination with personal transformation has moved from bears to kappas, while his ornate and self-aware narrative style, complete with built-in narrators, seems to live on through the story’s adult characters. The trailers so far have demonstrated plenty of the aesthetic restlessness that have kept Ikuhara’s works so engaging, with Sarazanmai potentially embracing a mixed-media approach that incorporates live footage into the animation, along with the return of Penguindrum collaborator Wataru Okabe's graphic designs.
It’s all beautiful and intriguing stuff, and given how well Utena illustrated the toxic expectations that hang over male adolescence, even as a largely female-led narrative, I’m very excited to see what he’s got to say this time. Whatever else you think of them, Ikuhara shows are always brimming with ideas; visual ideas, narrative ideas, ideas about how we exist in this world. It’s always a privilege to learn what Ikuhara’s been mulling over lately, and I can’t wait to watch his latest with you all this spring!
What’s your own favorite feature of Ikuhara’s impressive catalog? Let us know in the comments!
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