From the moment Sarazanmai was announced, fans were tantalized by this mysterious project. The legendary director Kunihiko Ikuhara, the man responsible for one of anime’s most beloved and out-there artistic statements Revolutionary Girl Utena, only graces audiences with his presence once every few years.
It’s been four years since the salacious Yurikuma Arashi and eight since Penguindrum played with the hearts and minds of its viewers. He’s been a somewhat active this decade, but before Penguindrum, he hadn’t put out anything since The Adolescence of Utena in 1999. Like a Shinichiro Watanabe or a Sayo Yamamoto, Ikuhara’s an auteur who makes something unique every time.
Thankfully, Sarazanmai lives up to the director’s reputation while being an engaging watch the entire time.
The show marks the first time Ikuhara has teamed up with Studio MAPPA, which has become one of the go-to studios for animators who want to make unique, ambitious anime. Sarazanmai sits right at home with other MAPPA oddities like Terror In Resonance and Kakegurui.
On the surface, the plot is utter nonsense; it’s about a group of boys who transform into kappa to fight evil zombie otters in an effort to get their wishes granted. How any of that works and why things are this way are never really explained, and honestly, they don’t need to be. Plots are never really the most important part of an Ikuhara joint.
Among other things, Kunihiko Ikuhara’s known for making anime that explore what’s going on deep under the surface of people and their relationships. The dynamics of these emotional entanglements take center stage in Sarazanmai. You have Kazuki, a boy who dresses up as a popular idol in order to maintain a relationship with his little brother. You have Enta, Kazuki’s childhood friend who’s been in love with him for a long time. Finally, there’s Toji who’s a kid that sells weed and runs with criminals. Through some kind of whacky anime circumstance, these three are caught in the same place at the same time by Keppi, a Kappa Prince who has the power to turn the boys into Kappa to fight the otters.
When Toji, Enta, and Kazuki transform into kappa and unleash their ‘Sarazanmai’, their innermost desires and secrets are revealed towards one another. Each episode, something one of the boys didn’t want anyone else to know is unveiled to the others. Stuff like cross-dressing, the destruction of property, and murder. As they’re forced by Keppi to fight together and build upon their connections with one another, physically symbolized in the show with wi-fi signal, their inner desires are put out on display. That’s the dichotomy of the whole show; Connection versus desire. The evil zombie otters we mentioned, they’re controlled by their desires to do mischief like steal ‘kappazon’ boxes or panties, and the Kappa squad has to ‘connect’ to stop them.
As the story goes on, you learn more and more about the boy’s backstories. Everything we’ve mentioned so far occurs in the first few episodes, and we don’t want to spoil much more. Each of them is operating under a complex set of circumstances that make them do things they’re not proud of. How would you feel if your innermost thoughts and memories were put on public display? Forced to share things with friends and strangers alike? Would you do it to grant your wishes, fulfilling your inner-most desires? That’s the reasoning behind the trials and tribulations of Sarazanmai. Now, how exactly will these wishes be granted? Here’s where the butts come in.
According to traditional Japanese folklore, kappa would try to lure people into the water to drink their blood and obtain their shirikodama. There’s no good translation for the word because it can only be described as a ball or marble that contains a person’s soul that’s housed in people’s butts. In Sarazanmai, the boys use their ‘Sarazanmai’ in Kappa form to defeat these giant zombie otters and force the shirikodama out of their back ends. While done cartoonishly of course, the anime spares no details when animating marbles forced out of the butts of these weird creatures. There’s also a lot of additional rear-end imagery used throughout the show as parallel and nod to its homosexual themes.
Kunihiko Ikuhara has always had an interest in putting queer characters and outright gay romance into his shows. From his days on Sailor Moon where he handled the seasons with Sailor Uranus and Neptune, to Utena and Yurikuma Arashi which are not subtle nor coded, he’s always been very consistent with allowing his stories to be gay. In the case of Sarazanmai, it exclusively deals with male homosexual romance in the form of Enta harboring a giant secret crush on Kazuki as well as Reo and Mabu; two of the bad guys who are working for the otters for their own reasons. Some may disagree, but in this show, these queer aspects don’t feel forced or appropriated. It’s more than intentional, what with all the butt imagery, which could be read as over the top or mocking, but it all comes off as being in good faith.
Finally, stepping away from the themes and subtext, Sarazanmai looks damn good. It’s extremely vibrant and colorful and Studio MAPPA never lets the animation quality drop. The character designs are fresh; I mean, just look at Reo and Mabu or the idol Sara. Stunning, just how did they consistently animate her eyes like that? Despite the show’s heavy themes, it never gets too heavy-handed. Both visually and in terms of the direction, the show’s actually fun. It’s cartoonish and silly, yet has intellectual and emotional weight behind it. The anus stuff and the wacky concept might deter some from the show, but it should be taken seriously as a work of art and enjoyed as entertainment.
I’m not the biggest Kunihiko Ikuhara fan in the world. I’ve always appreciated the artistry and nuance of Utena, but have always found it to be a bit boring to actually sit down and watch. Yurikuma Arashi shares Sarazanmai’s upbeat attitude and colorful palette, but still comes across a little stilted, and what it’s trying to say doesn’t entirely hit the mark. Sarazanmai doesn’t quite hit Utena levels of depth, but it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had with a show of his. His hallmark traits are here, like queer themes, human nuance, and purposefully repetitive situations, but it’s all packaged together in such a way that anyone could watch the show. It’s stupid, it’s moving, and it’s eye-candy. It even has a great ending song. I don’t know what more you’d want out of a cartoon.
You can watch Sarazanmai on Crunchyroll now. Here’s hoping Ikuhara comes back soon.