First Look: Yurikuma Arashi

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Alternative titles: Yuri Kuma Arashi, Lesbian Bear Storm
Anime Original by Silver Link
Streaming on Crunchyroll/Funimation

Premise

In a world where humans live in fear of bears thanks to a magical meteor shower, Ikuhara does his crazy stuff.

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Zigg’s verdict: Still Flowering

It’s notoriously difficult to pass judgement on shows run by Kunihiko Ikuhara because of his tendency to plant questions and then provide only the very most abstract of answers. The psychedelic, hevily surreal style that served him so well in Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum returns unabashedly here and as such it’s going to be tough to decide whether you’re into this or not based on a single episode. I personally will say I adored it, with the insanity of the premise coupled to Silver Link’s gorgeous visuals providing a strong reason to watch based on art alone, along with Ikuhara’s distinctive unorthodox directorial style. Themes of sexuality, identity and fantasy are all in the heady mix and there’s any number of interesting twists this story could take.

That said, I do have a few worries. Ikuhara is famous for shows that push surrealism and sexuality as themes, but they’re never normally frontloaded this heavily, and Yurikuma Arashi feels dangerously close to being a style parody of his more celebrated works. There’s a slight feeling of trying too hard, especially in the borderline gratuitous fanservice which gets a little uncomfortable. For this to work, Ikuhara is going to have to dig out the dark heart of this story and eventually reign in his fireworks to provide a more concrete human narrative. I’m very, very interested to see him try.

Iro’s verdict: ???????

Same ol’ Ikuhara doing what he does, throwing Proper Nouns around and being bizarre as hell seemingly for the purpose of being bizarre as hell. Not that it’ll stop those who say the lesbian imagery is too deep and symbolic for me to understand, of course. As Zigg said to me as we watched the show together, perhaps I just enjoy shows that overexplain things. And by overexplain, I mean provide any context whatsoever.

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Aqua’s verdict: A Gay Old Time

Kunihiko Ikuhara is a monolith of auteur-ship in the anime fandom, and his highly-anticipated new show has, as usual, split the anime fanbase into a gazillion pieces. Some are worried by the blatant male gaze in Lily Bear Storm‘s promotional materials and opening sequence — understandably so — while others are mostly just confused by how the man’s works seem to get progressively wackier. Yet there’s one opinion everyone who’s seen the show seems to have in common: Ikuhara and his collaborators have once again delivered a artistic masterpiece. For better or worse, Yurikuma Arashi yet again provides countless frames to be analyzed into oblivion and put on display in your privately-owned museum (read: Your Tumblr dashboard), which if all else fails, still guarantee the show’s spot in anime’s hall of fame.

I’ve seen the word ‘Shaft-ian’ being thrown around a lot — especially by people who seem to be unaware it was Ikuhara who inspired Shinbo, rather than the other way around — but the switch from Brain’s Base to prime Shaft imitators Silver Link does reflect on Yurikuma Arashi‘s overall visual quality. The vibrant colours, strong character animation and gorgeous attention to detail of his last show, Penguindrum, have been traded in for an eternal struggle to stay on-model more befitting of Silver Link’s minimal budgets and inexperienced staff. Ikuhara has allegedly alienated himself from the anime industry so badly only the boldest or most desperate of production companies still want to work with him, so sadly, the mediocre technical quality of Yurikuma Arashi will be the new standard for the man’s work for the forseeable future. Luckily, the artistic design is still as strong as ever, with beautiful architecture, stark contrasts and all the eccentricities you’d expect for the artists crafting worlds that make Bakemonogatari‘s look like the interior of an office building.

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Consequently, the fact that Yurikuma Arashi is great is hardly a surprise. It has that same blend of campy absurdity, provocation and intriguing symbolism that made Penguindrum such an effective show, and while Ikuhara’s unconditional devotion to the love of Sappho might’ve lead to the ill-advised fan service and whitewashed banality that runs rampant in the yuri genre, the show makes a strong, if not entirely spotless initial impression. I’m definitely no champ when it comes to interpreting symbolism, but after watching this first episode twice, Yurikuma Arashi seems to me to be all about the contrast between platonic and passionate love, which in the ever-stagnating yuri genre seem to be as irreconcilable as water and oil. The humans, with their collective collectedness, euphemistic speech and pervasive insistence on remaining ‘transparent’, represent the sunshine-and-lollipops ‘all-girls school’ ideal of yuri, with more blushing, hand-holding and flower petals than a healthy viewer can handle, while the bears, with their blatantly sexualized outfits and unabashed fixation on ‘eating’, stand for passion and sexual desire.

Needless to say, Ginko and Lulu’s behaviour ends up invoking some highly unfortunate rape analogies, which I’d come down on a lot harder if it weren’t for the fact that Kunihiko Ikuhara is in the writer’s chair. The man tends to know what he’s doing when it comes to sexuality in all its facets, and Yurikuma Arashi like his previous works displays a rare potential for respectfully representing both the joys and terrors of sexuality. From the judge’s pedestal in the Severance Court, Ikuhara leads an open-ended discussion on the show’s events in the guise of a trio of man-bears striving for nuance between the dated, but safe “human” conservatism and the progressive, but seemingly dangerous “bear”  liberation. It’s a battle of two kinds of love between girls: the ‘special’ friendship between young girls that society welcomes as long as they grow out of it in time to marry a man, versus genuine sexual attraction that is often perceived as nothing but deviancy and immoral lust.

Of course, there are no good guys and bad guys when Ikuhara’s running the show, and if Yurikuma Arashi continues down the line I’m anticipating on here, I hope it’ll set out to provide a balanced view on the age-old battle between eros and philia. For the man who has more than once made a distinct link between sex and evil, it’ll be interesting to see him paint the topic in a positive daylight — but  in any case, there is no doubt that we can expect a positive, progressive take on queer love. That in itself is already an achievement for the medium at large. With Yurikuma Arashi, the depressingly undermanned canon of non-fetishized, white-washed or heteronormative LGBT anime is at least one show richer, and from the looks of it, it’s gonna be a damn fine one at that.

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Gee’s verdict: Teddie Already Took All The Good Bear Puns

I’ll admit I’m not the biggest Ikuhara fan around, and other than Utena, I can’t say I’ve really enjoyed any of his other works. For better or worse, Yurikuma Arashi is yet another typical entry in the man’s repertoire. The first episode was rife with bizarre symbolism and surreal imagery. While undoubtedly pretty to look at, there wasn’t enough for me to grab onto to stay truly invested. I’m of the mind that a show must have a hook of some kind in its first episode, no matter how minor. While I have no doubt that it has more than enough content and imagery for some to latch onto, I’m not the kind who has the patience for it. I cannot condemn its intent, but there’s not enough tangible aspects for me to stay committed.

Artemis’s verdict: That’s A Lot Of Licking (But Possibly Not Much Else)

I’m all for anime that push the boundaries of creativity, and god knows I have an extra soft spot for titles that also happen to challenge normative views on sexuality, but I’m not yet convinced that Yurikuma Arashi will do either. Heavy symbolism is all well and good, but where’s the line between genuine social commentary and metaphors that exist just for the sake of being trippy or ‘highbrow’ entertainment? I’ll give Yurikuma Arashi a fair shot, but I won’t stick around purely for Ikuhara’s sake if the content isn’t strong enough to stand on its own.

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