Sarazanmai‘s wild ride continues, which means it’s time to learn more about Kunihiko Ikuhara‘s creative mindset and the perfectly fitting team he assembled for the second episode’s needs.
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Shingo Kaneko
Chief Animation Director: Kayoko Ishikawa, Tomomi Kawatsuma
Animation Direction: Yayoi Takano
Assistant Animation Director: Mami Sodeyama
Main Animator: Yayoi Takano, Mayu Gushiken
Key Animation: Yayoi Takano, Tomomi Kawatsuma, Mayu Gushiken, Ayumi Nishihata, Manami Umeshita, Tomoaki Mimiura, Shoushi Ishikawa, Yukari Takano, Mamiko Matsumoto, Tomoki Kouda, Erika Nishihara, Maho Tomisaka, Satoshi Noma, Tetsuro Moronuki, Kazunori Ozawa, Masakazu Okada, Nobuyuki Takeuchi, Maimu Matsushima, Hiroshi Yoneda
Key Animation: Shingo Fujii
Kunihiko Ikuhara has gotten into the habit of publishing novelizations of his original shows before those are over. They’re essentially tidied up versions of the anime scripts, without many embellishments to speak of. Think for a moment about the tremendous confidence you need to have in your work to do that. On a superficial level, the hook of Ikuhara’s TV series is the intrigue, and yet he’ll publish the exact events depicted in the show ahead of the broadcast; the first novel containing the happenings of episodes one to six has been available for a few days, and the second one that’ll cover everything up until the end should be released around July. Just like he did with Yurikuma Arashi and Mawaru Penguindrum before.
Doubling down on this curious choice wasn’t an arbitrary decision. For starters, it’s representative of Ikuhara’s desire to have the puzzle solved – you can accuse his delivery of being cryptic all you want, but in his own way he does provide the tools to crack the code and get something that resembles his original intent. With Sarazanmai in particular, Ikuhara has also been focusing on the omnipresence of social media in our lives; not only is it shaping up to be a theme within the narrative, he also used a Twitter account accredited to the mysterious policemen Reo & Mabu to start vaguely spreading hints about their characters. The lines between the show and its surrounding elements keep getting blurred, spreading the storytelling efforts further than the TV receptacle. Perhaps above everything else, though, Ikuhara is aware that it’s the visual direction that makes his anime so special, so he can get away just fine with publishing detailed plots.
This is to say that, despite having heard about things that were going to happen, nothing had prepared me for stoner movie hijinks with shoujo romance embellishments.
The second episode of Sarazanmai sets the foundation for the events we’ll see unfold in the first half of the show. Keppi claiming that they’re going to need five dishes of hope to have their wishes granted hints clearly at the structure of this arc, while all the character reveals give us a better look at the conflicts they’ll face. Some key points have been spelled out already (Enta’s love for Kazuki, the lengths the latter would go for his little brother, the parallels between that and Toi’s own brotherly relationship), and the visuals are starting to hint at beats I presume will be closer to the endgame (Mabu not being alive anymore?). But when I think back on this episode, it won’t be the slowly unfolding narrative that I’ll remember the most. What’s bound to leave the biggest impression is how funny the nonsense that threaded it all together was, plus a certain scene everyone will be talking about after this episode. And both of them can be credited to an old friend of Ikuhara he very deliberately chose for this job.
You might recall Shingo Kaneko as the co-writer, storyboarder, and director of Mawaru Penguindrum‘s sixteenth episode, Immortal Man. His career is much more than that of course, but it’s always felt like a very representative piece. Not just because of how funny his work often is, but also of the inescapable link with Ikuhara. With just over a dozen episodes under his belt, Kaneko followed Ikuhara after his departure from Toei to become an assistant series director on Utena; as you can see, we weren’t kidding when we said he’s been mentoring new prospects all his career. Kaneko handled many episodes, and as it tends to happen when budding artists work with idiosyncratic creators for a long time, he absorbed as much as he could of his mentor’s style. But whereas Ikuhara tends to use his aesthetic influences – Osamu Dezaki’s anime, Shuji Terayama’s theater, classic shoujo manga – as a vehicle to explore our society’s systemic failures, Kaneko poses a simpler question: wouldn’t it be hilarious if you applied that beautiful ornate style to the most ridiculous comedy? The answer is yes, by the way.
That’s not to say that he’s a one trick pony. Kaneko can dial it down to fit into the laid back camp just fine, and he’s got the dramatic punches any Ikuhara follower should cultivate; the irreplaceable memories and bitter reveals in Yurikuma Arashi #08 became some of the most memorable moments in the show thanks to his delivery, for another good Ikuni-related example. That said, he has earned his reputation as Ikuhara’s comedy chief, and that’s something the man himself knows better than anyone else. Hence his appearance here, in a gloriously silly episode that may or may not also include waterboarding, drug dealing, and cat crimes. Though he didn’t take the classic shoujo imagery as far as iconic episodes like Penguindrum #04, the inherent ridiculousness of the couple (sorry Enta) chasing the feline weed thief meant that all it took a few tweaks to the art and an amusing storyboard to make the whole ordeal very funny. I’m still rooting for you, Nyantaro.
Last week I mentioned that it was tricky to tell exactly how many sequences would be used as stock footage because, sometimes to Ikuhara’s own frustration, the Toei Animation precepts on how to make anime are still ingrained in his brain. He hasn’t been forced to pay weekly tribute to toy makers nor worry about the economy of long-running productions for decades, and yet he’ll still rely on monster of the week structures and recurring transformations scenes. Regardless of the pragmatic reasons that started his focus on repetition, though, there’s no denying that Ikuhara’s tried to weaponize that approach. It gives his shows a unique rhythm, it serves to highlight particular themes via slight changes to the routine that feel huge to an audience who’d grown used to something, and it can also be a powerful comedic tool; the seizon senryaku in the aforementioned Penguindrum #16 remains one of the funniest moments in anime memory, in no small part because it twists a formula that already was emblematic by that point.
Getting across that his usage of repetition is deliberate won’t necessarily sell people on the idea, though, and that’s what makes me curious about the reception of Sarazanmai #02 among newcomers to Ikuhara’s wild ride. The reactions last week were as energetic as the episode itself, easily the most outrageous out of all his premieres. When an anime starts by joyously extracting butt-stored desire, traversing real-life dioramas of an ethereal world, performing kappa musicals, and nakedly revealing innermost secrets after diving into zombie rectums, right about everyone would be left speechless. But what if it does all that on a weekly basis? Even if long-time fans tell you that it’s rewarding in its own way and will eventually pay off anyway, I’d expect people who bought into the first episode for the constant feeling of surprise factor to become disenchanted once they grasp the nature of Ikuhara’s shows; don’t take this as a prediction so much as an observation of what I’ve noticed during previous Ikuhara broadcasts, potentially made worse by how explosive Sarazanmai‘s introduction was.
I happen to be one of those long-time Ikuhara fans, so I could be here all day defending that approach. Whether it’s the aforementioned reasons, the idea that repetition inherently fits his shows that tackle self-perpetuating systemic problems, or the magical girl belief that if something is cool once it’s cool forever, there are plenty of arguments that I believe support Ikuhara’s ways. Following his work for a long time also forces you to come into terms with the fact that it will simply never resonate with many people though, so all I can do at this point is hope that he keeps reaching viewers who need stories like his. There’s no changing him, after all. You thought there was a lot of stock footage in the first episode? There was still more!
After teasing it during the post-credits scene in the first episode, we finally get to see Reo and Mabu’s desire extraction sequence. Narratively, it’s immediately interesting for various reasons. Their actions are similar to the main trio removing the shirikodama from zombies as per Keppi’s orders – echoing the similarities between kappa and otter mythos in folklore – and yet the aftertaste their sequences leave is clearly different. Sure, both are amusing to watch, but details like the contrast between organic and mechanical imagery hint at the cops having chosen a more ominous path to address similar problems. At the same time, the overlapping iconography between that sequence and Kazuki’s introduction make me wonder about what kind of forceful extraction of desire might have happened in the show’s first scene – perhaps a life-threatening accident involving him and/or Haruka?
But regardless of the implications, one thing’s clear: that’s one wild sequence. Another one, in a show that wasn’t running short on them after a single episode. It’s also a very Shingo sequence. Everything was conceptualized by the aforementioned Kaneko, from the factory-themed dancing to the literal Utena shot at the end. While handing him the episode appears to have been a decision based on the compatibility with his comedic sensibilities, this special scene in particular feels more like a matter of trust; few people are as likely to understand exactly what Ikuhara wants than someone who’s been his directorial pupil for 20 years, so if he wasn’t going to be the one to handle it, Kaneko being appointed feels like a sensible choice.
What about the animation process, though? That’s where the other Shingo comes into play.
By sheer chance, it’s been quite the week for Shingo Fujii. Or more precisely, for Fujii’s fans, because a couple of works he did quite a long time ago happened to be released within days of each other. The craziest example is this promotional video for messaging app LINE’s new novel publishing service – cuter, likely more colorful and vibrant than the light novels that will be featured in the service, and so cool it’s hard to believe it spent an entire year sitting in some hard drive since he finished it before Spring 2018. As the director, storyboarder, and supervisor of the whole thing, it’s not surprising that it embodies Fujii’s qualities pretty well. He’s always had a knack for conceptualizing three-dimensional spaces in 2D animation, an ambition that’d be unsustainable were it not for his ability to preserve volume in the drawings no matter how much they move. Because of that, he’s been a highly regarded asset when it comes to action with involved camerawork, tricky perspective changes that require a bit of a computer brain (slide master Fujii), and of course, dancing!
Another defining aspect of his, which other websites will be too cowardly to mention, is that Fujii’s a big pervert (this is a joke, please don’t harass anyone for not keeping track of the kinkiness of creators). His passion for huge thighs is as well-known among fans as it is among animation directors who have to correct his drawings. His attention to sagginess and breast weight is on par with masters of the horny craft like Koichi Kikuta, only betraying realism when he thinks a bit of cartoony bounciness would be more attractive. You might think I’m exaggerating, but he’s genuinely sought out for his sauciness; look no further than the Pastel Memories ending he recently key animated all by himself. With all that in mind, it’s fair to say that dancing and sexiness are specialties of his. If only there was an anime in need to present two hot characters showing their moves.
Admittedly, the dancing doesn’t put as much emphasis on Reo and Mabu’s attractiveness as one could have hoped – save for a few stunning close-ups around the end supervised by the character designer Kayoko Ishikawa herself – but it does make use of Fujii’s other qualities. It should be easy to understand why the feeling of solidity of his drawings during constant motion situations is so sought after. Even when the animation becomes fully stylized, the cops’ silhouettes have an implied volume to them that feels like it should be at odds with the flat surface. From long shots to close-ups, few active animators in this industry can maintain the illusion of volumetry like Fujii does.
Our (not really) first post covering Sarazanmai was a look at Ikuhara’s team as a whole, so this time it felt more appropriate to focus on the modus operandi of a few key individuals to see how their skills and the show’s needs aligned perfectly. If you want a few larger scale comments before we wrap up, though, let me add that this was indeed another episode produced at Lapintrack as we’d anticipated – and considering who’s in charge of #03, it might take even longer to see MAPPA’s first contribution to Sarazanmai. Though this episode had a few shots with noticeable lower polish than anything in the premiere, this small team keeps doing an admirable job. Here’s hoping that continues as we move onto Enta’s tale next week!