Sarazanmai coverage is back with an extensive analysis of Kunihiko Ikuhara’s storytelling practices, the contributions of other creators involved, the meaning hiding behind certain recurring imagery, the state of the production, and some speculation fueled by endlessly rewatching this fascinating cartoon.
Though Sarazanmai #3’s greatest achievement was exposing Enta’s gay crush in a respectful manner while at the same time making his delusions into a running gag, I feel like his character arc will be best addressed later. In the following episodes he’s been showing hints of self-defeating attitudes that might rival Kazuki’s outrageously misdirected caring for Haruka, so I’m not confident we have a full grasp of his whole ordeal quite yet, as straightforward as his love is in some ways. What we can say for a fact about it, though, is that this third episode embodied how satisfying both short and long term reveals can be in Kunihiko Ikuhara anime.
Haruka is wheelchair bound. That’s information all characters were privy to, but the show obscured just about enough to the audience to keep us all guessing about the Yasaka family. And while I don’t usually buy into that kind of puzzle-solving storytelling, Ikuhara always seems to know how to make it a more humane process by linking the foreshadowing to the characters’ behavior. Ever since the initial teasers, we always saw Haruka stationary, sitting somewhere, accompanied by someone with a zealousness that couldn’t be explained simply by his young age; for a good example, look back at their father immediately getting up as Haruka said he wanted to go somewhere in episode #2. It wasn’t a mysterious note that clued us in: the family always lived according to the truth.
And of course, there’s the household itself, always a microcosm of its inhabitants in Ikuhara’s anime. The omnipresent rails, Haruka’s chair being a different color, the sliding doors, and all the clues that became more apparent after we got a clear view of the house once the gig was up. I believe that the long door handles were also meant to suit Haruka since they’re built similarly to the rails, but this before/after shot (episodes #2/#5) still did a good job at showing us how the family had to adapt to the accident. There’s something almost smug about the way the show returns to these locations as if to confirm that indeed, the truth was always there, but I can’t say I find it frustrating since it managed to fool me. You win this time, Ikuhara. Again.
In contrast to that long-term storytelling that makes you feel dumb in an arguably good way, the third episode also stood out because of more immediate reveals that instead make viewers feel like geniuses for anticipating them. That was done not only via the script – penned by Ikuhara and Teruko Utsumi as always – but also through its delivery, meaning some credit has to go to storyboarder and episode director Masato Jinbo. The gradual teasing of Haruka’s condition proved that, but I believe that the best example was Enta’s delusions. Those were all accompanied by musical cues in the form of appropriately melodramatic BGM, but the actual start was always marked by Kazuki telling Enta that they are connected to each other. And it’s precisely that consistent delivery that makes the final scene so neat. By delaying the theatrics, the ridiculous music and posing, but still making Enta begin his confession with that exact line, the audience is treated to a funny but painful 30 seconds where you know what’s coming. Overall it might not have been the fanciest episode, but #3 was by all means smartly constructed.
And speaking of Jinbo, there’s one aspect of Sarazanmai as a whole that I’d like to address. I wish production schedules were simply trivia, one detail to mention for those of you curious about the state of things behind the scenes and then move on. Unfortunately, the anime industry is what it is, and people’s works are regularly constrained by limited assets, staff availability, and especially time. This doesn’t simply mean that the quality of the animation takes a hit when things go awry, as it can be a more fundamental compromise of the director’s vision. Look no further than Revue Starlight, a series with Ikuhara DNA that only barely survived production hell; dazzling as the result still was, storyboarders involved in the second half of the show admitted they had to scale down their ideas because things were running so late that they knew they wouldn’t be feasible. To a lesser degree, Ikuhara’s own Yurikuma Arashi was also forced to cut corners rather aggressively.
If that sounds worrying, then you’ll be happy to know that I’m bringing this up because Sarazanmai‘s been blessed with a more comfortable situation. Though I can’t give you exact dates like I’ve done with other projects (Ikuhara’s secrecy means that everyone’s staying quiet even in private spheres), it’s fairly obvious that the show is in a good place, and that it’s been in the making for a long time. Ikuhara’s had Sarazanmai in mind ever since Yurikuma Arashi in 2015, and by 2016 it already was in pre-production in a very recognizable form. The production process appears to have happened at a similar leisure pace, if we go by the staff involved. The aforementioned Jinbo is directing and writing his own anime adaptation of Senryuu Shoujo on this same season, and yet he’s already handled two episodes of Sarazanmai just fine. The same goes to notable animation figures: Hiroshi Yoneda has drawn key animation for every single episode despite being active as the main animator of Kenja no Mago this season. Without an ample schedule, the apparent workload overlap for many individuals wouldn’t have been sustainable.
The results speak for themselves. While it’s not the fanciest animation effort you’ll come across, Sarazanmai‘s consistency is rather impressive for something that’s been managed by a small core team and a single tiny studio so far – more on that later. The pre-screenings several days before the broadcast of each episode have also continued without an issue, so don’t expect the show to collapse anytime soon. While Ikuhara himself has said that the show is currently in production, the situation at Lapintrack is far from the usual industry chaos. You might recall our recent piece illustrating how harmful collapsing schedules and the general environment can be for production assistants… meanwhile, Ikuhara is having fun with his management crew, dressing them as kappa for hilarious social media content. Despite having such tight control over many aspects of his works, the director himself spent many days attending his own exhibition and doing various activities with the cast. Again, very much unlike the crunch we tend to see staff immersed in. Everything seems to indicate there’s been a healthier environment, and we’re getting uncompromised Ikuhara goodness as a result, so nothing but good news in that front.
You know what qualifies as excellent news as well? Having renowned ex-SHAFT director Nobuyuki Takeuchi among your ranks, not just as chief director but also as the person directly in charge of episode #4. Toi and his brother couldn’t have asked for a better director to convey their story, which is a cocktail of Ikuhara ideas; family, sacrifice, the disenfranchised, and being rendered essentially invisible by the society at large are all concepts he returns to over and over, since those bonds and the systemic problems that threaten them are what preoccupies him in the first place. Of course, Takeuchi’s storyboards and direction externalized the character’s struggles as strikingly as ever. My personal highlight was the introduction to Toi’s traumatic flashback, wherein shadows warped into monsters as seen through the eyes of a scared child. The idea of unreliable visual narration was introduced via Toi’s first meeting with Kazuki in episode #1, and this was a very memorable way to bring it back.
That said, I could feel some disappointment by viewers who were aware of just how talented Takeuchi is. The previews promised a showcase of his visual quirks and that we got, but the people who expected the second coming of his solo effort in Mawaru Penguindrum #9 seemed a bit let down. Now I’m not going to tell anyone how they should feel about a cartoon, and that episode easily remains his magnum opus as far as I’m concerned, but I feel like that disappointment partly comes down to a misunderstanding of the roles of each episode and his own position. Back in Penguindrum, Takeuchi appeared as an alien force, someone with similar theatrical sensibilities to Ikuhara’s but very different means of expression. He produced a single episode almost singlehandedly, and the result was as dream-like for Himari as it was for us watching the show.
Sarazanmai, on the other hand, is a project that Takeuchi’s been conceptually involved with as chief series director. Arguably the person with the highest responsibility besides than Ikuhara and perhaps co-writer Utsumi. We’ve been seeing his ideas since quite literally the first scene, which he personally storyboarded and kept as a motif for the entire show. He no longer feels outside the norm because he is the norm, one of the individuals behind the imagery seen in Sarazanmai as a whole. And since Toi’s backstory didn’t seem like it’d benefit from having an entirely different flavor than the episodes that preceded it, I’m fine with this more modest stylistic departure.
On top of that, Takeuchi’s grasp on the cast as someone so deeply involved with this story allowed him to nail much subtler, personal mannerisms – from the contrast between Enta and Toi’s body language to the usage of the changing landscapes of Asakusa to illustrate the latter’s worries. Even the lowkey funniest gags were a direct product of Takeuchi being acquainted with the routine and knowing when to twist it. Toi standing much closer than the other two when asking Keppi to extract his shirikodama is a funny detail that he wouldn’t have included if he didn’t understand his character so well, and making the main trio hold thematically appropriate noodles during the musical was much funnier as a variation than it might have been otherwise. If an episode later down the line gives Takeuchi an opportunity to unleash his one of a kind, surreal staging I’ll be the first one to celebrate, but this subtler and more involved approach has plenty of merits too.
Shingo Fujii asked viewers to look forward to variations in the Reo & Mabu desire extraction dance that he fully key animated, and he sure wasn’t exaggerating. Weekly composite changes between episodes #2-5.
Tackling a handful of episodes in one post has turned out to be a questionable choice considering the density of ideas that Ikuhara and his team introduce on a weekly basis, but when it comes to #5-6, I’m glad I can address this arc in its entirety. Kazuki was my kind of deeply flawed human being/kappa from the get-go so I had a lot of fun watching him steal cats and plan abductions after very deliberately seducing his friend… but there was always something tragic about his actions. Regardless of his harsh words, his rejection of family traditions, he clearly loved them a great deal. But consumed by guilt over Haruka’s incident and feeling like he might not deserve a place in that household in the first place, Kazuki had been acting in a deliberately self-harming way for a while. It took his friends’ rejection of another Penguindrum-like sacrifice, and Haruka convincing him that he does have a circle of belonging of his own, for Kazuki to stop giving up. The episode’s title card drop, the first one containing a positive affirmation in the show, hit harder than ever.
Rewarding emotional climax aside, there are a few short notes on the production of these episodes that I wanted to share. I already mentioned that I find #5 to be a great example of Ikuhara’s inescapable presence as an anime creator; despite not participating as either storyboarder or episode director, his uniquely detailed scriptwriting and guidance as project leader are enough to end up with an episode chockfull of imagery that viewers would assume came directly from his hand. It’s worth noting that this episode was handled by Kaori Makita, a director often affiliated with MAPPA and whose presence seemed to indicate that the studio would work on Sarazanmai for the first time. And of course, they didn’t. I have no doubt that Makita was contacted by MAPPA’s co-animation producer Manabu Otsuka, but if your studio’s only tangible achievement is contacting someone after 6 episodes and yet you’re the company getting all credit, something’s gone a bit wrong.
When it comes to episode #6, I’ve got to highlight Katsunori Shibata‘s work as director and storyboarder for the second half specifically, making sure it wasn’t just emotionally resonant but also a thrilling ride. Ikuhara trusts him as his action specialist of sorts, hence why he keeps appearing in moments like this episode’s climax, the stock footage, and the opening itself to handle the craziest scenes. Having animation stars like Soichiro Matsuda making a guest appearance also helps, of course! But truth to be told, this episode made me want to talk about directorial precepts rather than sakuga goodness, especially since there’s one idea I don’t see mentioned much. To put it simply, Sarazanmai has coded desire to water imagery.
What does that mean? Water’s notoriously all over the stock footage; weaponized during the singing, exploding all over after the kappa zombies are defeated, and again dominating the screen during the connection sequence. Perhaps most importantly, it appears in key moments during the cryptic Reo and Mabu dance. Haruka is now the living proof that when the otter machinery tries to process love it gets rejected by the system, but on a nearly weekly basis we see what happens when desire gets dropped into it: a huge water splash, forming a crown – perhaps a reference to Black Keppi’s royalty status. And speaking of the d-d-d-darkness devil himself, we saw him burst out in a desire malfunction within a room flowing with water. In the Reo and Mabu sequence, it’s the one cut with Black Keppi in the background that’s entirely underwater as well.
To be perfectly honest, this isn’t much of a revelation in the first place. If you weren’t watching Sarazanmai and someone presented you a list of keywords, you might be able to realize water is the unspoken common link. Kappa and otters both inhabit places rich in water. Locations like Asakusa and more specifically Kappabashi, the real setting of the show, which is inherently tied to the Sumida River. As per the folklore, kappa need water to stay alive, and we also know for a fact in Sarazanmai’s setting these two factions went to war over a certain resource: desire energy. To reach the otters that emerged victorious, the main characters have to dive underwater, while the kappa we know of are currently aboveground, drying their bald spots. The parallels between water and desire never seem to end.
Since the series presents a dichotomy of desire versus love, having one of those elements visually and narratively codified in such an apparent way made me curious if the other would as well… and it might? Though I’m not as confident as I am about the desire part of the equation, the new incarnation of the child broiler leaving behind nothing but ground up dust under a giant painting that reads love feels like it’d be too perfect of an accident in contrast to the liquid of desire. We’ll have to stay on the lookout to see if that becomes a recurring motif as well.
And now that I’ve already started unleashing my conjectures, let me end with a section I’ll call “I want to speculate, but I know most of this will be wrong (and that’s fun too).”
– Following the previous train of thought about desire being represented by water, I’m now wondering about potential environmentalist readings of Sarazanmai. That’s not to say I expect it to become the main theme, but the fight for an energy source, the heavily industrialized faction having seized control, the earth itself appearing in their facilities, and a species being endangered all have a shared thread about the environment. If I’m entirely off-base, that’s a fun coincidence.
– This isn’t speculation so much as an observation, but the red gadgets we see all over the otter machinery are actually the streetlights around the Azuma bridge, which are based on the real thing as seen on the ending sequence. Incidentally, the only time we see one of those streetlights aboveground in a zone that isn’t immediately close by the bridge is in front of the police station at the epicenter of the otter’s activities. The real-life location doesn’t have one of those and neither does the prequel manga, which appears to confirm it was placed there as part of the otter’s gradual reforming of the city. Their existence might not have a precise meaning – trying to decipher every element in an Ikuhara work by itself doesn’t seem like the best way to engage with them – but their placement’s already been plenty deliberate.
– And speaking of deliberate architecture, it’s not exactly a secret that Tokyo Skytree is a motif in Sarazanmai. It’s been the most omnipresent landmark since the teaser videos, its construction was included in Ikuhara’s curated timeline of events, and the otter faction is using it in some capacity. It serves as an elegant time marker since it was conspicuously missing from Reo and Mabu’s pre-anime adventures, plus it embodies relentless progress that’s relevant to Toi’s situation in particular. Is the fact that it’s a broadcasting tower related to the main theme of communication? Since Ikuhara’s joked about rejected Tokyo Tower for the role and that had a similar purpose, let’s go with that. It sounds nice anyway.
– The storyboarder for episode #7 goes by the pen name Ryuunosuke Yoshiyuki (吉行龍之介), which I initially thought was a nod to late author Junnosuke Yoshiyuki (吉行淳之介)… until I talked with a friend about the existing theories among Japanese fans that Sarazanmai draws ideas from Kappa by Ryuunosuke Akutagawa (芥川龍之介). Chances are that it’s a play on the both of them, but the latter seems especially relevant now. We’ll be back soon to say whether that turned out to hold any water or not!
Key Animation: Tomomi Kawatsuma, Mayu Gushiken, Shoushi Ishikawa, Yukari Takano, Tomoki Kouda, Manami Umeshita, Shouko Suzuki, Saki Tanaka, Tsubasa Hatashima, Shoichi Funaki, Mayumi Nakamura, Hisao Muramatsu, Saori Hosoda, Eiichi Tominaga, Kahoru Fujiki, Mari Futamatsu, Maho Tomisaka, Natsuho Iwaida, Yasunori Miyazawa, Maimu Matsushima, Nobuyuki Takeuchi, Hiroshi Yoneda
Storyboard: Nobuyuki Takeuchi
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Nobuyuki Takeuchi, Yayoi Takano
Chief Animation Director: Kayoko Ishikawa, Tomomi Kawatsuma
Animation Direction: Yayoi Takano, Shoushi Ishikawa, Ayumi Nishihata
Main Animator: Yayoi Takano, Mayu Gushiken
Key Animation: Yayoi Takano, Shoushi Ishikawa, Tomomi Kawatsuma, Yukari Takano, Mami Sodeyama, Mitsuteru Kubo, Kunio Takahide, Tomoki Kouda, Yoshie Endou, Asuka Nakaji, Masae Nakayama, Yoshimi Shizu, Kaneko Okutani, Kumiko Kawahara, Masumi Hoshino, Keiko Watanabe, Kotoko Komatani, Natsuho Iwaida, Maimu Matsushima, Nobuyuki Takeuchi, Hiroshi Yoneda
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Kaori Makita
Chief Animation Director: Kayoko Ishikawa, Tomomi Kawatsuma
Animation Direction: Mayu Gushiken, Mami Sodeyama, Manami Umeshita, Yayoi Takano
Main Animator: Yayoi Takano, Mayu Gushiken
Key Animation: Mayu Gushiken, Mami Sodeyama, Manami Umeshita, Tomomi Kawatsuma, Shoushi Ishikawa, Yukari Takano, Tomoaki Mimiura, Yusuke Adachi, Masayuki Yoshida, Maho Tomisaka, Miho Sasaki, Naoko Ise, Shunryo Yamamura, Kanako Ono, Shinya Kameyama, Nobuyuki Takeuchi, Maimu Matsushima, Hiroshi Yoneda
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Katsunori Shibata, Noriko Hashimoto
Chief Animation Director: Kayoko Ishikawa, Tomomi Kawatsuma
Animation Direction: Noriko Tsutsumiya, Mayu Gushiken, Mami Sodeyama, Shoushi Ishikawa, Yukari Takano, Natsuho Iwaida, Manami Umeshita, Takatoshi Honda
Main Animator: Yayoi Takano, Mayu Gushiken
Key Animation: Mayu Gushiken, Shoushi Ishikawa, Yukari Takano, Mami Sodeyama, Tomoki Kouda, Tomoyoshi Tsuchiya, Minoru Morita, Shoichi Funaki, Yusuke Adachi, Yasunori Aoki, Shouko Suzuki, Atsushi Ogata, Toshiyuki Yoshioka, Yuichirou Yamada, Shohei Usami, Yuuki Iwai, Aya Yamaguchi, Yuki Nakajima, Ritsu Tominaga, Saki Hisamatsu, Manami Umeshita, Ayumi Abe, Aiba Kawasaki, Soichiro Matsuda, Yasunori Miyazawa, Hiroshi Yoneda