We’re back with another lengthy Sarazanmai piece that focuses on Kunihiko Ikuhara’s unique storytelling, including shortcomings that the team is aware of and is attempting to address in an interesting, thematically-appropriate way. As usual, plenty of production & staff details and all sorts of fun speculation too!
We’ve mentioned before that Kunihiko Ikuhara’s work is in many ways a result of his upbringing, to a degree that it sometimes irks the man himself. I’m not only referring to his family situation and the creators whose works spoke to him during his formative years – those having a tangible effect on the themes that an artist chooses to pursue is a pretty standard affair after all. But beyond that, Ikuhara carries another kind baggage: the Toei Animation mentality.
As we’ve also talked about before, that manifests itself in pretty fundamental precepts of his anime-making formula. The abundance of stock footage is the clearest instance of Ikuhara repurposing customs of toyetic and otherwise long-running shows like those Toei specializes in, long after having moved on from projects like that. And while he’s been able to gear that propensity towards his personal goals – repetition being the way he represents the systemic, self-perpetuating social issues he wants to address – there are other old quirks that he’s struggled to capitalize on.
On that less fortunate end of things, there’s an equally obvious example: the economy of runtime. Before heading projects of his own, most of Ikuhara’s contributions to anime were on TV shows which all spanned 3-4 cours at the very least. Once Sailor Moon gave him an opportunity as series director, he found himself learning the ropes again in that long-running anime space. Even as he left Toei, Utena still granted him a fairly generous number of episodes and a complimentary movie. But fast-forward a dozen years of no Ikuhara-led anime and you find Penguindrum’s 24 episodes, which led to blatantly cut content. Next came Yurikuma’s 12, compromising the characterization more fundamentally. And now we’re dealing with an Ikuhara anime that will only span 11 episodes, as per noitaminA’s tradition.
If you’re thinking that plenty of creators fare just fine with that kind of runtime, you’re entirely right… though I personally think that the rigid TV format is one of the most insidious creative limitations anime staff regularly face, but let’s leave that argument for another day. What’s more relevant here is that Ikuhara isn’t your standard director, so even though others feel comfortable within 1 cours runtimes, he absolutely doesn’t. Those deeply rooted teachings about long-running anime, the abstraction that’s also inseparable from his style, his thematic ambition, and that unwillingness to compromise that kept him away from the industry for over a decade make for a very dangerous cocktail when the scale of your project demands efficiency.
This isn’t to say that time is the be-all-end-all when it comes to selling the appeal of your cast – Ikuhara’s many charismatic and immediately likable characters go a long way – but it is a great help when you’re struggling to humanize them and thus ground all those neat ideas that you might be presenting. This is a fairly accepted shortcoming even among his fervent fans, which I count myself among. Hell, it’s one that the director himself is aware of.
And that’s the silver lining. Ikuhara knows that his storytelling stumbles when he’s not granted enough episodes, and when it comes to Sarazanmai, he’s making an effort to address that.
Has Ikuhara changed the way he makes anime then, opting for more time-efficient storytelling? Absolutely not. If anything he’s doubled down, considering how extensive Sarazanmai’s weekly routines are. While he’s too much of a stubborn veteran to change his ways, though, he’ll always have a knack coming up with ingenious solutions to get away with his nonsense without compromising it. And in this case, that means exploiting the anime’s surrounding materials to the point that they’re not so much supplementary pieces as integral parts of the intended experience.
It’s not a secret that Ikuhara hasn’t always seen eye to eye with manga versions of the titles he’s directed, but ever since he settled on this current workflow where he seeks illustrators he wants to work with, the collaborations have gone quite smoothly. Akiko Morishima‘s Yurikuma Arashi comic serves as healing after the ultimately uplifting but still harsh TV series, for one. And with Sarazanmai, Ikuhara’s taken everything a step further. Our first taste of the series was a one volume manga that he wrote himself, which shares the anime’s continuity (or is at least related to it) and has proven to be a key asset for the viewers who want to crack Ikuhara’s code, while at the same time packing some emotional groundwork that couldn’t be fit into the show proper.
Is that an ideal solution? Perhaps not, but it’s an interesting one, especially when you consider other avenues that Ikuhara and his team have chosen to explore. For thematic reasons, the most interesting of them all is an in-character Twitter account that ran for months, again providing invaluable information and personal context for many events we see in the TV series. Considering that one of the main goals of Sarazanmai is questioning the truthfulness of our bonds in this modern society where tools like the internet keep us permanently connected to others, using social media to illustrate one of the most important relationships that the show couldn’t fully cover is an intriguing approach. In the radio show, Ikuhara himself has commented on how the internet has fundamentally changed the consumption and criticism of media, and blurring the lines of his own work appears to be a way to address that too. Again, perhaps not a perfect solution, but a fascinating one nonetheless. Which is to say, the Ikuhara experience in a nutshell.
The reason why we’re tackling this now should be obvious to anyone who’s decided to engage with all those “side” materials. The first manga serialization ran under the name Reo and Mabu: Together They’re Sarazanmai, and the aforementioned Twitter account is also shared between the two policemen. Now that their tale is becoming increasingly more important to the events in the TV show, it felt like the perfect time to issue a reminder that there’s more to them than immediately meets the eye.
If it serves to pique your curiosity even more, I’ll add that both of them cover different key points prior to the TV show; that means that they don’t just hold precious info, but have also added another extra layer of enjoyment as fans try to piece together a functional timeline. Besides showing us their happy daily life together, the Reo and Mabu manga is also revealing about another intriguing character: everyone’s beloved kappa idol Sara. Throughout the course of 11 chapters we see the cops come across a magical baby they name over the plate she was found on, have plenty of food and police hijinks that Ikuhara had stored up in his brain for a buddy cop series he never got to make… and then it ends, with a short glimpse of adult Sara. Reading it is advisable, but beware that for now it’ll raise more questions than it’ll answer.
Similarly, their Twitter account remains kind of a mystery. The posts happened regularly for a handful of months before the broadcast of the anime, though contextual clues allowed fans to deduce that those tweets were sent in-universe between late 2007 and Q1 2008 – over a decade before the events in the anime, without a definitive indication on whether it was before or after the manga. The conversations the two have used their shared account illustrate another side of their relationship, and as things vaguely take a turn for the serious, we also begin seeing the changes to the setting itself. If you’re curious, our very good friend and Ikuni fandom godsend Good Haro is hosting an archive of all their messages with her translations, notes, and references of the real locations. Well worth a read, even if you don’t have aspirations of predicting what’s happening ahead of time.
Does that mean you’re doing something wrong if you choose to only engage with the TV anime itself? Obviously not, and I’m going out of my way to type this out because there are way too many people online with the self-assigned mission to police the way others experience media. I do recommend that you give those a read if you’re digging Sarazanmai though, since you’ll get to appreciate countless details, from the reason behind framing Reo and Mabu’s relationship through food to the gradual otterification of Asakusa.
That said, I wouldn’t even argue that it’s necessary to grasp the conflict between the two. Experiencing snapshots of Mabu’s change gives you a clearer picture of Reo’s distress, and of course, reading up on their past will let you understand why a bunch of fans are crying at broccoli and half-baked ningyoyaki. And yet, the core issue is something very universal that Ikuhara’s been talking about in interviews: the irrational yet very human desire of wanting your loved one to stay exactly the same as you perceived them (not even what they were) when falling in love.
It’s a very natural reaction that we see in Reo and Enta – and on a more abstract sense, Kazuki’s fear of his family changing and Toi’s rejection of the city’s evolution – but one that can cloud our vision and deafen our ears. Going back to Reo and Mabu’s example, the latter’s actual affection appears unchanged, but his words aren’t reaching a partner who isn’t trying to listen. And, credit where credit is due, that is something that I feel like the anime conveys well enough by itself. If you want more meat to those bones I encourage you to seek out the complementary materials that this time are arguably more than that, but on a thematic level it feels like Ikuhara’s conveying his message as well as ever.
And speaking of the devil, I’m weirdly pleased about my personal favorite Kazuki remaining a disaster of a person. One might think that sorting out his family situation, as seen by his return to the clothes he rejected before, would solve his problems, but the truth is that Kazuki’s issues are even more deeply rooted. Ever since the teasers, he’s been the most vocal about protecting his bonds this time around, and we do see a healthier attempt at that when he’s the one to take a proactive role on fixing the precious place that had been mysteriously sabotaged. Unfortunately, he also happens to be quite the (un)believable dumbass. If Enta represents the unfair part of Reo that demands his partner stays the same forever, then Kazuki resembles the side of him that’s frustratingly deaf to the people who surround him screaming I love you to his face. I don’t have much of a horse in the shipping races this time around besides using it as a vector for nice fanart, but I can say I understand people who pair up Enta and Toi as the two victims of Kazuki’s crap.
This time we’ve focused a lot on the production at large – how Ikuhara and his team structured the entire project, the effects that had on the storytelling, and even the thematic reasoning behind some of those decisions. Since I know many readers tune in for the more animation production specific production talk though, let’s do a quick overview of the important aspects of these two episodes.
As we said around the end of the previous post, the storyboarder for episode #07 hid their real name behind a pen name referencing authors whose works have something to do with Sarazanmai. No one outside the tight-lipped team seems to have any idea about the perpetrator’s identity, but I suspect it’s someone who’s very fond of intense depth of field and racking focus usage; since both the second half of episode #06 and the entirety of #07 were directed by Noriko Hashimoto and only the latter exhibits those quirks, it’s fair to assume that the instructions were written on the storyboard already. Cute bird, by the way.
The more interesting storyboarding effort of the two was arguably episode #08. In particular, the parallels between certain events and Yurikuma Arashi #11 – spoilers for the gay bears show, if you never got around to watching it. The plot beats are similar in the first place, but the way the execution of those ideas is mirrored couldn’t be explained if they didn’t share stylistic DNA… which they do, of course. That episode of Yurikuma was boarded by multitalented creator Masayuki Kurosawa: digital artist, editor (a role he’s undertaken in Sarazanmai), director, and sometimes storyboarder as well. Despite not being credited for it in the episode, we know for a fact that Kurosawa co-storyboarded Sarazanmai #08 as well. Why are we so sure? Because they issued an official apology explaining that he should have been credited. Oops! That said, a key shot in that Yurikuma episode was clearly borrowed from Takuya Igarashi’s work in Sailor Moon, so I’m pretty sure that Ikuhara is entitled to callbacks to his pupils’ imagery whenever he pleases.
I’d also like to note that both episodes featured a fairly different animation team than we’d been seeing in previous weeks. That handful of core animators you see credited in every single episode still showed up, but otherwise they were carried by freelancers doing their first contributions to Sarazanmai. That made plenty of sense with #07 since it was the first episode managed by Teruko Utsumi – co-writer, plastic model builder, and now also production assistant for Sarazanmai. After she brought over her own acquaintances, though, #08 featured even more newcomers despite being managed by a production assistant who’d already overseen the creation of previous parts of the show, so it seems like the main team simply needed a bit of a break to be able to tackle the final episodes properly. If only there had been another studio that’s contributed essentially nothing to the actual production who could have stepped up for one week…
Before we end, let me bring back the “I want to speculate, but I know most of this will be wrong (plus miscellaneous notes I’ve got laying around)” section, since that proved to be the most fun.
– I subscribe to the theory that Sara’s hijinks freezing Keppi were meant to hid the fact that she was intentionally boycotting him to protect her cop dads. The scrolling messages outright spelled it out – she remembers Reo and Mabu clearly and doesn’t think they could be evil, so it’s not far-fetched to think that she’d try to protect them somehow. Those same text crawls confirmed that Sara and Keppi found each other back in episode two, and yet it wasn’t until recently that we saw them interact with each other. Regardless of their amusing lovey-dovey act, we don’t know for a fact that they share the same goals.
– Speaking of which: considering the special relationship between Ikuhara and Anno, I get the feeling that the presentation of the Secret Anti-Otter Weapon was a nod to the latter’s old work. If you’ve seen the likes of Gunbuster, this should be immediately recognizable.
– Right after the broadcast of #08, the official website was updated with information about the upcoming episode as it always is. Within minutes of publishing this synopsis, though, the blurb was replaced by something entirely different, leaving fans wondering whether that had been a mistake (accidentally sharing details of a future episode perhaps?). Considering the team’s awareness of how the culture of anime consumption has changed, and the fact that the site has been very reliable – they got Kurosawa’s involvement right in advance despite the official credits failing to mention him – I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that they’re intentionally screwing with us.
– Regardless of whatever it ends up being about, did you hear that the next episode will be handled by beloved chief director Nobuyuki Takeuchi once again? You probably did, since it’s hard to miss the endless screaming in anticipation. I’d talk about other exciting upcoming appearances, but since the information isn’t public, I guess I’m not supposed to do that. Apropos of nothing, have I ever told you about Korean animation superstar Moaang, affiliated with studio Makaria, whose Ikuni love is not a secret at all? Sure would be nice to see someone like that get an important role in Sarazanmai, huh.
– Definitely-not-leaks aside, I’ve got an actual production prediction that extends beyond Sarazanmai itself. Studio C-Station’s quiet presence in this show has been important, in particular with key figures like Shingo Kaneko and the aforementioned Kurosawa, and ultimately all roads lead to Yurucamp‘s crew somehow. The chances that Ikuhara will pay back favors by directing an OP/ED for one of Yurucamp‘s sequels are above zero, which means I have to type this out somewhere on the internet just in case it actually happens. And that’s how I’m choosing to end another long Sarazanmai essay, with the wish I didn’t know I had for Ikuhara to work on a chill camping cartoon.
Storyboard: Ryuunosuke Yoshiyuki
Episode Direction: Tomomi Kawatsuma
Chief Animation Director: Kayoko Ishikawa, Tomomi Kawatsuma
Animation Direction: Noriko Tsutsumiya, Miki Takihara, Mami Sodeyama
Main Animator: Yayoi Takano, Mayu Gushiken (Production I.G Niigata)
Key Animation: Mayu Gushiken, Michiko Takahashi, Masumi Hoshino, Ryota Obana, Masashi Nishikawa, Yoshiko Minamihara, Atsushi Ogata, Shohei Usami, Tomoko Tomita, Akiko Konno, Tomomi Ueda, Yuri Nakajima, Minoru Morita, Yuji Hamada, Takeshi Imai, Yukari Takano, Shoushi Ishikawa, Nobuyuki Takeuchi, Maimu Matsushima, Hiroshi Yoneda
Storyboard: Shingo Kaneko, Masayuki Kurosawa (uncredited)
Episode Direction: Shingo Kaneko
Chief Animation Director: Kayoko Ishikawa, Tomomi Kawatsuma
Animation Direction: Mayu Gushiken, Yayoi Takano, Manami Umeshita, Michiko Takahashi, Yukari Takano
Main Animator: Yayoi Takano, Mayu Gushiken (Production I.G Niigata)
Key Animation: Yukari Takano, Shoushi Ishikawa, Michiko Takahashi, Keigo Nagao, Yusuke Adachi, Taro Miura, Asami Hayakawa, Tsubasa Hatashima, Eri Taguchi, Ayumu Tsukamoto, Hiroki Takiguchi, Yuki Nakajima, Saki Hisamatsu, Atshi Ogata, Hikaru Kodama, Junko Matsushita, Kaoru Maehara, Shota Tsukiyama, Mariko Komatsu, Takako Hara, Hiroshi Yoneda