Where do I even begin with the synopsis for Sarazanmai? This is Ikuhara’s latest, so those who know his style already know that nothing is as it seems. But writing out what happens at face value is half the fun, so here we go: Kazuki Yasaka is a soft-spoken young man who is somewhat obsessed with Azuma Sara, some kind of idol who appears on a giant tv screen in Asakusa, and has a ritual of a)listening to her daily fortune and b)sending selfies to someone as per her recommendation. He also carries a box with his ‘secret’ inside – something that, apparently – other characters in the show do too. After a chance meeting with Tooi Kuji, a delinquent kid (who later ends up being a transfer student), the two accidentally break a statue of a kappa – the famous duck-like, frog-like monsters from Japanese folklore, and since then are haunted by the sound of bells and the desire to do kappa-like things. They are both compelled to return to the site of their crime, where they find a real (albeit much more cartoonish) kappa has come out of the statue that only they can see – Keppi, the heir to the Kappa kingdom – who needs their help with something. After the boys refuse to help him, he gets angrier when they call him a frog, and so steals the boys’ shirikodama, which turns them both into kappa themselves. It’s worth pointing out here that a shirikodama is a mythical human organ found inside the butthole, and he does this by forcibly yanking them out from there. Its also worth noting that he turns them into kappa by shitting them out of his own butthole. Are you still with me.
Right. The whole time this is going on, a strange phenomenon involving the boxes flying away is happening, and with Keppi’s instruction, the three kappa boys (Kazuki’s friend Enta also ends up turned into one) have to fight some kind of zombie via musical number to stop him from stealing all of the boxes. Which they do by diving into his butthole to extract his shirikodama. But once they have it, Keppi tells them to transfer it to him via a ritual called Sarazanmai – which results in the other two boys learning Kazuki’s secret – that he has been dressing up as Sara and taking selfies. And that’s just the first episode.
Congratulations, Ikuhara! I didn’t think you could do it, but you managed to make a first episode even more confrontingly ludicrous than Yuri Kuma Arashi‘s! Ever since Sarazanmai was first announced some time last year, I had been eagerly awaiting it, although had absolutely no idea what I would be in for. After this first episode…I honestly still don’t, but man, what a ride. There’s a looot to digest here, and like other Ikuhara anime, it’s probably going to take the entire episode run to get to the bottom of things. To be honest, I had to watch this episode twice because there is so much going on and required me to write so many notes that I ended up missing things. This first episode certainly gives us a lot of clues to work with, and many of them are similar motifs to what we can see in his other work.
There are recurring signs and symbols (boxes, kappa, signs with the katakana ‘a’ all around the setting of Asakusa, background people represented by icons, an otter with a ball), as well as a whole load of dishes. The word Sarazanmai could be translated as “3 dishes”, Kappa have dishes on their heads, the idols name is Sara (dish) and she has a verbal tic of ending everything with ”dish”, the Kappabashi street in Asakusa is renowned for selling cooking utensils and crockery…especially dishes. Ikuhara wouldn’t be stressing dishes so much if they weren’t important, and they clearly are, but exactly what they represent at this stage I honestly have no idea. The metaphor with the boxes holding ones secret desires is a little easier to comprehend.
The two main themes, at least in this episode, are ”connections” and ”desires” – and the main ones that get the focus in this episode closely related – Kazuki crossdresses as Sara in order to have a connection with somebody. When I first watched the episode I thought that the connection was with Sara herself – and it was initially unclear whether he was only dressing up as her or whether he actually was her. But it was only when I rewatched it that I realized that when we see ”what really happened”, Kazuki in costume looks different to what we saw in the beginning of the episode. (He does look like Kazuki in a wig and a dress, whereas the beginning of the episode leads us to believe its actually Sara taking a selfie). I had assumed Kazuki was exchanging selfies with himself, as both Sara and himself, but on my second rewatch I realized that he may actually sending them to somebody else, ”Harukappa”, who I think is his younger sister. Whatever is going on, he stresses multiple times throughout the episode that the connection is extremely important and that he can’t lose it, and once crytpically says ”this time for sure”, implying he once lost it in the past. Whatever he was doing with the cross-dressing, it was something he was incredibly ashamed of. When some of the initial iconography and trailers came out for Sarazanmai last year, there was a good deal of business with gender symbols and a whole load of speculation about whether Ikuhara would be tackling themes related to gender binaries or potentially either transgender themes, so I’m interested to see what happens here.
The other two boys also have boxes – we see that Enta’s contains some kind of soccer item that he intended to give to Kazuki, who has recently quit the soccer team, although its importance is not yet apparent. Kuji, on the other hand, has a gun – something that is only visible for a split second at the very beginning of the episode. The Sarazanmai ritual lets the boys see eachothers desires – although only Kazuki’s is shown properly, Enta does imply that he saw Kuji’s memory of trying to break into a car. As for the ”zombie” – that’s even more complex. In this episode at least, it’s some guy whose desire is to be naked and have boxes on his head and person, and has been stealing boxes for that purpose. (ok then) It’s not until the end of the episode that we find out that two policemen in Asakusa may be the people responsible for extracting these desires and turning the people with them into the zombies – and that’s where the repeated icon of the otter with the ball comes in. This cryptic icon was actually the very first thing revealed about the show back when it was first announced, and it honestly could mean anything at this point. (One note of interest though – Japan’s only native otters are extinct, and they do feature in folklore with a similar role to foxes as being devious) These two policemen – the characters I am actually the most interested in – also feature in a spinoff manga that started shortly before the anime..although I haven’t read it. I’m sure their relationship (or ”connection”) to each other will be important.
So, I’ve already spent this many words milling over the many, many details in this first episode (and not all of them), because that’s how goddamn dense it was, and I still haven’t even gotten to the meat of the review: Is the show good? Well, who knows at this point. I can say at least that I liked it a lot. It’s an absolute trip and completely off the wall even compared to Ikuhara’s previous works but it comes in a package so unbelievably beautiful and stylish that its hard to look away (no matter how bizarrely gross some of those butt scenes are). The setting of Asakusa is a great one to play with – it’s a very traditional area of Tokyo with a very particular aesthetic – and the use of colour and style is the best I’ve seen this year. The music, too, is top stuff – especially the track that plays when Kazuki’s secret comes out – which I really hope returns in every episode. My main concern going in was the fact that the boys all look quite young (I…don’t actually know how old they are) which had the potential to make all the butt stuff kinda uncomfy, but it’s so stylized and bizarre that its more weird than anything else. With the enemy zombie its more gross, but its hard to call any of it sexualised in any way.
I did decide way back that unless it was utterly terrible Sarazanmai was going to be the series I would blog, so here’s hoping every episode doesn’t take me so long (and so many words) to digest. I, for one, am excited to see what comes out of all this nonsense. If you like the kind of show that takes a while to fall into place and enjoy a whole lot of animated weirdness while that happens, then I would recommend it, but Ikuhara isn’t for everyone for this very reason – so I imagine it being one of the most polarizing shows of the year.