What’s Going On in Sarazanmai?

Dishing on this spring’s wildest new title

If you haven’t seen Sarazanmai yet, you can’t even begin to fathom its weirdness. If you have seen it… you probably still can’t even begin to fathom its weirdness.

The series is the latest from director Kunihiko Ikuhara, who brought us the surreal wonders that were Revolutionary Girl Utena, Yurikuma Arashi, and Mawaru Penguindrum. His latest work is just as wild, if not more so, blending Japanese legend with his trademark surreal artistry.

A quick summary for the uninitiated: in Sarazanmai, a trio of high school boys from Asakusa find themselves recruited by a kappa to become kappas themselves. When they turn into the mythical creatures, they have the ability to see and fight “kappa zombies”: people in town whose desires have turned them into giant monsters. In order to defeat the kappa zombies, the boys must unite mentally—meaning at least one of them will have a big, embarrassing secret revealed—and extract the monster’s shirikodama, a mythical organ located inside the anus. Basically, it’s like Pacific Rim with butt stuff.

We’re only a handful of episodes in, and while saying things are starting to make sense would be a stretch, it’s fair to say a lot of Ikuhara’s regular themes are coming into play. And while I sincerely doubt I can predict exactly where Sarazanmai will take us, I can hazard a few guesses as to what sorts of things we can expect based on what we’ve seen in his other shows.

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Our key players are probably somewhere in the background… or in the past.

Ikuhara loves generational stories, both literal and figurative. In Revolutionary Girl Utena, our title character is largely unconnected to the conflict that started the whole story, which kicked off long, long before she ever came to Ohtori Academy.

Penguindrum takes place across literal decades, with different sets of people discovering unexpected connections. And Yurikuma Arashi, in both its largely divergent manga and anime forms, plants the seeds of its story in relationships and conflicts that took place amongst the generation prior to our protagonists.

Whatever caused the kappa zombie filled, weird otter police patrolled, ア-centric scenario Kazuki and his friends find themselves in, it’s probably not new. And whoever is at the center of it all, they’re buried somewhere deep in the cast.

Maybe it’s Haruka, Kazuki’s kid brother, whose story is just now starting to come to light. Maybe it’s Enta’s grandmother, the first person to voice a concern about the kappas’ curse. Or maybe it’s someone we haven’t met yet. Either way, Ikuhara does love to spring his motivators on us out of nowhere.

There are other worlds than these.

Sarazanmai takes place in the very real Tokyo district of Asakusa, an “old town” area with a heavy connection to kappa legends. There really is a kappa statue right where you see it in the show (just not posing like that), and the Kaminarimon the trio ride through before each battle is the real outer gate of one of the city’s temples.

That said, there’s clearly something Other about Ikuhara’s version of Asakusa, and that’s not uncommon. His works tend to take place in places that have an “otherness” to them. Ohtori Academy, the setting of Revolutionary Girl Utena, is seen and stated in its various iterations to be somewhere separate from the “outside world.” Penguindrum’s closeness to reality changes based on “transfers” between fate. And Yurikuma… well, it either takes place largely in someone’s mind or in an alternate reality where gay bear aliens are infiltrating a school, so take your pick.

In many cases, the strangeness of the setting is directly related to one or more characters’ own disconnect from reality, be it of their own doing or the influence of someone close to them. We’re already seeing a lot of internal conflict with our protagonists, with each of them going to bizarre lengths for the happiness of a loved one. Is this world somehow created by those fixations? Or is someone else riding those desires to create this world? Both are feasible; both have happened in Ikuhara’s other works.

Doubles will be important.

Twins and doubles — related by blood or not — show up in Ikuhara’s work quite a bit. Utena’s Black Rose Arc thrives on this, creating both foils for each Duelist and a set of male doubles for Utena and Anthy in Mikage and Mamiya. By the end of the arc, it becomes clear that the connections were more than aesthetic on a few levels.

Penguindrum, too, plays with that sort of duality. Characters appear to have multiple personalities, single characters exist across multiple bodies, and one character truly believes her destiny is to pick up where her deceased sister left off, effectively becoming her.

So far, all we’ve seen in terms of doubles is Kazuki’s disguise as local idol and living Chekhov’s Gun Sara. The two are, as far as we know, still separate entities — Sara’s Heian eyebrow game is just that strong — but she serves a dual purpose in the story that’s hard to ignore. Sure, she’s out there just happening to clue our heroes in to what the Monster of the Week is going to be; but she’s also the arbiter, knowingly or not, of Kazuki’s only way at present to “help” his little brother.

We still don’t know exactly who or what Sara is yet. She may end up being a red herring or a harmless info-dump. (Greek choruses like the Shadow Girls in Utena and Double-H in Penguindrum are another Ikuhara staple). But the combined importance of both Sara herself and Kazuki’s Sara disguise is worth noting.

At least one major character will leave this world.

Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that the removal of characters from the world of Sarazanmai has already been shown as a possibility — and, in fact, a regular occurrence. (You’ll get your first solid indicator of this by episode 3.) We know it can happen; now it’s just a matter of when this fact will catch up to our lead cast.

As mentioned before, Ikuhara’s works tend to take place in worlds somewhat apart from the real one, be that an illusion or an alternate timeline. When a character disappears from that world or timeline, it’s often seen as an escape: a “transfer” to a new fate in Penguindrum, for example, the “journey beyond Severance” in Yurikuma, or the escape from Ohtori to the outside world in Utena. Those characters vanish from the reality of the show in some way, but it’s seen as happy, or at least bittersweet.

We’ll almost certainly see at least one major character depart from this kappa-filled version of Asakusa into a new timeline, or reality, or a different reality. Who knows? Maybe that’s the end goal of this whole exercise: to free as many people as possible from this timeline. One way or another, though, someone will be saying goodbye, and it will be for a good reason.

In the end, there’s no telling exactly where Sarazanmai will go. Ikuhara’s work is always full of surprises, even if certain themes appear constantly across his various works. We can certainly expect to see the lines reality and illusion continue to blur. We’ll almost surely find out who or what caused Asakusa to become the strange, haunted world we see in the show. There are good odds we’ll see at least one person escape into whatever lies beyond.

Other than that, all I can say is hold onto your butts, because Mr. Ikuhara’s latest wild ride is going to be a doozy.

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