6th Place in Top 10 Anime of 2019
Length: 11 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Drama, comedy, music, romance
Year of release: 2019
Kunihiko Ikuhara is a famous name in anime circles. The director famously quit Sailor Moon to make Revolutionary Girl Utena, a series dense with symbolism, poignant, feministic messages and extremely quirky imagery. Later, he would go on to direct Penguindrum in 2011 and Yuri Kuma Arashi in 2015. Those familiar with these works will feel right at home in his 2019 offering, Sarazanmai – a series that uses the mythos of Kappas (a Japanese water demon that extracts the shirokodama, a ball containing your soul, from your anus) to tell a powerful story about opening up to others and valuing your connections and relationships.
Perhaps, though, it best be said that Sarazanmai is much, much easier to parse than his prior three works. Like prior works, there’s oddball comedy making regular use of visual puns, but the difference is that these are usually self-explanatory – if relevant, it’ll explain the reference made, if not, it’s a goofy bit of comedy for further reading into. The story itself, too, is much more easily appreciated without the context it resides in. Sarazanmai has a poignant message to tell, yes, but it is very self-contained.
That story features three very broken teens. Kazuki, Enta and Toi are three boys that are pulled together when destiny calls and are forced to fight Desire Zombies in Kappa form (and get transformed into these Kappas via some exceptional magical-girl style stock footage). Extravagant, song-and-dance battles aside, fighting the zombies results in stealing the zombie’s shirokodama, and when assimilating this desire, the group leak memories. It’s an extremely abstract metaphor, but one that is a railroad to sharing and connecting traumas to build new, important relationships, and thoroughly explore the boys’ emotions.
The series plays this story out episodically, whereby the boys are pulled together for shenanigans that build up the individual episode’s themes, and relates that intricately back to how the boy’s feel regarding an important development. This style of contrasting and juxtaposing other stories onto one another breeds empathy – the beautiful core of Sarazanmai.
Now, I feel I haven’t made it clear enough, so I’ll just say it – this series is cooky. Very, very cooky. There’s a lot of butt jokes! But, more broadly, the comic beats are exceptional, with sharp timing and a gigantic variety of relevance and use of background. While Sarazanmai can get deeply personal, it blends such a high level of amusingness into the formula that it never gets overly melodramatic, but paces the story into its darker subject matter naturally. And even when it gets dark, it’s still got an absurd idea or two to keep the campiness flowing. Moreover, outside of the lightheartedness, the story maintains a bright a vibrant colour palette, and makes use of exceptional storyboarding to bring your eyes to the heart of the matter, while hiding the goofiness in the backdrops, or even the audio cues that are made up of key series words repeated in a variety of musical voices.
I knew, when this season started, roughly what I’d be getting. An important sociopolitical message, some absurd humour, stock footage, a formula messed about with and an incredible finale. I got all of these things, yet Sarazanmai left me feeling fulfilled and even surprised. Perhaps a couple of ideas weren’t fully realised, but it was still another brilliant showing. I’ll say it: Sarazanmai is one of the major anime events of the year.
Writing reviews immediately after finishing an anime can be a tricky one. Sometimes you need time to let the feelings stew – and, despite how much I enjoyed my time with Sarazanmai, I feel I’ve overrated it a tad. It’s easily done. The seasonal roster Sarazanmai was a member of was rather awful, meaning that my one reprieve of a quality anime got an even larger stake in my mind. Sarazanmai is wonderful, right up until the end.
But it’s the end that has been nagging away at me. I didn’t want to say it at the time, but the ending actually disappointed me somewhat. I mentioned this in my seasonal finale post, and here is the update on the matter. The final episode has a problem not knowing when to finish, supplying too many epilogues storylines and being unable to satisfyingly let go. From one artist to another, I understand, but that’s a big problem – and the problem exponentiates when you consider how blunt the series ending was. The finale, while explosive, relied on just a few too many unnatural explanations; the finale was less a whirlwind of excitement, and more a whirlwind of exposition. Still, it was powerful enough to not dissuade my gut from the 9.5, but now my head is taking over: I’m bumping the score down.