From the director of Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena comes a show about magical bears, invisible storms, and some of the least subtle imagery in anime history.
So I’d planned on doing weekly posts on Yurikuma Arashi this season, and as of right now that’s still happening. This first episode was concerning in a lot of ways, but also pretty darn fascinating, so it’s not as if I don’t have a lot to talk about. Besides, I’m a huge fan of Ikuhara’s past works (Utena is both a masterpiece and my all-time favorite anime, and I quite liked Penguindrum, for all its flaws), so he gets at least a few episodes to prove to me that he knows what he’s doing.
I really hope he knows what he’s doing.
Studio: Silver Link
Original Series: Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara (Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Penguindrum) with series composition by Ikuhara and Takaya Ikami (Penguindrum, WataMote)
Streaming On: Funimation (US/Canada), Crunchyroll (here’s a link to the list of regions)
Content Warning: There’s no sugar(honey?)-coating this one, gang: Yurikuma is incredibly, sometimes uncomfortably sexual. And it’s not just sexual in the romantic or lusty sense (although that’s there, too), but there’s some heavy implications of assault, too. There’s nudity and erotic imagery, and while I think it all serves a kind of thematic/artistic purpose, it’s pretty explicit.
There’s also some implied violence/death, and the story deals with the social ostracism of a young lesbian couple. It’s a hard HBO “MA” Rating, is what I’m trying to say. Just wanna make sure everyone’s aware of that before we continue
First, a quick word on the title: Yurikuma Arashi translates to “Yuri Bear Storm,” and you’ll notice that I didn’t translate yuri there, because it has a double meaning. Yuri is Japanese for “lily,” and it’s also the genre name for any piece of fiction (and especially anime/manga) that focuses on the romantic love between two women or girls. So, yes, Yurikuma is about lesbians.
In fact that’s where we begin: With a declaration of love between classmates Yurizono Mitsuko and Izumino Sumika (the only female character introduced this week without “Yuri” in her last name, incidentally). Unsurprisingly, they’re meeting at a lily garden on campus. This series has zero interest in being subtle about its imagery, at least where yuri are concerned.
The girls claim they don’t care if anyone sees them together, but they still meet in the privacy of the garden, where no one else ever seems to tread (and as Atelier Emily pointed out, they spend most of the episode isolated from the rest of the students as well, strongly suggesting that their relationship is frowned upon in this world).
But before things can get too adorable between them—Sound the alarm! There’s a bear on campus!
After the very NSFW opening theme (“What have I gotten myself into?” I asked, not for the last time), we get a little premise setup: Once upon a time, the (Ursa?) minor planet Kumalia exploded, raining its fragments down on Earth in the “Kumalia Meteor Swarm.” Which naturally led to the bears of the earth rising up.
To protect themselves, humanity built the “Wall of Severance” between themselves and the bears. Only now, a pair of bears—Ginko (the brunette with the appetite) and Lulu (the blonde who’s sweet on Ginko)—infiltrate Arashigaoka Academy so they can nom on the humans. While the Lilybears’ new teacher reminds her class to stick together for safety against the potential bear threat, Ginko stakes out her prey: Kureha, who she deems a “delicious meal.”
5-Minute Mark Theory Time! “Oh, so this is going to be an extended exploration of female sexuality, particularly among adolescents, and the bears are a metaphor for sexual predators. Hence all the ‘preying’ and ‘eating’ on girls and the teacher telling the girls to travel in groups. Interesting.”
At lunchtime, Sumika flees the classroom (isolating her from the pack), and Kureha, fearful for her safety, chases after her. She runs through various empty (but freaking gorgeous) settings while remembering an almost too-sweet moment of the girls talking about their favorite lunches. Finally Kureha spots Sumika on the roof. Since she was too busy running around to remember her own lunch, Sumika shares hers.
The Lilybears watch on, like creepers. Lulu’d be down for Ginko nomming on her, but Ginko only has eyes for her next delicious meal. As an aside, the bear designs are simultaneously adorable and terrifying (see: Soulless Murder Eyes), which is sort of the point, I guess.
But there’s more than just Lilybear danger on the horizon: As if to punish the girls for their open display of affection on the rooftop, someone has laid waste to their garden, snipping the heads from the flowers. Kureha blames the Storm.
“The storm chased me down,” Kureha says. “It’s only the beginning. A warning that it’ll start with what’s most precious. The Invisible Storm will destroy everything, until we’re worn away to nothing.”
10-Minute Mark Theory Time! “Okay, so continuing with the ongoing themes of female sexuality (particularly of the yuri variety), I guess that’d make the Invisible Storm sort of the faceless social force—cultural norms and prejudices?—attacking the girls’ relationship. Hm. Okay. I can roll with that.”
But the attack only strengthens Sumika’s resolve—she’d been wary about sharing meals earlier, but now she’s determined, swearing she won’t back down on love, either. And the Lilybears look on, hungrier than ever. (There’s gotta be a reason they always show up whenever the gals are having A Moment, right?)
Into their (ravaged) garden comes an intruder, but not an unwelcome one: Class President Yurizono Mitsuko, who’s horrified by the Invisible Storm’s actions and invites Kureha and Sumika to team up with her so they can take down The Storm together. She takes their hands, staining her own with the dirt from the lily garden and marking herself as a part of their group. Thrown bricks be damned, the trio agree to come back tomorrow and fix up the garden together.
Kureha returns to her home, where we’re treated to another voiceover memory, this time of Kureha talking to her mother about how she shared food (there’s that magic phrase again) with her friend. In the present day, Kureha’s mother is nothing but a photo in a music box, which is the promise of a Tragic Backstory if ever I saw one. Vowing not to lose anyone else, Kureha follows the only reasonable course of action: Target practice, muthafuggas!
But the bad news continues: Sumika has disappeared, and there are bear tracks all over the lily garden. (Me: “I swear Ikuhara, if you Joss half of this couple in the first damn episode…!”) The rest of the students gossip about it, deciding it was “her fault” for being alone and “not invisible.” OH HAI THAR, VICTIM BLAMING. I see rape culture is alive and well in the Post-Bearpocalyptic world. Brilliant.
The girls convince themselves that they’ll be okay as long as they have friends. “The mood of the herd is what’s most important!” they declare. So, you know. Just in case you weren’t quite sure if the series was about social ostracization and “fitting in” with the cultural norm, Ikuhara drew you a little picture. Like, literally:
Kureha’s having none of it, though—she refuses to believe that Sumika was eaten. The rest of the class (including “friend” Mitsuko) look on silently until Kureha’s phone gives a little Puppycat ringtone. A man on the other end tells her this is a “challenge from the Wall of Severance,” and that if Kureha’s “love is real,” she should go to the rooftop. “Give yourself over to the bears, and your love will be approved,” he says.
15-Minute Mark Theory Time? “…You know, I may need to rethink my earlier theory about what the bears represent… either that, or this show is going a damn sight darker than I’d ever expected…”
Which, of course, Kureha does (right after she snags her trusty rifle, muthafuggas!). And on the roof we find…
The Lilybears (who have lost all their cuddly and are just ravenous killing machines) attack Kureha, knocking her backwards into an alternate dimension/dreamscape/secret clubhouse (cubhouse?).
And that’s when things get REALLY weird.
Kureha vanishes, leaving only Ginko and Lulu standing before a “Yuri Court” of three Bear-men: Life Sexy the judge (surrounded by flowers), Life Cool the prosecutor (surrounded by books), and Life Beauty the defense attorney (surrounded by…bow ties?).
So the Court is basically there to determine if the bears are allowed to eat their selected prey. The prosecutor refers to the Wall of Severance as “a wall called Extinction” and accuses the Lilybears of “blatant overeating.“ But the defense argues for survival (“Even bears have to eat to live”), and the judge tells us that the Yuri Court is all about impartiality between worlds. Because don’t you know? “That is sexy!”
The Judge (I can’t call him Life Sexy, you guys, I just can’t do it) wants to know if the Lilybears will “be invisible” or “eat humans,” and they proudly proclaim: EAT! (Growl, growl!) The Judge stamps them “Yuri Approved,” which turns the LilyBears into Magical Bears: Scantily-clad half-bear, half-human forms.
Kureha reappears, and…
…Ah-hem. So. Fun fact. “Eat” can be used as sexual slang in Japanese, same as it can in English. I start with this so that, when I tell you that the Lilybears proceed to “eat” Kureha, you’ll know that I’m not talking about munching off her arms. It’s not explicitly shown, mind you—instead, there’s a lily flower that grows out of Kureha’s naked chest, and then the Lilybears lick the nectar from it, and okay, I lied, it’s pretty damn explicitly shown. In the interest of not getting you in trouble at work, I won’t include a screenshot, but let’s just say that, for all their teeth and growls, the Lilybears prove to be rather cunning linguists.
Just as the trio join hands, Kureha wakes up in the nurse’s office, apparently unconcerned and unaffected by the “dream” she just had and HOLD EVERYTHING, TEAM.
20-Minute Mark Theory Time! WHAT IF THEY BEARS AREN’T EVEN REAL!? What if they’re a symbolic representation of Kureha’s burgeoning sexuality, like Lulu is more romantic affection and Ginko is more pure hunger or lust, and the courtroom scene is just Kureha trying to come to terms with her own feelings (which large portions of society would consider a “crime,” both because she’s a girl with sexual desires and because those desires are directed at other girls), and THAT’S WHY—
This is what Ikuhara does to me.
Back in the story, Class Prez Mitsuko tells Kureha that they found her passed out on the roof, and Sumika is still nowhere to be found. Those lying Lilybears! But it’s cool, I’m sure Sumika’s going to turn back up soon, I mean after all the bears are all about love and oh wait, nope, no, scratch that, they’re totally eating somebody’s face off.
Mitsuko recognizes them as the exchange students (Bear shock!), and… cut to end credits!? Well, dammit. I may not have any idea what I just watched, but I’m clearly gonna have to come back and watch more of it.
Mostly this episode left me with a lot of questions and uncertainties, which is one of the main reasons why I wanted to write about it, as opinions have been all over the map about this episode (watching anitwitter lose its collective mind these past few days has been a hoot), and I’d love to hear more reactions.
General issues with the pacing aside (the deluge of plot points hooks you in, but we spend so much time getting insane Style and Symbol thrown at us that it’s hard to get a feel for the characters), I’m fascinated but cautious, and very much on the fence about how to feel about this premiere. On the one hand, it’s rare to see a show that’s not only about same-sex relationships but is unapologetically unsubtle and sensual about them… but on the other hand, is it there to tell an actual story, or is it just titillation? And if it is titillation (which isn’t a terrible thing in and of itself, although it’s not my personal cup of tea), is it objectifying and/or “fanservicey” in the process?
I suspect everyone will have a different answer to this, but this first episode led me to believe that this isn’t just fanservice for fanservice’s sake. In fact I never once felt the need to use the word “fanservice” while watching this—erotic, sure, but never “fanservice.” To me, fanservice is something disconnected from the actual plot, while the sexual content in Yurikuma is integral to what we’ve seen of its story, and as such is intricately connected to it.
And what is that story, exactly? It’s none too clear just yet, and Ikuhara delights in confusing the ever-loving hell out of you in his premieres (a storytelling tactic that I actually love, as long as the writer fills in the blanks as they go), but I think we can say that it’s pretty thoroughly tied up in female sexuality: as individuals, with one another, and in relation to society and its expectations. I also think the series might be responding to some recent anime trends (particularly the “cute-girls-being-cute” shows, with their focus on the “purity” and “innocence” of nonsexual female relationships), but this post is getting novel-length, so we’ll save that talk for a later recap if it proves to be discussion-worthy.
That said, does Yurikuma take its depictions to unnecessary extremes (particularly in that courtroom lily scene), entering the realm of the gratuitous? Now there I’m inclined to say yes, which is where a lot of my concerns come from. Ikuhara is navigating a minefield here, as he’s not only dealing with a lot of weirdness, but also some inherently difficult topics, and the series could easily shift from being “a story about its female characters’ sexuality” to “a story about sexualizing its female characters” (and, indeed, for some viewers it might already be that). We’ll know a lot more about this big ball of crazy in the coming couple of weeks, I suspect, and have a better idea of not only what it’s trying to do, but also how it’s going to do it.
I really hope Ikuhara knows what he’s doing, you guys.