And I thought Jack-in-the-boxes were creepy.
I should have mentioned this last week and forgot to do so, but while I’ve generally been pretty pleased with the Funimation translation, they made the somewhat unlucky decision to use “Kumalia” instead of “Kumaria” for クマリア (where the リ can be romanized as either “ri” or “li”). It’s pretty clear at this point that the name is supposed to be a combination of “Kuma” (bear) and “Maria”—likely a reference to the Virgin Mary, furthering the show’s religious connection as well as its ongoing exploration of how society idealizes female “purity.” Of course, back during Episode One the translator couldn’t have known this, but hopefully Funi will fix it for the DVD release (or even the upcoming broadcast dub).
After some thought, I’ve decided to switch over to the alternate spelling “Kumaria,” since it seems important from a thematic perspective. Just wanted to let everyone know so as to avoid confusion. And with that out of the way, it’s on with the show!
We pick up right where we left off, with Kureha approaching Ginko and seriously thinking about renewing that (ah-hem) friendship of theirs. This is swiftly derailed when she notices the necklace that has totally not been visible from day one (that’s not sarcasm—we’ve seen it in Ginko’s bear form but it was hidden under her school uniform til now), and immediately recognizes it as her mother’s star pendant.
Continuing its proud traditions of (a) skipping merrily across time and (b) assuming the audience knows how to read clues and subtext, we then backtrack to 20 Years Ago (History) as Yuriika oh-so-casually gives us her life story, beginning with the fact that she was an unwanted bear abandoned on the steps of Arashigaoka. I’d call Identity SHOCK!, but we saw it coming, and the series knows that, so it’s downplayed in the same way as the Kureha/Sumika Bedroom Scene, as something obvious we should have already known by now.
Cub Yuriika was adopted by “Him,” a ruby red heel-clicking (dammit, Yurikuma, I am overloaded enough as it is, do NOT start throwing Wizard of Oz allusions at me, too!) teacher(?) who was the previous keeper of the Red Triangle Drawers and was obsessed with locking his precious things away in boxes so they would remain “unsullied.”
He raises Yuriika on this ideology, keeping her “unsullied” within her own little box, where she’s just happy to be wanted… until the day he tries to abandon her for his next unsullied thing, anyway. Desperate to stay wanted, she kicks open her box, gives him the ol’ Bear Shock, and decides once and for all that “you have to box up your precious things, or else they’ll walk right out of your life.”
5-Minute Mark Theory Time! I hope you’ve got your Ikuhara Bingo Cards handy, ‘cause box imagery just made its appearance!
Sorry, Hori-senpai, but it couldn’t be helped.
We’ve seen them in both Utena (with coffins) and Penguindrum (with crates), both of which generally used the “box” image as a way to show how we trap ourselves and each other into narrowly defined roles and positions. We can see this to some extent with “His” boxes as well, as he forces Yuriika to fit his image of innocence and purity, portrayed as a blend of traditionally feminine/bridal outfits and colors.
But boxes take on additional meanings here as well, functioning as places of stasis and control, and building on the show’s growing themes about the (destructive) idealization of female innocence. Look no further than the Red Triangle Drawers, where Yuriika keeps the photos of the dead school girls, their “innocence” preserved but their lives lost. Yurikuma’s boxes call to mind butterfly display cases: Yuriika can admire the things she finds beautiful without having to worry about them changing or leaving, but to do so she must deny her “precious thing” its own voice and agency and any chance at growth. Ultimately her relationship with it is empty, a one-way interaction muffled through a pane of glass.
Yuriika makes the school her “box” and grows up within it, where she eventually meets and befriends Reia, who finds Yuriika snipping the heads off lilies. Yuriika says she does it so she can put the flowers in boxes “before they’re sullied,” because to be sullied is to be un-special, which is, in turn, to be unwanted.
This is clearly a girl badly in need of a hug, and Reia gives her one, as well as her own philosophy: “If you don’t open the box and look at your precious things, touch them, it’s the same as not having them at all.”
Friendship blossoms between the two—they share food, tend the flower bed, hang out in the rain, and basically do all those cute couple things we saw Kureha and Sumika doing. But there’s trouble brewing in bearadise, because Yuriika knows that “Reia’s love” is “different” from hers, and that the relationship will never be what she wants it to be.
Cut to 17 Years Ago (History), when Kureha is born and earns herself a hefty chunk of Reia’s love, even getting her grubby little baby hands all over the star pendant. Yuriika reverts back to her old mentality about the importance of boxes, although interestingly she spreads the blame around: The fault isn’t so much Reia’s as it is her own, for leaving her box in the first place and becoming “sullied” (and therefore less pure than the baby in Yuriika’s arms). And so the color leaves Yuriika’s world again, and she gives up on love.
“I’m not precious enough to be boxed up anymore,” she decides. So she instead becomes a box—empty and invisible.
10-Minute Mark Theory Time! I’m curious to see how other people read the relationship between Reia and Yuriika, and how they interpreted Yuriika’s acknowledgment that her “love” is different from Reia’s. I think it’s easy to assume she means that she was romantically interested in Reia but Reia only thought of her as a friend (Friendboxed?), but the fact that Yuriika blames her “loss” of Reia’s love solely on Kureha—coupled with the complete lack of a husband- or father-character in these flashbacks—makes me wonder. Perhaps the difference in their “love” is unrelated to sexuality or physical attraction, but instead to the way they love: Reia gives it freely to multiple people, while Yuriika wants to take it and monopolize it all for herself.
Eventually, though, Yuriika can bear (unintentional, I swear!) her loneliness no longer. She reverts to her animal form and chases down Reia, desperate to have her “fill in my gaps.” Of course, cruel fate (read: the writer) determines that this is ALSO the night Reia gives her “love charm” pendant to Ginko as she returns to the other side of the wall. Convinced that Reia has given away the proof of their love, Yuriika attacks and… er… would omnomnomnom be a tasteless way to describe what happens next? It would, wouldn’t it?
Yuriika believed that eating Reia would “fill the box of myself,” but of course she’s just as hungry and empty as ever. Which brings us back to The Present, as Kureha tells Yuriika about Ginko and the star pendant. Ginko refused to tell Kureha why she had it, and both she and Lulu disappeared the next morning.
Yuriika whips out some photos and drops the Truth Bomb about Ginko and Lulu’s identities:
Then proceeds to drop a bunch of Bullshit Bombs (where’s Lying Cat when you need her?), insisting that Ginko killed Reia and that you can never trust a bear and Kureha’s only choice is torevolutionize the world exclude (read: kill) all bears. Of course this is all part of Yuriika’s Nefarious Scheme to turn Kureha into her “boxed bride” as retribution for stealing Reia away. After all, it will be ever-so-much easier for her to control and own Kureha if she’s isolated from everyone else. Almost makes you miss Mitsuko, don’t it?
Cut to the LilyBears and Lulu, thinking about the anonymous letter she received the night before. Ever the straight-shooter (if not a bit self-centered and short-sighted at times), Lulu appeals to Ginko, and—you know what? I think I’m just going to forgo our 15-minute mark theory time and transcribe Lulu’s mini-speech, because it encapsulates a lot of the show’s ongoing conflicts, makes some good points (and some concerning ones), and asks questions for us folks at home to consider.
Ginko, how about we go back to the other side of the wall? No matter how true your love is, when she knows you’re a bear, Kure-chin won’t forgive you. Promise Kisses only exist in picture books. Kumaria is the goddess of the wall! Her job is to separate bears and humans. She’d never make us friends.
[…] I know what you did, Ginko. So let’s go home! If Kure-chin finds out, you can’t get love. But you can’t do a Promise Kiss without telling her the truth. Let’s go home! Ginko, even if you give up on love, I love you! I don’t care if I can’t ever kiss. As long as you’re with me—
But Ginko’s phone rings before Lulu can finish. Actually, three phones ring at once: Yuriika’s, Kureha’s, and Ginko’s. It’s the CourtBears, challenging their love (noteworthy: they all insist it’s “the real thing”) and calling them to the school roof to “give themselves” to the bears/humans and have their love approved. Naturally, all three head out, despite the adorable Lulu’s adorable protests.
And can we… just… for one second talk about what a great character Lulu is? I don’t mean to say that she’s entirely in the right here, but she’s honest with everyone and expects the same from them, she seems to legitimately care for and worry about both Ginko and Kureha, and she’s about the only bear in the cast who isn’t trying to force anyone to do something or monopolize anyone’s affections. Even here, while her argument is pretty defeatist (and perhaps ultimately selfish, although that’s up for debate), she does let Ginko make her own choice. She’s nuanced and straightforward, and it’s why she’s hands-down my favorite member of this strange, flawed cast.
While Lulu gains Trust Points from me, the CourtBears lose them faster than a Yuriika, as they chill on their construction site perches and continue to cheerfully (or reluctantly, in Cool’s case) pull everyone’s strings. Dammit, CourtBears, what are you getting out of this? WHAT’S YOUR END GAME, LIFE SEXY?
But before the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny can take place, Yuriika needs to give us one last Flashback of herself before the Severance Court, choosing to give up on love, but NOT on boxes. She asks the court to make her human so she can stay with Kureha, who has Reia’s love within her, and “fill the box of myself with” that love. This somehow gets Yuri Approved, I guess ‘cause Life Sexy spent a lot of money on that customized paw stamp, and by God he’s going to USE it. Worst. Judge. Ever.
In The Present, Kureha finds both Yuriika and Ginko waiting on the roof. Yuriika plays the beartrayal card and tries to goad Kureha into shooting Ginko, but now that there’s a gun to her head Ginko is a whole lot chattier. She explains not only why she has the pendant, but why she had to leave the Tsubaki residence in the first place:
Ginko, an “unwanted bear,” could never forget the love and acceptance she once received from Kureha. And so she crossed the wall to be “true friends” with her once more.
20-Minute Mark Theory Time! I’m overloading on ideas again, but let’s take a minute to talk about the parallels between Yuriika and Ginko: Two “unwanted” bears left on doorsteps and raised on (destructive) ideologies about how best to gain acceptance/love. Both found love and then “lost” it, although Yuriika destroyed it herself while Ginko is still trying to gain it back. Both approach love in rather selfish ways, wanting to “have you all to myself,” and both have their questionable goals “Yuri Approved” by Life Sexy.
A part of me wonders if the series isn’t trying to set up the bears (sans Lulu, who’s “love without kisses” choice is closer to a Class S attitude) as variations of the possessive yandere/“psycho lesbian” trope (hence why they keep getting Yuri Approved, being longstanding members of the genre ‘n’ all), and that Ginko’s ultimately going to subvert or overcome those stereotypes. She’s already taking steps in the right direction, as she’s shown genuine selflessness as well as real consideration towards Kureha’s own feelings and choices in the past few episodes. But I’ve been laughably wrong before, so guess we’ll just have to keep watching to see what’s going on thematically here, and whether or not history in Kureha’s family will repeat itself.
Ginko also admits that she killed the other girls in class to “protect” Kureha from the Invisible Storm (“I’m a bear. That’s all I can do”), and even encourages Kureha to pull the trigger because she believes the bullet is her “Promise Kiss.” Which, given her abused/traumatic childhood, is SO SAD THAT I JUST… Here, have a screenshot. I need a second.
But Kureha just can’t do it! She understands that killing Ginko won’t change the past, and that Ginko, like everyone, is a big ball of positive and negative traits, a criminal-bear who nevertheless tried to help her and risked her life to save Sumika’s letter. So in spite of Yuriika’s best efforts, it looks like we’re going to get our happy ending after—
That’s right, folks—Lulu joins the fracas on the roof and spills the beans, telling Kureha about Ginko’s grave sin, which is DROWNED OUT BENEATH THE THUNDERSTORM?! Ikuhara, you jerk.
And while I don’t really blame Lulu for wanting Kureha to know the whole truth, it certainly puts a dent in our little reconciliation, as Kureha raises her gun, renews her promise to RUIN bears, and everything cuts to black as a shot rings out through the rain.
…I may have screamed when the end credits rolled. Possibly. MAYBE.
I ran long this week ‘cause of Plot Bombs and Kumaria Beforethoughts, but let’s talk for a bit aboutkegare (穢れ), that word we keep seeing translated as “sullied.” It’s a solid translation as it helps to convey that kegare refers as much to spiritual as it does physical uncleanliness, but it’s a concept that’s pretty deeply embedded in Japanese history/culture and some of that is, by nature, going to get lost in the translation.
In very basic, simple terms, kegare is a major part of the Shinto religion and refers to the way one can become “defiled” due to contact with something considered taboo or “unclean.” It’s not the same as “sin” in the western world—whether you became kegare intentionally or not doesn’t matter, and as such it isn’t a punishment so much as just natural cause-and-effect. The kami(“gods,” more or less) were thought to abhor kegare, which was why it was so important to avoid it or cleanse yourself of it through ritual purification, as otherwise you (and by extension your community) couldn’t have a proper relationship with the gods.
Death, childbirth, blood/menstruation, and disease are the most commonly cited examples ofkegare within Shinto itself, but the concept behind it expands into every day life as well, such as the practice of wearing different shoes in different areas so as to avoid bringing the dirt from one sphere into another. And this strict division of spheres expands historically to many other aspects of Japanese society, such as the layers of inner/outer worlds that existed between the sexes or the classes/castes. Over time (and thanks in part to Chinese and Buddhist influence), the idea of female impurity (and specifically adult female impurity, since it was tied to blood/menstruation) grew stronger as well, and served as justification for excluding women from many social spheres such as court politics or theater.
I bring all this up to point out that we’ve been seeing these same sharp divisions in Yurikuma from the very beginning (between the bears and humans, between the Storm and the “evil” Excluded—heck, even between women and the almost nonexistent men), and we’re also now seeing it in relation to kegare. “Stay in your box or you’ll become sullied and therefore unwanted” (by thekami, by your peers, by etc.) is a concept that can be mapped on to a lot of different situations, which is why I think it’s the kind of metaphor that can be understood by anyone who’s ever lived in a culture with social divisions and concepts of “impurity” (so, you know… most of them). But it’s always good to remember the cultural context of the storytellers themselves, and how that might play in to our understanding and analysis of a story. Hence this wall of text.
…Of course, while I might have a fancy-pants East Asian studies degree, I am not actuallyJapanese, and as such I probably mucked that explanation up at least a little. Please bear (heh) with any inaccuracies and of course feel free to chime in (politely) with your own experiences and understandings in the comments below.
Credits Due: I snagged the LilyBear photo gif from angeljas on Tumblr. Many thanks!