Do you spend a lot of time in critical anime circles? Do your friends talk about shows that range from Eva to Aria to The Tatami Galaxy to Urusei Yatsura? Are your discussions the kind where anime is often talked about in terms of its impact on the medium or its value from various perspectives on literary criticism? Alternatively, do you spend your time in queer or feminist circles? Are Sailor Moon, Yuri on Ice, and Wandering Son considered sacred texts in the places you frequent?
If you answered yes to those questions, it’s very likely that you’ve heard the name Kunihiko Ikuhara, though the shows he’s directed should be known even to those who don’t spend their time in those specific spheres. Ikuhara directed more than half of Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum, and Yuri Kuma Arashi. While his original anime may not be the most popular works in the world, it’s undeniable that his series retain cult success among invested anime fans, especially in the circles I mentioned earlier.
Possessing one of the strongest directorial voices in the industry in spite of his relatively small portfolio, Ikuhara can be recognized instantly. From his use of stark white backgrounds in the many OPs he directs to the thousands of elements that compose projects under his name, this man’s style is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s remotely familiar with it. Uneducated as I was on anime production and general film language back in 2015, even I could notice the similarities between Yuri Kuma and Penguindrum.
What makes him truly endure though is the themes he tackles and the ways in which he does so. Topics range from adolescence, love, family, and fate to the dangerous power of systems. Ikuhara’s stories are dark but hopeful, surreal yet grounded. They take place almost out of time and space and yet they perfectly capture the problems in modern societies. The symbolism, which at first is difficult to decipher, becomes more and more obvious as you look deeper into him and his works while still adding value when you don’t necessarily know what it means. Ikuhara is an enigma, a puzzle, one that begins to click into place as you spend more time with him, becoming even more interesting in the process. In some ways, I believe Ikuhara’s work makes the most sense through a metatextual lens as understanding his quirks and standpoints can be absolutely vital to truly comprehending what he’s saying.
But before we actually dive deep into Ikuhara, looking at his entire life and career, some more background must be established. Like many in the industry, especially back in the 80s, he started off at Toei, working his way up until he reached the director’s chair before eventually following the same path as many who came before and after him, leaving the company to work on other projects. Now he’s an accomplished director with the aforementioned shows to his name, as well as a number of lesser-known manga and novels.
At times, Ikuhara has been compared to his close friend Hideaki Anno. Both have been called auteurs, both launched important psychological anime in the mid-to-late 90s that remain in otaku and critical consciousnesses alike to this day, and both are known as eccentrics both in their ordinary life and in their works. It’s possible that, outside of Ghibli, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell, Eva and Utena are the two most thoroughly analyzed anime of all time. Their personalities come across in very different ways of course but it’s not hard to see how the comparison between them came about. After all, it’s been suggested before that Ikuhara was in many ways the basis for Evangelion’s famous Kaworu.
Of course, Ikuhara is eccentric in more ways than that. A fairly attractive man, one of his most famous traits is his interest in crossplay and generally out-there clothing, contributing to his image of disrupting gender norms. It’s certainly a fact that most anime directors aren’t willing to cosplay as their favorite Sailor Moon character. And in his anime this shines through just as clearly, carrying the spirit and style of the late, great Osamu Dezaki into the modern era to an extent which is only rivaled by Akiyuki Shinbo.
In many ways, it’s easy to read Ikuhara as a remarkably left-wing director. His anime are almost always focused on social systems and how hard it is to resist them while at the same time showcasing the potential of individuals to put up at least a small fight. As will become clear throughout this piece, his shows all end in the same way, demonstrating the inability of individuals to truly change society on their own but also making clear the power that can be found in trying despite that. It’s a perspective which isn’t often found in anime, one that seriously deals with the difficulty and overwhelming fear of working towards social change, and it’s one that makes him easy to love for a certain group of people. His projects near-universally include women in important roles and often make explicitly feminist and leftist points, attacking patriarchy, capitalism, heteronormativity, and more. At the same time, criticism can and has been thrown his way for his portrayal of women and sexuality at certain points and he certainly isn’t known for being the kindest or most easy to work with person in the industry.
Among his appealing traits, his utter disdain for the suspension of belief might be one of the most interesting. Ikuhara’s shows almost scoff at the notion of verisimilitude. Even when they take place in a real environment they make active attempts to remind the viewer that this is indeed just fiction by using visual cues such as references to the stage and settings that don’t make geometrical or architectural sense. In doing so, he is in many ways offered more opportunities to look directly at society for what it is, to expose aspects of ourselves and our surroundings that we’d rather look away from. He’ll tackle the effects of toxic masculinity on both boys and girls, the most deadly terrorist attack in recent Japanese history, and the debilitating effects of the media’s portrayal of queer girls and women.
At all times, there’s an undercurrent focusing on the simple pain of living in an oppressive society, the ways in which the systems around people strip all of us of our individuality, whether we end up as oppressors or the oppressed. His antagonists are bad people but they come from a real social environment which is always portrayed as the root cause, never giving into a right-wing image of individually inherent evil. To a certain degree, he tells the same story every time, so all his projects add up to create a broader picture of his ideology. Sometimes he sees great success in doing so, sometimes he doesn’t, but at all times he refuses to give into the norm, always making works which challenge the dominant ideologies and structures.
And because of that, he’s had an impact. He left a permanent mark on the yuri genre and queer people in general through his work on Sailor Moon and Utena, arguably the most important anime and manga in that space during the 90s. His series have touched the hearts of many and have inspired any number of creators to enter the industry. To a certain extent, he’s part of the reason I make anime youtube videos, as I initially started this channel with the belief that youtube was the only fitting way to complete this project. His stories, themes, and perspectives resonate with me in a way which isn’t true for very many creators and I wanted to express that in the best way I possibly could.
And so, I’m proud to present this piece. A full year in the making, this is the most labor- and time-intensive project I’ve worked on in my entire life and I’m so glad I’ve made it to the finish line. In the process of making this, Ikuhara went from someone who’s probably my favorite anime director to someone who towers above all the other competitors. I’ve come to understand the anime industry as a whole so much more deeply, learning about any number of interesting creators and I’d like to share that path of discovery with you, hopefully helping you to love these subjects as well.
Ikuhara is a director who makes the works I’d be making if I were involved in the creation of anime. It’s amazing to see how such a visionary and unique director was created by a path that was so ordinary for Japanese children of his day, a path that’s so ordinary for children all around the world today, a path which is similar to mine, my friends, and perhaps many of the viewers watching this video. Ikuhara emerged from an environment that’s so similar to so many people’s and it’s that which truly gives him his power as a socially critical creator. Without further ado let’s dive in and take an incredibly comprehensive look at Kunihiko Ikuhara, a true revolutionary and easily my favorite director of all time.
Chapter 1: The Early Life of an Alienated Youth
Born in 1964, Kunihiko Ikuhara emerged into a world that was still directly post-war, a world which was connected to a broader international period of struggle and conflict. Growing up in the late 60s and early 70s of Japan, political strife was everywhere. This was, of course, true in many countries, as the period saw massive leftist struggle on all continents. These radical movements fought for many things; an exit from Vietnam, stronger labor rights, greater sexual and gender equality, but above all else they served as a sign that many people were unwilling to accept the world as it was, with all of its massive systemic problems, instead choosing to fight for a brighter future.
For Japan, in particular, this often focused on opposing security treaties with the US, treaties which were obviously seen as part of an imperialist venture designed to make domination of East Asia and the world at large easier for the world’s foremost superpower. These movements failed though, as did the radical movements of this time around most of the world, giving way to an era which many saw as the “end of history”. This occurred by the mid-to-late 70s, the period in which Ikuhara was becoming a teenager. The people willing to struggle for a better future were disappearing or at least becoming less visible, and that had a profound effect on his mental state. He’s said that in his teenage years, he felt that he “was not permitted even a slight failure” that “as we suspected, you can’t revolutionize the world”. In essence, he, and many other young people in Japan and all around the world at the time, lost hope in the vision of a brighter tomorrow, instead simply settling for an apathetic approach to the present society, one which recognized it as fundamentally broken while also holding that it was impossible to truly fix.
As you’d expect, this wasn’t a healthy attitude for him to have. When you feel as if society has already doomed you to a set path that you can’t possibly come to love, you’ll lose almost all hope in your future and in the process become sort of “invisible”, merely a cog in the machine that spins as is necessary while lacking anything notable. To Ikuhara, adulthood was a cancer, one that would inevitably end him as it did all the adults he saw. He had no frame of reference for a happy adulthood, for an enjoyment of life past childhood. It was all gray and dark to him.
Those alienated by society often turn to one of two options. The first is that they become radical. While political radicalism comes in many forms, it makes sense that those who feel estranged from society and its structures will move towards an ideology which recognizes the need to rip apart the present society from its very roots. The other option is escapism, fleeing to art or some other distraction in order to keep yourself sane. This is what Ikuhara did, in the process finding a bit of hope and turning towards that political radicalism as well. He was not alone in this. Otaku as a whole were born during this period, often for very similar reasons to him, and it’s that which made early otakudom such a fascinatingly counter-cultural movement in absence of the directly political ones that preceded it.
There were a number of works that were influential to Ikuhara during these formative years of the late 70s and early 80s. The first, of course, was manga. Almost any Japanese kid his age would have read some manga, though Ikuhara was more into it than some. He was particularly interested in shoujo manga, a demographic which had been utterly revolutionized during the early-to-mid 70s with the arrival of the famous Year 24 Group. Shoujo manga at this point were not only better from a purely technical sense but more interesting, containing more explicitly political and feminist messages while pushing boundaries wherever possible. Suffice it to say that Ikuhara read these stories and was influenced by them to a great degree. They showed that, to some extent, there were still people carrying hope for a better society, even if active fighting on the streets had seen a massive decline.
Another form of art that Ikuhara loved was theater. The early 80s saw an explosion for theater in Japan, particularly in the form of the Little Theater movement. Theater allowed Ikuhara to see works that more directly challenged structures through the nature of the medium in which they took place. The ways in which the viewers’ disbelief is suspended is totally different for theatrical productions and this was another element that interested him. At a time where leftist academic discourse was becoming more and more focused on performance, it was fitting for him to find a medium which so heavily emphasized such a thing.
Within theater, Ikuhara had one particular favorite: Shuji Terayama. A playwright, stage director, poet, film director, and more, Terayama’s works are such a clear influence on Ikuhara’s style and interests that it’s absurd. Taking a look at his films, many of which adapted his stage productions, reveals why Ikuhara was so deeply interested in them. They’re bizarre in every way, featuring scenes and actions that feel out of place and confusing only to later fit into the broader picture. The humor is very much based on sight gags and wacky moments, a style he’d incorporate into his own works down the line. The films are intensely personal, focusing on why the characters are going through what they are. What they’re going through, by the way, tend to be deeply political events that reveal the problematic structures of society for what they are. These works are almost always psychosexual and question the nature of artist-audience interaction and how the viewers are meant to perceive and interact with the text. Pastoral to Die in the Country questions the nature of time and what it means for a piece of art to be based on yourself while Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets presented the ease of becoming disillusioned with both mainstream capitalist Japanese society as well as the movements which sought to tear it down. These films and plays usually used JA Seazer’s almost apocalyptic sounding rock music to great effect. Hell, some of them even have imagery that Ikuhara would later copy wholesale. I don’t think it would be a stretch to call Terayama one of his biggest influences, if not his biggest outright.
This love of Terayama, combined with his broader interest in theater, lead him to attend an art college after graduating high school. Notably, his mother helped him do this despite the fact that she was a single parent. Here, he continued to engage with theater, often working on his own small or even one-man plays. These, too, were influenced by Terayama, being just as psychosexual and bizarre.
Ikuhara was hardly an artist, or at least he lacked the ability to draw beyond a basic level, and he never would’ve ended up as an animator or anything of the sort. That said, while theater was his early passion, he did have a great appreciation for film and anime as well. Terayama made films of course, but beyond that, he found auteur Western directors like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch incredibly fascinating. Give the popularity of those two in Japan, that shouldn’t be much of a shock, but their out-there directing and clear vision is something that evidently inspired him.
And in terms of anime, he also had his influences. Among those was Belladonna of Sadness, a 1973 film by Mushi Production which was quite overtly feminist and psychosexual. While that movie doesn’t have all that much in the way of animation, it’s still quite beautiful, and given the kinds of works that Ikuhara was interested in it makes sense that he would like this film. It specifically tackles the historically misogynistic structures of medieval France and how they push the female main character into a relationship with Satan after being raped by the local baron, turning into a witch who flaunts her now discovered sexuality and rebels against the corrupt system which abused her.
Ikuhara was also influenced by the works of Osamu Dezaki, though we’ll get to that in more depth in just a little bit. Overall, it would be hard to call him a hardcore otaku the way those founding Gainax at the time were but he certainly wasn’t opposed to anime and seemed to believe that working on film of some sort was the way forward in terms of exploring his interest while meaningfully making a living.
As such, right out of college, he decided to apply for Toei Animation, the country’s largest studio, which was hiring at the time. As you’d expect, he was accepted. When asked why he entered the anime industry, he answered that he believed it would be the fastest way to go from being a production assistant to becoming an actual director, as his true goal was to live up to the influences he idolized. He had no idea how true that would end up being.
Chapter 2: Toei Work Under the Wing of a Genius
Toei Animation is the largest studio in Japan and that was no different when Ikuhara got his start there. The company has a long history of raising some of anime’s most promising future talents: Hayao Miyazaki and Rinataro before Ikuhara, Mamoru Hosoda and Rie Matsumoto afterward. While Toei’s series of annual movies dating back to 1958 were often beloved, they were most well known for the many children’s shows they made. A number of great artists were discovered working on these shows but at the time Ikuhara joined one particular talent was being noticed: Junichi Sato.
Sato had and has a great deal of talent at making the kinds of shows Toei was assigning him. Bright, sentimental series, mostly aimed at kids though with the goal of keeping adults from turning off the TV, shows that might include dark moments at points while always returning to relatively happy times so as not to scare the kids too badly. While later shows like Aria would show this off the best, even from the start his talent at this was apparent, something which made him quite a valued director at the company. For that reason, Ikuhara was immediately put under his charge when he joined the studio. While Sato and Ikuhara’s relationship would quickly become a symbiotic one, it would not be a stretch to describe Ikuhara as Sato’s pupil.
Because of Sato and Toei’s general specialty at the time — a specialty that broadly persists to this day — Ikuhara was generally tasked with working on the same kids’ shows and episodes Sato brought his touch to. The man immediately began to influence Ikuhara’s use of humor and storyboarding sensibilities. At the same time, both took massive influence from the famous Osamu Dezaki, though Ikuhara carried his legacy to a greater degree.
It’s important to emphasize just how key Dezaki was, not just to Ikuhara but to the entirety of the anime industry. Dezaki easily deserves the title of “most influential anime director of all time”. He masterfully handled all kinds of shows, from fun sci-fi adventures to violent but uplifting kids’ series to serious historical dramas. His pivotal Ashita no Joe was a revolution in anime directing, showing how well a work could be adapted among many other things. His use of the famous “pastel memories”[in editing, correct to postcard memories] became a common trait within the industry to emphasize dramatic moments. His frequent triple pan was used to give more impact to key shots. He introduced a greater focus on imagery and sound to all his works. Your favorite anime director owes their techniques to Dezaki unless they worked at Ghibli and even then he needs to be given some credit for just how important he really was.
The clearest example of how he influenced Sato and particularly Ikuhara is his famous adaptation of Rose of Versailles. Notably, he didn’t direct the show until the 19th episode, when the initial director passed away. Immediately he took things in a different direction. Everything became darker and more introspective. The use of repeated symbolism became more apparent as did certain metaphorical elements. While the manga’s writing was certainly an influence on this, Dezaki deftly moved the show from a court intrigue based drama into an epic war romance which underlined the tragic inevitability of the coming revolution, a revolution which could only end in death for our noble characters. Notably, the show is quite feminist, not just starring a woman who dresses as a man and leads troops but questioning what that actually means, how that relates to the coming revolution and how she should live her life, though that isn’t a shock given that it came from a member of the Year 24 Group.
While Sato doesn’t shy away from dark subjects, he obviously didn’t make most of his series as tragic as Rose of Versailles. That said, Dezaki’s use of symbolism and innovative directorial techniques had a massive effect. And this was the case to an even greater degree for Ikuhara, who absolutely did take lessons from how Dezaki crafted dark atmospheres. The work of Dezaki which perhaps most influenced Ikuhara hadn’t been released at this point, so I’ll get to that later, but suffice it to say he left his mark, something you can see in any of his works. Of directors who were not only influenced by his techniques but by his style, Ikuhara is the clearest inheritor of his vision, though with a very different personal touch.
So, Sato and Ikuhara were both influenced by Dezaki and the two of them ended up working together on most Toei projects throughout the late 80s and early 90s, influencing each other in the process, which helped to make both of them into better directors. But what did they work on in particular, and what was Ikuhara actually doing throughout this period? Knowing he assisted Sato tells us something, but it only tells us so much. How much influence did Ikuhara have on these early projects?
Well for the first three shows he worked on, Ikuhara shows little sign of having directly influenced the series to any significant degree. He served as an assistant episode director to Sato on Maple Town Monogatari, Shin Maple Town Monogatari, and Akuma-kun. While he almost certainly gave some input on how things should be handled, it’s likely that what he was doing at this point was mostly helping Sato where necessary, in some ways serving a similar role to a production assistant. This is, of course, still very important work, though it would leave little room for Ikuhara’s characteristic style to leak through into the episodes themselves.
Ikuhara did eventually get a chance to become an episode director on his own, though. This was on 1990’s Mouretsu Ataro adaptation, which was directed by Sato. Unfortunately, this show isn’t available anywhere I’ve looked, and I’ve spent plenty of time looking. It used to exist prior to the death of a certain famous anime torrent tracker, but none of the replacements have ever had any seeds when I’ve checked. Remember kids, preserving obscure media is important.
Ikuhara also worked on the first Magical Taruruuto-kun movie as an assistant director. It’s hard to say once again how much he did for this as it’s another Toei work lost to the sands of time.
That said, there is one show from this early Toei period where Ikuhara clearly left his individual mark on things which still exists for us Western fans to view. That series is Goldfish Warning, a shoujo manga adaptation which was once again directed by Sato, serving as the immediate predecessor to the series that the two directors would truly become famous for.
Goldfish Warning is a show that fits both of their sensibilities. It focuses on a rural school which is bought up by a rich girl in order to get back at her former classmates who sold her out as soon as she seemed remotely poor, mostly showing her various attempts to shift the school’s culture or beat out her rival. As such, it’s a fairly disconnected series, one which lends well to unique episode directors who have their own vision as well as those who have a strong sense for comedy, given that the humor was one of the series’ biggest draws.
Goldfish Warning is interesting for many reasons if you watch it today, but foremost among them is how clearly it’s a predecessor to Sailor Moon. Its manga ran in the same magazine, it aired at the same time, and it, by and large, had the same staff. The only difference, really, is that it aired a year earlier. And this shows in the final project. Everything about it screams Sailor Moon. The comedic faces, not just in their usage but in their designs, the over-the-top style of the comedy, the ability to delve into emotionally resonant moments of intense pathos before returning to wacky hijinks, all of these traits would pop up in its more popular successor.
And this is no more clear than in Ikuhara’s work. Sato’s material was obviously brilliant but I believe it’s the individual episodes here that first set Ikuhara apart as a name to look out for. While his darker material didn’t tend to show up in this series due to the nature of the project, his sense of humor absolutely did. The use of perfectly timed sight gags is the clearest demonstration, as it’s the element of his comedy that always stands out. The way he contrasts what’s being said and heard with what’s shown is brilliant and never failed to make me break down laughing. The heavy symbolism wasn’t fully showcased here, but even at this stage it’s clear that he was influenced by Dezaki, and the extent of that influence would only continue to grow as time went on.
Ikuhara was valued on this project, to the point that he was allowed to direct the final episode. And this, I believe, is the best showcase of his talents up to this point. He managed to make the finale hilarious and emotional without it ever feeling tonally dissonant, giving it an ending which suggests more could come while still feeling conclusive. His humor was just as on-point as ever but he managed to bring out the feeling that you’d be leaving the characters behind in an incredibly effective way. If this episode wasn’t a sign of what was to come, I don’t know what could’ve been.
Ultimately, Goldfish Warning isn’t a show that many remember, though what I’ve seen of it is quite good. Ikuhara himself doesn’t give it a ton of praise whenever it’s been brought up, though a conversation with Anno leads me to believe he’s just embarrassed due to the idea his early work wasn’t up to par. But it really served as the perfect capstone to this period of Ikuhara’s career, where he was being raised under Sato while growing his skills, taking his past influences and creating his own real style. He was ready now to truly become a large name in the industry alongside Sato, working on one of the most popular anime of all time: Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon.
Chapter 3: Transforming into a Director on Sailor Moon
The Toei work that Ikuhara did before Sailor Moon was absolutely important. It showcased his early potential and allowed him to further develop his style, learning the ins and outs of anime production such that he’d be capable of going further with his works in the future. However, Sailor Moon is without a doubt the series which put his name on the map and demonstrated just how important of a director this man would be. His time on the franchise was longer, much longer than anything he’s worked on before or since, and the many ups and downs of his experience with it are an important part of understanding how Ikuhara became the director that he is today.
Season 1 of Sailor Moon was, once again, directed by Junichi Sato. While Ikuhara was merely an episode director here, not an assistant director or some other similar position, he did have some influence on how certain elements would play out, though Sato was still the primary driver of the project at this stage. This was the last time Ikuhara would work under Sato on any of his projects, though their relationship would hardly become hostile after this and Sato would later work under Ikuhara a number of times.
Sailor Moon was based on a shoujo manga written by Naoko Takeuchi. Influenced greatly by earlier magical girl series and the popular Super Sentai franchise, Sailor Moon was an instant success, not just selling well but totally altering the cultural perception of what a magical girl even is, to the point that uninformed viewers often forget how broad the genre can be.
The show also serves as an early example of trends Ikuhara would continue with throughout his career. From this point forward, he would always work with female shoujo or josei mangaka on his anime projects, generally having them draw the character designs while working with him on other parts of the planning process. At the same time, the massive multimedia nature of the franchise was another element seen in his later works, though given the state of anime, in general, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
While Sailor Moon was popular and beloved, it was a short manga. Its first arc is only 13 and a half chapters, barely over 2 volumes in length and it was created explicitly because Toei wanted to make an anime out of it, after seeing the success of its predecessor, Codename Sailor V. Its characters, while likable, were fairly flat and the plot moved at an almost blinding speed. In essence, it wasn’t the sort of work that was well-suited to being a 46 episode kids’ show airing on TV Asahi. Fortunately, Sato’s talents were able to save the day here. While the manga has monsters of the week, they tend to be the so-called “generals”. Sato greatly expanded the roles of villains on a lower level than them, allowing him to flesh out the important villains through having them reappear for episodes on end. This format also allowed for a ton of stories about the characters’ lives that just weren’t in the manga, helping to make them more interesting and deep as opposed to the somewhat bland archetypes present in the source. Lastly, Sato changed a large number of plot elements, keeping the overarching narrative mostly the same while altering character dynamics as was useful to his goals.
As I said earlier, Ikuhara was just an episode director on Season 1, but boy what a job he did. He was assigned a whole 8 episodes and most of them knocked it out of the park, all showing his signature style better than anything seen from him before. There are three in particular that truly demonstrate his talents.
Episode 21 is a fantastic early example of how Ikuhara would write personal narratives even for relatively unimportant characters. This depiction of two animators who are incredibly close friends — though with subtextual implications that their feelings are deeper — is a one-off which means nothing for the broader narrative. Still, Ikuhara puts in the work to make it feel like it matters anyway. Their closeness is greatly emphasized even going back to before they became animators and their mutual respect for one another despite their feelings of inadequacy is well portrayed. The monster of the week is well integrated, strengthening the meaning behind the lead characters’ struggles. Ikuhara’s penchant for recurring elements is great here, as the symbolism behind the pencils they purchased together becomes stronger and stronger as the episode goes on. His love of dark elements that reveal our anxieties is also used to great effect. Even the humor of the episode comes across as intensely Ikuhara, though there isn’t much of it. This immediately puts all of his earlier work to shame; it’s just that good.
Episode 31 shows his skills in a very different field — comedy. At this point, we’ve already seen that Ikuhara is good at humor but the extent to which that’s the case is brought to another level with this episode. Focusing on an ugly cat attempting to impress Luna, I find it almost impossible to watch without laughing the whole way through. So many scenes are amazing, from the many where Rhett Butler is trying to look cool t o the part where Zoisite freaks out about all the rats. Scenes are held for the perfect amount of time, so that the wait for the punchline is almost excruciating, only making the payoff that much better. The way he syncs the music to the comedic beats is genius, a technique that more directors need to employ. Visual gags like the Senshi trying to pose while in a cramped alley show his knowledge of how to exploit series elements for humor. The fight scenes, while normal by Sailor Moon standards, are well transitioned to and relatively emotional given what they are. Even when he’s working with a specific mood, Ikuhara is always able to shift to a new one without it feeling remotely dissonant.
And lastly, Ikuhara was given the chance to work on the season finale, episode 46. This episode is an incredibly emotional one, with all of Usagi’s fellow Senshi dead and Mamoru turned to the side of evil. Ikuhara perfectly showcases her anguish at the ongoing events and the deep sadness that compels her to use the Silver Crystal and save everyone. Her feelings of guilt for being the sole one left alive are heartbreakingly real. The line that, even with their memories lost, they can once again become friends, is perfect. It’s an intense and powerful conclusion, one that would only serve as a preview of what was about to come.
The next season, Sailor Moon R, was ordered when Takeuchi had not yet had time to make the following arc. As a result, its first 13 episodes are anime-original, focusing on a pair of aliens. I’m actually quite fond of this one relative to most people, though that’s a story for another day. What matters is that after this, Sato left the show as the principal director. He was busy working on a film at the time, Junkers Come Here, and as such Toei was in need of a replacement. When asked, Ikuhara said he’d be willing to step up, and thus he was to be in charge for episode 14 of R onward. At the same time, he was handed the R movie and as such he was under an extremely heavy workload.
The Sailor Moon R film is incredibly impressive, especially given the conditions it was made under, demonstrating to an even greater degree than his previous episodes how Ikuhara’s seasons of Sailor Moon would go. This was the first thing Ikuhara got to direct that wasn’t an adaptation, and while he made even more changes to the TV series than Sato, this might be the clearest demonstration of his Sailor Moon. Like most of his later works, it focuses on the power of love, questioning what that can actually do and how it can drive us to become corrupted. His directorial techniques fully emerge here, from a focus on flower symbolism that carries throughout the movie and its main emotional beats to the use of stark colors in important scenes, an element clearly borrowed from Dezaki, to the use of repeated and harsh imagery. The film is also very explicitly gay, which while not that notable for Sailor Moon is worth paying attention to given Ikuhara’s interests. It helps to flesh out Mamoru, making him less boring and creepy, a crusade he’d continue on for as long as he was the series’ lead director to mixed effect.
This film is still more restricted than his later projects would end up being. It was Sailor Moon, after all, so ideas about good vs evil were as present as ever. But it tries to break down that binary just a little bit, to get to the heart of its characters. The main antagonist, Fiore, is manipulated into his actions, but it’s clear that he’s also at fault for not trying to understand Mamoru, for simply allowing himself to give into his anger. Whether he was controlled or not isn’t important if he, to some degree, wanted to do the things he did. And Mamoru himself is criticized. He didn’t truly understand Fiore, he didn’t remember him until forcibly made to do so, and he didn’t treat him as well as he should’ve. That he didn’t reciprocate his love isn’t his fault, but he still did wrong, even if not to the same extent Fiore did. Nobody is perfect in this movie even if some are better than others.
What’s even more interesting is how it portrays Usagi. Through her natural empathy and love towards all, she’s presented as an incredibly strong person. But her love for others isn’t portrayed as universally accepting anything they do. She’s a harsh critic, though that’s something which comes from the fact that she cares. As the other Senshi remember, Usagi was in many cases the first person to truly accept them as a friend, and the fact that she’s willing to make fun of them or mess with them at the right time is proof that she understands how they feel, loving them without treating them as deserving of condescension. As Chibiusa says in the film, “Sailor Moon is everyone’s mother” and it’s this that allows her to protect herself and her friends. Again, very Sailor Moon and not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but it’s all distinctly Ikuhara.
As the head of the TV series, Ikuhara continued the path Sato was on. He edited the manga arcs, changing plotlines where necessary and adding copious original episodes to sustain the run and flesh out the characters. To be honest, I think most of the arcs in the manga are fairly boring, lacking the depth they needed if I was going to care about them, especially thematically, and Ikuhara did a great job of fixing this, drawing out the light themes of each arc and building his seasons around more intense versions of them.
First, he made a number of massive changes even compared to Sato. He diminished the role of Mamoru and changed the way he was used. Ikuhara was famously not fond of the romance between him and Usagi, which could arguably be called the driving force behind the manga and while he didn’t or couldn’t have them break up, he did do his best to make him more likable while also preventing him from stealing the spotlight so often. He also brought Rei forward, taking the friendly animosity that Season 1 developed between her and Usagi much further, to the point that many have speculated he shipped the two of them. This parallel is important and just one example of how Ikuhara strived to make the Senshi closer friends and more unique people in his version of the series. Even when he kept close to the manga in terms of literal story beats, he often shifted the focus, spending time on aspects of said beats that Takeuchi didn’t cover in much depth.
The 30 episodes of R that Ikuhara directed were not his best work on the show. The sudden directorial shift was a hectic one for him, the movie was taking up a bunch of his time, and the manga arc it’s based on isn’t all that great either. The earlier part of this season contrasted heavily with this arc and the individual episodes here were frankly some of the worst in the series. Even still, some of his traits remain present, particularly in the parts that focus on Chibiusa and Black Lady. That said, he was far less involved here than on the seasons he would later direct and that really hurt it.
Compared to the manga’s version of the arc though, it’s really good. The season’s focus on not rushing your growth is neat and calls back to the dominant theme of pre-Sailor Moon magical girl anime. As I said, the Black Lady parts are well done, so Ikuhara clearly knew which thematic elements were interesting in this arc and managed to bring those forward. And there are still some great individual episodes. Take 68, which Ikuhara directed himself, showing just how well he understood Chibiusa’s emotions, with the whole episode perfectly portraying how hard of a time she had in this age she knew nothing about, unable to do what she truly wanted: spend time with her mother once again. It captured the season’s entire emotional arc in just one episode. This may not have been his peak in the series but it still shouldn’t be written off.
S, however, is where things really got good. First, it’s important to note that this is the first season where writer Yoji Enokido would work on any episodes. Remember that name, because it’ll be important later, but suffice it to say that his writing at this stage tended to be quite good. More than that though, Ikuhara got a perfect canvas. This time he had the whole season to work on with no movie in his way and the arc it came from provided for a great base. It’s dark and tragic, gay and moody, full of room to mess with the manga’s good vs evil dynamic in order to more deeply explore the themes that were already present. That Ikuhara was able to direct this one season of anime, the most beloved season of one of the most popular series ever, can be called the reason behind not only his current popularity but also his ability to make the works he’d later create.
As I think I’ve made clear, I’m not too fond of the Sailor Moon manga, but the base material for this arc is honestly pretty great. That’s true for two materials in particular: Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, Tenoh Haruka and Kaioh Michiru. These two characters were a stroke of genius by Takeuchi, frankly speaking. First, they have fantastic designs. Both are incredibly attractive, almost to an absurd extent, and that would be appealing to everyone who watched the show. Those into girls would presumably like both of them while Haruka was androgynous enough that she’d be popular even among people who theoretically only liked boys. And Ikuhara knew this, reflecting it in the show. By having the other Senshi clearly and openly attracted to Haruka — with Usagi even showing some level of interest in Michiru — it’s made clear to the primary audience of young girls that being attracted to them is okay. This only made the show more popular while also being a massive site for queer awakening among many, serving to expand yuri fandom. That they’re a couple as well makes this all the better and allowed Ikuhara to explore how those outside of normative social roles can fight for something better, a topic he was only just now getting to explore even if he’d been interested in it for a decade-and-a-half.
But the strength of these two — and to a lesser but still prominent extent, the other Outer Senshi — goes further than that. Haruka and Michiru are antiheroes to an extreme degree. Unlike the other Senshi, they have a covert task to undertake, one which requires them to work against everyone for the sake of saving the world. Despite deeply loving one another, they’re initially unwilling to commit to a relationship, as both are absolutely willing to sacrifice the other or themselves if they have to in order to achieve their goals. These outside systems force apart their love until they finally give in and recognize that they need to trust each other to move forward. That theme, of course, will be showing up time and time again from here onwards. These two are dark and edgy compared to the good guys we’ve seen earlier and while that can be off-putting to some, it makes them incredibly attractive to others and perfectly fits Ikuhara’s Dezaki-inspired ethos, ripe for tragedy and ambiguity.
But that wasn’t the only area where he excelled for this season. No, it’s perfect all around. The individual episodes were the best they’d ever been, recovering from R’s slump and almost always feeling like they added to the series in some way or another. Episodes like season 1’s animator-focused one became commonplace. The main villain was significantly changed, being made into a tragic victim of circumstance rather than the evil monster he was in the manga, and this season’s generals, the Witches 5, were even more fun than usual, generally contributing to Ikuhara style comedy in almost every episode. That comedy became more and more prominent, even appearing outside episodes he personally directed, just making it more enjoyable to watch the show. Overall, his style clearly pierced the entire production, shaping the TV series into something that was truly his work for the first time.
Though again, the episodes he individually directed were obviously fantastic. Take 92, which introduced Haruka and Michiru to the show proper. He makes heavy use of postcard memories here, really selling the beauty of Haruka and Michiru, demonstrating just how much Usagi and Minako are in awe of them. While they’re technically said not to be dating yet, their feelings for one another and the strength they gain from said feelings leave little doubt or room to write it off as mere subtext. It is, of course, very funny, but more importantly, the extent to which Ikuhara is immediately able to sell these two lesbians is absurd. This episode certainly had me fall in love with the two of them at first sight and it did the same for many, instantly drawing viewers deeper into this new season.
And then there’s 110. Another episode focused on HaruMichi, this is the start of the mid-season climax, where the two lovers fully accept that they must carry out their mission. It’s moody and oppressive, with rain falling at all times and stark colors everywhere. The scene where the pair confronts Usagi in the aquarium demonstrates just how sure Ikuhara was in his decisions here. Haruka and Michiru’s decision is tragic and it leads to a horrible result but it’s also somewhat beautiful, somewhat pure even in its tragedy, which is the reason why the lovers contained the talismans they sought after in the first place. They’re absurdly flawed people but in that their true humanity comes through in a way that it often can’t for the rest of the cast. Almost none of this, might I add, was in the manga. Ikuhara just knew what he could do with these characters and capitalized on it. And this rings true throughout the season. It features the most changes from the manga so far, entirely changing the ending arc for the most part, in doing so creating a more interesting and more human narrative that dealt with problems in society rather than merely having it come down to inherently evil actors, even if good vs evil is still present to some degree. It was still Sailor Moon, but to be honest, it was greatly improved from its base.
Next, Ikuhara worked on SuperS, the fourth season. This time Enokido actually handled the series composition. Once again, this is a case where the original arc, known as the Dreams arc, was quite poor, being fleshed out heavily by Ikuhara particularly in regards to its themes, to the point that the focus of the SuperS anime functionally didn’t exist in the manga. At the same time, it’s a divisive season, as it often feels like it’s treading water while having individual episodes that are generally a massive step down from those in S. It also removed the Outers from all but an unimportant special episode, upsetting a number of viewers. Furthermore, it amplified Chibiusa to the role of main character without actually giving her all that much to do in battle and those who still hated her were certainly unhappy with this. I’ll be honest and admit that I love it, as it easily challenges S for the season which feels the most Ikuhara, but it’s got its fair share of problems.
SuperS focuses above all else on dreams. In doing so, it explores all the things you’d associate with that subject. This can mean many things but most often it comes down to highlighting what it is the various characters want to do and be, how and when they want to grow up, and how Ikuhara’s favorite concept, love, relates to our dreams. Telling you to believe in your dreams is obviously a very shallow idea and while it’s present, Ikuhara has no interest in stopping there. He investigates what that really means, the difficulties involved in doing so but also the benefits. The villains are, as always, made into far more interesting characters, as the first set of villains shows how dreaming can be a force for good while the second set shows the danger in refusing to dream of the future, in clinging to your childhood. Again, this stuff basically wasn’t in the manga whatsoever.
While the individual episodes stand out less here, the overarching narrative might be the most interesting yet, at least for a fan of Ikuhara. Whether or not Ikuhara really wanted Chibiusa to be as prominent as she was here is unclear but he made the best use of it anyway. Her clear desire to grow up is strong, remaining below the dangerous levels it was at in R while still being quite prominent, and her dreams of becoming an amazing adult and Sailor Senshi like her mother are the throughline. Her child-like love of Helios, while not very compelling from a romantic perspective, is used to great effect, demonstrating how all children love and dream of something noble, of something brighter in their futures. Ikuhara might like to showcase darker themes and ambiguous characters but he’s always equally hopeful in turn. The other Senshi follow in this mold, really working out who they want to be and what they want to do with the rest of their lives, outside of their jobs fighting the forces of evil.
But the finale may be the best demonstration of this season’s merit. Again directed by Ikuhara, this is perhaps my favorite episode of the entire show. The imagery evokes so much, clearly reflecting some of his later works while also having its own purpose here. The events of this episode are dark and bleak, exactly the way Ikuhara likes to write his stories, but the day is saved through empathy and compassion. His other works might not have such unambiguously good ends but that valuing of kindness is something that he always returns to. Nehalania’s flaw comes in refusing to dream of what’s to come, paralyzing herself in a hellish present rather than weathering an unknown future. Usagi is the opposite, plunging downwards in order to save Chibiusa even with no knowledge of whether or not it’ll work out and in doing so coming to terms with growing up, succeeding in moving forward. Throughout the whole show, Ikuhara’s understanding of these characters and their core beliefs is clear. The Usagi of the R movie and the Usagi of this episode are the same person, a person who deserves to be the most popular heroine in anime history. This episode easily makes me cry and is absolutely brilliant, as Usagi and Chibiusa’s shared desire to dream saves them and the planet once again. It’s a shame that it’d be his final one on the series.
Initially, Ikuhara had plans to work on a SuperS movie. It was going to be focused on Haruka and Michiru, going even further than R in showcasing his particular interests, involving a fight between Haruka and Usagi in order to save Michiru from a place called “The End of the World”. While he wasn’t exactly turned down outright, it was clear a number of changes would have to be made to his initial idea, even more so than for many of his past decisions. Ikuhara was running up against a wall known as Toei’s guidelines. At the same time, the producer that would’ve worked with him on the movie walked off the series. That was the final straw for Ikuhara and so, he never created the work.
Ikuhara brought a lot to Sailor Moon. Sato’s contribution in starting the legendary anime should not be undervalued but Ikuhara directed over half of the show and contributed to many of its most important and memorable moments. Given his treatment of Haruka and Michiru, he was becoming a bit of an icon among yuri fans. His style, which by this point was fully developed, was quite appealing to a number of people. That said, the entire run, he was limited by Toei and the fact that it was an adaptation. He might’ve had a lot of freedom in taking Takeuchi’s base and making it better but there was only so much he could do and Toei was committed to keeping it a ratings giant, stifling his freedom in the process. The series kept him absurdly busy the whole way, to the point that he was directing the entire show for over 2 years while drawing around 8 storyboards a year. As he’d say in the future, he got a third as much sleep during that period as he normally does. Frankly, it wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t worth it given the number of limitations he was placed under. He cared about the show but it was time to move on.
And move on he did. The fifth and final season, StarS, was left to Takuya Igarashi, his protege of sorts, who’d been directing episodes of the franchise for its entire run. Ikuhara himself took Enokido and a few others he’d been working with to found a new group which would allow him much more freedom in making the anime he wanted to. That group was Be-Papas who would go on to start a multimedia shoujo franchise: Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Chapter 4: A Revolution in Anime
To say that Utena was a big deal would be an understatement. It was and to some extent still is absolutely massive, a sprawling multimedia project which captured the shoujo demographic in the late 90s, fundamentally changing tropes and even entire genres. That Ikuhara was able to make it, even given his massive success on the popular Sailor Moon, is incredibly impressive and at times it’s hard to grasp how the producers possibly allowed it. The various circumstances that lead to its creation are important to dive into in order to truly understand this franchise, starting with the general anime market at the time.
Anime was not exactly doing great in the 90s. None of Japan was, as the bubble had burst in 91 with the physical media market seeing massive declines. The OVAs that had become so ubiquitous as a part of anime production in the 80s still existed, of course, but they certainly weren’t at their peak anymore. As such, TV anime was becoming a more and more popular venture once again and a few shows from that period were very important to the development of Utena.
The first among those was Onii-sama e…, a 1991 anime directed by Osamu Dezaki. Adapted from a manga by Riyoko Ikeda — the mangaka behind Rose of Versailles — it depicted the melodramatic struggles of middle-class Nanako and a number of other students at the prestigious all-girls school she had entered. This show really got to the heart of how these schools could be brutally oppressive, showcasing in full the tragedy that befell many of their pupils. Perhaps most notably, this is arguably the first TV yuri anime. While yuri elements had obviously been present in earlier shows, the feelings here are vital to the main narrative and even Nanako herself falls in love with another girl.
This work is much more detailed than its manga counterpart, fleshing things out and updating a few elements to make it fit into the early 90s rather than the mid-70s. It more heavily emphasized the struggle against the Sorority, an elite group of students with draconian rules and unfair privileges, eventually being destroyed due to a revolution by the student body. The queer elements were also played up, coming across more clearly. While Nanako’s female love interest dies, she notably never gets together with a man, declaring in the final scene that she’s fallen in love with a new person whose gender is unstated, though the subs would have you believe otherwise.
Dezaki’s earlier work had an influence on Ikuhara, of course. After all, you could see Dezaki-esque elements in his Goldfish Warning episodes, which aired around the same time, and the techniques Dezaki used here weren’t revolutionary at this point. But I think it’s clear that Oniisama e… had a direct impact on Utena. The structure of the school, the extent to which it focuses on love, tragedy, and toppling unjust social structures, all of it just rings too clearly. This is a series that those watching Utena as adolescents very well may have remembered and I believe that’s quite important to it having the effect Ikuhara wanted it to.
The other show which had an influence on Utena, though much less directly, is Evangelion. Eva is the easiest turning point to look to when examining how otaku-aimed shows became common on TV rather than OVAs, particularly as it’s an early and incredibly popular example of a show which aired late in the night. Yes, after Eva, a number of producers were willing to give weirder TV anime projects a chance. That’s obviously true and it absolutely had an influence on Utena. But there’s a bit more to the connection between the two.
As I said during the introduction, Ikuhara and Anno are close friends and that was especially true during the 90s. Anno had been called upon to do some animation for Sailor Moon, most notably the transformation sequences for Uranus and Neptune. Ikuhara was a frequent companion of his during the planning stages of Eva, a time which, if you know anything about Anno, was not exactly pleasant for him. And this is where the rumor that Ikuhara was the basis for Kaworu comes from. It’s not just because they’re both pretty boys, though that does seem to be a connection. Ikuhara was simply there for Anno at a time where he needed it. As he himself recalls, they spent a night together just talking in the bath for hours on end, much as Kaworu comforts Shinji in the bath. Did Ikuhara tell Anno that he needed him and that he was worthy of love? It’s possible, though perhaps not in those words. As Ikuhara has admitted, he’s always saying things along the lines of “you’re fine just the way you are”. But more than that, the fact that he was there for him at that point is important. Ikuhara had little direct impact on Eva of course; I wouldn’t be shocked if he proposed an idea that Anno liked and went on to use but there’s no evidence to really support that. What can be taken out of this is that Ikuhara was not only able to make Utena as a result of Eva’s impact but helped feed into that impact and was acutely aware of the fact that what he had to say could be of value.
And so, Revolutionary Girl Utena was born. As I said, it was created by Be-Papas, a somewhat nebulous group whose precise participants change based on who you talk to, but the key members are clear. There’s Ikuhara himself of course, Enokido who had left Sailor Moon as well and was tasked with the writing, Shinya Hasegawa who had been an animation director on Sailor Moon, adapting the Utena designs for animation, Yuichiro Oguro, a producer and writer who helped to plan the series, and Chiho Saito, a shoujo mangaka who worked on the initial designs and made the manga. While they each had their roles, it was also an incredibly fluid process, wherein they all contributed various ideas before really nailing down exactly what they wanted the project to be. It’s easy to call Utena Ikuhara’s project and it isn’t necessarily wrong to do so but it’s important to recognize the work of all of Be-Papas alongside the many, many more who contributed to it at all of its different points.
There was one other person Ikuhara managed to bring on to the project: JA Seazer, who you may remember as the composer for Terayama’s films and plays. By this point, Terayama had passed away over a decade ago. Ikuhara owed a lot of his style to the man and as we’ll be seeing, Utena was inspired by Terayama to a far greater extent than arguably any of his other works, so the fact he was able to get Seazer on board was something that made him incredibly happy and allowed him to make the series he really wanted to.
The team came up with a lot of ideas in the planning stages. Most of them sound somewhat interesting, though they’re all totally different from the project we actually ended up with. From chess imagery to a much more vanilla shoujo story, the multitude of ideas eventually coalesced towards the series we know as Utena today. Notably, a number of motifs and phrases are borrowed from Ikuhara’s SuperS movie idea, with one of the concepts even appearing in the OP of the show. However, it’s important to remember that even once production was fully underway, planning was still on-going. Ikuhara had an idea of where he wanted to go of course, but conveying his mental images was never easy and things were not fully settled.
The series officially began in 1996, with the release of Saito’s manga version, published in the shoujo magazine Ciao. This work is quite different from the anime which is all too often identified as an adaptation of it. It was mostly based on somewhat earlier drafts of the project plans and was simply the first to be published due to the comparative ease of releasing a manga as opposed to an anime. Essentially, it should be thought of as a simultaneous work to the TV show, especially since both ended around the same time, and given that this video is focused on Ikuhara, we’ll get back to the manga after tackling the anime.
Revolutionary Girl Utena truly began in the Spring of 1997, airing in the afternoons on TV Tokyo. It was aimed at a fairly wide audience but most clearly young and adolescent girls as opposed to adult male otaku. Given some of the material the show would get into, it’s a shock that this was allowed, but I digress. This was never intended to be some specialty work; Ikuhara was, after all, coming off the back of Sailor Moon, so a success among a more general audience was absolutely expected.
From the very beginning, Utena feels like an Ikuhara show to an absurd degree. Those individual episodes he directed at Sailor Moon carry a similar atmosphere to every episode of this anime, except things are even less constrained. The comedy is absurd and exactly as you’d expect from him, the dark undertones everywhere make it clear even from the start that this is a commentary on humanity and society, and the surreal elements are taken to another level than what was possible in Sailor Moon, which was absolutely grounded relative to Utena. Furthermore, it focuses on a number of concepts that Ikuhara didn’t really get to deal with in any depth before this but which time will show are favorites of his.
Utena is about many things. One of those is the subject of fairy tales, princes and princesses. The fairy tale is something magical and surreal which you’re told as a child, something which helps you to rationalize the world around you. However, they hold a dangerous power of coercion, in that they’re used to reinforce the societal structures which allow those in charge to maintain power at a point where we’re heavily prone to being influenced. And this is where the prince and the princess come in. Common tropes, especially in shoujo manga of the time, and ones which are understandably appealing to those who come into contact with them. I can’t deny that I myself love some of their mystique. But believing in them too heavily is a dangerous game. These are constructed roles, much like the constructed roles of maleness and femaleness, and they aren’t accurate nor are they healthy to cling to. They represent a power imbalance and a false binary, neat ideas to sell to children which are corrupt from the outset. In essence, the fairy tale represents power, societal narratives, and norms which are blatantly constructed yet stuck to anyway due to a fear of the unknown.
Every one of Ikuhara’s main projects could be said to have a single word which describes what it covers. For Utena, that word is adolescence. The characters in the series are all middle and high schoolers, those in the period of their lives where they’re really coming to terms with their identities, interpersonal relationships, and how they want to deal with the world, how they want to relate to it as subjects and as active participants. They’re still young, too young to be considered adults in any real sense, and yet they yearn for adulthood. What does it mean to grow up? That’s a question that Utena frequently asks its characters. Does it mean having sex? Becoming independent? Gaining structural power?
And let’s talk about power. Social constructs and systems are, as I said, a core element here and power is obviously what those structures prop up. How is power distributed? The series is certainly aware that it isn’t — or perhaps even that it can’t be — in an equal way, that men are given more access, that those who are well off have more access, and that those who have already grown up certainly have more access. Adulthood is something our characters strive for, but how good is it? Ikuhara showed us in Sailor Moon that he valued growing up, but the way he portrays that here is quite different. After all, if you grow up in the wrong way, becoming disillusioned with the world, you’ll quickly become a monster, someone who desires power for the sake of it, with no higher ideals at play.
Among themes that are constants for Ikuhara, perhaps the most appealing to me is his use of love and empathy. Usagi stood out for loving all but Utena isn’t quite the same way. She has those she hates, including those who aren’t necessarily villains as such, and she has a strong moral core. But she’s only 14 and frankly doesn’t know what she’s doing. As she faces various challenges throughout the show, it would only be natural to see her become disillusioned, to have her grow to hate this world that’s so determined to drag her down, this world which is blatantly awful, full of unjust hierarchies, this world which has chewed up and spit out all of the show’s various characters. But she doesn’t despite coming close and having every opportunity to do so, and while I’ll be returning to this later, I think it’s important to keep in mind, as it showcases Ikuhara’s fundamental faith in the power of humanity.
At 39 episodes, Utena is a long show, and many would expect it to be somewhat stretched given its length. Fortunately, however, it’s a dense work, and every episode adds to the show. Even parts that many deride as filler, such as the Black Rose Arc or Nanami’s episodes, clearly contribute to the broader commentaries that the series is trying to make, as well as just helping to flesh out the narrative, characters, and humor. Nothing is wasted and no image is random. Even when the symbolism is impossible to divine, even when the shadow girls’ plays hold no obvious meaning, there’s value there. Ikuhara understood that there’s merit to adding nonsensical elements. Nothing in this work fails to elevate its fantastic cast, directing, and writing, all of which help to fully explore every idea the show tackles, making it one of the most complete anime I’ve ever seen.
As a girl aspiring to be a prince, Utena takes heavily from characters like Oscar. Girl princes were and still are a common archetype, both in yuri and het works, and her design and mannerisms in this show clearly borrow from that lineage. Utena is determined to be a prince like the one she remembers, like those from fairy tales, possessing that same nobility and saving those who need to be saved. She’s confused by her place in the world, understandably so, but she knows that she can’t tolerate injustice. As the very first episode demonstrates with her protection of Anthy, she has no interest in sitting by while others are hurt. She’ll always help those in need. This, of course, has a patronizing element to it, as you inherently put down those who “have to be saved”, but there’s no doubt that Utena does truly want to help.
Notably, Utena never expresses real confusion over her gender as such. Over her role within it, absolutely. Utena questions if it’s okay for her to become a prince given that she’s a girl, if it’s even possible, if she should go out with a boy or if her feelings for Anthy, which increasingly seem romantic, are merely friendship. That said, she always rejects maleness. Not in the way she rejects being attracted to girls — that is to say, an obvious farce — but through a total lack of consideration. She always believes herself to be a girl, she just believes that it isn’t wrong to become a prince even so. To her, a prince might be a masculine archetype and thus associated with men, but it is not restrained to men. As she shows with her uniform and competition with boys’ sports teams, girls can be masculine too.
If Utena represents the idea of a fairytale prince, Anthy represents the two primary competing archetypes for female characters in those myths: the princess and the witch. As the Rose Bride, she lacks power, acting only according to the wishes of Akio and whichever person is engaged to her at a given point. She is the epitome of a damsel, totally incapable of action, purely a weak creature who must be protected, who must be saved. But at the same time, she’s a conniving witch. She expresses pleasure in tormenting the Duelists where possible, assisting Akio in his plots, arranging things so that everything works out for his plans. And, as the series eventually reveals, she truly is a witch in a sense, having used her magic to hide Dios away from the world. Initially Utena truly does seem like a prince, and it’s only in the events I’ll cover later that the idea of aspiring to that title is deconstructed but Anthy’s role is suspect from the beginning and the first sign that Ikuhara was not replicating fairy tale roles but setting them up so as to criticize them.
And still, more is borrowed from fairy tales, as well as from theater. The world itself always seems like a set, never quite feeling real. The way it’s shot reinforces that; it’s always as if we’re watching from the seats, seeing a world which has clear walls and boundaries. There’s no strong sense of place; while Ohtori Academy has maps that define it, things don’t exactly click. It never feels like everything fits together, there’s always something off about the surrounding environments. The Dueling Arena is a stage, showcasing the fights between Duelists as if they were performances, and to some extent, they are. The Shadow Girls, too, borrow from theater, a true Greek chorus that comments on the events at hand in a cryptic, funny, and oh so Ikuhara way. Truly, this work allowed Ikuhara to take all of his influences and show them off to the world, to demonstrate his mental landscape and to elaborate upon his ideas about how the world and the people within it work.
Every character in Utena is unique, multi-faceted, and worth exploring in-depth. Frankly, I don’t have the time to give a full analysis of each one here; it would take far too long to do so. But they’re all important to understanding Ikuhara, as they all reflect aspects of himself, his life, or the way he sees the world. Each one of them is incredibly important to understanding this director, so I’m going to highlight all of the remotely important people.
Let’s begin with a pair of main characters who are oft-neglected: Touga and Saionji. Opinions on these two range wildly. They’re both pretty boys who are designed to be quite attractive. They’re also both misogynistic trash, though in very different ways. They’re important to look at, as they provide an image of how Utena views the interaction between societal influences and personal morality.
Both Touga and Saionji are hurt by the patriarchal forces that shaped them. Toxic masculinity has driven both of them to be disgusting people who see others as mere tools in getting what they want. Saionji is actively violent while Touga is softer in touch but just as prone to manipulation and deceit, or perhaps even more. The two reflect different ways that society can, in valuing men over women, turn young boys into worse people, to the point that this system which hurt them gives them some small modicum of power, thus encouraging them to reproduce all the harm that was done unto them. They are sympathetic, they are victims, but they can’t simply be forgiven, as they now make victims of others.
As we see in the flashback, Saionji used to be a nice kid. He wanted to help Utena when she was in the coffin and simply didn’t know how to. He was close friends with Touga and truly believed in the world, at least to some degree. But it was too late. Touga had already been scarred too deeply, by society and by the specific situation he was living in. He was no longer capable of giving Saionji the warm relationship he needed. So as time went on, Saionji realized that the way he needed to act to count as a man in society was to abuse. He was owed power, he was owed his desires, and he’d gain them through violence if need be. From the show’s start, Saionji is someone who we’re meant to hate. He claims to love Anthy and then slaps her around in the next breath. And we’re not supposed to forgive him for this, even when he’s presented sympathetically. But we are meant to understand it. Again, Ikuhara wants to be clear: these systems hurt all of us, even those in power, and while we can’t trust them or rely upon them to liberate ourselves, it’s an important fact to recognize that these structures are universally harmful. That Saionji has potential within him to be a good person is shown in how he treats Wakaba as he hides in her room. But his current inability to be that good person is shown in how he betrays her in leaving it behind for a chance to access power once again.
Touga, unlike Saionji, is “polite”. He’s charming, with legions of fangirls at his beck and call. But he doesn’t love them. Saionji might be garbage but his feelings for Anthy are genuine, simply warped by how society has conditioned him. Touga does not care for the girls who adore him, he does not care for the students he’s supposedly the president of, and he does not even care for his own sister. He merely knows how to control. Saionji represents the ways that toxic masculinity can push its recipients into becoming violent brutes, those incapable of showing kindness or empathy. Touga is similarly unempathetic but he represents a true quest for power, a desire to better your position no matter the cost, even when the result of that betterment is unclear to you. What does Touga want? Hell if he even knows. It’s for that reason that falling in love with Utena is such a shock to him. He tries to manipulate her, and he almost succeeds, but he realizes in her failure to bend to his will that the world still has things he can’t control, something that makes her more appealing in a way. Like Saionji, it’s society that made him this way, and while that doesn’t absolve him of all guilt, it does make his actions more understandable if not more forgivable.
Juri and Shiori are an interesting pair. In the 90s, when this was made, Juri’s explicit feelings of love for Shiori were quite a bit more shocking than today. At the time, a number of people understandably found her tragically relatable and as a result considered Shiori to be the worst of the worst, the scum of a show where there’s at least one outright rapist. But I think that’s unfair. If Saionji and Touga represent two sides of toxic masculinity, Juri and Shiori represent two sides of heteronormativity and being closeted.
Juri, in the knowledge of her lesbianism, strives to be perfect and without flaw. The rumors of her being a lesbian are abound, of course, but if no one finds out that it’s Shiori she loves, if it all remains rumor next to her perfect resume, then there’s no real problem. Heteronormativity and fear of reprisal push her to hide her feelings and it makes her miserable. She won’t believe in miracles because she knows that the biggest miracle, her love being returned by Shiori, will never happen. She hates herself, refusing to believe in her own strength, in the power of her love. Shiori to her is absolutely perfect, an idol who she, in her corrupt desires, is not worthy of. Juri has no doubts that she’s a lesbian but she views that as an inherent problem. She could not possibly deserve Shiori. And after all, Shiori is straight, right?
Wrong. Sure, she dates boys and claims to be attracted to them, so she may not be a lesbian, but she’s certainly not straight either. Ikuhara confirms that she’s in love with Juri, but even without that it should be obvious. Like Juri, she hates herself for loving another girl. Like Juri, she sees said other girl as perfect. However, instead of brooding about it and putting the girl on an uncomfortable pedestal, Shiori reacts much more… openly. She doesn’t believe Juri can reciprocate, she believes Juri is simply looking down on her, and so she goes with the next best option: dating the guy she thought Juri was in love with. She wants to make Juri jealous, she wants to do whatever she has to in order to maintain the attention of the one she loves, even if that attention is scorn. It’s not a healthy way to deal with these things, but hey, this is Utena. None of these characters are remotely healthy.
And eventually, as Shiori becomes aware that Juri’s feelings for her are not patronizing but instead romantic, things take a bad turn. She has power over Juri now and with that, she can force Juri to continue thinking about her at all times. She doesn’t know how to express these feelings because heteronormativity is so strong that she can’t even imagine simply going out with her. They both refuse to cleanly acknowledge their shared love in an attempt to forge a happy relationship with one another. In doing so, they hurt each other, in the process only hurting themselves.
As Ruka makes clear in his short but important appearance, Juri really is just as at-fault as Shiori. She’s incapable of taking any help in progressing things with Shiori because she legitimately believes herself to be unworthy. She can’t be saved from this loop of self-hatred by anyone but herself. Not to excuse Ruka of course, he’s a chauvinist who acts entirely for his own benefit, but he’s honestly right on this. Juri needs to save herself from this obsession because it’s not doing her or Shiori any good and, in elevating Shiori to such an absurd level, is actually hurting her ability to work through their relationship at any point. Their actions are entirely performative and that’s their downfall. If they just reached out for one another, truly speaking of their feelings, they could resolve this. But the social structures that brought them up won’t allow that. As always, Ikuhara believes we’re all victims of our environments. And being a victim often makes an abuser. Juri and Shiori are like so many relationships in this show, victimizing one another in different ways and never truly making an attempt to understand the other’s feelings. That some failed to recognize this is just a sign of how flawless Juri’s outward image is — even viewers who know her secrets and suffering are still led astray by her perfect exterior and who can really blame them? Just look at her.
Miki and Kozue are a straighter, more incest-heavy parallel to Juri and Shiori. Not to say they’re the same, of course, but there are similar dynamics at play. These two show just how unhealthy sibling relationships can be. Given how much incest is in the show, you could view that as unnecessary, but I still think they serve a valuable role in showing that these dynamics can play out no matter what the gender of the participants. Miki is obsessed with Anthy, not because of her own traits but because she highly resembles Kozue, treating her in many ways as Juri treats Shiori.
Miki, unlike almost all the other male characters in the show, is not particularly struck by toxic masculinity. Perhaps this is because he never really cared about becoming a prince, but it’s worth noting. No, his issues are simply love, those you’d more commonly see with a female character. Ikuhara is doing something important here: he’s not just showing the diversity in gender expression across people who all have the same gender identity, he’s also trying to make it clear that masculinity and femininity are constructed just as much as the prince and princess roles. Like with Juri and Shiori, both Miki and Kozue are ultimately good people whose inability to connect with each other puts them in bad situations. Of course, for these two, talking things out probably shouldn’t lead to a romantic relationship, something I believe Ikuhara would agree on given how he portrays the other incestuous situations in the show, but a healthy solution is possible if they try for one. It’s unfortunate that society makes such a thing so hard to achieve.
Nanami is another divisive character. As I hinted at earlier, a lot of people don’t like her focus episodes, primarily because they’re very comedy-based and often irrelevant to the main plot surrounding the duels. Now, being a joke character would already make it clear what part of Ikuhara’s mind she sprung from but there’s more than that there. Certainly, her episodes are absolutely hilarious, employing the exact same visual and timing-based comedy that we saw in his Sailor Moon episodes.
But the pathos and themes behind her are brilliant as well. She, more than anyone, shows the danger in trying to grow up too quickly. If you do so, you’ll become disillusioned with what it is you’re searching for quite rapidly. Nanami is constantly trying to grow up, and when she succeeds in getting a bit close to Akio, she’s horrified to see him having sex with Anthy, his own sister. Adulthood is not all it’s cracked up to be, Nanami learns, causing her to devalue the thing she was originally searching for: Touga. Her love of Touga was a childish one and while it certainly was overtly sexual at times, it was distinctly non-threatening. If you try and make your love “eternal” it will become corrupt. Nanami practically leaves the show after realizing how horrific a relationship with Touga would truly be.
But it’s also important to look at where she started from. She’s mean, but given that her adored older brother often ignored her or treated her coldly, how else was she supposed to turn out? She clearly regrets being the way she is — after all, she feels bad for killing the cat — but just doesn’t know another way around it. And she’s afraid of change, as it’d cause her to lose what little power she has. As her episodes often show, she’s terrified of becoming a social pariah. This girl was willing to put on a cowbell because she thought it’d help her maintain her popularity. When she believes she laid an egg, she fears reprisal for laying or not laying one. She is, after all, a 13-year old girl, someone who is simply trying to find her way in the world. She does bad things in her attempts, and she should be chastised for that, but she’s even less at fault than Juri and Shiori are for their actions.
Mikage is, of course, a demonstration of what happens when you refuse to grow up. He failed to graduate so to speak, to move beyond Ohtori, staying behind for years and eventually starting the Black Rose duels. To accept what happened, to accept growing up in a healthy manner, is to accept that life will move on, that you can’t reverse the past, that you can’t save everyone you loved even if you wish you could have. In effect, it means to accept that you’ll never truly become a prince, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And when Utena defeats him, forcing him to acknowledge that he lost and that he can’t go back, he disappears. From this episode comes an important quote from Ikuhara. In describing what happened to Mikage he says that “Those who reject that place are, conversely, rejected by it as well. This is the nature of systems: the moment you reject them, you are forced to realize that they’re the very ground you’re standing on. Mikage noticed the trick behind the system, and he hurriedly attempted revisions. But the adult who’d created the system just said “Let’s not,” and unilaterally brought the curtain down. The system of illusion was finished. Mikage could no longer exist there. That’s why he disappeared from the memories of those who’d interacted with him.”
The first two sentences there are particularly key. Obviously, Utena is against any number of social systems. That’s not so unusual. Ikuhara’s approach to fighting them is what makes him stand out. Those who fight the system in Utena, and in all of Ikuhara’s works, will eventually be cast off by it, estranged from it, and destroyed by it. You can not continue to live under a system you reject. If you reject patriarchy, it will attack you. If you reject heteronormativity, it will attack you. If you reject capitalism, it will attack you. That shouldn’t be taken to mean the struggle isn’t worth it. You won’t always be as unilaterally erased as Mikage, with literally everyone forgetting your very existence. But there’s more than a risk here: there’s guaranteed tragedy. And that’s very, very important to remember as we continue to look at Ikuhara’s works, since it underpins why his stories are so very dark despite his optimism.
Lastly as characters go, we have to look at the principal antagonist, “The End of the World” himself, Akio Ohtori. Everything about him is skeevy even from the start. The way he waxes philosophical when talking to students, attempting to confuse them into thinking he’s smart. The fact that he’s dating a high schooler who he’s not only in a position of power over but also much older than. The fact that he tries way too hard to act like the cool friend even while he’s in charge of things. This man is the personification of patriarchy, the prime example of what attempting to be a prince will eventually do to you, a perfect demonstration of how a quest for power can make you into an irredeemably bad person. That Ikuhara identifies Akio as a fragment of himself says poor things about the director’s self-esteem.
Remember, this is a man who not only rapes his sister regularly but also rapes Utena on-screen. Yes, this was rape, she’s 14 and clearly in a situation where she can’t possibly consent to sex with someone like Akio. There are goddamn stop signs on the road in this episode, it’s rape. He uses his position of power to benefit himself at all times. Sex, people, they’re all just tools, useful methods to get him where he wants to go. That place is more and more power. Once you get a bit of power, it goes to your head. You can’t stop. It’s an insatiable thirst that Akio has, which is why he’s run the dueling games for so long.
However, it’s worth noting that while Akio is irredeemable, he’s also complex. What makes him so interesting as a villain is how genuine he is. Not just in his actions — through a quick look at the news should make it clear that his abuses of power are all too real — but in the fact that he is, in truth, a victim of society just as much as the other characters. That he victimizes other people doesn’t erase that. As Dios, he truly was good and genuinely wished to save others. His ideas were pure and noble. But they were still flawed. They were based on the same false assumptions that Utena risks falling prey to: the idea that he was a just prince, capable of shouldering the weight of the princesses. That idea, which simultaneously removed agency from those he helped while treating himself far too highly, was a dangerous one. It was bound to lead to ruin when he became unable to serve his princely role, when he was forced to stay away from saving people. In the end, even if you become a prince, you’ll eventually reach Akio’s point. Someone for whom no amount of power is ever enough, someone who can never truly achieve what they want, someone who may abuse others but who’s ultimately a hollow and pathetic mess on the inside. He says himself that it’s society’s fault that he’s the way he is. And he’s right to some degree. He must also take the blame, as he’s willing to do the things he does without a hint of remorse and he’s never remotely forgiven for anything. But Ikuhara is clear: people like him exist because of the system. Merely attacking the person will not solve anything because the system behind it is the root cause and addressing it is the solution if we want to be rid of men like him.
There’s a lot more to look at in the show beyond its characters. As previously, I’ll be as light as I can here: each episode of Utena deserves an hour-long analysis unto itself but this is a project about Ikuhara, not Utena.
The series is, as you might expect given the focus on social structures, very interested in the idea of being trapped. Utena is stuck in a coffin from which she can’t escape after her parents’ death, a coffin that Anthy is similarly stuck in during the finale. Given some of his later works, I’d hazard a guess that Ikuhara believes us all to be stuck in our own coffins to some degree or another. We are of course also stuck in our shells, chicks primed to break the shell known as the world, as Touga is wont to say whenever he ascends to the Student Council Room. Recall Ikuhara’s message with Nehalania in SuperS: it can be understandably terrifying to walk forwards into the future, not knowing what is to come. But to trap oneself in a prison of stagnancy is even worse. These coffins, these shells, this school, they are all hells of stasis, ones we must escape if we are to move onwards. What helps you leave, as Utena shows in the finale, is nobility, a belief in justice, but not one built on hierarchies. Remember, princehood is a false ideal and ultimately not something you truly want to achieve but the ideas that underpin it aren’t necessarily bankrupt themselves.
There are sections of the show like the Black Rose saga which show how our interpersonal relationships can hurt us, the danger in refusing to talk things out. The Black Rose Duelists let their feelings bubble up for so long that there’s no way to express them other than to duel. And that, obviously, is not a healthy way of dealing with your feelings. If the Duelists with the Rose Crests can’t achieve peace through their duels — and they can’t, to be clear — then the Black Rose Duelists certainly can’t either. These characters needed to talk to the various people they had issues with. But, understandably, various social systems made that hard, if not impossible. Interestingly enough, Ikuhara was unsure about this arc, as he thought it was maybe a bit too easy to comprehend compared to the rest of the show, but in fleshing out the side characters and the leads along with them, it adds the detail that the show desperately needed and I can only imagine how much worse it’d be without it.
However, what’s perhaps most notable about the show is its ending. First, it’s worth pointing out at this stage that this is not the last time you’ll see this ending. All three of his main projects have the same conclusion because what it signifies is so central to his worldview that he can’t avoid repeating it again and again. Anthy betrays Utena, stabbing her in the back, mostly because Akio told her too but likely, to some degree, because she was tired of being treated like a princess. Like the Black Rose Duelists, her feelings simmered for too long to be healthy. But Utena loves her and continues to fight in order to save her, even as Akio and Dios simultaneously tell her she can’t do it. And Anthy loves her back. That she stabbed her was a problem of course but like for every other relationship in the series, both people are at fault here. Through Utena’s warm feelings of love, she frees Anthy from her coffin, taking the patriarchal swords of hate as she too, like Mikage before her, is rejected by the system, disappearing.
And so, we get a brilliant scene. It seems, at first, like nothing has changed. Utena is spoken of in rumor only, no longer fully remembered by those whose lives she didn’t directly influence. The cast, of course, keeps her in their minds, moving forward and talking things out but showing little more change than that. Sure, Shiori and Juri seem healthier now, Touga and Saionji seem a bit more respectful, but did Utena really succeed? Akio thinks not, and instructs Anthy to prepare for another duel game. But the true answer is yes, things have changed. Anthy has gained power from Utena’s example, leaving the school and growing up where her older brother is utterly incapable of doing so. And thus Anthy leaves in search of Utena, the girl who loved her, the girl who may not have become a prince but who certainly was nobler than any man.
Utena’s revolution was a small one. It did not topple the power structures entirely. Anthy’s departure will leave Akio with no way to move forward, but the school itself still stands. Another Akio could pop up and another Akio will pop up if things aren’t changed. But she did succeed. Not just in propelling Anthy, but in helping the entire cast to understand that very soon, they’ll have to move on. Resisting will force you out of the system but it will inspire those who are still within it. And if enough people are rejected by it? Well, eventually, there’d be no one left, wouldn’t there?
That’s hardly all I could say about the Utena TV series, but I’ll stop for now. Suffice it to say that the show was incredibly popular. It came out at the perfect time, after all, critiquing genres and tropes that were popular but also ripe for change. In featuring so many characters, it played an important role for queer people both inside and outside Japan, helping Sailor Moon in establishing the yuri genre as a meaningful subculture of otakudom. And, as I said in the beginning, the TV series was not the only part of the project. No, there’s a lot more, much of which is incredibly interesting to look at.
Let’s begin with the manga I put aside earlier. Primarily, this work follows the anime’s Student Council Sage and Apocalypse Saga, significantly truncating both and changing massive parts of the plot. Frankly, it’s less interesting. Both the surreality and the tragedy of the anime are lost here, so all we’re left with is a vaguely dark and action-heavy shoujo romance series of a sort. Which would be fine, I suppose, but it certainly can’t hold a candle to the Utena series at large. In losing its role as a critic of the tropes it partakes in, the manga almost comes across as a work which was created entirely for the anime to tear down.
Additionally, the manga is significantly less queer, to the point that I’d call it straightwashing. Juri is made to be in love with Touga, someone who she outright despises in the anime. Compared to the other queer girls in Utena — of which there are many — Juri is the most staunchly disinterested in boys the entire time. While the others may or may not be bi, according to your various interpretations, Juri is certainly a lesbian. To make matters worse, a side story shows she has feelings for Ruka as well. Not only is this pretty offensive, it also just makes Juri a less interesting character. A huge part of her appeal is her lesbianism and how it affects her, so to lose that makes her a bit of a boring archetype.
Utena and Anthy are also significantly toned down. Ikuhara was, of course, limited in what he could do with the two in the anime — that he even got away with the off-screen kiss in the second ED is quite impressive — but there at least, the subtext was blatant. Saito, on the other hand, shows almost none of this interest in their relationship, increasing the focus on Utena’s attraction to Touga and Akio far beyond the anime. The ending is similarly less gay. I wouldn’t say you can’t read Utena and Anthy as a couple here, I certainly still do, but you wouldn’t do so if you hadn’t seen the anime beforehand, which again is a real problem given the importance of queerness to Utena.
Lastly, the ending is just worse. Here, Akio is not a fallen form of Dios, the natural result of a prince who inevitably fails at some point, but literally just the evil half of Dios, who’s good. This is incredibly boring and of no value. It’s not a cutting criticism of fairy tale tropes, it’s not an interesting character study. It’s just worse. And frankly, that’s what I can say of the whole manga. The art is pretty good, I suppose, but in every imaginable way, it’s inferior to the TV show.
In 1997 a musical released for Utena. Takarazuka-esque, it only starred female actors. That’s understandable given the series’ roots, but considering what the show has to say about patriarchal forces and how they morph the male characters into abusers, it is a questionable decision. What’s even odder is how heavily they emphasize Utena and Anthy’s romance. Now, that might be confusing given that I just complained about the manga toning that down. However, the issue is in how early this is shown. At this point, Anthy is merely the Rose Bride to Utena, not the close friend that she is by the last third of the show. It feels forced, unnatural, and creepy. Part of the point is that Utena and Anthy don’t immediately love one another. Utena is unwilling to admit her interest in another girl while also not liking the idea of being engaged to someone who must obey you as the result of a duel. Anthy herself is certainly in no place to be falling in love at the start, given that she lacks true freedom and despises those who win her.
Aside from that serious issue, it’s mostly just mediocre. By the time I watched this I’d seen that opening arc a good 8 times so if it wasn’t truly spectacular it wasn’t going to do much for me. I’m no expert on musicals but it didn’t seem like a great one. It’s really only worth checking out if you’re an Utena obsessive, in which case you may as well give it a look I suppose. Ikuhara had little involvement as far as I’m aware, so it’s mostly just an oddity for the sake of this project.
In 98 came a pair of light novels. These were written by Ichiro Okouchi — known for works like Code Geass and Princess Principal — with supervision by Ikuhara. Once again, these are an adaptation of the Student Council Saga, though not even the whole thing, as they only cover a duel against Miki and then a duel against Saionji, never even having Utena duel Juri or Touga. As novels, they read just fine, not particularly elevating or subtracting from the source material, though I question how effective they’d be if the anime’s imagery wasn’t already so imprinted in my head. That said, there are some interesting changes that make these two books worth examining.
First, Miki is in love with Utena. This wasn’t something I was expecting. Utena is totally different from Kozue, so the incestuous implications in the book are much lighter, something which is backed up when Kozue gets to narrate herself. This does make Miki a bit more interesting in this opening arc, though it doesn’t add much to the table from a thematic standpoint.
Second, Miki and Touga are in a sexual relationship. This is an interesting decision. Touga’s interactions with Akio made it pretty clear that he’s certainly willing to have sex with men — ironic given what he says to Nanami at one point — but this definitely shifts my view of Miki. It’s not fully elaborated upon why Miki has sex with Touga but I don’t think it necessarily needs to be. It’s food for thought and helps to shed light on Miki outside his relationship with Kozue.
Lastly, book two delves deep into Saionji and Wakaba. The Saionji stuff is fine, nothing that’s not in the anime really, but the Wakaba parts really help her. Outside of her two episodes in Black Rose, she didn’t get a ton of material in the show that wasn’t comedic or devoted to cheering up Utena. Here, we get to see more of the reasoning behind her interest in Saionji, the extent to which she’s dedicated to pursuing her desires, and the hardships she endures in the process. Its resolution — which involves her dressing like Utena and getting attacked by Saionji — is a bit shaky, but the material here is generally pretty neat. The rest of the volume is devoted to Utena crushing on Touga which is not something I’m interested in. I do wish more volumes could have released — the little characterization of Juri we got was great — but these two are the only ones that exist and they’re certainly decent for what they are.
A game for the Saturn came out in the same year, with little to no involvement from Ikuhara. Despite that, it’s the most interesting of the non-anime works I’ve covered thus far. It stars a female main character who comes to Ohtori and must survive four days at the school after a mysterious, beautiful girl who seems to hate you also arrives. In many ways, it functions as a dating sim, as you’re allowed to romance all the Student Council Members alongside Utena and Anthy, with other endings being thrown in as well. Theoretically taking place between episodes 8 and 9, you can only do so much, as the anime has to continue occurring, but what’s there is neat, particularly in the Utena and Juri routes. It truly does an excellent job at feeling like it could be part of an anime, and I’m impressed at the extent of the queer themes in a game of this nature from the 90s, even if they were present in the show as well. It’s definitely worth playing if you’re willing to put in the annoying amount of effort to get it to work properly.
In 99, Ikuhara returned to work on another Utena project. This project was Adolescence, a movie adaptation of the series. Alongside it came another manga by Saito, though this one changed little apart from the ending, only slightly toning down the queerness and not outright stripping it out.
Adolescence is a fascinating film. It was an early example of how good digital animation could look; the entire dance scene is digital, despite Ikuhara lambasting the shift from cel production just a year earlier in a talk with Anno. In general, its visuals are fantastic. The characters were perfectly redesigned such that they felt the same while being subtly different. Take Utena’s new uniform — which actually looks similar to that of the boys — or Anthy’s longer hair. These new looks really suit the characters and make them even more attractive without fundamentally changing what their designs say about them as people. The architecture no longer seems to exist in Euclidean space as objects shift around before our very eyes. A representation of what Ikuhara was trying to say about the structures which underpin society? Who can say? Certainly, though, this was even more clearly a set than the show, a work even less interested in coming across as remotely real or believable.
Adolescence’s first task was somehow managing to flesh out the show despite its 90-minute runtime. To do so, it added backstory to Touga, telling of the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, something you’d think is rather important to how we should understand him. I have no idea why Ikuhara didn’t put that in the TV series. It also spent more time on the drowning girl incident that Juri brought up in the final episode. Interestingly, it changes the roles, so that Juri herself was drowning rather than her sister. Even more, interestingly, this story also popped up in the novels, with Utena being the one who drowned. I frankly don’t know what to make of that.
Perhaps more important than the details it adds is the fact that Adolescence is used to tell a new story with new themes, in many ways challenging the premises and conclusions of the TV series. Princehood means something different here; it is being liberated and liberatory. It is not the patriarchal and paternalistic role of the series, here it’s wholly good. It allows one to escape the confines of masculinity and femininity. In many ways, I see this as Ikuhara’s attempt to imbue the prince with a sort of salvageability. The show tore him down so brutally that he could never recover, while the movie attempts to look at what was useful there in the first place. Notably, the only true princes in this film are Utena and Anthy, as Touga and Akio had been false princes to the both of them. The two are dead by the film’s start and both merely hold our main characters back. For whatever value they held — and they seem to have had some, as little as it may have been — our leads needed to move forward from them, into a place with more freedom.
Something which draws many to this film — and it’s easy to see why — is the fact that Anthy is a much more active character. She herself runs the duel games, searching for a prince who can help her now that Akio is dead. She no longer merely obeys the orders of whoever she’s engaged to, instead actively pursuing them and offering sex or other favors. When she chooses to break free of the school and Akio’s influence, it’s of her own accord. We see her drive car-Utena outside the school, showing that while Utena is the vehicle which allows her to move forward, it’s her own driving that gets her there. That might be true in the show as well, but given that it only happens at the very end, it shows less of her internal strength. I think it works as well, as Anthy’s role in the series is important to see but we’d already gotten that. Having her become the protagonist in a certain sense was a good idea, helping address the fact that she was passive to the point of unlikability for some in the series.
The finale is excellent. Of course, as I said, it’s the same as Ikuhara’s endi ngs always are and always will be. The two manage to escape the school, becoming estranged from the society in which they existed but encouraging those who still exist within that society to eventually make their way out. What’s more important is one key thing: they kiss. They’d kissed earlier but it had less meaning there, where they weren’t on equal footing. Here, they’re naked, baring their all to each other, and their kiss is both intimate and a sign of their faith in moving forwards. As they say, perhaps they won’t be able to make it in the world they’re going to, but that “world without roads” was the world they came from, and new roads can be built. It may be hard but it’s worth it.
All in all, it’s a fantastic movie, one which made it clear that Ikuhara was nowhere close to running out of ideas. He could’ve made a simple recap film, but instead he decided to expand upon and question the ideas he had already brought up in the TV series. Fans were excited and eagerly awaited his next anime project. He’d dropped hints about it being an even bigger undertaking and after Sailor Moon and both forms of Utena, how could anyone not be hyped? Unfortunately, they’d be waiting for quite a while.
Chapter 5: Down and Out in the State of California
It’s not as if Ikuhara ever made an announcement that he wouldn’t be making any anime for quite some time. No, that never happened. After completing Adolescence, he actually began by getting closer to his fans, particularly American ones. He directed the dub for the film and started to attend American conventions. From interviews he gave at the time, it seems that he was trying to make anime. He promised something even bigger, something more suited to international audiences. This focus on internationalism seems to have been a big thing for him at the time, to the point that he settled down in California for a while.
Still, to the average anime fan, it would seem as if he dropped off the map. Sure, he was attending some American conventions and news of that likely would’ve been known to his most devoted fans. But there was no sign that he was making anything, and in this earlier phase of the internet, it would’ve been much harder to discover what he was doing. Because, and this is important to note, he did not actually cease working on things. He might not’ve headed any anime projects during this period but he was still contributing to a number of works.
First, it’s important to address the reason behind his failure to direct any anime during this period. Rumors abound as to why. Some say he was attempting to get into Hollywood, which doesn’t sound too far-fetched given some of his comments and his decision to live in California for a while. Others claim it was because he was hard to work with. That’s certainly not something that anyone could object to — after all, it’s not rare for visionary directors to be difficult to manage, and certain stories make it clear that he’s not always the nicest person.
The idea that he was too ambitious, or alternatively that he was disillusioned, have also been thrown around. And I don’t think I can shut any of these guesses down. Given how he’s spoken about this period, it’s very clear that multiple factors lead to his temporary disappearance and all of these probably had some influence. Rarely do absences this massive come down to one factor and I don’t want to act as if I know exactly what was going through his mind during this period because I don’t.
But I do know a few facts. First, he’s said in an interview that during this timeframe he was getting offers from Toei to return and work on some projects with them, offers that he repeatedly turned down. This makes it pretty clear that he was in a comfortable enough position to just turn down work, something which many in the industry don’t have the luxury of doing. It’s understandable that he didn’t return to Toei — after all, he left because they weren’t giving him enough freedom — but it is notable.
Second, and this is incredibly key: the entire time leading up to his next major anime project, he was focused on the Sarin Gas Attacks. These will be covered in far more depth when we get to Penguindrum, but this is important to note. Even dating back to a 98 conversation with Anno, he discusses the attacks and how he understands the people in Aum who committed them. Ikuhara pitched a show based on the attacks throughout this period of absence and was always denied. This is slight speculation, but it would not be a shock to me if he was simply unwilling to create an anime that was not focused on the 95 incident. As I said, we’ll be returning to those attacks later, but just keep his focus on them in mind as we look at what he actually did during these years.
First, in 1999, he worked with Mamoru Nagano of Five Star Stories fame, creating a mecha novel series called Schell Bullet. Little info exists about it, unfortunately, though it doesn’t seem to have been Ikuhara’s usual fare. What’s most interesting about it is how it sets the tone for this period. All anime is collaboration of course, but during this time, Ikuhara himself became less heavily emphasized in the things he was working on, even if he was a main creative voice. The accompanying music is worth checking out, at least.
In 2002 he’d work with Saito once again on a shoujo manga known as S to M no Sekai, or, The World Exists for Me. This is a time travel romance series and frankly, it’s not very good. While it is darker than Saito’s version of Utena, it lacks the surreality that makes Ikuhara’s works so interesting. Instead, it’s a fairly generic romance, which isn’t exactly his strong suit. The amount of sexual assault is uncomfortable and the themes it sets up aren’t very interesting. It does have gay elements — between men this time — but even that ends in tragedy and feels fairly tame for a shoujo manga. I’m clearly not the only one who didn’t like it, as it was canceled after a mere 2 volumes, not getting a proper conclusion.
In 2004, he got his first anime credit in 5 years on Gainax’s Diebuster. Storyboarding episode 2, his influence on it is clear. It’s arguably the least interesting episode of the OVA, seeing as it focuses fairly heavily on exposition and introduction, but Ikuhara’s eye for shot composition elevates it above the material. I can’t exactly speak as to how he was convinced to work on this anime. My best guess is that Anno convinced him to do so. Anno was not the director of Diebuster of course, but given that he had directed its predecessor and also worked on storyboarding 2 episodes of the show, it seems like the best bet. His appearance here gave anime-focused fans hope that he’d reappear in full form. That hope, of course, would not be met in kind.
In 2007, Ikuhara began work on the Nokemono to Hanayome manga, with art by Asumiko Nakamura. This series is, from what I understand, a sequel of sorts to a predecessor novel which had run solely in a fashion magazine. While I can’t speak to the novel, I can to the manga. Unlike his last manga series, this one feels like him. He’s not the artist of course, but the storyboarding feels distinctly like his work, with the imagery directly calling back to Utena in some cases and calling forward to his future works in others. It’s bizarre, dark, and surrealistic, clearly trying to say something about society and the broader world, about adulthood and identity. In other words, it feels like Ikuhara, and may be the work from this period which most distinctly carries his style. Of course, Western fans mostly had no idea this was running and even those who did had little access to it. Even I’ve only read the first volume. Notably, it has not yet ended, even after his broader return to anime.
In the same year, he popped up with an anime credit again, this time directing the OP to Nodame Cantabile. This OP is notable, as it showcases how he’d be directing almost all OPs and EDs from here onwards. There’s heavy usage of white space, important symbols spin around the screen and it’s just generally captivating to look at. Once again, fans were hopeful, and once again they’d be let down.
In 2008, he’d pop up storyboarding another episode of anime: this time being Soul Eater 29. A relatively dark episode, it has all his trademarks, from the heavy use of shadows in composing shots to the use of bizarre visual gags. He didn’t direct the episode, only storyboarding it, but anyone who knows his style would recognize it in this. For this show, I have a better idea of why he showed up. Soul Eater was directed by Takuya Igarashi, who if you may remember was his successor on Sailor Moon. Given their closeness, it’s not a shock that Ikuhara was convinced into returning for this. In the same year, he drew an end card for Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei episode 4, portraying the Shadow Girls.
In 2009, Ikuhara directed yet another OP. This time, he handled Aoi Hana’s. A yuri anime, this was particularly exciting to his fans. He did a great job on it, using the same techniques demonstrated in Cantabile to really demonstrate the closeness between Fumi and Ah-chan, as well as the pain that Fumi felt being trapped in such a heteronormative environment. This was truly an excellent showing and Utena fans had every right to be extremely excited due to his work on it. And for once, they wouldn’t be let down.
Early in 2011, an announcement was made. Ikuhara had been hinting that he had a new anime project for a while now, but finally, some news came. Early trailers were vague, using stark imagery and short, unclear lines of dialogue. The symbolism was bizarre, hinting at a focus on penguins, trains, and the Aum Shinrikyo attacks of 1995. Ikuhara had finally gotten his wish and so had his fans. Everyone was excited for the Summer of 2011 and the premiere of Mawaru Penguindrum.
Chapter 6: A Grand, Revolving Return
If Utena’s keyword is adolescence than Penguindrum’s is family, or, perhaps, fate.
Mawaru Penguindrum was, once again, a large multimedia project. Smaller than Utena, certainly, as conditions in the industry had changed over the past 14 years. This was never going to reach the levels that series did, which is part of why it took him so long to get it greenlit. But novels, manga, drama CDs, and much more all released with it. As I said, he always tended to work with female mangaka, and that’s the case here as well. Original character designs were drawn by Hoshino Lily, a shoujo and BL mangaka who’s fairly popular for her striking character art. The show was animated at Brains-Base and easily has the best production of any show he’s ever worked on. Assistant director Shouko Nakamura was brilliant, one of the strongest ex-Gainax staff members and her talents were lent throughout the show. A number of stellar episode directors and assistant directors worked on the series, learning under Ikuhara and later going on to become directors for their own anime. With background art by Chieko Nakamura and music by Yukari Hashimoto, the stage was set for Ikuhara to make the show which I would argue is his absolute best.
Utena drew primarily from shoujo manga and fairy tales, twisting those in order to reveal something about the real world. Penguindrum takes influence from those sources, of course, as they remain an important part of Ikuhara’s development, but there are also more direct literary influences here. The two I’d primarily like to look at, as the most important, are Haruki Murakami’s Underground and Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad.
Underground is a book which Murakami wrote in order to capture the real situations and tragedies behind the Tokyo Subway Sarin Gas Attacks. To be as brief as possible, these attacks occurred on March 20th, 1995, as the popular cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on the Tokyo subways during morning rush hour killing 12 and injuring well over a thousand. These were not the first deaths caused by the cult, which had been growing in popularity throughout the decade until the attacks caused its sharp decline. This event had a profound effect on Japanese society, as the members of the cult tended to be educated, middle-class Japanese people. To put it politely, they could not be “othered”. This was an attack that came from within the psyche of Japan rather than outside it, which proved difficult to reckon with for the dominant structures of society.
Underground attempted to deal with it anyway. First, Murakami interviewed those affected by the attacks and those who attempted to respond to them in some way or another. The stories are, of course, tragic. Many of these people continued to suffer serious symptoms after the attacks and some still feel those symptoms today. Others were interviewed after having lost family members to the attacks. Perhaps most notable in this section is those who worked their best to deal with the situation. Communication and coordination during this event were awful, but those who did their best to help the victims were, most certainly, heroes.
The second half of the book, and perhaps the most interesting, is interviews with former and at-the-time current members of Aum. This section is incredibly revealing. First, it makes it clear that these members, while perhaps buying into bizarre ideas, were not themselves particularly strange. Broadly speaking, they were simply alienated from society at large. After the economic crash hit and the Lost Decade began, a great many people found themselves thrown out from society, unable to deal with the disappearance of the bountiful future they had been promised. Ikuhara could certainly sympathize with this, given how he had felt growing up himself. Most of these people were clearly not eager to murder anyone, but as some of them admit, they may have done so if they had been told to. Ultimately, the importance of this book is in understanding the mentality behind those who both caused these tragedies and those who were hit by them. Penguindrum is perhaps Ikuhara’s most direct attack on society and the ideas that this book brings up are vital to understanding what the show is trying to say.
Second is Night on the Galactic Railroad. A famous children’s book in Japan, it’s best known to Western audiences for its 1985 anime adaptation, where the characters are primarily turned into cats, as well as for being the influence behind Galaxy Express 999.
Galactic Railroad is a deeply religious work, but more than that, it speaks to death, loss, sacrifice, duty, and the search for true happiness, ideas which resonate even beyond Miyazawa’s own religious beliefs. The work follows Giovanni, a relatively lonely and poor boy who accidentally finds himself crossing the Milky Way on a steam train during a festival one night. He meets up with his friend Campanella, as he encounters all kinds of people before it slowly becomes clear that those aboard have already passed away, including voyagers from the Titanic and others who no longer remain in our world. It ends as Giovanni realizes Campanella had drowned that night. Giovanni attempts to go with him to the afterlife, but Campanella turns him down, forcing him to wake up, no longer traveling the Milky Way, now having to accept the loss of his dear friend who he was able to spend one last night with. The film adaptation makes some interesting visual choices and serves as a particularly dark rendition of the story. This seems to be the version Ikuhara took the most from.
A few motifs and themes in Galactic Railroad are important to keep in mind as we look at Penguindrum. First is the apple. Here, apples represent self-sacrifice for the greater good as a way to make up for one’s own flaws. In this film, it’s shown that the way to end up spiritually at rest is to recognize that humanity and others must be helped when you’re capable of doing so. Second, we need to look at the Scorpion Fire. In the story, a fable is brought up, wherein a scorpion recognizes his own flaws and misdeeds in killing other creatures to survive and, while dying, begs God to turn his body into a beacon of light. This occurred and he burned into a beautiful flame, helping others to reach true happiness. The fable is directly referenced in the series multiple times. Third, make sure to remember the fur colors of Giovanni and Campanella. They’re used for the hair of our main characters, Shouma and Kanba, and these two borrow multiple personality traits from the pair in Galactic Railroad. Lastly, the book itself is referenced in both the first and final episodes, making it clear that Penguindrum is, in some odd sense, an adaptation of sorts.
There are other influences on the show, of course, but those two are the most notable and the only ones which I would call vital to understanding the series in the first place. Ikuhara synthesizes all of these things he draws upon — a cult which killed dozens and a story which preaches self-sacrifice and empathy — to make another series focused on society, the way it consistently lets down youths and other disadvantaged people, looking at how we should or should not change things. As I said, it centers on family, the importance of finding and caring about those who make you feel happy, all the while demonstrating Ikuhara’s consistent message that we should be more empathetic, that we should love one another more. I would never call Ikuhara’s themes original — much like his shows themselves, they’re full of repetition — but they’re most certainly looked at through a different lens every time, and I find the lens that Penguindrum uses to be incredibly worthwhile.
It’s clear from the start that Ikuhara’s time off was a good move, at least in a certain sense. He’s developed as a creator, honing his style more clearly and letting his traits show off to an even greater degree than before, without sacrificing on clarity or depth. The show’s OPs follow the same structure he developed earlier, using mostly white backgrounds with characters and important symbols merely laid on top. His skill at making his works appear unreal comes through just as clearly here; while the series is set in Tokyo, even telling the viewer which train stations are used to get from location to location, there’s something distinctly off about it, something which keeps it from feeling like it’s our Tokyo. There’s still not quite any sense of place and everything still feels as if it’s happening on stage. The series is less blatantly theatrical than Utena, but there’s still no attempt at verisimilitude. Ikuhara might be directly mentioning real-world events and places here, but that doesn’t mean this world is real. After all, fictionalizing the world makes it so much easier to criticize. That said, it is not merely borrowing Utena’s style, not in the slightest. The design is more modern, sleek, and fittingly, inspired by the imagery of subways. It still feels out of place but no longer does it feel out of time, despite the universality of its themes.
Penguindrum directly tackles what happened in Japan after the economic crash and the events of 95. First, it makes it clear that those in Aum had sympathetic plights. Ikuhara certainly understood why people would feel alienated from Japanese society, especially given that the bubble burst left the economy in a much worse shape than when he’d been growing up. As I said near the start, alienation often leads to radicalization and that’s what happened with the members of Aum, just in a very unfortunate direction. It’s clear that Ikuhara didn’t support those who killed people, but it’s also obvious why they were drawn into the group in the first place. While killing people through terrorism is obviously wrong and those who did so deserve to be scorned for it, we must also look at the structural causes, just as in Utena. Broadly speaking, people don’t just kill each other for no reason. If society were fairer, if alienation was less harmful, then perhaps Aum never would’ve grown to the size that it did. That’s Penguindrum’s rough argument. To give a comparison, imagine a Western TV show that, while not forgiving the actions of those who conducted 9/11, understood their perspective and demonstrated that while it wasn’t acceptable, it was also inevitable given American imperialism. It’s a miracle that anyone agreed to make this show.
Aside from those in Aum, the series sympathizes with the children growing up in a post-95 world. All four of our main characters grew up in the aftermath of the attacks — with three of them being born on the day of their occurrence — and as a result, they’re burdened with guilt for it. While we primarily see this in them, it’s clear that this is pervasive. Blaming the youth for the problems of the present is hardly a new thing and it’s something that Ikuhara is greatly concerned with. When our leads, and young people in general, are unable to make it through this world they’ve been thrust into, they’re treated as if they’re at fault. They lack freedom and become unable to see a happy future for themselves, only struggling to get by. Again, this is something Ikuhara experienced himself, and it’s something which those growing up in the wake of the crash and 95 felt even more strongly. The Takakura siblings are the best example of this; their parents were members of the Kiga Group, this show’s version of Aum, and all their lives they’ve been blamed for it, shunned and kicked around. There’s a reason that their house is no more than a run-down shack, after all. These three love each other deeply and sincerely want a better world, and yet they’ve been treated like garbage due to the actions of their parents. The metaphor could not be more clear for how society treats those without power in a broader sense.
In Penguindrum, the Kiga Group is not good. They did kill innocents and the show doesn’t forget that. However, their goals were entirely justified. They want to destroy the current world, where people are not free, where the ability to survive is based on money, where alienation is so rampant that the group must exist in the first place. This is a world where children are abused and neglected before being ground into society’s cogs by a mechanism known only as the “Child Broiler”. Here, capitalism is the social structure under attack, a marked change from Utena’s focus on patriarchy, though the two are connected in the knowledge that both are unjust hierarchies that lead to the accumulation of power. Capital’s promises swiftly disappeared after the crash, leaving people even more alienated than they were in the past. Aum, or the Kiga Group, may not be good, but the series is always aware that it’s the inherent logic of capitalism which ultimately created these many tragedies. The show starts fairly settled down for an Ikuhara work, but in episode 9, an episode focused on Himari’s backstory and mental state, his style fully bursts forth, shedding all of its past conceits, embracing his bizarre imagery and directing techniques, and beginning to reference real-world literature, notably Murakami’s Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, a short story about self-sacrifice.
Like in Utena, all of the characters are damaged by society, revealing the problems Ikuhara sees and ultimately tying into the things the series is trying to say. And as with Utena, I’ll go through these characters, looking at how each contributes to the broader work.
Let’s start with Yuri and Tabuki. Yuri was abused by her father, a sculptor, in an attempt to make her more beautiful. While it’s not said outright, the incredibly phallic chisel imagery implies that said abuse was sexual. As Utena made clear, Ikuhara is very aware of the fact that abuse can be cyclical, and as a result, Yuri herself is abusive and in many ways uncaring. To be honest, the scene in which she attempts to rape Ringo is way too sexualized and honestly somewhat gross, so I don’t think it’s the best depiction of this, but Ikuhara’s intentions are still clear to me even if his execution failed.
At the same time, Tabuki was neglected by his mother, thrown to the Child Broiler when it became clear that he wouldn’t stand out enough to escape its influence. The Child Broiler is notable for making the children it consumes ‘invisible’. While it’s not exactly clear what this means in-universe, what it means for our society is obvious: we process children into mere shadows of their true selves, creating people who function well for society while lacking any true individuality which may cause them to question the world they live within. The young are taught learned helplessness; after all, if they try to change things, they may end up in an even worse fate.
Both of them serve as antagonistic forces through the show. They share in having been saved by Momoka, the older sister to main character Ringo, a supernatural girl who sacrificed her own happiness for the sake of others, changing the world so that these two could be safe. In the process, they both fell in love with her. Unfortunately, Momoka died in the events surrounding the attacks, and as a result, they seek revenge on the Takakura siblings for what their parents did. As authority figures — an actress and a teacher respectively — they represent how even those who were alienated can be made to alienate and punish a new generation. In the end, they find happiness together, with the knowledge that Momoka saved them and, rather than seek revenge, they should attempt to help those who are coming up in this fucked up society. That Yuri, the lesbian, ends up with a man isn’t necessarily great, though whether their ultimate relationship is romantic or not is something which is a matter of debate.
Ringo herself follows a similar trajectory. For the first third of the show, she’s an awful person, stalking Tabuki and attempting to trick him into having a child with her in order to fulfill a preordained fate which was written down in Momoka’s diary, the same diary which she used to “change tracks”, altering the world and disrupting fate such that Tabuki and Yuri would be saved from their abuse. Ringo constantly thrusts herself at Tabuki, even though she doesn’t enjoy doing so in any real sense. At one point, she even attempts to rape him. While her interactions with the Takakura siblings make it clear that she’s aware of her immorality, she can’t bring herself to stop. From her perspective, she’s on a train which is moving in only one direction.
However, eventually, she realizes that her actions are futile and that attempting to force something to occur prevents it from being fate in the first place. She regains her empathy after reaching her lowest point, realizing that her ultimate goal — being happy and spending time with her family — is not achievable through the methods she’s using, but only through the application of empathy. She opens up to the siblings and helps them in their quest to save Himari. She accepts the fact that she can’t become Momoka and instead tries to be herself, which is what the show was really encouraging in the first place. Eventually, she realizes that self-sacrifice is good, but only if it’s what she wants to do, not something which is written in a book. Ringo’s arc is important, as it reflects the arc that most characters in the show take, simply going through it much earlier than everyone else.
Natsume showcases, perhaps more than any other character, the crushing power of capitalism. Despite being the rich owner of a massive corporation at only 16, she too is bound by the chains of capital. When in front of the company building, it towers over her, because this system is far more powerful than any individual, even an individual who has status in it. She constantly fears falling into the same traps her grandfather did, losing all of her compassion, and in her quest to save Kanba and Mario she almost does so multiple times. She’s not as much a victim as the other characters — though in having her family torn apart she’s hardly in the best of situations — but she’s certainly still dwarfed by the systems that surround her and, as a result, alienated by them. As in Utena, even those with power have been hurt by society in certain ways. They may be better off than the rest of us but they’re still cogs, just bigger ones.
Himari is a great example of how this show treats its characters. She’s an utter angel, the pinnacle of kindness and an exemplary definition of empathy. When her friends became Double H, succeeding as idols without her, she did not hate or envy them, as Sanetoshi suggests. She respected and cheered for them. She truly loves Kanba and Shouma and thinking about them is how she spends most of her time. She’s happy that the fruit of fate — recall the apple — was shared with her by Shouma and she was happy to share it with Kanba in accepting him into the family. Their bond is airtight and Himari is the core of it. You will not find a more empathetic girl, someone more deserving of love.
Yet everything goes wrong for her. She’s been cast off from an early age, entering the Child Broiler before Shouma arrived to save her. She lost her adoptive parents due to their roles in the attacks — attacks she wasn’t even alive for — and grew sick, having to withdraw from school, leaving her friends behind. Since then, she’s been stuck at home. And while the siblings have done their best to make it a home she loves, a colorful, beautiful home, it’s still just a shack. Being the girl she is, she appreciates that shack, as it has her two beloved brothers living in it with her, but in the end, it really is just a shack. She has plenty of regrets, wishing that she could have been up on stage with Double H, wishing she could do more for Kanba and Shouma. And as she died the first time, she thought about those regrets and returned to life with the help of the penguin hat.
What’s most notable is how poorly Himari is treated by the world at large even after her unfortunate circumstances. Her illness is unable to be cured but more important is the fact that it directly costs money. As time goes on, the price keeps going up, and Kanba desperately does whatever he has to in order to get what he needs to pay for it. It shouldn’t be hard to link the idea that life has a price to a criticism of capitalism and it’s an idea which is even more relevant in America than it is in Japan. Ikuhara is many things, and sometimes subtle is one of them, but that is not the case here.
As the story goes on, Kanba is pushed further and further away from empathy. He’s desperate to save Himari, to the point that he’s willing to become the scorpion for her, giving up part of the fruit of fate that she initially gifted to him. Unfortunately, this only works once, and by the time he has to do it again, he no longer possesses the noble intention of the scorpion. He’s driven back to the Kiga Group, working with them in order to get the money he needs to pay for Himari’s medicine. This isn’t something he’s happy about; he fully understands how bad his actions are and does his best to keep his siblings away from it. His love of Himari is always clear but it’s his attempts to keep Shouma out of it that really crystalize how deeply he loves him as well. This initial empathy of his pushes him towards unempathetic actions though and seeing as our actions constitute our being, he slowly finds himself becoming colder to the world.
Evidently, though, he’s saved by empathy, as with all the others. In realizing the initial compassion of sharing his fruit with Shouma, he’s saved and redeemed. Ikuhara fundamentally believes that people can make up for their past acts if they show remorse and attempt to change and Kanba certainly does so as he reunites with Shouma in order to save Himari at the very end.
Shouma, for his part, is also worth looking at. Like Himari, he tends to be empathetic most of the time, though he’s more willing than she is to do what he has to in order to accomplish his goals. This is shown most clearly in his willingness to stalk Ringo in their initial search for the Penguindrum. That said, he’s certainly not able to work with the Kiga Group like Kanba is, as he recognizes their disgusting acts for what they were and it’s that unwavering belief that allows him to sacrifice himself in the end, saving Himari and Ringo in the process and becoming a scorpion of his own. While the siblings all eventually take separate paths in the build-up to the finale, their main goal remains unified: they all want to protect the family and the other two members of it.
Sanetoshi, the main antagonist, represents the opposite of our actual leads. As the seeming head of the Kiga Group and the supernatural counterpart to Momoka, he recognizes that this world is wrong, that everyone is trapped in boxes, but he makes no attempts to break anyone out. No, he simply wants to destroy this world, hoping that the next one will end up better. And this is paralleled with other Kiga Group members. The Takakura father, Kenzan, acknowledged the Child Broiler and how bad it was, but labeled its victims as lost causes, unable to be helped at this point. It was only due to Shouma’s willingness to go into the Broiler that Himari could be saved.
Ikuhara does not disagree with these groups’ revolutionary ideals, not in the slightest. But he has issues with the fact that these revolutions are purely destructive, not reconstructive. They make no attempt to build something better, only trying to tear down what we currently have, with no regards for those who’ll be caught in the crossfire. Essentially, it’s a recognition of the world’s problems without any actual empathy towards the victims of those problems. Such idealism will never result in anything but pointless slaughter and while society at large may be at fault for those people popping up in the first place, their actions are still disgusting. Sanetoshi is the only active character in the series not to be redeemed, as he never accepts any blame, never acknowledging that he was incorrect in his prescriptions, if not in his diagnoses. He is, in effect, another rendition of Akio.
I’ve brought up empathy a lot because I believe that the importance of it is the show’s overarching message. As I already talked about with Utena, the focus on empathy is a key trait of Ikuhara’s. But I think this is the work of his which is most dedicated to this. Take the fairy tale which appears in episode 12, telling the story of the siblings. They try their best to be kind to each other, but the Goddess strikes down Himari anyway, declaring that punishment must be the most unjust. Society continues to batter and abuse them, much as it abuses all who grow up within it, and yet they continue to try and be kind, even when they end up losing the one who doesn’t deserve it. This show makes no attempt to lie about what being empathetic will get you and yet it encourages it anyway.
In Galactic Railroad, the apple represents self-sacrifice, and it kind of represents that here. But more importantly, it demonstrates compassion, offering yourself to another person as humans on equal footing. The siblings made it as far as they did because they shared the fruit of fate. Doing so was sacrificial, yes, but it also saved them. And in the end, the brothers return the parts they were given to Himari, losing themselves but in the process allowing Himari a chance to live her life. In Galactic Railroad, sacrifice for humanity at large is seen as valuable. That’s just as true here, but as in Utena, interpersonal relationships are what concretely affect us on a day-to-day basis, they’re what we remember, and sacrificing yourself for them will have a far greater impact. It’s for that reason that Kanba and Shouma follow the path of Campanella, leaving behind Himari as they journey into the stars.
I said that his endings are all the same, didn’t I? Shouma and Kanba reject this cruel system driven by capital, neglect, and abuse, this system which would doom a girl as kind and pure-hearted as Himari even when it knows that outcome is unjust. In doing so, they’re rejected by it and end up disappearing, much as Utena and Anthy disappeared from Ohtori. But here, they disappear from life itself, causing even less change than in Utena. Himari barely even remembers them, though she does cry upon seeing the mementos they had left behind. Was their sacrifice worth it? That’s very debatable, but I believe the show thinks so. It’s tragic and it shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place, but unfortunately, it was, and that’s just how the world right now works. We need to change things, so these sacrifices don’t have to be made, so another Kiga Group doesn’t appear but we must start by being empathetic. Still, in some ways, Kanba and Shouma have become free in the end, being able to walk wherever they’d like. Perhaps it is an optimistic work after all.
It’s amazing that Ikuhara was allowed to tackle a subject so controversial, so shocking to the core of Japanese society. It’s even more amazing that he managed to bring every element and influence into a coherent package with a message as simple as “help those around you.” Whenever possible, share the fruit of fate with those who could use a piece.
Also in 2011 came three novels. The novels are mostly a fairly direct adaptation, though they gave more insight into certain characters, particularly Yuri. They didn’t diverge much from the series, though notably, they attempted to make up for the lack of visuals by focusing on other elements, like the mental state of the characters. From what I understand, the Survival Strategy scenes really struggle without Ikuhara’s visual direction, but that’s to be expected. In 2013 came the manga, which from the amount I’ve read is a fairly boring and bland direct adaptation of sorts. While I don’t want to go too far, I will say this: direct adaptations of Ikuhara works generally feel inferior to the anime versions. It’s far more interesting when the works diverge in neat ways, even if they still turn out worse.
Back in 2012, he also worked on directing Kokoro Connect’s 3rd ED. There’s not much to say here — this was simply another example of his usual OP and ED direction, with the white background, the symbols, the spinning, all of it. More interesting is his 2013 Brother’s Conflict ED, which is very unlike his other OPs and EDs, composed of fun dance animation. I don’t really see much of him in it, but it’s a good time.
After Penguindrum released in 2011 and Ikuhara returned to the industry, fans were worried they’d see another long gap along the lines of the one that occurred after Utena. Fortunately, his ideas this time were not as hard to get approved as an anime on the 95 attacks, and so there soon came an announcement that he’d get yet another TV anime project under the codename “Penguinbear”. Initially, this led people to believe it would be connected to Penguindrum, but as time would go on, the true name would eventually be revealed as Yuri Kuma Arashi.
Chapter 7: A Small Garden of Lilies
I have no idea where the penguin part of the name went. Was it just there for early marketing purposes? Was it actually connected at the start? Who knows, but while not 12 years in the making, it’s obvious that Yuri Kuma was a series Ikuhara had long held interest in. He had always had a large fanbase within the yuri community and while he didn’t always embrace it full-on, it’s clear from how he’s spoken that he was certainly interested in the genre. However, like many, he saw a number of flaws in it and so he embarked on a quest to address those flaws in the only way he knew how: using a surrealist anime with repetition, references, and reflection. How successful was he in addressing these problems, or even in making a good show? Well, it’s debatable, so let’s begin that debate by getting into the details.
As always, Ikuhara worked with a female mangaka to create Yuri Kuma. This time he picked Morishima Akiko, a popular mangaka in the yuri fandom. An open lesbian, Morishima is perhaps best known for her Hanjuku Joshi, but she’s quite prolific and has created a number of series over the years. While yuri, her stories often avoid the general trappings that held the genre back in the past, focusing on adults and more serious issues of sexual identity. Her cute, round, almost squishy art makes for a fun reading experience even as she gets into more serious topics, and she always keeps things somewhat light, so fans of softer fare and deeper explorations are both into her works. If he was going to pick a mangaka who would be helpful in heavily examining yuri as a genre, Morishima was not a bad choice. As with Utena, the manga began first, and as with Utena, it diverged a great deal, so I’ll be leaving it for after we talk about the show.
Yuri Kuma is a series about heteronormativity, bluntly speaking. While Utena’s key issue could be seen as adolescence and Penguindrum’s as family, Yuri Kuma’s is love, always using the somewhat vague (suki) as opposed to the more precise (ai) or (koi). Of course, as in the past, all of these themes are present, but above all else Yuri Kuma is about loving in the face of a fate that rejects you, a society which attempts to police your feelings. It primarily looks at this through the lens of lesbians and how they’re viewed, dissecting how they’re portrayed by the yuri genre, the wider realm of otaku media, and Japanese culture at large.
First, it’s important to note that the series was not exactly a stellar production. While numerous people returned from Penguindrum to help Ikuhara with the show, many more didn’t and the series is clearly a bit rushed. The art is inconsistent, there’s never any stand-out animation, and it’s just generally less well-put-together than his past works. Fortunately, his strong sense of style shines through and makes the visuals important and worth looking at even when they aren’t perfect but I do wish they could’ve been better. Another result of the poor production and a much larger one at that, is the fact that the series is only one cour. Frankly, this causes serious issues. Ikuhara is clearly used to working on much longer shows and as a result, the entire thing feels cramped. Ideas were prioritized over characters, and rightly so, but it’s apparent that a version at double the length would’ve been a significantly better project with a larger impact. I still believe it’s a work with a lot of merit, as I’m about to get into, but industry setbacks certainly kept it from reaching its true potential and gave way to many of the problems I’ll be talking about.
While the animals in his past work may have been a bit throwaway, that’s far from the case here. The bears in Yuri Kuma represent lesbians and how they’re viewed. As Ikuhara said himself in an interview before the show, lesbians in Japanese culture are often represented as terrifying vicious monsters with only sex on the mind or as pure maidens who are entirely chaste. To him, that dichotomy was a false and harmful one. The bears represent something similar, in that bears are feared as man-eating predators but also seen as cute a la teddy bears.
From that, it’s easy to tell that this is a show which is heavily critical of Class S. I’ve explained Class S before, but briefly, it was a movement in early 20th century Japan wherein intensely romantic but non-sexual relationships were maintained between schoolgirls, theoretically giving way to heterosexual marriage after graduation. This movement was born from real experiences, but it also came to describe a genre which spoke to those feelings. That genre was a heavy influence on early yuri manga and the tropes of Class S persist in yuri today, though many of the more problematic aspects, such as it just being a phase, have faded significantly over time.
Yuri Kuma presents its criticism of Class S in multiple ways. First, it does so through the heavy use of horror imagery. Rooms and patterns in the show are parallels to visuals seen in films like Suspiria and Psycho. This, of course, is done to show how the world the characters live in is a cruel and horrific one, one they should attempt to flee from. Interestingly, this continues Ikuhara’s use of sets to set the world apart from reality, though it avoids using explicitly theatrical imagery.
Second, the show parallels what is perhaps the closest work to Class S in the modern age: Maria-sama ga Miteru. The series’ use of Ave Maria is almost certainly due to MariMite and numerous visual parallels show up. Most notably, the background of one character, Yuriika, has incredibly similar shots to the background of MariMite’s explicit lesbian, Sei. I would absolutely argue in favor of MariMite’s quality as a drama but it’s inarguable that it’s the modern representation of Class S at its peak.
The force of power in this world is, as I said, heteronormativity, but simply calling it doesn’t get down to the roots of how damaging it truly is. In Yuri Kuma, as far as we’re able to tell, all women are attracted to other women, with the sole exception being Kureha’s mother, Reia, and even she had an at least somewhat romantic relationship with Yuriika. However, these queer girls and women propagate the system they live in anyway. And what is that system? Well, it varies from the world of humans to the world of bears, but in either case, it comes about through the exclusion and damnation of any who express their sexuality outside the norm. The humans have the Invisible Storm, a method of banding together as a group to punish those who are “evil”, those who refuse to be invisible. Recall what invisibility — or transparency, the translation is arguable — meant in Penguindrum. Becoming a cog, unable to stand out, that’s what the Invisible Storm demands.
The bears’ Church of Kumaria serves a similar function for them, simply enforcing a blatantly vicious form of sexuality instead of the chaste and hidden one which the Storm pushes. Both deny true freedom. Both deny equal, healthy relationships. And again, these systems are run by those they hurt. Mitsuko runs the storm while in a relationship with Konomi, at the same time trying to eat Kureha. Kaoru continues the exclusion process, having sex with Yuriika on the side. And this is what makes the Invisible Storm so terrifying an antagonist; it has no meaningful driver. Those who propagate it don’t do so because it’s in their interest. The duels all served Akio’s end, so of course he continued them even in their oppression. Here, the characters are oppressing themselves. There’s nothing preventing them from having openly romantic and sexual relationships, other than the fact that they say they shouldn’t. It’s truly insidious. Yuri Kuma, perhaps better than any other series, reflects the damage of internalized oppression. Even when continuing a system can only hurt them, people will do so due to institutional inertia, something we must be acutely aware of when fighting for change. True solidarity would save them and everyone would gain from it, and yet they refuse to showcase any degree of it. All of Ikuhara’s works target systems above individuals, but this is perhaps the most blatant case.
In this world, men don’t exist, broadly speaking. They’re somewhere, of course, as Yuriika was raised by a man, Reia married one, and children don’t seem to be made through any method other than the traditional manner, but broadly they’re absent. The only recurring male characters — excluding Lulu’s brother Milne — are the judges: those who either approve or disapprove of yuri, though we only ever see them approve of it. This, I believe, has two causes.
The first is that it reflects a common trope of Class S influenced yuri. The all-girls school is of course where Class S works were almost universally set and lots of criticism has been levied at them for that. In portraying a world without men, lesbianism becomes a sort of default, making it easier to see the characters as loving other girls because there are only other girls, not because they’re legitimately more attracted to girls. This argument has merit, though I have problems with it. In this series, I believe that Ikuhara wanted to reflect that common idea while actively decrying the idea that an all-girls school would be a haven for acceptable lesbianism. By having all lesbianism be covert — always behind closed doors, in places we’re not supposed to see — it becomes clear that the feelings of the girls are still due to their nature and not merely their environment. The series takes care to make clear that the relationships of the main characters aren’t Class S — even Kureha and Sumika’s is eventually shown visually to have gone quite a bit beyond that.
Second, I believe that Ikuhara is expressing his own uncomfortability with his role in all this by portraying men as judges of what female sexuality is acceptable. Ikuhara has always been acutely aware of his role as a man when working on projects like these and even going back to Utena he’s expressed hesitance in aiming his works at women because of that. This is, after all, a person who’s said Akio was in some ways based upon him. Surely, you can’t have a high opinion of yourself and the place you’re in due to your gender if you’re willing to admit that. Because the men in Yuri Kuma are actively patriarchal, Ikuhara is acknowledging that this is, perhaps, not his place. Of course, he made the work anyway, so I think the presence of the Bear Court mostly symbolizes his feelings of guilt.
A common criticism of Yuri Kuma — and Ikuhara generally — is that he only portrays sex as a negative thing. This isn’t without merit. All three of his main works include rape or, at the very least, sexual assault. At the same time, they rarely show sexuality in a positive manner. Utena and Anthy never have sex and Utena is actively uncomfortable with Anthy’s offer of it during the film, Penguindrum never shows any positive sexual relationships, and Yuri Kuma seems to vilify it as well. After all, the bears, representative of sexual lesbianism, are bad. Right?
Well, not quite. It’s true that sexuality is often presented as negative in the show. The early bear antagonists are all interested in eating Kureha and while eating someone obviously leads to their death, the sexual implications of it are blatant. It’s generally presented as fairly predatory. When Ginko was lustful, it was as if she was possessed. Another great example of this is Yuriika herself, a scorned lesbian who’s willing to outright give up on her bearhood in order to get the revenge she so desires for Reia’s departure, becoming incredibly creepy in the process. However, I think that just calling the show’s portrayal of sexuality negative outright is a bit much. Yuriika’s problem isn’t that her interest in Reia was sexual, it’s that she refused to accept the fact that she didn’t get what she wanted. Kureha and Sumika are heavily implied to have sex and their love was represented as incredibly just, even if it was merely a prologue to the show’s true focus. And in the end, Ginko and Kureha both become bears for eternity. If being a bear is representative of sexual love, then surely, the fact that they both became bears upon liberating themselves is proof that the show does think love can be sexual and still healthy, even if it’s hard to achieve that in a society where our understanding of things is so warped.
Now, we must address the characters. They’re the weak spots of the work and as I said the lack of time with them really hurt. The various antagonists aren’t even worth talking about, as while I enjoy them, they aren’t given enough material to really examine. I do think all the characters in this show are interesting, they’re just not well-rounded in the slightest. However, the main three are absolutely worth a look.
Lulu is the most fleshed out of the cast, which is somewhat ironic given that she neither wins her love nor even lives until the end. In many ways, she feels the most like a traditional Ikuhara character. The main reason behind this is likely episode 4 which was dedicated to her. It chronicles her backstory, showing how she hated her younger brother for being the heir apparent to their monarchy, and how she realized after getting rid of him that truly, she did love him, regretting her actions until meeting Ginko, instantly falling in love. This is given a fitting fairy tale presentation, alongside humor that feels right at home with any of his other works.
The strong pathos behind Lulu is important to making her struggle and love feel genuine. After all, she lost her beloved brother, and even if that love was platonic and not romantic, she understood what it was like to lose the person you care most about, and thus is determined to help Ginko in her quest for Kureha, ignoring her own love in the process. That makes her a deeply tragic character, one who’s set up for her own loss, a loss that eventually came in the form of sacrificing herself to save our leads. It’d be hard not to be sympathetic to her and I certainly wish that all the other characters in the show had been as well-fleshed out. If they had, perhaps I could love the series more than I already do.
Ginko and Kureha represent two sides of the same coin. Like Juri and Shiori, both have harmful ideas about the other and about the way relationships should work, with the more blatant division between humans and bears being the point of division between them. Despite their past love for one another, they’re initially unable to meet eye-to-eye, as the social structures around them have shaped their mindsets such that a healthy relationship is nigh-impossible.
Fortunately, they’re the main characters, so breaking free of that is fully doable. Upon their recognition that they not only love each other but always have and always will, they mutually attempt to forge something better, relying on their love, or, as the show always says, refusing to back down on it. And as I mentioned earlier, Kureha becomes a bear, as the both of them are capable of having a sexual relationship while remaining healthy. In doing so, they fulfill the initial fairy tale written by Reia. Ikuhara just can’t get enough of that stuff.
So, the characters aren’t all that deep. Even Ginko and Kureha are fairly light on detail; compare the amount I had to say about them to the amount I had to say about any of the characters in Utena or Penguindrum. They aren’t bad, they’re just not as good as they could’ve been. This truly feels like a show which was initially going to be longer before it was cut for time, and while I can’t verify if that’s the case, it certainly needed 2 cours whether it was meant to have them or not.
Furthermore, the series almost feels like it came out at the wrong time. Its criticisms of yuri are incredibly biting, harshly tearing apart many of the tropes and axioms that the genre relied upon. But my use of the past tense there is intentional because the series does not seem to be describing the genre as of 2015. 2005, sure, at that point relationships rarely survived graduation and works about adults were near non-existent. But today? Well, as I’m wont to say, Class S is dead. Sure, all-girls schools and the shoujo tropes that movement invented may still be around. But Class S’s base assumptions have been so widely criticized by the genre itself at this point that it no longer has any real power. This isn’t to say that the yuri genre is perfect, far from it, but it’s no longer the sole domain of chaste schoolgirls who are destined to break up. Challenging Class S in yuri is basically a cliche nowadays.
That said, it’s still a work that has value. Its criticisms of heteronormativity, institutional inertia, and internalized oppression are just as enduringly important as Ikuhara’s past attacks on patriarchy, capitalism, and any number of other unjust hierarchies. The psychology of violent exclusion is really explored here through methods that only Ikuhara is capable of. And oh, the ending. I love it so much. Sure, it’s just the same conclusion as always. Ginko and Kureha, upon uniting as bears, disappear, walking off to who knows where. But the way it handles its systems is different. Sure, patriarchy and capitalism weren’t torn down in Utena and Penguindrum, but it felt like there was some manner of progress. Yuri Kuma is more overt: the system remains, the Wall of Severance still separates humans and bears, the Invisible Storm will continue to exclude those who attempt to stand out. But one girl among the many is inspired to do so anyway, attempting to forge a relationship with one of the abandoned bears, openly leaving the Storm behind and becoming visible. Once again, eventually, enough people will be inspired to come to the other side, leaving the system powerless. It could be seen as pessimistic, given how slow and painful the process is, but it’s supremely hopeful. This ending alone makes the show so, so important and in many ways redeems it for me despite the flaws. The ultimate message, as always, is the same. Be empathetic, help others, and you can make a small difference. No matter how many times I hear it, I’ll always treasure that moral.
As I said, the manga is a very different experience. Slightly less surreal than the anime, it features a totally different plot, more deeply exploring the characters and providing different interpretations of them and many of the symbols. Frankly, this is required reading. The amount it does for the characters is magnificent, and if you rewatch the show after reading this I believe it’ll be a lot easier to care about them. In many ways it follows a path more akin to Morishima’s ordinary one, heavily focusing on the adults of this world and how they influence the kids. Systems are of a lower priority here, though that should be obvious given that Ikuhara didn’t write it. But it’s hilarious, fun, and incredibly smart. Both this and the anime, I believe, are essential to the broader Yuri Kuma project.
What’s not essential is the novel, which also came out in 2015. It’s a dry adaptation and makes no real attempt to transfer over the storyboarding that makes Ikuhara’s shows stand out. The characters all have similar voices and are somehow less distinct than in the show itself. Basically, it’s just a direct novelization, which isn’t a very good idea for an Ikuhara project given how key the visuals are. Unlike the manga, it’s not worth your time.
After Yuri Kuma, there was little belief that Ikuhara would be gone forever once again. He directed Norn9’s OP in 2016 and it’s easy to tell that he did it. It was clear that he was working on a project, so fans wouldn’t have to wait long for news about what he’d be in charge of next.
Epilogue: The Ongoing Revolution
In early 2017 it was announced that Ikuhara’s next project would be at MAPPA, and the following March details came down: it was to be a TV anime known as Sarazanmai, airing in 2019. Along with the official announcement came three trailers. Using the same style of imagery as Penguindrum, they feature Junichi Suwabe talking about desire, society, and what is forbidden. While details aren’t all that clear at the time of writing, it’s been guessed by many including myself that the series will focus on men, though even with the little we have to go off of, the project seems to be following the same thematic sensibilities as any of his works. It’s exciting to be able to confidently say that he’s not going on another 12-year hiatus. I’m incredibly eager to see how he’ll center desire in this project while tackling all the same things he has every time.
So now that we’ve covered Ikuhara’s entire career, what impact has he left on the community? What is it that makes him a revolutionary? How has he changed things? Well, to some degree, I believe I’ve already covered that. His work on Sailor Moon and Utena were monumental to queerness in anime and manga, a topic he continues to tackle even if he can no longer change things to the degree he once could. Without him, the yuri genre may not have grown as quickly as it did and it’s that quick growth which made Yuri Kuma seem out-of-touch in the first place. Ironically, he hurt himself in the long term there, though he did so by fundamentally changing an incredibly important genre, opening the space for many more people to eventually shift it to an even greater degree in the years to come.
His work also inspired a massive number of girls and women in general, in Japan and abroad, in many ways leading the direction for one of the most popular female superheroes of all time. And these influences continue, especially in Utena. It just celebrated its 20th anniversary and it’s still going strong. It got a great new manga from Saito, with Ikuhara contributing a number of ideas as well, fleshing out the key characters in a new world that synthesizes all the past projects, looking at the legacy of its incredibly important revolution and giving them all a fitting resolution that was ambiguous enough not to feel out of place. It also received a new musical in 2018, again showing that the fandom remains strong, and this time it came with Ikuhara’s influence. From what I understand it’s a work which is more sinister, surreal, and comedic than anything you’d see outside of the anime itself.
And beyond that, the industry has been forever changed by Ikuhara’s influence. Those who worked with him or under him took many of his stylistic flourishes and thematic focuses, even if his unique vision has never been duplicated wholesale. For instance, his mentor Junichi Sato directed Princess Tutu in 2002, a similarly postmodern magical girl fairy tale, though with a very different conclusion. In many ways, I believe that work serves as a response to Utena, challenging its conclusions on the fairy tale archetypes while still picking them apart itself. It’s hard to believe it would exist without Ikuhara.
Similarly, look at any of Igarashi’s work. His season of Sailor Moon certainly borrows more from Ikuhara’s direction than Sato’s but even afterward that style stuck around. Truly another disciple of Dezaki in terms of color and imagery, his interest in shoujo and grandiosity is surely something that was borrowed from Ikuhara. The best example is perhaps Star Driver, which in many ways challenges what Utena had to say about love, adolescence, and adulthood, all the while mixing in queerness and a focus on systems, if not to the same level of success. That project even had Enokido on it. Again, hard to believe it would exist had Ikuhara not made the impact he did.
People who worked directly with him on Penguindrum, such as Shouko Nakamura, Mitsue Yamazaki, and Tomohiro Furukawa are now standalone directors on their own, delivering fantastic projects that show their individual interests while also clearly belonging to the Ikuhara school of anime directing. Popular TV anime commonly borrow Ikuhara’s imagery, be it from his presentation of the girl prince to his ever-present focus on fairy tales. Utena inspired a great many creators to enter the industry. Hell, he influenced two of the most popular general audience cartoons in the West right now through Sailor Moon and Utena. It would be hard to deny how influential he’s been.
Ikuhara is not a perfect director and he’s not a perfect person. I don’t know whether or not he’s even a good human being. But I can say that he’s my favorite. He’s a visionary who knows what he wants to make and won’t stop until he makes it. Few would be willing to make a show on one of their country’s greatest tragedies, taking an uncommonly sympathetic position towards the terrorists who caused it. Even fewer would be willing to wait 12 years in order to direct it, not working on anime in the meantime. Ikuhara was one of those very few. And I think that gets to the heart of why I adore him so much. Everything about his style resonates with me and he simply stands as one of the most influential figures I’ve ever come to know of.
To cap things off, I’d like to tell a little story about my history with Ikuhara and how he’s influenced me. I first found him when watching Yuri Kuma weekly back in 2015. I had already liked yuri, but this played a big role in making me more experienced with the genre. As I continued to watch his works, finishing up Utena in early 2016, they really sank into me, with the questions they asked about sexuality and gender resonating in my mind. I had to consider why I was so interested in series that focused on the relationship between girls and it’s that consideration which helped me to eventually realize that I was, in fact, transgender. Am I saying Ikuhara made me trans? Of course not. But he was a factor in my self-discovery and that’s undeniable. From here, my interest in him just expanded. I’m now a fairly sizable anime youtube channel, if not as large as I’d eventually like to be, and it’s thanks to him that I’m doing this in the first place. The whole way, I’ve learned a lot more about anime, its production, and many of the people behind it. I’ve found other favorites and connected to some of my current friends on a deeper level because of his works. I love a lot of anime. But only a select few, probably fewer than 20, 25 at the most, can be said to have changed my life. Ikuhara’s can all be counted within those few. Every one of his projects show that individuals can’t topple social structures. And Ikuhara certainly hasn’t destroyed any of the ones he’s criticized. But his series also show that you can help others to break out from their boxes, to become visible. Ikuhara’s works did that for me and so many others and for that reason, I call him a revolutionary director of anime.
3 thoughts on “[Script] Kunihiko Ikuhara: A Revolutionary Director of Anime”
This was a fascinating read! I had no idea on some of his other works like doing Brothers Conflict’s ending or Norn9’s opening. So interesting!
This is one of the most important things I’ve ever read. Even though I’ve been a longtime Ikuhara fan and student of anime history I still learned some stuff from this. What can I say but thank you.