Best of 2015 - "Yuri Kuma Arashi"
(Best of 2015 is a series of write-ups on games, movies, TV series and anything else that rocked this year, leading up to my list of Best Movies and Games of the Year!)
Every year, we get to see a lot of armchair critics decry the modern industry. "Anime is dead," they say. "Moe is cancer," they say. While that last one isn't far from the truth, it's a bit alarmist to say that anime is somehow "dead" because a lot of stuff pitched squarely to Japanese otaku (literally translated, "grown men who judge real-life women by the standards set by 13 year-old cartoon girls,") is coming out. A lot of great stuff still hits the air.
Case in point? Kunihiko Ikuhara's mind-melting Yuri Kuma Arashi.
What is Yuri Kuma Arashi? Well, for starters, the title translates to "Lesbian Bear Storm," which is a pretty good indicator of what you're getting into. Or is it? More than any anime I've seen in recent years, Ikuhara's latest defies any sort of real genre pegging. Is it a comedy? An action-adventure romp? A romance? A psychological horror? A fairy tale? A critique of society's persecution of same-sex relationships using bears and Nazi allusions to drive home the fact that the road to equality in Japan has been a long and arduous one?
The answer is "yes, and then some." The series focuses on Kureha Tsubaki, a young girl who has grown up hating bears, being raised in a society that feeds into that hatred and encourages her to kill them. Little does she know that the bears, who maul and eat young women, are gradually invading the society and taking human form, pretending to be her friend just to get closer to her.
But why? What's so special about Kureha? Why can they take human form? Are the bears really all that bad? Or is the humans that are the real monsters? These questions are brought up and answered in the most batshit, convoluted ways possible, and yet, it all somehow fits together to form an engaging, thought-provoking and highly affable show that wraps up with a heart-wrenching but uplifting climax.
Leading up to that ending is a non-stop barrage of strange and wonderful plot twists, aesthetic decisions, and one of the most grooving soundtracks in recent memory. From a narrative and technical standpoint, it's a bizarre and wonderful experience that refuses to be pigeonholed by any real genre or sub-genre. It's very much its own thing, in the best way possible. However, there is a permeating theme, a repeated thematic motif, that holds the entire show together and elevates it above being a very good show into being a great one.
"Never back down on love!" That's a phrase repeated several times throughout the series, and in that phrase contains the core message of the show, the essence behind everything Ikuhara is trying to convey here. Throughout the entire show, and without giving too much away, the idea of being a bear is a not-so-subtle allusion to being gay. When Kureha starts questioning the societal rejection of bears, it's really her questioning the societal construct bent against homosexuality. When an anti-bear force starts rounding up bears and killing them, it's really an allusion to societal oppression and violence towards same-sex relationships. When Kureha and Gingko say "never back down on love," it's really Ikuhara telling same-sex couples to never back down on their feelings, despite what people might try to force upon them.
This is why Yuri Kuma Arashi is head-and-shoulders above a lot of other anime released this year: not only is it well-plotted, filled with beautiful aesthetics, packed with great performances, and all of the other standards for what qualifies as "good anime," but it has a vital, important social message that's resonated with a small but incredibly devoted group of fans in both America and Japan. It's an important show because it validates love that has historically been shamed in American and Japanese cultures. It's an important show because it tell viewers that their love is valid, and that they should never stop fighting for it. It's important because it conveys a vital message to a generation in desperate need of it.
Granted, this is nothing new for Ikuhara. He's the man that gave us some of Sailor Moon and all of Utena, and blurred gender boundaries with his cosplay as early as the 90's. But in 2015, it feels fresh. Anime isn't dead, but a lot of major releases blur together, and on the surface, Yuri Kuma Arashi did too. It's about cute girls in love in a school situation. And yet, it takes every trope we've grown used to in the past few years, subverts them, and imbues the overarching narrative with a potent societal message that still resonates with me as I'm writing about it.
There's not a lot out there that's quite like Yuri Kuma Arashi, especially this year, or in the past few years, for that matter. It's not only great anime, or great television, but bang-up art in general.
Plus, the bears are hella cute.