"Everything is good in moderation" ..now if you were to say that to Ikuhara he would probably pimp slap you with a proverbial hand and skip off into the schizophrenic sunset of left field allegorical stew, while conjuring new ways to make even Satoshi Kon's nuttiest creations to look like tamed Saturday morning cartoons.
Yuri Kuma Arashi is a dreamfactory chalked full of symbolism and motifs with everything being beyond what's presented at face value. This isn't for casual viewing and if unprepared to really dig deep it can be either taxing or repulsive upon initial impression. I normally don't like to judge works based on the creator behind it but in the anime industry some giants have made a very noticeable signature or trademark style when it comes to their works. May that be the western homage mashups of Shinichiro Watanabe, the "kill em all" approach of Gen "the butcher" Urobuchi or the slow burn conceptual pieces of Yoshitoshi ABe. Many of these industry power players have all made a name for themselves from their style and presentation, and if there was ever a person who's work was instantly recognizable it would be Kunihiko Ikuhara's. The man has a knack for allegorical symbolism in everything he does and Arashi is his latest addition of screwball storytelling.
Yuri Kuma Arashi, when stripped of its symbolism, is mainly about two things: sexual liberation and exposing societal mistreatment through exclusion.
Through our different female characters we take several multifaceted approaches at tackling the 1st conflict brought up, sexual liberation. Since the general theme is only explored through the niche sub category of yuri (love between women), it helps focus on one aspect instead of spreading itself too thin to try to cover a broader picture. The story shows how each character approaches their desire for yuri love. And again since it's all metaphorical, the key to understanding how each character approach that love is hinted at through wordplay and symbols. The quicker you figure out what they represent the quicker it becomes easier to piece together what the hidden messages behind each person's approach is. May that be to embrace that love with open arms or to reject it out of fear of social pressure. Each separate choice mirrors that of the ones commonly seen in today's society. You see it with the people that openly aren't afraid to express themselves and face rejection, and also when you hear stories of people "being in the closet". Being accepted by others is something we all desire in one way or another, but the show asks you at what cost are you willing to pay for that acceptance? Is acceptance worth restraining your true feelings to keep in good standing with societal standards?
This leads us into out next theme, societal mistreatment. This one should be pretty self explanatory since it's an issue that is still debated about today. You've probably heard it on the news or read about it every now and then. Everytime you hear a story of a Bill being rejected to allow same sex marriage in a State to be recognized. Or everytime you hear of a celebrity publicly apologizing for making derogatory remarks against homosexuality. Societal mistreatment and exclusion is something that's been relevant for as long as the conflict existed. Yuri Kuma tackles this by using the "mob" mentality. When the majority forces the minority to either conform or be rejected. Although this conflict could of been handled with more tact in Yuri Kuma, they did get their point across clearly. With such an interesting setup this became a rare case where the antagonist is society itself and not just an individual.
The art and animation left nothing to really be desired. Often inconsistent and greatly lacking in fluidity it feels like it was put together on a shoestring budget. Needless to say you're not watching this show for top tier quality. The highlight lies with the character designs themselves as they are very distinctive from other shows. They carry a personality of their own and it shows when needed. This felt like more of a passion project that the studio knew wasn't going to sell well but something they wanted to do regardless. Despite the lack of consistency, the charm is certainly there. The setting itself was interesting but often muddled, felt like too much saturation of objects was placed in every frame. It certainly captures your attention but is quickly desensitized due to the constant bombardment of color and clunky set pieces. It isn't inherently a bad thing but certainly a hindrance at times.
The opening can best be described as Honey synth pop. With soft vocals and hints of sexualized undertones by the performer. It's a nice addition to the show and a good way to get kick started into every episode. It's certainly one I found myself listening to everytime. It may be typical but that isn't a bad thing when given the content and presentation to the show it corresponds to. Unfortunately the rest of the OST was left concealed in the background and did nothing to stand out. None of the tracks really grip you or enhance the scenes they correspond with, they felt off in the distance and takes no risk in standing out. It's tracks that played it safe which resulted in nothing memorable to take away from it. The voice actors on the other hand were a real treat at times. Standouts being the Judge and court representatives "SHABADABA DOO".
Remember the "Everything is good in moderation" quote, well that's something Ikuhara never seem to comprehend.
You see the problem some metaphorical/conceptual shows face is that they more than often sacrifice proper characterization to stay thematically sound. This results in characters that become an embodiment of a ideology, which in turn make them only necessary when serving or pushing forward the show's themes. The cast of Yuri Kuma suffers greatly from this dilemma, since none of the characters feel human or even fleshed out for that matter. They come across as lifeless mouthpieces and ideological symbols which negates any sort of attachment or concern for their well being. The focus is placed more on solving the hidden allegorical message than the characters that are directly affected by it. This isn't to say their involvement isn't essential, since it truly is, but because of the highly conceptual setting they're reduced to being a part of the symbolic devices instead of being characters independent of it.
In short they're simply lifeless puppets being tugged to the tune of Ikuhara's madness.
Outside of figuring out the hidden messages I can't say this was an experience that brought me great pleasure or entertainment. It was certainly a unique and left field way to approach a topic but didn't do anything to grip me outside of providing something to think about a few minutes after completion.
In order to appreciate the show it should be noted that almost everything is metaphorical, from physical objects in the show to even characters. Nothing is (or should be) taken at face value. Most of the enjoyment for the series come from deciphering it but in terms of viewer engagement it's greatly lacking. If you're seeking something to get your brain running by testing your analytical skills then this is a nice brain workout but if you're seeking anything else you might not find it here.
Mawaru Penguindrum: If by some miracle you've already seen and like Yuri Kuma but haven't watched this title yet I highly suggest it. Another work from Ikuhara that contains all of the same elements present, from the symbolism to the kooky artstyle. If you loved Kuma then this would be right up your alley.
There She Is!: It uses animals like Yuri Kuma to tell a message of social discrimination and ridicule. Although not as explored as Kuma it's a short that also tackles the same subject matter in similar ways to it.
FLCL: Over the top presentation with unique artstyle used to hide allegorical themes. It's far easier to understand than Arashi but still an enjoyable watch for those that like a little thought placed behind the madness.