Director: Kunihiko Ikuhara
Screenplay: Kunihiko Ikuhara and Takayo Ikami
Voice Cast: Miho Arakawa (as Ginko Yurishiro); Nozomi Yamane (as Kureha Tsubaki); Yoshiko Ikuta (as Ruru Yurigazaki); Ami Koshimizu (as Konomi Yurikawa); Aoi Yūki (as Mitsuko Yurizono); Aya Endo (as Reia Tsubaki); Junichi Suwabe (as Life Sexy); Kazutomi Yamamoto (as Life Beauty); Kikuko Inoue (as Yuri-Ka Hakonaka); Mariya Ise (as Eriko Oniyama); Mitsuki Saiga (as Life Cool);
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles
Ironically my love of Kunihiko Ikuhara as an anime director who can qualify as an auteur Ironically, this love is entirely just from Mawaru Penguindrum (2011) and now Yurikama Arashi, Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997) and his contributions to the Sailor Moon franchise, which he is the most beloved for in general, difficult to access in the United Kingdom. Without the weight of his work in either, the former his own fully formed break out including the series and 1999 feature film, it's a love of his work growing naturally through how he pushes the bar higher in television anime higher than many.
It's blatantly pro-homophile in theme, a moral fairytale where Ikuhara is openly explicit in wanting to tackle negative portraits of lesbianism in Japanese culture within a fairytale where bears have become sentient and eat human beings, causing a wall to have to be erected between the two species. The catch is that, unlike other fairytales, there are no male princes or that many men either, every human onscreen female set within an all female school, and almost every bear female too. (Even with the few male bear characters as well, only two of than are actually voiced by male actors as well). This is also a world very much like Beauty and the Beast where, with protagonist Kureha in the middle, most of the human girls around her are part of a mob mentality called the Invisible Storm, a group who ostracise and punish "non-invisible" girls who have individuality out of the herd. The bears themselves, even those wanting to merely devour Kureha, are far more complicated, disguised as humans and having their own emotion strifes to deal with. Two of them, Ginko and Ruru, are in fact at the school for more moral and meaningful reason, Ginko connected to Kureha with Ruru there to help her whilst openly admitting her love for her fellow bear.
Its exceptionally obvious in message, a fairytale that the creator openly indulges in the tropes of including fairytales within fairytales, but how this message is shown is done with so much open imaginative and metaphorical tropes to a stunning extent that it gets away with the obviousness easily. Bizarrely, the other tale that Yurikama evokes the most for me is Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, her 1979 short story compilation, and especially Neil Jordan's 1984 film adaptation The Company of Wolves, imaging the beast people (werewolves and here girl bears) being representations of people freed from the puritanical confines of society and sexuality. They at least are far more complex and fascinating against the faceless normals, their plot strands having more emotional affect when Ikuhara plays a scene fully seriously. How Ikuhara adapts this idea is completely his own, a cute and fluffy tone even when he's dealing with serious subject matter, managing to even make the scenes of bears eating characters completely gore-less and still perversely cute. Considering he managed to tackled even more serious subject in Mawaru Penguindrum, (affectively a metaphor on the long lasting effect of the 1995 Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subways a decade and more after), with success, so he's fully able here in this intentional small scale narrative to play up the cuteness and eccentric humour without any problems in the tone and still playing the drama seriously when vitally necessary.
Openly drawing on obvious symbolism (fairytale castles, bear princesses, the sexual and cultural symbolism of lilies etc.) and a director with a knack for combining it with the modern with incredible ease (as is seen in how, even next to other current day anime, he's so good at using technology like mobile phones here to drive the narrative along), he's able to make the story work because the style takes the blatant and gives it a sumptuous beauty. Not only is the show beautiful to look at but he has no qualms with the show taking on a fully dream-like tone for scenes. Even if the characters stay on template in animation, the bear girls in beast form are literal anthropomorphic bears with more cartoonish movements, compared to the penguins in Mawaru who can play out slapstick and absurity whilst still, miraculously, fitting into tragic scenes too. The world around them is just as capable of distorting instead to represent psychological and fantastical states, of stairways into jury courts between worlds and goals to happiness, not to mention the creator's penchant for just openly weird humour - thus never imagining a scene such as a snowy war terrain covered in the bodies of cute bears on the ground with rifles, but having such a scene on display. That he repeats symbols and motifs constantly helps in this, allowing it to all start to interconnect. This animated playfulness goes to the music as well, standard J-pop for this type of anime show but actually good music, legitimately affecting for scenes but also, with its frank Sapphic and beast imagery in the lyrics, having a subversive side to its candy coated electronic beats.
The subversive side is very much also why Yurikama Arashi succeeds. Even if its moral point of tolerance is as subtle as a sledgehammer, the really progressive aspect of the series is its completely relaxed attitude to sexuality and how upfront it is in depicting it. Without explicitly drawing characters in appearance, it gets away with artistic but explicit nudity without qualm, and the sexuality is so prominent, including gratuitous symbolism involving flowers and honey, that its even in the opening credit animation for the first episode. Its constant and gladly viewed through both humour, fantasies played for laughs that the characters themselves have for others, to seriously in romantic moments. The frankness is startling, whilst not "explicit" or even ecchi softcore, celebrating lesbianism the depiction of lesbianism casual to a form that's beyond progressive but amazing. Even within the Invisible Storm, relationships between women, between friends, between classmates, even between teacher and student, are numerous, in terms of romance, jealousy, power play and entire spectrums of drama.
The almost entire lack of men in the cast turns the world shown into an almost all-matriarchal one, going as far with cheeky humour to have a "yuri" supermarket with magazines with two women cuddling on the cover with the tagline of how to win a lover over through her stomach, in the type of feminine reality where the cops and even the soldiers in the war that took place between bears and humans being all female. Even in terms of the bears, while there is a boy bear character important to Ruru's back-story, the only ones with real prominence (and only two of them audibly voiced by male actors) are the trio of bear judges, those who live within the wall who judge the humans and bears alike, allowing them to eat girls, to become human, to be judged for their desires and grant their wishes. Even they however, as a Greek chorus, have to step aside in the end of the series and let the female characters conclude their tales.
After a long wait from Mawaru Penguindrum, waiting for a new Kunihiko Ikuhara project is an event for me as much as it is waiting for either Hiroyuki Imaishi or Masaaki Yuasa, which shows how he's stood out so much from the crowd as a one-off auteur whose work has mainly consisted, like the other two mentioned, in television. It's one thing to be like a Mamoru Oshii or the late Satoshi Kon, careers mainly been built from theatrical films, but having an auteurist style mainly from anime television is a unique cap to wear in itself. In all three cases, the execution and tangents they add to well worn stories is why they succeed as they do, all three idiosyncratic in their styles even when other directors and writers create individual episodes within the projects. All three naturally as well appeal to my love for the surreal and openly fantastical out of animation even when they tackle serious subject matter. If Imaishi is hyperactive, and Yuasa is eccentric and philosophical, Ikuhara is a flamboyant pop surrealist who's sincere even when proudly camp at points, Yurikama a pretty story whose theme is aptly described in its English title translation as 'Lily Bear Storm', a blast of eroticism and fairytale whose ending is both sad but also triumphant, carrying you alongside fully.