Famed auteur anime director Kunihiko Ikuhara produced his third TV series, Yuri Kuma Arashi (YKA going forward), in early 2015. It’s his shortest television anime in terms of length, but YKA retains the trademark depth and richness found in Ikuhara’s previous work, Mawaru Penguindrum and the beloved Revolutionary Girl Utena. There’s way more going on in YKA than I can hope to address in a single essay; however, I do want to attempt to chart the principle through line as I see it.
I begin by contrasting the notion of friendship advocated by antagonists, the Invisible Storm, with friendship as practiced by the series’ leading bears Ginko and Lulu. The latter, along with the protagonist Kureha, refuse to back down on their love for their friends and lovers. But, love is not such an easy thing to keep hold of. Characters in YKA must overcome specific, personal trials to maintain their relationships. Some succeed; some fail. In addition to these unique obstacles, YKA asks its viewers to consider some deep, universal problems in human relationships. This leads me to try to suss out what breaking the mirror in “The Moon Girl and The Forest Girl” could possibly mean.
Now, let us begin. It is the sexy way.
Also: Spoilers. Shaba-da-doo.
One striking thing about the show’s antagonists is that they kind of sound like most anime’s protagonists. They proclaim that their friendship is the most valuable thing of all and possess a stick-together attitude, without which they could not accomplish their goals. The fact that they spout the same slogans as the good guys, however, never obscures the clear reality that the members of The Invisible Storm are actually quite monstrous. Militant and singularly focused, these girls obsess over conforming to a herd mentality. One of the group’s favorite statements, usually made directly after a pro-friendship rallying cry, is: “We MUST remain invisible.” Members of the class must adhere to strict rules of behavior; unique thoughts and actions are not to be tolerated. As the show progresses, the viewer begins to see that all of this is motivated by fear rather than by a feeling of superiority.
Any student with the temerity to act outside of these prescribed confines is subject to ceremonial exclusion, an act from which the Invisible Storm surely derives its name. Kureha and Sumika are excluded for their refusal to “back down on love,” which is an elegant and concise way of saying that they won’t deny their romantic feelings about each other or the behavior that naturally accompanies such feelings.
Ikuhara touches on the idea of exclusion in other contexts within the show as well, and he does so by employing a certain symbol: a box. The vengeful school counselor, Yurika, places things and people into boxes (literally) in order to exclude what they will become/are becoming from her life. In the backstory of Lulu, we repeatedly see her angrily put her adorable little brother Milne into a cardboard box and kick him over a cliff. No matter how badly Lulu treats Milne, the young prince always showers his sister with genuine love and affection, which frustrates her all the more. Both of these exclusions mirror the one performed by the Invisible Storm insofar as they are also fear-driven: Yurika fears being abandoned, while Lulu fears losing her status.
Now contrast all of the above with…
Tomodachi is a Japanese word meaning friend(s), and I will use it here to refer to the relationships that Kureha, Ginko and Lulu (and also Kureha x Sumika) have with one another. I do so for two reasons: (1) to distinguish their friendships from the kind of friendship practiced by the Invisible Storm and (2) they refer to their own relationships this way, as “true tomodachi.” Several of these relationships are also romantic, but I’ll use a single term for the sake of simplicity. In any case, I think some sort of different term is needed for their drastically different (read: normal) approach to friendship.
From the moment they arrive on screen, you know exchange students Ginko and Lulu are different. They wear bold, brightly colored uniforms and use odd yet cute catchphrases. These differences serve to immediately distinguish them from the rest of the cast (and from each other). Also, if you pay attention to the OP, you know right away that they are actually bears in disguise. Their visual uniqueness underscores that, unlike The Invisible Storm, Ginko and Lulu embrace their individuality. A lovely little irony of YKA: human beings establish a strident herd psychology, and, in rejecting this, the bears seem the most human of all.
Both bears have their own goals and desires, and, in order to achieve them, each is taking steps decidedly outside the bounds of what The Storm deems appropriate behavior. Ginko and Lulu each deeply love someone; neither is going to back down on that love. To love is not a collective decision determined by groupthink; it is an individual choice requiring independent action. Often, actions motivated by love run counter to the interest of the group and even counter to the actor’s own self-interest. Certainly, Ginko and Lulu make sacrifices during their journeys that would seem totally irrational to the loveless Storm. YKA‘s heroic bears are just as single-minded as its antagonists, but the focus of the former is so very different from and inexplicable to the latter that you almost understand the fear.
Kureha gets drawn into the lives of these two iconoclastic bears, and all three become true tomodachi. Well, that makes it all sound really simple. There are bumps in the road…
The characters in YKA each face a personal, individual trial that they must overcome in order to save their most treasured relationships. As discussed earlier, one of the show’s chief thematic concerns is the importance of individuality; the individual should not be ground down by the collective. When one is put in a box or denied her individuality, she is being denied her personhood, her nature as an individual subject. “You can’t be this! You must fit into this mold. Any protruding edges will be lopped off.¹” The various personal trials the cast undergoes also involve struggles against denying their loved one her personhood.
Lulu is in love with Ginko. The two are tomodachi, but Lulu has always wanted more from their relationship; however, Ginko is completely in love with Kureha. Lulu has an idealized image of Ginko as she first met her: criminal bear, stealing in through the tower window, on a secret mission. She desperately wants Ginko to be coming through that window for her. She tries to convince herself this is the case, but Lulu comes to understand that, if she is to love Ginko, it must be from a distance. Lulu cannot force her ideal image of her lover onto Ginko.
“I’ll ruin bears.” This line is a refrain of YKA‘s main character, Kureha Tsubaki. When she was younger, a bear killed her mother. It’s not clear who raised Kureha or if she raised herself; however, it is clear that she needed to form some uncompromising beliefs in order to cope with her loss. She grows up with a narrative in her head about the kinds of beings bears are and what they deserve. As the series goes along, Kureha slowly begins to fall in love with Ginko. The revelation that her love (and forgotten childhood friend) is bear is a shock to Kureha’s system that I can only described as cruel. To love Ginko, she must cast aside her universal bear theories, a tremendously difficult task. These beliefs are foundational for her, after all.
Another pair of bears face a certain trial, and this results in two very different outcomes. Yurika is madly in love with Kureha’s mother, Reia. The counselor’s feelings contrast sharply with most of the other characters in that her love begins and remains fundamentally selfish. To Yurika, Reia is not truly a subject, another self; rather, she is an object for Yurika to use in order to feel love. For her, love is essentially a zero-sum game. She wants to take all of Reia’s love and will not countenance any “competitors.” When Reia gives birth to Kureha, Yurika inevitably becomes inflamed with jealousy by the appearance of her new “rival.” She is angry and filled with hate for the one she loves. “If I can’t have all of her love, then no one will have any of it. It’s for me; I will take all of it.” Her desire to consume her love object engulfs her, and she is utterly overcome by it. Ruled by this desire, she literally does consume Reia. Despite quenching her animalistic thirst, Yurika remains existentially unsatisfied with herself and her life.
Desire actually appears before Ginko to tempt her, and it is personified as her deceased classmate Yurizono. Ginko is tired; tired of being hated by humans, tired of living on the other side of the wall, tired of Kureha not understanding. Most of all, she is tired of being without Kureha. The emotionally fatigued bear cannot manage to resist temptation and allows herself to be ruled by Desire. Full of lust and anger, love and hate, Ginko rampages toward Kureha, killing everything in between her and her love. Her sexual desire is bound up with her other animal drives; thus, her amorousness exacerbates the violent side of her nature. There’s also something else at work here. Yurika hates Reia because she is so in love with her, and, similarly, Ginko gives into these kinds of feelings toward Kureha.
Just before the OP of each episode is a small narration that begins, “We hated you from the beginning–and loved you from the beginning too.” Both of these, for lack of a better term, orientations-toward-another spring from the same intense, raw emotions. The space between the two is vanishingly small. We see anime characters flow fluidly from one to the other all the time. For a brief moment, Ginko chose to hate Kureha, or, more specifically, she hated that she could not be with Kureha in the way she wanted to be (at this point in the story, Kureha still wants to ruin bears). Though she is temporarily swayed, Ginko must overcome the temptation to hate Kureha by acknowledging that Kureha is a subject, not an object of love. Kureha cannot be forced to work out her feelings or come to specific conclusions. Accepting this fact is Ginko’s trial.
In addition to these personal obstacles, YKA also wants to tackle what Ikuhara paints as a universal problem of relationships…
“The Moon Girl and The Forest Girl” is a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Kureha’s mother Reia. It is the story of two young girls separated by a great distance. One day, the moon girl drops her pendant. It falls down to the earth, into the forest. The forest girl finds it and dreams about an enchanting life in the sky. Likewise, the moon girl begins to dream about the forest. Each longs to go to the world of the other, and both pray for it. God informs them that, to cross the severance that divides them, they must open the Door of Friendship located at the center of the sky. If their love is true, then each will find her friend waiting on the other side. By giving their friend a Promise Kiss, their dream will come true, and the moon girl and the forest girl will ascend the stairway of friendship together.
So, the girls make the journey to the Door of Friendship, coming to the center of the sky from opposite sides,. When they arrive, each girl sees not a door, but her own reflection staring back. An infinitely large mirror stands between each girl and her dream. The voice of God tells the girls that they must smash the mirror in order to fulfill their dream.
Smashing the mirror is an extremely important action not only within the story/universe of YKA but also (and especially) for the thematic thrust of the show. Reina’s fairy tale encapsulates many of the important messages of the show, and shattering the mirror at the Door of Friendship is the climactic moment of that story. But, what is Ikuhara getting at here? What’s so significant about breaking this glass?
The moon girl and the forest girl think they are going to meet each other in person, but what they find are just images of themselves. I think this is us; we go looking for friendship, find reflections of who we think we are, and we go no further. Often, we mistakenly believe this particular error just is friendship: we think we are knowing and loving the other person, but really, we are knowing and loving seeing ourselves (or our perceptions of ourselves) in them. We aren’t actually interested in investing in others. We just want an image of ourselves reflected back to us because that’s easy, that’s familiar, that’s comfortable. Becoming tomodachi requires going beyond a shallow relationship of self-reflection and self-affirmation. It means shattering the mirror in order to move toward the other person and who they are as an individual.
God tells the girls that breaking the mirror could be life-threatening. It is a scary thing to move from the familiar to the unknown. You could get hurt immediately. You might think things are great, but then get really hurt. If you actually devote your time and energy to knowing this other person, growing with this other person, you might lose yourself–at least, that self you had when you broke the mirror and started the journey. Maybe this is what God meant when she said “life threatening”? For the self, is being shed like an old skin substantively different from dying, anyway? This is what is at stake in smashing the mirror. If you become a new person, the person who you were ceases to be. The journey to being tomodachi involves both parties risking who they have been for a chance to be something more. Tomodachi grow and evolve together, climbing that stairway of friendship hand in hand.
Wait a minute, you might be thinking, this whole tomodachi thing is just another way to subjugate individuality! Isn’t the individual self being constrained here too, being forced to change? I think this is why the Invisible Storm is such a sinister entity. It preys upon human beings’ need for community. Community is good! People (for the most part; there are exceptions) are relational creatures. If you want to see an individual who has rejected the notion of community, look no further than Yurika.
We need community, but we also need to be able to freely express, to create, to rebel a bit. These needs are suppressed within the Invisible Storm. An individual chooses to be tomodachi with another individual, not out of fear (the reason you’d choose the Storm), but freely. It’s the sort of relationship that facilitates self-enhancement, rather than forcing individuals to fit into a preconceived mold.
Relationships are really hard, and we fuck up all the time. So do our partners, our friends, our enemies. No one likes pain, so we exclude those who we fear might injure us. This is especially true in the case of someone not fitting into our established ideas of “good” or “right.” Such individuals are difficult to predict, to control, to put in a box. Even when we want to care about someone, it’s difficult not to objectify them. It can be even more difficult to move beyond comfortable, shallow relationships of affirmation and risk losing your self for the chance to grow with another person.
All of this is difficult, but it isn’t YKA‘s intention to cause us to despair and doubt the possibility of true tomodachi. While Ikuhara gives a clear-eyed and insightful take on how we’re bad at relationships, he also provides some shining examples of their possibility.
¹ Ikuhara explores this kind of dehumanization in Mawaru Penguindrum with the idea of the Child Broiler. Forgotten children are made invisible to fit into society. The threat of exclusion by The Invisible Storm is just a different mechanism, employed at a later stage in life, intended to produce the same results.