Since the anime phenomenon Sailor Moon, Kunihiko Ikuhara has crafted stories about young women who confront great challenges through magical transformation. Ikuhara’s new TV series, Sarazanmai, follows three young boys—the uptight Kazuki, the delinquent Toi, and the dweeby Enta—after Kazuki and Toi shatter a kappa statue in the historic Tokyo district of Asakusa. Kazuki’s grandmother briefly explains the relevant Japanese folklore: Kappa are mischievous amphibians which devour cucumbers as well as shirikodama, a mythical human organ said to reside within the anus. Revisiting the shattered statue, the boys encounter the imperious kappa prince, Keppi, who transforms the frightened young men into kappa. Keppi tells the boys they might restore their humanity by defeating a kappa zombie, and so the boys battle a surreal monstrosity: at one point, an anthropomorphic delivery box crawls on all fours and wails as a jet stream of unspecified matter erupts from the conquered shirikodama. The episodes are only 22 minutes, and yet the butts are unrelenting—sometimes erotic, sometimes disgusting, lively in the extreme. The ass-themed delirium is vivid, but not so shocking compared to the basic character innovation: For once, Ikuhara has made a TV series about boys?!
The boys aside, Sarazanmai, which can be seen on Crunchyroll, is classic Ikuhara. From Revolutionary Girl Utena onward, Ikuhara’s shows cultivate a distinct bewilderment which endures, from one series to the next, regardless of differences in maturity and tone. His shows all amount to one prevailing question about Kunihiko Ikuhara in any given anime season: Where the hell is he going with this? Why, for the love of scatology, did he do that to me? Ikuhara has long drawn inspiration from David Lynch as well as Stanley Kubrick, and Lynch truly is the one major Western television maestro whom viewers might compare to the ceaselessly odd and astonishing Ikuhara.
But TV anime tends to obscure its directors in favor of acclaim for studios—Production I.G, Studio Trigger, Madhouse, Bones, etc. There’s only a few TV anime auteurs. There’s Hideaki Anno, the Neon Genesis Evangelion director who has turned his attention more fully to cinema. Anno rebooted the Evangelion series as an ongoing movie tetralogy, and his live-action film Shin Godzilla was released in theaters three years ago. There’s Masaaki Yuasa, who straddles TV and film; Yuasa directed the Devilman Crybaby series for Netflix within months of releasing his latest movie, Night Is Short, Walk on Girl. There are TV anime screenwriters, such as Gen Urobuchi and Mari Okada, whose styles trump the series direction in many cases. They’re all working in a medium that produces very different ideas about how long a TV “series” should conventionally run: U.S. television dramas might spend several seasons developing the intrigue, profundity, and gratification which Ikuhara and other TV anime auteurs might pack into the typical single-season run. If an anime TV series “runs forever,” it’s a toy racket, e.g., Dragon Ball or Pokémon.
Ikuhara is the rare TV anime director who stokes a decoder’s fervor with every animated frame, and who stokes anime fandom’s curiosity unconditionally, even as he’s grown tangential in the past decade to the medium’s dominant styles and trends. Ikuhara thrives by the expectation that his characters, if no one else’s, will be gruesomely true to adolescence, their conflicts meaningful, the director’s sentimentalism profound.
Sarazanmai is one of many spring 2019 anime series competing for seasonal dominance on the North American simulcast services. There is more TV anime now than ever before, and Ikuhara hasn’t had to express a full-series concept in fewer episodes than his previous work. Ikuhara’s Penguindrum, which aired eight years ago, required 24 episodes to render its whimsical premise for teen siblings and pet penguins into a profound pronouncement about Aum Shinrikyo, the Tokyo subway sarin attack, and a generation lost to decay. Four years ago, Yuri Kuma Arashi took 12 episodes to turn a show about girls and teddy bears into a surreal exclamation about sexual liberation. Sarazanmai is 11 episodes, and the show seems no more or less inclined toward brevity in design nor simplicity in execution. How will he fashion his meticulous obsession with butts into a resplendent story about masculinity, adolescence, and love? What’s with the monstrous Amazon boxes? How will he pull this off? Ikuhara’s fans have asked such questions since Utena Tenjou transformed into a Formula 1 car to rescue her lover from a castle on wheels. Sarazanmai may not mean as much as Ikuhara did, to as many viewers, at his Revolutionary peak. But surely Ikuhara must mean something.