With a dash of Mouryou no Hako.
I’ve been thinking about Yuri Bear Storm a lot lately. This isn’t quite unusual, as I’ve been thinking about the show a decent bit ever since it started airing. But episode seven in particular piqued my interest, what with all the stuff about boxes, although I’ll also confess that someone asking me on ask.fm about whether I was going to write about Yuri Bear Storm nudged me along a bit, too.
But, let’s talk about the boxes, which I had been thinking of as drawers given the fact that they appeared to operate as such before anyone bothered to give them an identifying name. The first thing that these brought to mind were the coffins holding Mikage’s deceased students in Revolutionary Girl Utena, which themselves were stored in a wall and could be pulled out like drawers. The second thing which came to mind takes a touch more explanation. Where I come from, there’s a fairly large Italian-American population, and within this population, it has traditionally been customary to bury the dead above ground. For wealthier families, this meant mausoleum was built to house vaults for family members. For most families, this meant that you bought a space in a wall of vaults that typically had a roofed area but wasn’t enclosed (I’ve tried to find a picture of this and have been unable to do so, but it really is remarkably similar to the wall in Yurika’s office). As a child, I remember going to the cemetery to bring flowers for my grandfather’s grave on his birthday, and my mother let us stop afterward at the burial site of an elderly neighbor of ours. To me, it looked like a wall of drawers, and that first impression lingers. Many of the vaults also had pictures done on porcelain bolted to them. So, of course, when I saw the photos of our steadily accumulating dead girls In Yuri Bear Storm being placed into drawers, I thought of the vaults at the cemetery.
But once the name “box” was applied to what I had perceived of as drawers, and we saw young Yurika placed in one of them that had been stuffed with flowers (lilies, of course), yet another thing came to mind – Mouryou no Hako, THE anime for girls/women in boxes! Like YBS, MnH also features quite a few dead girls in boxes. Like YBS, MnH also manages to include young women who are neither entirely dead, nor entirely alive, as we encounter a head in a box that still has eyes that blink and a mouth that moves in MnH, and we have the young Yurika stored in a box which prevents her from fully living. The fact that the dead girls who end up in boxes tend to be the ones who’ve expressed sexual desire in some fashion in YBS is also similar to the fact that both the identified victims in boxes in MnH are young women who’ve attempted to break out of familial expectations in a way that is either directly sexual (one is attempting to prostitute herself after arguing with her mother about it when she is grabbed by an assailant) or implicitly so (another meets disaster after trying to run away with the classmate who is infatuated with her).
Unfortunately, though, it has been quite a while since I’ve seen Mouryou no Hako, so it’s difficult to comment any further. I had recently been considering a re-watch, and this only seals the deal as I’m curious if there is anything else to be compared and contrasted, or if it’s just a matter of being so easily fixated by a lone symbol as to try to conjure areas of overlap.
But boxes! So Yurika is put in a box as a young bear cub in a sequence that only makes more obvious something that has been present in YBS the whole time – male attempts to control female sexuality. In a show with very few male characters, most of the male characters have acted in ways to control and place limits on female sexuality. The bears who act as judges, and from whom Ginko and Lulu, among other female bears, have had to seek permission for “yuri”, are all male. Yurika’s caretaker who shut her up in that box (in a wedding dress, no less) was male. We only catch a passing glimpse of Lulu’s father, hardly enough to determine if he has any such intent, but it is worth noting that the only male character with much presence who doesn’t try to control female sexuality in Lulu’s little brother, who, in fact, offers unconditional love (the bear judges can theoretically bar love of any sort, while Yurika’s caretaker withdraws his after growing bored with her as his purity project and wants something fresher). So the habit of constraining the sexuality of women and girls is something which is a learned thing, and not a natural one?
However, female characters are themselves fairly involved with efforts to control. While Yurika clearly has a hang-up about that fact that Reia had sexual relations with a man (yuck!), for the most part the impositions of the female cast have been not about sex itself but about the manner of expression of sexuality. Kureha and Sumika are not the only girls in the show who were/are romantically involved, but they were nevertheless apparently shunned for it… likely because they were the only ones who were open about their relationship. All the other girls who experience same-sex attraction or engage in same-sex intimacy/physicality do so relatively covertly. They also all end up being/becoming bears, which suggests that trying to conceal part of one’s true nature is liable to make one beastly. (As for Lulu and Ginko, well, they are shown off the bat as being bears, so it’s a slightly different kettle of fish – since, too, neither of them is worried about the Invisible Storm getting them.) The attempts at persecution by them toward Kureha bring to mind the phenomenon of virulently anti-LGBT politicians being found to have been closeted all along; to pursue in secret what you prosecute in public is to become monstrous (and is there much that is more monstrous than consuming human flesh?).
Granted, even with Kureha and Sumika, for all that they’re open about their relationship, no one is standing up and declaring, “I’m a lesbian!”, and they frame their relationship with the word “friend”. I find the latter in particular interesting, as it feels like a deliberate choice where the former doesn’t as much (since yuri as a “genre” is 95% allergic to the idea of a person as BEING gay as opposed to “it’s just you!”/LUG/whichever excuse to avoid calling a spade a spade that is popular this month – thus it’d feel more deliberately a decision if they did say “yes, lesbian!” or even “yes, bisexual!”). I don’t know what to make of it yet; perhaps a comment on the hesitancy of society to view a female romantic/sexual relationship as being “real” to so much an extent that even those who refuse to hush things up can’t quite find the language for what they are to each other? Who knows.
Going back to the “boxes” (or drawers) – even if many of the girls who end up in them did become beastly before they died, none of them being “impure” since none of them had sexual relations with men. Meanwhile, Reia’s photo remains on the desk; she can’t go in the drawers because she’s no longer pure, although Yurika can’t quite bring herself to discard of her completely.
To put everything so much more succinctly, it is clear that Yuri Bear Storm is about the ways in which society tries to control, constrain, and limit homosexuality and female sexuality, and punishes those who step out of line. Looked at in more general terms, YBS is a more esoteric take on a fairly common story about society’s distaste for those who do not snap easily into place within its bounds, or even simply about the cruelty of bullying among adolescents (neither of these quite novel themes for Ikuhara, by the way).
And here’s my tangent that doesn’t fit in with the post very well but may be of interest to some of you regardless: By the way, bears and purity. Have you ever heard of Purity Culture? Or, more accurately, have you ever heard of Purity Culture, as enshrined by conservative American Protestants? The quick version is that girls/young women’s highest value is as virgins, so if they do something terrible like have sex, or even something like hold hands or kiss, then they are icky and awful and have no worth and no man will ever want them since then they are like a used piece of tape! One of the artifacts of this warped subculture is the Purity Ball, a prom-like event in that there is music and dancing and pretty dresses, except instead of going with that boy or girl you nearly puked from nervousness in asking to go with you, you go with your dad. And, instead of posing for pictures together in front of some hideous backdrop, you and your dad make a solemn pledge to each other – you’ll not let yourself become dirty and useless by looking at a boy cross-eyed (and don’t think you can sneak out of this by getting touchy-feely with a girl because that’s just gonna make Whitebread Jesus even more sad), and your dad will protect your hymen. And this is all done in the manner of a modern American wedding ceremony – you even get a ring! But! In case you aren’t satisfied with that ring, there is also something else out there for you! It’s the Boyfriend Bear, and you can pledge to it, too, that you won’t be sticking anything in your vagina or entwining your fingers, etc. with some boy before you have safely tied the knot. And in case you really need to sublimate that desire to stick things in your vagina, you can write your future husband a letter and stick it in the bear. Then, on your wedding night, you get to give the bear to your husband, so he can enjoy the words of your horny-ass adolescent self! I’m sure this won’t be excruciating to either involved party.