A Storm of Bears and Lilies: A Retrospective on Yurikuma Arashi

YKA 12
Already ready for a re-watch.

I have wanted to write about Yuri Bear Storm for a while. At the same time, though, such a task has seemed daunting; I really loved the show, and that makes it hard in a lot of ways to write about. As much as I may enjoy relishing in the supposed idiocy of this blog, the prospect of sitting down and rendering foolish, adulatory-type noises as text didn’t suit me insofar as Yuri Bear Storm was concerned. Or, let us just call it Yurikuma Arashi, since that lends itself to the fairly accepted abbreviation of YKA.

(On ‘YKA’, by the way – did this become acceptable because Ikuhara fans are so accustomed to it being shortened to SKU/RGU that there wasn’t a desire for a portmanteau? Although, that hardly seems likely… likelier, I suppose, that potential ones for YKA are awkward to an English-speaking tongue than even things like Oregairu aren’t. Mawaru Penguindrum’s Pindora/Pingdora never caught on; the most I’ve ever seen anyone spring for is “Pdrum”, but it’s much more common to see it rendered as, simply, Penguindrum in order to shorten it.)

I also previously indicated a leeriness on my part toward even writing about the show while it was airing, although I did violate that, and even now I’m not terribly pleased with the results. For me, Ikuhara shows are better written about, by me, after I’ve watched it all, chewed it over a good bit, even debated it with others, before I dare commit myself to writing at any length. My RGU posts didn’t come into being until well after I’d finished the show, and after quite a lot of discussion of it with the lovely people of Empty Movement’s forums (to this day, I rue the fact that I ever left them behind, and, truly, I don’t even know why I ever did).

But, I’m digressing a fair bit, and I suspect that it’s a subconscious stalling method. I’ll turn back to the task at hand.

…and I gaze out at the field I propose the plow and feel fairly daunted. No matter, though, I’ve already taken the steps here.

I really loved YKA. I really, really, really loved YKA. Or, rather, I love YKA. In fact, I enjoyed it so thoroughly that I’ve been shilling out for the limited edition Japanese DVD volumes despite the fact that my Japanese isn’t anywhere near the level it’d have to be for me to watch it raw. (I also have obtained the OP and ED singles, although this is less potentially a demonstration of adoration since my poor language comprehension is no barrier to my enjoyment of this music. And, did you know that studies indicate that, despite any protest to the contrary, people enjoy whatever music they enjoy based chiefly on the instrumental portion, not the vocals? Which would, certainly, explain the incredible popularity of English language music even in countries where comprehension of English is low.) Each month I tear open the parcel that arrives from Japan, and I grin as I unearth the item within. I carefully loosen it from the packaging, delicately remove the plastic wrap, and carry it to another room. I then examine the artwork of the case, on the DVD itself, and the booklet that comes without fail. I add the false gekiga that comes along with it to the clear file folder that came with the first volume. I pop the DVD into my spouse’s laptop (Region 2!), behold the menus, and watch parts of the episodes. And then it goes on the shelf to join its mates (and, honestly, I then reflect upon the mournful fact that there’s no way in hell that the Region 1 release will be half as lovely).

I’ve never bought the Japanese DVDs of a show before. The height of my Japanese language comprehension was being capable of watching episodes of Chi’s Sweet Home raw, and it has degraded since I left the hallowed halls of higher education. I never imagined buying a Japanese release before. But, here I am, YKA volumes arriving monthly, nearly like clockwork.

So, yes, I really love YKA.

I wasn’t able to catch the first episode of YKA until nearly a week after it aired even though it was the show I was most looking forward to. Not having internet in your home will generally result in such a thing! As I saw mounting commentary about the show, I began to feel nervous, as it didn’t seem like the impressions were overall very good. There was also quite a bit about it allegedly being guro, which inspired more wariness on my part as I’m not a fan of guro since I find it, well, gross. I’ve seen some fairly gruesome things in my life, and I really have no desire to needlessly add to it. So it was with some trepidation that I watched the first episode. And, thank fuck, for all the consumption of humans by bears, those folks were completely wrong about the guro!

I also enjoyed it, although I couldn’t at all say why, and I wasn’t terribly sure of what was going on. But! That was fine for me. I accept that Ikuhara shows won’t necessarily be something I can work the meaning out of until after all is said and done, although here was something much, much more impenetrable than RGU’s first episode (which, reflecting back, wasn’t actually all that mysterious in the first place anyway – RGU’s esoteric nature is something which builds up, after all), and more impenetrable than Mawaru Penguindrum’s. There are girls. There are lilies. There are bears. There’s a lot of homoeroticism! And there’s fanservice. And people get eaten. And Kureha loves her sniper rifle since she can’t love her deceased girlfriend in an active manner anymore since she’s… deceased.

Thrillingly, there wasn’t a big gap between that episode and the second since it’d taken me a while to get to it, so I didn’t have to linger too much at length before taking some more of it in. And I liked that episode, too! Although some of the sexualized imagery did strike me as more than I would’ve needed or desired, and people’s derisive suppositions about Ikuhara being a dirty old man began to take on a louder tone to my ears. Was it really so full of cleavage, and the grinding of knees into crotches, and the licking of lilies because he was a dirty old man?

Having seen it all… haha, I’ll say that, no, it isn’t the sole or primary reason behind its inclusion, but it is difficult to think that there was nothing baser involved at all. I’ll grant that I might be being unfair to the man, though, in my defense, I live in a world where it is exceedingly difficult to think that a heterosexual man could have produced something involving the depiction of underclad, nubile female forms with completely pure motive. (We will go the art museum, and we will stand before a painting entitled “Vanity” which depicts a nude woman, gazing at herself in a hand-mirror, the title implicitly sneering at her, a fictional creation of man who wanted to paint a naked woman and was not censured for it because it is Art. And if we express a discomfort with how very many paintings involving nude women are surrounding us, while comparatively few feature fully nude men, then we are displaying a lack of appreciation for Art, and we should work on improving how cultured we are until we realize that we were wrong about Art. But I wander, and probably to the energetically unhappy consternation of some possible readers who will voluminously let me know such below.)

Initially, after watching four episodes, having seen the decline in this more over-the-top fanservice in-screen after episode two, I judged it as having been a test of sorts for Ikuhara fans. It was as if we were being challenged, that if we had the faith and the patience to make our way through that visual excess, then we were ‘worthy’ of getting to the messages of the piece that became more apparent as time went on. Or, on a less deep level, if we were willing to sit through so much licking of flower stamens, then we could see Lulu’s history with her foully adorable little brother, and guffaw as she stuffed him into boxes and tossed him off of cliffs and into volcanoes.

Having seen the whole thing, I still think this is part of it, but I also view it as a trap for the unwitting. I’ve written before about Milk Morinaga’s ability to utilize moe art style and standard yuri tropes to smuggle messages to an audience that wouldn’t generally be willing to listen to those messages were they presented more directly and without cutesy window-dressing, and there’s something similar at work here, as we witness girls crawling all over each other, and were greeted with promo art of panty-shots and girls stripping underwear off of each other while smirking at the viewer. Because for all the usage of the term ‘yuri’ (in people’s names, in the show’s title, in identification of what the various characters were), and for the flood of lilies themselves in the show, what we ended up with was a show that was about lesbians, and lesbian identity, and which tore away at the construct of ‘yuri’ (particularly in the school girl context it so often adores).

And, there’s a third thing about these opening episodes and the full embrace of the less ‘tasteful’ – in going so full-throttle with it, it elevates it to the realm of the absurd. All the girls are yuri! Yuri girls love to randomly grope each other with little seeming reason! Yuri girls who are too emphatic about their yuri nature are would-be predators! Have you seen all these lilies? Have some more lilies! Have some more knees ground into crotches, and more squirming, more blushing! NO MEN! NO BOYS! NEVER! The girls’ school is a hothouse of homoeroticism! And by dialing it all up so much, it comes across as completely over-the-top, and it’s humorous, truly. It is simply too much to be taken seriously, something underscored by the lack of impact of the spiking death toll. In Victory Gundam, Tomino seizes us and rubs our faces against death, demanding our sorrow and our realization that WAR SUCKS, as much of the audience snickers at the stupidity of a drawn-out montage for a character we’ve known for a collective twenty minutes or so, and still others cringe in disgust at the seeming glee behind it. In YKA, Ikuhara sits by, pleased, as we shed nary a tear. (Admittedly, though, all this early death does undermine the sacrifice Lulu makes much later on.)

In highlighting the silliness of so many yuri tropes, too, Ikuhara is criticizing them, and building a foundation for the show’s repudiation of the stunted, warped sexuality, or approach to sexuality, of most yuri. As I said before, the show is about lesbian identity, and it is also about female sexuality and society’s circumscription of it more broadly. The only adult male figures who appear in the show work in ways to control the sexuality of the girls who fall within their purview – the Judgmens of the Court of Severance, who decree whether yuri is approved or not, and Yuriika’s guardian, who shuts her away in a box and tells her she only has worth if she is pure. But even in an environment lacking male figures, i.e. Kureha’s school, there remains an interest socially in imposing strictures on female sexuality. Allow me to elaborate by pulling from my previous post on YKA:

“However, female characters are themselves fairly involved with efforts to control. While Yuriika 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.”

I wrote this roughly around the two-thirds point of the show, and later events only alter the pitch of persecution, not the fact of its existence. Kureha and Sumika’s sin was that they were unwilling to conceal the nature of their relationship. Kureha’s continuing punishment by her peers during the first several episodes has much to do with her refusal to let go of her sentiments regarding Sumika – while her desire to destroy bears may place her in the same camp as her classmates, her drive to do so is that she “won’t back down on love”. None of the other ‘yuri’ girls utilize that term, ‘love’; Yurizono speaks of desire, but no one else is even willing to verbalize their same-sex feelings and attractions. Kureha’s same-sex relationship isn’t acceptable in the yuri paradigm, even if she does parrot some of the other speech patterns, such as calling Sumika her ‘friend’ instead of her ‘girlfriend’. Kureha’s embrace of the L-word (no, the other one) that prevents her from passing muster with her peers.

Kureha, then, still has some way to go when the show begins, as despite her openness about her relationship, she continues to try to frame it within what is ultimately a Lesbians Until Graduation approach. She may love Sumika, she may have sex with Sumika, but Sumika is her precious friend at best when she identifies her in relation to herself. Admittedly, the show doesn’t get completely past this failure to name things accurately, since Kumaria declares “Yuri approved!” and not something along the lines of “Yes, lesbians!” On the other hand, we could see this final piece as a direct criticism of yuri as being obsessed with BFF schoolgirls who just happen to get handsy at times instead of being interested in depicting female same-sex romance that involves open declarations of love and running away to California together and the decision to make lives together.

However, even with a slight fogging of the issue, it still follows the arc of Kureha’s maturation into a young woman who isn’t a LUG but is a LFA – Lesbian For Always.

I’ve seen some criticisms of the climax of the show, with Kureha and Ginko departing from Kureha’s world to some unknown plane, as being too similar to the double-suicide resolution that can be found more commonly in older yuri. While I certainly understand the criticism, and I think it is a valid one, the precedent set in Ikuhara’s works inclines me to not feel this personally myself. Utena, in the TV series, vanishes from Ohtori (and the memory of her by Ohtori’s denizens begins to fade shockingly quickly), and Anthy walks away from it, because it is a corrupt place which twists the people within it, Akio’s playground. In the movie, Anthy and Utena escape Ohtori together to enter a seemingly frightening landscape, the adult world. Shouma and Kanba, too, disappear from their world, forgotten by those they sought to preserve, and our last glimpse of them is wandering a plane with an endless, starry sky, accompanied by penguins. Given this repetition, YKA’s ending doesn’t bother me at all. Following a girl still in the hateful world they’ve left across the final few minutes as she harbors doubts about the worldview promoted by her schoolmates and discovers the discarded half bear, half android Yurikawa, the parallel to RGU’s ending is quite clear – as Utena’s personal sacrifice enabled Anthy to find the way out, Ginko and Kureha’s triumph over hate has let a beam of light in for this girl to find her own way away from the destructive ideology she has been brought up and lived in.

A few tangents, if I may, before anything else. The first regarding the final villain of the piece, Ooki Chouko. The kanji is 大木 蝶子,which is ‘big tree’ and ‘butterfly child’, but her last name is a homonym for ‘big’, and I don’t think that’s a mistake – ‘big butterfly child’. Chouko is full of puns and symbols. She has a habit of saying ‘ちょう’,‘super’, constantly. Everything is chou for her. But ‘chou’ also means ‘butterfly’, as seen in her name above. And then there’s the big butterfly on the side of her head. The butterfly is a symbol of death in Japan (as well as in some other parts of the world), so it’s quite fitting that our most determined huntress, the leader of what really is a witch-hunt, is so drenched in visual and vocal references to the creature. You kind of get the feeling that Chouko was probably one of the Salem Witch Trial accusers in a previous life.

(Ikuhara has dabbled in butterflies as symbols before, in Sailor Moon S. Sailor Moon herself gets butterfly-oriented visuals when she powers up to Super Sailor Moon, and later enable Sailor Saturn to be reborn, firmly placing the emphasis on the rebirth aspect of butterfly symbolism.)

The second is on Lulu’s resumption of her bear form only. Lulu loses her ability to shapeshift when she tells Kureha the truth of her and Ginko’s identity, and their bargain to cross over the wall and search for Kureha, as it was part of said bargain that they weren’t allowed to ever reveal their true identities. Little Mermaid much? Losing the ability to take on a human form is a fair bit less awful than becoming seafoam and bubbles, though, at least. (The threat of becoming foam if one gives away one’s identity, by the way, surfaces in Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch – now there’s one that’s fallen into obscurity!)

I look back on this whole thing, and there’s still so much I didn’t even manage to touch on. I think this is enough for now, though. I’ll save it for when I re-watch.

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