Yuri Bear Storm
It seems my initial fears that this would be the show where Ikuhara finally decided to throw out all attempts at visual metaphors and societal commentary aside, in favour of exploring his interest in fetishes, were entirely misplaced. If anything, Yuri Bear Storm is easily his most focused work, being forced by the one-cour length to distil his point to its most simplistic form. Whereas Utena and particularly Penguindrum often felt muddled from trying to address multiple complex issues with different forms of abstract symbolism, here we get a much more direct subject, ie. homosexuality as regarded by society compared with its portrayal in media, largely centred on the characters talking with each other rather than grand, innuendo-filled speeches. Not that Ikuhara gets rid of his stylistic quirks, but they’re definitely toned down enough so as to not overbear (hyuk!) the work. Once you understand that the bears are a metaphor for active lesbianism, the majority of the show starts to fit into place. As a result this is the first ending to one of his shows where I’ve gotten a complete grasp of what he was trying to say. That’s no small accomplishment.
Mind you, Ikuhara doesn’t get off entirely scot-free. Despite the greater clarity, there’s still the same issue of him adding red-herrings into his works, with some of his visual imagery existing because he thought it would look cool (unless you’re one of those people who believe the surfboarding elephants in Utena meant something). There’s also the inherent issue with collectively tying the bears to rape. I get the idea of using negative sexual imagery and presenting the bears as predatory when viewed from the perspective of the school, with their chaste ‘yuri’ ideals, but when the show also depicts the bears unapologetically targeting their victims it creates a problem when the show tries to encourage empathy towards them. Granted, the final episodes has Ginko and Lulu struggling with, and finally moving past their unhealthily possessive desires, but it gives little thought to most of the previous victims and inadvertently appears to reinforce the negative stereotype that homosexuals are often deviants. It’s the standard problem in using vague representations to convey ideas: things can often be interpreted very differently to the actual intent. Both Utena & Penguindrum were also guilty of this.
In the end though, although I respect Yuri Bear Storm for its simplicity, it also causes in other areas of the work, such as the dialogue to comes across as perfunctory. All of Ikuhara’s works have had a certain theatrical quality to them, as if being recorded on a stage, but this is the first time the characters feel like they’re reciting lines from a script, instead of actual conversations. The level of artificiality doesn’t really allow for attachment, so while I ultimately liked the story, there’s little attachment to be had.
This leads to the question of what I think is actually better: a relatable, but often incomprehensible tale, or an easily digestible, if emotionally distant work? I think in the end I’d rather fully invest in a show, only get diminishing returns, over one that exceeded my expectations but gives me less reason to care.
Someone over at Tatsunoko Production is clearly putting a lot of thought into what to do regarding their classic, but aging franchises, which start to run the risk of being forgotten by time. If Gatchaman Crowds was all about how old ideals and new technology can coexist, then Yatterman Night concerns the icons of yesteryear being repurposed into weapons of power in the modern age. Staging the setting in fantasy North Korea definitely seems like the show is firing warning shots at some of Japan’s recent policies.
While the setting might be quite a departure from the original series, unlike Crowds much of the aesthetics feel more closely tied to its predecessor, both in design and humour. Night feels as much a love letter to what came before, mixing the (mostly) childish presentation with mature themes. While the show can be watched by younger audiences, it does feel like nostalgia fodder for original fans, with added commentary for mature sensibilities. It’s mostly successful in this approach. Effort clearly has been put into giving the various call-backs gravity & weight for those who grew up with, and fondly remember the original show, while not forgetting the generally goofy nature the Yatterman franchise is known for.
The cast also help to keep up the momentum. Leopard and her guardians may not be the deepest bunch, but they act as perfect stand-ins for the original Doronbo gang, helping to keep the show’s energy up. Most noteworthy is Galina who we watch develop from an unassuming coward to the true hero of the story. Alouette, unfortunately fares far worse, with the show treating her mental instability as a joke, and even uses her for the purpose of fanservice on rare occasions. I don’t care if she’s the only of-age female cast member; it still comes across in pretty poor taste. Her overall resolution also doesn’t feel particularly earned.
I think that leads to where my biggest issue with Night lies, not with the often mediocre animation or the repeated gimmicks, but how puerile the humour can sometimes be. It’s generally not gross or offensive, just bizarre and excessively childish. That most of the episode-of-the-week characters display such needlessly silly quirks, like the kid who keeps having to publicly urinate, or the man in love with turtles, comes across more odd and confusing than anything else and definitely feels antiquated by today’s standard. These aren’t massive gripes but they do sour what is generally a terrifically entertaining romp with a lot of heart.