Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Anime Review: Love Bullet: Yuri Kuma Arashi

Going into the winter 2015 anime season there wasn't much I was looking forward to but this was one of the title; Kuniko Ikuhara's latest work which he described as "Attack on Titan but with bears" and I thought he was talking figuratively, that it was going to be as big a hit as AoT which did seem off. But no, as with all of his works I should've looked at it a little bit more literally, it really was a series about girls, a dividing wall, and on the other side of it bears.

Love Bullet: Yuri Kuma Arashi

Bears and humans are natural enemies and that is why humanity built the Wall of Separation to keep them away. Kureha has hated them from the beginning after bears killed her mother but two bears who cross the wall, Ginko and Lulu, find her and hide in plain sight saying that they loved her from the beginning too.  

On one level this story is about bears attacking humans and on the other level it's about lesbian relationships. Not that these two story lines are exclusionary, as with Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum it's best to look at this story and think that parts of both, if not entirely, are true at the same time (much the same way I've described Maggie Steifvater's Raven Cycle books as being 100% a metaphor for growing up and 100% "five teens in Virginia search for a dead Welsh king" at the same time). Part of this is through Ikuahara's continued use of symbolism and I believe polysemy where the symbolism changes depending on the context, although I was less interested in the symbolism here than I was in Penguindrum (which already used symbolism differently than in Utena). The symbolism was easier to decode here than the mysteries of Penguindrum and it's simply shorter than Utena and it was almost more fun to just watch this as a strange, semi-surreal fantasy about lesbians and bears and not spending every moment trying to analyze the show.

The first few episodes were less tight hurts the show a bit but I do agree with the interpretation that at least part of that was on purpose. We start the show by mostly following Kureha who hates bears, they're a threat to her everyday life and happiness and killed her mother which makes it a reasonable fear, although not a reasonable obsession. The story does nothing to convince the viewer otherwise, Ginko and Lulu sneak into human lives and plan on devouring select girls and go for the ones closest to Kureha first and their actions, including events like the yuri court, are just bizarre (plus, these are the most NSFW scenes of the whole show). But the story shifts after the first three episodes and starts focusing on the bears more as well, Lulu becomes a very likable, silly character and Ginko does as well. The series never softens their pasts but makes them, well, more human. The viewer gets the feeling that Kureha is wrong, bears are dangerous in some ways but in many ways her human classmates are much more so as they secretly hold meetings where they decide to bully her as a way to save themselves from the storm in the series title*. Some of Kureha's oppressors feel more like ideas than real characters but the main trio and some of the side characters are fully realized characters for sure. I was worried that the story wouldn't work in just 12 episodes but it manages fairly well. More would have been better but this wasn't a train wreck.

Getting back to the plot, here's my final take on it: this is a story about lesbians and coming out of the closet. I agree that it both seems to invoke Class S tropes and condemn some of them, the invisible/exclusionary storm felt like people who wanted to stay closest and "not rock the boat" because it was easier and that they could then blame society for not committing to a relationship. The people who are out (bears, in some of the cases) are a threat since by being out they remind both the general public and the invisible that being out is a choice and now people have to actively choose how they want to interact with society. I think it's a story that works better if you're at least mildly familiar with Class S stories/ideas (I'm not very familiar but enough so to see how it fits in) and it's a story that doesn't work as well with contemporary American culture, as shown by the changing trends towards gay marriage by the general public/the greater push by the LGTBQ+ community to shout "we're here, we're queer" instead of hoping and working towards a quieter transition. I also have two series of reviews that I highly recommend for reading along with the series, whether you want to read each one after each episode or watch and read in chunks. The Josei Next Door has a nice series of posts with lots of theorizing and all important screencaps, Gabriella Ekans of Anime News Network also has really excellent write-ups that dig into the deeper meanings (you know it's good when they start off with "well I've been doing some research into queer Japanese literature", hurray for greater context!), plus that image will tell you if the show is too NSFW for you or not immediately.

To briefly touch on the visuals we have nearly the exact same team who worked on Penguindrum and I always loved how that story worked so I was delighted to see them return. The art is pretty cute (when it's not NSFW) and this is very much a show that uses it's visuals to the full extent, it's not like Utena where there was literally a hand on screen pointing at important objects but it's easy enough to spot what's important in a scene and changes between scenes (which are also important).  I liked the Japanese dub and it sounds like Funimation's dub for the show is also fairly good so hurray, finally one of Ikuhara's shows has a competent dub, I wouldn't mind giving that a shot when I do eventually rewatch the show so I'm not distracted by subtitles. So yes, this is very much a show I plan on buying and rewatching and I'm also a bit curious about the manga version of it. Ikuhara teamed up with well-known yuri manga-ka Akiko Morishima and I tried out the first chapter which was completely and delightfully different about the "other versions" of Utena and Penguindrum (Utena's sounds less realized and Penguindrum apparently doesn't diverge until very late, I'm also cautious about how good a fan translation can be of that very heavy work) but if I have a chance to read more of this work then yes I'd love to do that too! In the meantime however, new viewers to the show can check it out on either Funimation's website or hulu, the broadcast dub of the show is only on Funimation and exclusive to their subscribers. 

*for anyone who missed it, the title is literally "lesbian bear storm". Yuri can mean lily but Ikuhara said something to the point of "you guys know full well which meaning we're using here".