Yurikuma Arashi is known as Lesbian Bear Storm in English. It’s a very frank title. This is an anime that is indeed full of lesbians, bears, and storms. It’s exactly what it says on the box. But as this is a show directed by the singular Kunihiko Ikuhara of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum fame, it’s a pretty deep box, probably with a few false bottoms. On the surface, Yurikuma is a modern fairy tale about the struggle of a human girl, Tsubaki Kureha, and two bears disguised as human girls, Ginko and Lulu, to find love and acceptance in the world. On another level, it’s social commentary on both the trappings of the yuri genre and the treatment of homosexual relationships in a patriarchal society.

Setting the stage

The settings, backgrounds, and staging of Yurikuma are simply gorgeous. Ikuhara is unparalleled when it comes to art direction, and his latest venture is no different. Endless spiral staircases twist as characters march to a fated encounter, stark and regimented architecture is used to both reinforce the universe’s societal structure and contrast it with characters who break the mold, and the “Wall of Severance” that separates bears and humans towers in the background of most skyline shots. These are just a few of the setting and architectural details that frame the world and events of Yurikuma beautifully. Ikuhara very much stages this world, even down to using theater curtains and title cards as props. These obvious set pieces help establish the tone of the show as that of a fairy tale - it’s almost a grown-up, anime version of how Disney classics would start with a ornately bound book opening. Some viewers might not like this hyper-awareness that we are watching a story and not completely immersed in the world, but it works for Yurikuma’s structure.

Symbolism

As with Ikuhara’s other shows, the story of Yurikuma and its world is crafted largely through a language of symbolism. This is an incredibly visual show. Sometimes the symbolism and associations are delicate, such as using certain colors or motifs as a cue for a certain character, and sometimes it’s like being run over by the high-speed symbolism train. This emphasis on visual language results in a lot of liberties taken with the whole idea of cohesive storytelling, but ultimately this method of revealing things is just as effective. As a long time fan of the director, this feels like settling into something comfortable that’s been waiting in the back of the closet.

Social commentary

Yurikuma Arashi very well might be one of the season’s sweetest love stories. Fans looking for canon yuri relationships that don’t beat around the bush will certainly be satisfied, but the anime is also a commentary on the yuri genre and how lesbianism is treated by the media and in society. The initial set-up of the world and conflict presents two stereotypes of yuri: the pure, innocent “friends” (represented by the human girls’ school) and the sexually predatory, aggressive lesbian (the bears). At first, the characters play these cliches straight. Kureha and her “friend” Sumika share an innocent and intense, but rather non-sexual love. Ginko and Lulu are characterized by their insatiable hunger and desire to eat (ahem) human girls, especially Kureha. There is also the ever present pressure to be invisible, and those who are not invisible get excluded. The uniform, strict environment of the school compounds this pressure. As the main characters develop and reveal that they are much more than either “yuri” or “kuma,” the central conflict makes itself apparent: in a world that expects you to conform and be invisible, how do you find the courage to “never give up on love?” I think the parallel to society is clear here: if lesbian relationships are stereotyped as being either simply sweet and pure or aggressively sexual, it leaves little room for real, complex relationships to be acknowledged.

Sexy

Allow me to introduce you to Life Sexy, who steals the show. So um...there is a bear court. “Severance Court” actually. This court is presided over by three beautiful bear men (bearshonen): Life Cool, Life Beauty, and Life Sexy. It’s fantastic. Aside from being ridiculous and always a delight to watch, the bearshonen do serve a purpose. They are the only major adult male characters in Yurikuma, and when they are not in court, they serve as spectators and commentators on the main events of the story. Both their roles in and out of court seem to suggest that they represent the way a large portion of yuri media is still dictated by the male gaze.

Soundtrack

The musical score of the show tends to be subtle and whimsical to keep with the modern fantasy atmosphere. There is also a collection of key sound effects that punctuate the action: bear sirens, bells, the incoming phone calls from Bear Court, etc. Musically, the opening, “Ano Mori de Matteru” (I’ve been waiting in that forest) by Bonjour Suzuki really stands out. Both it and the ending, “Territory,” which is sung by the voice actresses of the main characters, have lyrics tailored to the story and themes of Yurikuma. However, the OP is the piece that’s really memorable here. It’s a breathy, sensual song that uses some very sexual imagery that both further comments on the idea of yuri as titillation and hints at some later plot revelations.

Characters

Because Yurikuma is a fairy tale dripping with symbolism, the characters often become symbols in and of themselves. They can represent a certain element of the representation of yuri relationships, or they embody a conflict. This means that traditional character development is not always there. Don’t get me wrong - there are some very likable and interesting characters (Lulu best kuma!) but if you are expecting slice-of-life levels of getting to know them, it’s not really there.

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Ikuhara has always focused on characters who break the mold and stand out. The three main characters of Yurikuma all struggle with standing out and not being accepted in their own sphere. As far as “special” characters go, though, I did not find Kureha to shine as brightly as Utena or Penguindrum’s Ringo or Momoka. This might be due to the show being on the short side. As a fairy tale and love story, the characters all fill their roles nicely. As stars of a character-driven show? This is not a character-driven show.

Controversy

It’s come to my attention that the show received a fair amount of backlash, much of it from female fans who thought Yurikuma was nothing more than a fanservicey, male fantasy vision of lesbian (bear girls). Fans were afraid that Ikuhara was backtracking on his previous, feminist oriented works. Another opinion I’ve encountered is that a lot of people hated and dropped this show because they thought it looked cute and were going into it hoping for a whimsical, sweet yuri show. To the first group: I don’t want to invalidate their opinions, though I disagree with them. The problem with skewering an aspect of media or society is that if you are using the same tools as said media or society, it can be hard to tell the difference between the real and the satire. I do not believe Ikuhara wanted to make a heterosexual man’s lesbian wet dream with Yurikuma Arashi; quite the opposite. But if you hate the show, it’s not my place to try and talk you out of it. To the second group: I’m sorry to say you are part of what’s being satirized...

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s not every season of anime that we get a show directed and written by the guy who most closely embodies the auteur in the medium. It’s very difficult to review an Ikuhara show without dropping his name over and over again. He just goes about things in his own, demented, wonderful way. For this, Yurikuma Arashi is my pick for smartest show of the season. It’s beautiful, it’s clever, and it’s also ultimately an inspiring and hopeful love story. If you want eye candy, brain candy, and a good dose of feels, don’t skip it.

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