By now, we're settling into the winter season. We've all probably picked our personal favorites so far, but things are still just winding up. My hype show right now is definitely the one and only Yuri Kuma Arashi. And the best way to spend the time waiting for the next episode? Overanalyzing what we've seen! With any show directed by the singular Ikuhara Kunihiko, there is a lot to wade through. Since Revolutionary Girl Utena, it's clear the director is fascinated by the dynamics of yuri relationships. Winter 2015's Yuri Kuma Arashi is Ikuhara's most explicit outing to date. There has already been a good share of criticism towards the show and the director for using too much fanservice or even fetishizing lesbian relationships. I will say outright that I disagree with the first complaint, and while I agree there is some fetishization happening, it isn't in the way the show's detractors are implying.
The "fanservice" in the show is almost all in the form of romantic or sexual scenes between characters. Instead of it coming across like this risque content was made to pander to us, the viewers, the direction of Yuri Kuma Arashi makes it feel like we're observing or perhaps intruding on intimate situations. Most of these scenes also happen within the confines of Arashigaoka (perhaps a reference to 嵐が丘, the Japanese title of an adaption ofWuthering Heights) Academy. The imposing walls of a highschool are a familiar setting in anime. School is often used a symbol for societal structure and rigidity. The all-girls' school world of Yuri Kuma Arashi, however, is probably inspired by Taisho era culture. The "fetishizing," to me, is that of this culture and tropes that arose from it.
The Taisho era (1912 - 1926) was marked by liberalism and a focus on more democratic government. Japan's interest in Western goods and culture was still growing rapidly. One big change in the Taisho era was that daughters or middle class or wealthier families has new opportunities in education and leisure. Well to do families could send their children to private girls' schools to both protect them and refine them. If this concept sounds familiar to you from anime, that's because the first season of Psycho-pass made a reference to Taisho girl's school traditions in one arc. For the first time in Japanese history, there was a sense of a separate "culture" for young girls, aka shoujo culture. The demographic of young women was up to this point looked over, but in this era there was a surge of products and media specifically geared to school-aged girls.
The rather closed-in world of the all girls school inspired shoujo authors like Nobuko Yoshiya to write stories of romantic, same-sex relationships between female students, like in her most famous work, Hanamonogatari. "Girl's love" literature in this time was usually not explicitly sexual, but very much passionate. From an excerpt of contemporary author Takemoto Novala's Mishin, in which the protagonist is fascinated by the intense relationships in Hanamonogatari:
[In the Taishō Period], boys went to boys' schools and girls went to girls'.
And then, just as now, a girl's desire at some point began to bloom, sometimes
even taking over her whole life. !ese schoolgirls had only other girls
to use as objects for these desires. Younger students fell in love with more
mature upperclasswomen, while these upperclasswomen would make eyes
at their cute young counterparts. And of course, sometimes schoolgirls
the same age would fall in love. Thee love such girls shared is called "S." If I
were to use contemporary language, I guess I'd have to call them lesbians.
But I think there's a big difference between "S" feelings and lesbianism...One needs fantasies to sustain love.
The relationships so far in Yuri Kuma Arashi definitely fit this mold. The relationship between main character Tsubaki Kureha and her classmate, Izumino Sumika, is beyond simply friendship but never explicitly sexual. Their love is alluded to mostly through the symbolism of blooming flowers. The lillies (and some subtitles translate "yuri" to "lily" double meaning whaaat) the girls tend to are the "fantasies to sustain love." The word "friend" is often used by characters at the school interchangeably with this love relationship.
By the third episode, there are also themes of exclusion and price of not fitting in coming out more strongly. The "yuri" culture of the school seems to thrive, like in Taisho literature, on being unspoken. Characters who do not remain "invisible" like Kureha and Sumika are threatened with being ostracized or otherwise punished. The threat of "bears" hands over the school seemingly as a warning against non-conformity. The bears, at least our beartagonists (sorry) Ginko and Lulu, don't play by the rules of human society. Like Kureha, they are passionate and refuse to "back down on love." I can't say for certain at this point, but the two main bears seem to be leading Kureha to a realization that she can break the mold, a la Utena. Not backing down on love, not being invisible, certainly seems to be Yuri Kuma Arashi's version of "the power to bring world revolution."