Sarazanmai just kicked off and it is 1000% Ikuhara from the start and shows no signs of stopping. At this point you can pick out some of the major themes he is going to examine and guess and some others but betting on details specifics is a fool’s wager. Heck, even after an Ikuhara show has finished fans will be debating points about it until the end of time. I myself have watched the first episode of Sarazanmai three times in an attempt to try to find some of the obvious threads to pay attention to as well as hopefully catch some of the more subtle paths as well. I did notice something I was not excepting that gave me a new insight into Ikuhara as a storyteller.
Back in 2014 Kate and I did a panel on The Visual Stylings of Kunihiko Ikuhara. Ikuhara’s filmography might be rather small but his shows are dense enough that you have to put some restraints on what you talk about if you want anything more than an extremely cursory look. Since Ikuhara has such a striking and unique visual style we focused on his optical themes for the panel. But he also has a wide array of narrative tools in his directorial belt that is just as impressive. Ikuhara is a master of controlling information in his shows so that twists and turns have the maximum impact without feeling like they came out of nowhere. There is an interview with Kinoko Nasu of Type-Moon where he discusses how much of a gut punch the last moments of “The Prince Who Runs Through the Night” was in Utena. After watching the first episode of Sarazanmai I realized one of the fundamental narrative techniques he uses to have an audience get that same mind-blowing moment. The intro is never the beginning.
What I mean by this is simple. All of his narratives have three layers of truth each with its own beginning. There is the initial layer of truth that the main characters know and revolves around the place where the protagonists think the story starts. The audience, on the other hand, knows fairly early on that the main characters are mistaken and there is more to their story then they realize. The audience exists on a greater level of truth and is merely waiting for the characters to catch up. You are waiting for them to see the real starting point of their story and the revelations that come with that truth. But by the end of any Ikuhara story, a third layer appears. There is actually a greater social mechanism behind the story with its own starting point and revelations. In a way, Ikuhara is waiting on that third layer for the audience to catch up in the same way you were waiting for the characters in the show.
This also gives Ikuhara a bit of layering to the reveals. Since then the second layer tends to be more narrative based then the reveals contained within can be more narrative based as well. Since the third layer is theme based all of it can tend to have a thematic emphasis as well. In a well constructed show the themes reinforce the narrative and vice versa so realistically all the layers are supporting each other in a dynamic manner so nothing is really isolated in any level or needs to be on any particular level to work it just sometimes helps as a possible but hardly ironclad sorting mechanism.
The prime example is Mawaru Penguindrum. At first, the Takakura siblings think that their story started when Himari died and was revived by the Penguindrum. It is fairly clear to the audience that there is more going on with Princess of the Crystal that they know. Eventually, the Takakura siblings remember that their relationships go back to their time in the care of the Kiga Group and all the secrets contained within. Their story began when they first shared that Fruit of Fate long ago. But eventually, the audience is made aware that the Kiga Group, the Child Broiler, and the Fruit of Fate are all parts of a story of this greater war between Sanetoshi and Momoka. The real story started when Sanetoshi decided to start his terrorist organization.
Utena does the same thing. At first, Utena thinks that her story beings with her participation in the duels and her getting a ring from a Prince. The audience is quickly shown that maybe Utena’s recollection of meeting the Prince isn’t exactly how she remembers. When she finally learns the truth she understands that nature of the duels and her relationship with the Prince and Anthy is very different. Her story began when she climbed into the coffin not when she got the rose signet ring. But of course, the audience gets the same shock when discovering that these duels are part of a larger story that has played out many times. The truth of the nature of Akio and Anthy is a layer of shocking secrets even to the audience. The real story started when the Prince became Akio.
Yurikuma Arashi shows the pattern for the third time. Kureha starts the story thinking everything begins with her friend Sumika being eaten by a bear. But the audience knows that her real story revolves around the death of her mother. The audience is waiting for Kureha to connect these stories together. But eventually, the story really starts even before the destruction of Kumaria and the creation of the Wall of Severance. It is truly a tale of society’s judgment and harmful constructs.
Sarazanmai continues the trend. Surely Kazuki thinks his tale began when he accidentally smashed the kappa statue but the audience knows the truth. They know he had already been hit by that otter sign before then. What that means and what is the greater level that Ikuhara is waiting on have yet to be revealed. You can make some educated guesses from the first episode but only time will tell the whole story. I think we can all agree that this is another case of the intro is never the beginning.
I don’t think this is some amazing revelation to English, film, or theater students. It is all fairly basic if somewhat complex narrative construction. I have not deciphered some secret code. What I hope I have done is shown some of the people who read the blog a tool that Kunihiko Ikuhara likes to use. That, in turn, might act as a tool to help you decipher Ikuhara dense storytelling into something a little easier to handle.