There are sparse few anime directors working right now with a more iconic reputation than Kunihiko Ikuhara. While his works haven't always been smash hits, his unique voice as a creator and penchant for wildly abstract visuals have resulted in a diehard fandom community who are nearly always chomping at the bit for any news of his next project, ready to pick apart any scrap of info or teaser visuals to decipher just what Ikuhara might be up to next. So I'm only half joking when I say I'm about to admit to something that might get my anime critic license revoked: I didn't care all that much for Sarazanmai when it first aired back in 2019. I didn't hate it, for certain, and the early episodes were some of the most joyous viewing experience I had all year, but by the time it was concluding the sheer busyness of the series left me feeling too distant from its emotional narrative to really get invested, to the point where I put off actually watching the finale until this home video release.
Part of that comes down to just how much there is in Sarazanmai. Ikuhara has previously packed in mountains of characters, concepts, allegories, and a boatload of absurdist symbolism into a single season with Yurikuma Arashi, but even that series seemed to have more direction and clarity than the myriad ideas constantly crashing into each other in his latest work. Interpreting an Ikuhara show episode-by-episode can be like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle of a painting the artist is still creating, and that process only gets trickier with Sarazanmai's purposeful referencing of its creator's past oeuvre as thematic red herrings. Countless tweets and blogposts were spilled trying to decipher just what secret purpose Keppi and Sara might have, only for them to be pure comic relief for all but the shortest of moments in the finale. That kind of attention and speculation can be rewarding and often encouraged by the types of stories Ikuhara loves to tell, but it can also be a trap where one loses sight of the larger picture while scurrying down rabbit holes. That's certainly what happened to me upon first viewing, so I was grateful for a chance to come in with a clean plate and let Sarazanmai dish out whatever it had to say.
While the end result is still messy, and I maintain that the show is still structured in odd ways that can mildly conflict with its overall message, my second viewing of Sarazanmai proved to be a much more rewarding experience. The most compelling narrative and central mystery of the first half of the series is Kazuki's troubled relationship with his family and desperate bids to stay connected to those he loves but fears approaching honestly. In typical Ikuhara fashion, the particulars of it all play out as subtle hints and casual reveals scattered around formulaic enemy-of-the-week plotlines, but it all builds to an emotionally devastating sequence in episode 5 where it felt like just the episode title card alone punched me in the gut. For whatever foibles I might have with the show as a whole, the biggest tearjerker moments hit as hard here as they did in Penguindrum nearly a decade ago.
That's not to say the series is entirely heavy examinations of self-loathing and the mortifying ordeal of allowing oneself to be loved – in fact this is probably the lightest show Ikuhara's worked on since Sailor Moon. The expected absurdity and sight gags are present, but even the series' more weight-bearing symbolism is absolutely drenched in gross-out humor. Anyone can make a plot device about empathy and sharing secrets, but it takes a seasoned veteran to base it around a visual metaphor for anilingus. And that's not getting into the musical numbers, communicating important, even crucial details through campy, surreal show tunes that are as silly as they are catchy. Sarazanmai is ambitious not just in its message, but as an exercise in seeing just how fluid the tone of a story can be while still holding together so many layered elements. It can make for an alienating experience, going from laughing at a lovingly animated anal leakage joke to sobbing your eyes out, but if you can learn to ride that wave out, there's nothing else like it.
That ambition does start to exceed its grasp in the second half of the show. With Kazuki's arc more or less completed, the focus shifts to the violent, obscured history of tritagonist Toi and antagonists Reo and Mabu, all while fleshing out the history of the overarching conflict between Kappa and Otter-kind. That would be enough to make for a packed season on its own, let alone half of one, but the show's pattern of filling in these concepts around the edges of Kappa Zombie attacks and half-truth cliffhangers makes the delivery feel pretty rushed, and unless you're watching it all in one sitting the details can get jumbled very easily. That's a shame, because even with the stumbling blocks the final episode is a powerful message about surviving in an increasingly hopeless world, where every new day brings another needling source of anxiety or trauma until it starts to feel like your soul itself is eroding to nothing. The metaphor for suicide isn't subtle, and it fits with the amorphous nature of the Otter villain. The rodent itself says that it is merely a concept: a nebulous manifestation of the myriad ways life can wear people down, make them feel unworthy of love, or bring out their worst impulses. In a year like 2020, which I not-so-affectionately refer to as a psychic DDOS attack, Sarazanmai's themes of reforging connection in the face of tragedy rings even truer than it did just a year ago.
And that sentimental bedrock is what ultimately makes Sarazanmai work on an emotional level. Even as plot lines get tangled and explanations have to be glossed over, the empathy the series has for its cast through every moment is what I'll recall more than any ludicrously complex butt jokes or lengthy otter monologues about being a conceptual evil. I'll remember Kazuki being dragged kicking and screaming out of his self-loathing and learning to accept his family's love. I'll remember Toi's desperate, misguided attempts at independence even as he clings to his deadbeat brother's side. I'll remember Enta, the tiniest disaster gay, faceplanting his way through young love and learning ever so slowly where affection ends and obsession begins. Even in its abbreviated form I'll remember the twisted but ultimately validated romance Reo and Mabu spent their entire lives trying to regain. Sarazanmai may be less polished and refined as a narrative compared to Utena or even Yurikuma, but its characters can stand alongside Ikuhara's other flawed, engaging casts with confidence.
The English dub also plays much stronger for a repeat viewing. Ikuhara's works have had a notoriously difficult time with the transition to English, even when they don't feature multiple songs each episode, but ADR Director Tabitha Ray and Script Writer Clint Bickham handle it with aplomb. The kappa and otter numbers are as fantastically catchy as they were in Japanese, and the entire principal cast gives their all in them. Of special note is Ian Sinclair's Reo, tasked with matching up to as iconic a performer as Mamoru Miyano, who goes for it 110%, especially in the character's climactic song, but the whole cast is able to clearly and effortlessly capture the nuances of their characters. I'd also be remiss not to applaud the mountain of puns littered throughout the dub, both capturing the wordplay heavy aspect of the original script and allowing the actors to really endear themselves as they deliver them.
This blu-ray release also features a handful of special features. First is a commentary for episode 11 by Tabitha Ray and voice actors Alejandro Saab, Justin Briner, Ricco Fajardo, and Tyler Walker. The commentary itself is mostly ancillary, with the cast joking over the final episode. The other feature is a slideshow of the various Simply SARA Reports from the show proper, which are text and foreshadowing-heavy screens that go by quickly if you don't pause to read them, so their inclusion is nice. All that's left besides is the typical official trailers and Textless OP/ED. Though those last two are nothing to sneeze at as both KANA-BOON's “Massara” and The Peggies' “Stand By Me” are absolute bangers that work to punctuate key moments in the narrative.