“I Want to Connect, so Sarazanmai”
As one of the first shows to end in this Spring season, Sarazanmai has a head-start in wrapping up its story with an open yet cohesive ending. Although their conflicts with the Otter Kingdom are resolved by the end of the episode, it leaves us on a high note because it openly calls into question whether the future will be smooth sailing when all is said and done.
Kuji’s wavering emotional state acts as the last obstacle within Sarazanmai as Kazuki and Enta fight to prevent him from erasing his entire existence and get rid of the pain of what he’s lost. Even if Kuji had killed the Otter version of his brother and aimed to continue killing through each of his memories, the concentrated efforts of Kazuki and Enta pushed the three of them into a cycle of their memories as they face through all of the good and bad times they shared with Kuji that were about to get erased. From here, an emotional recoil occurs when Kuji decides that he won’t stand for the idea of losing any more of his connections beginning with his memories of his new friends. Juvenile hall might have been waiting for Kuji once he resurfaced, but despair tempting him to hit the brink is thwarted once again when Kazuki and Enta save him from drowning himself in the river.
The climactic moments that tie the anime together such as resurrecting Reo and Mabu to fight back or bringing the trio together for one more mission to restore their memories beginning with the micanga that Kazuki received as a kid may be special. However, what gives this episode so much more value is that the story was never meant to be all sugar and rainbows when they return to their daily lives together. In fact, the send-off that the kappa people give to the three boys are memories of a possible future where the happiness they have from being together is counter-balanced by the heartbreak, tears, anger, fights, and pain that they may eventually face. Even if it serves as a warning to constantly nurture your connections so that you may never have to cross these bridges, some despair in life is unavoidable. There is no silver bullet to making the pain we experience in the future to go away as we live happily ever after with a soul mate or an undying friendship. You may face adversity. You may make your loved ones cry and they might make you cry. Your idols may erode before your very eyes. Those closest to you will eventually part by either going our separate ways or through our last gasps of air. But even through all of this despair, all of this pain, all of this anguish, it’s the connections we keep to us that can help us survive through it all. We might not be able to stay in the past and sometimes we may hold onto our memories of a beloved past too hard, but the lessons we learn and the people we meet along the way all play a significant role in how we carry ourselves into the future. As we trudge forward into an uncertain, scary, and possibly bleak future, we can still find solace in the connections that we hold closest to us to empower us on our journeys into the future. Although Kuji ended up in solitary and attempted suicide, it was the connections he had with Kazuki and Enta that saved his life and brought the three back together in the end. Throwing away our connections robs us of our experiences and obsessing over our only good memories distracts us from the most meaningful connections we already have at the moment. In spite of its more positive ending, Sarazanmai wants to leave its audience with the notion of facing the best and worst that the future has in store for you with your heart on your sleeve. As humans, we can embrace the good and the bad, but ultimately, the bonds you made along the way can be the most valuable gift the world can give us. If we keep hold of the love that others give to us, the scariest parts of the future will feel less bleak and the light they shine for us can guide us when our legs are weary and our eyes are sore. It’s a light yet poignant conclusion to a series that paints the world in every shade under the rainbow no matter how weird, how bleak, or how joyous.
Sarazanmai would easily be my choice for the anime of the season. It tells a clear and cohesive story within 11 episodes while also giving us the creativity and eccentricities that are the centerpiece of many productions from the anime’s director Ikuhara. But whereas some of his anime are either stretched out for a longer extent to draw out as much of the plot/themes as he can from a specific setting or get too over-indulgent in its symbolism that it forgets about the plot at hand, Sarazanmai shows growth on his behalf by being upfront about the anime’s narrative and explaining its numerous secrets in full detail. What helps give Sarazanmai the upper-hand is how it excels at giving the characters depth, history, and motives behind their actions.
Our main cast is far from being blank slates or vessels for symbolism as we gradually get to empathize with each of the characters in Sarazanmai. Kazuki’s guilt and persecution complex fuels his desire to sabotage himself and remain distant, but as he starts realizes how valuable his connections are with how much he risks losing, he begins to see more clarity in how he should keep his loved ones and friends closer when they would do anything to help him snap out of his funk. Kuji is initially abrasive towards Kazuki and Enta, placing higher importance on salvaging his relationship with his brother, but with the happiness he has gained by hanging out with his new friends, he finds himself conflicted on whether he should continue severing all of his bonds to chase after his brother or embrace the new attention he’s receiving from people who want to get to know him. Enta is one of the more fascinating characters to me since he regularly finds himself needing to reflect on the unhealthy obsession he has over his love for Kazuki, and makes a slow yet gradual shift from letting his desires dominate his feelings for the concept of Kazuki to genuinely caring for Kazuki as a person. Even the antagonistic rivals, Reo and Mabu, are given heart-breaking development as a couple doomed by their connection being cut short by a spirit that thrives on the concept of desire. Even though it’s an anime about kappas extracting beads from anuses to combat an army of otters and dropped weed, crossdressing, and gay love within the span of its first three episodes, Ikuhara manages to create a serious, heartfelt, and personal story using his unconventional symbolism as a means of strengthening and explaining the narrative’s themes rather than throw them in as shock factor.
But it’s most prominent theme is valuing the connections we make along the way throughout life. Drawing inspiration from the devastation of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, how we as human handle loss is prominent throughout Sarazanmai by reflecting on the value that our long-lasting connections to people, places, and possessions have in paving our futures. Although we trudge forward in life with new experiences that fill us with joy or give our lives meaning, there are also older feelings we carry with us regardless if they are emotional baggage that has yet to be sorted through or the love and desires we carry with us. Although Kazuki begins with the rift in his connections with Enta and Haruka by lamenting on the lack of connection he has with his biological mother, his friendship with Kuji and Enta that is amplified by their ordeals with Keppei helps him appreciate how much his close friends and little brother support him. Enta’s connection with Kazuki had run the risk of being constantly fractured by his self-destructive jealousy, his over-obsession with their past glories as “the Golden Duo”, and his impulsive passion for his friend, but as he realizes how Kazuki is far more important to him than just being a mere object of lust, he makes an effort to amend his behavior, care for Kazuki’s well-being, and repair his connection with him. Kuji is constantly giving up the connections and hobbies he loved to offer his older brother Chikai his loyalty, but, similarly to the Golden Duo obsession that Enta has, Kuji’s undying devotion to the wondrous times he had with his brother in the past distract him from the loss of this innocence by being dragged into Chikai’s involvement with crime. Reo constantly finds himself wishing to rely on a method to restore his connection with Mabu but doesn’t realize that his longing for how Mabu behaved in the past clouds his judgment in seeing the revived Mabu as anything more than a doll despite being the same Mabu this entire time. What makes Sarazanmai compelling is how maturely it handles the concept of loss as the episodes go from comically extracting shirikodama to giving us a character study on each member of the cast as broken souls who are fighting to salvage the connections they’ve gained and lost along the way, eventually finding themselves and coming to understand the value behind what it means to have loved and to have lost.
There were times when I watched this anime and it brought me back to some of the shows that fueled my personal investment in anime as more than just entertainment or a pastime. It shares valuable traits from Ikuhara’s Mawaru Penguindrum by having abstract, off-the-wall moments of levity and shock interspersed with bone-chilling, hard-hitting dramatic beats. It is similar to Tsuritama in the sense of weaving a message on the importance of loving what’s closest to you in this temporal world into a visually-stunning coming-of-age story about conquering your fears with the power of our bonds and self-confidence. And while this stop doesn’t take itself too far back, I’m left with the memory of watching Abenobashi and hearing the enduring phrase, “Being human, having your health. That’s what matters”. Although that anime ended on a more optimistic note by using its cautionary tale as a mere warning, it confronted the notion of escaping reality by clinging onto past and pushed to emphasize that making the world a brighter place means cherishing those around you and while also acknowledging the reality that the people and memories in your life come and go with the seasons. Apologies for bringing it into a more personal realm than a straight-up analysis, but the significance that Sarazanmai has with me because of how much it resonates with my experiences is what compels me to say that, as a cohesive and complete story, Sarazanmai is my absolute favorite anime this season. It’s too early to say if it’d be my AOTY since I really enjoyed Kaguya-sama too and there are still two more seasons to go before the year ends, but I admire the fact that this anime could create its own mythos behind its universe, express as much meaning as it could without forgetting to develop its characters, tell an original story in such an odd yet memorable way, and wrap up nicely all within the span of 11 episodes. Only time will tell if it will be brought up on end-of-the-year Best of lists, but I could definitely see why Sarazanmai would be brought up in the same conversation when we reach that point in the future.