(It was harder for me to figure out and articulate my thoughts for this article compared to my Code Geass piece, so it may be a messier read)
Sarazanmai was initially one of my favourite Spring 2019 anime. It was an original and quirky experience, not to mention utterly (otterly?) audacious and wild with its shirikodama extraction scenes. Even then however, I had the feeling that eventually, there might be a barrier between the show and me.
Ultimately, I don’t think that Sarazanmai is a bad show, but I do think that having only 11 episodes – about half of which were largely episodic – was inadequate for a story about connections. Yes, there’s a lot to analyze within these 11 episodes, and while I won’t be doing that, I believe that doing so will be a very interesting exercise. But I’m not satisfied by the idea of understanding the value of connections through analysis; I want to understand it by feeling its importance.
To me, Sarazanmai does enough to deliver a fairly solid and neatly wrapped package. It lets us understand the characters’ motivations, problems, and backstory, and resolve its plot threads. But while the characters were gaining understanding about connections, I did not feel impacted by that message. I was even struggling to pay attention to the show and its messages at times because of the disconnection I felt towards the delivery of those messages.
I saw a tweet which compared the show to cliff notes, and it helped me to understand one of the issues I had with the show. The key elements required to tell its story were there, but it felt like I was missing out on additional material that would’ve enhanced it. It feels like Sarazanmai hits its required story beats, fleshes things out just enough, then moves on. It’s enough for a serviceable meal, but not a truly satisfying and filling one.
In contrast, Mawaru Penguindrum, another of director Ikuhara’s works, has 24 episodes. That amount of time allowed me to connect with the characters and story better. The connections between the characters in that show actually feel more meaningful to me than Sarazanmai’s. The longer length also allowed the theme of destiny and the tragic aspects of the show to hit harder due to the lead-up. On the other hand, I could not connect as well with the more recent Yurikuma Arashi, which had only 12 episodes.
Not just about length
Aside from length, I suspect that Sarazanmai’s upfront approach to its themes, compared to Penguindrum and Yurikuma, may be another culprit. Sarazanmai is more accessible as a result, but it did feel like the show was frequently reminding me of its themes compared to Penguindrum and Yurikuma. Seriously, the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Sarazanmai is “connections”. Not the importance of connections, but simply that it’s about connections. With the other two titles, I remember other aspects like the story and characters before thinking of the theme and how it all connects. Sarazanmai isn’t obnoxiously heavy-handed, but it doesn’t feel quite as natural as Penguindrum and Yurikuma. My memories of the latter two are admittedly far from fresh, but a quick rewatch of several of their scenes supported this feeling.
There is also the matter of tone, and this is probably the biggest reason for me. I couldn’t connect very well with Yurikuma, but its stylized presentation and setting still left me with a positive impression. Penguindrum was more similar to Sarazanmai, as it also combined a grounded setting (albeit with Ikuhara’s expected idiosyncrasies) with weird and wacky elements, like the scene in the video below. But while Penguindrum’s comedy and musical sequences might seem at odds with the tragic parts of the show on paper, all the parts fitted naturally in practice.
Sarazanmai’s stylized ordinary was paired with sequences far zanier than Penguindrum’s – some of its musical scenes made the latter’s seem tame by comparison – and drama. These elements also felt natural together, even when the show’s second half developed a heavier tone and ditched the monster-of-the-week format for more serial proceedings. Even so, I had some issues with that shift. Although it wasn’t abrupt or anything, it felt more like a necessity to move and complete the story within 11 episodes to me rather than being a wholly natural transition. It did not feel entirely earned. As a result, I started to feel disconnected due to the tone, and it didn’t help that this coincided with my issue with the story and length.
Are we meant to connect?
I previously said that analyzing Sarazanmai would be interesting, and I sometimes feel that it was made to be analyzed over being enjoyed as a show. While the theme is clear, it has to be figured out how the show uses its symbolism and visuals to convey it. There’s a lot of speculation and thinking that can be done regarding the characters’ actions and behaviour (although this can sometimes veer towards overthinking).
In addition, I remember stumbling across an article (that I’m having trouble finding now) that likened Sarazanmai (or possibly some another anime) to a play. Another article from Ani no Miyako explains that Ikuhara was enthusiastic about theatre, and that it translated to a “stage play-like presentation” in his works. I was not able to make that stage play connection, but Yurikuma and Penguindrum certainly made it clear that their presentation was not like most anime. It would make sense for Sarazanmai to also have theatre influences.
My memory of the first article is pretty fuzzy, but it left me with the takeaway that the disconnect I felt from Sarazanmai is intentional. Hence, I decided to ask my friend who’s studying theatre on whether there is such a disconnect between the audience and the stage in real life. According to her, there are some playwrights who alienate or make the audience feel disconnected on purpose so as to be “intellectually challenging”, while others aim for more immersive and naturalistic approaches. However, most stage plays nowadays combine both approaches.
Sarazanmai, although more accessible, may have made me felt the disconnect intentionally as encouraging me to analyze and challenge my mind – rather than reaching my heart – was its goal. Even if I accept that theory however, I doubt that my disconnection can be entirely attributed to it. I believe that while there may have been scenes where I was supposed to step back and analyze, while others were meant to immerse but couldn’t due to the length and tonal issues that I perceived. Besides, Penguindrum and even Yurikuma (thanks to its final scene) were able to have some emotional impact on me despite their idiosyncrasies. It thus doesn’t feel right to assume that Sarazanmai was intentionally meant to be purely analytical.
Of course, this is all just my subjective view. I’ve seen opinions that were similar in some ways to my own, but there were also many viewers that were able to be emotionally affected by the show. Sadly, I wasn’t one of those who were able to connect to the anime about connections.