Act 1 – A Proposition
There’s a school of screen-writing that posits that, since you’ve only got a couple hours or so, there is no time for subtlety and it should just be done away with entirely. The classic example is the Broadway Musical- characters wear their heart on their sleeves and sing out their epiphanies and observations, and major dramatic shifts are accompanied by large musical numbers and snazzy dancing.
Act 2 – Style
Now, YKA is not a musical, but Ikuhara’s affectations for the stage are very well known and pretty obvious. That affectation is what gives YKA its best attribute: its sheer, unapologetic style. The direction is impeccable- the camera is always where it would make the most thematic impact, visual metaphor is liberally applied until it becomes integrated into the very fabric of the shows story (I mean, seriously, Severance Court?), scene transitions move with the fluidity of theatre, repetition as a story-telling tool is repeatedly used; the list goes on. That’s the first thing a viewer should be aware of- anime is a visual medium, and Ikuhara’s style is overwhelmingly and unabashedly visual.
But, now here’s where things get tricky. Because film (of which anime is a part of) isn’t a completely visual experience, the same way say a painting is. There’s a storytelling component to it, and unless you’re filming straight up pornography half-assing the story just isn’t gonna cut it.
Act 3 – Comparisons of the Unfair Variety
As a viewer, after viewing the entire show right up to its ending- I got a case of the mild warm fuzzies. This is distressing, since the last Ikuhara show I saw (Mawaru Penguindrum) resulted in complete and utter devastation and near termination of the ego (a.k.a. Why I Keep Putting Off Watching Utena). There is this huuuuuuge disconnect between the emotional impact of the two shows, and maybe it is completely unfair to compare YKA to Penguindrum (for reasons I’ll get to later), but it is an understandable immediate response- both shows were made by the same man, after all.
Spoiler alert: it’s the characters. Out of its narrative elements, YKA is really well-plotted (almost infuriatingly so) to reveal just enough information to assuage viewer expectation, while still yet dangling several more morsels just tantalizing out of reach for the duration of the running time, before (I would honestly say) mostly resolving the important plot threads in a satisfactory manner. The themes are cogent and logical, if a bit too on-the-nose (the same way a textbook being used to bludgeon you in the face is on-the-nose), but that ties back into that theatrical style- no time for subtlety, the bears are lesbians- and I wouldn’t begrudge Ikuhara his visual metaphors. Who else would we get animation of people running up stairs from? (Anno? We’d just get stuck in a lift.)
But the characters… Again, the unfair comparisons, but in Penguindrum by the end of the show I had grown attached and completely sympathetic to almost all the characters- who, if I might remind you, included: a terrorist, someone who almost attempted rape and someone who routinely dressed up in a sexy penguin costume (possibly the most heinous of them all- nevermind Literal Satan sitting in the passenger car over). By the end of YKA, I had a vague idea of who the two protagonists were as characters, and the supporting cast member who was most endearing was dead. I mean, sure, we spend a lot (A LOT) of time with Kureha- running down the street, running up stairs, on the rooftop as she (seemingly endlessly) repeats the character beats of “I hate bears, they killed my Mom and best (REALLY BEST) friend” to “Y’know, the more I question my surrounding social environment the more I realize that maybe bears aren’t so bad after all and I should be more conscious of the
patriarchy Invisible Storm who want me to think that bears are bad in order to enforce a certain social order” to “NO BEARS ARE THE WORST DIEDIEDIEDIE!!!” while she alternates between staring longingly at her mothers music box and popping caps into target bears in the rifle range in her basement.
You see, we’re told all this, but very rarely are we shown. Even when Ikuhara wants to show us, say, Kureha’s love for Sumika- about how their relationship developed from their apparent mutual love of lilies and hair clips- it’s surrounded by so much visual and narrative junk (flashbacks, metaphor, screen-transition, bordered slide cut, asynchronous storytelling, etc. etc.) that the actual action of them trying to save the lilies from the storm (reeeeeeeaaaal subtle, there, Ikuhara) appears almost as a footnote!
And the most frustrating thing, is that all that junk, that style, really isn’t the problem.
Act 4 – In Which The Reviewer Hopefully Demonstrates Style with Substance; or Honey Ginger Milk
Here, take this example: Honey Ginger milk. Ep 7, starting at about runtime 18.40 to 20.15 is this lovely little scene where Lulu is making honey ginger milk for Ginko, and then Kureha walks into the kitchen and is reminded of a friend she used to drink honey ginger milk with as a kid. There is this long shot with an on-screen transition to a flashback in the background while Kureha stands still, and then Lulu asks why Kureha was spacing out after the flashback is over. Kureha explains why, and emphasis is placed on their reactions as characters to this new piece of information- Lulu’s unbridled enthusiasm that Ginko’s relationship is developing in the direction they wanted, Kureha’s quiet smile at the nostalgia. Lulu explains why she was making honey ginger milk- it’s Ginko’s “Love flavour” (which was a conversation the show had earlier) then prances out of the room as she sheepishly admits that she forgot the honey. And the scene ends.
And it’s a really, really good scene. It works on so many levels- on the surface, it reveals character while advancing the plot. It works towards keeping the audience still grounded in the moment with the “You were spacing out” line, which is a nice bit of visual continuity, and the whole scene is visually interesting. Reading a little deeper, the scene is about nostalgia as a basis for shared experiences. And a bit deeper than that (and admittedly, this is just my reading and there are other, probably more valid readings)- a bit of foreshadowing, as Lulu has basically prepared everything except for the honey to make things complete- if we use the “honey = love” metaphor from Ep 4 (Lulu’s episode) then Lulu has basically prepared everything except for the actual love to make things complete, and putting that together: the shared experiences could be the basis for love, but it isn’t complete without the actual love. BAM! Ikuhara home run, visual and narrative metaphor in the service to good storytelling! And all that from a sequence that’s only 2 minutes long!
Back to the unfair comparisons- you know why I like Penguindrum more than YKA? Penguindrum had more moments like that.
And now we get to why these comparisons that I’ve been using as a crutch instead of directly addressing the show’s shortcomings are unfair.
YKA has 13 episodes. Penguindrum had 24. Of course Penguindrum would have more moments like that. It had twice the run-time.
It’s not fair.
Act 5 – The Tragedy of the Lack of Time
And now, to finally address the issue after multiple circuitous and torturous detours (much like the show, actually)- YKA simply doesn’t have enough time to indulge in all of Ikuhara’s stylistic eccentricities without sacrificing something. When you spend all your runtime to service all that fabulous max, unrelenting style (all the staircases and social media exclusion lists and transformation sequences and Courts and lily licking), there simply isn’t the time to get to the substance of it all. And it’s not like the substance isn’t there! The themes and issues explored in the show are relevant and important and interesting, and Ikuhara has proven time and again that he can tackle relevant and important and interesting things.
And that’s the tragedy of YKA. It’s tightly written. The themes and metaphors, despite all the over-the-top bombast of their deliverance, are sound. Even the characters have complete character arcs and more-or-less good characterization- they all have inner conflicts and motivations and all that stuff that goes into rounded characters- but they never move beyond feeling like actresses acting out roles in a stage play.
The crux of it is this- even if we can’t decode a story’s metaphors or themes on our own, good characterization can help us understand those things just by dint of the characters trying to make sense of the situation they are in. I may not understand why there’s a Severance Court prosecuting a bunch of lesbian bears, but if it’s prosecuting characters I like I would start to care, and start to think about what that all means. But if all we see is a character running down a road or up a flight of stairs over and over and over again- well, the only thing I’ll know about the character is that she’s a good runner, and I’m not sure if that’s enough to make me like her, and it’s definitely not enough to get me to think about why she is always running.
This of course begs the question, though: would this be an Ikuhara show if we stripped out all that fabulous max style, if we removed everything that makes an Ikuhara show distinct and unique, even if it’s for the greater good of, well, good storytelling? I’m not sure if there’s an easy answer there- maybe you just can’t fit Ikuhara’s style into 13 half hour episodes and this was the best he could do in those limitations- which, I suppose, would absolve some of the show’s failings.
But… I would honestly have liked to have seen the 18-20 episode version of YKA, instead of the one we got. Maybe it would have had more time for honey ginger milk.