A zombie has but one purpose – its own proliferation. In Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead they act upon their basest instincts, traveling back aimlessly to the American shopping mall at a time where it was the center of the commercial community. In Dan O’Bannon’s formative cult work Return of the Living Dead, zombies feel an insatiable urge to consume, homing in on brains as the one satisfaction they can find in life and literally devouring the centre of thought to continue their existence. It’s deliberate, then, that upon having their desire “extracted” and weaponised, characters in Sarazanmai turn into zombies, huge personifications of their (sometimes unusual, mostly sexual) desires that seek to do nothing but hoard as much of their precious thing as they can.
The two police officers (of questionable employment) at the fringes of the story of the show, Reo and Mabu, perform a weekly song-and-dance “desire extraction” where they question the week’s suspect and ask whether the thing they want is “love? Or desire?”. With their desire “wrung out”, that person is then transformed into a “kappa zombie”, a giant monster devouring as much of that which it wants atop Tokyo’s Azuma bridge. So each episode the three protagonists, Kazuki, Enta and Toi, are polymorphed into kappas and instructed to extract a shirikodama from the rampaging zombie, representing the organ of desire that fuels them in death. Notably, when the three boys’ kappa leader Keppi (perhaps…their kaptain? (end my life)) transforms them into kappas, this process is also declared as a desire extraction.
A bridge, being something that merges two land masses while also being neither, as well as its role as the pocket dimension-like “field of desire” where the kappa zombies wreak havoc (along with Greek chorus character Azuma Sara’s declaration that she “exists in the space between Taito and Minato Ward”, where the bridge exists in Tokyo) seems to imply that the zombies are trapped between two states of existence, between love and desire. The bridge offers a way to move from one to the other, but in trying to make the journey the zombies fail to “let go of their desire”, leaving them trapped desperately seeking love with no way to obtain it. As a result they become victims of their own selfish desires – the second episode’s zombie is a man who wanted to “become a cat” so a certain someone would love him, in a way where the dynamic is focused squarely on him wanting attention from someone, for example. These encounters also reflect back on the protagonists’ own desires – in this case, Kazuki is revealed to have stolen a pampered house cat in order to make their brother(?) Haruka happy, but the act itself was clearly done to benefit Kazuki’s ego more than Haruka’s happiness.
Shirikodama are often described as containing or being one’s soul in Japanese folklore, and so the soul becomes the place where intent is hidden away. Once a zombie’s shirikodama is removed they don’t immediately die, but rather the revelation once a character looks in and reveals their “embarrassing secret” is what does them in. Within the real world, outside of the realm of kappas and zombies, desires seem to be secrets in themselves, represented by boxes emblazoned with the off-brand Kappazon delivery logo. People carry their secrets around both in plain sight and where nobody can see them, showing that they have desires that they want to express and act on while also declining to reveal what exactly they are. These boxes form a significant part of the show’s background, stacked in the corner or discarded next to trash while also being a precious obscurer of secrets at the same time. The box itself isn’t actually worth anything, but what it represents for people is important.
Returning to our eccentric cop-duo, their role in the story reminds me a lot of Ikuhara’s previous directed work Yuri Kuma Arashi (something I also have tons of words to write about eventually). In that show a recurring group of characters was the Severance Court – notably three of only four men in the entire show – whose role was to judge the bears’ love and deem whether it was “Yuri Approved!” or not (asking “is your love the real thing?”). Considering our zombies of the week are introduced every episode being interrogated inside Reo and Mabu’s “Otter Koban“, it seems that the zombies are having their desires similarly judged by the cop duo.
In their weekly dance we also see that the cops are packing people into boxes branded with their otter-heart logo, which felt like another callback to the Child Broiler in Penguindrum – an industrial-scale effort to systematically turn unwanted children “invisible”, an elaborate, blunt metaphor not only for Japan’s failure to help children alienated by society but also for its complicity in hiding the problem’s existence. There’s also the recurring motif of people being “stuffed into boxes” through Utena, Penguindrum and Yuri Kuma Arashi (flippin’ hell Ikuhara) – in all of these it’s used to describe either people making themselves invisible by locking away their feelings and desires, or society itself boxing in and imprisoning those who step out of line, often killing them in order to do so.
Reo and Mabu’s fixation on the dichotomy of love versus desire is at the moment of writing somewhat cryptic and difficult to discern, but in the third episode we discover that they’re working for an otter empire that’s trying to attain massive amounts of this desire (and presumably the bridge is the crossing that leads to the otter’s kingdom). Otters and kappa are two beasties that are often linked to each other in Japanese folklore, otters sometimes being described either as a type of kappa or as a stage in the kappa life cycle, and both being mischievous tricksters to varying degrees. With regards to recurring imagery in Ikuhara’s work, he’s already used otters and kappas in contrast with each other during 2011’s Mawaru Penguindrum, for which I’ll link this writeup on it.
To wrap this up so I can return when the show offers us more to extract from (heh heh), Ikuhara’s anime have always been very fixated on this consistent theme of love versus desire, and what seems to be Sarazanmai‘s focus this time around is the ways in which desires are commodified for us. While the symbolism of zombies in this context has always been one quite popular with a particular, very nasty crowd of commentator eager to pin the blame on consumers, Sarazanmai does well to avoid the same pitfall by highlighting the corporate and constructed nature of the push to consume. Zombies require someone to kill them in the first place. If we box up our secrets, cling to desires and push each other away – then who’s responsible for teaching us that and providing the boxes in the first place?