While the last write-up was focused on Kunihiko Ikuhara’s specific narrative tendencies and his style of writing, it’s important to bring up that Sarazanmai has two directors. The second name is one that should be (but perhaps isn’t for a myriad of unfortunate reasons) recognizable to anyone familiar with the works of Shaft – Nobuyuki Takeuchi. If you don’t recognise that name, then you may at least recognise his surreal environmental design on Bakemonogatari, or his legendary solo effort on Penguindrum episode 9, an episode he storyboarded, directed and key-animated all on his own. The end result of this current collaboration is a show that has a distinctive aesthetic mix between Ikuhara’s preferred painterly backgrounds in the everyday locales and Takeuchi’s hyper-realistic, slightly abstracted CG environments during the otherworldly sequences. It certainly helps to gel their styles when Takeuchi is a former protege of Ikuhara’s, too.
The influence of Shaft’s lesser-known legend Tatsuya Oishi on Takeuchi is also hugely apparent. Toi’s handgun, which is rendered in an intense hyper-realism contrasting with everything else, is a visual touch that feels distinctly parallel to the otherworldly, rendered style of Kizumonogatari, and a number of graphic design title screens feel like they were ripped straight out of that film trilogy as well. The otter’s desire-extracting compound in episode 6 is the loudest, most clear comparison between the two; it leans completely into the rendering and impossible nature of the environments present in Oishi’s work, and the deciding visuals for Haruka’s fate utilise a shockingly identical format to the iconic interstitial titles of Bakemonogatari, even having a similar filtered and distorted voice over the top of it.
It’s probably no surprise that this is the case – Takeuchi was an instrumental figure in the visual development of the Monogatari franchise, after all (to the point he still gets credited despite not working on it). It’s also a pretty funny link considering the thematic parallels between Monogatari writer NisiOisiN’s favorite themes of identity, home and the nature of truth, and Ikuhara’s own recurring interest in those very same things. It’s a bit unfortunate that the messy world of anime marketing has obfuscated Takeuchi’s role in the production; Ikuhara’s a big name with a lot of clout attached, and its easier to get people watching by telling them he’s directing than it is bringing up a comparatively cult personality within the industry. In very much the same vein, the much more well-known studio MAPPA has been erroneously credited for work that Lapintrack, Ikuhara’s own studio, has been doing, so it’s more of a problem with marketing within the industry than any willful obfuscation.
Returning to the show’s themes: as the opening to every episode tells us, the ㋐ logo represents the phrase “tsunagaritai” or “I want to connect”, which would mean that the otter logo represents not desire itself, but rather a lack of wanting to connect. It’s easy to assume the two represent the opposites of love and desire prevalent throughout the show, but episode 6 throws a visual wrench into this reading: when Haruka is put in a box and shipped through the otter compound, we see that his box is adorned with a different logo to all the other boxes, one of a person huddled inside their box surrounded by a pink heart (it’s even facing in the opposite direction), and he subsequently gets rejected by the desire-obsessed system. As I mentioned last time, Ikuhara is incredibly fond of the box-stuffing metaphor, and the particular focus in Sarazanmai is on the systematic process of commodifying desires, isolating individuals and forcing people to collectively give up on their feeling of wanting to connect.
It’s revealed in episode 7 that the otter compound is powered by some sort of dark entity that escaped from Keppi – very literally called “Dark Keppi” – and the giant planetoid-like construction that converts humans into kappa zombies is some sort of vessel for this d-d-d-darkness. As it turns out, the reason both Keppi and the otter-cops have been performing Desire Extractions is because they are literally the same process performed by two sides of the same being. When Haruka gets rejected by the machine his box is bounced back by a materialisation of the kappa dish / headpiece, signifying it’s likely that not only is it Dark Keppi making the love-or-desire decision, but the standards of the kappa kingdom itself.
In this vein, it appears that regular, non-d-d-d-dark Keppi isn’t as friendly as he appears, either – when the group thinks that Haruka’s been swallowed by the machine, Keppi offers to “transplant” Kazuki’s shirikodama to replace Haruka’s, noting that in losing one’s shirikodama a person is “kicked out of the circle that makes up the world” and ceases to exist. Of course, this means that the trio has been erasing (or rather, excluding) people from society at the behest of Keppi himself. As he obliges with Kazuki’s request, he simply lowers Kazuki down into the mechanism that we just saw Haruka fall into. We also get some hints to his intentions with his relationship with Azuma Sara, the Greek chorus of the show who also acts as a voice for authority, in particular the police – she routinely tells the world that “the more [thing you desire] you have, the happier you’ll be!”, echoing the actions of the kappa zombies every week.
The sarazanmai itself is offhandedly compared to a war, specifically one between the kappas and otters where they were “fighting over the desire energy of the shirikodama”, but as I’ve shown above, this conflict seems like it’s fueled by almost identical ideologies. The prominence of box imagery in the show has had two distinct aesthetics – the production line of otter-heart boxes and the Kappazon boxes that constantly inhabit the background (kappa are also associated with the ㋐ logo); rather than two nations at war, the otter-kappa war seems like one between corporations, vying for a monopoly over the area. The kappas that previously ran the show providing commodities are being pushed out by the greedier, more aggressive and more manipulative otters, but it’s important to remember that otters and kappas are often considered part of the same life-cycle of mythical creature in Japanese folklore, and that the kappa aren’t the totally innocent neutral party that Keppi wants us to believe.
Which is how we finally reach the Hope Dishes, Keppi’s magical macguffin that can supposedly grant any wish. In a slightly mean and hilarious joke, the first time we see one it’s a golden dish that Enta accidentally wastes on the world’s biggest kappamaki roll, and the second time it’s a silver dish that they require five of to complete the same task, as if Keppi is a merchant of wishes in a particularly cruel video game. In exchange for helping him “assimilate desires” he’s enticing the three boys with the promise that he can magically solve their problems for them, one at a time. If the otters are selling raw desire by boxing people up and shipping them off desires and all, then Kappazon’s strategy is to obtain desire by instilling hope through commodities – the hope that someone will love you back, or be protected, or accept you, desires that can never be fulfilled because there is no end state for them.
Despite the fact that the boys ditch their individual Kappazon boxes in episode 7 and seemingly manage to escape their dead-end desires, all that’s happened is that they’ve shifted the desired commodity from their personal ones to the Hope Dishes – when the dishes crop back up in the next episode they’re inside one of the Kappazon boxes. Keppi has essentially sold the boys the promise that trusting the Dishes to solve their problems is the way forward – which ends up being their downfall. By not confronting their problems and hoping that a third party will magically take care of them, their problems escalate to a breaking point, and by the end of episode 8 every single wish that they were banking on making is too late; Toi has left town, Kazuki hates Enta and Enta is, uh… probably dead?
A recurring ending in Ikuhara’s writing is a character altering their own fate by destroying their self – not as in “killing” themselves as society would do to them, but rather completely altering their existence and giving up their pride. Kazuki’s decision to transfer his shirikodama feels specifically like a callback to very similar events in Penguindrum, where main character Kanba spent much of the first half trying to give his sister Himari parts of his fate in an attempt to prolong her life (something also represented by a circular object inside someone’s body). Hand in hand with this is a reluctance to alter one’s self, and characters trying to change other people to achieve the same outcome. Yuri Kuma Arashi‘s Kureha, for example, believed that Ginko tried to wish herself into a human to escape discrimination, giving up love in the process, until the final episode in which it’s revealed that she committed an act of ‘selfish love’ and wished for that change herself. This sort of behaviour is all over Sarazanmai‘s plot – Kazuki lying to Haruka to try and forge a connection as someone else, Enta wishing Kazuki would return to his former self, Reo’s similar desire for Mabu’s condition, and so on. Of the main cast, Toi is the odd one out – he’s willing to give up everything for the connection with his brother Chikai, even his connections with others, despite the fact that Chikai seems completely indifferent about his sacrifices.
If the three boys are going to ever truly connect then the only solution is to reject not only their selfish desires, but also the idea that commodities can ever solve their problems for them. In imagining their relationships via commodities they alienate themselves from each other just as they’re trying to connect, and subsequently the real connections they have remain invisible to them. As Toi puts it, “people realise they were connected when they no longer are”. Society, in its overwhelming influence, teaches people to think and feel and love through commodities, obscuring true social relations between layers and layers of Capitalism and branding and money.
The only way out is by smashing the Hope Dishes.