“Why should a person like me have to be the one to save Tokyo?”
“Because, Mr. Katagiri, Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it’s for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo.”
– Haruki Murakami, Super Frog Saves Tokyo
If you’ve been paying attention to Japanese news then you might be familiar with the current situation surrounding Pierre Taki, the actor and musician being very literally erased from Japanese society after he was caught using small amounts of cocaine. Pretty much all of his commercial material is being pulled from sale – his role in the upcoming Sega game Judgment, for example, was hurriedly pulled from sale and recast despite the game being newly released, his work under musical duo Denki Groove has been yanked from streaming platforms and shelves, and TV shows and movies he appeared in are either being recast or cancelled entirely. It’s incredibly common for Japanese celebrities caught in drug possession cases to suffer this sort of social punishment and have to work their way back up from nothing, and many simply move on and leave their industry altogether.
What’s somewhat unique about Pierre Taki’s case, however, is that rather than having to go through a long process of rehabilitating his image years after the fact (like some have been lucky enough to be able to do), there are many who are simply refusing to let him be erased. His long-time collaborator in Denki Groove, Takkyu Ishino, has been fairly vocally criticising the industry’s various attempts to erase his work partner, and the overwhelming online support for him was enough for authorities to accuse his supporters of “setting a bad example to youth about crime”. Obviously I bring this up because it shares an interesting similarity to events in Sarazanmai – in a fantastic coincidence, Takkyu Ishino even posted parodic photos that Taki has been “erased” from, almost perfectly mirroring the way in which the show portrays those who are “kicked out of the circle”.
While Pierre Taki probably has nothing to do with kappas, I think a scenario like this is interesting to bring up because of the ways in which Sarazanmai views despair as the product of society itself. The pressure to conform and to give up on desire is an external, unnatural force in the otters, whose factory acts as the central antagonist in the show and whose agents appear as reflections that try to sway the thoughts of people in certain directions. Because it’s such a convincing reflection, characters will usually end up being coerced into believing that the otter was produced from them, and that the problem therefore lies completely internally. Likewise, the way in which Japan systematically erases the work of offending celebrities by cutting them out of the public eye is designed to be seen as an internal, rather than external problem. It’s only through having connections, and people willing to fight for us who are able to see the problem as external, that we can fight back against such a society.
The reflections of their own desires that characters are shown by the otters are entirely cynical interpretations of a being that believes everyone to be motivated by selfishness. Since Reo wants to connect with Mabu again, his otter reflection is a far more explicit version that assumes he’s only in it for the sex. His frustrated, jealous reaction to it reveals to us both that Reo is somewhat under the influence of this ideology, but also that he feels some self-loathing over the situation – unable to find a way to save Mabu, he perceives it as an internal problem with himself rather than one with the otters and their machinery. In a similar vein, we later see an otter try to tempt Enta by taking the form of his sexual desire for Kazuki to be in a relationship with him. Where Reo continues to look inside for an answer that doesn’t exist, Enta is the first character to escape the clutches of the otters – declaring “I want to be connected with Kazuki the way we always have!” and smashing a Hope Dish on the ground.
The dish situated on top of a kappa’s head is often referred to as the source of its power, usually holding water while the creature is landbound, and if the dish were to ever break or dry out then it could possibly die as a result. The show echoes this piece of mythology throughout – during Enta’s slowly approaching death, for example, the dish on his head transforms into a timer counting down the seconds until he croaks. Similarly, when Kazuki alienates Toi with his Hope Dish wish to save Enta, the cosplay headpiece that Kazuki had been using to disguise himself as Sara (and which represents his romantic bond with Toi) is shattered. The dish, therefore, could be seen as ‘the desire to connect’ itself – so long as people continue to want to connect to each other they have to balance this delicate object on their head constantly, always in danger of breaking it and their connections. This is even reflected during the Sarazanmai dance, when a signal logo that appears on it marks the start of an attempt to connect. In contrast the Hope Dishes, which are highly sought after by characters looking to solve their connection problems, can’t hurt anyone when broken since they have no relation to anyone’s body and are infinitely reproducible. However, much like the Kappazon boxes, the Hope Dishes can only externally express the existence of a desire, not the desire itself, and as such without being able to contain those desires they’re incapable of actually connecting them together.
Despite what Keppi told us before, the Sarazanmai doesn’t actually erase anyone from society – rather, the kappa zombies, having decided that they can never connect to anyone, erase themselves from society by severing their despair. This is almost exactly what Keppi had done to himself by separating from Dark Keppi once the otters took over. Both the otters and the kappa operate on identical ideologies, amassing desire energy by separating it from its host in order to perpetuate the system, but in the last few episodes we get to see some of Keppi’s motivation for this. In assimilating the desires of the zombies, Keppi hopes that he can “connect [their] desire to the future” by transforming it into a Hope Dish, continuing his own small cycle of perpetuating characters’ dependence on them in the process. Keppi is so bought into the system as one of its former leaders that he can’t envision one existing without the oppression of others, and it’s in this vein that he reframes the Sarazanmai into a conflict rather than the simple act of connecting.
As the characters who had been perpetuating the cycle of dragging out people’s despair and then erasing them from the world, it’s clear that Reo and Mabu had only been performing their duty in the hopes that they could themselves avoid such a fate. Unable and unwilling to connect with each other, and hurting each other in the process by refusing to do so, it’s an utterly cruel and pointless cycle that only serves to maintain the status quo through abject misery. They’re both aware that they’re being exploited by the otters, and also aware that there’s nothing they can do about it – the hole they’ve dug for themselves is too deep to ever climb out of. With the death of Mabu (as he rejects the otters’ grand design through death) and Reo now having to confront the idea of a future without Mabu in it, Reo suddenly realises that they had only guaranteed this fate by playing along, asking himself “who was I pissed off at?” as he’s shot by Toi.
With the death of the cops, the problem now is that Toi himself is the one perpetuating the system. Where the otter cops presented the kids with a miserable future perpetuated by adults desperate for things to stay the same forever, Toi is the end product of this system, destined to grow up and continue the cycle forever if he can’t learn from their mistake. Much like with Reo, the loss of his brother Chikai and the connection that he had invested his whole life into leaves Toi with an uncertain future ahead of him, and his inability to imagine a positive future as well as the painful memories of his past leave Toi to seek a solution that severs him from ever having to make connections. Once Kazuki spends their wish on saving Enta and ends Toi’s hopes of keeping everything the same forever, he starts acting on his plan.
With all the focus on Neon Genesis Evangelion recently, it’s somewhat appropriate that Sarazanmai would conclude in a fashion incredibly reminiscent of the infamous Human Instrumentality Project episodes, even touching on some very similar thematic veins. Much like Evangelion‘s SEELE or even Space Runaway Ideon‘s judgemental Ide, Dark Keppi perceives human individuality itself as the cause for despair in the world, the walls that define the person and box them in as both inescapable and impenetrable. By making connections we can only cause ourselves pain, whether it be immediate or inevitable – therefore, according to this being of pure despair, the only answer is to leave “the circle that makes up the world”, to reject all connections and live as Nothing, never connecting to anyone and therefore never being hurt.
Even when Kazuki and Enta prevent Toi from erasing himself and reaffirm their connection, the system itself (in the form of Dark Keppi) intervenes to make sure that the job is done, even dragging the other two in with Toi. Back in the last episode we saw Mabu pulled out of the erasure mechanism, a charm with his name slipping into Reo’s pocket. While it’s somewhat ambiguous, the implication (especially once Keppi turns Reo into a charm and the two interlock) is that Mabu couldn’t be erased completely because Reo still wanted that connection. Toi unknowingly completed Mabu’s erasure by ‘killing’ Reo, and Dark Keppi does the same for him by erasing the two people who refuse to give up their connection to him, continuing the cycle.
If the aim of the current social system is to “box up” the people in it (as it is in all of Ikuhara’s anime) then in order to maintain the illusion that these boxes cannot be escaped, those who are outside of them – or even dream of an outside – need to be removed. For me, boxes are a clear representation of the phenomenon of alienation, the ways in which the world is presented to us as isolating and lonely through the privatization of objects that we create and yet have no control over. Capitalism frequently makes itself seem like a natural force that we can’t escape the grasp of. Within the erasure mechanism, our protagonists reflect on what their connections mean to them and how their lives have changed, repeating the same lines: “I used to want to go somewhere that wasn’t here”, “part of me must have been waiting”. Through their connections they see the cracks in this presentation of Capitalism as a natural force, and they realise that they had been looking for a connection to save them from their despair the entire time.
I was wondering for a while why Keppi was so furiously adamant that he isn’t a frog until I realised very late that it’s likely a reference to Super Frog Saves Tokyo, an oft-referenced Haruki Murakami short story in Ikuhara’s work (most prominent in Mawaru Penguindrum). In the short story, Frog’s mortal enemy Worm is not necessarily evil but dangerous nonetheless, a being that absorbs “every little rumble and reverberation that comes his way” and then “replaces most of them with rage”. Worm could be read as the culmination of people’s societal discontent quite literally buried, eventually boiling over and destroying everything around it in a fit of anger. Within Sarazanmai, we could link the otters and their kappa zombies to having a similar purpose to Worm, the interiorised discontent and negative feelings reaching a breaking point and explosively wreaking havoc.
Frog frequently brings up the struggle with the interior, at one point saying that “I am, indeed, pure Frog, but at the same time I am a thing that stands for a world of un-Frog.” The protagonist, Mr. Katagiri, sees himself as expendable and with nothing anchoring him to the real world, but who gives up everything for those he cares about (namely his siblings). Frog appears to Katagiri and ‘saves’ him by giving him someone to care about who will care back, asking him not for physical but mental strength – “I need you to stand behind me and say, ‘Way to go, Frog! You’re doing great! I know you can win! You’re fighting the good fight!’ “. On the other hand, Keppi, who is not a Frog, has been asking the boys to shoulder his burdens, to physically perform the tasks while he watches and waits, always keeping an emotional distance. When the boys reach out to him to save them from the erasure mechanism through the Sarazanmai, he finally agrees to confront the task with his own strength, supported by the trio’s connections to him – in other words, he becomes a Frog (and the boys in turn also become Frogs).
The final Sarazanmai sits in contrast to the rest that we’ve seen so far in that rather than taking something away from someone, the goal is instead the returning of something; both giving the miçanga to Kazuki in the past to restore the connection between him and Toi, and Keppi embracing his despair by merging back with Dark Keppi. Normally unintentionally (and unconsciously) complicit in the otters’ goals, this marks the first time that the Sarazanmai is being used by the cast to strengthen a connection rather than just severing one. Even Reo and Mabu, the two most caught up in the system, return to fight back against the otters, literally “opening the door” for the boys to reach their goal (and inverting the meaning of their usual preamble for turning people into kappa zombies).
However, even despite reconnecting themselves to the world through past Kazuki, the boys do not guarantee themselves a positive future ahead of them. The vision shown to them via the river of desire shows them a possibility in which they follow their dreams of becoming football players again but through constant misfortune and struggle they end up hating each other, repeating the same “I want to connect, but” title cards that we’ve seen punctuating the end of every episode. As the newly re-crowned prince Keppi tells us, “the future is not necessarily a bright one” – but even so, the show overwhelmingly believes that it’s still worth pursuing. A world in which we connect and hurt each other constantly is better than one in which we never connect and thus never exist. As Haruka puts it, “I’m going to believe in what I choose. It’s because I have people I care about that I get happy or sad. That’s how we’re connected.”
Sarazanmai‘s ending is a lot more straightforward, less ambiguous and more optimistic than other Ikuhara animes. In Revolutionary Girl Utena and Yuri Kuma Arashi, the protagonist is seemingly erased from existence and the oppressive system continues on its path, but in Utena or Kureha saving themselves from the individualist, selfish egos that Capitalism forced onto them, they open a door for someone else to walk through to be saved too. In a slight reversal, it’s the one who is erased who is the focus here – despite Toi being oppressed and thrown in juvie, it’s through the fact that Kazuki and Enta refuse to forget his existence that he’s saved. Likewise, despite losing all his connections, Toi doesn’t forget what they meant to him, and that helps him save himself. After all, it’s only in having beginnings and endings that we have connections, and it’s only through connections that we have a future.