Yuri Kuma Arashi is a wildly experimental anime that utilises symbolism and story structure effectively, though Ikuhara’s self-indulgent composition and directing act as a blessing and a curse.
In the depths of space, the comet Kumarai exploded, causing the bears on earth to unite and declare war onthe humans. Separated by the Walls of Severance, two bears manage to by-pass it, and Kureha Tsubaki takes it upon herself to exact retribution on them for all that she has lost.
Yuri Kuma Arashi begins on a fairly busy note, introducing all of the key characters in a way that feels fresh and memorable, and giving appropriate emphasis to all of the most important characters and plot points right off the bat. This makes the beginning feel both engaging and a bit crowded, with many named characters running around, discussing what they’re going to do, without any real sense of immediate purpose. After the first antagonist is defeated, however, and Kureha begins to develop a relationship with the bears Ginko and Lulu, the central narrative becomes much more distinct. Lulu and Ginko both get ample screen time together to explain their backstories and motivations, and their interactions with Kureha feeling natural and meaningful, which really helps this series to succeed, as they are the primary vessel through which its themes are explored. They fight, succumb to selfish feelings and get each other hurt, but by the end there is a real sense of family among them. This careful attention to detail in the character interactions makes the finale successfully pull off the emotional climax it was aiming for.
In spite of a strong emotional core and central character cast, the message, though clearly expressed with the best of intentions, is hamstrung by the unrealistic setting and presentation. First of all, the school system and the way in which the students act doesn’t come across as organic, but obligatory, as though everyone who isn’t Kureha, Sumika or a bear has an obligation to prove how big of a jerk they can be. For a series that tries to criticise how Japan reviles homosexuals, it does a poor job at properly representing how they are usually treated. It could be argued that people in Japan, who are the target audience for this, are already acutely aware of how gay youth are viewed and treated, or that for students to fit into the “invisible storm”, which is essentially a metaphor for the “conformist social body” that prioritises friendship and security over individuality, but neither of those excuses warrant such one-note supporting characters. It also isn’t addressed why they all know how to use firearms, as the anime makes it a point to let the viewer know that the human world is usually safe and peaceful, making militarism feel out of place. To add to that, there is not a single male character, so the way in which males view gay women isn’t being addressed, preventing this social critique from carrying very broad appeal.
Thankfully, this doesn’t completely compromise the message, as the audience can still easily identify what is trying to be said. Aggressive lesbians, ashamed ones and hurt ones are all represented, and the series constantly repeats that there is no greater failure, nothing more shameful, than having given up on love. The anime’s use of repetition with several phrases, such as “From the beginning, we hated you, but we loved you from the beginning as well.” reflect the central theme of the series, and each time they are said, a different tone and context add new meaning to them. To add to that, guilt and emotional obligations are all represented in Yuri Kuma effectively, for not just the main cast, but several supporting characters as well.
However, there are some problems with the characters; though the aforementioned character interactions are consistently strong, individually, the cast aren’t always as interesting. Kureha Tsubaki is a strong, independent female character with strong morals and a history entrenched in the story of Yuri Kuma, which is to say, there is little about her that makes her stand out. Her lack of knowledge regarding the invisible storm, in spite of having lived in it for several years, makes her come across as unrealistically naïve. Lulu and Ginko, each having their own episodes, are much more fleshed out, but the judges feel like unnecessary comic relief, and sadly, this reflects another problem with the series; how it manages its town.
The on-the-nose nature of the dialogue and unusual character designs gives this anime an oddly comedic feeling, in spite of its heavy themes and stakes. From the chibi builds of the bears, to the way in which characters react to traumatic incidents nonchalantly, Yuri Kuma doesn’t manage to effectively convey feelings of loss, especially in Kureha. This is most problematic in the first half, in which the focal point is Kureha dealing with the aftermath of her only friend, Sumika, having died, which, when combined with the death of her mother, leaves her entirely alone. However, though the emotional consequences are initially handled weakly, they drastically improve along the series.
Like the Monogatari series, Yuri Kuma Arashi stands as an example of how potent directing, good colour schemes and effective symbolism can make a series with relatively little movement visually entrancing. Though Silver Link’s production couldn’t scale to the heights of Kunihiko Ikuhara’s other work, the animation is strong when it needs to be. The backgrounds art is often very impressive, from vast city shots brimming with detail, to creative backdrops like the oft visited courtroom, to the painstaking replications of set pieces from Stanley Kubrick’s films, the backgrounds in Yuri Kuma are a labour of love. The lighting is, for the most, part, kept to a minimum, though it shines when it needs to in the emotionally heavy scenes. Character designs are distinct, in particular the eyes and various hair styles. The use of repetition is also done effectively, with the multiple revisits to different set pieces revealing something new each time, similar to the dialogue. Even the occasional uses of CGI are done well, such as the bear arms.
With all that being said, it is easy to tell that the animation quality isn’t as high as it could have been. The fluidity of movements is sufficient so as not to break immersion, though it certainly isn’t more than average. Some of the faces in distant shots are off model, and experimental angles reveal some production limitations. On top of that, there are a few questionable directorial decisions. The most obvious of these is the design of the bears; perhaps it was to show that they were not as monstrous as they were made out to be, or how they perceive themselves, but this design ultimately destroyed any intimidation factor. Sadly, like the dialogue, the symbolism sometimes succumbs to self-indulgence, particularly the overuse of sexualised visual metaphors. These visual metaphors largely work, such as the representation of Lulu as a jar of honey, or the lilies (yuris) falling from the sky, but at times, it’s difficult to tell whether Ikuhara shows the audience two girls having a bath together to display intimacy, of whether he just wants to give the audience some fan service. Had these scenes been fewer and farther between, this wouldn’t have been as problematic. Thankfully, these problems are only hiccups in an otherwise good looking series.
The sound department of Yuri Kuma doesn’t provide much for discussion. The opening is effectively intimate, though overdone to the extent where it feels nearly comedic, and the ending’s upbeat tone and lyrics should have been switched out for something more emotionally resonant, given how most episodes end with a character having either made, or being about to make, an important choice. The OST serves its purpose well, with the insert songs and violins in particular distinguishing themselves, but it isn’t strong enough to be memorable outside of the show. The strongest audio aspect of the series would have to be the verbal cues, such as the voice over whenever a bear appears, saying “Kuma (bear) shock!” or when a lily opens, or a phone rings. This builds suspense and makes the world feel more tangible, in spite of the dialogue.
Both the English and Japanese cast of Yuri Kuma deliver relatively good performances, and both of them suffer from different problems. The Japanese voice actors give the characters a strange, calculated feeling to them, which deflates a lot of the more tragic and dramatic moments, though it does a good job at presenting Japanese gay stereotypes. In the English dub, on the other hand, the characters have a bit more personality, with Alexis Tipton providing a steady, though fairly typical of her, performance as Kureha, and Lulu’s air headedness underlined by guilt and desire is endearing. The high point would have to be Monica Rial’s emotionally charged portrayal of Ginko, which really helped to sell the character with the most emotional moments. The others are serviceable, matching their Japanese counterparts in most cases, though the changes made to the script and delivery are very noticeable, particularly among the members of the invisible storm. Instead of the more secular, hive mind attitude exuded by the Japanese voice actors, the English mean girls sound much more American, injecting the words “like” and “gross” into as many sentences as they can. On one hand, this gives the girls a more concrete sense of identity, though it does contrast their monolithic outlook and expressions, such as referring to themselves as the “invisible storm” and occasionally saying things that obviously made more sense in the original Japanese. Nonetheless, both casts do an otherwise fine job at bringing these themes and messages to the viewer.
Overall (Japanese & English): B