Many of you have joined me on my anime recommendations journey. As I put together these articles, I realized that one of my favorite series of all time didn’t fit anywhere on these lists. Furthermore, none of the director’s works fit in either. Despite the lack of common genre, I felt that I wouldn’t be a good public servant if I didn’t tell you about the works of Kunihiko Ikuhara. “Ikuni,” as he’s affectionately known, joined Toei in 1986 where he worked as an assistant director on Maple Town Monogatari, Akuma-kun, and Mooretsu Atarou. In the 1990’s, he became an episode director, then later series director for Sailor Moon. Disappointed with his lack of creative freedom (partially because Toei wouldn’t let him kill off Tuxedo Mask), he formed Be-Papas in 1996 to develop his own ideas.
Ikuhara’s signature style is best described as “strange fairy tales.” He creates unique legends, each with its own dark twists and turns. Some of his episodes may be ridiculous and silly, but then he’ll turn around and slam you with something dark. He also has an affinity for motif and metaphor. Often you can find recurring symbols such as butterflies, roses, spiral staircases, elevators and people as objects. Each series he does gets progressively stranger, toeing the line between genius and madness. Below are four of his major works you should consider watching.
Photo credit: Toei
Sailor Moon is
probably the most iconic shoujo series out there. I like to call it the “Batman” of anime because it’s so recognizable. Usagi Tsukino (Serena Tsukino to the American audience) starts off as a weak-willed airhead who has to become Sailor Moon, the guardian of love and justice. As the show progresses, she meets other Sailor Scouts representing the different planets of our solar system. They fight alien threats. Simple enough.
The beauty of the series stems from the characters’ growth throughout. Usagi has to find her inner strength at times when she is the most terrified. Ikuhara brought a level of maturity to a series that was intended for very young girls. And that’s why so many of us discovered anime through Sailor Moon in our teens and early 20s. Even in the reboot Sailor Moon Crystal, you can still find a hint of Ikuhara’s influence in the “shadow puppet” art style of the bumpers and the end title sequence reminiscent of his later work The Adolescence of Utena.
REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA
I don’t care who you are, Revolutionary Girl Utena is an anime that you need to watch. And you need to watch it all the way through. Ikuhara took Chiho Saito’s short manga and turned it into 39 episodes of unadulterated beauty and pain.
Utena Tenjou is the new student at Ohtori Academy. When she sees a member of the student council strike his girlfriend Anthy, she intervenes and challenges him to a duel. At Ohtori, the student council duels for much more than honor. Each student council member seeks to win Anthy, who is the key to unlocking the power to revolutionize the world. Now, Utena needs to keep fighting to protect her new friend, but at the heart of the duels lies something far more sinister.
The story delves into deep matters of the psyche including sexuality, jealousy, suicide, incest, revenge, obsession, death, and more. Ikuhara’s previously mentioned motifs and metaphors run strong throughout, making Utena a series where you notice something new each time you watch it. If you enjoy it, there is also the Adolescence of Utena movie. It will make zero sense if you haven’t watched the series– it might still make zero sense anyway –but it’s the most visually beautiful masterpiece in anime. Ever.
Photo credit: Brain’s Base
Penguindrum is a pleasant surprise that takes the colorful facade of magical girl anime and occasionally reminds you that this is a tale of fate and death. Much like eating cotton candy off a razor blade. Himari is terminally ill. When she collapses and dies, she is given a second chance at life through the power of a souvenir penguin hat that takes over her body. It’s up to her brothers Shouma and Kanba to find the “penguindrum” for the mysterious entity that controls their sister. Their quest entangles them with a girl who believes she owns a diary that can predict her future, as well as a conspiracy called “Project M.” The show is as strange as you might expect from Ikuhara, but the plot is compelling enough to keep you enticed by the mystery.
Photo credit: Silver Link
You may notice that Ikuhara has many shoujo ai or “girl’s love” themes in his works. Yurikuma Arashi, Ikuhara’s most recent work, is his take on the yuri and moe aesthetics. The fairy tale in this series is about how bears– more like adorable bear-people –and humans used to live peacefully until a meteor shower turned the bears against humans. Now the bears live behind the Wall of Severance and want to eat “excluded” and “invisible” girls. However, there is a huge element of lesbianism and forbidden love as well. This is quite possibly the strangest and most difficult to follow of Ikuhara’s works when you can’t be sure what is literal and what is euphemism. Quite frankly, you really need to be in the mood to watch this. It’s…it’s out there.
You can see now why I have difficulty putting these works into a simple genre of “fantasy” or “science fiction.” None of them fit a genre norm, but really, it’s never a bad thing to try something a little more out of the box. These works may seem strange, but they are masterfully crafted. Every image has a purpose. Every episode will toy with your emotions. That’s not something you get with just any director.
Oh. There is one last thing you should know about Ikuhara’s work…
He directs one hell of a transformation sequence!
Feature image credit: Viz Media