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Thoughts on Ikuhara Anime, Queer Interpretations, and “Deviancy”

(crossposting from dreamwidth, and expanded somewhat)

I was having Ikuhara thoughts again both as a big fan as well as thinking about some criticisms and interpretations I’ve seen of him and his work. Specifically attitudes from people who dislike his work because they see it as simply the work of someone interested in “deviant sexuality” or on the other hand, people who praise it specifically because of its Lesbian/Bisexual/WLW representation. Obviously works of art will speak differently to different people, but I feel like maybe this boils down to the fact that Ikuhara’s work* has a primary interest in exploring deviancy, and its queer and familial themes certainly overlap but are overall subservient to that exploration.

* I know that none of his works are solely “Ikuhara” creations blah blah challenge the myth of the auteur and all that, and that in all of his anime they are just as much a product of the collaborators, designers, and writers he’s worked with (especially the women creators) and I don’t think of the characters as solely representing or belonging to him alone. Utena would be nothing without Chiho Saito’s aesthetic and experience with shojo romance; Sarazanmai is nothing without Utsumi’s writing, Yurikuma’s characters belong as much to Akiko Morishima as anything else–I’m not as versed on all the contributors to the different stories, but wanted to make this clear since I just am going to say “Ikuhara anime” or “Ikuhara’s work” as a shorthand to discuss the multiple series and what I see in them overall

I’m remembering a discussion on the Utenacast (I forget exactly which episode, but it was during some of the later episodes discussing Yurikuma Arashi) in which it was mentioned about how while RGU is now seen as Extremely Undeniably Queer, it also does a disservice to think of it as only a lesbian story–part of the discussion was talking about various trans or asexual readings of the story, as well as the observation (absurd to think about now, to me at least) that a not-insignificant of the Utena early fandom were straight women who read and related to it through a heterosexual lens due to their own life experiences. So maybe in a way, it is true that *specific* LGBT identity and themes are not at the center of his works. It’s less about “being” an identity (in the way that western queer fandom talks about identity and lgbt representation–“is x character ‘confirmed’ as gay/bi/lesbian? Did they say the actual word?”)  and more a collection of specific experiences of love, attraction, shame, and sacrifice couched in actions and metaphors that people can relate to across the variations of specific label or identity. 

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Due to this, I can understand the people who don’t connect with Ikuhara’s work, and where they are coming from when they say “well he doesn’t actually care about wlw or LGBT themes, he’s just interested in deviant or taboo subjects!” because well…it’s partially correct. His work is interested in exploring the “deviant” and taboo themes both in serious and thoughtful ways as well as in the “hm…wouldn’t it be messed up if this happened? Let’s dig into it” kind of way. And I can see how that might not connect with people who are interested in LGBT stories where the specificity of identity is centered and presented as a “normalized” kind of representation rather than an expression of deviance. It’s certainly important to have such stories, but I also think that it’s also valid to compassionately explore deviance and weirdness in relation to queerness as well.

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To me, that’s what stands out the most about Ikuhara anime, is that while it goes in definite edgy directions, there’s always a lot of compassion for the characters who are “deviant,” even the ones for whom it manifests in harmful ways. They certainly don’t shy away from the struggle and harm that marginalized and ostracized people can do. The most harmful queer characters are probably those who align themselves with the power structures either out of selfishness or pressure from society, using that power to exploit others, but this always winds up hurting not only other vulnerable people, but themselves**. We see this consistently in the queer antagonist figures like Touga, Yuriika,, and Reo and Mabu, but even the queer protagonists make questionable, selfish, or problematic decisions throughout the stories (remembering that the entire reason I ended up watching and loving Sarazanmai was because of seeing Enta Discourse™ and immediately being intrigued….)  Despite the exploration of the pain and risks and frustrations that come from deviancy, it is always something presented as is ultimately liberating and necessary to survival and self-actualization.

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It makes perfect sense to me that this theme would be explored with queer characters, or other characters trying to find their place in society and finding themselves ill-fitting within it. It also makes perfect sense to me that the theme is not restricted to queerness, even as it is a theme that inherently is entwined with it. For example, the “Invisible Storm” in Yurikuma is definitely related to homophobia/lesbophobia, but I definitely feel it has vibes of discrimination against autistic/neurodivergent people as well, in the cruelty of the Storm’s leaders against “those who cannot read the atmosphere/interpret social cues.” These alternate interpretations don’t erase the other themes, but adds more layers to them.

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That being said, I definitely feel that whatever the intentions behind the works may be, even if in the end it turned out that all the stories were just to be like “lets explore and dig into these wild ideas***” due to the humanity of the characters and stories it really winds up giving them a very “not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you” kind of vibe. In reference to what I said earlier about “specific experiences over specific identity” also feels meaningful to me personally in my own relationship to queerness itself. As an cis aroace person, I agree there is usefulness and comfort in the usage of labels, but also at this point I feel like I have had a multitude of internal experiences and thoughts and feelings re: my sexuality and gender that if I dwelled too long on “what specific identity does this particular experience align with” to either accept or dismiss it it would be too much of a hassle and serves to unnecessarily box up and taxonify what is for me a living, varied experience of life.

Bonus thoughts on “How does Penguindrum Fit Into This”

To detour a bit, because I haven’t really talked about Penguindrum and I know that it doesn’t really explore queer themes to the same extent as the other series but I think its familial themes can be viewed through the lens of deviancy, etc as well, although I guess it is very different than its takes on queerness because well. This is  The familial relationships kind of don’t get resolved in the same way and are pretty much all destructive LOL so this is where my thoughts and thesis maybe fall apart. But I do stand by the fact that the streamline throughout all the characters acting wild is that the approach is always compassionate and thoughtful, even if problematic.

the familial themes in Penguindrum, Utena, and Sarazanmai arguably explore deviancy through characters-usually siblings– trying to rebuild and approach their relationship to one another after being failed by their adult role models. Sometimes these relationship rebuildings are satisfying, more often they are not. Kozue in Utena boasts about herself and her brother Miki being “wild animals” who are independent of the parents that raised them, and tries to get Miki to follow her lead; Chikai and Kanba try to take care of their younger siblings by finding alternative–if self-destructive–methods of supporting themselves rather than relying on previously unreliable family members. Even the abusive and dysfunctional relationship of Anthy and Dios/Akio comes about solely because Anthy was initially trying to find a way to help her brother escape from the power and indentured-burden that the role of Prince carried. All of these familial attempts at deviation are pretty grim, and there are definitely more examples within the different series (After writing my original thread, I realized that probably the only family members that get an unapologetically “happy” ending would be Kazuki and Haruka in Sarazanmai–while end of Penguindrum could be read as a “happy” end, it is much more sacrificial and bittersweet) but even as these characters may become more and more unhinged and problematic in their actions, the story still tries to understand them, and criticize the situations that contributed to them being pushed to such actions in the first place. As I’ve mentioned before in my Penguindrum blog post, I feel like the incest and incest-adjacent themes definitely serve to emphasize these themes in an exaggerated and dramatic way.

In Which I reference the “Actual Sexuality” Article for the 100th time

Overall, Mari Kotani and Ikuhara have discussed their own thoughts on “deviancy” at length in the “Disturbing, Traversing, Borderless, Shaking Sexuality: The Place where Revolutionary Girl Utena was Born” article, in a context that’s a little bit more specific than what I’m talking about here, but definitely has some very interesting perspectives on gender and transgression. I feel like the way they talk about “yaoi” in the interview is kind of adjacent to what I’m thinking about here, since their discussion of “yaoi” is definitely more from the lens of exploring fictional abstractions of sexual relationships and interesting power dynamics and how people react to and realize them within stories, rather than its connection to say, irl gay or LGBT culture or history itself. In it, they also talk about how representations of “deviance” in stories require a setup of something to deviate from in the first place, such as institutions/preimposed structures like school in many stories. This take and definition of “yaoi”  can definitely be viewed both from a problematic/critical POV (problematic because it’s disconnected and abstracted from IRL LGBT issues/experience, being discussed by two allegedly “straight” people) as well as  possibly a more freeing POV (in which the fact that it is disconnected and abstracted from IRL issues makes the stories more appealing for people who might feel “deviant” or alienated in their own lives either due to queerness or other factors, and thus make it easier to apply to them).

I personally am pretty permissive and have generous interpretations even as I try to take anything said w/ a grain of salt, but that’s just me, since admittedly I like things that are a little bit abstracted and nebulous in some ways as long as there is specificity in the things I find important, which is characterization and genuine curiosity for the subjects being explored.

Following up on the Asterisks

** There are many examples of Ikuhara antagonists that fit this bill, but even the prime example–Akio Ohtori–is who represents and perpetuates the violence of the patriarchy, but is noticably deviant from the norm both for being queer (his dalliances with Touga being framed as more clandestine than his relationships with women) as well as his being a brown, ambiguously-ethnic (but south-asian coded) man.  Also, I’ve discussed Yuri from Penguindrum a bit more here since, but kind of put my penguindrum thoughts here on my other blog

***I’ve salted about this before, and there are definitely other series that could warrant good comparison but I’m being reminded of the experience of watching Wonder Egg Priority and how a lot of people (including myself) were intrigued because “wow this is kind of weird and surreal and feels somewhat adjacent to the Ikuhara experience even if it is a very different creative vision obviously” before we realized it was, indeed, absolutely garbage at exploring its themes in a way that left me hollow. The issue of compassion to me this is the use of compassion for deviance. Deviance and queerness in WEP is a source of trauma to gawk at, rather than something to explore from the inside, a cheap novelty trick to make the audience feel bad for witnessing it. And i know blah blah first time anime and all that but like …. shit sucks man 

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

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