“I realized one day, that I hate this world. This world is made up of countless boxes. People bend and stuff their bodies into their own boxes, and stay there for the rest of their lives. And inside the box, they eventually forget: what they looked like. What they loved, who they loved.” – Sanetoshi, Mawaru Penguindum Episode 23
The idea of entrapment isn’t new in the world of Ikuhara. From Utena‘s idea of ‘breaking out of the shell in which you were born’ to Penguindrum‘s antagonist, Sanetoshi, wanting to ‘liberate’ the constraints of society through revolution, boxing oneself is a common theme, and Sarazanmai seems to be deeply focused on how we connect with each other, whether it be sexually, emotionally, or both. In this dimension, everyone has a box: a representation of their deepest and most selfish desires. Our main protagonist, Kazuki Yasaka, is the perfect starting point for this middle schooler who lives a quiet life and seemingly out of the ordinary except for one secret: his obsession with a famous idol, Azuma Sara.
“The more boxes you have, the happier you’ll be!”
Azuma Sara in many ways, represents a figure of authority in our life, as she plays heavily into Kazuki’s insecurities. His life revolves around checking her daily fortunes, dressing up as her to appeal to his sibling “Harukappa”, and taking selfies of himself to Harukappa every day. While it’s unclear if Kazuki enjoys doing this on his own, it’s for now implied that all of this is under the concept of duty – for the sake of another human being, all in order to preserve a connection. Azuma’s almost cult-like culture inherently may not be malicious, but its commercialized success has a deep impact on our protagonist’s life. And not just his either: Azuma appears everywhere in the first episode of Sarazanmai: she’s on Enta’s home TV, and her mascot is a plushie that’s in nearly everyone’s room, or appears as a cell strap on characters’ phones.
Azuma’s status as a popular idol that has wormed her way into one’s way of life is a perfect example of the consumerist lifestyle, similar to how companies like Google or Apple take precedent in our lives. Just as Azuma enables positive feedback for interaction and thriving on connecting with people, technology-based monopolies have become an essential part of daily activities. I personally FaceTime with my parents at least once a week. I find my way to Twitter and Instagram nearly daily, and Facebook message friends from time to time. Granted, the debate of social media and technology affecting our capacity, or way to connect, is not a fresh one, but Ikuhara seems far less focused on just social media as he is on the idea of commercialism impacting our lifestyle of connecting. “Is it negative or positive?” isn’t a question here as much as “How do we connect in a fresh context where platforms have diversified, multiplied, and yet also advanced to a point where they are synonymous with how we perceive ourselves and others?”
Nothing encapsulates this as perfectly as the Kappazon boxes people carry with them in this show. The symbolism is almost insidious – Amazon’s recent acquisitions and staggering growth as it has slowly outcompeted local and smaller businesses in the past years is a perfect representation of harmful, almost parasitic dependency. It feels comfortable, being able to buy whatever you’d like with just one or two clicks. It feels safe. Cozy. Translating this to Sarazanmai‘s context of connection, and it’s easy to see that same kind of unhealthy bond, specifically through the first victim the boys must defeat: the Box Zombie. In our desire to fill ourselves with something, we get greedy. We steal and selfishly keep those profits for ourselves. We close our eyes, shut our ears off, and distance ourselves to the world and people around us. And in doing so, we disconnect, from our own self, and from each other.The only way to connect, it seems, is to strip all of that away: In extracting the shirikodama from the Box Zombie, the trio of boys must perform the Sarazanmai dance, which in turn, allows them to reveal one of the contents of their own boxes. In this case, it’s the star of the musical performed this episode, Kazuki, and his secret of crossdressing. As opposed to the Box Zombie, whose desire is more of a kink, Kazuki’s secret doesn’t carry that same kind momentum. Instead, it’s portrayed as more of an obligation. It can therefore be assumed that as opposed to shirikodama, which represent our internal, selfish desires, boxes represent the emotional burdens we carry within ourselves to maintain our connections with other people.
The nuanced difference between one’s boxes and their shirikodama is still unknown, but for the time being, this dichotomy of “desire” versus “love” seems to be the underbelly for the show’s central conflict: at what point can we differentiate from and balance a selfish hunger with selfless sacrifice and complete empathy?
“Human beings are such inconvenient creatures. Why, you ask? Because they can never escape the box called ‘self’. Those boxes don’t protect us. They take things precious to us away. Even if someone was next to you, you can’t tear down the wall and bond. We’re all alone. We will never gain anything inside our boxes. There are no exits. No one can save you. So we can only destroy those boxes, the people, and the world!” – Sanetoshi, Mawaru Penguindum Episode 23
This can all be tied back to the central trio of the show: Kazuki, Enta, and Toi. Whereas in Penguindrum, the trio of the series, the Takakura siblings, were all represented by a penguin mascot, in Sarazanmai, each boy has their own distinct symbol. This is highlighted in both the OP and ED: for Kazuki, it’s his cell phone, for Enta, it’s a soccer ball, and for Toi, it’s a ruler stick.
It’s far too early to tell what connection these objects have with their owner, but it can be assumed that it is their primary way of ‘connection’; Kazuki seems to be deeply connected with Harukappa via texts, emojis/stickers, and selfies. Enta’s living room and affinity for wearing jerseys and the fact that Kazuki and Enta were the “Golden Duo” on Enta’s team signifies some kind of deeper connection between him, soccer, and his love for Kazuki. Toi’s ruler stick is used for breaking into vehicles so while it may be a sign of his rebellious and criminal streak, it could also hint at a desire to connect with his brother.The rest of Ikuhara’s symbols seem to be tied to traditional figures, rooted in Japanese myths. Whereas in previous series, Ikuhara has been one to look at the concept of tradition with a disdainful eye, here, he seems to be more interested in its interaction with the modern world. Azuma’s predictions seem to take root after all, and she doesn’t seem to be the sole enemy of the show, though it’s far too early to tell. And Kappas after all, may be capable of evil – historically, they have been known to raping women and committing theft – but they always hold their promises, and mentor when possible. In sacrificing their Shirikodama, the boys are converted to kappas that are capable of doing good, though it’s unclear of how extracting shirikodama from ghosts and assimilating them to the Kappa Prince is a “good” plan.
This is in contrast to the kawauso, which is a yokai that while traditionally is playful and curious, seems to be more insidiously used here. Its direct link to the cops’ interaction with victims and their unfulfilled wishes hints that there’s more than meets the eye. And speaking of cops, there also seems to be a connection between their mischief and Shinto ideologies, specifically through the symbol of mitsumodoe, which is seen on the drums the otters beat on when the victim at the end of the episode. There’s also the symbol of the Shinto trilogy, which is seen once the Field of Desires transitions back to the normal world.
How all of these symbols connect with each other to form a more cohesive narrative has yet to be seen, but it can be said that Ikuhara wishes to tackle a lot of interesting ideas here yet again, and I’m personally looking forward to see where he goes with these!