There is truly a lot to unpack in Sarazanmai, the latest anime television series directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara about a trio of secretive young boys transformed into kappas and tasked with saving Asakusa, Tokyo from giant thieving zombies. The zombies in question are created by a mysterious duo of police officers named Reo and Mabu, working under the even more mysterious Otter Empire.
In the final episode, the Empire’s Chief Otticer of Science and Technology sings “I am an abstract concept.” In the end, the force opposing the Kappa Kingdom does not physically exist. They are merely social constructs borne out of the human (and kappa) characters. However, that’s not to say they’re weak or unstable. They’re strong enough to wage a war against the Kappa Kingdom, advanced enough to transform humans into zombies and harvest their desire energies, and manipulative enough to control Reo and Mabu.
In Sarazanmai, oppression is not so much enacted by living actors as by concepts embedded in society. The abstract nature of the Otter Empire goes to show how internalization of oppression, when systematic oppression negatively impacts the self-image of the oppressed group by believing in their “inferiority,” can damage a connection like that of Reo and Mabu’s as much as external forces and systems. At one point, the otters manifest as a sexually menacing version of Reo he struggles to accept. It is not a true reflection of his attraction to Mabu, but one twisted by internalized homophobia, colorism, and classism. (Although I am white and cannot speak to colorism from personal experience, I felt it would be remiss to not incorporate colorism into my analysis.)
The rest of this post contains spoilers for Sarazanmai, as well as discussion of homophobia, colorism, classism and rape.
Reo and Mabu are both gay, and both experience (internalized) homophobia. The Chief Otticer, though abstract, restricts Mabu from expressing his love for Reo through words. Whether or not they were in a formal relationship before or mutually pining, it severs their relationship. He is forced into living beside his loved one without reciprocation, as many gay people have to in heteronormative society. They are both conscripted by the Otter Empire to serve as police officers in the human world, as gay people are assimilated into the very institutions that oppress them.
However, Reo is marginalized in a way his partner is not: he has brown skin, in contrast to Mabu’s pale complexion (the lightest of any character). Even in kappa form, Reo’s skin is a deeper shade of green. Character designer Miggy credits Reo’s skin color to director Kinuhiko Ikuhara, who was partially influenced by the 1977-1983 American TV show CHiPs starring Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox. While Reo shares his skin tone with the Puerto Rican-American Estrada, there is no indication Reo is Latino as well. Without cultural signifiers in his design, such as the bindis worn by Anthy and Akio of Revolutionary Girl Utena, he is ostensibly Japanese and not mixed race. His dark skin is nevertheless a conscious decision by Ikuhara that positions him on the receiving end of colorism, the “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color” as coined by Alice Walker in 1983, in Japanese society. (For more on colorism in Japan and anime, see Malia’s article Colorism, Fandom, and Cultural Context.)
In the anime, Reo’s skin color is never directly commented on, though it is in related media. In tweet from December 3rd on the in-character promotional Twitter account @keeponly1luv, Reo laughs at “how dark” a child colors a portrait of himself. The Sarazanmai novelization by screenwriter Teruko Utsumi calls attention to the contrast in skin tone between Reo and Mabu, such as when Reo extracts Mabu’s heart during creation of a zombie:
Reo audaciously ripped apart Mabu’s shirt. Underneath Mabu’s pale skin, his glistening dark gray heart quivered like it was responding. Without wavering, dark brown fingers extended deeply into that pale chest.
To illustrate the scene, Utsumi describes their body parts by skin color. In another scene from the novelization (not included in the anime), Reo reflects on his own appearance when he first met Mabu:
His pure white palm had not one flaw.
I become ashamed of my own dirty hand.
At the same time, I also wanted to dirty that beautiful hand.
Reo’s observation of the contrast between him and Mabu has a double meaning: not only is his hand soiled and Mabu’s clean, his skin is dark and Mabu’s light. In Miggy’s rendition of this moment in the first chapter of her manga, she draws Reo with scuff marks on his cloak and face as if covered in dirt, matching Utsumi’s written words. This single panel provides much insight into their mysterious backstories: Reo’s shabby clothes and lack of shelter suggest poverty, for one. Indeed, dark (tanned) skin is historically associated with the lower class in Japan. Mabu’s light skin, clean clothes, and access to eyeglasses suggest the upper class.
There are other negative associations with darkness in Japanese culture, such as black symbolizing evil while white symbolizes good. In Sarazanmai, for example, the benevolent royal kappas are literal white and the malevolent otters literal black in appearance. These moral associations can carry over into people’s perceptions of dark and light skin, such as believing dark-skinned people to be wicked or ugly and light-skinned people honorable or beautiful.
Reo and Mabu are also symbolically linked to dark and light respectively, in their black and white cups as well as their skin colors. They’re one of the latest in the long line of the black-white dynamic in bishounen couples observed by Yukari Fujimoto. Reo’s more revealing clothes and higher rate of violence, traits negatively associated with dark-skinned people, make him seemingly even more evil than Mabu. In the Reo and Mabu manga by Misaki Saito, he’s aware other people find his face “scary.” In a tweet from November 24th, Reo says he was pulled in for questioning while off-duty outside his precinct. The comment is so offhand it’s hard to say what happened, but his “scary” appearance (that may include his dark skin) could be the cause. However, audience members who read Reo and Mabu and/or followed @keeponly1luv before watching the anime know Reo’s goofy and caring sides as he cracks bad jokes and parents an abandoned baby. From the beginning of the anime, the dichotomy of dark evil otters and good light kappas is muddled by Reo and Mabu’s presence on the former side.
Although they spend time together working for the Otter Empire, Reo and Mabu are not on good terms. Reo rejects Mabu because of his misunderstanding that Mabu has been reborn an unfeeling “doll,” which would make any attraction purely sexual rather than emotional. Not only does Reo internalize the homophobic idea of gay men as sexually predatory to other men, it is layered with hypersexualization of dark-skinned people and his “unworthy” class and skin color to Mabu. He wants to connect, but can’t bring himself to. In the ninth episode of Sarazanmai, Reo literally comes face-to-face with this inner conflict. His suspicion that Mabu seeks pleasure with the Chief Otticer is confirmed, but he learns the Chief Otticer’s maintenance on Mabu’s robotic body involves taking on his appearance and holding Mabu’s mechanical heart as he does during desire extraction.
The otter version of Reo, with glaring eyes and a smirk, explains his paradoxical nature: “I am an otter, but I am also you. We otters exist in this world as concepts. I am a mirror of the desires inside you.” He taunts him by licking Mabu’s heart and saying Reo longs to do the same. Not only does Reo truly desire this reborn Mabu he claims to despise, he’s fixated on the mechanical heart that defines him an inhuman “doll.” Reo does not deny it, only pleading him to stop. The insecurity that Reo would symbolically “taint” Mabu through intimacy has been on his mind as long as they’ve known each other, and now that self-image has been brought to life by the Otter Empire. It reveals truthful secrets and creates a fuller picture of the situation, like in a sarazanmai, but doesn’t deepen their bond. If they didn’t know what to make of him before, the audience should realize by this point Reo is but a sympathetic victim of the real villains.
The Chief Otticer reflects Reo’s negative self-image and the internalized homophobia that same-gender relations are only sexual, rather than grounded in love. Though he’s changed in ability and demeanor since his death as well as forbidden from confessing, in actuality Mabu still has autonomous thoughts and feelings (for Reo). Even if subconsciously, Reo has recognized the “new” Mabu and accepted him by eating the half-baked ningyoyaki he prepared. They actually have been bonding in ways that are not necessarily sexual, and Reo desires Mabu as a person. Unfortunately, that all falls apart when the Chief Otticer mocks him and reinforces Reo’s belief that Mabu is merely a doll ideal for meaningless sex.
Because of the constriction on words of love, Mabu declares he needs the Chief Otticer when asked to choose between the Reos. In actuality, Mabu shares Reo’s desire to be intimate. From the beginning, Mabu has encouraged it by extending his hand and offering shelter from the rain. He willingly took Reo into his life when he had no one else. When they met, he said “desire is your life” to encourage him. When he died in Reo’s arm, “the future only exists for those who can connect their desires.” The Otter Empire took his ability to say so away, leaving Reo without a guide. Based on maintenance sessions, Mabu wants to be sexually embraced if not Dominated by Reo. He desires the “dark side” of Reo he’s suppressed. In fact his favorite color is black (as stated in his official character profile), the color of Reo’s cup he secretly drinks from and Reo’s scarf in kappa form. The Chief Otticer is not only a reflection of Reo’s desire, but Mabu’s as well because their desires are “connected.”
Rather than accept and act on their shared desire, Reo rejects Mabu for being a doll devoted to the Chief Otticer. In truth, Mabu is tortured by his situation. To have sex with the Chief Otticer–to essentially be raped–is not fulfilling. It lacks the foundation of love they once had that Mabu’s words would provide. Mabu longs for the caring side of Reo, seen in flashes through his mind of Reo softly smiling juxtaposed with otter Reo, just as much as his “dark side.” Mabu suffers in a solely sexual bond while Reo suffers in the opposite, when they need both.
It’s the Otter Empire’s operation of a system built on the false dichotomy of “love or desire,” preying on Reo’s negative self-image, and constriction of Mabu’s displays of affection that creates a rift between Reo and Mabu, not their individual selves. Concepts are a formidable foe, but they manage to connect in the next episode through a sarazanmai’s reveal of Mabu’s circumstances. Their relationship is undeniably sexual (to deny otherwise would be homophobic in itself), but that isn’t mutually exclusive with love. They have the same desire directed toward the person they love, unlike the selfish humans transformed into zombies who fill the void stealing from anyone. They reunite to become a literal guiding light for Kazuki, Enta, and Toi the same time Keppi fuses with Dark Keppi rather than destroy him. Both actions go to show how individuals and relationships cannot be defined by black or white, but that they complement each other in the face of oppression.
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