Kunihiko Ikuhara is an ever present figure in the anime industry, simultaniously a beloved creative mind and dismissive creator with a bad attitude.
He is very hard to work with and often makes fun of interviews with little regard to social expectations. His series aim to push social, sexual, and philosophical boundries with an overwhelming perfectionist nature. This has led to a very small library of work, but a large influence throughout the industry.
A Confusing Creator
His inspiration and draws are, like Anno or Oshii, not centered in Anime but come from other mediums. With every avant-garde work, he strives to change and disrupt anime’s status quo, in both vision and scope.
During his college days Ikuhara was heavily involved in stage plays, drawing from his main inspirations of Shūji Terayama, a avant-garde poet and filmmaker, Hermann Hesse, another subversive poet, novelist and painter, and Kenji Miyazawa, another novelist. The plays Ikuhara made would feature odd sexual content, often with Ikuhara acting while nude on stage. Sexual themes, stage play design, and philosophical or subversive thought was in everything he did. This would feature heavily in his later series that can be seen as stage plays in themselves.
It’s hard to really nail down what Ikuhara aims to do, as he takes a lot of joy in messing with his audience. Famous for crossdressing at interviews, making comments to play with the fandom, and inserting red herrings in his shows. He often tried to kill off Tuxedo Mask in Sailor Moon, and left the show when they refused his film idea. This all built into a common theme of Ikuhara being ‘hard to work with’ and he was mostly blackballed from the industry leading to 3 shows over a 25 year career.
A professed fan of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, Ikuhara’s career could have gone into stage and live film with quite a bit of success. Supposedly he chose to go with anime because it promised a faster timeline to show runner, but it’s hard to say that paid off with such a small library of work.
Early Career under Sato
After finishing college, Ikuhara would join Toei and begin working with the Shoujo King, and previous spotlight director Junichi Sato. Ikuhara would storyboard and train as a director on Goldfish Forecast and Ataru-kun, before taking over as director halfway through the series Maple Town Monogatari and it’s follow up Maple Town Monogatari: Palm Town Hen. Ikuhara would also work with Yamauchi on the series Taruruuto-kun. Both Yamaguchi and Sato were fans of the great Dezaki and presumably mentored Ikuhara to be one of the most imporant influences of his art.
The relationship between Ikuhara and Sato is quite interesting. Sato, a master at production and storyboard, could frame series beautifully and liked very simple stories executed perfectly. In contrast, Ikuhara had a vast knowledge of stage production and social commentary, but little understanding in the technical aspects of anime. The two of them worked on these series with each delivering their strengths and inspiring each other. Without Sato’s restrictions, we may never had the subversive Utena, and without Ikuhara’s idealism and sexual themes we might lack the meta-ness of Tutu or pure hearted Aria series.
Ikuhara would work under Sato during the first portion of Sailor Moon, and met a lot of the people that would join his later Be-Papas group or belong to his school of art.
During Sailor Moon R, Sato had lost some focus and the series was suffering. Ikuhara would step up to finish the season and finalize it with his first full director credit Sailor Moon R: The Movie. The film would summerize what R failed to accomplish in the season, and celebrate Sato’s fantastic Shoujo iconography that would be continued into Utena.
Sailor Moon S would free Ikuhara from Sato’s more innocent aims and let his imagination go mildly wild. Darker, twisted, and laden with psychosexual themes, Ikuhara pushed the limits as far as he could. Our first example of his love of Yuri would be shown in the lesbian duo Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, while his odd philosophy would enter through the mad scientist villain Tomoe.
Sailor Moon SuperS would involve more nightmarish circus-themed designs, complicated relationships, apocalyptic tones, and eccentric characters. The first showing of his brand of style that would lead to things like the Ikuhara Bingo game.
This darker shoujo style would directly inspire following series like Asaka‘s CardCaptor Sakura and Shinbo‘s Madoka Magica. Creating this ‘apocalyptic magical girl’ genre that would spill over into shounen series like HunterXHunter as well.
Ikuhara had planned to make a follow up film based around his Yuri couple, but Toei nixed the idea and Ikuhara promptly left the company. Ikuhara would gather a group of artists and make the Be-Papas group, with screenwriter and high school friend Yoji Enokido, character designer and animator Shinya Hasegawa, planner Yuichiro Oguro, and mangaka Chiho Saito. Together they would set to create the Sailor Moon film that Toei had axed, and allow Ikuhara to flip off the industry in vindication.
Ikuhara would move to the smaller J.C. Staff studio, and concentrated on being a teacher. With only the OP and first episode credited to him on storyboard and episode direction, a lot of the series was spent training new talent and spreading his vision. He would bring Sato in to handle a critical episode 34, but for the most part the series is filled with fantastic names who began their rise under Ikuhara. This led to what’s known as the ‘Ikuhara School of Anime’.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a series that is hard to quantify or properly describe. It follows the standard design of a fight of the week action series, with the added limitation of recurring ‘duelists’. This limitation opens up the series to explore each character and their reason to battle. It also removes the need to establish threats, instead dedicating the time to comedic slice of life episodes and prose heavy discussions. The school setting, with a central fighting area, let Ikuhara dedicate a lot of time to inserting symbolism and extra layering over the whole series, along with making some fantastic and incomparable moments.
Inspired by Hesse’s Demian novel and other works, Utena’s messages and themes delve deeper and deeper the longer you look at it. Framed as a battle shoujo, turning into philisophical slice of life, moving through every sexual preference, and exploring characters to uncomfortable lengths, the series is relentless in everything it does. The show acts as a stage play inspecting sexuality, dreams, innocence, and adulthood, with Ikuhara constantly poking at the audience.
Everything about it is contentious, but it is also beautiful. The art is wonderfully thick, with reused images allowing for a lot of budget far past what you would expect from a small studio. Our MC takes a artfully crafted journey of trials that explores the ideals of Friendship, Choice, Reason, Love, Adoration, Conviction, and Self. A philisophical feast with genre defining imagery that everyone began to talk about as the standard.
A lot of the imagery in Utena, and earlier Sailor Moon attempts, led to Ikuhara being called Dezaki’s greatest disciple.
Ikuhara’s love of the director began in his youth, where he would watch the God Tezuka and Toei’s early animation age. Specifically, Ikuhara cites Tezuka’s Animerama Trilogy and it’s final film Belladonna Of Sadness. The film featured a young Dezaki on key animation and Ikuhara would follow the man as he went on to create series like Brother Dear Brother, and the masterpiece Rose of Versailles, among others,
This led beautifully into his early career tutors, like Sato and Yamauchi, who were in their prime Toei days and also fans of the great director. Helping mold this idealistic playwright into a proper animation director. Ikuhara would distinguish himself from these other directors through his storyboard work and more abstract design philosophy of story. Treating it as a stage or dream-like state when making them. Once he picked up on the art design, he would set out to create a distinctive style that would inspire a ton of artists and train young directors.
“Ikuhara School of Anime”
Planimetric compositions, reuse of backgrounds, emphasis on lighting and character acting, building shots around patterns of concealing and revealing, postmodern fascination with European architectural history, and flowers.. flowers everywhere. This school of animation would inspire and spread throughout the anime industry making Ikuhara one of the most important names in the industry after only making one original series.
He would train and inspire many great artists like Kojima, Suzuki, Igarashi, Hasegawa, Nakamura, and Hayashi who would translate these ideas into other series. While directors like Nagahama of Mushishi, Takeuchi of Ouran High School Host Club and Star Driver, Rie Matsumoto of Kyousougiga and this season’s Kekkai Sensen (Blood Blockade Battlefront) would cite him as their teacher and inspiration.
Training Igarashi during Utena, Ikuhara would be invited to storyboard episode 24 of Soul Eater. He would do the third ED for Kokoro Connect, the OP for Aoi Hana, storyboard Brothers Conflict, and work with Kenichi Kasai on the series Nodame Cantabile, one of my favorites, doing the OP.
Hideaki Anno would work on transformation sequences on Sailor Moon and make a dedication book to Ikuhara to thank him. In return Ikuhara made episode 2 of Diebuster, the celebratory series and sequel of Anno’s first series Gunbuster. Ikuhara also likes to joke that he and Anno formed the idea for Kaworu in Neon Genesis Evangelion, while enjoying an onsen (spring/bath) together, and many think the final angel is modeled after Ikuhara’s ideals.
Close friends, their personality couldn’t be more different, yet they also closely mirror each other in destroying and rebuilding their respective genres of Mecha and Mahou Shoujo through their iconic series NGE and Utena.
Akiyuki Shinbo and Mamoru Hosoda would both work beside Ikuhara and credit him with their dedication to Dezaki’s style as well. A lot of the studio Shaft, and Shinbo’s technique, can be looked at more commercial ventures of Ikuhara’s abstract and contrasting designs. Hosoda’s work draws more towards Miyazaki’s influence but the framing and storyboard makes liberal use of Ikuhara’s fanciful style.
The Return of the Master
Toei and Ikuhara had left on some bad terms, for Japan at least, but he continued to gain a reputation of being ‘hard to work with’ during Utena. Outside of releasing the even more beautiful Adolescence of Utena, Ikuhara’s career stalled. Whether he was blacklisted by the industry or just refused to come to terms with companies, it led to over a decade of silence.
In 2011, Anime was hitting a peak capacity of market and more shows were being produced than ever before. The always experimental, and risk taking studio, Brain Base would reach out to bring Ikuhara back to the industry. The relationship would still have issues like Brain Base insisting on more comedy and a lighter tone in the series, and Ikuhara would respond with irrelevant blue penguins. These little bastards are there to give you a middle finger the whole way through, and it’s fantastic.
Having a story based on Night on the Galactic Railroad (read it here), with a viewpoint or references to a million other things that will have you spending more time on Wikipedia than watching. Ikuhara then adds to that, a wonderful reconstruction of the genre with heavy references to Utena, Sailor Moon, and Dezaki’s whole library, that serves to re-brand what you think of as a Shoujo.
Somehow Ikuhara manages to make an entertaining story with a weaving flashback narrative, on top of all these endless references, symbolism, metaphor, ‘screw you birds’ and red herrings. Truly astounding and clear indication that Ikuhara was not sitting on his thumbs during that missing decade.
Ikuhara returned this year to make Yuri Kuma Arashi, or as it should always be known, LESBIAN BEAR STORM!!! RAWR!! Featuring a lot of Ikuhara’s referencial and symbolic style, the series is a scathing look at the views in Japan, culture, anime, and ‘outsiders’ along with a story of love and joy.
The series just finished and I haven’t fully processed it yet, but the adorable BanjoTheBear has come to help me out.
“YKA focuses on three major motifs: powerful themes, the duality of love, and the concept of mirroring. The first is the anime’s goals; by working with ideas such as prejudice — specifically sexual discrimination and racism — and religion, the show is able to depict the mistreatment of others as something that should not only be avoided, but alsodiscarded. Respect, understanding, and ultimately empathy is what YKA wants you to take away after watching it. The “duality of love” is the notion that love and sin go hand-in-hand. While love is, in the end, something good, a worthy goal to be achieved, it is not without it’s own types of “bad” aspects. Feelings such as jealousy, envy, and anger are closely tied to love just as much as kindness and happiness are. And in order to accomplish these various aspects,mirroring is utilized. It’s the concept of constantly having “the same, but different” events occurring in order toreinforce its own ideas. This isn’t just in the plot points, too. The characters, the music, the art direction; literallyeverything within YKA is mirrored to let the audience fully understand that, like love, “there are always two sides to every argument.” ”
Make sure to catch his 17 part essay, Yuri Kuma and the Effects of Symbolism, to explore the ever present symbolism and metaphor within the series. I highly recommend reading it, he really breaks this insanity down and clearly put in a lot of effort to display the messages behind the images. I mean just look at this clearly defined bear mauling…
With his most Yuri yuri ever, Ikuhara seems dedicated to changing the industry and minds of the public. He said in an interview that he hoped Yuri Kuma Arashi would be ‘genre redefining’ like Utena was before. I’m not sure it will take, but time will tell.
Ikuhara is an eccentric, odd, and brilliant director. If you’ve been a fan of anime for some time, or enjoy message and symbol heavy series, then make sure to see these shows. Utena and Penguindrum are constantly revered, and Ikuhara has shaped this industry not through multiple series, but by pure bottled genius. Well worth it.