Creative spotlights are easily digestible overviews of a director or animator’s body of work, style, and vision. My goal for these articles is to highlight some of the exceptional and possibly lesser-known creative voices in anime. I’m hoping these write-ups encourage people to explore more of what anime has to offer.
The spotlight for the next few weeks will be on Kunihiko Ikuhara, the mastermind behind Shoujo Kakumei Utena, Mawaru Pengiundrum, and Yuri Kuma Arashi. This article is the first of four parts looking at Ikuhara’s career, and will be focused on Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon.
Kunihiko Ikuhara is a sensational voice in anime that is unlike any other. With an avant-garde outlook on the animated medium, Ikuhara is always finding socially conscious ways to push the boundaries of anime narratives. Ikuhara’s subversive ideas and unconventional directing style were paramount in redefining shoujo and magical girl anime, and have paved way for a new school of talent in anime.
However, because Ikuhara is a director who is so particular to his own artistic whims, he will not settle for an anime unless it is exactly what he desires. As a result, Ikuhara has only directed 3 original anime series in the past 2 decades. While many of Ikuhara’s close associates such as Takuya Igarashi and Junichi Sato have adapted their styles to be more accessible, Ikuhara is a director who has stayed true to his vision: for better or worse. Ikuhara may have faded to the background over the years due to inactivity, but he is nevertheless a crucial figure in the history of the medium.
Ikuhara started his career at Toei Animation as an assistant director on the 1986 children’s anime Maple Town Monogatari. While Ikuhara trained under prominent directors such as Junichi Sato and Shigeyasu Yamauchi, he quickly distinguished himself from them through his abstract approach to anime. Influenced by the melodramatic expressionism of Osamu Dezaki’s anime and the theatrical experimentation of Japanese film director Shuji Terayama, Ikuhara took 90s magical girl anime by storm.
Like Sato and Igarashi, Ikuhara was one of the driving forces behind the success of the international phenomenon, Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon. From the get-go, Ikuhara had a strong sense of how he wanted to use the loose, episodic structure of Sailor Moon as a test chamber for his future ideas. Despite only serving as an occasional episode director on Sailor Moon’s first season, Ikuhara’s episodes were a cut above the rest. His off-kilter comedy, dream-like scenarios, and occasional nods to classic American cinema were a pleasant surprise in an anime that already granted its staff plenty of creative freedom.
The second season of Sailor Moon, Sailor Moon R, was when Ikuhara would finally assume the role of series director. Unfortunately, the switch from Sato to Ikuhara was not a smooth one, and the season suffered creatively and narratively in comparison to the first. However, during this time, Ikuhara directed the feature film for Sailor Moon R, which was ultimately a stronger showing of the director’s budding talents. Limited by the short hour-long runtime of Toei’s annual magical girl film, Ikuhara crafted a work that acted as more of a thematic summation of the season’s messages. Lavished with flower symbolism and a memorable climax that featured the sailor senshi riding atop a sparkling asteroid hurtling toward earth, the Sailor Moon R film was only the beginning of Ikuhara’s Sailor Moon legacy.
Ikuhara finally obtained a definitive directorial voice with the franchise’s third installment, Sailor Moon S. Compared to previous iterations where Sato’s peaceful outlook could also be seen, Ikuhara’s vision exclusively defined the direction that Sailor Moon S would take. While previous seasons of Sailor Moon did have their fair share of gut-wrenching drama and character deaths, their overall tone was more comical and innocent. However, Ikuhara would shift Sailor Moon S towards a mature narrative, with themes relating to adolescence, apocalyptic motifs, and more overt displays of sexuality.
Ikuhara often pushed the limits of what was considered acceptable content within a children’s anime as far as he could. From risqué monster designs to metaphorical representations of loss of innocence, Ikuhara became more interested in creating a narrative that examined the sailor senshi’s struggles with their adolescence. Additionally, the lesbian relationship of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune was one of Ikuhara’s major focal points in the season. The depiction of two women that behaved like a married, same-sex couple was a huge step for the Sailor Moon franchise. To this day, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune still live on as LGBT icons across the globe.
When Sailor Moon S first aired, it was more of a subversion of the classic Sailor Moon formula than anything. However, following Ikuhara’s most iconic anime, Shoujo Kakumei Utena, it became clear how Sailor Moon S was intended to be a blueprint for some of Shoujo Kakumei Utena’s ideas. The ideological conflict between the naïve Usagi and the logical, but disillusioned Haruka represented the border between innocence and adulthood. Likewise, the recurring motif of cars – as a symbol of the power, freedom, and recklessness of the adult world – featured prominently in both of Ikuhara’s works.
Despite Ikuhara’s best efforts, he was still unable to achieve what he had hoped to accomplish with Sailor Moon. Following Sailor Moon SuperS – the franchise’s fourth installment with a focus on childhood innocence and dreams – Ikuhara left Toei Animation to continue his own dreams and create arguably his greatest work, Shoujo Kakumei Utena.
Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of the Kunihiko Ikuhara spotlight, which will cover Shoujo Kakumei Utena! Let us know your thoughts on Ikuhara in the comments below!
Brandon is a Brand Features Writer for Crunchyroll and also writes anime-related editorials on his blog, Moe-Alternative. Hit him up for a chat on his Twitter at @!