The Works of Kunihiko Ikuhara: From Utena to Sarazanmai


By Kathleen Townsend

There are few creators with an acclaimed and powerful singular vision as anime director Kunihiko Ikuhara. In utilizing strong themes like identity and a style that often lingers in the surreal, Ikuhara-san has produced some of the most beloved and instantly recognizeble series of the past 30 years.

In honor of his 56th birthday, we’re taking a look at some of the unforgettable anime he’s directed. His work often incorporates symbolism paired with vivid color and movement, magical girl transformation scenes and a touch of high stakes. Each of these is a hallmark.

And yet, what Ikuhara’s works are probably most known for aside from the intense surrealism, are the themes he explores. Identity, sexuality and coming of age are often major components of his work, as well as concepts like fate, idealism, adulthood and all the realities that come with it.

Sailor Moon (1992)

Ikuhara graduated from Kyoto University of Art and Design in 1985. In 1986, Ikuhara began working at Toei Animation, the animation studio famous for series like Dragon Ball and One Piece among many, many others. Here, Ikuhara got his start as an assistant director for series such as Maple Town Monogatari, Akuma-kun, Toushou!! Ramen-man and Moretsu Ataro.

Ikuhara then went on to work on several seasons of Sailor Moon, including Sailor Moon R, Sailor Moon S, and Sailor Moon SuperS. He also went on to direct the movie Sailor Moon R: The Movie.

But serving as director for a preexisting franchise can sometimes have certain limitations, and Ikuhara was ready to let loose. He left Toei Animation and soon after began work on…

Watch Sailor Moon R: The Movie on Funimation!

Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997)

Utena Screenshot 1

In 1995, Ikuhara founded the creative group Be-PaPas. Together, the group created Revolutionary Girl Utena, a magnum opus steeped in symbolism and the surreal. Ikuhara is listed not only as the director, but as original creator and script writer as well, working with J.C.STAFF to bring this incredibly iconic, award-winning anime to television.

In the wake of her parent’s death, a traveling prince consoled and encouraged the young Utena Tenjou. A ring with a rose crest was given to her, along with the promise that they would one day meet again. Utena was so impressed that she promised to become a prince too, one day.

Now, Utena is a student at Ohtori Academy, following her princely ideals while also searching for the prince who left such a lasting impression upon her. What appears to be happenstance soon draws her into a duel with another student bearing the same ring.

With it, Utena is dragged into the midst of Ohtori Academy’s student council, all of whom bear the ring. They are duelists, each one fighting for the hand of Anthy Himemiya, the Rose Bride, for whoever wins the Rose Bride gains the power to revolutionize the world.

But Utena isn’t quite interested in Rose Brides or revolution. What she is interested in is Anthy Himemiya and granting her classmate the freedom she deserves. The other duelists might fight to revolutionize the world, but Utena fights for something else entirely—for Anthy, and perhaps more importantly, for herself and her princely ideals.

Watch Revolutionary Girl Utena on Funimation!

Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence of Utena (1999)

Revolutionary Girl Utena Movie Header Nozomi

Once again with the Be-PaPas group and J.C.STAFF, Ikuhara released the feature-length Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence of Utena, a retelling of the anime series.

Utena Tenjou is a new student at Ohtori Academy, but one of the students at her new school is a very familiar face—her childhood friend, Touga Kiryuu. Touga knows both Utena’s past and everything there is to know about rose signet rings, the Mark of the Rose.

Those who wear these rings compete in duels for the Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya. Utena is quickly drawn into these battles, and her friendship with Anthy deepens. However, Utena’s relationship with Touga is complicated, and their past even more so. Things begin unraveling, and Utena is left to face truths about herself and those she cares for, learn what it is to be a true hero, and fulfill her dream—to become a prince.

Many of the same themes as Revolutionary Girl Utena are explored, though the story is viewed through a much different lens and with characters playing different and sometimes greater or lesser roles. The setting is even more surreal than the anime, making this a wonderful retelling of the series and something that is arguably best viewed after watching the original.

Watch Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence of Utena on Funimation!

Penguindrum (2011)

After a 10-year hiatus, the visionary director returned to anime after working on the manga The World Exists for Me and co-writing the novel Schell Bullet.

Ikuhara began working with anime studio Brain’s Base on a new series titled Penguindrum, which aired during the Summer 2011 anime season. Not only did he serve as the director for this 24-episode series, but Ikuhara also worked on script, screenplay and series composition.

After the death of their parents, twin brothers Kanba and Shouma Takakura live with their younger sister. But Himari is terminally ill, and though the brothers will do anything to keep their sister alive, the hand of fate has a way of being quite cruel.

One day, Himari is allowed to temporarily leave the hospital, and the siblings visit an aquarium. When a penguin hat seems to inexplicably heal Himari, they’re overjoyed! But things aren’t as simple as they seem. There is now a new entity residing within Himari, keeping her alive, and it’s up to the brothers to find the mysterious Penguin Drum in return.

However, Kanba and Shouma aren’t the only ones after the Penguin Drum. Others are also searching for its power, hoping that it can grant their own wishes and allow them to finally grasp the destiny they dream of.

Beautiful visuals adorn this series, while bright and colorful art contrasts with the symbolism and the surreal used throughout Ikuhara’s works. Many themes are explored throughout the anime, such as fate, identity and the impact of others on our own lives, and it’s all topped off with adorable blue penguins.

Yurikuma Arashi (2015)

Yurikuma Arashi Screenshot

Ikuhara was back in the director’s seat for 2015’s Yurikuma Arashi, an anime combining fantasy, romance, high school life and the psychological. This time, Ikuhara worked with SILVER LINK. to bring his vision to life, serving as the series director and scriptwriter.

Once upon a time, humans and humanoid bears coexisted peacefully. But after a meteor shower, the bears began acting strangely, suddenly violent and yearning to eat human flesh. And thus an endless war of human versus bear begins.

RELATED: The Works of SILVER LINK., From Baka & Test to Our Last Crusade or the Rise of a New World

Kureha Tsubaki and Sumika Izumino are friends in high school who have fallen in love with one another. One day, as they’re spending time at their favorite flower beds, the bear warning begins ringing, as two bears have snuck through the Wall of Severance. Their relationship is quickly put under threat when the bears sneak into the academy the pair attend, disguised as humans!

With the barrier that separates man from bear breached, things go from bad to worse. Secrets begin to unravel, and the girls quickly find themselves put on trial for their love.

A world both fantastical and realistic opens in Yurikuma Arashi. Surreal art is married to the more mundane scenes, such as those in the school. Like most of Ikuhara’s work, themes of self-discovery, sexuality, identity, coming of age and more are woven throughout this 12-episode anime.

Watch Yurikuma Arashi on Funimation!

Sarazanmai (2019)

The most recent anime Ikuhara has brought to audiences is Sarazanmai, originally airing in the Spring 2019 anime season. This is an 11-episode fantasy anime that departs from some of his others works with its mainly male main cast, coming to us from studios MAPPA and Lapin Track.

Middle school students Kazuki, Toi and Enta make an extreme error when they call Keppi, heir to the Kappa Kingdom, a frog. The boy’s shirikodama—a mythical organ—is stolen in retaliation. Now, the boys are transformed into Kappas themselves with only one way to return back to normal.

RELATED: The Works of MAPPA, From Terror in Resonance to Sarazanmai ✨

Meanwhile, Kappa Zombie creatures plague the world. These beings were created by the Kappa Kingdom’s enemies, and are manifestations of people’s deepest desires. The only way for Kazuki, Toi and Enta to change back into humans is to steal these Kappa Zombies’ shirikodama.

Sarazanmai is a series filled with beautiful visuals and familiar themes. Acceptance, identity and our connections to one another are explored, while meaningful battles are fought against enemies in eye-catching, surreal settings with absolutely gorgeous, brightly colored art in every frame.

Watch Sarazanmai on Funimation!