The beauty of storytelling is that there’s no one right way to do it. Though most novels, movies, anime, and so on typically stick to telling a rather straightforward narrative, there are an array of different ways to communicate a character’s backstory other than exposition dumps or back-to-back flashbacks for the first couple episodes.
Indeed, maintaining a sense of mystery that keeps the viewer guessing is one of the most effective ways to hook an audience. Kunihiko Ikuhara pushes this concept to its limits with Sarazanmai, and the result is an entrancing string of revelations that masterfully commanded viewers’ attention all season.
Though it’s classified as Action/Fantasy, Sarazanmai could just as easily fall into the Mystery genre. The show starts by thrusting viewers into a day in the life of Kazuki Yasaka, an 8th grader who opens the first episode by revealing that he lives by three rules:
- He has to carry a box around every day,
- He has to check the daily selfie fortunes of idol Sara Azuma, and
- He has to share those fortunes with someone special on a daily basis.
And, well, that’s it. There aren’t any other indications of who Kazuki is, his relationships with others, general backstory, or anything else. The next scene introduces one of the other main characters, Toi Kuji, in much the same way. We see him attempting to break into a car before he’s caught on camera by none other than a wandering Sara Azuma herself, the aforementioned idol. We’re then left to make our own assumptions about Toi for the rest of the episode. The reveal of the final protagonist, Enta Jinnai, does unveil that Kazuki used to play soccer and that Enta is one of his childhood friends, but that’s all we learn about either until the very end of the episode.
One would reasonably expect for this minimalist take on introducing characters to backfire spectacularly. From One Piece to Mob Psycho 100 to Shingeki no Bahamut: Virgin Soul to Kaguya-sama, we always at least know enough about an anime’s core protagonists to get invested in their exploits. But how can an audience possibly be expected to care about characters they know so little about?
As unusual as it might sound, Sarazanmai manages to flourish despite this because of how well it makes use of reverse storytelling. It sacrifices trying to get viewers attached right away in favor of establishing a blank canvas that’s filled in little by little every episode.
The show only manages to pull this off because 1) Its cadence of gradually building characters and their motivations via flashback snippets is near-perfect, and 2) Sarazanmai has some of the most visually striking animation in recent memory (no surprise coming from MAPPA and Lapin Track). If the transformation sequences and world weren’t such a joy to take in, it’d arguably be much more difficult to make it to the first revelation at the end of episode one.
Nonetheless, everything begins to fall into place with these two factors squared away. The vehicles for the consistent revelations are both contextual flashbacks and the show’s titular ritual wherein all three boys (who get turned into kappas in the first episode after a chance meeting with Keppi, the kappa prince) must synchronize to extract a shirikodama from a kappa zombie (the personified desires of humans).
A risk of this mystical act is the chance that some of a performer’s memories might briefly leak out to the others. Thus we’re exposed to all manner of genuinely shocking secrets that completely change the way one would see these characters and propels you to continue watching to find out more and see how it affects the group dynamic.
What are the true intentions behind Kazuki’s three rules to life? How is Toi involved in such seedy activities as a middle-schooler? And just why is Enta so determined to get Kazuki to fall in love with soccer again? Each of these base questions introduced in the first episode not only gets answered but get blown wide open and lead the story in some very unexpected directions. The late-season payoffs for these make the initial drip-feed completely worth it.
Though the last few episodes move away from reverse storytelling in favor of focusing on what’s happening in real-time, everyone’s established by that point. True to the show’s theme of connecting with one another, viewers are eventually armed with ample reasons to care about what happens to all of the core characters just like any good anime. The difference is all in how it gets you to that point.
The ride of wondering why Enta would possibly make such a rash decision, or being completely baffled by a cliffhanger left by a memory leak; being made to try and fill in these massive gaps before the show does in the next episode made watching Sarazanmai supremely exciting. Binging it won’t capture that same feeling of suspense that came with waiting with bated breath for questions to be answered each week, but I still can’t recommend it highly enough.