Kuuchuu Buranko – Episode 1

Alright, let’s start on an entirely new project! Today we’ll be exploring the first episode of Kuuchuu Buranko, also known as Trapeze. I’ve never watched any of Trapeze before, but I do know it’s an original project by Kenji Nakamura, he of Gatchaman Crowds/Mononoke/Tsuritama fame. I also know it’s focused on some sort of clinic where people go to get their life sorted out, that the central doctor is a little girl in a ridiculous bear costume, and that it’s possibly Nakamura’s most visually experimental work, incorporating live action footage and dramatic style digressions and all manner of other weird tricks. My own experience with Nakamura has been limited to Gatchaman Crowds, which was certainly visually compelling, but more noteworthy for its piercing exploration of modern society. That show’s political laser focus makes me assume this show will be using its episodic cases to poke at society in different ways, but I won’t know until I watch. Let’s get right to it!

Episode 1

And here we are, opening with a shot that’s clearly a live-action photograph painted over in simplified watercolor skin tones, adorned with an anime-style purple haircut. It’s an inherently off-putting effect, one that draws significant attention to the artificiality of the whole composition. We can believe in the unreal when the unreal presents a consistent internal vocabulary – here, the close juxtaposition of realism, quasi-realism, and anime style tropes makes it impossible to ignore the fabricated nature of the image

It appears we’re at a circus. This man seems to be stressing out about his potential performance when lying in bed – Kohei Yamashita is his name

Title cards further facilitate the show’s artificial presentation. Like in Monogatari, such choices also draw attention to the dramatic artifice of animation

The steady heartbeat and whispers in the background place us in a claustrophobic emotional space

Even in these backstage shots, we’ve got traditionally animated characters standing in front of an obviously photographed set. It’s a striking effect, though it certainly makes it hard to believe in this world

The actual character art style feels closer to a newspaper cartoon than standard anime designs

The characters in the audience are given their own style of unreality, framed like they’re two-dimensional cardboard cutouts even in the context of the other two-dimensional characters

These effects are unique, but… why? I suppose this sequence could be so artificial because it’s intended to be the dream of the live action dreamer

Cute sequence involving the missed grab. If this world is going to be completely artificial, leaning into gags like this pause-time moment is a good idea

And it looks like the whole show will be in this style? This is incredibly garish, and the color palettes basically assault the audience. This feels like visual invention purely for its own sake, not necessarily because it facilitates some dramatic end – something that’s also bothered me about Masaaki Yuasa’s totally original stuff

Granted, visual experimentation for its own sake is useful in that it can inspire creative and also fully coherent stories down the line. But the pure experimentation doesn’t really do anything for me

The show’s standard character art actually is pretty expressive. Cartoonish in its own way, but capturing all the ugly lines of real faces

We arrive at Irabu General Hospital!

My god these colors are ridiculous. I can see the artistic sensibilities that would eventually come together to make a coherent aesthetic in Gatchaman Crowds, but the results here are… a lot

And now here’s some straight live-action video footage as Kohei walks down a hall. Is this intended to convey him traveling to the separate world of the show’s central character?

The music is quite interesting. Some classical orchestral pieces, odd synth melodies, and a lot of unique percussion

The receptionist is a live-action woman, because why not

The doctor’s office looks like a strange technicolor circus funhouse. It makes sense at this point why we started with a trapeze artist – the whole show is intended to create that sickly sense of plasticky unease characteristic of circuses

And in keeping with that, the doctor is a person in a bear mascot costume

Ichiro Irabu is the doctor

And he has a clownish high-pitched voice, which makes sense too

Of course the coffee would come in on a CG rolling tray. Let’s just get every type of unreality in here at the same time

We get a title card for Kohei’s symptoms, and then a live-action dude drills a hole in it and pokes his head through to discuss the disorder

I mean, this is all very unique, but it feels almost hopeless to “analyze” it. This show is intentionally melding visual styles to create a consistently off-putting experience, and succeeding, and that’s about it

The doctor is way more interested in visiting the circus than his patient’s troubles

Mayumi, the live-action nurse, arrives. We get some porny synth music and bass slaps for her arrival

Well, I guess I’ve never seen a fanservice scene starring an animated man and a live-action woman before

They’re framing this whole injection as a “penetration” joke, and taking forever with it. Even the comedy in this show is annoyingly garish

And now the bear-Ichiro has been replaced by the little boy or girl Ichiro. Okay

And Kohei has become a bird-headed dude. We’ve gotten repeated bird imagery throughout this first episode, so presumably Kohei, as a trapeze artist, is naturally associated with the bird. He talks about how he’s always been “light”

And now we have a third version of Ichiro, because why not. Again, so much of this show’s style seems to exist on a “because we can” basis that analysis feels almost besides the point

Kohei wakes up, accompanied by the chirping of another bird

Kohei becomes the bird-head again when confronting his foreign teammates. Perhaps the shot, and the world it summons, reflects a more core emotional truth

Okay, now it looks like Ichiro is actually a presence that can follow Kohei around. That’s a bit more interesting

The government worker can only walk with his chest aimed down at a ninety degree angle, because no potential idea for this show was vetoed

The local yakuza group have a guy who just sits there wearing scientific goggles and repeatedly stabs a mechanical pencil into them. That’s a pretty great bit of absurdism, one which actually makes some sense in the context. We’ll make a real show of this yet!

The nurse basically just seems to be a dominatrix nurse version of Aubrey Plaza, which is certainly a combination with some clear mass appeal

The episode at least seems to be gaining some momentum now. And the doctor’s integration into Kohei’s everyday life is helping the consistency of the comedy, too

Apparently Kohei was just jumping way too short, and everyone else was somewhat accommodating him

It still often feels like the show itself is just an excuse for this visual experimentation, as opposed to the experimentation facilitating something the show was always trying to do

And Done

So in the end, it was Kohei’s fear of strangers that was preventing him from being caught by Ali, something that basically nothing else in the episode would have indicated. So essentially, this episode was mostly just a series of inane mini-skits dancing around Kohei’s problem, and there ultimately wasn’t really any psychological inquiry or insight at all. As for the show overall, it still feels mostly like a vehicle for form over function – this episode’s visual digressions didn’t really elevate anything, they were just there. Nakamura’s certainly an interesting and creative artist, but this premiere certainly didn’t thrill me. I guess we’ll have to see where things go from here!

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4 thoughts on “Kuuchuu Buranko – Episode 1

  1. Kuuchuu Buranko is an… interesting show. If you wanna see Nakamura do something with more thematic weight and finesse, you’d wanna check out Mononoke, which is off-putting but absolutely brilliant. Perhaps his best work. (By contrast, Tsuritama is cute and charming, but doesn’t have much to it. Save that one for a day you need something happy.)

    I think KB is going for the whole Psychonauts thing of constructing a surreal playground out of the characters’ mindstates, but where Psychonauts concocted very individualized worlds, KB just sticks to the style of artificial wackiness throughout.

    That being said, I do think the first episode was one of the weakest, and that they get generally more enjoyable from here on out. Just don’t expect any meaningful psychology. A couple episodes ended with me angrily screaming “FREEEEEEUUUUUUUUDD!!!” followed by an impromptu laugh track.

    There is one think that really stuck with me about it over the years, and that’s the ending. Without spoiling too much, it addresses the concept of mental illness and relationship with society as a whole in a way that I found thoughtful, compassionate, and non-patronizing. Overall, I found it worth watching through the end, though you mileage may vary.

    Just don’t skip out on Mononoke though- that one’s a doozy.

      • Well, there’s no overarching theme, but much like Mushi-Shi, each story uses the supernatural to explore some facet of humanity- either literally or metaphorically. Nothing’s ever just ghostbusting for its own sake. Each of the demons in the stories comes from the fears, anxieties, or sins of the characters, which in turn often stem from the more uncomfortable aspects of the feudal Japanese society they live in. It sure is horror Mushi-Shi, but it’s thematically rich because of that rather than despite it. Hope that helps 😉

    • Yea I think Mononoke is a really cool show that executes many visual ideas that I don’t see anywhere else. Especially the two middle arcs, the “cool” factor of the writing and storytelling is just so memorable and refreshing.

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