Between a somewhat vague plot synopsis and bizarre promotional artwork, the image I had in my head of Kuuchuu Buranko was a strange one. I had visions of a cartoon in which narrative and direction went out of their way to be confusing, visuals made no sense at all, and crazy Denki Groove music played without rest in the background. That turned out not to be the case.
For those not familiar with said vague plot synopsis, allow me to enlighten you. Kuuchuu Buranko (which means Trapeze, by the way) is a series of short stories that all revolve around people who have some kind of mental issue. Each episode begins with them consulting Irabu Ichirou–a psychiatrist at the Irabu General Hospital–about their issue. Irabu and his hot ‘n’ sexy assistant nurse Mayumi then proceed to rid the patient of their ailment using a host of unorthodox methods.
While initially disappointed by Kuuchuu Buranko’s relative normality outside of its visual style, as the series progressed I began to appreciate it a bit more. At first glance one may think the visual style is simply a flashy way to keep costs down, but with each passing episode one begins to notice a touch of cleverness.
The show has a set of motifs that remain consent across the eleven episodes, and motifs that are specific to each episode, which illustrate the various facets of each story in interesting ways. For instance, the show has a habit of rendering crowds of people as walking cardboard cutouts, and if one of these background characters becomes important, they’ll change into a traditionally drawn character. The faces of the main characters for each story also often shift between drawings and photographs (of their respective voice actor, hilariously). Irabu himself shifts between three different forms–one as a giant stuffed bear, one as a slightly effeminate younger man, and one as a child. Mayumi is generally portrayed in live action by an actor, or as a rotoscoped drawing.
There is a fair amount of the show’s visual styling that is merely cosmetic, such as the backgrounds which are no more than photos that have been altered so everything has polka-dots. However, due to this ever-present strangeness, the viewer loses track of what’s actually there and what’s just shown as symbolism. As such, when characters openly address something one assumed was just some symbolism, it’s rather surprising.
Despite having a very flashy aesthetic, the show is animated pretty cheaply. As I mentioned before, the aesthetic cuts down on costs a lot with its heavy use of photos and live action. The animation tends to be composed primarily out of still shots of characters, and the parts that are actually animated aren’t especially fluid, with few exceptions. This doesn’t hurt the show at all, since it’s first and foremost about talking heads matched with weird imagery. Things don’t need to move around much.
Being based off of a somewhat well-known collection of Japanese short fiction, Kuuchuu Buranko really proves itself in the story department. Even though it’s composed entirely of one-shot stories, each story tends to be a rather interesting look into whatever mental ailment is affecting the patient. It’s especially scary if one can relate to any of them. Given the country of origin, oftentimes these mental illnesses are products of Japanese society, so to that end the show works well as something of a social commentary as well. There is one episode that’s all about a kid who’s addicted to his cell phone, after all. One other interesting aspect of the series is how all of the stories take place at the same time. So as the series progresses, various aspects from other stories interact with each other, and at times explain plot points from past stories which felt a little strange out of context.
The stories would be nothing without their characters, who all strike a good balance between being realistic while also being hyperbolically goofy (usually when their mental illness kicks in). The characters–both the recurring Irabu and Mayumi as well as the patients that come and go really are the heart of the series, and cover a wide variety of personality types. My favourite was The Owner. He owned things, like baseball teams.
Visual weirdness aside, the show’s direction is generally quite normal. However, there are times when the atmosphere becomes very manic. Incidentally, this happens whenever the patient’s mental illness begins to manifest in some way. Musically, nothing stands out too much aside from the groovy opening and ending numbers by Denki Groove. The background tracks employ some Denki Groove at times, but they only serve to underline what’s going happening on-screen, not overtake. The show is more about the voice actors delivering their lines and atmospheric noise than anything else.
Between its strange visual style and unique premise, Kuuchuu Buranko is certainly an alternative title that may put off viewers who prefer shows that skew towards familiarity. However, if you’re one always on the lookout for something new, weird, and good I endorse Kuuchuu Buranko 100%. Irabu just may be able to help you with some issues you’ve been having, too!