It's about schoolgirl-eating lesbian bears. However it's also a dense, metaphor-laden important anime from one of the industry's most famous auteurs.
Let's discuss Kunihiko Ikuhara for a bit. Difficult to work with and with uncommercial instincts, he's not anime's most productive director. There's a fourteen-year gap between Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum. He's also famously camp, will insert surreal elements into his shows simply because he felt like it and likes saying nonsense. Here's a quote. "The Shadow Play Girls are my friends. Those girls come from Planet Kashira. And they often talk to me via radio waves... almost every day."
There's a lot of bisexuality in Ikuhara's shows, but here that's gone to another level. The title's Lesbian Bear Storm for a reason. (Technically, "yuri" means "lily", but that's the symbol of lesbianism in manga and indeed is the name of the entire genre. You've never seen as many lilies as there are in this show. Also lots of pink.) It's about non-mainstream love. Everything's built around it, be it characters, plot or worldbuilding. It's being pushed so strongly, in fact, that it's easy to find oneself watching this show on a metaphorical level rather than a literal one. The final episode is best described as a culmination of the story's themes and an ambiguous presentation of both dark and light interpretations, albeit also less of a mind screw than usual for Ikuhara. It's comprehensible. Its events can be read literally. I don't know if I'd call it exciting, but thematically it's perfect.
It's Ikuhara's shortest series to date, with only twelve episodes, so it has his simplest and most straightforward plotting. It's a bit repetitive in the first half, although that's also deliberate. Ikuhara likes creating iconic, oft-repeated elements. They're like rituals, or magic spells. (In something like Sailor Moon they also showed that you were watching mass-produced anime for children, but there's clearly power behind those oft-repeated sequences of surrealism.) However the cannibal love triangles yield some startling developments in the second half and the increasingly screwed-up psychology on display spirals ever nearer to bad endings.
It's like a teddy bear version of Night of the Living Dead. Bears eat humans. Mankind has built a Wall of Severance to separate the two worlds, but bears are capable of crossing over in human form and infiltrating human society. However it all looks bloodless, cute and surreal, with the bears in their murderous native form being the size and shape of a teddy bear.
How does a walking soft toy manage to kill and eat adult humans? Answer: if you're asking that question, you're watching too literally. (There's a lot of deliberate whimsy and strangeness in this show's visuals, which has put off some people.) Note also the fairy tale motif, the magical transformations and the extra-dimensional narcissists who pass judgement on people's lives every episode.
(Alternatively, are they just us passing judgement on ourselves? Their names are Sexy, Cool and Beauty. If you meet those three yardsticks, does this make us acceptable?)
The show's about love, but not in a happy way. Bears and humans kill each other and they've built a giant wall between each other that gets policed at gunpoint by herd-mentality normals. One of the most fundamental driving motivations for our characters is for their love to be admitted and recognised. The Life Judgement court forces people to choose between love and something else that's important to them (or even horrifying), so for instance the bears repeatedly promise to go on eating people. Other characters, though, simply abandon love.
There are one-sided relationships, which all hurt. Maybe you thought you'd found your special friend, but then a few years later she's gone off and had a baby. What will you do then? Choose to become invisible? That's actually one of the biggest questions in this anime, since being invisible (i.e. hiding yourself and your love) is a way of staying alive and the school has a kangaroo court called Invisible Storm which polices all girls for deviation from social norms. Not following the herd makes you evil. You'll be "excluded", which in this universe is liable to be fatal. Again, it's an expression of the idea that society is singling out those who are different and basically forcing them to punish them if they dare to be themselves.
Then there's the fact that love can make us selfish, destructive and worse. We eat those we love. We eat people we perceive as our rivals. If that leaves you feeling empty, eat some more! We're possessive and creepy. "I want to have you all to myself." We put the people we love in boxes. We deny our feelings. We destroy ourselves. This is a show that asks its audience to empathise with unrepentant serial killers, although that's less extreme than Mawaru Penguindrum. Massive moral objections can be constructed to the decisions made by characters here, including sympathetic ones. Love hurts. However it also makes us hurt others, sometimes a lot and/or lethally. You may or may not decide that some of what's done here is forgiveable.
Clearly Ikuhara isn't showing us a happy place here. He's telling a heartfelt story about the search for love, played straight and explicitly. The characters talk openly and directly about their love and get naked with each other. I found it arty, beautiful and expressive of the themes, but others have seen it as fanservice and/or genre parody. However this is still a show where the traditional anime Magical Battle Formula means going to the roof to prove your love by meeting someone who's going to kill you.
The show's chosen metaphors aren't without problems. The thematic interpretation is so strong that it's often tempting to take it over a literal one, but there's conflict in, for instance, using "friend" as a code word for "lesbian love". Having lots of friends is good. Maintaining multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships would be more complicated. This becomes a bit of a headache in at least one key scene when you're trying to parse loaded questions like "are you my friend?"
There's also the fact that the show's metaphors are themselves fluid, with the meaning of the bears and the Wall of Separation looking very different towards the end of the series compared with what they'd been at the beginning.
As for the visuals, there's as much as you'd expect to analyse there too. There's subversion of anime staples, e.g. the nude transformation sequence, the weekly fight scene and of course the cute bears. (Bears are a predatory threat in Japan's more remote regions, but aren't traditionally depicted that way in anime.) The architecture and backgrounds are very loudly Ikuhara, with the school's design being taken from Dario Argento's Suspiria. There are visual quotes from Psycho, The Shining and The Wizard of Oz. There are also back-references to previous Ikuhara works, e.g. the Utena-like spiral staircase. My favourite, though, was the bears' goddess in the stained glass window looking like Sailor Moon. That's brilliant. She doesn't have the pigtails, but she does have the dumpling topknots.
This is a controversial show, to put it mildly. It's addressing spiky, uncomfortable themes with symbolism that can be interpreted in both positive and negative ways. (Personally I think both are true. Human love is like that, even when it involves bears.) It's possible to sum up the show's apparent message in a way that will make your flesh crawl off your body. Even the nudity has attracted multiple interpretations. However I think Ikuhara gets away with it, in large part by being Ikuhara. I think it's sincere. I think he's speaking from the heart and addressing what it meant to be himself in the society he lives in, with the show's dark contradictions being a reflection of everything that implies.
However it's also whimsical, cute and has jokes.
"If you smash the 'you' in the mirror, you will get your promised kiss. But it might cost you your life. Is your love the real thing?"