Eri KitamuraHiroki YasumotoKazuyuki OkitsuRyo Naitou
Kuma Miko: Girl meets Bear
Episode 1 also reviewed here: Anime 1st episodes 2016: K
Medium: TV, series
Year: 2016
Director: Kiyoshi Matsuda
Writer: Masao Iketani, Pierre Sugiura
Original creator: Masume Yoshimoto
Actor: Hiroki Yasumoto, Natsumi Hioka, Eri Kitamura, Kazue Minami, Kazuyuki Okitsu, Ryo Naitou
Keywords: anime
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Format: 12 episodes + 2 OVAs
Website category: Anime 2016
Review date: 2 October 2017
I really liked it. I thought it was lovely. I can see why some of the audience got angry with it, but I think they're wrong.
It's a slice-of-life show with a fourteen-year-old girl (Machi) and a talking bear (Natsu). They live in a tiny mountain village where most of the population is over seventy and you need to get in a car to visit the 21st century. Well, nearly. They have wi-fi, although no mobile phone reception. Natsu's actually quite well-informed about the world and likes pointing out that you can order anything over the internet these days.
Machi's the village's miko (shrine maiden), which means she has to dress up in shrine clothes, doing ceremonial dances and so on. More importantly, though, she's also a technophobe and a total bumpkin, which has given her anxiety issues. She thinks she's a clueless hick... and she's right. She doesn't trust electricity and prefers to cut up firewood. She'll try to walk the wrong way on an escalator (because she's never used one before) and she'll start a fire when trying to use an electric rice cooker. She's terrible at reading social cues, mostly because she's the only student in her class at school and her only friend is a bear. She's hilarious in ep.10 on deciding that she needs a mobile phone (even though they're useless in the village), overcoming the trauma of this weird alien thing and then eventually being all smug with pride afterwards.
When she's sixteen, she wants to go to a high school in the city. In response, Natsu will point out that she has a complex about entering shops.
My theory is that some people over-identified with this. Otaku and socially awkward nerds might find it cutting close to home. One could easily decide that this is a show of cruel comedy, making fun of Machi's issues... but I think that's a misdiagnosis that's ironically in its own way belittling Machi's situation. I've been in Japanese villages like that. (Tomoko's grandmother lives in one.) Machi's insecurities strike me, basically, as rational. She's been living in a mountain community with little contact with the outside world. She's mortified by the idea that people might think she's a yokel... and she's right. She really is one. When she doesn't have a clue about escalators, for instance, I don't think the show's mocking the character as an idiot but instead showing us what's inside Machi's head. I'd be embarrassed if I were liable to behave like Machi in civilised company and I've got the hide of a rhino.
She overdoes it, mind you. She's shy and easily embarrassed. (I think that comes with being fourteen years old.) The best response to her situation would have been to try to learn about the outside world instead of shutting it out. When she eventually gets out to a town in the two-part finale, she can't process the fact that no one's condemning her. They're all warm and accepting. Ep.8 is the episode that makes it look as if Machi does have psychological issues instead of just being timid and self-conscious, although that said there's a character in the show who really does have such problems. (Her name's Yasuda and she's liable to cringe in terror and shriek "sexual harrassment" if a man tries to talk to her.)
Also, admittedly, people in real villages aren't that ignorant. However Machi is and you can see how it came about.
This brings us to the two-part finale, which is an anime-original ending that even the original manga author disliked. If you see this show as just making fun of profound emotional problems, then you'll hate it. If Machi had needed nothing more than a psychiatrist, then that finale would be gratuitous emotional damage and celebration of a big step backwards. Personally, though, I thought it was good. Yoshio had been pushing Machi too far, too fast. She's traumatised and she's taken bizarrely wrong lessons away from her experiences, but there were positives in there too and I think that finale counts as progress for all four regulars. (It should be possible to help even Machi, in hindsight, come to be able to look back on eps.11-12 and see it as lots of important first experiences for her.)
I found this a happy, warm show. Machi and Natsu are so close that ep.1 flies the flag of human-ursine sexual relationships, partly for outrageous comedy but also to shoot it down. (Machi's aghast at the idea and Natsu points out that he's been neutered anyway.) You might think that it shouldn't have been necessary to spell out that a fourteen-year-old girl isn't shagging a bear, but this is anime. Fans can read subtext into anything. It's just a mercy that they're not siblings. Natsu and Machi are very close, in a casual, everyday way, and it's nice to spend time with them. They're the same age and they've always been together, but the relationship's more like a parental one. (Natsu is worldly-wise and very aware that Machi absolutely isn't.) I particularly enjoyed relationship episodes like ep.6, for instance. Oh, and I really appreciate Natsu being drawn not as a cartoon animal but as a worryingly real-looking bear. Bears are a problem in Japan. Sometimes they eat people. Natsu's promised never to do that, but he's still big enough to pick up cars.
Other characters include Yoshio (enthusiastic and insensitive) and Hibiki (a scary delinquent with a crush on Yoshio, but she'll punch you if you try to tell Yoshio about it).
Is there anything sub-par here? Well, the voice actors aren't doing the accent. The show's set in Tohoku, but everyone's talking standard crisp anime Japanese. I also thought Natsu's countryside-boosting was true as far as it went, but one-sided and hence felt incomplete. Yes, you can buy anything over the internet these days... but that's not the reason why these villages are disappearing. The city's the place for jobs. The show never goes near that.
I really enjoyed this show. It's just a dispensable slice-of-life show, but underneath it has meaningful material about Machi's shyness and crippling panic attacks. (These are partly due to her genius for overthinking in weird directions.) Machi and Natsu are lovely. The closing theme song is one of my favourites of 2016. I enjoyed this much more than I'd expected to.