Review/discussion about: Kuma Miko
The Arctic Circle. Pine-tree forests. Amidst bamboo shoots. On snack boxes at the grocery store. Within my favorite video game of all time (and who my name is based on).
Bears are everywhere. Okay, maybe not everywhere, but they are in enough places that the majority of people know a bear when they see one. However, nobody has ever met a talking bear. At least, I haven’t.
Thankfully, that’s what Kuma Miko treats us with. Not-so-thankfully, the anime mistreats its audience, its own characters, and even itself.
Kuma Miko stars Machi and Natsu. Machi is a cute girl who also happens to be her small village’s “miko.” Natsu is Machi’s closest friend and talking “kuma” (i.e., bear). Hence the title, Kuma Miko. One day, Machi decides that she wants to go to high school in the city, wishing for a life away from the country. And thus the anime begins.
Many of the events therein involve Machi learning about the various technologies or lifestyles that she so often admires. One episode has her trying (and failing) to use a rice cooker instead of a brick oven. Another episode has her visiting a “fancy” clothes shop, trading in her normal miko garb for a pretty dress. Another episode still has her enthralled by the amazing device known as the “cell phone.”
To the anime’s credit, this contrasting country bumpkin and cityscape motif runs through all parts of the show, demonstrating at least focus on the premise and consistency in its dealings.
Unfortunately, Kuma Miko encounters a staircase littered with problems.
The first step is the forceful events themselves. Rather strangely, the people of the village (often Yoshio) usually make Machi go through whatever trouble or instance they need taken care of. From being an idol to taking part in a commercial, Machi almost always reluctantly agrees to help out.
It comes off as weird for two reasons. One, she’s just a kid. Placing so much burden and expectation on her when nobody else seems to receive the same treatment is odd. Two, nobody questions it. Hardly anybody asks her how she really feels, with some characters goading her into taking part. Natsu, surprisingly, is the guiltiest of this behavior.
Such forcing leads up to the next step: the anime’s prominent social-anxiety angle. To be fair, the angle works given Machi’s location, childhood, and naïveté. In other words, her being unable to handle these situations makes perfect sense. And, to be even more fair, her crippling fear can be comedic. Her trying her hardest to sell samples at the supermarket as though she were a martyr or abandoned street urchin is perhaps the anime’s most clever moment.
Yet her personal conflict does not lead to further inspection on the topic. She usually runs away, nearly passes out, or simply cannot function in the moment, ending further discussion on the idea. Again, the problem is not that she reacts in this manner but that the anime very rarely doesn’t do anything else with it. No exploration of this theme or a different take on it exists, causing similar events to unfold across the season.
At the highest step sits the bizarre penchant for sexual content. In almost every episode, Machi finds herself in a promiscuous situation. Her in a bathing suit. Sometimes she is either being straddled by or having her clothes ripped off by Yoshio. The different villagers ogling her as she shows off various outfits of various lewdness.
It’s not just including it, though. This anime is, more or less, about a young teenage girl. Indeed, the anime constantly reinforces this notion when it talks about her wearing a child badge at the mall or when most of the flashbacks show her has a toddler or kid.
Kuma Miko even seems to actively encourage the behavior. A little girl shouting “Don’t touch me!” or an older woman yelling out “Sexual harassment!” can be funny, but, when the show is pushing its sexualized content in-between, the irony becomes eyebrow-raising.
Worse still, it doesn’t have a place in the show. Maybe an argument could have existed given the city motif. I.e., city life is more “sexualized” when compared to country life. But the show never takes that angle, and the characters closest to it – Natsu, Hibiki, and Yoshio – are never sexualized in any regard. (The show even makes Natsu’s neutering a joke and Hibiki’s crassness her focal point; Yoshio is just a dense, dumb dude.)
Altogether, Kuma Miko becomes, like the down escalator Machi tried to run up, a never-ending set of recycled steps. It’s consistent, but forcing her into a (sexual or otherwise) predicament, inducing her social anxiety, and leaving the idea largely unexplored causes the narrative to never get anywhere.
While Kuma Miko’s story contains many problems, the actual animation and the art are much better off.
Animation-wise, the show can show a surprising amount of movement. Machi chopping wood to use for cooking. Natsu sprinting down an expressway. Hibiki riding around on her motorcycle. Even subtler moments exist: Machi’s eyes glistening with tears as she cutely holds onto Natsu’s paw, Natsu doing his best to use a tiny key with his pointy claws, and so on.
The location sticks mostly to Machi and Natsu’s home, meaning location variety gives way to the same shrine room and outer forest. A popular mall, a local restaurant, and even parts of the city are visited, but the backgrounds still do not come off as interesting.
Instead, Kuma Miko focuses more on its softer presentation and Machi’s reactions. Some of the backgrounds, especially that forest, are light in their coloring and water color in their depiction. And Machi, while leaning on her deadpan face more often than not, reacts to the situations in different ways: scared, confused, shocked, and so on. Such faces lead to more detail and therefore more comedy.
The show also does well in depicting social anxiety. Blanketing the background in dark, menacing colors while spooky masks fly about Machi give the audience a sense of the fear she so regularly feels. The contrasting, softer visuals help to highlight her anxiety that much more.
As for the character designs, they are more hit than miss.
Machi’s design, Natsu’s design, and Hibiki’s design hit. Machi changes outfits throughout the season, but it’s her miko garb – with headband, robe, and intricate patterns – that both goes along with that “foreign to technology” motif and her cuteness. Natsu does not wear clothes, but his orange fur and simple face make him a warm, fuzzy friend one just wants to hug. And Hibiki’s messy blond hair, eviler eyes, and biker jacket fit her tomboy persona well.
Yoshio is the only miss. His short hair, red tie, and blue-jeans-with-belt do give him an air of professionalism, but his goofball face makes it hard to take him at all seriously. (Granted, this description may have been the point.)
(And a shout-out to the ED visuals for looking like they could exist in the Paper Mario video-game series. They definitely added to the overall sense of fun that the piece conveys.)
The biggest misstep in Kuma Miko (as most may already guess) is in its character department. More specifically, the show’s handling of Machi’s character is perplexing to say the least (and more will be said later on…)
For much of the anime, Machi is the focus. And rightly so. She’s the miko of the village let alone the main protagonist of this slice-of-life experience. Her time in the boonies, while filled with frolicking fun and days of relaxation, has left her wanting. Wanting a life filled not with boring hills but with expansive malls.
Consequently, Machi’s goal becomes transitioning into that lifestyle. From answering questions about train stations to learning about Italian cooking, she slowly but surely gains the knowledge “required” for her to become the city girl she has always dreamed of being.
“Slowly” cannot be emphasized enough. It almost never seems as if she gains anything from the different situations. But it is there. She almost always pushes back initially, believing that she cannot perform the action asked of her. But, sooner or later, she tries her hand at yet the next event.
It’s at this point that her social anxiety becomes apparent. When she is not around Natsu or people she is familiar with, she finds herself surrounded by a mass of shadow and scariness. People hurling both words and rocks in her direction. All in her head, of course, but it still traumatizes her nonetheless.
Despite feeling terrified in these situations, she slowly gains ground. As the conclusion starts to draw near, she speaks loudly in a supermarket, she sings on stage, and she trains hard for the upcoming idol competition. It’s not a ton of growth, but, for a girl whose only friend was a talking bear because she could not speak with humans, she had clearly come a long way.
Then the ending happens.
After Machi musters up the last of her courage to go on stage, she successfully dances, pleasing the crowd with her tranquil and sincere miko dance. Yet her social anxiety, once again, forces her to flee in fear.
The show doesn’t stop there, though. For when she gets back home, she declares that she no longer wants to pursue her dream of going to high school in the city.
The show doesn’t even stop there. Because the final exchange between her and Natsu suggests that she is even worse off than she had been before the season started.
In other words, not only does the anime kill any development that she had earned, but also the anime regresses her person – and then some – to an inexcusable point. Arguably speaking, it is one of the biggest instances of backpedaling a character has ever been given. If not ever, at least in recent memory.
It’s all made worse by the people that surround Machi. Yoshio is supposed to be her cousin, and he’s described as really dense. Just calling him “dense,” however, is too nice. He’s a weirdo.
He constantly tries to manipulate the poor girl, showing up and essentially blackmailing her with different items so she is somewhat forced to help him save the village. His uncomfortably personal actions towards Machi are completely unnecessary.
His final words on it being okay that she acts as a sacrifice for the village demonstrate how weird this weirdo is.
Surprisingly, Natsu is not much better. He has been with Machi ever since he was a cub, and, based on the relationship they share, he is more or less her father. But he has never actually had to do much in the way of protecting or fatherhood.
In fact, as the anime goes on, he joins in on getting Machi into her various ordeals. Yes, he’s doing it with the best of intentions, to get her to grow and learn, but he, more than anybody else, is supposed to understand her. Because, in a way, he is her spirit animal.
But he never appears to connect with the girl who he has literally grown up with. He would rather see her dressed up in a skimpy “bear” outfit or have the bridge she’s travelling over collapse if it meant that Machi could stay by his side that much longer.
Even Hibiki is guilty of not supporting Machi. At least, in the beginning. She’s introduced as a punk who slams Machi’s head into a wooden post and knees her in the back. Her physical abuse is not relegated to Machi alone, but, when Hibiki is one of the only other female characters in the show, one would think that she would at least have a nicer relationship with the middle schooler to some degree.
At the minimum, she is the only person who tries to defend Machi, wanting to let her decide if turmoil is worth it. Meaning, in some sense, Hibiki develops from a rude, brutish person into a somewhat-thoughtful woman.
Even so, when she’s shown admiring the resident weirdo rather than worrying about Machi’s current state, it’s difficult to say (as it is with the others) that her head is in the right place.
While the opening track for Kuma Miko can sometimes sound all over the place, the not-really-singing-but-talking parts come off as innocent and playful, fitting the anime well enough. The vocalist may not have the range required, but the happy tone and dainty feel of the OP make it at least a passable offering from the show.
The ending track, in comparison, is just so much fun. The clapping, drums, and singing by both Machi and Natsu, as well as the lyrics about Wi-Fi and convenience stores, give it personality. The later “kuma” and “miko” chanting followed by the catchy final stretch, while not technically true (Machi does not really experience “happy days”…), end the ED on a lighthearted note.
The original soundtrack contains a lot of variance. Whistling tunes, cultural tracks, and violin pieces help to make the show feel not only “foreign” in its material (going along with the “foreign” feel of the city life) but also grounded in the slice-of-life escapades Machi goes through. Nothing stellar but fine tracks nonetheless.
Although the best “track” is the old man’s “singing.” His onomatopoeia during the transition between the A and B parts of the episodes, as well as his “Kuma Miko” line when the episodes ended, were silly to include yet fun to “sing” along with.
As for the voice-acting performances, nobody except for Natsumi Hioka as Machi deserves a shout-out. In her first-ever main role in an anime, she delivers cuteness, fright, and happiness (depending on the situation) throughout the whole season.
Back when this one was airing, I had seen the threads about the backlash to the ending. About something so crazy happening that it caused the actual author of the material to publicly apologize and even delete some of his or her own social media.
I didn’t know what went down because I wanted to find out for myself before diving into those threads. Meaning, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anticipating something drastic.
To be honest, I was preparing myself for something horrible, something dark and twisted. Because I couldn’t fathom what possibly could cause such a collective, community uproar.
So when I finished the episode, I went into those threads to understand where people were coming from. Many were extremely upset. Many were fair in their judgement by including the overall package. Many were simply there out of curiosity.
After finishing the show and reading many thoughts, I have reached my own.
I don’t view the ending as shocking. In fact, I watched the final episode from a different source to make sure that they didn’t switch it out for something else (because that was a rumor I had read would be happening for the Blu-Ray release).
Yes, part of that comes from expecting the anime to do something drastic. But it also comes from the desensitizing. She had always been a kid, and she always had social anxiety, so her becoming more of a kid and avoiding her worries altogether almost made sense. Almost.
There’s a perfect word to describe this one’s ending, a word that (from what I have read) people would agree with:mean. It’s mean of them to treat the conclusion to Machi’s character with utter disrespect. It’s mean of them to regress (and then some) the gradual growth she had built. It’s mean of them to go against the spirit of the show: The idea that being confined by certain limitations, be they physical or mental, does not indicate one cannot overcome said limitations.
I’m not even talking about the season leading up to the end. Those moments at least made Machi, however slightly, stronger as a person. I am talking purely about the ending. The ending is not abhorrent. Not vomit-inducing. It’s not even disappointing.
And that is a shame because the show could be entertaining when it wanted. Machi was a cute character and a funny one, too, with her deadpan responses and overjoyed smiles (when they were there). Hibiki elbowing Yoshio in the stomach with enough force to maim his internals had me laughing. And Natsu was cute as a baby bear.
The off-putting sexual content and the lack of an emotional connection don’t help. But, even putting those aside, it can be difficult to like someone or something that is just plain mean.
Kuma Miko sadly digs its own grave. The unbecoming narrative, the unsupportive side cast, and the unfair meanness of the ending leave one wondering what could have been. And no amount of talking bears can change its demise.
Story: Terrible, while the contrasting country and city motif gives rise to some comedy and consistency, the forceful nature of the events, the unexplored social anxiety, and the bizarre penchant for sexual material make for a less-than-tasteful narrative
Animation: Fine, okay artistic direction, nice actual animation, and okay character designs
Characters: Terrible, Machi’s “development” is uncalled for, with the supposed supporting characters failing to support her
Sound: Fine, okay OP, good ED, okay OST, and okay VA performances
Enjoyment: Bad, while the anime could be funny and cute at times, the meanness of the ending is very hard to overlook
Final Score: 2/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3